Gardener Interview: Stephen Orr

by Maxwell Tielman

Portrait by Dana Gallagher. All other photos by Stephen Orr.

One thing that seems to frighten a lot of people when making the switch to a more sustainable lifestyle is the notion that it will be difficult to make the transition—a shock to the system, so to speak. They fear that they might need to spend more money on organic groceries, get rid of their time-saving chemical cleaners, ditch their cars, and possibly even go vegan. While all of these things are great, being sustainable, I’ve found, doesn’t necessarily mean turning one’s life completely upside-down. In fact, as many proponents of the “sustainable” life will tell you, going green can be just as much about slowing down, simplifying, and going with the flow. Oftentimes, the best tool you can use to live more sustainably is good ol’ common sense. This seems to be Stephen Orr’s philosophy.

For a man who has made a career out of gardening (he currently works as Editorial Director of Gardening at Martha Stewart Living), it might come as a surprise to some that Orr doesn’t especially care for expertly manicured lawns or Versailles-level acts of horticultural wizardry. On the contrary, Orr has made a name for himself as an advocate for sustainable gardening—the act of cultivating plants in a less wasteful, less contrived, and more natural way. Although plants are, of course, “natural,” the act of gardening, at least historically, hasn’t  always been. As Orr points out in his recent book, Tomorrow’s Garden, the impulse to control and defy nature—whether it’s by using harsh fertilizers or pairing plants with unsuitable environments—can have deleterious effects on the environment. Throughout much of his recent work, Orr has embraced a looser, more common sense approach to gardening—one that emphasizes region-appropriate plants, less wasteful practices, and an integration into the surrounding area. Stephen took some time to answer some of our questions about his book, living sustainably, and his life as a gardener. Check out the full interview after the jump!

In the introduction to Tomorrow’s Garden, you mention the pitfalls of using terms like “sustainable,” because their ubiquity has made them almost meaningless. In terms of your own work and gardening, what does sustainable mean to you?

Yes that’s right. The “S” word is used so much in marketing that it starts to lose its meaning, or worse, might even turn off some people. But those principles are still so important. Most of us are trying to be good global citizens right? At least I hope we are. I feel so guilty when I can’t recycle something that right way or if I forget my cloth bag at the famer’s market. I worry I’ll run into a friend while toting a bunch of plastic bags full of organic produce. But guilt is not really why we should be trying to be sustainable (which I define at its simplest as not being wasteful). We should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do for an increasingly crowded planet. For our gardens, that means conserving water, sticking with organic practices, and using climate appropriate plants that will thrive without a lot of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Above image: Emmanuel Donval made a vertical garden out of salvaged metal roof vents and filled them with drought tolerant succulents at his driveway garden in downtown Napa.

One bit of advice that crops up repeatedly throughout Tomorrow’s Garden is to avoid the impulse to start big—opting for smaller, more manageable plants at the beginning rather than filling in all of your space at once. For people who are looking to quickly populate a new garden, this might seem counterintuitive. What would you say are the basic things an aspiring gardener should know prior to starting his or her first garden?

Overplanting is one of the biggest mistakes for someone who is just starting out. No judgments though! We’ve all done it. Most people want to create the instant garden (for instance you see this on a lot of garden shows on television that want to create the Big Reveal). But every plant needs room to grow and if you fill up all the spaces, inevitability you’ll end up losing a few or having to move them later. Gardening is about waiting and not being in control, which is one of the great reason I like it since we live in such hurried, impatient times. Gardening is a rare chance to slow things down.

Above image: Dylan Robertson designed a front yard in Austin, Texas with a graphic mix of regional natives and foreign plants that looks good year-round.

Depending on one’s locale and accessibility to transportation, finding a sustainable or eco-friendly nursery or garden shop might be difficult. If big box nurseries are the only option, what are some questions gardeners should ask before venturing out to buy plants for their garden? Are there any breeds in particular that first-time gardeners should look for?

Look for plants that are native to your area. They will, generally speaking, do much better with much less irrigation, fertilizing, or TLC. And most importantly, they will attract and feed your local pollinators, all those bees and bugs that make the fruits and vegetables we eat possible. Even the big box stores will have some native species. Look at the plant tags and you often can see some that might come from your area.

In your book, you mention how your interest in gardening was rekindled when you started a rooftop garden in your Manhattan apartment. You did, however, have some issues with the amount of water and fertilizer needed to sustain it. For those who want to give urban gardening a shot, what ecological factors should they take into consideration? Are there any plants or practices that make urban gardening more sustainable and less wasteful?

That rooftop garden was my first and so I wasn’t as clued at that time into my role in my larger environment (i.e. the nearby Hudson a few blocks away). I’ve learned a lot since then about water usage, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation runoff. The bottom line is that we can always garden smarter and use our resources—especially our time and money—more wisely. Gardening is all about constant learning for me. I never want to master it, then it would be boring and old hat right?

Urban gardening is fantastic and everyone should be encouraged to do it even if you only have a small space. I garden at two places: my co-op building in Jackson Heights, Queens and my weekend house upstate. We live in a historic district where most of the old buildings have extensive gardens. They really make the neighborhood. The streets are filled with leaves and flowers and that beauty and aliveness really lifts up the whole community. I can see it in people’s faces, especially this time of year with the daffodils, tulips, and blooming trees. I encourage our gardening to be organic and not use a lot of pesticides or herbicides in a desire to have everything be perfect. In a city, all those impermeable concrete surfaces send the chemicals right out of the garden beds, into the gutters and drains, and out to the rivers and ultimately the ocean. It’s a great exercise to be conscious how our gardens link up with the larger systems around us.

