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Entries in garden book reviews (22)


How to Solve Growing Problems in the Garden Before They Begin

Why Plant That When You Can Grow This? 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants, Andrew Keys, Timber Press.

In our quest to recreate luscious landscapes we have visited, or studied in a book or magazine, we sometimes find our personal gardens filled with plants that make us unhappy due to their disappointing appearance or performance.

Our growing zone may be too hot or cold, the soil on our land too wet or arid, and the sun might be to searing or absent altogether.

Even when the conditions are perfect, surprises still occur. Too much rain or too humid a summer will result in mildew. Pests that we did not expect to attack our plants often arrive out of nowhere.

Some perennials will propagate themselves aggressively, others require more nutrients or irrigation than we can provide. Sometimes we become overwhelmed when we realize that a plant requires more maintenance than we are perpared to undertake.

Our frustration with plants that disappoint is exacerbated by our growing need for predictability and reliability. Many of us have a compromised life style that does not allow the luxury of time to fuss and fiddle over plants.

The solution:- Read this book!

In it, the author suggests we adjust our expectations. Instead of recreating someone else’s landscape, he recommends that we interpret it by using more reliable, less invasive, and easier-to-care-for plants.

Mr. Keys, as his title precisely states, presents 255 user-friendly plants for our consideration. While readers in colder climates are expected to skip over those that are inappropriate for their growing conditions, there remain enough choices for all gardeners, regardless where they are located.

Readers will discover

  •  replacement plants for twenty trees that might be problematic,
  •  substitutions for twenty-five shrubs with specific growing problems,
  •  alternatives for seven vines that may give the gardeners a headache,
  •  options for twenty-two perennials that are challenging to grow or maintain,
  •  better choices for the twelve grasses and ground covers a gardener should avoid.       

To facilitate the reader’s ability to deal with these horticultural issues, Mr. Keys has supplied the names of web sites for supplementary, elaborative information, as well as a list of recommended readings, mail order plant sources for American and Canadian gardeners, and an easy-to-consult conversion table for gardeners who are stymied by either metric or Imperial measurements of plants.

This publication is another in a series of useful garden manuals. Those of us who lead busy live are always happy to be alerted to potential horticultural problem. It is reassuring to know that we can solve them before they become full-blown headaches.



How to Design a Garden for Health and Longevity; a book review.

Lifelong Landscape Design, Mary Palmer Dargen, Gibbs Smith.

When planning a residential landscape, the author of this well thought-out publication recommends we focus on the end-use for our garden. Her premise is that successful and effective outdoor living spaces are those that enrich our health and our longevity at each stage of our lives.

Suggestions to achieve maximum benefits from the land that surrounds our home have been shaped by the author’s 30-year career in landscape design and enhanced by over 200 beautiful photographic illustrations that blend perfectly with her text. The quality of her images is clear, clean, and inspiring.

Ms.Dargan submits that at each stage of life, as it is influenced by family, health, life-cycles, friends, and community, the purpose and usefulness of gardens change. Just as we continue to fine-tune our gardens as they grow and mature, similarly we need to make changes to our outdoor spaces to reflect our evolving needs as our families mature.

A young family will require outdoor spaces that allow children to play and have fun, while at the same time it offers opportunities for them to interact with nature.

Some homeowners need outdoor spaces for dining and entertainment, outdoor sports, or simply relaxing and experiences the fresh air. Here, nature serves as a refuge from the stresses of life as it supplies relaxation through a symphony of sensory stimulations affecting vision, hearing, smell, and touch.

Empty-nesters and retirees, looking forward to spending more time in their garden, will be pleased that the writer has given special attention to homeowners who are about to enter their golden years.

Readers will be introduced to the holistic design process of resting lightly upon the land, an approach that relies upon the principles of sustainability for site development. Recommendations are made for designing gardens that encourage social interaction and outdoor sports.

Ideas are offered for aesthetically integrated kitchen gardens, dynamic access pathways, peaceful enclosures, and for creating stress-reducing environments. Even the strategic location of pools, paths, decks, outdoor furniture and BBQ pits merit discussion here.

It is suggested that the friendships we build within our communities – especially when they are born out of a shared love of gardening and nature – help to improve the quality of our physical and emotional lives.

The essence of this publication, therefore, is that a successful landscape design creates an environment that allows us to connect with nature, family, and friends. Such an outdoor space encourages a healthy lifestyle through physical mobility and social interaction and provides a refuge to sustain both body and soul.

Anyone planning to landscape a residential site, or considering redoing an existing one, will surely benefit from the cornucopia of practical health-enhancing ideas found in this book.



