Category Archives: sustainable landscaping

Adversarial Horticulture

I don’t watch TV much. I’m too busy and TV makes me restless, and besides I enjoy the smug feeling of being able to act as though I’m above all that. But now and then when I’m in a hotel room and there’s nothing better to do, my dark side comes out and I find myself watching tacky cop shows and other lowbrow dreck. I’m not too proud of that, but there it is.   

A few springs ago I made a visit to a local desert and got severely rained out as soon as I arrived. There was nothing to do except hole up in a cheesy motel until the wicked storm passed. Surfing through the channels I came upon an ad for power garden equipment. The sponsor was one of the large national home improvement store chains. Like so many ads, this one was a little 60-second play in which the Happy Suburban Homeowner (a 30-ish white male) ventures out to the far corners of his lot, his sturdy shoulders hung with a goodly arsenal of power tools – weed whacker, lawnmower, chainsaw, etc. 

Looking like he’s bound for Iraq, HSH disappears into the shrubbery. Soon a cacophony of snarling motor noises emerges from the greenery, and bits of hedge and grass fly up as the foliage quakes and shivers as if it were being devoured by a giant gopher. After a while, HSH emerges, a bit soiled, with his hat askew and his t-shirt hanging out. But he has a happy grin because he has once again prevailed against the enemy that is his garden. Cut to the logos of Toro, John Deere and Green Machine.   

Such is the relationship many of us have with our yards. We accept, and are even eager about, the apparent necessity to engage in a fierce war with the garden as part of our Saturday domestic ritual. Thus a place intended to be a peaceful refuge from the world’s troubles becomes a chlorophyll-soaked battleground strewn with the severed branches and mutilated grass blades of a suburbia in mortal conflict. 

I call this Adversarial Horticulture. I also call it unnecessary. It is not what we really have in mind, is it? Truth is, if you take a little extra time to design stability into your landscape you won’t need to struggle. The garden you create will be on your side and stern measures won’t be needed.

Gardeners are pathetic control freaks. We really are. I include myself in this. We cultivate a benign image that is utterly at odds with our truly vicious nature. The Gentle Art of Gardening? My foot. If weeds are to be counted as plants then we kill far more than we grow, do we not? If insects are among the wildlife we claim to love, then we must include genocide among our activities. We pinch, prune, shear, slash, chop, dig up, bury, squash, graft, coppice, espalier, pollard, girdle, tie up, tie down, stake, eradicate, poison, drown, trap, suffocate, and just plain murder. The monstrous things we do to plants and insects would land us in prison if we did them to a puppy. So much of gardening is about control and so little is about truly nurturing. (Gee, I hate to get political here, but a recent study revealed that Democrats spend most of their gardening time nurturing plants, while Republicans, if they garden, spend their time tidying up and shearing plants into unnatural shapes. Not to cast any aspersions or anything.) 

Why do we behave this way? Do we use the garden to act out our frustrations at being otherwise out of control at home, at work, on the street? When we can’t deal with our teenagers or our spouses or our boss, does the garden serve as a surrogate? If so, we have a great deal of work to do on ourselves. On the other hand, if all this is made necessary by the condition of our gardens themselves, then we had best get to work on creating a better garden. I’ll share more in future posts about how to make this happen. For now, know that help is on the way.

Great New Service from Owen Dell and Associates!

April 1, 2014

Owen Dell and Associates, LLC is pleased to announce our new PlantTechSupport™ program for plants. Unlike anything else in the industry, we will now offer complete on-line support for troubleshooting problems with trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, grasses, and ground covers. Thanks to new developments in GIS, GPS, NSA monitoring, and satellite-based remote phototelemetry technology, we are now able to remotely assess pest and disease problems on any plant, including root and soil problems, even for plants under the cover of overhanging trees and shrubs. Our highly trained PlantTechSupport™ technical staff is ready to help you with your plant problems, on any species, anywhere in the world. Because our service is performed remotely, costs are much less than conventional on-site services. PlantTechSupport™ is available on a one-time basis, or as an annual subscription that will cover all your needs without additional fees. Please use the link at the end of this document to contact us for further information.

So that you better understand our PlantTechSupport™ service, here is an actual sample report:

Dear Client,

Thank you for contacting PlantTechSupport™ regarding problems with your peach tree. We hope the following information is helpful to you. If not, please feel free to contact us.

