After years of presenting America’s best gardens to magazine readers and writing about them for The New York Times, Stephen Orr finally found the time to compile the most interesting ones in his new book Tomorrow’s Garden. (Rodale Books, 2011.)

While it’s true that what makes these gardens so interesting are the myriad ways that they exemplify sustainability, don’t worry because Orr avoids the usual lists of environmental do’s and don’ts and their accompanying finger-shaking, and relies instead on photos that lure and inspire us to create environmentally responsible gardens that are also beautiful. Plus Orr includes stories of real people making some very nontraditional gardening choices – so there’s lots to love here. For me, these are the highlights:

1. His own journey. Orr grew up in West Texas, where “gardening for us was an act of forcibly bending nature to suit human will.” That meant disease-prone hybrid tea roses and “liberal doses of bright blue fertilizer.” His confession that he was “pretty naïve ecologically” rings true to us experienced gardeners and we can learn a lot from his journey toward “responsible gardening,” far more than we’d learn from the preachings of new converts to gardening.

2. Super-inclusiveness. Orr has taken pains to include a surprisingly wide range of gardens and garden-makers. We meet older gardeners who have edited out their more resource-intensive plants, as well as 20-somethings in our hipper cities starting rooftop farms and apiaries. We see not just small meadows and food gardens but also curb-side gardens and even formal gardens with clipped hedges. This huge range of options will no doubt lead to more cumulative changes than any single solution (kitchen gardens for all!).

3. Lawns, not so much. As a promoter of less lawn myself, I was thrilled by Orr’s statement that “One of the common denominators of a modern garden style is the absence of turf.” Indeed, most of the featured gardens have little or no lawn and instead use a whole slew of lawn alternatives: a grove of trees; lush groundcovers with stunning boulders; porous pavers; and a surprising number of gravel gardens. 

But hold on for the shocker – three of Orr’s chosen gardens, including the shady city lot above, use fake turfgrass! Not the old Astroturf, though – today’s synthetics are much better, while using scarce water on lawns has become crazier and crazier, especially in the desert. (What’s even crazier? That this realization has been so slow in coming.) And whether they’re fake or the real deal, Orr urges us to think of lawns as rugs, not wall-to-wall carpeting. Hear, hear! 

 4.Gardening as a joyous pursuit.  We’re used to treatises on “sustainable gardening” making it sound like as much fun as flossing, but thank goodness Orr believes that “Giving pleasure…is essential to any garden that we should wish to sustain.” Indeed, for most of us it’s the sensual rewards of beauty, fragrance, and working among the birds and bees that turn us into gardeners, not appeals to avoid doing harm in our yards. 

5. Stuff I’d never heard of.
  Take Gabion walls, the stone-filled metal cages developed for erosion control that are used as walls and seating in this modern garden. Or the unknown-to-me fact that pea gravel is, um, nonrenewable and that a much better option is crushed limestone or granite (though the bad news is that the mining of all aggregates, even sand, is destructive to the environment.)  

See, it’s not easy being green, at least not perfectly green. But perfection isn’t what Tomorrow’s Garden is about. Thankfully.

To learn more about Tomorrow’s Garden, see Rodale’s interview with Stephen Orr.