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The Dirt / 2018: the year you became a better gardener

Images courtesy of publishers


Yearly resolutions are either impossible to keep or too prohibitive to be fun. Why not try an incremental promise that this is the year to make the domestic landscape more attractive and enjoyable? Gardens are healthy, serene, and beautiful places to be, and gardening is good physical exercise that might help with some of those other resolutions. There are plenty of experts to show you the way, as the first three books in this crop of recently published gardening titles demonstrate. The last two titles are included purely for inspiration.


House Plants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Indoor Plants

Lisa Eldred Steinkopf

Cool Springs Press/Quarto Group, 2017

Gardening does not stop in the winter, especially not if you’re riding the popular new wave: houseplants. Apparently, millennials are now surrounding themselves with plants indoors; many of us have always appreciated their decorative qualities and health benefits. There’s always a great new houseplant book on the shelves; this year, it’s Lisa Eldred’s, which is split into eighty pages of how-to and troubleshooting and about 150 pages of individual plant profiles. The book is filled with basic, common sense on how to keep them alive, and provides a large and diverse range of great choices, with their preferred conditions.


We also highly recommend Tovah Martin’s The Indestructable Houseplant (Timber Press, 2015).



Glorious Shade

Jenny Rose Carey

Timber Press, 2017

It’s time more gardeners recognized that partial shade represents an opportunity, not an obstacle. In the heat of summer, shady areas are cool, refreshing, retreats. And if the shade is provided by trees, there are the additional benefits of providing habitat, natural air conditioning for the buildings beneath, and essential carbon sequestration.


Carey’s book is roughly split into two parts: the first instructs on cultivation and design while the second provides a lengthy list of trees, shrubs, perennials, tropicals, and annuals that tolerate shade. Some of the best cultivars for Western New York include trees: river birch (betula), Kousa dogwood (cornus), black tupelo (nyssa); shrubs: Abelia, aronia, fothergilla and (of course) hydrangea; and perennials: cranesbill (geranium), helleborus, Martagon lily, and variegated Solomon’s Seal (polygonatum odoratum).


There are special trouble-shooting sections for more problematic shade areas, like around tree roots, in dry shade, and for special soil conditions, as well as instructions on planting rain gardens and even xeric gardens. It’s time to embrace shade.



The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Garden

Sally Roth

Timber Press, 2017

Have a blank slate (i.e., weed-filled wilderness)? Here’s an alternative to spending thousands on garden design/landscaping. Sally Roth advises beginning gardeners to start small, say, at the mailbox, and move on to other areas. She has chosen twelve possible garden spaces—the front lawn, the space between houses, the space around a tree, and so on—and provided simple plans, plant lists, and general advice that will help transform each area. Among the many tips, instructions, and ideas included throughout the book:


•The Magnificent Seven: Seven plants that will provide color from April through August

•Coleus Comes Through: A couple coleus plants can provide more and longer coverage than twice as many expensive perennial foliage plants.

•Repetition is important

•Multipurpose Rocks: Some well-placed rocks can substitute for yearly mulch applications


Starting a Garden also addresses some basic, ordinary problems that get left out of many glossy garden books. How to draw attention away from your neighbor’s collection of disabled cars? What shouldn’t you plant along a driveway? How can you make sure sprawling border plants don’t impede sidewalk traffic?


This is a beginners’ garden book that really will help beginners.



The Secret Gardeners: Britain’s Creatives Reveal Their Private Sanctuaries

Victoria Summerley, photos by Hugo Rittsom Thomas

Frances Lincoln/Quarto, 2017

What do Jeremy Irons and Ozzy Osbourne have in common? We know they’re Brits, so the answer shouldn’t be that hard: both own and maintain beautiful countryside gardens in England. So do Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rupert Everett, and Sting. And if you want something completely different, visit Terry and Maggie Gilliam’s London retreat.


Chances are none of us will ever be able to see any of these private estates, so it’s a good thing writer Victoria Summerley and photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas have collaborated on a book that describes and depicts them—lavishly. Secret Gardens focuses on British “creatives” and their (mostly) large properties, the majority of which have been landscaped with the help of well-known professionals. There are castles, manors, coach houses, Regency villas, and former priories. The gardens are equally varied, though all contain that lush, formal/informal quality that seems only possible in Great Britain. And there are plenty of small, quirky structures, or, as they call them in the UK, “follies.” This is a perfect coffee table gift book with the added interest of some genteel celebrity gossip.



Gardens of the High Line

Piet Oudolf, Rick Darke

Timber Press, 2017

This book is not a substitute for a visit to New York City’s High Line. If possible, the former elevated railway—now one of the world’s most famous public parks—should be explored first. Then it’s time to read Gardens of the High Line, which details, in full, the before, during, and after of this reinvented urban landscape, described and illustrated in every season, from every angle. Written by Piet Oudolf, a member of the High Line design team (led by James Corner Field Operations), and Rick Darke, another well-known landscape designer who has been photographing the park since 2002, Gardens of the High Line is the definitive guide. Every section of the park, from the Gansevoort Woodland at Thirteenth Street to the Wildflower Field at Thirtieth Street, is explored, explained, and beautifully photographed. There are also examples of the gardens that influenced and inspired the High Line’s design and plant palette.


Piet Oudolf was chosen to help design the High Line largely because of his work with Chicago’s Lurie Gardens, which contain layered blocks of plants in spontaneous, naturalistic configurations. That spontaneity has been recreated on the abandoned industrial canvas of a former elevated railway on New York’s lower West Side, where visitors often feel they are walking through wild prairies and woodlands. Another important takeaway from a visit to the High Line is the fact that so many perennials, shrubs, and trees can thrive at a planting depth of (mostly) nine to eighteen inches. Many of them are indigenous to the region; some are not. Their success is the result of continual experimentation and refinement.


The lively design, gorgeous photography, and clear, detailed writing in this book do justice to the groundbreaking brilliance of its subject.        


Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree.


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