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Entries in garden book reviews (22)


Use Plants for Dramatic Theater in the Garden; a book review

All the Garden’s a Stage, Choosing the Best Performing Plants for a Sustainable Garden,        Jane C.Gates, Schiffer Publishing.

Of late, the publishing industry has been adapting its books to the vast pluralistic community that gardens. Writers first identify a segment of the market and then create a book for a specific audience. The result is that a how-to publication has been written to match almost every gardener’s personality.

I consider gardening to be a theatrical production; and Jane C. Gates has written a guide for people just like me. My garden is a Broadway musical. It has an overture in May, a dramatic act in June; and just before the July intermission, a show stopping number occurs in the rose bed. After intermission, several acts, each with a showy flourish, have been scripted to run through August and September, before the curtain comes down in October.

In every growing season, there are stars: plants that take center stage in the flowerbed and wow both my audience and me. To make the production a rounding success, before casting I audition the appropriate actor/plant for every character’s role. Ms. Gates and I understand each other because, to my delight, she elaborates in depth on this topic.

Her guide to design and planning is about making one’s garden production a success. In it she deals with many other factors that contribute to crowd-pleasing performances. For example, she recommends indulging the star plants by caring for their basic needs. We are taught to recognize that each plant plays a different character in the production, a role determined by its reaction to air, wind, lighting, and temperature.

As Ms. Gates point out, Basic information on a plants growth should make you a better director and help define not only what plants look best [on stage] but which will perform the way the script of your garden demands.

The author continues by advising us to avoid glamorous but temperamental diva plants in favor of reliable leading ladies. A cast of garden growers that perform well together will make your overall design into a rave performance.

The new gardener will also be introduced to specific plant characters that seasoned hobbyists consider old friends in their repertory theatre. These include plants also known as Moisture Mayvens, Forest Dwellers, Mountaineers, Denizens of the Dry, Tropical Beauties, and more.

In this guide to “garden design as theater”, the author touches on practical subjects that enhance the enjoyment of the production. One is minimal garden maintenance; another is the contemporary concern about sustainability. As well, there is a wise and balanced discussion on lawns. Not to be overlooked is the important contribution made by garden props. The items that make the leading characters look good may range from gazebos and chicken coops to boulders and waterfalls.

An important lesson found in this publication is that a garden is animate and therefore, imperfect; it is always in a stage of transition. Like a Broadway show, there will be scene changes, and some scenes will work better than others do. The reader is cautioned not to expect perfection because the perfect gardens portrayed in magazine shoots and advertising are illusions. Even in botanical theatre, there is no such thing as ideal.

For the passionate hobbyist, the garden is live drama, created with living characters, who come together to form a community of players. When properly nurtured, staged, and directed, they put on a spectacular theatrical production. That is my kind of gardening and this is my kind of garden book.



Does Your Garden's Design Make You Feel Good? 

The Pattern Garden: The Essential Elements of Garden Making, Valerie Easton, Timber Press

What makes a garden successful? Is it the accolades heaped upon it by one’s colleagues? Is it the fame it garners for it originality? Is a garden successful because it makes the homeowner and visitor feel good? American garden writer, Valerie Easton, has chosen the latter and has made it the theme of her book.

There is a delightful abstract quality to this publication. In it, the author takes good garden design to a higher, more spiritual level. Instead of discussing the aesthetic and scientific elements of design, as so many traditional garden design books do, she focuses on the role played in garden design by archetypal ideas - a.k.a. patterns - that reference the longings of human beings. These pleasure and comfort-rooted ideas are those that inspire designers to create gardens that are satisfying beyond their beauty.

Ms. Easton believes that a garden should be more than an outdoor living area or plant display. A successful garden should encourage us to enter, to explore, to be surprised, and to linger. A garden should make us feel good.

The inspiration to consider garden design from this perspective came to the author from two diverse but complementary sources. First, was the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, or natural transitions, and secondly was Christopher Alexander’s collection of universally appealing patterns of urban design. Ms. Easton has distilled Mr. Alexander’s patterns down to 14 garden-specific ones that are essential to bringing people comfort and contentment outdoors.