Perpetuating the English Garden; a Chronical of the Impressive Career of Rosemary Verey 

Rosemary Verey, the Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener, Barbara Paul Robinson, David R. Godine, Publisher.

The English-style garden, complete with pastel palette and focal point, appeared stale and tired-looking, after the Second World War. It might have disappeared from our contemporary gardening lexicon were it not for the contribution of Rosemary Verey who strove to perpetuate its beauty and its charm.

Here is a passionate book that follows the career of a late-blooming garden designer; it also serves as an attestation that sometimes innate talent and perseverance can be a substitute for formal training.

An internationally renowned, self-taught, master gardener, Mrs. Verey wrote her first book at the age of 62; and published seventeen more in the following twenty years. However, it was her avid fans, which she cultivated throughout the USA, who treated her as a V.I.P. Not only did they accord her a celebrity status but also they were responsible for turning most of her books into best-sellers.

Although Mrs. Verey appeared outgoing and sociable, she was, at heart, a private person, even when she made entries into her diary. As a result, Ms. Robinson’s research, thorough and meticulous as it is [sixty-nine people were interviewed} has produced a fascinating chronicle of an influential gardener’s life and career, rather than a biographic narrative. Nevertheless, it is a very satisfying book.

The author also drew upon a personal relationship with her subject. Ms. Robinson, who is a successful New York City lawyer and a passionate gardener, had taken a sabbatical from her practice in order to study under Rosemary Verey’s supervision.

The author Barbara Paul Robinson, on the left, with Rosemary Verey, on the right. Photo credit Charles Robinson and drgodineblogspot.caWhat drew this reviewer into the private world of a housewife – turned – designer was a poignant discovery of antiquated social norms that restricted and shaped the life of a talented women. Mrs. Verey was so gifted that had she been born into contem- porary society she might have become a lawyer or a banker, or even a professor of Economics. Instead, she became a traditional 1950’s wife and mother.

After her children were grown, and while she was contemplating  a “second career”, Mrs. Verey decided to redesign the landscape surrounding her home, Barnsley House, an historic U.K. residence, belonging to her husband’s family. The success of that project would eventually catapult her into an international career as an authority on English-style gardens.

Barnsley House. photo credit Jerry Harpur and drgodineblogspot.caWith encouragement from her scholarly husband, she began her formidable project by researching  historic British gardens. That led to a realization that certain design elements were essential to the creation of beautiful landscapes. Up until that time, such elements had been excusive to large estates.

It did not take long for this gifted neophyte designer to learn how to adapt the feel and mood of these aristocratic grounds in order to recreate them on her modest-sized property. Later, when she became the doyen of the English garden to most Americans, one of her most admired talents was the ability to take imposing elements from larger, acclaimed gardens and interpret them for the small scale of the American backyard.

Dedication, perseverance, and hard work - combined with the eye of a mathematician – transformed Mrs. Verey from wife of an upper middle class gentleman into a world-renowned authority on English Gardens. Among her clients were the New York Botanical Garden, Sir Elton John, HRH Charles Prince of Wales, the late King Hussein of Jordan, and the Honorable Hilary Weston of Canada.

Adding to my enjoyment of this book is the way the author weaves several themes throughout the biography. One thread is the confirmation that beautiful English gardens require maintenance. Without it, they cannot perpetuate the vision of the designer. A second thread deals with the feeling of inadequacy experienced by some successful but self-taught designers when in the company of diploma-bearing professionals.

Another theme examines the role the client plays in developing a garden design. When planning the grandest of her projects, no matter how tenaciously she held to her opinions, Rosemary Verey wisely deferred to the whims of the homeowner.

Mrs. Verey’s influence upon me, as well as on many of my colleagues and clients, has been so pivotal that as soon as I found out about this book I added it to my must-read list.

In it I found comfort when I learned that the placement of a plant - as challenging as it might be for us today - was no less of a challenge for the world’s great authority on that subject. It is reassuring to discover that even the most talented among us sometimes struggle, as we do, in order to overcome obstacles.

Readers are in for a treat when they continue to the writer’s acknowledgments at the end of the book. Throughout Ms. Robinson’s manuscript, a secondary story accompanies the biography. It describes the special relationship between Rosemary Verey and her husband; how he continuously encouraged her to achieve her personal goals.

That narrative is echoed in the author’s revelation about the encouragement she received from her own husband so that she too might garden and eventually write this book. What a touching comparison this turns out to be when it creeps up on the reader as a delightful surprise ending.



