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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

New Gardening Books


With each spring comes a procession of new gardening books, ready to inspire gardeners everywhere.

Too often, the pickings are slim for those of us who tend plants on the Central Coast.

But this year is a happy exception, with the following books offering wisdom that’s suitable for gardening in our mild, Mediterranean climate.

Water-Wise Plants for the Southwest
Nan Sterman, Mary Irish, Judith Phillips and Joe Lamp’l, Cool Springs Press

The cover photo may feature a grouping of cactus and succulents that is likely to be more comfortable in the desert. But a good number of the 150 water-thrifty plants described inside will grow well on the Central Coast. And with water becoming increasingly precious throughout our state, the book provides a good introduction to water-conserving gardens.

The first section is set up in a round-table format with three of the authors offering advice from their geographic perspectives: Nan Sterman on Mediterranean climates; Mary Irish on low deserts; and Judith Phillips on high-desert and dry mountainous regions.

Their advice overlaps, and includes such common-sense tips as grouping plants according to their watering needs and paying attention to the soil.

A plant encyclopedia is next, and organized by type. Trees for establishing the framework of the garden are first, followed by shrubs for structure and perennials for seasonal color. Ground covers, lawns, succulents and the like come later.

Each plant gets a full page. There’s the usual description, noting form, growth, mature size, uses, soil and pests, along with a nice photograph. Particularly useful are two additional categories: “Shared Spaces” and “Cultivation.”

“Shared Spaces” refers to both the surrounding hardscape and neighboring plants. For instance, “Australian willow generates minimal litter, so it can be planted near a deck or patio.” Or this, about blue oat grass, “The winter contrast with the rust seedheads of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum is striking.”

“Cultivation” provides the most detailed, specific planting instructions I’ve seen. For dainty Dianthus, there’s this: “Before transplanting dianthus, add 1 cubic yard of compost per 100 square feet of bed area. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Topdress with organic mulch or fine gravel. Water dianthus to a depth of 18 inches once a week when temperatures are 85 F or above; water every two weeks when temperatures are 65 to 85 F, and monthly during cooler weather, but not at all if the plants are dormant. Fertilizing is usually not necessary if the soil is organically amended. Apply an iron-and-sulfur fertilizer if foliage yellows in summer. Trim off spent flowers to stimulate continuous blooming. Trim the cushion of foliage down a few inches from the soil in spring.”

Rounding out the book is a chapter on irrigation, penned by Joe Lamp’l. He runs through the pros and cons of sprinklers and various drip irrigation systems, and provides the basics for installation.

Succulent Container Gardens
Design Eye-Catching Displays with 350 Easy-Care Plants
Debra Lee Baldwin, Timber Press

This lovely picture book is a follow-up to Baldwin’s “Designing with Succulents,” which came out three years ago and covered growing the water-conserving plants in the ground.

This new book is especially appealing to folks who would rather grow a few interesting succulents in pots on their patio, rather than fill their entire garden with them.

Baldwin opens with beauty shots of perfectly shaped succulents in an assortment of containers. Most are close-ups, so you can see the exquisite flowers and foliage textures in full detail.

The “Plant Palette” and “Companion Plants” chapters cover several hundred plants. Useful information includes this about Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, which Baldwin dubs “supermarket kalanchoe:” “Retailers do the plants a disservice by encasing the pots in foil sleeves that allow water to puddle — these should be removed soon after purchase.” Or this about sedums: “Tiny-leaved sedums can visually disappear in a garden but when grow in diminutive pots and displayed so they can be seen close-up, their foliage is enchanting.”

Also valuable are chapters on the practical aspects of planting, caring for and propagating succulents. There are photos illustrating how to plant succulents in containers without drain holes, and recipes for potting mixes. There’s even advice on what do if a spine (glochid) gets stuck in your skin. “Paint the affected area with rubber cement; let it dry, peel it off, and the glochids should go with it.”

Baldwin concludes the book with a series of plant lists that suggest succulents of varying heights, succulents to serve as fillers and cascaders, and succulents that bear different colored leaves or produce brilliant flowers.

What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)
A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies
David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth. Timber Press

The title says it all. Follow a series of flow charts, each with a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and you are on your way to figuring out what’s ailing your plant — and how to solve the complaint.

The great thing about the setup is that you don’t have to know the name of your plant in order to figure out its problem. Just follow the clues.

Deardorff told me that’s why he and Wadsworth intentionally used line drawings instead of photographs to illustrate symptoms during the diagnosis process. They didn’t want readers to get bogged down with whether their troubled plant was an identical match. Instead, the line drawings depict universal woes on universal plants.

Section I is organized by plant part: leaves, flowers, fruit, stems, roots and seeds. The authors explain the function of each, then describe symptoms, such as “the flower has holes or chewed edges, or you see pests,” or “the whole stem is discolored, dying or dead.” The reader then follows a trail of “yes” and “no” answers to reach a diagnosis, such as, for carrots, “Is the root forked? If yes, rocky, lumpy or compacted soil. For solution, see page 238; for photo, see page 409.”

Section II covers “How Do I Fix It?” and provides natural solutions. Deardorff and Wadsworth discuss soil, light conditions, managing water and selecting appropriate plants. They also address weeds, fungi, insects, mites, bacteria, viruses, nematodes and other pests.

Section III is where the photos come in, and the glossy images such nasty problems as transplant shock, over watering, powdery mildew, leafhoppers and scale.

There’s also an appendix, “What’s Wrong With My Lawn?” Here, Deardorff and Wadsworth seem conflicted, noting that “Oddly enough the first step in lawn care may well be to get rid of it entirely.” Yet they still run through techniques to properly tend turf.

Planting Design Illustrated
Gang Chen, Outskirts Press

This guide comes with an ambitious subtitle: “A Must-Have for Landscape Architecture: A Holistic Garden Design Guide with Architectural and Horticultural Insight, and Ideas from Famous Gardens in Major Civilizations.”

Whew! This book is an ambitious attempt to apply the concepts of planting design from former times to the creating of gardens of today.

Chen kicks off by comparing formal gardens with naturalistic gardens. He then discusses determining the purpose of a particular garden, followed by its scale. Next, he considers plants based on their silhouette, overall color (of leaves and flowers) and texture, rather than in terms of specific species.

Then comes what’s probably most interesting to home gardeners: a series of chapters and illustrations that depict planting swaths of plants in interesting patterns that emphasize rhythm and repetition.

Only after you’ve set up your pattern do you then plug in the appropriate plants, whether they be tall, weeping trees; red-blooming shrubs; an ornamental perennial, grass or ground cover, or some other plant that displays a set of characteristics that you’ve chosen.

It’s an interesting way to view the planting and design process, and probably very different from the way that most gardeners proceed, which is that they see a plant that they like, they buy it, and they plunk it in their garden.

The remaining chapters dive into the origins of Chinese, Japanese and European gardens, and are likely to be most compelling to folks interested in garden history.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

3 responses to “New Gardening Books
  1. I purchased Debra Lee Baldwin’s new book but didn’t think it would contain much new
    information. The pictures captured me at first, but he book is a real resource as well.

  2. Wonderful review of these books Joan. The Succulent Container Garden book sounds interesting as does both the Water-Wise Plants For The Southwest and Whats Wrong With My Plant?

    I’ll be snooping around the book store for them.

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