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Literati staff member Carla is our resident Gardener Genuis Supreme. She and her partner Andy have spectacular gardens in which they grow plants most of us don't even know exist. This is her selection of gardening books, just in time for gardening season, with reviews that feature her wonderful gardening tips and tidbits.
"Peonies are stunningly beautiful, easy to grow, relatively carefree, and adaptable to any garden style. They are a favorite flower everywhere they can be grown." The Midwest has one of the best climates in the world for peonies. While gardeners fuss with roses that get blackspot and Japanese beetles, or those with forgettable little blooms and no fragrance ("Knockout"), peonies, which star in all of those amazing Japanese style gardens, have been neglected in our country. Don't just keep passing along cuttings from your grandparents' garden peonies, either. There are now over 4,000 named varieties, with stronger stems that don't flop, blooms (if you have several different kinds) that can carry you from April through June, and bold colors. And unlike many Dutch bulbs, peonies retain a pleasing shrubby appearance until they disappear at frost (or lose their leaves if they are a tree form). The authors --a curator at Matthaei's world famous peony garden, and a long-time peony grower--pick the 200 most garden worthy peonies. Get this book now and make some plans for spring. — Carla
I recently spent a half hour in the car talking about the different ways to dig up dahlia tubers (before or after frost), and store, and catalog them over winter. This conversation was made possible by a dahlia addict who grows over a 100 cultivars every year. Dahlias are making a comeback, but like peonies, they never really left Michigan. Although my source claims that most of the dahlia collectors he's met look like guys who ride tractors, it's refreshing to see a book authored by the female farmer of Floret's Farm fame (sorry). The huge color, petal, and size variation of dahlia blooms is definitely the best bargain for autumn bouquets. And unlike books that feature warmer climates, there is nothing in this book that you can't put in your own garden. If you want to see a lot of different dahlias in bloom, you can check out Dahlia Hill in Midland, Michigan or the Toledo Botanical Garden. — Carla
"Adventures in Eden"is a book with photographic tours of fifty European gardens-about forty percent of them from the UK and Ireland. I'm reading one profile a day, which should take me to spring in my own garden. There are a handful of reasons that this is one of the very best garden coffee table books that I've seen. First, the gardens chosen are relatively modern and modest gardens which, although not part of the RHS or National Trust, still have a habit of opening to the public, whether from private tours or open garden days. Several of these gardeners have lectured in Michigan (Peter Korn was just in Ann Arbor a few years ago.) Second, Mullett is a long practicing garden designer from the US, aware of plant combinations, and plant palettes attractive to particularly American gardeners, which makes this book have greater appeal than just eye candy. Much of what she shows can be done at some level in our gardens. The garden art is often from repurposed objects or architectural salvage. Although the formal boxwood and yew topiary is not as much of our tradition, we know from American Pearl Fryar what can be done in one generation. The US hardiness range for these European gardens is 3-9, with particularly a lot of zone 6-8, so many of the gardeners' favored plants are perfectly hardy in your garden or microclimate. Mullett is also a good writer, and her essays add a lot to your understanding of each garden. But critical for this book, she is writing this from the perspective of a garden tour guide, with a great talent for both taking and selecting other people's photographs. The gardens are featured at all distances: the middle, plant or garden art close ups, borrowed landscapes. I don't think that I have ever seen a more well selected group of photographs for a collection of gardens. Don't take my word for it. The author has a facebook account "Garden Design with Carolyn Mullet" with over 1.6 million followers. — Carla
When I moved into my house during the Dark Ages (i.e. before YouTube) I planted a tomato next to the house, right under the eaves. My helpful new neighbor leaned over the fence and said she was sorry to see the forsythia go. Yes, I had just dug up a small forsythia, which I thought was a weed, to make a hole to plant the tomato plant in the shade. The kindness of new found gardening friends - like the helpful neighbor in “The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food” - has guided me ever since. Joseph Tychonievich has done a series of always interesting gardening books, including rock gardening and plant breeding. Unlike every other vegetable gardening book, and there are many, this tells you what you really need to know and nothing more. (He does provide a list of sources to go to for the more to know part.) It’s geared to success (grow Swiss chard, not spinach) and avoiding failure: don’t buy the biggest plant in the smallest pot, and don’t plant your heat-loving plants too soon. Confession, I rarely read graphic novels, but I felt an instant kinship with George the neighbor over the fence, and novice gardener Mia, who at least has the benefit of a smartphone. I want to go to Mia’s harvest party, too! Kudos to illustrator Liz Anna Kozik for making these gardeners seem real. The best part is this book can be read by or shared with readers of all ages. — Carla
