Garden Book Reviews

Garden Book Reviews
Originally written for the Northwest Perennial Alliance newsletter, in 2006-07.

British Lite

If you like the pithy, slightly snobbish humor of Masterpiece-Theater British comedies of a “certain era,” you’ll love writer Beverly Nichols’ garden escapades. Here are the antics of fictionalized neighbors, gardeners, visitors, and oh, did I mention CATS?

Though the books may be read in any order, it’s useful to know that they are loosely arranged into three trilogies. The first concerns a fifteenth century thatched “cottage” and the travails of a novice building a garden. Down the Garden Path, The Thatched Roof, and A Village in a Valley  are respectively about the garden, the house, and the community. His second garden is Merry Hall, a Georgian mansion. The enterprise and “grand scheme” of reviving, often with more enthusiasm than expertise, this house and attendant garden are explored in Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn. His third and last garden occupy his later books, Garden Open Today, and Garden Open Tomorrow and Forty Favorite Flowers (currently out of print.) Unlike the earlier chronicles, these are not quasi-novels with casts of local characters, but from a later time and era, when garden books were more informational about horticulture and design. 

His light, jabbing humor (and not always politically correct observations; Nichols was born in 1898.) are the main thrust of his books. Think Noel Coward — friend and contemporary. However, interspersed are some of the most beautiful prose poems about gardens that you are likely to find. These should be savored, not dashed through as the comic elements demand — and read while watching the sunset over your own garden or the bees in the orchard or a kitten in the shrubbery.

Timber press has released two NEW titles in the Nichols library in 2006: A Garden In the City (about his pre-WWII London suburban garden) and Down the Kitchen Sink (his entrance into the culinary world.)

Happy Reading


Blasts from the Past

Now and again, I like to delve into the past and read books about or by great plant hunters. The book that introduced me to these fellows (sorry, but most of them WERE men) and inspired me to further reading was Tyler Whittle’s: The Plant Hunters. This is the most painless history book every written, filled with marvelously constructed, amusing tales of dozens of historic plant hunters.

Whittle is fascinated with the amazing hardships that these explorers endured. There are vivid descriptions of their hair-raising adventures and often bizarre deaths. Though he sometimes deals with gruesome material, he maintains a chatty and lighthearted tone, charging these characters and situations with life and amazement.

David Douglas, the Hookers, Joseph Rock, Sir Joseph Banks, the Bartrams, Kingdon-Ward and many others are quickly and clearly made memorable. If you ever mused about the names of plants and the collectors they commemorate, this is a great introduction which will make you hungry for more. If you never cared about reading this kind of history---try this book . From Linneaus to Forrest, these snippets of the lives of the plant explorers will make you richer with appreciation and reverence. These men risked and often gave their lives to bring the bounty and wealth of  plants from the remote corners of the world to your garden.

Another biographical work, a small book of great elegance, is the hundred page biography of Reginald Farrer by Nicola Shulman: A Rage for Rock Gardening.  Shulman traces the brief life of an avid alpine plant collector and his remarkable passion for plants. One of those British gardeners with more savvy with plants than with people, he revolutionized the gardening world in two ways. First, by encouraging the democratization of gardening from being the province only of the very rich. “Plants are no respecters of wealth.” And secondly, by being one of the first writers to anthropomorphize plants. His writing style is immensely dense and floriferous filled with classical allusions, but he gave his plants personality. The next time you talk about a plant “sulking” in your garden or “basking” in the sunlight or grateful to be fed, you have Farrer to thank. Vita Sackville West and the other early 20th century writers popularized the style so that now it’s the norm.

Happy Reading.


Home Grown

For those of you who don’t know of him, David Mabberley, speaker at a recent NPA lecture, is the director of the UW Botanic Gardens (including CUH, Miller Library, and the Arboretum), the President of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and a renowned author. He has recently written a Timber Press book: The Story of the Apple.

My first fascination with the origins and distribution of apples came from an NPR story by Frank Browning. We had just returned from a botanical tour in Kazakhstan (believed to be the home of the first cultivated apples), so my husband bought Browning’s book: Apples. It was wonderful. I am entranced by people’s passions…and this book is by a man with a passion. He grows ‘em, studies ‘em, eats ‘em, drinks ‘em, loves ‘em. I went on to get his cookbook: An Apple Harvest: Recipes and Orchard Lore. Frank Browning’s books are a melange: a bit of botany, a bit of history and some pretty pithy opinions. (Don’t get hot under the collar when he talks about Washington Delicious apples! Though, it IS true. I had fresh east-coast grown Delicious apples on my last trip and they were, frankly, DELICIOUS!)

