Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading Through the Winter, II

      Passionate gardeners reveal themselves in their books.  All their  predilections, biases, affectations, affections and unkindness are out there in print for everyone to see.  Their likes and dislikes can be observed to inform their designs, selections of plants and, sometimes, their view of the role of landscape in society.  Even if not forthrightly declared, you can intuit it from the writer’s long derogatory digression on a garden practice it never occurred to you to question.    

Michael Pollan is such a writer.  His memoir, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, includes chapters which previously appeared as articles in the New York Times Magazine, and Harpers’ Magazine.  I admit to putting aside the articles in their original configuration; it was often more than I wanted to know about Pollan’s subject of the moment.   But in this more leisurely memoir, the diatribes settle into place.    

His opening essay describing his grandfather’s garden -- and his father’s aversion to gardens in any form -- shapes the gardener’s life that follows.  Equal parts experience, advice, and a meditation on man’s relationship to the natural environment, there is much to learn from this wise book.

The essay on lawns covers lawn care, lawns as a function of society, the allure of the lawn, the business of lawns, and the renegade movement to replace the lawn in the front yard with a meadow while risking the ire of neighbors.  In Pollan’s view, the relationship of the lawn to neighbors seems diametrically opposed to the relationship of the lawn to nature.  His struggle to achieve the perfect lawn, and the gradual changeover to the absence of lawn altogether, will resonate in the hearts and minds of every homeowner.

If you are attempting to reduce the hours spent peering into cultivated beds trying to distinguish between emerging perennials and weeds, I recommend Weeds of the Northeast, by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. Di Tomaso.  It relies on vegetative rather than floral characteristics for identification, thus giving the home gardener what is most needed – and early identification mechanism to help eliminate weeds long before they flower and take over the garden.

It’s a very reader-friendly book.  The authors provide shortcut identification tables for weeds with unusual vegetative characteristics, such as thorns or square stems, and a special identification table for weedy grasses.  The main tool for identification is the dichotomous key to all the species described in the book.  If you have not already done so, this is a fine opportunity to learn to identify plants through the use of the botanist’s classic tool.

All dichotomous keys operate on the same principle.  At each juncture, two choices are offered.  However, all authors do not use them in the same way.  The authors of Weeds of the Northeast protect us from making “wrong turns” by allowing a species to appear at different parts of the key –- a somewhat unorthodox practice.  

Best of all, there are many pictures that will help steer you away from protecting weeds, thinking they are flowers.  Some weeds successfully masquerade as their more cultivated cousins. 

For years Michael Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs has been the gold standard for plant identification and selection.  Not only is Dirr intimately familiar with every plant he writes about, he is delightfully opinionated as well.  With plants he loves, he is a doting parent, and plants he finds of questionable value he banishes with a back-hand wave, as if sending an errant nephew off to the provinces. I have two copies of this book: one at home and one in the trunk of the car so that I’m ready for the unexpected nursery stop.

Sarah Raven’s The Bold and Brilliant Garden was recommended by a California gardener who is losing her sight.  As her condition worsened, she depended increasingly on deep and vibrant colors rather than the more subtle combinations she had worked with for years. 

A related observation was made by a well-known garden consultant.  He noticed that the life-long gardeners on his roster were veering towards bolder color combinations, while those new to gardening tended to stay with the softer pinks and blues.

Raven’s combinations come as a shock to those of us raised on pastel shades enhanced by silver foliage plants.  Raver places bright orange next to magenta, mixes pink with deep yellow and orange, and throws caution to the winds with the blackest blooms she can find.

Brilliant color demands bold flowers to carry it, and her plants have big trumpets, large saucers, and shaggy flamboyant flower heads.  She is fond of large grasses, acid-green euphorbias, and blazing zinnias.  Hers is not garden planning for the modest and unassuming.  

The books above are not hot off the press this season, but are all readily available at your local bookstore or online.  The authors are still very much on the scene. 

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