This book is a very useful introduction to adding garden worthy native trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials to your Midwest landscape. It includes an essay on the advantages of native plants, as well as tips for picking plants and designing with them. The bulk of the book is an illustrated list of plants to choose from. The author uses the common names (the Latin is also given) and no US hardiness zone, but gardeners in southeast Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio can assume that, some soil conditions excepted, they can successfully grow all of these. His sense of humor and honesty remind me of legendary garden writer Allan Armitage. I loved this description of the swamp white oak: "the darling of city foresters in urban-damaged soils." Yes, that's the tree planted in front of Literati after others failed to survive. My neighborhood sidewalks are shaded by the Kentucky coffee tree, a dinosaur whose bark is probably a protective armor for "long-extinct ground sloths." What the author fails to mention is its relentless suckering, its lateness at leafing out, and the giant seed pods that fall on your head. I have planted and sometimes killed the majority of the perennials that he recommends. When I had tall coreopsis I had flocks of goldfinches, but also, once they found them, annual flocks of aphids. And when the author tells you that a plant is aggressive, believe him the first time. It took me five years to remove non-native running bamboo from my yard: the running native pipevine will go down with the house. On the other hand, I would not be without yucca, butterfly weed, ( there is always a short-lived milkweed bug visit in the fall that I actually enjoy — no harm done) maidenhair fern, marsh-marigold, virginia bluebells, wood poppies, and dozens of other natives. Get this book and go visit the new Belle Isle Piet Oudolf designed garden this spring to see a naturalistic planting that uses many (but not all) native plants. Carla
Some twenty years ago, on a trip to Seattle, I bought two souvenirs for my increasingly gardening obsessed partner: a packet of flower seeds and a book that I saw stacked up in a local bookstore, "The Explorer's Garden" by Dan Hinkley. At that time Hinkley owned a plant-world-famous nursery named Heronswood, and lived on the property in Kingston, Washington. Like others, we have kept our old Heronswood Nursery catalogs because they are one of a kind. After Hinkey sold Heronswood, he moved to a new home, Windcliff, the subject of this book. Hinkley has Michigan connections. He grew up on a still extant heritage farm in Evart, Michigan and has a horticulture degree from Michigan State. Perhaps because of that, he frequently lectures in Michigan. (I had tickets to see him again this past spring.) In 2012, three of us were on a small garden tour that included Windcliff. Now twice as old, it's wonderful to see what he and his architect partner Robert have wrought. You will not be able to grow all of the plants you see in his garden, at least in the ground, but there is still a lot of inspiration to be had. — Carla
Page Dickey has written pretty much the perfect garden book. For 34 years she gardened intensively on three acres in New York's Westchester County, her renowned garden becoming increasingly crowded with carefully curated, and often rare annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees. In her 70s-and with her husband even older, she decided to find a new place that acknowledged their aging knees and financial necessity. But instead of trading down in space, she traded up: to 17 acres in rural Connecticut. There is something in her book for every gardener, particularly those of us who toil to make their yards more beautiful in hardiness zones 4 to 7.
Her new garden exhibits the biggest trend that I see in the gardens that I visit: not just mixing perennials and shrubs, or edibles with ornamentals, but natives and non natives. Along with adding native plants, these gardeners are carefully accepting new "improved" cultivars of old plants, and those from other countries, but they are paying attention to the habit of each, mindful of invasive plants like buckthorn and Japanese honeysuckle, that have been loosed from our landscapes into our wilderness, crowding out wildflowers and plants needed by insects that support all of the other wildlife.