Growing, Gathering and Designing with Organic, Locally Grown Cut Flowers

The 50 Mile Bouquet, Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers. Debra Prinzing, David E. Perry, St. Lynn’s Press

For the same reasons that we try to buy locally grown organic food, Debra Prinzing suggests that, when buying cut flowers, we look for those that are organically grown no more than 50 miles away.

Most of us pay little attention to the fact that, over the years, cut flowers bought from florists and supermarkets have become less fragrant, and that their colors appear increasingly artificial. There are technical reasons for this. Most commercial flowers are grown overseas, at a great distance from markets and the harvest must be vigorous enough to sustain both long distances and the time necessary for their distribution.

By breeding to produce this level of vigor, odorless flowers with a lifeless appearance is the usual result. To insure the viability of these crops, the large commercial growers around the globe resort to using pesticides and manufactured fertilizers. Furthermore, with the breeding of these preferred strains has come the ability to change the appearance of the flowers so that they are more attractive at retail. However, upon close inspection, they look unreal.

Those of us who prefer our plants to be pesticide and chemical free, who care how much energy is consumed in bring the blooms to market, and who expect a fragrant flower that touches our soul, are urged to patronize flower growers closer to home. Nothing can compare to a fragrant, old fashioned, freshly harvested bloom.

Throughout the USA, but mostly on the West Coast and sprinkled around the country, dedicated flower merchants are delivering  locally grown, fragrant, cut flowers, nourished with sustainable practices. The results have been touching.

The focus of this book is to identify the growers and distributors of newfound but old style cut flowers; to encourage readers to buy them when they are local and organically produced, to grow their own, and to suggest that the florist industry strive for organic practices.

Readers will discover farmers who are producing and harvesting organic flowers all season long. They will meet representatives of the new breed of florists who source and create with environmentally respected techniques while using uncommon, fresh, and sustainably grown plants. The inspired among us will learn how to use these preferred cut flowers to create foraged bouquets and elaborate centerpieces, by sourcing from farmers markets, back yard cutting gardens, and semi-wild locations.

The theme of the publication rounds out with a list of US flower growers, floral design tips, seasonal ingredients, a floral glossary, sustainability terms, as well as a directory of farmers, designers, and other experts introduced by the writer.

After reading this book, I find it difficult to revert to buying odorless, artificial-looking cut flowers. Happily, some retailers now post a sign when their floral inventory is locally grown. Thanks to the dedicated people we meet in Debra Prinzing and David E. Perry’s inspiring work, we are making progress.



A Master Class in Designing with Ornamental Grasses, an eBook review 

Do you feel that you don’t know enough about ornamental grasses? Were you planning to enroll in a university extension course to learn more about them or, perhaps, buy a book on the subject? Now, from the comfort of your home and the convenience of your favorite electronic appliance, you can download Michael King’s two eBooks, Grasses Book One and Grasses Book Two. Together, these two volumes provide the reader with a master class in designing with ornamental grasses.

Ornamental grasses are essential to modern garden design and to the times in which we live. On one hand, their architectural forms make them ideal plants to enhance modern structures and on the other, they reflect our newfound respect for natural looking landscapes. Of late, we have come to echo this modernism and naturalist philosophy in both our private and public gardens.

Many home gardeners include grasses in the design of their flowerbeds; and public parks have used them as dominant themes in their landscaping. So significant an idiom have they become in contemporary gardening that many public spaces that incorporate them, such as The Lurie Gardens in Chicago and The High Line of New York City, have become internationally respected botanical icons.

To incorporate grasses into both private and public landscaping, fundamental information about both their nature and their potential is required. To plant them helter-skelter, the way some of us treat perennial flowers, will not do. Using grasses correctly and effectively requires prior knowledge. That, of course, is the reason to download Michael King’s two eBooks.

BOOK 1 introduces the reader to ornamental grasses, details their characteristics, and explains how they can be used in garden design. The reader will learn how their lack of bold color and their free flowing shapes help to create an illusion of naturalism in any garden. One discovers how the verticality of these plants provides a visual relief, as the eye of the garden visitor is drawn upwards rather than horizontally. Included, as well, is a survey of the best ornamental grasses for garden designs, classified by height.

BOOK 2 begins with technical information associated with growing, caring for, and sustaining ornamental grasses. The author also provides a frank overview of the drawbacks of using them and suggests how to deal with resulting negative issues. The volume then move on to a valuable demonstration on combining grasses with other plants and provides guidance on their use in designing, on integrating them into lawns, and in the creation of meadows.

With a calibrated precision rarely found in the lectures of the best educators, Michael King effectively teaches us about designing with ornamental grasses, in small, easy increments. The result is that at the end of these sumptuously illustrated two eBooks, one is as well informed on this subject, as any garden designer needs to be.

The eBooks are available online at