Garden reading

New books take you on an inspiring tour of Western gardens
Sharon Cohoon and Jim McCausland

Smart plants for today's gardener
Nan Sterman's well-reasoned portfolio of personal favorites

When you visit a nursery, do you wish you had a personal shopper in tow to help you sort out the confusion of choices? (There are so many things you can plant in Southern California, it's hard to know what you should plant.) Nan Sterman's new book, California Gardener's Guide, Volume II (Cool Springs Press, 2007; $25), feels like that personal shopper.

Sterman has narrowed the formidable field of possibilities to just 186 write-ups, from annuals to trees, focusing on ones that have proven to be well adapted to our Mediterranean climate and are easy to grow; in the majority of cases, she vouches for them from personal experience. Familiar plants such as camellia, New Zealand flax, and salvia are included, as are some surprises, such as conebush ( Leucadendron), honeybells ( Hermannia verticillata), Mexican lily ( Beschorneria yuccoides), and ornamental oregano ( Origanum spp.).

For every choice, Sterman also suggests companions ― like yellow-flowered winter cassia (also sold as Senna bicapsularis) with purple Mexican bush sage and burgundy sunrose. Or blue chalk sticks ( Senecio mandraliscae) with yellow bulbine and pink African daisy.

Helpful tips and techniques are scattered throughout the book and are grouped into a dedicated section at the back. How to get cactus spines out painlessly, for example. Or how to use hebe to prop up a lovely but floppy anise hyssop ( Agastache foeniculum).

The list of retail and mail-order specialty nurseries in Sterman's Resources section is pretty great too.

A celebration of an extraordinary garden
The curator of the Huntington Desert Garden tells its story

Once you've seen the Desert Garden at the Huntington, no trip there seems complete without seeing it again. Yet, no matter how often you visit, the Desert Garden continues to startle you with its bold beauty.

Read Desert Plants: A Curator's Introduction to the Desert Garden by Gary Lyons (Huntington Library Press, 2007) ― a publication undertaken to coincide with the Desert Garden's 100th anniversary ― and you'll find the space even more remarkable.

As Lyons describes in the brief history that begins the book, the Desert Garden had a very tentative start.

Railroad and real estate developer Henry Huntington allowed his ranch superintendent William Hertrich to plant a few trial beds of cactus on his property in 1907 reluctantly. But the plants attracted attention from the start, and Huntington soon allowed Hertrich to expand the section.

Once the estate was converted into a public garden after Huntington's death in 1927, the Desert Garden endured other challenges, including several hard freezes and a prolonged period of neglect during the Great Depression and World War II. It bounced back from every setback and has only gotten better with time, gradually expanding to its current 12-acre size.

Much of the rest of the book is a natural history of the different plant families that make up the Desert Garden. Lyon shows where each group originated, how their structure helps them cope with long periods without rain, and how man has made use of the plants. The red sap of the dragon tree (Dracena draco), for instance, was once used to stain marble, glass, and 17th and 18th century violins. Lyons also points out plants in the Garden that no longer exist in the wild or are endangered, such as creeping devil cactus (Stenocereus eruca), the wickedly-spined plant that carpets much of the Baja section.

Lyons also confesses that the garden's name has become a bit of a misnomer. Only about five percent of the exotic succulents growing here now would survive in the harsh conditions of a true desert such as the Mojave, he says. The rest ― plants from South Africa, Madagascar, Canary Islands, and South America ― are adapted to irregular, unpredictable, or seasonally available water but not temperature extremes. What the plants all have in common is boldness.

Working with this dramatic palette, Hertrich and his successors have created what the famous Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx called "the most extrordinary garden in the world." They've also created what Lyon calls a "botanical ark." The Desert Garden is helping to preserve some of the most unusual plants on the planet.

The case for mountain gardening
Marcia Tatroe's eloquent plea for a sensible regional aesthetic

Few places on earth have a stronger regional identity than the American West. High mountains, aridity, rock, wide temperature swings, and brilliant colors all contribute to its magic.

Gardeners who embrace these realities can have spectacular successes, but those who don't ― those who try to grow English gardens in Denver, for example ― often end up in tears.

It is Marcia Tatroe's fervent desire to bring these misguided souls to their horticultural senses, and to do that, she's written a powerfully convincing book. Cutting Edge Gardening In the Intermountain West by Tatroe and photographer Charles Mann (Johnson Books, Boulder, 2007; $29.95) tackles every part of the debate with irresistible logic.

