4/22/18: Best Friends

Spring, in spite of what you may see from your kitchen window, is almost in the door. Just a little more patience...Meanwhile, here are a couple of gardening books you might want to check out.  
I love to reference a book that dispenses with blather, lyrical descriptions, and poorly organized, useless information, but instead, goes straight to the point.  Rodale's Encyclopedia Of Perennials is a book every aspiring gardener needs. It’s packed with essential information that can save you money, time and misery, because it addresses what’s important for building a garden that’s easy to manage and lovely.  
Let's look at it more closely. 

First, note the layout. The book and its print are large; pages are colored differently depending on topic, and photos and drawings are clear. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, this presentation definitely earns a 10 from me. 

For those truly impatient gardeners, skip immediately to Part 3- ‘Perennial Encyclopedia.’ Each photographed plant is allowed a brief space, often less than a page, to show it, describe its size, how to grow it, as well as how to fit it into your particular landscape. Its Latin name is pronounced (i.e.Clematis- KLEM-uh-tis), as well as its common name(s). Sometimes no common names exist, so it's important to know the Latin names, or at least be familiar with them, as lots of plants have the same common names, and it can be confusing for you AND the nursery staff, as they try to locate what you want. For years I hauled this book everywhere I went, showing the photo to garden staff. As I became more sophisticated I learned early to ask for its Latin name. After a lengthy learning period I mostly knew what I was talking about. 

Everything in the ‘encyclopedia’ is in alphabetical order, BUT- filed under the Latin name first. Don't despair; simply go to the index in the back of the book and look up the common name. Eventually you’ll pick up the Latin lingo.  

Note the zone; the very first listed plant, Acanthus, lives successfully in zones 7-10.  This is important.  We, in Northern Michigan, live in zones 4-5, which is much colder, so if you grow this plant, be prepared for it to die as winter approaches, unless you are prepared to dig it up and bring it inside for seven months. Some gardeners love it enough to buy it anyway, and enjoy its beauty for the 4 months or so that the weather is decent. Note its tendency to spread... not relevant here... but this sort of information is vital. Once an invasive plant is introduced to your garden you’ll have it forever. Read EVERY word of Rodale’s description carefully.  A huge amount of information is crammed into a small space, so it's easy to miss tipoff trigger words, like ‘enthusiastic’ grower, ‘aggressive’ in too much sun, etc. 

Speaking of placement- It's tempting to put the plant you’ve purchased in too much sun/shade, or dry/wet ground, hoping it will adapt. After all, you have that space, and you love the color: surely you can make it work.   
But no.   
Plants can't be persuaded. Do your homework.  If it wants poor soil, dry conditions and full sun (as plants like California poppies and Artemisia do) and you try to sneak it into rich, moist soil in part sun, it will flop, refuse to bloom. It’ll sag; the roots will rot and then, the poor thing will sigh and die.  
Bang! There goes twelve bucks.  

Another thing to note- the book lists plants as being happy in sun or part sun. In my experience the first choice is the preferred one. Learn what is meant by 'part-sun.' How is that different from part-shade?  Sun times are important.  Take the time to really study how long your relevant area actually HAS full sun (7-8 hours is on the lesser edge of ‘full’ sun. Think 8-9 hours.). The more information you have, the higher your success rate will be. 

Lets go back to Part 1-‘Designing the Perennial Garden.’   
Now, some people may consider this next suggestion as a desecration, but I get out my pen, a yellow highlighter, and a pencil, and I underline, make margin-notes, circle relevant data, and generally USE the book.  The pencil is for personal notes, ideas, or comments. My entire book is crammed with scribble. For example, if a plant doesn't work for me, I’ll write a brief note in the margin describing why I think it failed. If I think the information provided is nonsense, I say so.)    

In Part 1 there are pictures of the same garden in the various seasons, to show how garden plants evolve.  
Gardens best suited for various house styles are intelligently discussed.  
And there are wonderful charts listing plants for shady and sunny areas, with fine drawings, and even tips about what deer hate. (Deer are a problem in Northern Michigan; the suggestions offered here are worth the price of the book.)  