Your case number is 10478∞¢236//uytr234πmm99Ò9.3 (please hold down the option, tilde, sound volume, and page down keys while typing the third to the last digit of your case number).

Best Regards,
PlantTechSupport Staff

Re: Peach Tree at [redacted]

PEACH TREE: Your version of Peach™ is no longer compatible with your operating system. We recommend that you upgrade to Peach™ 4.0, which is available at most nurseries. The regular price is $89.50, but as a registered user you can buy the upgrade for just $44.95, shipping not included (NOTE: In order to qualify for the upgrade, you must have the serial number and/or the original operating manual for your current version of Peach™). The upgrade does not include Roots™ but you can easily graft Peach™ 4.0 onto your existing Roots™.

Peach™ 4.0 includes a number of improvements over your old version, including auto-bloom, self-shedding foliage and full upward compatibility with all the older versions of Aphid™, Mealybug™ and Curlyleaf™ (except for Curlyleaf Express™, which is no longer supported). We think you’ll love the new Peach™, and you won’t miss the old one at all.

When you upgrade, you’ll also have to get the latest version of Soil™ 4.1.1b. (We don’t recommend Soil™ versions 3.0 through 4.1.0, as they were buggy.) You’ll need to do a full upgrade on your Soil™ platform; this involves heavy equipment and you may want us to do this for you. While you’re upgrading Soil™, you might as well get the latest versions of Subsoil™ and Bedrock™. If you uncover any earthquake faults while doing this upgrade (this is not uncommon), you will need to install a copy of Engineering Geologist™ 3.7.2 and possibly God™ 1.0.

To take full advantage of all the features of Peach™ 4.0, we recommend that you change from Water™ 1.0, which you seem to presently be using, to Evian™ Water™, which was great back when you bought your property, is no longer as reliable as it once was and most people are switching over to Evian™, which seems to be stable so far. It will cost you more, but Peach™ really rocks when it’s teamed up with Evian™. You’ll be thrilled! All you need to do is install 400 2-litre bottles of Evian™ around the tree once a week (twice a week if you’re using Heat Wave™ 98.6 or higher; none at all when using any version of Rain™ (except Rain Lite™)).

Finally, we would love to be able to advise you to upgrade to Clean Air™ 7.5.2a, but it’s no longer being made and the company has been acquired by the developers of Smog™, Ozone™, and Crud™. The best approach is to clean up your system by using Ocean Breeze™ once a week or so, if it is available in your area.

Peach™ 4.0 comes with great support. Just call our support technician Jason on his cell phone at (555) 777-1217. The average wait time is 3 growing seasons. Your first call is free except for service and airtime charges; these will be billed to your credit card (no need to give us the number, we already have it).

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS: The property you’re working with is very old and we are surprised that you are still able to use it as successfully as you do. You’re going to find that support for Earth™ 1.0 will get harder and harder to obtain, and it won’t be long before it will have to be taken out of service. You may want to save yourself a lot of trouble and get much better performance by making the leap to an entirely new platform. We know you’ve been happy with Earth™, but times have changed. Look into Mars™, Venus™, or even one of the new, super-fast versions of Asteroid™. Visit their great websites for more information. We will be happy to help you make the change whenever you’re ready.

Thank you for letting us assist you with this matter. Please let us know when you’re ready to upgrade.
Continue reading Great New Service from Owen Dell and Associates!

Getting Started in Your Own Landscaping Business

OK, so this is me hard at work at my drafting board, designing a new garden for one of my first clients. This photo was taken a few years ago; I’ve been at this a long time. When I first started doing landscaping, I didn’t realize it would become my life’s work. But here I am, still at it. 

If you happen to be interested in a career in landscaping, you may want to check out my classic book, How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business. First published in 1993, it has opened the door to many an aspiring landscaper over the years. Now in its 5th Edition, How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business is used as a college text and has sold tens of thousands of copies. It’s a great way to get your bearings, to decide whether this is the field for you, and to guide you through the intricacies of starting and operating a successful landscaping or gardening business. Readers send me emails and letters nearly every week, thanking me for all the help this book has given them. It can work for you too.
Just to get you started, here’s the Introduction to the book. If you’d like to get your own autographed copy, just click here.
Here’s the intro…



copyright © Owen E. Dell 1993



In 1972, I was studying botany at the local junior col­lege, going out into the mountains and deserts of our beauti­ful state of California and looking at some of the most gor­geous natural places you or anyone has ever seen. As luck would have it, ‘72 was one of the great years for wildflowers and we really got an eyeful. Having grown up in the inner city, I knew little about nature, or about gardens for that matter, and I was plenty impressed. Through that wonderful spring that I’ll never forget, something grew inside me, something that was entirely new to me and remarkable.

