Need Help?

Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

See my work on Pinterest at Garden Guru Montreal

Entries in garden book reviews (22)


A "Renaissance Man" Writes About Landscape Design

Envisioning the Garden, Line, Distance, Form, Color, and Meaning, by Robert Mallet, Norton & Co.

This is no ordinary book on landscape and garden design. The author’s sublime, poetic writing takes this publication out of the mainstream and raises it into a class by itself. What also makes the work exceptional is that Mr. Mallet has successfully integrated several disciplines of study to create one inspiring work.

In a friendly style, reminiscent of the passionate English garden writers of the first half of the twentieth century, the author introduces the reader to the primal significance of good landscape design, with references to the physics of optics, the anatomy of the eye and brain, the psychology of perception, and the fundamentals of pure design.

Mr. Mallet’s multi-discipline approach is reflected in the book’s original French title: - Optics of the Garden; Enlarging Space and Liberating the Spirit.

An illustration from the book: Staircase with Campanula porscharskyana.The author elaborates the details of his thesis in seven chapters in which he discusses lines and punctuation, scale, distance, forms, textures and lighting, colors, other senses that have an impact on a garden, and the search for meaning in landscape design. The book concludes with a short, inspiring summary of the author’s philosophy on the subject of gardens.

An illustration from the chapter A Search for a Meaning.To illustrate the breadth of the author’s intellectual horizons, consider an excerpt from a chapter on scale.  When discussing miniature gardens in a paragraph titled “Elasticity of mental markers; bonsai gardens”, the author reports: - This representation on a smaller scale of a much larger natural world is intended to liberate us from our everyday environment and to allow us to escape into an idealized world. It can even serve as real therapy for people who are trapped inside their own mental universe.

Illustration from a discussion on distance and perspective.On each of the 143 pages, Mr. Mallet shares fine details of landscaping concepts that are sometimes overlooked by other writers. For example, he elaborates on the art of lopsidedness, illusion and staged effects, false perspectives, verticals in front of horizontals, shadows, placing jagged forms in front of ovals and rounds, nuance rather than contrast, placing cold colors in front of warm colors,  proprioception - a sixth sense that improves how we see by using sound and smell - and the emotional dimension of a garden.

Few books on the subject of landscaping touch the soul of the reader with the depth of meaning that Mr. Mallet has successfully imbued in his writing. While many of the examples, diagrams, and illustrations are drawn from large estates, the fundamentals are universal and applicable to gardens of all sizes.

Reviewed for



Flowers of Volunteer Park Conservatory; a book review

Flowers of Volunteer Park Conservatory, blooming month by month. Sara L. Chapman, published by Book Publishers Network

I belong to a community of over 3,000 garden writers where members are encouraged to evaluate each other’s work, by assigning votes to pleasing blog posts. The number of visitors each one receives also determines a member’s popularity. Ever since the creation of this garden community, almost four years ago, the most popular blogs, have been those offering spectacular photographs of flowers. Every day, talented photobloggers enchant their followers with close-ups of plants, otherwise impossible to appreciate with the naked eye.

When I first glanced at the first few pages of Ms. Chapman’s book, I realized that she, too, understands the power of the flower close up; immediately, I was blown away by her work. This visually entertaining book is a photographic phenomenon. – vivid colorful close-ups of flowers and plants, each page more beautiful than the next, and each featuring a plant at its zenith.

A hidden gem of Seattle, Washington’s park system, Volunteer Park Conservatory is one of the last Victorian glass conservatories in the U.S.  This historic venue is comprised of five houses: the Palm House displaying an incredible orchid collection; the Seasonal house with an ever-changing show of flowers in spring, summer, autumn, and winter; the Cactus House containing intriguing cacti, succulents, and flowers, the Fern House with tropical and carnivorous plants; and the Bromeliad House home to pineapple plants, air plants, and other exotic flowers.

The intention of the author has been to create a miniature coffee table book to share her personal view of the flowers as they change throughout the year. This work, based upon twelve monthly visits, showcases at their peak, magnificent, rare flowers and extraordinary foliage gathered from around the world.

Throughout the year, each of the houses is in a continuous state of flux, as extraordinary specimens are put on display when they come into bloom or bear unusual fruit. The conservatory is known also for its signature blend of perfect horticultural techniques with world- class, creative plant combinations. Inserted skillfully between the showpiece plants are complimentary foliage to enhance and create a seamless display. The result is a year-round, fluid, horticultural journey through five diverse bioregions. Ms. Chapman has artfully captured it all with this publication.

