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Make Room On Your Garden Bookshelf
updated: Jan 29, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I slid into the soon-to-be-shuttered State Street Border's store a few weeks ago looking for sweet close-out deals on garden books. What was I thinking? I've never purchased a garden book at Border's. Apparently, their buyer thought we garden in the Pisgah National Forest, or have an insatiable urge to provide habitat for double-breasted pinstriped warblers.

Regardless, I optimistically raked through the dregs, recalling that my own garden library is a mess. (When I'm working, books fly off the shelves like startled bats.) I didn't reshelve everything - I wanted to let you in on a few of my faves. Spring is just around the corner - be prepared.

If You Only Buy One Garden Book…

Back at my office, while struggling to impose a little discipline on the teetering stacks threatening my desk, I ran across my very first copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Nostalgia welled up. This was the book I bought after deciding to hang up my drumming career in the early 70s, having been seduced by bonsai and all things chlorophyll.

This book is old, I tell you, OLD! I thumbed through tattered pages with outdated plant lists like "Pterydon-proof Plants" and "Primordial Ferns That Will Eventually Be Refined Into High Octane Fossil Fuel."

My newest edition of Sunset is already showing signs of abuse, and for good reason. "Sunset", as it's expediently called by its loyal readers, features the most comprehensive encyclopedia of plants for western gardens (over 8000 listings), informative explanations of 29 climate zones, and a massive encyclopedia filled with practical gardening information - a book unto itself. (Not sure whether your lawn is infested with cutworms, or about to burst open, spewing forth monsters from the bowels of Hell? It's probably in there.)

There's even a botanical name pronunciation guide - no more embarrassing gaffs at celebrity horticulturist soirees!

If You Only Buy TWO Garden Books…

My single regret about Sunset is that the level of information they provide ABOUT each plant can be inconsistent - sometimes delving into great detail about one plant, while omitting a critical piece of information about another. That's why I always pray that the plant I need to know more about is also listed in the California Gardener's Guide, Volume II, by Nan Sterman (Cool Springs Press).

Sterman's book takes a "less is more" and a "more is more" approach: It lists only 186 plants, but packs each entry with well-researched, necessary information that helps gardeners make intelligent plant selection decisions.

The book is organized by plant categories (annuals & biennials, bulbs, fruits, ground covers, herbs, shrubs, succulents, trees, and vines) and each listing includes an overview of its qualities. There's also information about where the plant is most likely to thrive, maintenance needs, suggestions for plants that look good with it, and its relatives and hybrids.

An added bonus is Sterman's inspiring and informative introductory chapters, explaining California's enviable Mediterranean climate and its affect on the garden, how to get along with your soil, and a must-read section stressing the need to create wonderful gardens without squandering water.

The Natives Are Pestless [Not really, but that's a great subheader!]

I'm privileged to be working on a large-scale residential garden in Montecito, coming onboard shortly after the owners converted their two massive, immensely thirsty lawns into meadows of California native sedge stippled with wildflowers. My job has been to tame the "visual noise" of the surrounding overgrown beds, and introduce locally appropriate native grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees.

My treasured reference book for finding the best plants for this garden is California Native Plants for the Garden, co-authored by Carol Bornstein (a local icon for her years at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden), David Fross, and Bart O'Brien, all legends in the California native plant community. There are over 500 plant profiles, lists of plants for special uses (hedges and screens, deer resistant, erosion control, etc.) and introductory chapters offering a history of California native plant horticulture, design ideas, care, and where gardeners can purchase native plants.

Authors Who Inspire

All these technical books about plants are great, but plant selection comes at the very end of the garden design process. Long before considering which plants to put where, there are hundreds of decisions to be made: making the garden comfortable for people, fitting the new elements on the land as gently as possible, deciding on colors, shapes, and patterns that please the eye.

In those bleak moments when my creative lobe is backed up like a sink full of chili, I grab a copy of one of my John Brookes' books, flip open to any page and always find inspiration.

Brookes' The Book of Garden Design, (Macmillan Publishing Co.) is without a doubt, t h e b e s t g a r d e n d e s i g n b o o k I've come across in the last 30 years. Though I find that most books written by British authors don't make the 6000-mile trip to Southern California with much of their intended cargo intact, his approach to landscape design is universally valuable. His writing connects the history of gardens with the styles we've come to love in our own landscapes. His design process -- from site analysis to concept to design and finishing touches -- inspired me to throw out my teaching curriculum and redesign it based on Brookes' framework.

The book is lusciously illustrated with photos, character sketches, selected details like gates and paving surfaces, and full-blown plans - there's also a robust section about putting your design on paper. If you're an aspiring designer, find this book. And if you can't get enough of Brookes' stuff, his Garden Masterclass (Dorling Kindersley publishers) takes the concepts of landscape design from the broadest regional vision to the minutiae of arranging cobbles and gravel with Zen-like perfection.

Other books I don't have space to expound on here, but are worth a long look, include:

•Scott Calhoun's Designer Plant Combinations (Storey Publishing - read my review at Fine Gardening)

•Debra Lee Baldwin's Designing With Succulents (Timber Press)

•John Greenlee's passionate plea for murdering lawns and replacing them with meadows, The American Meadow Garden (also reviewed at Fine Gardening).

These books are in print, so if you want them PLEASE start by visiting a local, independent books store (my two faves for garden books are Chaucer's and the SB Botanic Garden).

I've got a few more books I think you should have on your radar, so keep your eyes open for another blog with more recommendations.

:: :: :: ::

While I've got you here, if you're thinking about redesigning your own garden, sign up for my half-day workshop at Nopalito Nursery, in Ventura, Saturday, February 19. Details about the class and sign-up at their website


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