Bulbs, herbs, color, foliage, and a wonderful list of plants for the 4-season garden are offered. I offer an caution: squirrels love to snip off the heads of tulips, just for fun. If you have a big rodent population, your lovely spring tulips might be lost to this behavior. I finally gave them up, as squirrels took great pleasure in killing them for no reason. 

Part 2 deals with ‘Growing Perennials.’  Plants that do well in each area of the country are listed and discussed. This is valuable for those who migrate to Florida, or Arizona in winter, where conditions are radically different from northern Michigan.  Take Rodale with you, and your garden there will be lovely. 

I've read Chapter 10 so often the pages are falling out. It offers a quick reference to the 161 plants listed in the encyclopedia section, (in part 3), with each column giving concise information as to culture, propagation and problems. You’ll love this convenience. 


There is a section on how to choose quality tools that last a lifetime. One paragraph began with this intriguing statement: 

‘You can have a wonderful perennial garden with only three tools; a trowel, a garden fork, and a bucket.’ 

This might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s generally on the mark. I would have added ‘with only three WELL MADE tools.’ With information about handles, sockets, blades, metals, size and shape, I bought wisely, looking for tools that fit me, a small woman (it hadn't occurred to me that this would be important), and today, having used them hard for nearly thirty years, my selections are still in excellent shape. And so am I.   
Diseases, insect problems and their solutions are set out in columns, so that at a glance you have important information about control and eradication.     

Rodale, now shredded and dirty, but still cherished, lived on the porch steps for ten years as I slowly built Sunnybank’s secret garden. I made far fewer mistakes because I referenced it constantly. It’s the single most influential book in my collection. 

I found another book that helped shape what I have today. The Romantic Garden, a paperback book by Graham Rose, helped solidify what I’d envisioned. The second most read book I own, it’s peppered with scribble and highlighting.  Mr. Rose offers a stunning number of suggestions that have greatly influenced my designs, but he’s also made a few statements I’ve dismissed as rubbish.  For example, he touts the usefulness of laying black plastic sheeting for weed control, a practice I find appalling, as it eventually comes back to haunt the installer. Further on he shows a photo of a 'romantic' bridge made of collected stones and boulders that is simply awful.  My vision blurred, my toes curled and I found the whole thing ugly, totally UNinviting, unnervingly narrow and incredibly BUSY. It was ‘bouldered’ to death. I imagined my feet walking on that path and bridge....ugh.  
Clutter by any other name is still Clutter.    

In another place he says, ‘Paving, when used in the garden, mustn't bear any resemblance to paving in the streets.’ 
Rubbish.  My street boasts a 150-year-old reclaimed paving brick, and so does my garden. I salvaged 1000 paving bricks from The Old Iron Works rubbish heap, cleaned them up, and now there is a lovely marriage between the front and back of my home.    

The point of all this is to remind you not to accept everything as 'gospel', simply because it's in an otherwise stellar book.  Keep what seems sensible and toss what is not. 

I own many books on gardening, but these two have truly been my 'best friends.' I've trolled the bookstore's gardening section recently and discovered that the Rodale text has been updated. The cover is different, but the information inside is still cogent. It's now available in a soft cover edition, as well. 

Mr. Rose's book is harder to find, and may be out of print.  If you are contemplating the creation of a romantic English garden though, hunt it down.   
It's worth the search. 

One more thing: I went to the Commons Farmers Market today, Saturday, and found the booth where the children’s charming greeting card drawings are sold. I wrote about them last week. Oh- and their dad proffered a little card that says: Old Hundredth Farm, Tim and Monica Scott, Kingsley, Mi.49649. Their email address is:  


I bought 24 more, including some new presentations. Their dad said they’ll be at the Commons one more Saturday, but after that, they’ll move to the downtown Farmers Market for the summer.  

Right now they do market sales only. 

I hope you’ll look them up! 


Visit www.deeblair.com for recent columns, garden pictures and music.

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