Each chapter, although written as a whole, could stand alone as an essay. There's a great index filled with great plants (e.g. 4 solidagos and 5 sanguisorbas), inspirational photos of both her old place and her new, and cautionary advice on greenhouses, new garden beds, the elusive meadow, and keeping unspoiled native plant areas. Winter is coming: "I, for one, am more than ready to take a break from gardening in winter, relieved to be forced by frozen soil and single-digit temperatures to call it quits. What a pleasure it is to read books without the weeds calling, to bake cakes and slow cook stews, to daydream about flowers. I have time to scheme about gardens, to change my mind multiple times on how to improve their design, to plot what plants to add next spring, what seeds to order."
Buy (or gift) this now for scheming and dreaming. — Carla
This is a really intelligently designed guide to either renovating or re-inventing your garden and yard. Most of Schwartz's examples are either smaller projects or adaptable to a more affordable scale, whether done DIY or by a landscape company. She is particularly strong on advice for hedge materials, how to correctly plant trees, and patio decisions. The author is both a landscape designer and plant enthusiast working out of Northern Ohio, so her plant choices and design ideas all translate well in Michigan's similar climate (and other zone 4-7 areas). A book that I will return to as I re-imagine my own garden. — Carla
Michigan produces more annuals and herbaceous perennials (bedding plants for gardens) than ANY OTHER state, and a lot of the reason is Proven Winners. You are likely to see new plant cultivar introductions, that are produced by their network of growers, at most garden centers. "Winners" was jointly founded in 1992 by a California nursery, a New Hampshire nursery, and Four Star Greenhouse in Carlton, Michigan (a half hour south of Detroit Metro Airport). This book, by seasoned garden authors, is a very affordable guide to using some of the most widely available garden plants in good garden and container designs. Putting the right plant in the right place will also save you money. (After you read it, you might want to visit Four Star's display gardens as well.) — Carla
Life got in the way of me reading this book when it first came out in 2019, but life is what should put it in front of any gardener or would-be gardener who is feeling the effects of aging. I've been told that our bodies age twice as fast in our 50s as they did in our 40s. Failing to take that into account can leave you disheartened and frustrated at all the bending, lifting, pruning, weeding, watering and mowing that seems to be a little harder to get done each year. I've picked up some good tips as well as some good products (stair-climbing dolly) from author Toni Gattone. If you are looking for a gift for Mom or Dad this spring, at $19.95 this copiously illustrated book will leave you enough money for a new pair of secateurs. — Carla
The Xerces Society has put together a full color guide to adding plants that will allow all stages of the embattled monarch butterfly to thrive. As most of us know, the monarch needs milkweed to lay its eggs on; you might not have known that there are at least 34 milkweeds to choose from, many of them extremely ornamental. A list of nectar plants is longer, but since there are two distinct migrating populations of monarchs — west coast and east coast — the authors let you know which are best for your region. If you are adding native plants to your yard, make sure you include both categories. — Carla
Most of us who stumble into ornamental gardening and go beyond lawn care, petunias, and pruning the yews end up as modern cottage gardeners. We try a little bit of everything: seed packets, pass along plants, a few perennials, and hanging planters. This book will help take you to the next level. Included is a very original list of the author's must-have plants, that will add the most textural value to whatever you've already planted. — Carla
There have been many gardening books organized around journaling the seasonal changes in an author's garden. We are lucky in the Midwest that we have seasons that are strikingly different from one another. Well known garden author Tovah Martin gardens in northwestern Connecticut, which is more similar to our climate than not. Like any good garden or sonnet, she's striving to appeal to all of your senses, as she puts down the chores and takes up appreciating all that her garden has to offer. Try following along with her as you go out your own door, and look and listen. — Carla
Hundreds of full-color photographs with easy-to-understand text make this a great visual guide to learning about more than 150 species of weeds--toxic, edible, or otherwise interesting--found in the Upper Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The species (from dandelion to purslane) are organized by type, then by flower color, so you can identify them by their visual characteristics. Plus, learn about how each weed spreads, how to control it, and its possible beneficial uses.