Category Archives: book report

Seeing Trees (and other things)

Nancy Ross Hugo’s book inspired me to look more closely at my trees as they come into bloom.  You don’t think of oaks and maples as flowering trees, but of course they are.  Just look at these oak buds.

They are beautiful against an early spring sky.

This is how they looked on March 23.  And  below is how they looked today, twelve days later.

Look at those elegant fronds and delicate baby leaves!

Meanwhile, Seeing Trees is about looking closely at trees, using commonly found trees as her examples.  The text is engaging, and the photos are astonishing.  Check it out from your local library!  (Fuller report after I’ve finished  it.)

The New Encyclopedia of Hostas

I’ve relied for several years on the “Timber Press Pocket Guide to Hostas,” which I now see is by the same authors as this handsome new update of an earlier title.  The pocket guide has “only” 800 listed, whereas this comprehensive new compendium must include every hosta known to the gardening world.  With an intro by the Prince of Wales and an extensive cultivation guide in addition to the detailed listing of varieties, this may be one of those books I borrow so often that I finally break down and buy.  Highly recommend.

Meanwhile, in Googling about I discovered that Diana Grenfell is the co-founder of the British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society.   The Society is full of helpful tips to “ensure that your plant remains resplendent throughout the growing season.”  Various garden tours and meetings are also on offer.

Shifting your attention from hostas to day lilies, take a look at Hemerocallis ‘Diana Grenfell.’  I love the richly colored dark daylilies but I can’t tell if this is more purple or bronze.  In her honor, I might just have to plant one regardless.

Designing with Conifers

I picked this up because I’m considering some sort of evergreen to help anchor the sunny garden.  Maybe in place of the sprawling butterfly bush, perhaps in the corner of the L-shape, just something soft, green, interesting and not too too big.

Richard L. Bitner‘s book, subtitled “The Best Choices for Year-Round Interest in Your Garden,” should fit the bill, except it doesn’t, quite.  The arrangement is fresh – by color, shape, and then by site – prompting you to think of what effect you’re aiming for rather than just what looks good on the page.  However, the listings are inconsistent.  I want, for each item, the common and Latin names, height and width, zones, color, sun and drought tolerance, etc.  He offers most of this info, but not all of it for any one plant, which means that for anything you find interesting, you have to do further research.  Annoying.

I will say in his defense that the photographs are beautiful without being over the top, and that he does show each one in a landscape or garden so you get a good sense of how it might work.

I am intrigued with a Picea identified only as “a green spruce globe,” which might be orientalis ‘Nana’ and looks as though it would do well in a perennial border, about three feet tall.

The cryptomeria group (aka Japanese-cedar) is shade tolerant and has the combination of small size (some) and soft foliage that I like.  Maybe japonica ‘Little Champion?’ He lists these as tolerating southern summers.

There’s nothing else for it than a trip to a nursery to see what they’re really like.  I might also give the poor man a chance by trying his earlier book, “Conifers for Gardens,” which is apparently the encyclopedic reference book I wish this one was.

Armitage’s Vines and Climbers

Another library book that had been hanging around for too long.  In preparation for my seed order, I went all the way through it in search of advice and inspiration.  Another winner from Armitage, whose combination of practical advice and opinions makes him a delight to read and to follow.

New Year’s Day reading

My shelf of unread gardening books from the library is getting too big, so I plucked one at random and read through it this afternoon.  Schneider is clearly knowledgeable and very helpful, especially if you garden in Zone 5 (which I don’t).  But he does pay attention to how drought-proof roses are as well as other attributes that help you to choose the right rose.  I’ve made note of three:  Belle  Story, 4×4;






Mary Rose, a  four-foot drought-tolerant variety;







and Queen Mother, a container rose that tolerates partial shade (front steps?).




The idea is to place a small rose in the new front garden bed, but I also like the idea of putting the Queen Mother by the front door.  Will I follow through? Only time will tell…

What Allan Armitage taught me

For some reason, I’d never read Armitage before, but I’m now a convert.  He’s a knowledgeable and strong-minded horticulturalist (reminiscent of Michael Dirr)  with lots and lots of good information. Though he’s writing about native plants, he’s clearly wary of native plant fanatics.  He’s also made a point of including only those plants you can actually buy somewhere.  Plus, since he gardens in Athens, Georgia, he’s well aware of what our heat and humidity can do to the garden.

