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Entries in gardening book reviews (34)


About Nature and Michael Pollan's Grandfather

A long time ago, during weekends at the beach, I had the luxury of reading the entire Sunday edition of the New York Times. The Adirondack Park location, where I vacationed, was run by the State of New York which supplied three qualified life guards to survey the swimmers. Since the beach was relatively small, I knew that my children would be carefully watched and that I could take my eyes off them to read and relax.

The fascinating thing about committing oneself to a hefty Sunday paper is that one usually ends up learning about topics that are, otherwise, irrelevant. From time to time, I would discover articles that held no interest for me, yet I found my eyes riveted to their pages simply because they were so well written. When finished, I would return to the opening paragraph to check out the name of the author. Time after time, the name Michael Pollan appeared. Eventually, I learned that anything this journalist wrote deserved to be read - he was that good.

When I first began to read TNYT, it was a balanced, almost scholarly newspaper that dealt with subjects in an even handed manner; it displayed intellectual integrity. With changing times, its high standards slipped to a point where I no longer enjoyed it. In addition, the focus of its magazine articles, which once had a smattering of international appeal, had become too local. Eventually, there was nothing in that paper to motivate me to buy it. Thus began my hiatus from reading articles by my now favorite journalist.

One weekend in June, in the early 90’s, I received as a Father’s Day gift, a copy of Mr Pollan’s first published book, Second Nature. My children believed that I would enjoy it because it was about gardening. Little did they know how excited I was to re connect with a writer whom I admired.  By now, Mr. Pollan had moved on from the New York Times and was about to begin a career that would not only bring him to national prominence but would also reward him with many professional accolades.

The gift that I had received was a collection of essays on gardening, many of which had originally appeared as magazine articles. Even though the flow of the book was a bit disjointed, and the author’s knowledge about gardening, at that time, was less than authoritative, I was drawn into the text by Mr. Pollan’s writing, his humor and the manner in which he personalized his philosophical yet infectious relationship with nature. In many circles, this book became a must read.

The author begins with the role played by his grandfather in inspiring the young grandson to take an interest in gardening. Eventually it moves on to describe how, as an adult, Mr. Pollan reconnected with nature after he moved his family to the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut.

The grandfather had been a successful New York businessman, who enjoyed gardening and gentleman farming on weekends. Now the stereotype of “successful New York businessman “is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of “weekend gardener” because each conjures up cultural images that are contradictory. Juxtaposed against each other, they created reader fascination. Mr Pollan had unintentionally stumbled upon an effective literary device which contributed to making the narrative, of quality time spent with a grandfather, all the more interesting.

During the years that followed, I noticed how the author adopted as his themes, various layers of nature - related topics. Subsequent books, all best sellers include,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).Today, Mr. Pollan is Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, and lectures widely on food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment. That is quite a feat for someone whose background is English literature and not medicine or science.

Nevertheless, I am going to always admire Mr. Pollan, not for the essence of his first book or the popularity of the later ones, but for the manner in which he described his relationship with his grandfather. In Second Nature, the discerning reader will notice, stealthily woven into the essay, an invisible thread inferring how much this author loved and admired his grandfather. He never states that out rightly. Yet, it is imbued in every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph that he wrote. I found the inferred affection, of grandson for grandfather, to be so touching that this aspect alone made reading the book a memorable experience.



Great Gardens in Small Places: Book Review for 

Great Gardens in Small Spaces by Melba Levick and Karen Dardick, Rizzoli International Publications,

Finally, we have a publication about small gardens that focuses on flowers, colors, and texture. Most of the other literature for this specialty pays attention to hardscapes such as patios, pergolas, pools, decks and focal points. Not this book. Here the emphasis is placed on beautiful tiny oases where plants dominate. This book will take readers on a photographic journey that will inspire them to turn any small plot into a jewel-like work of art.

The essence of designing a small garden, so that it might be attractive and inviting, is so remarkably concise that the author has been able to summarize everything a reader needs to know in only 4 pages of text. The balance of 288 pages is filled with examples of what readers can accomplish by adapting some of the illustrated ideas. Melba Levick is the real star of this publication as the value of the book for gardeners rests on her images. The works of this photographer have been exhibited, published, and licensed internationally for over 20 years. Amazon alone currently sells 28 out of the 45 photographic books to her credit, mostly about architecture, décor, travel, and gardens. The high caliber of images in this publication goes beyond horticultural photography. Each beautiful picture is a pedagogical tool that demonstrates a design technique from an existing, successful, small garden.

