Read This: The Landscaping Revolution

Last week a friend pulled this book off her shelf and insisted I read it, enthusing that it caused an awakening for her and changed the way she looks at traditional, lawn-centered landscaping. I’m glad she told me about it. It’s a highly persuasive and entertaining book—although my awakening happened about ten years ago, thanks to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, whose mission is to promote the use of native plants and educate the public regarding their utility and beauty.

For gardeners (or, perhaps more accurately, yardeners) who would rev their mowers threateningly at the idea of shrinking the lawn, this book would be a revelation. In The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her, Andy and Sally Wasowski raise their fists against suburbia’s sea of manicured lawns and one-size-fits-all landscaping—lawn, foundation hedge, exotic accent plants—and call on weekend warriors to put away the lawn mower and chemical fertilizers and go native. That is, to reduce or eliminate their lawns (or convert them to native grasses) and to grow naturalistic gardens full of native plants.

With chapter titles like “Your Lawn Has a Drinking Problem,” “The Natives Are Friendly,” Homogenize Milk, Not Landscapes,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Creeper,” the authors make a persuasive case for a new way of landscaping, while leavening their argument with plenty of humor, photos, and practical advice for would-be gardeners who aren’t sure how to start ripping out lawns in favor of naturalistic gardens and who worry about what the neighbors will say.

You’ll find all the usual reasons for ditching or reducing the lawn: eliminating heavy doses of chemicals from fertilizers and weed killers; conserving water by choosing native or well-adapted plants that thrive without pampering; providing a habitat for birds, butterflies, and other creatures that bring life to a garden. A less-tangible benefit is also promoted: giving your yard a sense of place, differentiating it from the cookie-cutter yards across North America that all look the same because they use the same formula and the same handful of plants. As Lady Bird Johnson put it, let Texas look like Texas, let Connecticut look like Connecticut, and let Oregon look like Oregon. Native plants give a distinctive sense of place to a garden.

For a sample chapter, check out this excerpt published in Audubon Magazine. Sassy and provocative, isn’t it? It’s also a fun read.

So, like my friend who lent it to me, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who thinks there might be a better way, and who wants to connect with nature, not subdue it, with their yard/garden. There’s only one problem: it’s out of print. Originally published in 2000 under the Marxist-reminiscent cover pictured above, the book was reissued in 2002 with the less provocative, more evocative cover pictured below.

But this version is also out of print. It can still be found, however, through various sellers via Amazon. It’s worth a hunt, and maybe if enough garden readers request it, it’ll be brought back into print. The Wasowskis deserve it. They’ve authored a series of terrific books about native plants, including two on my bookshelf: Native Texas Plants and Native Texas Gardens. Texans can readily find both of these in garden shops and online. Native Texas Plants, in particular, is indispensable for Texas gardeners.

Formerly based in Dallas, Sally Wasowski is a writer and a pioneer in native-plant landscape design. Andy, her husband, is a writer, garden photographer, and speaker at gardening and environmental conferences. Today they live in Taos, New Mexico, where they no doubt still fight the good fight.

It’s worth fighting. Viva la revolution!

10 Responses

  1. Excellent post Pam, about something that is very American. Over here we don’t have that *you’ve-got-to-have-a-nuked-to-death-lawn-in-front-of-your-house* thingy. Frontgardens are very different here, ranging from completely concreted over, to the most lovely laid out front garden (lots of shrubs and plants) you can imagine.

    Yes, front lawns—and back lawns—are as American as apple pie. It wasn’t always like this, and The Landscaping Revolution devotes a chapter to explaining how that came to be.

    I’d love to see what front gardens in your country typically look like. Maybe one day you’ll post a series of photos showing the good, the bad, and the ugly on your side of the pond? —Pam

  2. bill says:

    In 1992 I decided I wanted a flower garden and, being a type of person who must study a thing before doing it, I enrolled in a non-credit class in landscaping which happened to be taught by Sally Wasowski. I already loved wildflowers along highways in the spring and enjoyed looking plants up in field guides on hiking trips, so I was easily converted to the idea of using natives. My copy of Native Texas Plants is practically falling apart. It’s always the first place I look to read about any landscape plant.

    I have mixed feelings about lawns though. Yes they are very boring. And there is nothing I hate worse out where I live in the country than those fools who bulldoze down the native trees and shrubs around their house and plant a big expanse of grass.

    However grass really can be about as maintenance-free as anything else you can do with a city lawn, especially if you don’t mind that it is not perfectly weed-free. Mowing everything to the same height once a week is about as easy maintenance as it gets. I haven’t had a chance to read this book, but I would like to know what solution they have besides a lawn for those people who only use their yard as a children’s playground or, like one co-worker I had once claimed, never even go outside except to get in the car.

  3. Pam/Digging says:

    I agree with you, Bill, that a lawn requires less maintenance than a flower garden, especially if the homeowner is not fanatical about weeds, fertilizing, mowing, etc. And for people who have kids, there’s no substitute as a play space. That said, the Wasowskis are trying to convert the yardener who maintains his or her lawn to the point of heavy chemical (fertilizer) use and whose yard consists solely of a green carpet, a line of clipped shrubbery under the eave, and maybe one shade tree in the middle of it all. They want that person to stop and think about the ecological and financial consequences of that style of “gardening.”

    They aren’t native-plant snobs or anti-lawn bigots, however, and they acknowledge that many people will never want to go lawn-free, so they propose environmentally friendlier versions that use native or adapted turf grasses or native groundcovers. For people who do buy into their “revolution,” they propose replacing the lawn with natural landscaping that looks a lot like woods, prairie, desert, etc., depending on your region of the country. Natural ecosystems, they argue, take care of themselves, meaning less work for the homeowner. Plus it’s better for the environment.