What I’ve learned so far:

Baptisia tends to look awful in the fall, so it’s not that it has a disease, its just that the stems and fruit wither and turn brown.  “Dead stems should be cut to within about 18″ of the soil.”  I don’t remember this happening before but glad to know it’s normal.

It’s not a helenium (sneezeweed) that’s tumping over, it’s a helianthis (sunflower).  I did have a helenium ‘Butterpat’ on my list but it was out of stock when I was planting the new garden.  Will I have room for it??  Armitage: “…up to 5 feet tall.  Its stiff stems are ideal for cutting.”  Interestingly, the helianthis I have (‘Lemon Queen’) is not a variety included in Armitage.  Not a native?

Yes, those are aphids on the milkweed, and they’ll usually arrive at some point in the summer.  “Having any form of milkweed in the garden almost guarantees you’ll be an aphid farmer as well.”  Spray them away with water, or live and let live.  The remnants of tropical storm Lee took care of them (6″ plus!).


I’m not crazy about all these hybridized heucheras which, to my eye, exhibit garish colors and insignificant flowers.  From Armitage I learn that it’s the sanguinea species that I like and that’s probably the passed-along variety I have in the front garden.  ‘Vesuvius’ is a dramatic purple-leaved variety with coral red flowers and without the manufactured look of the modern heucheras.  Worth a try.

Other plants worth seeking out:

Monarda bartlettii instead of the more common didyma:  less mildew and less invasive.

Pachysandra procumbens: the native spurge to replace the ginger in the shrub border?  A slow grower.

Penstemons:  I thought these were a western specialty, but Armitage says they grow “in meadows, plains and open woods…south to Virginia.”  ‘Husker Red’ is the classic choice (its flowers are white, foliage maroon to purplish). Pallidus does well in heat and humidity.

Of all the phloxes, try phlox stolonifera, creeping phlox.  ‘Bruce’s White’ would be pretty under the oak tree.

Ruellia humilis (fringed petunia): is this the blue-flowering plant Biffy gave me?  “..they can reseed everywhere…”

Salvia greggii (Texas sage) ‘Cherry Queen:’ “An absolutely outstanding plant for southern gardens. ”

Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink) has been on my maybe list for years, but clearly now I need to take action!  “I buy every plant of indian pink I can lay my hands on…best in moist woodland or along shady paths…a hummingbird magnet…afternoon shade and consistent moisture result in faster growth.”  The latter may be the kiss of death, but I’ll give it a try.

Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony.”  I’m already a foamflower fan, but I must try this one.  “…the best foamflower and the one I recommend to my daughters.  Good-looking foliage, astounding numbers of flowers, and the longest flowering time of any I have tried.”

Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root): “upright architectural habit.”  Needs full sun.  Looks a bit like actea…

Labrador violet: I always worried that my garden is too dry for this, but he’s a champion.  He grows his under a dogwood and says they are “doers.”

Finding ferns that tolerate heat and drought is almost impossible, though the marsh ferns that Martha gave me do pretty well.  He recommends Woodwardia areolata, netted chain fern.  “I like them better than sensitive fern because they are more compact, fill in rapidly, don’t need wet soils, and, if necessary, can be removed more easily.  Just a good doer for the partially shaded garden.”

Finally, my flirtation with yuccas is endorsed by Armitage.  The one I liked in his book I also liked in the succulent book.  ‘Bright Edge’ is a smaller variety with “broad, dull golden margins.”

Here’s a sign of a good book:  lots of stickies marking information to save. Plus, doesn’t he look like a friendly guy?

Yum, Succulents!

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for succulents, which tells me (since I am the average American gardener) that there must be a lot of us out there.  On the left is a photo of sedums I took at at Oxford’s Royal Botanic Gardens and labeled “I could fall in love with sedums,” so my interest has been brewing for a while.  I enjoyed the sedums I saw in New Zealand, too.  This arrangement was at our lunchtime stop on our very last day there.  (Never mind that these may not be sedums but echeverias…)

Add to this my encounter with aeoniums in Scotland (these must be ‘Zwartzkopf’), and you have a minor obsession developing.

In my own garden I have sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ of course, but also ‘sieboldii,’ which may be my favorite with its cascade of stems; ‘Vera Jameson’ with her purple flowers nicely (and wholly accidentally) echoed by the dark pink crepe myrtle blooming above it;  and more recently ‘ternatum’ planted in the walkway garden to be used as a groundcover.  So in fact, though I’ve been intrigued with agaves and yuccas from a distance, the only succulents in my garden are sedums.