Gardeners who do not enjoy reading text will be delighted to see how the theme of this publication plays itself out in images. Over 40 small gardens have been photographed to illustrate the book’s message. While all are located in California, most are adaptable to the North East. The plant varieties and colors used in landscaping are similar to what will grow in colder climates. Included, also, are images of several desert and drought tolerant gardens, sculptural in their brilliant execution, that are meant for home owners located in the South West.

The overall message of the book is that clever ideas contribute to creating beautiful, lush, small gardens. These include: - contrasting colors and contrasting textures, flower pots and urns, raised beds and their strategic location, the use of oversize and bold looking plants, gravel and winding paths, cleverly placed benches, hanging baskets, clouds of ground cover, brimming over paving stones, climbers, terraced beds, gardens divided into rooms, ponds, objects d’arts, arbors, mixing tall and short plants, and the bold use of color to create flamboyant focal points. All of these are details necessary to trick the eye into thinking that a garden is larger than it really is and for creating a comfortable and inviting atmosphere that dispels any feeling of confinement.

The exquisite color photos of 44 gardens also offer readers many choices of style: - romantic, Japanese, hillside, wooded, shade, tropical, simple palette, colorful palette, walled, outdoor rooms, cottage style, Mediterranean, intimate, fragrant, simple, and intriguing. The book offers many inspiring lessons based on the efficient use of space, both above and at ground level, using garden themes and visual chicanery. This publication will become part of my permanent gardening library. Designing small urban gardens used to be a challenging task until I stumbled upon this delightful and inspiring guide.



It was Fear That Made Me Do It.

Last spring, I reviewed a book that was well written and effectively dealt with its subject matter. Nevertheless, the topic upset me. No, it terrified me:- it offered suggestions how the maturing gardener should modify the landscape and adapt one’s mindset to the prospects of old age. I am at a point in life where arthritis and reduced energy levels are beginning to compromise my abilities to garden without some assistance. Every chore now takes longer to accomplish than it did the year before. This new reality is making me very unhappy and frustrated. That one day I might not be able to garden at all, is a terrible thought. It was that fear that influenced my original evaluation of the publication, when I posted the review to Amazon, in May 2010. Instead of giving the book the high ranking that the tone of my review suggested, I gave it only 3 stars.

The book is titled Gardening for a Lifetime; How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older, by Sydney Eddison..

Since posting that review, three prospective book purchasers, who came across my review at the Amazon site, contacted me to express their puzzlement. The high praise that I gave the book was out of sync with my Amazon star-ranking of it and they wanted to know why.

Is it not possible to acknowledge that a book is well written and still only moderately recommend it, because of the off-putting nature of the subject matter?  In retrospect, I think not. If a book is well written it should be praised for its excellence, regardless of the reviewer’s bias against its message or subject matter.

Should the ranking of any book take into consideration how it might be received by any unintended reader? No, it was a mistake to think so. The book was written for a very specific audience. It has no attraction for the unintended reader who might not care, or even be aware, that it exists.

Perhaps I was being much too philosophical when I ranked the book. Perhaps I should have focused only on the target audience for whom it was originally intended. Clearly, three potential readers believed that my ranking decision was wrong. Since I understood that a philosophical explanation of my action would never be as effective as the strength of their reasonable queries, I revisited my review at Amazon and raised the rank of the book from 3 to the 4 stars that it deserved. This entire experience has taught me to never insinuate personal and very private concerns into a book review. Such matters are best dealt with in a blog.



The Ultimate Flower Gardener's Top Ten Lists: Book Review for

The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Top Ten Lists by Kerry Ann Mendez, Lone Oak Press,

The exponential growth of flower gardening that has taken place during the last 20 years has brought a rather impatient and time constrained gardener into our midst. Several manuals that target this harried hobbyist have been welcomed and reviewed here; this is another publication in that genre.

Those who cannot devote the time necessary to experience horticulture as a journey of discovery, and who want a quick fix, will appreciate the simplicity and clarity that this author brings to gardening - a subject usually over layered with detailed information and laborious advice. The busy novice gardener needs to know that this is a book worth reading. The author set out to prepare an easy-as-pie guide for those who want to instantly create beautiful, low maintenance, perennial flower gardens in colder climates. She has succeeded beyond all expectations.

Kerry Ann Mendez is a creative horticultural educator who has taken a fresh approach to writing a gardening book. The how-to has been broken down into 70 essential topics, each with its own dedicated list of top ten ideas to guide the gardener to success. Many of the topics are particular to specific gardening challenges, so that readers may hone in only on those issues that are relevant to their own gardening environment. Novice gardeners, and those that are new to colder climates, do not need to consult all 70 topics to be successfull; but that should not stop them from studying all of the essentials because the book is an enjoyable read.

