Category Archives: book report

Refresh Your Garden Design

refresh your gardenWell done but not my cup of tea.  No matter how often I read about analogous and non-analogous color schemes, I can’t keep it in my head.  And occasionally I would look at a picture and think it was fine only to discover this was the bad “before” picture.  So, not too helpful for my limited visual skills.

Having said that, the book like all of Rebecca Sweet’s is very well organized and beautifully illustrated.  A bit of a California bias means she includes some zone 8 and above plants that are gorgeous but probably annuals for us.  The final chapter, offering suggestions for plants that will provide the desirable form, texture, weight and so on was quite inspiring.  Here are my notes with images pulled from hither and yon.

For “texture with weight,” consider a small weigela, only 3′ x 3′.  ‘Dark Horse’ offers bronze foliage in full sun – might work as a good weight to the sunny border.  Image from the Sunray Gardens blog.


I am looking for something to put in front of the yews by the steps.  At the moment this little bed is a dog’s dinner of little bitty things that I put there in despair, punctuated by the  pipe thingy.yew bedI was thinking of a low-growing viburnum or maybe this dogwood,  Cornus sanguinea ‘Cato’ Arctic Sun, that Sweet recommends.  But I think it needs a more prominent spot to do well.

Cornus sanguinea Arctic Sun 7249

Next are two plants for “form and shape.”  Here is donkeytail spurge, Euphorbia myrsinites,


whose form and repetition I love. Low-growing, drought resistant, offers a sense of movement in the garden.  I’m just not sure where I would put it.

And this is spiral aloe, aloe polyphylla.aloe polyphylla

She recommends this as a specimen for a container or succulent garden.  Only zones 7-9 but it could work here.  I love it in this container.

Finally, cotoneaster, aka bearberry.  I already have this at one end of the walkway garden.  Perhaps it or its relative, Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Streib’s Findling’, an “excellent spreading ground cover with a stunning herringbone silhouette,” 6″ tall by 8′ wide, might help a driveway area that’s gone all to hell.cotoneaster_procumbens_streibs_findling_01

This bed came with low-growing juniper that I extended farther along up to the walkway garden.  But this year it is dead and dying and depressing.  I think low is the way to go, so maybe this cotoneaster or another one?

Note: I did my best to find plants that might solve a problem rather than plants that just caught my fancy.  Whether I will implement any of these ideas remains to be seen.


To Be Read, but when??

One of the blogs I follow promoted the TBR challenge for 2016.  Heaven knows I have more than enough books on the TBR list, between the books I own and haven’t read and the For Later shelf on my BiblioCommons list.  So here goes, with my initial ideas about what I’ll actually read in 2016, edited to accommodate the fact that I don’t read romance.

January 19 – We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.) – Maybe Adam Gopnick’s Winter, Five Windows on a Season
February 16Series Catch-Up (a book from a series you are behind on) This has got to be the next in the Sharpe series
March 16 – Recommended Read (a book that was recommended to you) – Old Filth by Jane Gardam, which has been on my list forever and for some reason is being read now by several friends
April 20 – Contemporary – This must mean contemporary romance, but I’ll interpret it to mean a book set in the present, so how about Among the Ten Thousand Things, a novel set in NYC about the breakup of a marriage
May 18 – Something Different (outside your comfort zone, unusual setting, non-romance etc.) – Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart, a poet I hardly know but like, and I rarely read any poetry these days
June 15 – Favorite Trope (a favorite theme – amnesia? secret baby? fairy tale? friends-to-lovers? etc.) – I’ve read so many dystopian novels that a quick search on the catalog shows I’ve read a couple dozen of the first titles listed.  So maybe one of the myriad history/travel books on the shelves
July 20 – Award Nominee or Winner (links to past RITA finalists and winners TBA) – Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates has been on my TBR list since last summer, and now that he’s won the National Book Award for nonfiction, this  is the perfect choice

August 17 – Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older) – this will be an easy one since there are so many older books I’m trying to get to.  Maybe Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club or A Welsh Childhood by Alice Thomas Ellis
September 21 – Random Pick (a built-in off-theme month – go where your mood takes you!) – too many possibilities here
October 19 – Paranormal or Romantic Suspense – way outside my comfort zone, I’ll have to think about this one
November 16 – Historical – easy peasy, how about Farthest North, the Epic Adventure of a Visionary Explorer by Nansen or The Wicked and the Just by Coates set in 13th century Wales
December 21 – Holiday Themes – this will fit in with Book Club, though I’m not sure I have one of these on my TBR shelf.  Maybe a nice cozy biography.