Comes now Debra Lee Baldwin with two beautiful books about succulents that take the reader beyond ‘Autumn Joy.’

The first one describes how to incorporate succulents into your garden design, considering color, texture, scale and all the other standard design elements.  Almost all of the featured gardens are from the west coast or the southwest, where “Landscaping for Fire Safety” is important.  For a zone 7 eastern gardener, it was more a pretty picture book than a gardening guide, although she does include a chapter on using succulents in colder climates.  Here, the most appealing pictures come from Thomas Hobbs’ Vancouver garden, where succulents are grown in luscious tapestries and then overwintered indoors.

Her more recent book concentrates on container gardening with succulents.

This is more my speed, and I must say the containers pictured here are truly delicious, with the pots beautifully paired with an array of sedums, echevarias, agaves and more.

For example, this gorgeous example of how attention to color, repetition and the right mulch come together in a stunning arrangement. This is called “lily pond” because that’s what it is echoing; much more effective than some of the arrangements that try to create miniature landscapes or incorporate Christmas balls and beads into the arrangements.

Though I did like the sedums planted in found objects from children’s fire trucks to teacups, reminding me of these sedums at the Waterford fair.

Though there’s lot of good information in here, and Baldwin obviously knows what she’s talking about, I was frustrated by the arrangement. I wish that her plant listings had included a picture, zone guide, etc. for each entry. So, in the end, enjoyable but not books I’ll return to very soon.

The Artful Garden

I picked this up on a whim because of the gorgeous cover.  It turns out to be a reflection on how gardening can be inspired by the arts, from painting to sculpture.  Despite the glorious photos of beautiful houses and gardens, it’s really a philosophical look at the art of garden design.  No plant lists here, it’s all about rhythm, light, negative and positive space, color and form.  Intriguing, but beyond my capabilities.  Nevertheless, I discovered some new names – who is Martha Schwarz, who covered her front garden with purple gravel and dozens of bagels?? – including the author himself.

Thoughtful Gardening

Robin Lane Fox is known for his books on the classical world, but for decades he’s written a gardening column for the Financial Times, collected here and arranged by season.  He comes across as a deeply conservative man who does not suffer fools gladly.  He scoffs at concerns about pesticides, encouraging readers to use them widely and to calm down about environmental concerns.  On the other hand, he frequently notes the longer hotter summers we’re experiencing now, so he’s hardly an ideologue.  Be careful if you’re his friend:  his essay on Rosemary Verey is a perfect example of cattiness disguised as admiration.  Not terribly likeable, but interesting.  My (library) copy is studded with bookmarks.

Gardens to visit:  Castello in Florence, accessible from the city on a number 28 bus.  “…the box parterre has charm and the wide range of lemon trees in their terra-cotta pots…are a stunning spectacle.”  The Villa Gamberaia, also in Florence (take the number 10 bus from the railway station), was described by Edith Wharton as “the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale.”  Has gorgeous views “fit to be included in a  great Florentine painting from the fifteenth century.”

Planting lore:  start lavender cuttings in August.  He recommends using a razor to make a clean cut, to root them in a mixture of 50% compost and Perlite, and to cut off the bottom of a plastic soda bottle to make a mini-greenhouse for the new cuttings.  I want to try this with my lavender in hopes of getting enough plants for a little hedge.

Which roses to choose:  pink-flowered Jacques Cartier can be pruned to about three feet and grows well in dry conditions, also features a second flush of bloom in fall.  Louise Odier has fragrant pink-rose flowers and flowers on and off through the summer (at least in England).  “The classic duo for dryness are the tall, scrambling Rose d’Amour and the thorny lower-growing Rose d’Orsay…fresh pink flowers…”

Plants to investigate:  “Cicerbita plumeria is an indestructible plant that gives great pleasure in high summer at a height of about four feet.”  Like chicory but with darker coloring, thrives in dry shade.  Other dry shade lovers include Symphytum cooperi and phlomis russeliana.  Try planting Clematis Petit faucon  with roses.  Blue Diadem cornflowers for the sunny bed?  Agrostemma Milas, with tall lilac pink flowers.

Miscellaneous:  He hates squirrels enough to include a recipe for them.  He refers to “blind” bulbs, those that send up leaves but do not flower (time to divide them).

His list of further reading is good enough to save.  I was pleased to see that one of them, a collection of Vita Sackville-West that he edited, is in my personal collection, thanks to Mom.

As always, we have to take English gardening books with a grain of salt.  Lane Fox’s definition of hot, dry summers is likely quite different from mine!