This reviewer cannot emphasize enough the intense pleasure conveyed by each group of seasonal pages. The images are so powerful, that admiring more than a few at a time might be overwhelming. Like a fine brandy, the contents of this photographic essay should be sipped slowly - a little bit at a time. The quality of the illustrations is so great that a reader can feel the healing beauty of the plants simply by admiring their photographs.

Award-winning nature photographer Sara L. Chapman is also a graphic designer, photoblogger, and gardener. Like Monet, she gardens to have good photo subjects. This book, offered both in hardcover and paperback, is available from or may be purchased directly from the author at   



Designing Private Spaces in the Backyard; a book review 

Shady Retreats, 20 plans for colorful, private spaces in your backyard,  Barbara W. Ellis, Storey Publishing, 

“Let me show you my private get-away”, said the prospective client when she answered the door. Then, she led me into her back yard, overgrown with wild vegetation, and pointed to a clearing in its center, where slabs of antiquated patio stones paved the ground in the middle of the wild garden. There, she had placed an equally old, glass-topped, black, wrought iron table, with matching chairs. “This is where I eat my breakfast in the morning and sip martinis with friends in the late afternoon”, she explained. “I love the sound of the birds chirping and the rustling of the wild foliage when the wind blows”.

At very little cost, this homeowner created for herself a shady garden retreat, a secluded, private, destination. Whenever she visits that part of her property, she leaves behind her usual routine, enters a soothing oasis, and for the brief time that she spends there, readjusts the pace of her life. Here, she is at peace with herself, at one with nature, and ready to engage in any activity, relaxing or exciting, that brings her pleasure.

A shady retreat is in the range of possibility for most homeowners. All that is required is a bit of imagination and the guidance that this versatile publication supplies. With the help of the book’s author Barbara W. Ellis, the architectural plans of Julie Burns, and the exquisite painted garden illustrations of Gary Palmer, any part of one’s exterior home, no matter how small or large, can be transformed to serve as a retreat. Even a small porch or deck, will do.

To help the reader navigate the subject and select a retreat that best suits one’s property and budget, the author presents twenty different plans. Each is elaborated in detail over several pages, starting with an awesome, painted rendition of the retreat at its completion. These illustrations give the book a dual purpose: It is both a versatile garden publication and an art book.

The illustrations for each plan are enriched with architectural drawings, complete with numerical references that indicate where specific plants and garden furnishings should be placed. A recommendation for suitable plants follows, along with ideas to enhance the basic design. For example, in the first plan, the author explains how a small retreat can be transformed  to feel more interesting, deeper, and farther away, by winding a short path out of sight, behind shrubbery and trees.

Among the twenty potential areas around one’s home that the author identifies for the creation of shady retreats are:- woodland edges, the terrace, a gazebo, a deck in the woods, a pool house, arbor, pergola, pavilion, seating area, a clearing in the woods, and a tree perch.

The book rounds out with an appendix listing plants that are appropriate for these projects. Each is described according to its contribution to overall garden design. Where useful, a list of preferred cultivars is included, as well as a short note on the special uses of each plant; some make effective ground cover, while others show at their best when they are grouped in drifts.

Storey Publishing prides itself on supplying the public with practical information that encourages independence, in harmony with the environment. This book is a successful realization of that goal. It has been a great pleasure to take this journey into shady garden retreats with the author.

From Storey Press: Barbara W. Ellis is a freelance writer, editor, and lifelong gardener. She is the author of many gardening books, including The Veggie Gardener’s Answer Book, Deckscaping, Shady Retreats, and Covering Ground. She holds a B.S. in horticulture from the Ohio State University, Columbus, and a B.A. from Kenyon College. She has worked as managing editor at Rodale Press and as publications director for the American Horticultural Society and is affiliated with the Hardy Plant Society Mid-Atlantic Group, the Garden Writers Association, and the Perennial Plant Association. She lives and gardens in Kent County, Maryland, where her organically-managed garden is wildlife-friendly.

