Friday, January 20, 2012

Garden Book Review: 'The Nonstop Garden'

     HolleyGarden of Roses and Other Gardening Joys has proposed Garden Book Reviews as a subject for blogging on the 20th of each month.  I'm totally game, since I'm a sucker for gardening books.  I don't think I have 109 of them yet, as she does, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.  My newest was a Christmas gift.  It's The Nonstop Garden by Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner. 
     The Nonstop Garden is a large-format book with lots of appealing glossy photos of beautiful gardens, geared toward helping beginning gardeners achieve four season interest.  The premise seems solid, that having mixed gardens with trees and shrubs, perennials, bulbs and annuals is the way to achieve a garden that is appealing at all times of year, and less maintenance to boot.  Lots of gardening books for beginners are all primer without the comfortable conversational prose that makes a garden book fun to read over and over, but this book is written in an appealing personal style while still being informative. 
     The organization of the book is good, with an introductory, motivational section followed by six chapters of plants according to type (trees and shrubs, bulbs, etc.), which is the highlight and strength of the book, and then by a section called "Finishing touches" which includes less interesting (to me) chapters on garden art and structures and a final summarizing chapter highlighting tips for designing for each of the four seasons in turn.  The end of the book includes several pages of charts of various types.  
     The excellent chapters on specific plants form the lion's share of the book.  Here, the reader is treated to a series of portraits of a well-designed collection of plants.  Each chapter covers only a relatively few plant species or families, but this manageable selection is a well-chosen mix, not only of plants of different sizes and different lifecycles, but also a mix of old standbys and relatively less well-known plants.  I believe that a garden built out of just this selection of plants really would be a very satisfying four-season garden.
     The book also has some nice details, most notably the picture captions.  Most of the photos captions include a note about where the photo was taken, and this information can be compared to a list of the gardens in the back of the book.  How frequently I've been drawn by gorgeous eye-candy in a garden book only to perceive a hint of a disappointment when I begin to suspect that every single photo is taken in a garden designed by a professional designer, maintained by a large staff, and existing in England or some other impossibly mild climate.  In this book, you can check those assumptions.  OK, most of the gardens are still designed by a professional, and some are indeed botanical gardens, but not all.  Some are private gardens, and they range throughout various climate zones in the U. S.  So if you like, you can search out the pictures in a climate like your own.
     I have to admit that I don't like everything about this book.  The book features "garden designs" which are two-page spreads showing a plan view and a drawing of an imaginary garden.  Fortunately, these are sparsely spread throughout the book, rather than taking up the entire second half as in some other garden books. I guess I have a pet peeve against these things, but I would much rather see a real garden (preferably one that has made it successfully through a few years) than a drawing.  It's not the drawings I object to -- actually, I find them pretty charming -- but the unrealistic gardens they show.  Unfortunately, The Nonstop Garden's designs seem perhaps worse reflections of reality than most, especially in respect to the size of the plants.  Many of the designs in the book have some oddly sized plants, but the "Wet Feet" design almost outlandishly so.  This shows an island bed anchored by a young but sizeable sweetbay magnolia surrounded by a lush bed of other plants that appear in the drawing to all be about knee-high.  These shorties include a Virginia sweetspire (a shrub that was at least that size out of the pot when my husband planted it in our garden in November), a swamp hibiscus (about 5 feet tall in my garden) and a swamp sunflower (generally about 8 feet tall in my garden despite vigorous "pruning" by deer).  The tallest thing in the drawing besides the Magnolia looks to be maybe 3 feet at most... and it's a dawn redwood! Maybe these are the heights of the plants the day they are planted, but in that case, they should not be packed in cheek-to-jowel.  The hardest thing about garden design for beginners, I think, is not a lack of artistic vision or ignorance of so-called rules, but basic unfamiliarity with plants and what they will do in a given spot.  I think a beginner or intermediate gardener pretty much just has to grow a whole bunch of plants for years before they can really hope to implement a design that might appear in a book like this.  These color-by-number hand-drawn designs in books like these can't possibly help much, certainly not in this case.  A gardener who plants this design exactly as in the book is in for some surprises!  I suspect nobody really does that anyway, though....
Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) in my garden
     The charts in the back are also slightly disappointing.  Some of them give the impression that the authors were given a homework assignment they would rather not spend time on.  A page with three conversion charts is weirdly designed: conversions from inches to centimeters and from feet to meters are given as charts with a range of values given in both measurement systems.  But the temperature conversion, which is perennially difficult to remember and use, is given only as a mathematical equation, necessitating -- for most mortals -- the use of a calculator.  A chart with benchmark values would have been useful in this case, probably much more so than the length conversions.  The chart of "Peak Performance at a Glance" is a nice idea, but if this book is really for beginners, the entries really should include common names and not just Latin.  Most mystifying of all is the Hardiness Zone chart, which does not include a map!  But the list of resources and especially the Garden Credits, mentioned earlier, are much appreciated and should prove useful.
     All in all, I thought this was an enjoyable book, but I would not rank it in the top tier of gardening books.  Instead I would recommend Fallscaping, by Nancy J. Ondra and Stephanie Cohen (the latter author is also one of the authors of The Nonstop Garden).  Although nominally more limited in scope (just one season instead of four), Fallscaping provides a much richer and more satisfying armchair gardening experience. Maybe I'll review it on a future Garden Blogger's Garden Book Review Day.