Sunset Western Garden Book of Landscaping: Review

Dream Big, Landscape Sustainably, and Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Cactus: sustainable front yard landscaping. This land was near the Mojave desert.
A sustainable front yard in the desert (Barstow, California). David Beaulieu

Two of the themes that run through the Sunset Western Garden Book of Landscaping (2014 edition; edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel) are sustainable landscaping and swanky outdoor living. Such an enticing tandem will, undoubtedly, sell a lot of books in the western part of North America. After all, what gardener doesn't want to preserve nature? And if you live in, say, Laguna Beach, why wouldn't you want to spend as much time outside as possible, with such a cooperative climate?

While sustainable landscaping and outdoor living are trumpeted as themes right at the outset, pay attention to another theme of the book. Sunset doesn't put this theme into words; rather, it is implied. But if you're viewing the book objectively, this theme hits you like a 2x4 between the eyes.

The less savory, far less hip theme that Sunset would rather have fly under the radar is this: big bucks. Many of the designs featured in the book rely heavily on expensive hardscape. Moreover, the overall effect is also greatly dependent on the upscale homes and exquisite scenery (swanky zip codes predominate, including lots of waterfront locations) that serve as backdrops. Indeed, the mind behind one of the featured designs outright admits, "The house is the jewel and the garden is the garland around it." This is a book about great real estate, architecture and landscaping coming together. Welcome to outdoor living for the one percent.

To be sure, this is a wonderful book if you're into avant-garde design, have artistic sensibilities, and enjoy flipping through page after page of some of the best landscaping eye candy the West has to offer. But it simply isn't the kind of book that offers much for the working stiff (not that this is unusual in a landscaping book, mind you), someone looking to drop into Home Depot on the weekend to buy some plants and reasonably priced hardscape material for a DIY project.

No, the Sunset Western Garden Book of Landscaping is for folks with mucho disposable income, a concept always problematic: How many people of limited means and sound common sense have ever truly wanted to "dispose" of their money?

Unwittingly, Sunset exposes the one-percent theme early on. The background provided for the homeowners in the first three featured designs reveals their profession: All three are -- not clerks at convenience stores, not bus drivers, not baristas at Starbucks, but -- architects. That's right, architects. So not only do they possess the kind of income to allow themselves the luxury of these designs, but they also bring a skill-set to the table of which the average homeowner only dreams.

Admittedly, these charges could be leveled at our industry in general. In our defense, though, some of us are trying to get you to dream big. After all, it costs no more to dream big than to dream small. And with perseverance, a strong work ethic, an improving economy -- and, yes, a little luck -- you just might be able to achieve a makeover on your property, too, of which you can be proud.

Ideas From a Few of the Featured Designs: a Sampling

There's nothing wrong with pushing big dreams as long as we're up-front about it.

Nor is the intent in any of the foregoing to dissuade you from browsing the book. Indeed, there are some interesting ideas here, particularly for those who live in the West.

For example, any American who follows the news is aware of the fact that the West is plagued by wildfires. And one design, in Santa Barbara, California, confronts the challenge head-on with a fire-resistant surface in the form of a rooftop garden. The roof in question is planted with succulents, e.g., Dragon's Blood stonecrop (instead of a fire-breathing dragon, it's a fire-stopping dragon).

Another of the cool ideas presented also involves succulents, including Angelina sedum. "Succulents are terra firma's answer to sea creatures...," begins the description of the design labeled "Sea Creature Succulents." This property is located in California's Corona del Mar (it overlooks the ocean), so a sea theme is appropriate.

The idea was to landscape with succulent plants that suggested -- by their shape, color, etc. -- denizens of the deep such as corals and anemones. The color is breathtaking.

The outdoor living theme is pushed to its logical conclusion in some of the designs. For example, one yard was made into a kids' paradise. The little ones will never want to leave this ultimate outdoor playroom. It sports a "sandcircle" (that's the modern, chic equivalent of the square sandboxes we grew up with), a climbing corner, and a hopscotch pad that is both functional and decorative.

Of course, in the arid West, many of the designs feature something other than lawn grass as the component underfoot. The examples in the section on ground covers are quite imaginative. One had black mondo grass growing between light-colored pavers, creating a stark contrast. Pictures of plants suited to dry, sunny areas are displayed throughout the book; if you'd like to read up on some examples, please consult these lists of drought-resistant plants.

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