My next big apple journey was with Joan Morgan and Alison Richards in their beautifully illustrated volume: The Book of Apples. Elisabeth Dowle did the gorgeous watercolor portraits of apple cultivars. This is a book about the evolution of apple varieties and a compendium of the characteristics of over 2000 varieties. It’s also the sort of book where you can pick up juicy little tidbits such as: the main consumers of apple juice are folks in the former Soviet Union—where it’s second only to water.

I was building an apple book collection! I found a 1905 two volume edition of: The Apples of New York by S.A. Beach at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. I flip through HUNDREDS of pages of long-lost apples once known and raised. Nickajack, which was considered an OLD apple in 1861; Skank which contains a plea not to let go out of cultivation because it is SUCH a good dessert apple, as well as familiar names such as Pippin and Northern Spy. I have planted several unusual varieties in my own garden as a tribute to this book.

Which brings us to: The Story of the Apple. I bought this more out of my collecting instincts than really expecting to learn anything more about apples. Boy, was I wrong. This is wonderful book with an in depth history of the apple starting with the ancient fruit forests. (If the technical genetic bits get to you, just skim, you’ll still get much from the book.)The authors take historical and scientific theories and give you the underlying thinking and reasoning behind the ideas. There are literally 1000’s of cultivars of apples around the world. They do not strike from cuttings nor do they come true from seed. Through grafting humans have preserved and protected apple varieties over the centuries.  Mabberley’s new book just expanded and re-ignited my appreciation of this fruit. Besides, where else will you learn how dung beetles and the Battle of Hastings relate to apples?

So, this autumn, as you ponder the various apples at the grocery stores and fruit stands, consider broadening your appreciation of these ancient fruit. Nothing is as good as lazing in a hammock on a fall day with a good book and a fresh, crisp apple.

Happy Reading


Off-Beat Books

There are times when a light-weight gardening memoir is the right thing to read. Or one of those long lists of great plants through the gardening season. But sometimes, it’s really nice to read a book that will jolt you and make you think---perhaps, even get you miffed at  the author or question his/her credibility.  Recently, I read three such books. They were exciting, stimulating and even at times maddening.

The first is a book by David Bodanis: The Secret Garden: Dawn to Dusk in the Astonishing Hidden World of the Garden. We learn about the micro-landscape of our gardens. How microbes and insects live, breed, and interact. How Mr. and Ms. Human (I was really offended by the humans in this book!) do damage to that world and how that world rebels. In the process, you might think twice about how you cultivate your soil and what you put on it or in it. In a ½ inch pinch of soil, there are more microscopic creatures and bacteria than there are humans on planet Earth, all with unique jobs.  I learned that there are soil mites who are farmers of fungus beds, growing their own food! It’s a wild and tiny world out there.

The author of my second suggestion, Francis Halle, is such a plant advocate that he resent zoocentrism in biology and sometimes even belittles animals. Certainly, he presents interesting arguments for some novel views about the relationship of plant and animal physiology and evolution in his book In Praise of Plants. Halle is a botanist who’s spent four decades exploring the rainforest treetops and has come to some pretty remarkable conclusions.  I’m not qualified to know if his arguments are sound, but he certainly made me think long and hard about how plants function. He cultivated great respect for some of the truly amazing things that plants do on a daily basis: living on minerals, air, and water; the ability to regenerate parts; the amazing “immortality” of a single plant. The next time you see the old stalwart Rhododendron, ‘Roseum Elegans,’ struggling in a gas station parking strip, you might stop to consider that this is the identical  plant that Waterer cloned in 1851. It certainly makes ME marvel.

My third suggestion is Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity. When was the last time that you vowed NEVER to plant THAT thug in your garden EVER again?  Jonathan Silvertown addresses the question of why, with the presence of extremely successful plants (read: thugs) is there any diversity at all. Why haven’t the kudzus Japanese knotweeds REALLY taken over the world? If you answered niches, you’ll find that that isn’t always the answer. While reading this book, I learned a great many things about places and plants that I didn’t know existed---AND was entertained by Silvertown’s clever and engaging prose. He’s a comfortable writer with some difficult concepts.

So when you are in the mood for some thought provoking, challenging, or unique views about plants and your garden, you might try dipping into any of these volumes.

Happy Reading. 


New from Timber Press

The main thing that connects the two books I’m recommending this time is that they are both recent publications by Timber Press. They do have another connection, lots of information coupled with a wry sense of humor.