A Dublin Garden

down to earthHelen Dillon has gardened in a small Dublin garden for over thirty years.  Short essays paired with photos of her garden detail her likes, her dislikes, even her bold uprooting of garden elements she installed in previous decades.  Many of her plants come with a story about who gave them to her or where she first saw them, and big names like Graham Stuart Thomas pepper the text. She says not a word about native plants, cheerfully installing plants from around the world.  She even includes Americans like tree of heaven that are highly invasive here but apparently behave well in Dublin.

As she discusses her gardens from the 1960s to now, she  compares gardening styles to hair styles.  Both change over time but if we’re not careful, we end up with “a 1960s Cilla Black look – that’s if I don’t get the softly curly Nancy Reagan, or the ubiquitous à la grandmère, with every curl betraying its roller-friendly origins.”

Her garden is open to the public, and I hope to visit this summer.  But I’ll be on my best behavior:  she has some sharp words for garden visitors who try to hide their theft of plants and cuttings in their capacious handbags, or those who loudly criticize the garden and the gardener in her hearing.  Can’t say I blame her.

Although much of what she says is specific to her climate and conditions, I still found much to think about and admire.  (Why again don’t I have a water element in my garden, I ask myself.)  Like the best garden books  (Green Thoughts comes to mind), this is one to keep on the bedside table.  You could pick it up and read randomly from time to time and always learn or re-learn something good.

Roses Without Chemicals

rosesAuthor Peter E. Kukielski used to be in charge of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and before that he ran a rose garden design business, so he knows what he is talking about.  (Plus, Martha Stewart blurbs this on the cover.)

This book focuses on what he calls “millennial roses,” that is, roses that reflect the new millennium’s interest in gardening without chemical sprays and poisons.  He offers a good overview of rose care, but even better is the list of 150 roses that meet his criteria of disease resistance and good flowering.

Each entry features a gorgeous photo, plus a rating for blooms, disease resistance, and fragrance. He also indicates where they are best sited (front or back of border, in a container, etc.) and what other roses work well with the rose in question.

All this info, combined with a list of roses for various areas of the country, make this a go-to book when selecting roses.

As for me, I never can decide and, more to the point, have no place to put one unless I move some things around or expand the sunny bed.  BUT if I ever get to the decision point, this is the book I’ll look for.

Capturing wildlife

Actually, just trying to photograph insects in hopes of identifying them later.  It’s much harder than it seems when you see a bee sitting tight and gorging itself on pollen (or is it gorging on nectar?  see, I really need a book), ready for its close-up.  First you have to get it in focus, then you have to take several pictures in rapid succession (I used the burst feature on my camera), then you look at them on the computer and realize that most of them are either sans bee or out of focus.

I got to the bees through this book, Butterflies_through_binocularswhich I’m enjoying despite its 1999 copyright and outdated info on taking photos.  Glassberg is an expert and an enthusiast, and it shows.  The introductory material on how and where to see butterflies and how to pay attention to them is quite illuminating.  Since butterflies come to life in sunshine, it’s mid-morning here before they are active in the front garden.  I think I’ll need to make note of the most common ones and start there.  Lots of skippers, in other words.

The butterfly book inevitably led me to need a similar book on moths and one on bees.  There’s a new bee book that I have my eye on, and here’s why. DSC03791

DSC03780 DSC03767





















I can tell that these is bees, but that’s all I know.  Hence the need for this book:bumble bees of north america






It is even now winging its way to me.  As it were.  As for moths, there’s a newish Peterson guide, but it covers northeastern America – not sure if that matters here in the southeast or not.  In the meantime, I’ve place the Covell guide on hold from the library.