Tatroe wants gardeners to understand that "a sensitive landscape reflects the genius loci, the sense of place that defines the spirit and the underlying character of the local environs."

In the intermountain West, much of that genius loci is a function of aridity, so she writes that "Learning to garden with less water has become the catalyst for creating a new garden aesthetic ― one where gardens speak strongly about where we live and who we are." Such focused regional gardens don't look anything like gardens on either coast or in the nation's midsection.

For starters, intermountain gardens should contain much less green (Tatroe considers bluegrass lawns to be abominations) and more bright colors.

As she puts it, "Our region got the big box of crayons." Such colors show up in wildflowers, in polychromatic soil and rock, and even in parts of the culture. It belongs in gardens too.

She sees local rock as a kind of local signature ― something that ties your garden to the land it sits on ― and she sees rock gardens as high art. If you haven't been a fan of rock gardens until now, leaf through the pages of gardens captured so masterfully by Charles Mann's lenses. These are at once striking and doable.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of plants for intermountain gardens, again well-supported by Mann's photos. These are presented in essays, charts, and photos rather than in simple encyclopedic listings. The format works perfectly.

Tatroe's essays on subjects from water to shade are as thorough as any you'll ever read. Combine them with her love of lists (rosette plants, bulbs, miniature shrubs, signature plants, cactus, perennials, and many more), and you have a book that captures the spirit of mountain gardening with both passion and practicality.

Ask Ciscoe
. . . and you'll laugh at the answer

Probably nobody in horticulture fields as many questions as Seattle's Ciscoe Morris. He takes them on radio, television, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now in a book called Ask Ciscoe: Your Gardening Questions Answered (Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2007; $18.95). And probably nobody has come up with as many spot-on (and often hilarious) answers.

The book's first sentence sets the tone: "The real plant expert is the person who has murdered the most plants." Ciscoe's probably done that, but he's also made more plants grow well that just about anybody (for 24 years he was director of the award-winning gardens at Seattle University). As you read on, you'll encounter a cast of priests, small dogs, and plaintive gardeners with big questions.

Ciscoe answers them all, always in his own quirky way, and often in his own language. If you don't know about el kabotski, the kazutski, and bull tweetle when you start, you will when you're finished.

You'll learn how to make your indoor cactus flower, how to stop apple maggots, when to divide perennials, and the mysteries of pruning everything from hydrangeas to clematis. Much of his sterling advice comes with terrific anecdotes, some of which may actually be true (but don't believe his claims about the delightful fragrance of roasted Brussels sprouts).

As Ciscoe sings the praises of home grown Chinese tea, alfalfa meal fertilizer, and pot-grown Meyer lemons, you'll gradually start to realize how deep his knowledge runs. It's about time he's produced a book, but it's no surprise to discover that this is one of the best regional garden books to ever appear in Northwest book stores.

Petal pusher
Adventures from the wildflower highway

Scott Calhoun writes books that are hard to classify. His first book, Yard Full of Sun, was more a why-to than a how-to.

Ostensibly about creating a garden at his home in Tucson, the book was really a love story about his passion for desert plants. Calhoun's second book, Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens (Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, 2007), doesn't fit neatly into a category either.

In it Calhoun describes eleven road trips he took to the Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts and the Great Basin in 2005 and 2006 in search of wildflower displays. (The more arid the habitat, the greater the portion of its plants are annuals is the rationale behind his choices.)

But Chasing Wildflowers isn't a field guide ― even though specific routes, lodging and dining recommendations, and recommended background reading are all included ― as much as it is a travel journal.

As in the best travel writing, we learn as much about the traveler as we do about the scenery he sees ― in this case, reflections on Calhoun's Mormon background, his evolving relationship with his fiery red-headed wife Deirdre, his musical tastes, and, especially his eating habits.

Calhoun has, as he describes it, "the metabolism of a rock squirrel" and can wolf down calorie bombs such as giant burrito, Texas schnitzel, and Sonoran hot dogs and still stay skinny. Since Calhoun also does the photography for his books, we see the world from his perspective in a second way as well.

Whether you enjoy his book vicariously as an armchair traveler or use it to plan your own wildflower chasing adventure, you'll find Calhoun good company.

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