`Tis the growing season-and the current crop of gardening books should inspire green-thumbers of all persuasions a-plenty.
For all his celebrity as an international garden designer and writer, John Brookes is a down-to-earth, practical man. That's not to say he's not a genius when it comes to garden design: he's one of those rare people who maintains the common touch while being creative and original.
The New Garden puts the trend toward natural gardens-or naturalized gardens, since only nature can make a completely natural garden-into perspective. Brookes points out that we don't garden in a vacuum: our plots, small as they may be, are part of the world and we should work with our environment in our choice of both design and plants. But Brookes is not a purist: he takes a mixed approach, employing cultivated as well as wild species because they offer more flexibility.
Although the book begins with short chapters on the history of natural gardens and some general elements of design, the rest is devoted to garden styles that work in harmony with their habitats around the world. Most can be adapted to some region of Canada, including coastal, temperate, woodland, dryland, and grassland areas, and even town gardens. Natural gardening in the city isn't a contradiction in terms, Brookes states. And he goes on to prove it with plans for a calm oasis in a woodsy retreat in Washington, D.C., an exuberant roof garden executed with potted plants in London, England, and a controlled savannah in Minneapolis with lush growths of astible, bleeding heart, ferns, and hostas. Do-it-yourselfers will find the garden plans and step-by-steps for making a shallow pond, a woodland log path, and a prairie planting especially helpful. This is a book to be used as inspiration-and it contains plenty of it.
A great book to use in conjunction with The New Garden is Lorraine Johnson's 100 Easy-To-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens. Johnson, who has a well-earned reputation as an expert on native plants and environmental issues in Canada, has written an intelligent, stylish, and witty guide to native plants (actually, there are 101 profiled for, as she writes, "[t]here's always room for one more").
As Johnson recommends in the introductory pages (which include an explanation of the difference between true native plants and naturalized species), I browsed through the book with my radar on high, looking for choices for my garden. "I'm a proselytizing bore when it comes to ironweed," she writes. "I think every sunny garden in the northeast and the prairies should have one." The photo (there's one for each listing) reveals it to be a pretty plant with clusters of deep pink flowers which last for weeks before turning tawny gold. I decided I must have one.
I also learned why my milkweed fell prey to aphids last year: dry soil. Milkweed likes wet meadows, and thirst probably left it vulnerable to the insect attack. Helpful tidbits like this frequently pop up in the listings, which also cover all the pertinent information on each plant-from maintenance and requirements, habitat and range, to propagation and complementary companion plants. Johnson has also suggested related species in case, say, you want to plant New York fern, which is native to the northeast, and you live in the west. Try northern beech fern instead.
For quick reference, there are several pages at the back of postage-stamp photos of plants for different regions and conditions, and a list of native plant nurseries in North America.
Mark Cullen is a popular garden communicator. His Saturday morning radio phone-in show on Toronto's CFRB is a must for many gardeners because it's much like eavesdropping on a friendly discussion of other people's plant problems. He brings the same congenial personality to his TV show, Right in Your Own Backyard, and to his new book, Canadian Garden Design.
The book will be of little use if you've been gardening for a couple of decades, but it's fine for the green gardener at a loss about where to begin. The first chapters deal in a common-sense manner with basic garden design, advising the reader to first figure out their taste by taking notes when they see a garden they like and by clipping pictures from magazines. It recommends assessing the garden's potential use, soil, and climate before beginning a plan, and discusses formal and asymetrical balance, focal points, and the principle of garden "rooms". There's not much advice on actually getting down to making the plan, but there are helpful tips, such as how to plant in the ever-popular drifts, and good information on choosing a colour scheme, contrasting, and harmonizing. Throughout, Cullen includes lists and descriptions of his own favourite annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers-nearly all of them classic favourites.
The chapter on garden furnishings is again general, covering topics like lighting, swimming pools and hot tubs, decks and patios, paths and walkways. I found myself wishing occasionally for more specific information. For example, he writes: "Wood is commonly used in the construction of arbours, either in the form of planks, sheets of trellis material, or rustic poles. Galvanized nails and bolts should be used... Uprights need to be embedded in concrete..." Even a handy gardener might need more information than this.
The final chapters look at garden styles-from Japanese and cottage to shade and low-maintenance-and eight garden plans provide ideas.
Overall, this is a book to be read. The many photographs seem to be afterthoughts with little relevance to the copy, and the captions try hard to be pertinent, while too often failing to mention the plants pictured.
