In the past, I’ve spent this last column of the gardening year exhorting gardeners to stay out in the patches, beds and fields and keep working, at least until the first snowflake flies. This year, let’s try something different.
I’m going to send you into the long winter’s nap with a reading list—some homework, if you will—that not only should keep you busy, but should boost your gardening IQ when it’s time to get back out there to create that new and improved spring 2012 garden.
Let’s start with the free stuff first. There’s the Internet, of course, with its bounty on every gardening subject known to mankind. And that’s the trouble. Wading through the vast collection of gardening topics in cyberspace, clicking and clacking as you seek out a nugget of information here, a tidbit of knowledge there, is opium for some folks, but not for me. I use the Internet to check the spelling of a particularly exotic plant, or I may look up the nutrient/sunlight needs of something, but that’s about it. Still, for the geeks with the time and inclination to stare for hours at a computer screen, plenty of gardening information is out there—some of it of suspect quality—and it’s free to anyone with a computer.
Your local library is often an overlooked source of gardening titles. Many garden book buyers do what I do—pass along their books to others after they have finished reading by donating them to the library. And library book sales are also good places to get expensive garden books at bargain-basement prices.
Another excellent resource on gardening, available in every county in Kentucky, is your local extension office. If you have a horticulture agent on staff, you have a human source of gardening information. But even if you don’t, every extension office is filled with free pamphlets on growing everything from trees and shrubs to vegetables and flowers. One of the most useful publications is the Kentucky Vegetable Growers Guide, which has not only a good deal of cultural information, but also the latest recommended varieties from the University of Kentucky. Remember, these varieties are recommended because they have performed well in gardens across the state. Take these suggestions and you cut through the seed catalog hype.
As I mentioned above, I get rid of the vast majority of garden books I acquire, but I do like to keep a shelf full of books that I return to frequently for reference. Here are a few of my favorite reference books with the publisher listed in parentheses:
Southern Living Garden Problem Solver (Oxmoor House) and The Ortho Home Gardener’s Problem Solver (Ortho Books)—When I find an insect I don’t recognize doing harm to my plants, a disease I can’t identify or just a plant stuck in the doldrums, I turn to one of these two books. Both books wisely discuss good gardening cultural practices that cure most problems before they get started. Then they have pictures and information on insects, diseases and other bad stuff that make the problems easy to spot and clear up. If they have a fault, it is that both books are maybe a little too quick to recommend an insecticidal or fungicidal cure for the problem. (Ortho is in the business of selling chemicals, after all, though the company does have a line of organic products.)
For just a general plant reference book, I recommend The Southern Living Garden Book (Oxmoor House). Most of the book contains plant illustrations rather than color photos, which holds the price down, though the first 100 pages or so do have some gorgeous color shots. The best part of the book is that it lists plants suitable for growing in the South that fit certain niches. For example, there is a list of plants that handle drought, plants with showy flowers, plants that attract birds, etc.
Another book for lists is just that: a book of lists. The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists (Taylor Publishing) is not a particularly pretty book—all of the plants are illustrated in black and white—but it offers plant choices for nearly every growing condition. For example, “perennials that bloom in winter,” “shrubs that bloom in shade,” “roses for cut flowers,” “trees with ornamental berries” and “annuals that spill over the edge.” Of the several hundred garden books I own, I find myself coming back to this one again and again.
One last excellent reference is by the single most knowledgeable man in the country on trees and shrubs and that is Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs by professor Michael Dirr (Timber Press). This book shows the leaves, flowers, growing form and sometimes interesting bark patterns of hundreds of the best trees and shrubs available for purchase. Before you spend big bucks buying a tree this fall, buy this book—and know what you’re getting.
While broad reference books are useful, I also enjoy reading the occasional books that treat a particular species or style of gardening in depth. There are hundreds of these on the market; let me suggest a few:
Bamboo for Gardens (Timber Press) will inspire you to grow this often overlooked grass. Just read carefully the author’s warning that some bamboo can be invasive to the point of being scary and must be contained vigorously. Beautiful pictures.
The Butterfly Garden (Villard Books) is more about butterflies than gardens, but the pictures will make you want to grow the plants that attract those flying jewels.
Right Rose, Right Place (Storey Publishing) pictures and describes 359 roses that fill the bill for beds, borders, hedges, screens, trellises and containers. The author shows that the rose doesn’t have to be the garden’s “problem child.”
Lilacs, The Genus Syringa (Timber Press) will have you planting dozens of varieties of lilacs next spring just to get a sampling of the gorgeous flowers shown in the pages of the book. It includes heavenly cultural information from expert Fr. John Fiala, but read between the lines to understand that lilacs aren’t always the easiest of shrubs to grow.
Classic Bulbs: Hidden Treasures for the Modern Garden (Villard Books) is a guide to collecting, growing and landscaping with heirloom garden bulbs. The word “bulb” is used loosely—many of the plants grow from rhizomes, for example—but the pictures are inspiring. Anyone wanting to create an “old house” garden should check out this book.
Finally, I’ll recommend one book not so much for its information as for its abundant good writing and humor. Read Passalong Plants (The University of North Carolina Press) by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender. Passalong plants are those plants handed down from generation to generation. Rushing and Bender tell the stories of the plants and, occasionally, of the gardeners who pass them down. Enjoy the humor in chapters that include “Party around the moon vine” and “Don’t disturb the naked ladies.” And get inspired for spring!
Readers can reach Walt Reichert at email@example.com