This book review also appears at



Is Your Garden a Cafeteria for Deer? - a book review for


50 Beautiful Deer- Resistant Plants, Ruth Rogers Clausen, photos: Alan L. Detrick, Timber Press,

Gardeners who live in deer country have a serious layer of complexity to work through when planning their landscapes: - Hungry deer will ultimately eat much of what they plant. Some are prepared to invest in fences that protect their plants from becoming Bambi brunch, while many prefer not to spend funds on such structures, or to invest in the necessary time to install them. As well, applying environmentally friendly products with deer-deterring odors can be both costly and labor-intensive because rain will wash away such products thus requiring repeated applications.

From time to time, many garden writers will publish articles about plants that deer avoid, however that information is usually insufficient. Knowing what deer will or will not eat, might ensure that a garden will not become a cafeteria, but that knowledge is incomplete when it does not address beauty and the elements of garden design.

It’s no secret that planning a beautiful deer-resistant garden is tedious work. Every time we select a plant or include our favorite perennial, we are obliged first to do research to determine if it is deer-candy. How exciting that now we have a list of beautiful, deer-resistant plants, conveniently tucked into a sumptuously illustrated handbook, [Mr. Detrick’s photographs are awesome]. As the subtitle suggests, this publication is about the prettiest annuals, perennials, bulbs, and shrubs. That list also includes herbs, ferns, and ornamental grasses. Think of all of the time liberated by not having to research our preferences before we plan our garden.

Some of the very wise suggestions that the author has also incorporated into this book are

-       the planting of natural barriers that are unpalatable to deer,  

-       how berms and terraces create a physically unwelcome-to-deer environment ,

-        cultural techniques that make otherwise tasty deer food unappetizing, 

-        a list of plants that deer love that must be excluded from the garden .

Since this is a book essentially about beauty, the author supplies design tips that enhance the appearance of the recommended plants. That is precisely the information we need to create attractive gardens with a restricted collection of perennials, shrubs and trees. This knowledge helps us to distinguish between the planting of a perfunctory landscape and the creation of a beautiful garden.

Again, because this is a book about beauty, it is worth mentioning that the graphic design for this publication is a work of art that reinforces the tactile and visual pleasures associated with handling the hard copy of a “real” book. Thanks, Timber Press. You’ve done it again.



The Only Book About Perennials You Will Ever Need; a book review for

Armitage’s Garden Perennials, second edition, Allan M. Armitage, Timber Press

Visiting a perennial nursery for the first time can be an overwhelming experience because choosing plants can be a challenging decision- making process, especially when there are so many to consider. Even seasoned gardeners report that they lose all sense of rationality when confronted by a sea of blooming nursery inventory. Most report taking home more plants than they can place and some admit to buying perennials that are unsuitable for their growing conditions, simply because the plants were so appealing. This book helps to avoid such errors, by allowing both new and seasoned North American gardeners to research prospective plants, in order to make wise decisions before travelling to the nursery.

In this updated edition of a best seller, the reader is introduced to no less than 136 reliable and satisfying perennials that the author has observed or grown himself in disparate climates from temperate Montreal, Canada to hot Florida, USA. This experience has allowed Mr. Armitage to offer zone-appropriate guidance to readers residing in a wide variety of climates. It is reassuring to absorb specific plant advice based on ones geographic location. Few garden writers make the effort to be that considerate of their readers.

While the publisher calls this book an encyclopedia, I am more inclined to consider it a visit with a beloved gardening mentor. Scanning the text is like enrolling in a private tutorial with a master teacher who is also a warm, approachable friend. Mr. Armitage treats the readers as welcome guests in his own garden, as he stops to talk anecdotally about each plant and readily explains why he likes or dislikes a specific variety or cultivar.

The invaluable selection of perennials covered by the book represents those that have an established record of growing successfully. Each plant has the potential to bring gardeners pleasure, depending on individual needs and preferences. It is helpful, too, that the author’s own photos of these perennials were shot in realistic, unstaged settings.

In addition to the concise yet comprehensive presentation of perennials, a chapter listing plants for specific characteristics, rounds out the book. These lists include aggressive plants, those suitable for consistently moist conditions, cut flowers, drought tolerance, fragrance, ground cover, foliage, fruit, crawlers, and evergreens.

Mr. Armitage is a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia where he teaches and conducts research on new garden plants. He is also an internationally respected consultant and lecturer, and the recipient of numerous awards from nursery trade groups and horticultural societies. If one is restricted to buying only one book about perennials, this is the one to get.