We would troop out into the wilderness and spend a morn­ing, a day or a week steeping ourselves in the incredible el­egance of it all. Then we would inevitably return to civi­lization, which looked more and more like a bad mistake car­ried out on a grand scale by some very inept people. As I be­gan to see nature I also began to see gardens, and what I saw was how inexplicably different the two were. Slowly over that spring I came to understand that gardens were important, and that they could be made better than they were. I came to love nature, but I also came to love the idea of my playing a part in nature. I came to have a passion about the dream that had unfurled inside me like the first leaves of a sprouting bean – the dream of making horti­culture more like nature.

My good friend Buddy was in the class. Buddy was a Louisiana boy, fun-loving and easy-going. He saw it, too, this dream and we talked about it a lot. That summer, broke as always, we de­cided that we were going to quit school and become landsca­pers – native plant landsca­pers. So, suddenly there we were, our meager funds invested in a ‘55 Ford pickup (light blue, no major dents, ran pretty good, $100), a few hand tools (from the swap meet mostly, another $50), and a couple of straw hats (Thrifty Drug Store, $2.29/each plus tax). No, we didn’t have any work, but we felt great just the same.

At the time, a cup of coffee was still a dime at Sambo’s, and that was our lunch every day. We called it “Coffee Bean Soup,” and drank lots of it from the bottomless pot of java and the soothing little jug of “coffee whitener,” the ingredients of which we avoided thinking about. We had Coffee Bean Soup and lots of laughs and not a whole lot more at first. No sensible person would have lasted a day with us.

We spent the last part of June and most of July driving around looking for piles of trash to haul, weeds to be cut down, anything that would get us another few dollars for the next day’s gas and a couple of beers that evening. We did some pretty horrendous things. And we were having a blast.

Finally in late July, we got a job building some retain­ing walls and a terraced garden for a kindly college profes­sor up in the hills. I often think back on how trusting he was to let us do this, especially since our initial approach had been to ask him if we could haul away some rubbish. Still, I guess we did something right because he kept us busy right through September.

The first day, we broke the gas main. The next month was the hottest on record. The soil was more like rock and it never occurred to us to soften it with some water before try­ing to dig it. But we were doing it, that was the thing! And what a summer it was, so good to be alive. We were on our way!

Now to the main thing, the thing that has kept me going all these many years. We finished just as a bit of fall was be­ginning to show up in the morning air. And yes, the job was beautiful, everyone agreed on that. The last day, about 3:00 p.m., Buddy and I carried the last of our tools up to the faithful blue Ford and turned to look back down on our mas­terpiece. That moment, there with my wonderful friend and business partner, there with our hard fine work, that moment will surely always guide me through the hard times, as it has so often in the past. We stood for I don’t know how long, each thinking the same thought: that if we could feel this good once a year, that would be reason enough to carry on. When we finally turned to each other we both had tears in our eyes.

Horticulture has been good to me. I’m pretty comfortable these days. I have lots of work, and if I have Coffee Bean Soup for lunch it’s because I’m trying to lose a couple of pounds. I still think about quitting now and then; we all have our bad days. But when I consider the other choices I might have made, I’m glad about my life.

Now, I will tell you that if you want to put your green thumb to use, and if you learn to do things really right, you will be doing something brave and noble and fine. You will have a marvelous, difficult and rewarding life. You will meet the finest and warmest people. You will see beauty every day, beauty often of your own making. And as you grow old, you will travel beneath the shade of trees you yourself planted with your own hands. If this is what you want, I’ll try to help you get a good start. Remember, don’t come looking for riches, easy money or a soft life. But if you can live with whatever your personal Coffee Bean Soup is to be, and if you can stick it out, I do guarantee that your soul will be nour­ished, your heart will be moved and your corner of the world will be much the better for your having made your choice. And, yes, I do hope to save you some time and trouble by keeping you from making the mistakes I made.

