10 January 2009
2008 in Review, Part one, featuring books
2008 won't go down in my personal history as being the best year for gardening for any number of reasons. Health challenges were obviously a big factor, but overarching those were two more significant problems, at least in my part of Nova Scotia.
1. The Weather. Oh my. Normally, we expect to have a cold, wet, late spring; this year, that trend continued all through the summer, especially the wet part. August is normally the warmest and driest of months here, but we had copious amounts of rain, fog and drizzle all month, as we had in June and July. It didn't create great gardening conditions for getting stuff done, but it sure caused things to grow lush. Too lush. Including the weeds, some of which approached Brobdingnagian proportions in size and breadth.
2. The lack of interesting plants. Now, I didn't get around to all my regular nurseries this year, to be sure; never made it down to the south shore at all. But I was singularly unimpressed with the offerings at some places here in the Valley and up around the Truro area. To visit a couple of large and wellknown garden centres, you would have thought that petunias were the most important and beloved plant in the province, because there were hordes of them, usually in overpriced plastic hanging containers. The perennial and shrub offerings at some spots were abysmal, with the same ol' same ol' happening. And prices were jacked skyhigh at a few, again unmentioned, places. Suffice it to say that I won't name names, but neither will you find those places in my list of recommended garden centre links on the left column of this blog.
What caused this? I don't know. It might have been partly a precurser to economic meltdowns around North America, to changes in nursery supplying businesses, (a lot of garden centres source plants in plug size from huge growers in Quebec, Ontario and the US, of course). It might have been too MANY new plants, many of which seem similar to previous incarnations. Take heucheras, for example. I love them, for all they can be cantankerous in my soil, but really, how many incarnations of purple/silver, green/peach/red/gold etc leaf colour manipulations do we need? (That's a rhetorical question, because I don't know the answer to that either.) Same with hostas, and really, with daylilies. And many other plants.
But of course we gardeners are consumers and we do fall prey to the "Oooh! Shiny!" syndrome of being tempted by new! Improved! plant varieties. I do it regularly. Same with garden tools, books, magazines and other accoutrements. It's just human nature, apparently, to be consumers and to want to try new things.
Okay, enough analysis for today. One of the pleasures of my work is getting to examine, read and review many new gardening books each year. I don't think there were as many published this past year as other years; for a couple of years there were actually too MANY gardening books being released, and the market was glutted in them. But there are a few that I consider must-have books from last year.
Picking favourite books is sort of like picking a favourite child, or in my case a favourite cat (I only have one child so he's always my favourite), but I do have a shelf of books that I will keep even though I'm considering selling off a huge amount of my gardening library. Leading the list is Planthropology by Ken Druse (Potter, 57.50 hardcover.) For anyone who has ever wanted to know more about the plants in our gardens than merely how to grow them, this is an essential book. Druse does give planting recommendations, but he also shares ‘the secret stories of plants’: tidbits of botanical, cultural and historical information surrounding many popular as well as unusual species. If you add only one gardening book to your library this year, Planthropology should be that book. It's one of those fun books that you can dip into whenever you feel like it, and not feel compelled to read cover to cover all at once. Though you may well find yourself doing just that, of course.
It's hard to believe that it's already been almost three years since the great British gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd left us in late January of 2006. Lloyd’s property, Great Dixter, in England, is rightly world-renowned for its gardens, but Lloyd himself was both revered and adored for his irascible wit and innovative soul when it came to anything to do with plants. In his earlier volume, Colour for Adventurous Gardeners, he exhorted readers to learn the rules of colour—so that we can break them. With Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners, Lloyd calls on us to “do something outlandish, to splash out, and to be freer than ever.” The manuscript wasn’t complete when he died, so some of his gardening friends, including well-known writers Tom Cooper, Dan Hinkley and Andrew Lawson, worked on the chapters and added material. With photographs by the phenomenal garden photographer Jonathan Buckley, this team effort will perhaps inspire you to splash out in new gardening directions too.
One of my most beloved new books of the last year is actually perfect for all of us who look towards the autumn with a mixture of joy and dread. Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohen have collaborated on previous volumes that are excellent references, but with Fallscaping, they’ve hit a complete home run. Autumn can be a gorgeous time of year and is actually a wonderful time for gardening. There are many different plants that become splendid in autumn, whether because they are late flowering or burst into attractive foliage displays. Ondra and Cohen are seasoned garden designers and also skillful writers who are able to deliver the information in an entertaining and encouraging manner. They provide dozens of different techniques, from how to divide perennials in the fall to preparing pots for winter to saving seeds. Included in the book are nearly a dozen wonderful designs that come into their own with autumn, and of course a handy compendium of best-loved plants for fall colour. Nan, of course, is also one of my favourite garden bloggers for her work from her own website as well as Gardening Gone Wild, so it really pleased me to be able to review and promote this book at every chance I had.
Those of us who are besotted with trees and shrubs may well also want to try our hands at growing our own from seeds. The gardener who grows trees from seeds is the most optimistic and forward-thinking of gardeners, because they’re beginning a process that will not come to fruition within weeks or months, but rather years. Henry Kock’s Growing Trees from Seed (Firefly, 45.00, with help from Paul Aird, John Ambrose and Gerald Waldron) is a beautiful volume and decidedly useful as a growing guide. But it also earns pride of place in my library simply as an excellent reference book about trees, shrubs and woody vines. Koch was a horticulturist with the University of Guelph for many years before his untimely death from brain cancer in 2005. His partner Anne Hansen asked three of his friends to complete his life’s work, and this book also serves as a testament to that work.
Rounding out my offerings for today is a book published here in Nova Scotia. Did you know that you can eat the young shoots of day lilies (Hemerocallis fulva)? Or that goldthread (Coptis trifolia) was traditionally used to treat mouth sores, which explains why one of its common names is cankerroot? Or that rosehips are one of the best natural sources of vitamin C?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you’re probably not alone. And if you also answered, “How interesting!” then you really ought to add Marilyn Walker’s wonderful new book, Wild Plants of Eastern Canada, to your gardening and botany library.
Walker is an ethnobotanist at Mt. Allison University, and has been studying the interaction between plants and culture for decades. “Plants and their wisdom…have been my greatest teachers,” she says, having enjoyed gardens as diverse as Kew Gardens in England near her childhood home and the wilds of the Northwest Territories where she worked for a number of years.
Not only is this an entertaining and informative read, it’s a beautiful one. Along with a host of black and white photographs and some line drawings, it’s adorned with gorgeous leaf-prints done by the author. In leaf-printing actual leaves of plants are coated with paint or pigment and then pressed onto fabric or paper. The art of leaf-printing is an old one that goes back some eight centuries, and Walker chose this as a method for illustrating her book because of the detail shown by the prints.