Category Archives: review

These gardening books might be for you!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received some gardening books in the mail to review.  Despite the fact that I no longer write for the city paper, the kind folks at Thomas Allen & Son and Firefly Books still send me titles that might be of interest to gardeners in my neck of the woods.

I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to receive them.  But I’ll be honest about what I think.”  As if they would then say, “Oh, no, I’m sorry then.  We’ll take you off our list.”  So damn the torpedoes — let’s take a look.

The first, called “the less is more garden: BIG IDEAS FOR DESIGNING YOUR SMALL YARD” (adept use of typography there) by susan morrison, is published by Timber Press (2018) and available in Canada through Thomas Allen & Son ($29.95 US).

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This book follows on the heels of my own recent thoughts about minimalism, both stylistically and practically.  The days of planting gardens with perennials beds nine feet deep and fifty feet long are long gone.  In fact, they were never “on”, other than in the dreams presented by big glossy coffee table books making us feel inadequate and not up to the task.  I blame Martha Stewart for much of this and all of those National Trust properties across the pond that were pulled back from the brink and planted up with Gertrude Jekyll-type borders, not only full of colour but also stakes and wires and other supports, requiring spraying and clipping and wiping down by teams of professional gardeners.

Anyway, small gardens that look great with less seems on the face of it to be sad and defeatist, but in reality, elegance is often achieved in the garden with fewer plants.  The author Susan Morrison is a landscape designer working out of California and as such this book spends much of its time talking about creating outdoor spaces to be lived in for much of the year.

One of her introductory chapters presents templates for smallish backyards with specific challenges: a long and narrow space, an awkward, wedge-shaped space and a relatively larger space that was required to be multi-functional.  The last template is clearly for homeowners who want a calm retreat but are not active gardeners.

It is perhaps not surprising that lawn does not figure predominantly in Morrison’s designs or discussion.  Her gardens centre around the use of patios, pathways, decks and other surfaces that don’t require constant mowing and fertilizing.  She favours well-placed planters, raised vegetable and herb plots, as well as mixed plantings of trees, shrubs and perennials.

Because her book’s challenge is small spaces, she identifies plants that can satisfy different important functions given this mandate: for example, plants that can be enjoyed in the moonlight (after a hard day’s work), herbs for all the senses, diaphanous plants that don’t block the sun or view, plants that cover ground or that grow upwards (i.e. against and over walls), plants that mimic water, and of course plants that don’t require much from us but that still have much to offer (colourful foliage, a more diminutive size, and plants that perform especially well in each season).

Unfortunately for us, the plants she lists are often too tender for us to grow in our zone 4-5 climate.  And in a place (California) where perennials often act as shrubs and vice versa, her lists often don’t make clear which is which, something that can be problematic for the novice gardener or designer.

Her designs have a distinctly Californian feel to them, with brick patios, adobe buildings with brightly coloured trim and giant rosemary plants alongside succulents.  Still, there are enough ideas and direction here, both in text and photos, to point someone with a small space in the right direction.  With the pragmatism of a professional who has learned that less is almost always best, Morrison tells you to ask yourself these three questions before you plan:

  • what will you be doing in the garden?
  • when will you be outside?
  • who will be with you?

By doing this, you won’t waste even a square inch and end up with a garden you can truly use and feel at home in.

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By contrast and boy, do I mean contrast, there is Andy Vernon’s colourful manifesto called “THE flower-powered GARDEN: Super-Charge Your Borders and Containers with Bold, Colourful Plant Combinations, published as well by Timber Press (2018) and available in Canada through Thomas Allen & Son ($29.95 US).

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Let me tell you right away that this is a book not everyone will embrace and is diametrically opposed in style and temperament to the previous book.  Whereas Morrison’s book is understated and refined, Vernon’s approach is unbridled and passionate.  But if you love colour and are not in the least intimidated by it, this is the book for you!

Vernon’s interest is the Victorian art of “bedding out” and container planting.  His approach is highly personal in that, at first glance, his arrangement of plants seems haphazard.  But if you look more closely, it is really quite quirky and humorous.  He is unapologetic about his love for colour, and more than this, about his passion for combinations that are either electric, romantic, nostalgic or trendy.

The book starts as he recounts his Cheshire, England, gardening upbringing alongside his granddad, where he admits that his plant fetish began.  He visited the numerous allotments that his granddad lovingly tended and then they took regular walks through the public park “bedding” displays to “ooh” and “aahh” at the colours.  He was hooked.

There are two chapters at the beginning that deal with colour theory (contrasting vs complementary, harmonious, etc.), choosing where, how and what to display, as well as where to view plantings that can inspire your own.  He then talks about care and cultivation of your plantings.

But it is really the following chapters, variously titled “Sherbet spring into summer”, “Royal velvet”, and “Liquorice allsorts” that allow him to go crazy with combinations of annuals, bulbs, vines, shrubs and tropical plants that together make an impressive and unforgettable display.

If you’re queasy, you’ll find many of them a bit too, let’s say, exuberant.  But don’t worry – he’s thought of you too with his less electric and more “refined” combinations, for example, of bronze, apricot, mahogany and marmalade plant collection.  Or if you’re a classicist, try the pastels in the combination called “Apple Blossom”. Or if you consider yourself more on trend, the sophisticated collection called “Chocolate limes”.

What’s missing here is a completed display and corresponding photo for each featured combination — that’s too bad.  Of course, the options presented for each theme is far more than is needed, and I do like the fact that he has identified every plant with its full botanical name, including the most relevant part, its cultivar name.

The way to use this book is not to jot down every plant in each featured combination and then go out and find them.  That will drive you mad because you won’t find them all in one place.  But rather look through each combination to find what appeals to you, make note of the colours and perhaps some of the names – especially of the plants that will end up being the centre of attention – and then visit the nursery or garden centre to see what they have.  You’ll find that the plant you saw in this book is in reality not the size you expected it to be, or that it’s flower is much smaller than you envisioned.  As a result, you’ll have to make changes on the fly as you plan and then buy.

This book provides a great opportunity to teach your eye — to understand what colours work well together and which combinations appeal to you.  It may teach you to be more adventurous in your juxtapositions and introduce you to plants you hadn’t met before.

But most of all, this book will give you the eye candy you crave after months and months of white and gray.

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Next review post will talk about Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden and Add Variety, Flavor, and Fun (Storey Publishing, 2018 – distributed by Firefly Books in Canada; $19.95 US) and Emily Murphy’s Grow What You Love: 12 Food Plant Families to Change Your Life (Firefly Books, 2018; $ 29.95 CAN).