Truth is, most people who start a business of whatever kind know only their craft. That’s not enough. You’ve got to run a business, too, and if you run it badly, you’ll fail. Sadly, most people do fail because, like a garden, a business is a complex and challenging thing. It’s just too much for most who try. You see, if you only know horticulture, you’ve only got half the skills you need in order to do well. So now, let’s make you the exception, the one who succeeds so that you can do what you love, earn your livelihood at it, stay out of trouble and have a good time.

Most of this book is about practical matters. I’m not going to tell you how to plant roses or what kind of fertil­izer to use. There are plenty of books that will help you with all that. This is a book about the business of hor­ticul­ture. You’re go­ing to learn how to set up your company, how to write a business plan, keep records, find and keep good employees, attract and retain clients, manage jobs and a lot more. You’re going to learn how to do things right the first time. Nuts and bolts? Yes, but don’t be put off – you’ll find it’s as interesting as gardening. And remember what’s behind it all – a love of green things, of natural surroundings, of nurtur­ing. It’s all connected, all a part of the great adven­ture. Come on along…


To purchase your own autographed copy of How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business, click here. Thank you!


The Attack of the Designosaurs

Speaking of monsters (see “Garden Wise Guys” below), the time has come to talk of some of the design practices that ought to go the way of the Stegosaurus. Just as this ancient dinosaur became extinct when conditions changed around it, the changing conditions of our present world are making lots of formerly accepted gardening practices obsolete. And those who continue to design landscapes that follow the old, wasteful rules are slowly changing or going the way of all effete creatures. Here at Owen Dell & Associates we call them “Designosaurs.”

It’s simple. Water wasting plants are out; climate-adapted plants are in. Chemicals are out; natural controls are in. High-impact hardscape materials are…you guessed it…out; biotechnical, reclaimed, recycled, and natural materials are waaaay in. Dumb irrigation controllers? Ouuuut! Efficient smart controllers? In. Lawns out; meadows in. Bare soil…you know; mulch in.
These changes matter to you because they are not only good for the environment, they make your gardening life easier, make the garden look and work better, and can save you heaps of money. Who could argue with that? Shoot, even if you hate the environment, you should do these things because they’re good for YOU!
Yet there are plenty of people still stuck in the past. Why do homeowners continue to do things the old way, and why are some designers still lawn-and-thirsty-plants-centric? Well, mainly because of habit, ignorance, and oftentimes a misunderstanding about sustainable landscaping that leads them to believe it’s an arcane practice that results in grim, parched, ugly places and agonizing sacrifices. Nothing could be further from the truth. A sustainable landscape could look like most anything — a Japanese garden, a perennial garden, a forest, whatever — and sustainable landscapes can be GORGEOUS!
Want to know more? Hey, you need a copy of my book, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Have a look at it and order your own autographed copy right here. Don’t be a Designosaur!

Beyond Sustainable Landscapes

My March, 2011 post on rain barrels has generated a great deal of discussion both here on the blog and elsewhere. It seems to have gone viral and has been showing up all over the place. Prevailing opinion is favorable to my position that rain barrels are not useful and not sustainable. There are, of course, some dissenting opinions and nuances. If you missed the conversation or haven’t checked in to see all the comments, you may be interested in revisiting the article.

As interesting as all this is, it misses the real point. There is a meta-question that needs to be answered, and a proper answer will render moot much of the discussion about conservation and sustainability. I’ll cut to the chase: Why are we creating landscapes that do not survive on rainfall and natural soil fertility, and that for the most part do not offer up ecological services in excess of their negative impacts? Why should we waste our time and intelligence on trying to adapt to a paradigm that accepts landscapes requiring more resources than nature delivers, and to one that doesn’t ask anything of the landscape other than that it be pretty?

Yet much if not all of the activities generated by the sustainable landscaping movement (and indeed by the green building movement as well) assume a continued, if abated, consumption of resources, and rely more on novel technologies often of dubious merit (smart controllers, synthetic lawns, etc.) than on creating place-adapted natural ecosystems. This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely. We are evolving systems that destroy the planet but at a more languid pace, and there is an unspoken assumption that in our unquestioned strivings for luxury and comfort we will use everything up sooner or later. This is the elephant on the lawn that nobody wants to talk about.