David Tarrant, host of CBC's The Canadian Gardener and just about the country's favourite speaker at garden seminars, shares a byline on the cover of New Perennials (first published by Quadrillon in the U.K.) with Jenny Hendy, a British botanist, garden designer, and writer. But there's precious little of Tarrant in its pages-to be precise, seven short sidebars on topics of interest to Canadians (like Cold Climate Mulches and Winter Protection) and a foreword. If one is skeptical, one may conclude that Tarrant was asked to contribute to attract Canadian readers. One may become even more skeptical when searching for the scanty information about individual plants. Although what's there has been Canadianized (I asked), readers can't be sure because they're never told. My impression is that Hendy was careful to be general so the book would pass in Canada.
Still, it's a pretty, idea-filled book with inspiring glossy photographs, albeit of lush English borders in places like Hadspen Garden in Somerset, Greystone Cottage in Oxon, and Sticky Wicket in Dorset. I wish I could grow such splendiferous plants in my humble Canadian garden! Maybe it's our climate... Nevertheless, I found myself absorbing the lists of perennials for shade, for the bog garden, for edging, and for quick growth-all nicely placed in sidebars and subheaded sections for easy reading. I did wonder about the frequent suggestion of plants like diascia, which I grow as an annual, and agapanthus, which is native to South Africa and turns to mush if I leave it out all winter in my Zone 6 garden, although it's survived for five years in writer Patrick Lima's Zone 5 garden. (Must be his snow cover.)
I liked the couple of pages of small drawings of garden plans-nearly all of them formal in style-and the short section on making a gravel garden. Hendy also writes about breaking the rules, filigree fillers and foils, weavers and seeders, although I would have liked to know more.
One last comment: the "new" perennials listed at the back of the book are actually the "in" perennials-new cultivars of older plants, old plants newly fashionable again, or wild plants now gaining favour in the garden. It's surprising how universal these choices are. I do wish, however, that the monarda, `Marshall's Delight', had been included (it's a Canadian cultivar bred to resist mildew and of value to Canadians). And I've never heard of the pictured monarda, `Beauty of Cobham'-no doubt an English favourite.
In Hostas and Other Shade Loving Plants, David Tarrant has written eight sidebars plus the foreword. Canadian readers will have to suspend their admiration and remember this is essentially an English book, with photographs of larger-than-life English plants. Some information raises questions. For example, it suggests camellias, jasmine, and honeysuckle for winter bloom, but I'm not aware they are hardy, even in warm British Columbia.
But let's not carp. The book is organized well, with quickie sidebars suggesting plants for shady pergolas and walls, and lists of shrubs and trees with colourful barks and fall foliage. (Curious: colour is spelled without the `u'. A nod to North America?) Line drawings illustrate where rain and sun fall around trees; drawings and photos show how to prune a tree to reduce shade. Step-by-step instructions for tying a climbing plant to a trellis and making a small peat bed are given in photos. In short, there's inspirational value here for the money, despite my caveats.
Garden styles are so cyclical-after a few years of nothing but perennial borders, we're now seeing a return of annuals. As Marjorie Mason Hogue says, annuals like impatiens, petunias, and marigolds were so overused in the past they became boring. But new cultivars and a wider choice of varieties in nurseries like Mason Hogue's (she co-owns Mason Hogue Gardens in Pickering, Ontario, with son Jeff) have helped give annuals a new lease on life.
Amazing Annuals makes a strong case for growing annuals: they give summer-long colour; they make great fillers planted between spent perennials; and they're terrific as focal points when massed in pots and grouped on a patio or balcony. Because you only expect one summer of bloom from annuals, they can be fertilized to flower prolifically and continuously with no worry about stressing the plant-a concern you might have with a perennial. The plant profiles (the main part of the book) contain descriptions, photos, and requirements of 300 annuals from Alonsua meridionalis (`Fireball', from Peru) to Verbena peruviana, a trailing South American plant. Mason Hogue has included sections recommending annuals according to colour, height, and fragrance, for moist or dry conditions, etcetera. There's a lovely section on tender bulbs from exotic regions of the world, and others on flamboyant foliage, grasses, and climbers. Propagation and growing from seed are also covered.
Once I'd gotten past the odd title, which made me wonder what I might find inside, Shocking Beauty inspired me. The book is mainly about plant combinations-but what combinations! To be honest, I stopped reading after a page or two and spent an hour just looking at the pictures.
