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Notes From the Garden: Grow your mind while your garden sleeps

The world is turning in a greener direction and gardening is turning right along.

Gardens now are expected to be both beautiful and sustainable while connecting us to natural world around us and the cultural world we live in. Here are three books to inspire.

Dutch and German gardeners are at the forefront in creating gardens that bridge the natural and man-made world. And leading them is the Dutch nurseryman and designer Piet Oudolf.

Oudolf's gardens can be seen at Millennium Park in Chicago and at the Gardens of Remembrance in New York City's Battery Park.

He's authored numerous books. The one I return to most often is "Dream Plants for the Natural Garden," (Timber Press, 2000) co-authored with Henk Gerritsen. The emphasis here is on selecting easy care perennials, plus a few bulbs, shrubs, even some annuals. Also listed are troublesome plants to avoid, either because they're too aggressive or too fussy.

The authors' personal tastes are wonderfully evident, with a definite preference for the simple -- no gaudy flowers, very little variegated foliage. Included among the plant lists and photos are side bars that discuss design and maintenance of natural gardens.

Oudolf and Gerritsen pull it all together to create a very useful book that's both beautiful and approachable.

When I read "The Self-Sustaining Garden," (Timber Press, 2007) by Peter Thompson, I immediately felt at home. His concept is to choose plants well adapted to the climate you live. Then, by balancing soil fertility and plant competition, form a balanced garden matrix that will largely take care of its self.

He begins by examining some traditional tenets gardening. Practices like tilling the soil, ongoing use fertilizers, giving each plant its own space, are all discounted as what he calls a general culture of interference.

He then goes on to look at creating self-sustaining gardens within different ecosystems including grasslands, wetlands and woodlands. Lots of case studies are given, most in England with a few from New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. But the focus is never on the particular plants, but rather the processes, and that keeps it relevant to us in the Midwest.

Practical, how-to advice combined with cutting edge ideas make "The Self Sustaining Garden" a handbook and a manifesto for a new way to garden.

"The American Woodland Garden," (Timber Press, 2002) by Rick Darke, is really a 350-page love letter to the deciduous forest that dominates the eastern half of the United States, including much of Wisconsin.

Through beautiful photographs Darke challenges us to really look closely at the forest and find the beauty in all of its amazing details and grand gestures. He also examines the way the different forest components -- soil, trees, shrubs and wildflowers -- work together, both visually and ecologically.

From there he shows us how to relate those lessons back to our own landscapes.

The book finishes with profiles of the plants, both large and small, that make up this native ecosystem.

"The American Woodland Garden" is more a book of philosophy and ecology then a traditional garden book, but that make it all the more valuable.

To do in the garden

  • Gather branches, boughs and berries for winter decorations
  • Sharpen and oil tools before storing
  • Make sure your library card is up to date.

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