    I agree with their philosophy, but as a gardener I’m willing to work in my garden, and I want my garden to look like a garden rather than “nature,” so I opt for less of a naturalistic look, even though I rely heavily on native plants. I’ve found that native plants are less work to maintain, and I love that they make my garden look like Austin, Texas, not Anywhere, USA. —Pam/Digging

  4. Your garden looks like Austin at its best, Pam, and because you invented most of it, rather than inheriting it, it also has a cohesive quality which is missing from mine. The parts I’m responsible for sometimes look like Austin, but many of the parts I inherited, like the photinias, nandinas, crepe myrtles and hollies, look like Asia!

    I haven’t read this book, but since you say the authors are not native plant snobs, I’ll believe it has a good ‘heart’. I’m not so sure that one could convert the truly fanatical chemical yardeners, however, by pointing out the financial and ecological consequences of keeping a chemically dependent, perfect lawn. After reading the various Lawn Forums you might decide the members aren’t ignorant of these facts! For at least some of these guys [they do seem to be mostly guys] their lawns are in-your-face declarations that they enjoy flipping off “ecology nuts”. In many places the perfect lawn is a facet of conspicuous consumption – like the overpriced hulking house or the expensive car in the driveway – a proof that you have money to waste. Logic doesn’t stop pi***ng contests.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    Hi, Annie. Most people don’t start with a blank slate, as I did. They keep their healthy shade trees and exotic shrubs and lawn. But anyone can add native plants, as you’ve done so artfully, to bring a regional identity to their yard. I think that’s a practical way to approach natives. You don’t have to have a whole garden of native plants—even a small number will make a difference—to benefit wildlife or to give your garden a connection to the native landscape. The trick, as the Wasowskis point out, is not to baby natives with the conditions your exotics may be used to (lots of water and fertilizer), if you want them to survive. And that’s one of the things I appreciated about this book : the practical advice on incorporating natives into your garden.

    You’re quite right that die-hard lawn guys and gals will never pick up this book (even if it were easy to get your hands on, which it isn’t). But most people, I suspect, fall somewhere in the middle, like the friend who lent me the book. They have a conventional landscape because it’s all they’ve ever known, but they’re bored with it and want something prettier and more ecologically sound. They just don’t know where to start. This book, and others like it, will give them the knowledge and the inspiration to do it. —Pam/Digging

  6. Pam says:

    This looks like an interesting recommendation, and one that I’d be in agreement with. It’s funny – just the other day a colleague at work was complaining about pests on his plants, and so I asked him what did he have planted in his yard – and he literally had only 3 or 4 types of plants, almost a monoculture in our world (and then he went and sprayed for one pest, which resulted in an outbreak in another – surprise, surprise). I’m trying to get some more native plants going – native azaleas and red bay and maypop (the latter two being great for butterflies here). I’ve definitely found that there’s an advantage to diversity in the garden – plus, any excuse to plant something new and different, right?

    Do you have local nurseries that specialize in native plants, Pam? Availability is crucial, and so few natives are available, generally, through the garden centers at home-improvement stores.

    I’d like to see photos of maypop (delightful name!) and native azaleas in your garden. I hope you’ll post about them when you find them. —Pam

  7. Dawn says:

    Sounds like an informative book, Pam. Thanks for the review. I just did a little search and found they have several copies available on

    I think I’ll order one for myself. :-)


    Hi, Dawn. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about it. —Pam

  8. […] Does this look like Texas to you? More specifically, does it look like Austin? I hope so. I posted two days ago about The Landscaping Revolution, which proposes, among other things, that homeowners make their landscaping look less homogenous and more regionally diverse—and therefore more interesting—by using native plants. Not exclusively, necessarily, but by using them alongside non-natives with similar water (or lack of water) needs. […]

  9. Kathy says:

    The thing about the lawn that appeals to a certain segment of the population is–you don’t have to think, anymore than you have to think about vacuuming the carpet. Sometimes I think that is the greatest appeal for some people, as I watch my neighbor sit on her riding lawn mower and mow what must be a couple acres of grass, beer in hand. Veg out on the machine, and then feel virtuous about how neat you keep your property. The more diversity in your plantings, the more you have to think about their differing needs, and most people are more in tune with their dog than their plants.

    That’s true, Kathy. And I agree that there are good reasons to have a lawn, though I hadn’t thought of the “vegging out” one. ;-) The authors’ hope, as I read it, is that lawns become more ecologically sound : smaller, chemical-free, less water dependent. But making those changes does require some thought. —Pam

  10. deang says:

    I’m commenting on this three years too late, but I just found it so please forgive me. I just wanted to mention that, yes, the Wasowskis did move to the Taos area in the mid-90s and became prominent members of the New Mexico Native Plant Society, but they retired from being professional native plant advocates in about 2005, wanting to devote time to other pursuits. At that time, they donated their native plant-related archives to the Wildflower Center in Austin, including tons of photographs, notes on landscaping projects they’d done, transcripts of talks they’d given, and a large library of books on gardening and nature topics. The Center has made the photographs public via their website and incorporated the books into their library. Sally is now doing painting and pottery but still has the beautiful native landscape showcased in their book, Building Inside Nature’s Envelope. If you do a Youtube search on her name, you can see a New Mexico State University xeriscape series clip of her giving a tour of her home landscape.