Originally published Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Plant Life

New book is a guide to ethical modern gardening

We've all become more aware of how our gardens don't stop at our property lines. We realize that our gardening practices affect our neighbors and the larger environment, from urban flooding to declining bee populations.

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them. A columnist for The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest Magazine for the last 14 years and author of four books on gardening, she lives on Whidbey Island where she loves to hike, read and garden.
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PROFESSOR SARAH Reichard is both a serious academic and a practical gardener, a fortuitous combination that shines through in her new book, "The Conscientious Gardener; Cultivating a Garden Ethic" (University of California Press, $27.50).

I've known Reichard since she was a graduate student and I a librarian at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington. I've watched her develop a specialty in invasive plants and become known around the world for her research and teaching on the menace of marauding plants. So I admit I was expecting a book heavy on such matters. But through tending her own garden in North Seattle, Reichard has become concerned about a much wider range of environmental issues. The controversy over invasives, ornamentals and native plants is only one of many issues explored in this most modern of gardening books.

When in 2001 Reichard and her husband left behind a postage-stamp garden on Phinney Ridge and moved to a much larger property above Puget Sound, these issues became day-to-day realities for her. "I felt our garden was connected to the water," says Reichard. "The creek, ravine, mountain beavers and salamanders were an awakening for me."

Now is the time for a book like Reichard's. We've all become more aware of how our gardens don't stop at our property lines. We realize that our gardening practices affect our neighbors and the larger environment, from urban flooding to declining bee populations. Yet the information we seek to guide us is scattered, sometimes contradictory, and all too often strident. We do know we can no longer afford to garden as our parents and their parents did, when the water seemed to be endless and chemicals a scientific advancement. It's time to update our understanding and our skills. After all, who besides gardeners should lead the way in ecological reverence? Reichard gives us the critical thinking and practical ideas to do so.

"I had the idea for the book years ago," says Reichard, who took a yearlong sabbatical from the UW to write it. "I was teaching urban ecology and learned so much about soils and water conservation." Her students were the ones who urged Reichard to include the especially detailed and useful chapter called "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose."

When she read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" Reichard found a model for how to turn her urban ecology concerns into a nonacademic book. Reichard admits it was difficult, after 20 years of indoctrination into the academic style of writing, to bring her own personality into the book. But her ability to do so is what keeps us reading, from stories about her favorite environmentalists to her interpretation of current data.

From quoting Aldo Leopold's moving and prescient words in "A Sand County Almanac" to proffering advice based on real-life experience, Reichard gives us the solid information we need to make good decisions. If nothing else, reading the concise guidelines at the end of each chapter may be enough to change your gardening life.

Here are a few juicy bits from the book:

• The "skin of the earth" (soil) is complex, and manipulating it is usually about as easy and successful as permanently changing your own skin.

• Fertilizers are among the worst polluting culprits; and it does not matter if they are from organic or synthetic sources.

• In any location, native plants can cope with altered conditions, but a nonnative might be a better choice.

Reichard concludes her book with words from Leopold that have long informed both her research and her gardening: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at


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