The 70 topics designated by the author are divided among 9 overarching themes that include:-

  • perennials
  • challenging sites
  • flowering shrubs
  • foliage
  • garden design
  • garden care
  • pest control
  • money saving tips
  • and more

For example, Chapter Two, titled Top Ten Perennial Lists, alone contains 21 lists that deal with issues such as spring blooming plants for shade, short lived plants, poisonous, or blue-tiful perennials. Another chapter offers recommendations for plants that grow best in sun and those that are best for wet soil, while an entire chapter, devoted to foliage, is further broken down into nine lists that range from grasses to tri-color foliage. Suggestions, again in the form of lists, are offered for pruning, weeding, tool selection, soil testing, and propagation. The section on design deals with plant combinations, colors, containers, and winter landscapes. The chapter on pest control includes lists of plants that are resistant to deer, rabbits, and voles and tips on how to control slugs. The author compiled lists that touch upon every conceivable aspect of gardening needed to successfully grow perennials in cold climates. Concerned prospective gardeners will be relieved to learn that such a goal is realistic and easily achievable.

The lists in this book are the culmination of the author’s 25 years of work creating gardens in USDA zones 3, 4 and 5. These cold climates are defined by a very short blooming season, a fact of life that makes the gardener rather impatient and easily frustrated, especially when thing go wrong. Heavy snow can disfigure flowering shrubs, plants dangerously break dormancy during mid winter thaws, and desirable perennials, that are known to bloom in warmer climates, do not perform well here. The author guides the reader in overcoming all of these obstacles.  By following her guidelines, a first-time cold climate gardener will be able to create attractive and thriving flower beds in the first season of gardening.

Novices are sometimes overwhelmed by the wealth of horticultural information that they think they need in order to get started. Not anymore! This book encapsulates all of that knowledge, summarizes the essentials and removes the stress of the unknown. Owning this book is the next best thing to hiring a garden coach.



Energy-Wise landscape Design: Book Review for

Energy-Wise Landscape Design by Sue Reed, New Society Publishers

Don’t let the title of this book put you off. This may sound like a technical or an academic publication, but it is not. It reads like a friendly user’s manual. It explains how some landscaping design ideas help to conserve energy. With clear and clever illustrations by Kate Dana, and with simple step-by-step suggestions, the author coaches us into creating a sustainable, energy-efficient property. Primarily, the book explains how to help cool a house in summer and warm it in winter, using sun, wind, trees and plants. In addition, the goal of the book is to help property owners use less energy in building, landscaping and maintaining homes and gardens. A long term objective is to reduce dependence on foreign energy and to improve the environment.

The book is divided into 7 sections: In sections 1 and 2 suggestions are offered on how to arrange the landscape in order to make houses more comfortable in summer and winter. Included are the role that tree placement plays in providing shade in summer, the strategy for capturing cooling breezes, and reducing ground heat that surrounds a home. The winter section explains how to maximize the sun’s heat, plant windbreaks and buffers, and position the home to deflect wind.

Sections 3 and 4 provide design ideas for saving energy in the landscape. These include the use of regionally native plants that harmonize with local soil conditions and the re evaluating of the lawn in order to conserve water and operating energy for mowers. This section also offers help in designing properties that sparingly use electricity for outdoor lighting and watering systems. Further topics discussed here are the using of slopes to their ecological advantage, the efficient use of landscaping materials, optimal locations for homes in relation to sun and wind, and designing a car park area constructed with the least amounts of energy and natural resources.

Section 5 advises the reader how to develop and care for a landscape while conserving energy. Topics include the role of top soil, amendments, plants, mulch, wildflowers, planting techniques, low maintenance lawns, and water conservation.

Section 6 instructs the small property homeowner how to generate energy from wind, sunlight and flowing water.  

Section 7 offers a discussion about energy efficient outdoor lighting.

The book is rounded out with a helpful appendix that, among other things, instructs on how to determine a pitch of a slope or a tree shadow’s size and direction. This is followed by an invaluable appendix listing the size of the the shade canopy of trees.

Sue Reed is a landscape architect and educator. Her focus is environmentally sound, energy efficient and sustainable landscape design and she has worked in this field for over 25 years. With a style of writing that is easy to absorb, she has created a valuable manual that readers will enjoy exploring. The ideas and suggestions found in this book are described in such simple detail that anyone will be able to adapt them to a variety of different landscape projects. Sue Reed is a gifted writer with a remarkable ability to tackle complex, technical information, distill it down to its essence, and explain it in everyday language. This reviewer hopes she will write more.