Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review Smackdown!

To me, perennials are the heart and soul of the garden. Sure, I like annuals for instant gratification, and I care about my shrubs and trees. Bulbs are fun too, even when they’re just elaborate annuals. But herbaceous perennials are the essence of gardening. They grow and change over time. They come back every year like trusted friends. They multiply to the point of division, which increases the size of the garden. Perennials rarely, if ever, perform exactly the way they’re described in books, magazines and catalogs; they have personalities and quirks in each garden and microclimate, and you have to get to know them through observation and interaction. Each perennial has its peak season as well as its time as a role player. This interplay between growth and rest is one of the most interesting parts of ornamental gardening (in my opinion). So when I had the opportunity to read two books about perennial gardening I jumped at the chance because not only is this a subject I enjoy, it’s one that I could always use to learn more about.*

The first book is The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer by Stephanie Cohen and Nan Ondra. The second is Better Homes and Gardens Perennial Gardening. Both are similar in their scope and content, but I have to give the edge to Design Primer. But before all that, here is what they’re about:

Both books cover the basics, i.e., what is a perennial, site preparation, sun/shade requirements and the like. They each focus on design principles such as mixing textures, ensuring year-round interest, and working with color for complementary or monochromatic looks. Also included in both books are sample gardens for different settings (sun, shade, soggy, etc.) with diagrams and plant lists included. Their later sections differ in that Cohen and Ondra explore three garden situations—building one from scratch, expanding an existing garden, and giving an old garden a complete make-over—and BHG includes a section on troubleshooting and a brief perennial encyclopedia.

Before explaining why I liked Design Primer better, I will say that the BHG book is more appropriate for novice gardeners. Design Primer is certainly useful and understandable for people brand new to gardening, but BHG spends much more time covering site preparation and basic gardening tasks, sometimes to the point of becoming tedious for an experienced gardener (three whole pages on deadheading…really?). But this information serves its purpose, and I always like a good plant encyclopedia too. However, the appendices in Design Primer were more than sufficient, so each scores equal points in the “textbook-ishness” department.

OK, so why did I like Design Primer better? Basically it felt like Cohen and Ondra were holding a conversation, both with each other and with the reader. The book features sidebars and callouts in which each author offers her own opinion and experience, including explanations of how they differ from each other. Conversely, BHG had the cheerful yet sterile prose common in magazines. (Please note: I have written for gardening magazines, although not BHG, and have actively cultivated that type of writing style! I’m not knocking it—it’s useful especially when trying to reach a broad or beginner audience. I’m just pointing out that it’s there.)

Cohen and Ondra did an excellent job of communicating how to work with your site conditions rather than changing them. It’s not the BHG emphasized “you must change your soil” but it didn’t put enough stress on how to work with what you have, which is exactly what Design Primer did. This is important because working within your conditions is the best way to avoid frustration, the use of chemicals, complicated soil amendments, general failure, and a host of other problems.

Design Primer was also more thorough about how to put ideas into practice. The sample gardens and the final section on the three design efforts were detailed and honest, thereby providing in-depth opportunities to see how the design principles really translate into real-life gardening, even if you’re not planting the exact garden in the diagram.

Lastly, I just had some bones to pick with a few aspects of BHG. I could have done without the half-page, full-color photo of a Miracle-Gro® sprayer just dousing the flower bed in the Fertilizing section. They suggested using landscape fabric to prevent erosion on slopes, which is a terrible idea. The whole point of gardening on a slope is to use the plant roots to prevent the erosion.

Possibly worst of all, it stated that native plants “shrug off pests and diseases.” I think the powdery mildew devouring my native Monarda fistulosa would say otherwise. Not only are these types of statements just wrong, they actively work against gardening with natives because when people realize they are wrong, they’re aggravated that their supposedly “disease-resistant, tough-as-nails natives” didn’t perform as expected. And by the way, including Russian sage in the one garden example of native plants is just silly. C’mon, the name itself tells you it isn’t native to North America!!

All that being said, BHG isn’t a bad book and for the beginning gardener this would be a valuable resource (with the above caveats). But when push comes to shove I’ve got to say that Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer is the superior book for beginners and experts alike.

*I won Design Primer in a contest hosted by Commonweeder and I received a review copy of BHG Perennial Gardening from Wiley Books. So both were free; therefore neither had an advantage in the cost department.

The cheesy photo of Design Primer is from; it was the only decently sized one I could locate. The BHG photo is from Wiley.


Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Stephanie Cohen & Nan Ondra really know their stuff, so I'd be inclined to rely on their info more than BGH's anyway, but I appreciate your review. It saves me bothering to look at BGH's book, as I'd be bored silly.

garden girl said...

The miracle grow thing would be enough of a turn-off to make me avoid the BHG book, not to mention the inaccuracies you found, and the endorsement of landscape fabric (horrible stuff!)

Congrats on winning the Cohen/Ondra book Rose - you're on a roll! (maybe you should buy a lottery ticket. ;)

rambleonrose said...

MMD--Yes, you would be bored silly! But check out Design Primer; it's nothing you don't already know but it's a good read.

GG--You know what's funny? I did buy a lotto ticket!! Right after winning both prizes I bought one, but sadly my luck ran out! :)

Rose said...

Rose, you don't know how timely this post is for me! I have been checking out tons of books from the library to get ideas for the new flowerbed I'm planting this spring. Cohen & Ondra's book sounds like just what I have been looking for. BHG puts out some good books, but I understand your objections. I've been disappointed when I've ordered a book on design (which is where I really need help), and it turns out the book spends more time on the basics. Not that I couldn't use more knowledge about soil, but that's not what I'm looking for right now. I hope the library has Cohen and Ondra's book!

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