All of this led me back to Douglas Tallamy’s inspiring book, Bringing Nature Home, which I now own in the revised edition.  As I was noticing the bees on the hostas, achillea, hyssop, and echinops, I also realized that I never see them on the daylilies (native to Eurasia), or the spirea (though Wikipedia tells me this is a food source for many larvae).  What I really want to do is to match my plants with the insects that feed on them, in hopes of identifying more insects.  A project for another day.

Not your average garden book

The-Bad-Tempered-Gardener-by-Anne-WarehamAnn Wareham may be a contrarian, but it’s not just for the sake of it.  She is genuinely puzzled by gardeners who put together a collection of plants rather than design a garden.  Her garden, Veddw, in the Welsh borders, is two acres of carefully designed garden (plus two acres of managed woods) that include some startling juxtapositions of colors and shapes.  She’s a big believer in pattern and repetition – not for her the wispy gardens of mixed perennials that are “pretty.”  Take a look at the glorious pattern of her hedges, echoing the Monmouthshire hills:


Another look at the power of pattern and repetition:veddw_symmetryAnd she’s hardly afraid of color:veddw_house_gardens_originalveddwgardens

She has a melancholy streak, too.

 Gardens confront us with the relentless passage of time, as the flowers come and go in a parade that gains in speed as year passes year.  Gardens are in endless, remorseless change and are always confronting us with our race towards death.  Historic gardens remind us that garden-makers like ourselves made a garden and then had to let go, die, and that the garden continued cheerfully without them.  Is this what is beneath the insistent upbeat jolliness of the garden world?  Is this what we conspire to avoid contemplating?

Refreshing, no?

She lives in the world of English gardeners in a country that may not do it right, according to her lights, but certainly pays a lot of attention to gardeners.  They are all over in newspapers, magazines and television, in ways that US gardeners can only envy.  It’s a small world, and Anne Wareham, with her thinkingardens, has carved out a very particular niche.

Oh, and it must be time to return to Wales and see the marvelous Veddw in person.

Private Edens

cn_image_1.size.private-edens-01What if you had scads of money and came upon a derelict thirty-five-acre estate in (choose one) the Brandywine Valley, northwest Connecticut, northern Virginia or even Bethlehem, Pennsylvania?  Well, if you were lucky and chose your landscape architect well, you could create one of the Private Edens beautifully pictured here.

The author is very coy about the owners, describing them vividly but never naming them.  “Renowned as both an artist and philanthropist, he is equally famous for his mischievous, carousing youth, his powerful antecedents, his immense generosity, his skill at driving a four-in-hand (which has made him an intimate of no less than the Queen of England), and the pair of Civil-War-era crutches that aid him in his perambulations after too many years of brutal horsemanship and seem to invariably end up in someone’s way,” he writes of a gardener in Chadds Ford.  Certainly those in the know will recognize him immediately from this gushing description, but not the likes of me, alas.

Nevertheless, I immediately recognized an unnamed garden in Orange, Virginia, as Mt. Sharon, a gorgeous spread that opened just for the day a few years ago.  Ann and I visited, and I wrote about it here.  It is just as beautiful as described, and I will admit that the photos in the book are just a tad more arresting than the ones I took.

This is in no way a helpful gardening guide, since a few pages of glowing description are followed by Rob Cardillo’s gorgeous photos, with minimal captions.  Either you know what those plants are, or you don’t.  Though there is mention of enormous excavation projects to create the rock gardens and three-acre ponds, there are no garden plans.  (There’s no mention of garden help, either, though it must be a huge expense.) Leaf through this for inspiration and to envy those rich enough to build the gardens of their dreams.


ChanticleerNot a single discouraging word is heard in this account of Chanticleer’s beauty, but judging by the spectacular photos by Rob Cardillo, the praise is justified.  Though only twenty years old as a garden cultivated for public display, Chanticleer has great bones thanks to a 1930s stone house and mature trees, as well as a stream that runs through the site.  Like me, the gardeners have made a woodland garden under a giant oak tree that used to sit in a sea of grass.    Of course, they also have an Asian woods, an orchard, a pond garden, and so on.  Clearly worth a visit!

