One of the very good things about this time of year is that we get to catch up on our reading, or at least we make a good attempt to. We also are thinking about what to get for the gardeners in our lives. As any gardener can tell you, most of us love to read about gardening, sigh over photos of gardens and plants; and there's a great crop of recently published books for the plant aficionado in your life. Here are some of my favourites from the past year.
I swear that Allan Armitage could make me enthusiastic about goutweed, he’s such a terrific and encouraging plantsman. His latest offering, Armitage’s Vines and Climbers, is a wonderful book for those who want to embrace the vertical dimension of gardening. Climbing and vining plants are ideal for any garden or gardener, with the trick being to select the right plant for your location. This is the third in a series Armitage has written (previous volumes are on perennials and native plants) and anything he writes is definitely worth having in your garden library.
Those of us who love plants are often as delighted by observing them in their native habitats as we are growing them in our homes or gardens. Newfoundland botanist and writer Todd Boland has put together a beautiful book in Wildflowers of Fogo Island and Change Islands, a book that can serve as a reference for much of Atlantic Canada. Boland is an excellent photographer as well as an entertaining, knowledgeable writer, and his book is much welcomed by those with interest in native flora.
Another writer from Newfoundland brings us the useful and wonderful field guide Edible Plants of Atlantic Canada. Peter J. Scott highlights more than sixty edible plant species found in woods, meadows, and other wildernesses throughout our region. The book is divided into generalized habitats (seaside, disturbed areas, peatlands, forest floor) to help novice collectors know what plants to look for according to the local ecology. Each plant entry includes one or two good photos of the species as well as notes about the edible portions, and there’s a modest recipe section included too. The book is bound in a durable, water-resistant cover, making it ideal to slip into a pack when going on an afternoon’s nature walk.
Lest someone think I’m biased against growing food plants, Incredible Edibles is a great book for the city-dweller with an itching to grow some fresh foods. Sonia Day, a well-known Canadian gardening writer and all around garden enthusiast, follows up on her highly entertaining Middle Aged Spread with this concise, easy-to-follow handbook of growing advice for “43 fun things to grow in the city.” From asparagus peas to zucchini, Day provides recommendations on how to grow vegetables, herbs, and small fruits, whether in containers or in small urban plots, indoors or out. Ideal for the beginner gardener with limited space and time, and also a great way to introduce children to the joys of growing food, the book also includes recipes for using that home-grown produce.
For sheer, soul-drenching colour and escapism, Exotic Gardens of the Eastern Caribbean isn’t quite as good as a trip down south, but it’s a nice alternative. The authors have visited many gardens on selected Caribbean islands—St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Barbados and Grenada—and have profiled a gorgeous range of plantings, from magnificent private residences with garden creations by landscape architects to lush public gardens. Written in both French and English, this coffee-table delight brims with dazzling photographs of the gardens but also includes intriguing tidbits about the inhabitants, gardeners or otherwise, that populate these tranquil island paradises. If you’ve ever visited one of these islands, this is a wonderful keepsake—if you’ve never been, it’s a temptation to go.
One of the most popular types of gardening in recent years has been gardening with succulents, whether hardy varieties for outside gardens or more tender species used in container plantings. Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens is a follow-up to her well-received Designing with Succulents, and is useful for gardeners of all experience levels. I have several dish gardens of succulents in my office, and pots of succulents brightening other rooms, so reading this new volume merely further whetted my appetite for the unusual, intriguing world of succulent plants. There’s no weeding to do with containerized plants, and much less work than tending an outdoor garden, so what’s not to like? It leaves us with more time to spend reading more books about plants.
Anyone who is a plant enthusiast knows that they don’t just sit there and grow—there are complicated chemical processes going on behind flowers and foliage. Some plants have truly odd characteristics, and these are highlighted in the delightfully named Bizarre Botanicals. You’ll find no humdrum hostas or proper petunias within these pages—here are carnivorous plants that “catch” insects for food, plants with spores that burst into flame, plants that smell like decomposing flesh so as to lure in pollinators. Some are stunningly beautiful, others very strange in appearance, but all are fascinating. The authors, both botanists and horticulturists, profile more than 75 unique plants, all of which can be grown as houseplants under the right conditions.
For something a little more practical for most of us, check out Bloom’s Best Perennials and Grasses. Adrian Bloom is a plantsman extraordinaire who has both the connoisseur’s eye and the ability to encourage any gardener of any expertise level. He profiles nearly 400 perennials and ornamental grasses, showing how they can be used in the landscape, and reveals his top twelve plants, most recommended for great performance in the widest range of gardening conditions.
My personal “across-the-pond” horticultural hero is the late Christopher Lloyd, an inspiration to countless gardeners around the world. In The View from Great Dixter, dozens of Lloyd’s friends, students, and colleagues, including his gardener Fergus Garrett, recount anecdotes from lessons learned during their time visiting or working at Lloyd’s family estate of Great Dixter, in southest England. They paint a loving tribute of a gardener, and a garden, the likes of which we will not soon see again. Christo, as his friends called him, had an acerbic and quick wit, and suggested a most excellent way of dealing with forgotten plant names when visiting another’s garden. “Kick it gently with your foot, and then casually ask “What are you calling this nowadays?”
Generally I flinch away from books in the “For Dummies” or “Complete Idiot’s” series, but I really like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Year-Round Gardening. The authors don’t presume their readers are idiots, but rather fellow gardeners who just need a little extra in the way of advice and suggestions on how to engage in their favourite avocation all year long. Maybe we can’t grow vegetables outside in January in Nova Scotia, but there are certainly garden-related activities for the entire year.
I’m quite clear that I am unlikely to ever visit the Chelsea Flower Show, the epitome of garden shows held in London, England every year since 1912. But with Best Garden Design by Chris Young, any gardener can receive practical inspiration on bringing a fresh, exciting look to one’s own garden. Young presents tips from the expert designers who showcase at Chelsea, as well as case studies on particular designs showing why they work and how to achieve something similar. Nova Scotian gardeners will have to adapt somewhat for plant hardiness, but there are enough delightful variations in design, from post-modern to classical, that any reader should take away something from this book.
You don’t have to be an entomologist to enjoy the wonderfully readable Bees, Wasps and Ants. In fact, the author stresses that his lively volume is not a field guide for identifying these insects, of which there are an estimated mere 150,000 or so species. What he does with this volume is bring us into the world of these important insects, which are variously “cows, police, wolves, pollinators and recyclers.” Along the way, he focuses on the importance that bees, wasps and ants have for gardeners, and shows us how to make better gardeners by encouraging and embracing biodiversity rather than running for the insecticide the first time an ant marches past us on the walkway.
I'm told that I need to start promoting my own forthcoming book a little bit. So: Plants for Atlantic Gardens will be out in late February or early March of 2011. It's not in time for Christmas, but it will be in time for spring planning and pre-planting. There we go. I've done my deed for the time being. You can't get this one now, but you can get the rest of these, and any of them would be welcomed by the gardener in your life--or as a treat to yourself. Happy Christmas reading, everyone.