Properly adapted to our personal needs, these patterns help create environments that satisfy us at our deepest levels. They explain why one garden is successful while another garden is not. In a successful garden, we should be able to feel ourselves moving through and experiencing the outdoor space on many sensory and emotional levels. By comparison, the author holds that an unsuccessful garden is worth admiring only from a distance because it engages one’s eyes and intellect and nothing more.

To help us appreciate the essence of a satisfying garden, she reacquaints us with its contextual and changing habits, as reinterpreted through the concepts of the Alexander patterns. For example, the reader will learn

  • How weather, soil, topography, and views create a unique garden site,
  • How the relationship of the garden’s scale to the house affects our overall impression of an outdoor space
  • How outdoor rooms, pathways, bridges and gates create a personal journey filled with anticipation
  • How enclosures and exposures provide shelter and borders to influence our levels of comfort  
  • How patios, sheds and focal points create desirable garden destinations
  • The soothing role played by water's sound and reflection
  • How ornamentation and containers provide garden art that pleases the eye
  • The contribution of organic and manmade materials in influencing our visual-tactile experience       

In addition to the refreshing approach that the author has taken to the topic of garden design, Timber Press also assigned a team of talented artist-photographers to illustrate Ms. Easton’s inspiring words. Special mention must go to Jacqueline Koch and her associates, Richard Hartlage and Allan Mandell.

Valerie Easton blgs at


Grow 250 Plants in a 600 Square Feet Space!

Big Gardens in Small Spaces, Martyn Cox, Timber Press

Welcome to the very small but plant-packed garden of Martyn Cox. This respected horticulturist, journalist, prolific garden writer, and editor grows over 250 plants in a tiny city garden that measures only 600 square feet. This he accomplishes by including every inch of unused but usable space into his planting scheme, so that shady corners, flat roofs of tool sheds, window-sills, wall crevices, and cracks in the pavement become places to grow plants.

The author firmly believes that having a small back yard is not an excuse for not having a garden. To prove it, he invites us into his own and demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that beautiful gardens can grow anywhere, no matter how confined the space.

A view of the author's compact garden in JuneAccording to this author, the essential ingredient is an understanding how to manipulate plants. For example, a tiny garden need not contain only compact and dwarf varieties, By pruning large leafed plants or by harnessing their growth by putting them in a pot, and by training plants to grow against wires, one can grow large plants and trees in a small plot.

Here are a few of the many ideas that the reader will discover in Mr. Cox’s book:-  A narrow side path from the front of the house to the back can become a sanctuary for shade plants, metal balcony railings can be covered with planters filled with annual flower. The flat roof of a garden shed will grow creeping sedum and chives, while vegetables may be grown in pots, or tucked into remaining gaps between ornamental plants.

Another perspective of Mr. Cox's gardenBy adding horizontal wires or a trellis, walls, fences, vertical surfaces can support fruit-bearing climbing plants or hold the branches of compact forms of fruit trees. A gap at the edge of a path will grow herbs. Even homeowners with mostly shady gardens are encouraged to grow edible plants. Here, the reader will learn which salad ingredients, herbs, and fruit will grow in shade.

In a discussion on the role of color in the garden, we are urged to consider the physiological effects that colors have upon homeowners. We learn that too many colors create a feeling of chaos, we are shown how one might create a colorful garden with a restricted palette, and we are taught about the soothing effect of the color green.

Larger vertical plants in the author's tiny garden.For homeowners who feel that they are unable to create proper plant combinations, the author’s treatment of this topic is priceless. Readers will learn that some of the most effective plant combinations occur when a plant self seeds or when a gardener brings home an attractive plant and places it just anywhere in the garden. The author advises that because these haphazard or serendipitous compositions are successful, one should not be too concerned about the placement of plants. What matters most is that the homeowner is pleased with the results.