At my weekend place, I love working within a narrow range of what I can grow there successfully with a lot of shade (we’re in a forest) and lots of deer. I am focusing on independent plants that can thrive on their own without me, such as herbs or woodland natives. I like a more natural look than when I first started gardening, and I really value imperfection and looseness. I don’t subscribe to that suburban ideal of things being overly tidy. I love things to look like they are part of nature.

Above images: Kirstin Tobiasson created a lush sidewalk garden out of a neglected patch of cracked pavement and dirt next to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

You recently worked as the editor for the forthcoming book, Garden Park Community Farm, a compilation of sustainable outdoor spaces from Nelson Byrd Woltz’s landscape architecture firm. Aside from those highlighted in this book, what are some of your favorite sustainable green spaces?

I worked with the landscape architects Thomas Woltz and Warren Byrd on this book over several years because I really admire how they combine deep lessons about sustainable landscapes with design and aesthetics. A garden has to look good or why would anyone want it, right? But their landscapes also tell important stories about the specific ecology of each place. I am a big fan of landscapes that pay attention to water—where it’s from and where it’s going. That’s the future for all of us gardeners with the prospect of climate change. Some of us will continue to get violent storms and deluges, while other parts of the country will sit twiddling their thumbs waiting for rain that never comes. I’m from Texas and their prolonged drought could be heading them back into the conditions that my dad grew up with during the Dust Bowl years.

While you have worked at a number of publications throughout your career, you have most recently worked as Editorial Director of Gardening at Martha Stewart Living. March used to be all about gardens at Living. This year, however, the magazine made the decision to nix a gardening-specific issue in favor of gardens featured year-round. What was the reasoning behind this? Did this decision have anything to do with your decision to teach more sustainable gardening?

We aren’t doing as many overt theme issues in general, so we just wanted to spread out the gardening interest over the year. We do gardens of all kinds in Martha Stewart Living: flower gardens, vegetable and fruit gardens, formal gardens, urban gardens, herb gardens, cactus gardens. We like to show as big a variety as possible. What unites these stories is a desire to inspire people with beauty and also have a valuable teaching moment whether it’s showing how to design a space or how to plant a shrub border.

Climate change and environmental problems have greatly affected not just human life, but the lives of other living things, as well. In recent years, for example, the rapidly declining population of bees and other forms of wildlife has become increasingly apparent. Are there any things that gardeners can do to counteract these trends? Are there any sorts of plants and flowers that can help to sustain local wildlife?

I like to recommend choosing native plant whenever possible. They can be your regional native shrubs, perennials, or wildflowers. It depends solely on where you live. Many experts make the case that we should feed our pollinators with the plants they have co-evolved with so that they both—and us—reap the maximum benefits. However, that’s not a hard and fast rule. I love many non-native plants as well. Did you know that the honeybee that’s getting so much press lately is in fact not native at all but originally brought here by early settlers from Europe? We also have a big roster of native bees that aren’t as noticeable but do a lot of great work.

While reading Tomorrow’s Garden, I noticed that, in addition to writing the book, you also took the photographs for it! You seem to have an interest in working on all aspects of a project— is this how you became interested in photography? What was the experience of taking the photographs yourself like versus working with a hired photographer?

I’m a Pisces so I love working with both sides of my brain—the visual side and the word side. I have a BFA in photography and art so I’ve enjoyed taking photographs and thinking visually for many years. In fact, I was a magazine art director before I was a writer and editor. When it came time to do my first book, even though I wanted to hire some of my talented real photographer friends, I realized I wanted to travel all over to show a snapshot of what’s really happening around the country. There would be no way, either logistically or moneywise, to send a photographer to the places I wanted to travel. The decision ended up giving me a lot of freedom as I discovered so many gardens just by driving around cool neighborhoods in LA or Portland. I would stop the car, hop out, take the shots from the street, and zoom off. Kind of Google street view for gardens I guess.

I have a new book I’m working on where I took all the photographs as well. It’s about herbs and useful plants and will be published in 2014 by Clarkson Potter. I’m very excited because it features growing advice, herbal history and stories, and even recipes. You’re right—it seems I do like a 360-degree approach.

Above image: Connie Umberger took out a neglected backyard lawn and made a small garden of wonderfully clashing colors in Nantucket.

Above image: Portland, Oregon has an inspiring street-side gardening scene that transforms the areas on either side of the sidewalks into one big community garden for all to enjoy.

As you stated in Tomorrow’s Garden, the act of gardening is inherently artificial—it brings together plants, soils, and fertilizers that wouldn’t typically be combined in nature. How do you reconcile your love for gardening with your interest in living more naturally and sustainably? What are the personal and ecological benefits to gardening and why should people continue or begin to do it?

That sounds kind of hardline for what’s in my book. For me, sustainability is all a matter of degree and the personal choices we make with our gardens. I am not a black and white person. I love all the shades and tones in between, that’s where things get really interesting. Gardening may be artificial (left to themselves gardens ultimately revert back to nature) but horticulture does a lot of good for the world—especially when it’s organically done. Humans tend and preserve plants by using them in gardens. We create green space, oxygen, shade, and cool temperatures to make our concrete canyons liveable. We provide stopping off points for migratory birds and insects and food for pollinators. We give joy to passers-by. And maybe most importantly, we give ourselves a break from the technological rat race. The thing I love most about gardening is it gets people—including me—away from their devices. We are too scared to garden with our phones for fear we will drop them in the mud or spray them with water… I say leave them inside. Get out of touch and in the sun and soil. Spend some time absorbing and appreciating all the wonderful things humans didn’t create.

Happy Gardening!

Above image: I focus on low-maintenance plants that fend for themselves so I planted my front lawn at my lake cabin with hundreds of deer-proof spring bulbs.

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