The first of these is “The Self-Sustaining Garden,” by Peter Thompson. As my garden grows bigger and I grow older, I am realizing that I need to make more of it take care of itself. Unlike the many “too good to be true” books (you know the ones I mean: create a Japanese garden in an afternoon, build paradise over a weekend, no-work perennial borders), this is a reasoned and rational approach to designing a garden and picking plants that will eventually form a “matrix.”  This matrix is a plant community (trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs) that has balanced components and is compatible with its location (ie. pH, soil type, moisture, climate, etc.). The author bases his observations on natural landscapes, though, is certainly not a “natives only” sort of guy.

Thompson’s premise is that you need to think of competition between plants as a good thing. It does mean relinquishing the desire for prissy, little prima donnas that can’t stand intrusive neighbors.  He’s recommending the stalwarts of the garden—each planted in the right place. No double-digging, no winter hoeing, no heavy fertilizing, no bare soil here. However, there are restraints and compromises to be made. The plantings are focused on matrixes, not the latest and greatest colors or forms, though there are the rewards of less work and more time.

As he goes through different sorts of gardens (woodland, grassland, wetland, scrub), he has a delightful series of case studies. These are a hoot: the retired captain in a ménage-a-trois whose two women decide that if the cherry trees go, so does he; or the brigadier who is “particularly cool towards (plants) known only by their Latin names,” or the Long Islanders who buy a New Hampshire property in the summer to find the winter northwest winds make their garden as hospitable as Mount Washington. 

My other book suggestion couldn’t be more different. Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns is, well, encyclopedic. It’s a marvelous fern reference, with plenty of academic and general cultivation information compiled by one of our local fern experts, Sue Olsen (who gardens in Bellevue). You can hear Sue’s voice as she relays the facts and foibles of pteridology: speculating on midnight revelries looking for “fairy dust,” worrying about the misinformation given on a TV program about making fern “cuttings,” or watching out for slug chainsaws in spring. Once, she confesses, ferns were companion plants for her rhodies, now the tables are turned, her rhododendrons are companion plants for ferns.

If you want ferns for the woodland or the rock garden or even in a xeric garden, there is helpful information about what to plant and how to plant it. The “Culture and Comments” for each fern are extremely useful: which ferns will add a “touch of excitement” to your spring garden, which ferns are easy to grow and will fill your garden with that lush ambiance that ferns impart, and which need a “devoted caretaker,” or  “make for a proud gardener and bring forth the admiration of the cognoscenti.”  Did you know that Equisetum is now classified as a true fern or that some species will survive as houseplants? Unlike too many of the “encyclopedic” garden books, this one is fun to read as well as study.

Happy Reading


A Look to the Past and to the Future

Early subscribers to Jerome Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine are greatly satisfied to see the mainstreaming of organic principles beyond carrots, green beans and potatoes. In The Elements of Organic Gardening, HRH Prince Charles discusses how he mingles the ancient practices of husbandry and stewardship with contemporary organic gardening principles at his estate—from the perennial borders to the vegetable beds. 

This is not an intense How-To book. Although the scale and costs of the royal garden are beyond our aspirations, we can be inspired by how he manages his estate, with intense composting, concern for the mycorrhizal inhabitants of the soil, on down to the massive water treatment facilities. (His reed and willow water filtration system makes me wish that our state and county health departments were more flexible.)

Though Prince Charles discusses plant rotation, combinations and propagation, The Elements of Organic Gardening is more a book of concepts and mindsets. It documents an amazing perseverance and long-view in gardening, beyond mere seasons, rather culminating in decades!

IPM for Gardeners: A Guide to Integrated Pest Management, by Cloyd, Nixon, and Pataky is not an organic gardening book per se, though IPM stresses knowledge of your enemies (and your friends) in the garden wars. This is a fairly technical book that emphasizes understanding the mechanics of plants, diseases, pests, and their interactions.

First, consider the horticultural requirements of your plants and match those with their placement. This will lead to less stress and a greater ability of your plants to withstand attack on their own. Second, you need to have early and accurate diagnosis of the problem, be it a fungus, bacterium, or nasty bug. Next, you need to be able to ascertain what the appropriate intervention is. Not quick fixes, most are long-term strategies to short-circuit the damage to your plants by interrupting the attack, helping to level the playing field, and finally knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”  Some plants will succumb or may not be worth growing given their proclivities to disease or pests. Some plants will need to be placed in more appropriate environments. Vectors may need to be eliminated or companion plants may be a good way to help discourage pests. Some problems will just disappear with time. The last resort is chemical intervention.

Whether you are interested in the philosophy or in the nitty-gritty, both of these books encourage us to ignore little imperfections. A bit of moss in the lawn, a slightly chewed hosta, a blemish on that apple, and an aphid on a rose are a small price to pay for a healthier garden.

Happy Reading.



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