However, for those who wish to fine-tune the plant combinations in their garden, Mr. Cox shares with us the success he has had with two specific plants that seem to integrate well with almost all others in his garden. Their color, shape, and form make them versatile companions.

The book is rounded out with a] practical advice for maintaining the garden wherein the author reminds the reader that small gardens require less maintenance than larger ones and b] the list. Yes, the author lists all 250 plants that he grows in his tiny 600 square feet plot. When readers examine in detail the photos of his garden, they will understand how easy it is to achieve such a goal.

Mr. Cox is an enthusiastic gardener. He shares his positive approach in a friendly, intimate manner and includes spot-on photos of other people’s small gardens to illustrate some of his gardening tricks. Most importantly, using candid photos, he invites us onto his property to appreciate how he transformed his small space into a big garden. Readers with tiny back yards are bound to be inspired.



Grass is Not the Only Option for Your Lawn; a book review for

Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives, Evelyn J. Hadden, Timber Press

There is a controversy about the role of the lawn in our culture. Some cannot imagine having a home or an estate without one, while others can hardly wait to replace theirs with alternative forms of landscaping. Here is a publication that adds realism and practicality to the ongoing dialogue.

On one side of the discussion are those who believe that a green lawn is a sign of refinement, elegance, and that it contributes to the quality of air we breathe. The other side is composed of three sub-groups: first are those who look upon lawn maintenance as a bother- some chore that squanders time, energy, natural resources, and money, and second are those who believe that the excessive nutrients and herbicides, associated with lawn care, harm our environment. The third group reminds us that it is unrealistic to grow green lawns in arid climates.

For homeowners considering alternative forms of landscaping, Ms. Hadden has prepared practical and beautiful options. Some of the ideas she provides are sufficiently attractive to grace the front yards of elegant homes, while others are better suited to a back yard or woodland. Readers who might shudder at the thought of replacing the grass in their front yard with messy and chaotic meadow gardens will be relieved to learn that a meadow is but one of eleven practical, urban-friendly suggestions.

Ms. Hadden’s book is divided into three main sections. In the first, she introduces and discusses in detail the eleven no-mow options. These include groundcover gardens, shade gardens, meadows, rain gardens, patios, play areas, ponds, xerix gardens, edible gardens, stroll gardens, and “smarter” lawns.

Groundcover gardens are low living carpets of plants that never… need mowing, watering, or fertilizer. Shade gardens are soothing woodlands that filter and purify the air and obscure hard walls and floors. Meadow gardens are prairie-like landscapes defined by ornamental grasses and native plants. Rain gardens are living sponges that absorb stormwater, snowmelt, and flood waters into,,, water bodies above and below ground. Patios are places where people can comfortably spend time outdoors.

Play areas refers to natural outdoor environments that supports brain and body development in children. Here, natural spaces are filled with sound, scent, textures, color and movement. A pond garden acts as a way- station for birds, encourages aquatic wildlife, and adds light and movement to the landscape. Xeric gardens are compositions for arid climates where a combination of grasses and succulents create landscapes that can surpass the drama of traditional green landscaping. Edible gardens, while not totally carefree, contain crops that stimulate our sense of taste and smell. Stroll gardens encourage exploring nature throughout the seasons; a smarter lawn, while not as elegant as a traditional one, is an alternative that requires little maintenance.

Part Two of the book is filled with practical and technical advice on how to convert a lawn into one of the above-mentioned options, and on subsequent maintenance of each option. Part Three is rich with information on the various forms of plants that - when combined together - create attractive landscaping for no-mow gardens.

This last section is divided into four classifications of plants: Mounding, Mat-forming, Fill-ins, and Minglers. Carex and Brunnera are two examples of the twenty-six suggested Mounding plants. Among the sixteen Mat-forming plants, we find Lamium and Phlox subulata. Fill-in plants that number twenty-eight include Pachysandra terminalis and Tiarella chordifolia while Callirhoe involucrate and Phlox paniculata are two of the twenty-eight suggested Minglers.