Adrian Higgins is one of my favorite garden writers.  He clearly writes about  Chanticleer with great knowledge and experience.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling that this was written to order as a puff piece.  (It’s copyrighted by Chanticleer rather than by Higgins.)  Not quite a criticism, since I devoured every word, just an observation.

Notes to self: find out what is this air spade* they used to remove the existing grass from under the oak tree; consider adding Anemone sylvestris and nemorosa along with the blanda, and Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood’s Purple’ (bought this week at Merrifield).  Shrub rose Lady Elsie May (‘Angelsie’) is semidouble, coral pink, and freely produces blooms all season long (whatever that means, and allowing for the slightly cooler climate there) and might do for the pink garden.  ‘Sea Shell’ peony, another possibility, is “cupped, single pink, robust and fragrant.  It is one of the classic peonies for cutting.”  Look for the Karma series of dahlias “which have been bred for cutting.  They have a long vase life and straight stems.”

*It turns out that an air spade costs almost $2000 and must be used mainly by professional landscapers and builders.  So, never mind.

Shocking Beauty

shocking_beautyThomas Hobbs’s earlier (1999) book, just like the Jewel Box Garden, relies heavily on gorgeous photographs and bold statements.  He’s a strong believer in bold colors, carefully curated, and is not afraid to add colors where they are needed – maybe a touch of glitter glue on your grass plumes?  Or this: “In late fall I like to spray paint these [E. agavifolium] with unusual colours as they stand in the garden, using automotive touch-up paints in metallic gun-metal shades.  Why not?”

Why not, indeed?  As he says, “‘No risk’ means ‘No art.'”

As to the plants, he is still wild about diascias, recommends verbascums for color accents (they should do well in the sunny garden), uses Rhodochiton atrosanguineum in containers and relies on Osmocote 14-14-14 time-release fertilizer for all of his containers and annuals.

Highly recommended for inspiration.

The Jewel Box Garden

For some reason I wrote this post and the next and never published either one, so here they are now.  Just in case you thought I was slacking…

Need inspiration? Look no further.  Author Thomas Hobbs is highly opinionated (as are most gardeners) and not afraid to tell you what he thinks.  His main thrust is that gardeners should strive to create a garden like a “jewel box full of beautiful plant treasure.” This means that everything in your garden is intentional (those of us who sometimes like to wait and see what comes up need to clean up our acts).  He recommends that you think of your garden as an exhibition space and see the whole picture from above.  “Once you realize how valuable every square inch is, mediocrity becomes intolerable.”

More opinions:

“If you thrive on red and yellow combinations, you are reading the wrong book…red and yellow is artless and screams ‘Gas Station.'”  I know what he means – what my mother used to call “a riot of color” –  but it’s also true that in the hands of a master gardener, even this combination can look  pretty good – here, for example.

Use perennials in containers.  “Try combining a young New Zealand flax (a Phormium cultivar of your choice), a bronze Carex flagelliera and a dark-leaved dahlia such as ‘Bednall Beauty’ or ‘Ellen Houston.’  This is much more visually interesting than a green dracaena ‘spike’ (Cordyline australis), the last refuge of the truly desperate.” (emphasis mine)

This last comment prompted me to move my dracaena spike, which had been wintering indoors in a blue plastic pot (another no-no – you should only have GORGEOUS pots, and of course he is right), to a far spot in front of the fence, where it won’t  trouble anyone.  Instead of a spike, I planted this alocasia Amazonia ‘Polly,’ which I had admired at the Philadelphia Flower Show.  I’m not sure it really works – the contrast in textures and colors is a bit off – but I’m living with it for now.

Hobbs is a big fan of succulents and advises feeding them once a month with liquid 20-20-20 fertilizer at a higher than recommended dose.

I also came away with a few plants to try.  This ornamental oregano would be pretty trailing out of a pot in full sun.  Diascia ‘Blackthorn Apricot’ is a South African species that does well in containers, again in full sun.  In both cases you would need to plan ahead, since I’ve never seen them for sale locally, even at Merrifield.

The photographs are astounding.  David McDonald is the artist in question.  Just take a look here if you don’t have the book in hand.