The copy-most of it captions-is often disarmingly personal. For example, Thomas Hobbs, who started out as a floral designer and now owns Southlands Nursery in Vancouver, describes a photo of a mirror-like pond and architecturally clipped hedge at Hidcote, in England: "This is a beauty overdose. The lyrics (sung by) Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac-`When the rain washes you clean, you'll know'-finally made sense to me when I stood right here..." He also thanks the editor for taking his "sermonettes and stream of consciousness ramblings" and turning them into text of which he can be proud.
The gardens photographed are found in many places in the world-Canada, Germany, the U.S., England, Ireland-but their locations are less important than the impact of their design and colour. We see a softly romantic garden of yellow and white narcissus, blue Phlox stolonifera, apricot pansies, and tumbling foliage growing against a stone barn in Pennsylvania; later, a knock-you-over combination of brilliant yellow creeping Jenny and purple-blue bugleweed. My favourite combo is `Coral Belle' diascia with a grassy brown sedge, which I hope will find its way into my garden before this century ends. In the next-to-last chapter, Hobbs shows us his garden, an innovative beauty set against a terra-cotta stucco house reminiscent of Hollywood in the `30s. It's irresistible and, he says, it's designed using the squint-your-eyes method--no garden plans for him.
Don't expect plant care or Zones information from Thomas Hobbs, at least not in this book. But if you're trying to climb out of a garden rut, buy it.
Judith Adam's refreshingly down-to-earth attitude to gardens and life in general comes through strongly in her book, The New City Gardener. "A great deal can be learned about your stylistic preference by the state of your underwear drawer," she writes in her opening chapter on figuring out what kind of garden you want, and you know instantly what she means. Later, she points out that the gardening year actually begins in late fall, "when gardeners are in a critical mood". It's something I forget every year when I'm busy shredding leaves and pulling out dead annuals.
The book also reveals Judith's talent for organization: it's chock-full of informative sidebars and lists covering topics like setting large boulders, dividing perennials, water-saving grasses, how much triple mix or composted manure to order, and so on. More than that, it covers everything you need to know about planning and making a garden-from deciding on your style or where to put the perennial bed to using trickery to disguise your garden's defects. Although Adam has led an urban life (as a horticulturist and landscape designer, she's gardened in Rome, New York, and Toronto), her book is every bit as valuable to a suburban gardener as to a city one, and to the experienced as well as to the novice.
If you're planning a neo-potager (today's version of the medieval vegetable and herb garden laid out in parterres, circles or squares), The Ornamental Vegetable Garden is the book is for you-even if it does hail from New Zealand. Vegetables, after all, are nearly all annuals, and long-season varieties that like heat (such as peppers) do well even in the north if they're given an early start in the greenhouse.
The attraction of this book is its ideas for potager designs. There are photos of various styles: square ones with gravel paths and woven willow fences; intricately patterned ones with brick walkways; others with raised beds, wall fountains, and willow arbours. There are also pretty, hand-drawn plans for knot gardens and designs combining squares, triangles, and circles, as well as the wheel or sun ray herb garden.
Information on projects, such as a basic cold frame, a trolley for moving heavy potted plants into the sun, and vegetable gardening in containers, is also included, as is advice on the growing and care of vegetables and herbs. I couldn't find one on the list that doesn't grow somewhere in Canada.
Jill Billington, now a garden designer, author, and lecturer, was trained as a sculptor, and her artistic sense is evident in Really Small Gardens. When she says this book is about really small gardens, she means it. For example, a garden twenty feet square, she advises, is just big enough to allow people to dine outdoors and not much more, but a space five feet deep is so small it should be handled as a stage set to be admired from the house. And she cautions against making the mistake of using many tiny things in a small garden-one or two well-chosen plant forms or chairs of normal size will have more impact.
Her book is full of good advice like this, as well as inspiring photographs of enchanting tiny gardens. She addresses making a garden in a heavily-shaded basement stairwell and on a roof deck exposed to sun and wind. There are ideas for creating privacy and using plants for design effects to achieve texture, form, and movement as well as to create a colour scheme. There's a terrific chapter on illusion: concealing eyesores or exploiting that brick wall or cast-iron fire escape; garden lighting; mirrors and trompe l'oeil. She covers garden styles from the modern and the formal to the theatrical. The long list of plants that won't outgrow their space is relevant to most parts of Canada. And you'll like the quick sketches of suggested plans for tiny gardens of different configurations.
Whatever your gardening needs and level of expertise, you are sure to find much valuable information and inspiring ideas between the covers of these books.
Liz Primeau is the founding editor of Canadian Gardening Magazine and co-host of HGTV.