Anyway, sustainability is not the issue. Defining sustainable as the standard sets the bar too low. Sustainability is about being “less bad,” in the words of sustainability’s Number One Guru William McDonough. I don’t agree with McDonough about everything, but I shall be forever grateful to him for calling out any approach that means only to reduce the negative impacts of an activity or structure. A so-called “green” building that merely cuts energy use or substitutes a less damaging material for a conventional one, or that hews to any or even all of the accepted standards for sustainable construction as codified in LEED or other standards, isn’t a good-enough building. It still has tremendous negative impacts both on and off site.

And landscaping is no different. Until we free ourselves from the conceit that a couple of rain barrels or some native plants and a drip system are an adequate response to the challenge of creating a living ecosystem that delivers more services than it demands, we will be forever creating sub-optimal projects.

Sustainability is not the issue. Adaptive productivity is the issue. Being less bad is not good enough. Being useful, beneficial, worth the costs is what we need to strive for, and nothing less will do. After all, everything is at stake, isn’t it?

A Sustainable Alternative to Power Leaf Blowers

My dear friend and colleague, landscape contractor Ken Foster of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in Santa Cruz, California, has been one of the few brave landscape professionals to speak out against that sacred cow of the garden maintenance industry, the gasoline-powered leaf blower. And he speaks out well, having marshaled the many troublesome impacts of blowers into his definitive blog post of January, 2012. He has even founded a Leaf Blower Task Force in his community in order to bring some sanity to the unfortunate and widespread deployment of what he calls “Polluting Noise Bazookas” (also known in some circles as “Lucifer’s Trumpet”). Others too have decried the folly of the leaf blower, and there is even good data showing that there is no actual efficiency to be gained by their use.

But what are the alternatives? Well, of course brooms and rakes still work as well as ever, and there is much to be said for their revival. They are fossil-fuel-free, they always start right up, don’t make a racket, and are dirt cheap to purchase and maintain. But there are those whose dispositions seem to require a more elaborate technology in order to feel good about their gardening chores. To help meet their needs, I recently set out on a quest for an ideal, pollution-free alternative blower, and I believe I’ve found something that really works. It has taken no small amount of research, but I’m proud to say that I’ve come up with a great little device that’s human-powered, recycled, and, believe it or not, that also eliminates a completely unrelated but quite troublesome problem.

A little background: Not long ago I attended a concert of Celtic music. Things were going along pleasantly enough until they brought out the bagpipers. As you probably know, bagpipes were developed to use when sending armies off to battle. Medieval military strategists discovered that the sound of only two or three of the instruments was sufficient to stimulate the murderous impulses of up to a thousand soldiers. Bagpipes work fast, as I was reminded at this concert. After just a few seconds of exposure to the awful droning I was more than ready to slay a few of my neighboring audience members. As I gripped the arms of my seat, I realized that a great deal of wind was being blown about to no apparent purpose. That’s when it dawned on me that the bagpipe, properly modified, would be a wonderful eco-friendly substitute for the leaf blower. I envisioned teams of kilted gardeners roaming suburban streets, pumping the distended bladders of their instruments and happily whooshing litter into tidy piles.

Back at my laboratory, I put on my best tartan coveralls and began to tinker with a set of bagpipes, working out the details of its transformation into a fine gardening implement. (Tip: Used and reclaimed bagpipes are easy and inexpensive to come by. Neighbors of bagpipe players are often happy to break in and steal them for you, usually at no charge.)

I discovered that a few minor alterations (easily accomplished by any reasonably handy person using a power drain auger and a ball peen hammer) can quickly render the typical bagpipe mute, while retaining and even enhancing its Aeolian properties, sort of like de-scenting a skunk. This results in improved conditions in two entirely separate realms, in the manner of Will Rogers’ observation about the Dust Bowl migration: that it raised the collective IQs in both Oklahoma and California. Without bothering you with the technical details, I can tell you that a properly transformed set of pipes and a strong pair of lungs can equal or exceed the 200 mile per hour streams of air touted by power blower manufacturers.

Using the Scottish Leaf Blower™ is easy. Just mount the device under your arm in the traditional position, exhale into the blowstick to fill the bag, point the drones at the ground, and pump away at the bag to achieve maximum velocity. You’ll find that using the SLB, as I’ve come to call it, is quiet, easy, and enjoyable, and every bit as effective as that gas hog you’ve been using.

For detailed instructions on converting a set of bagpipes into a Scottish Leaf Blower, please contact me. I am making this information available as a public service to gardeners and music lovers everywhere.

In my next post I’ll show you how to turn a vuvuzela into an eco-friendly bulb planter. For now, happy puffing.