Monday, December 6, 2010


An unexpected pleasure
            We gardeners are a lucky lot when it comes to gifts. We get unexpected little ones all the time. On Saturday, for instance, when Tim and I left the house on the annual Christmas tree quest, what to our wond’ring eyes should appear? Two perfectly formed cerise Zéphrine Drouhin blooms on the plant I’m training to swag over the front porch. And after two consecutive nights of frost, no less. Does that not have “gardeners’ gift” written all over it?

            Again yesterday, while doing my usual Sunday chores—feeding and watering the birds; turning the compost heap; taking the trash and recyclables bins out to the street; going horticultural walkabout to keep a lid on potential problems—I wandered out to the blasted vegetable beds for a look-see. Well, good golly, Miss Molly! Another little gift: 29 grape-sized green tomatoes that the frost had missed still clinging to their vines. Brought them in, gave ’em a wash, and put them on the kitchen windowsill.

            It may be that we’re just an easy-to-please bunch. But if you’re in the unenviable position of trying to top nature in the Christmas-morning-surprise department, I have a few suggestions you might whisper into Santa’s ear.

            Gardeners love reference books. I’ve listed some of my all-time favorites.

·         Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael A. Dirr, 2009 edition. Sounds like a real snoozer, doesn’t it? Au contraire, it’s an absolutely-must-have reference for any serious gardener. I trust this book implicitly when it comes to woodies. The information is meticulous and often humorously presented. You won’t find many encyclopedias that make you chuckle, but this one will. Line drawings by Mrs. Bonnie Dirr illustrate the text. (The accompanying photo is of my well-worn 1998 edition. The new one has a snazzier cover.) Stipes Publishing, L.L.C., P.O. Box 526, Champaign, IL  61824.

·         The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, 1998. The go-to guide for information on pruning perennials for manipulating bloom-times and for maintenance of plant size and habit. Lovely pictures from the most successful Ohio gardens she's designed. This one’s DiSabato-Aust’s first book, and, in my opinion, her best. Timber Press.

·         The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why and The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line, by Jeff Gillman, 2008. Mr. Gillman appeals to me because he doesn’t seem to have any particular axe in need of grinding. His stated aim is for people to understand why they do things in the garden, and the science behind how the thing works... or not. Both Timber Press.

·         Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses by Tim R. Murphy, Daniel L. Colvin, Ray Dickens, John W. Everest, David Hall and L. B. (Bert) McCarty, 2002. Proof that it takes a village to identify a weed, this is hands-down my favorite pictorial reference. You'd think this one would be hard to find, as—oddly enough—it never hit the New York Times best-seller list. But it's not. University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, FL.
·          Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, 2004. Don’t know ladybug larvae from elbows? Add this book to your reference shelf right now. This is the best bug book for gardeners I’ve ever stumbled upon; it has lots and lots of good pictures and useful information for the non-entomologists among us. Princeton University Press.

·         What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Can I Fix It?) by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, 2009. Deardorff and Wadsworth are poster children for IPM (Integrated Pest Management), providing user-friendly flow charts based on plant appearance to diagnose pathologies. Then they offer organic solutions. Who could ask for anything more? Timber Press.

This next is not precisely a reference book, but it is the most accessible introduction to the science and Zen of dirt I’ve yet to come across, which makes it indispensible reading.

More from the Fitzgerald bookshelf

·         Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, 2006. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The first part illuminates the ecosystem of living soil in such a powerful way that I kept saying “Wow!” out loud and waking Tim up to read him whole sections. The second part, about actually applying all those “Wow!” moments, got a little too intense (read: ’way too time- and space-consuming), but the true-believer methods can be adapted to forms that work for us less-evangelical types. Timber Press.

For pure enjoyment, try one of these classics about the charm and wisdom lurking in gardens.

·         An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter, 2001. First published in 1894, Miss Thaxter’s narrative of growing her garden on Appledore Island off the coast of Maine evokes a gentler time and a smaller, nicer world. This handsome boxed edition features the same Childe Hassam illustrations as the original and a new introduction by Tasha Tudor. Houghton Mifflin.

·         Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, 1970. Not your conventional gardening book, nonetheless Kosinski has a lot to say about the important lessons learned from a life spent digging in the dirt. Originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, my more recent paperback is from Grove Press.   

Prefer your reading matter in smaller doses? How about a subscription to one (or more!) of the following magazines?

·         The Avant Gardener: The Unique Horticultural News Service. This monthly newsletter is a digest of about a million horticultural publications, and so worthwhile. Mr. Powell has been around a long time: he types his newsletter on a typewriter and runs it off on a stencil machine (anyone besides me remember those?). And he doesn't have a website. You gotta admire him for all that. Thomas Powell, editor and publisher. P.O. Box 489, New York, NY  10028.

·         Carolina Gardener.  Published seven times a year (bimonthly and a special spring issue). Aimed at gardeners in the Carolinas (duh) and Georgia, it features articles by well-respected regional writers, including yours truly.

Kathy's favorite gardening magazines
 ·         Garden Gate. Coming to you every other month from the wilds of Iowa, Garden Gate’s focus is national with a slight Midwestern bias. Written entirely by its staff, there are lots of easy-to-read plant profiles, how-to construction projects and design suggestions. August Home Publishing Company.

·         Heirloom Gardener. Published quarterly by the fine folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Kind of kitschy and down-home, it specializes in articles about non-hybrid, heirloom plants, many of which I’d bet a nickel you’ve never heard of. I certainly learn something new every issue, particularly from their Frankenfoods alerts. www.TheHeirloom

·         Organic Gardener. Six issues per year. The granddaddy publication of sustainable gardening, it still delivers.   

Wow. Kind of makes you wonder how I find the time to actually go outside with all this reading material hanging around, begging for attention. It’s a physical thing, really: my butt gets sore if I sit too long. As a matter of fact, my nether regions are sending up some twingey messages right now, so I shall call a halt to these proceedings for the time being. I'll be back in a few days with other gardener-gift suggestions.

Most of these titles are available through Amazon. For subscriptions to The Avant Gardener, Garden Gate and The Heirloom Gardener, contact them directly.

Thanks for dropping by. And stay tuned.


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