The no-grass lawn is a landscaping alternative that has arisen out of a serious and controversial dialogue. It is to the author's credit that she has graciously avoided wrapping her vision in the ideology and the dogma associated with this subject. Instead, her book makes a practical contribution to the discussion. Enhancing that achievement is an abundance of beautiful and inspiring photos that clearly illustrate all of the author’s suggestions. Readers who are intent on eliminating the traditional lawn will be delighted by the endless possibilities they will find in this timely publication.


How to Deal with Contradictory or Mythical Garden Advice; a book review for


Decoding Gardening Advice; the science behind the 100 most common recommendations, Jeff Gillman & Meleah Maynard, Timber Press

The benefit of this book to gardeners is that it takes advice out of the realm of folklore, and places it under the spotlight of horticultural and botanical science.

The authors maintain that the most serious drawback to successful and effective gardening is that people are ill informed. They believe that a lot of gardening advice is confusing, dubious, or bad.  Some well meaning gardeners unknowingly twist the facts, others are ignorant of them, and still others innocently hold on to stale-dated knowledge that no longer stands up to contemporary scientific scrutiny.

Is it possible that unsuspecting gardeners, confused when they are bombarded with contradictory advice, consider gardening a joyless activity? The authors believe so; and that has been their impetus to write this book.

Eight major gardening subjects are covered in an examination of the one hundred most commonly received  garden recommendations. The topics are related to soil, water, pest, disease, and weed control, mulch, annuals, perennials and bulbs, trees and shrubs, vegetables and fruit, and lawn care.

In order to evaluate the usefulness and worthiness of the most often-received guidance, the authors classify conventional gardening information into three categories: - advice that is good, advice that is debatable and advice that is just wrong. The reader will be amazed to learn how much erroneous information has been perpetuated as garden gospel, the amount of information that cannnot be substantiated as either true or false, and how much folklore is considered wise garden advice.

In the chapter on soil, an example of good advice is - Create an environment that is favorable to earth-worms. Earthworms are nature’s tilling machines. They do a great job of making nutrients, air, and water available to plants.

In that same chapter, debatable advice is to fertilize perennials and shrubs every year. We do not see a reason to fertilize perennials more than once every few years if the soil is good, meaning you add compost or other organic material on a regular basis.

Closing the chapter on soil is advice that is considered just wrong: add sand to clay to improve drainage. …when sand and clay are mixed together they blend in such a way that they create a dense, heavy mess – one with a consistency akin to wet concrete.

Advice that is good is confirmed with scholarship and research. Advice that is debatable, because science and experience can neither confirm nor refute it, is treated as a grey area for which there is no right or wrong answer. In such situations, choosing one way or another is a matter of personal preference. Advice is deemed bad when it is contradicted by science, or research, or fact-based experience.

For each one hundred recommendations, the authors explain every practice, the consequences of following the advice under scrutiny, how they believe the garden task ought to be executed, and a summary opinion or recommendation.

There is a new generation of gardeners, who do not wish to toil in their back yards; nor do they  wish to spend a lifetime exploring and testing conventional advice in order to determine the correct way to do anything. These contemporary hobbyists find no pleasure in discovery. They are the antithesis of the traditional gardener who finds joy in trial and error. Members of this non-traditional generation want to do it only once; and they need get it right the first time.

This manual, therefore, will provide accurate information to help them make wise gardening decisions. As well, it will be clarifying to those who have been bamboozled with botanical folklore that is closer to fiction than the truth. The authors were prescient in choosing to write this book.  We should be grateful.

Jeff Gillman, associate professor of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, lectures and conducts research on woody ornamental plants and the abuse of pesticides. His scholarly public-ations cover a broad range of topics, including spider mite control, soil amendments, and treating plant diseases using organic means.

Meleah Maynard, master gardener, journalist, editor, speaker, and garden columnist, writes regularly for regional and national magazines.