The Garden Primer, Second Edition. Barbara Damrosch. 820 pp. Workman Publishing, 2008.
The New York Times 1000 Gardening Questions and Answers. NYT Garden Editors. 852 pp. Workman Publishing, 2003.
On a recent trip to our local Barnes and Noble, I occupied myself (for arcane reasons which I will disclose at another time and place) by tallying the different types of gardening books displayed on the shelves. Books on kitchen and vegetable gardens were the most numerous, followed by volumes on container gardening. Books on marijuana cultivation were a not-so-distant third. Conspicuous by their absence were books on gardening in general.
As far as the publishing world is concerned, all of us gardeners have unknowingly become specialists. We are vegetable gardeners, or seed savers, or shade gardeners, or container gardeners (not to be confused with pot gardeners.) In this season of rebirth and beginnings, however, thousands of new gardeners across the country are facing their first spring in their first gardens. Here are two books that might help them.
Barbara Damrosch has a pretty good claim to being considered gardening royalty, although it’s a claim that she is far too practical and modest to make. She is a garden columnist, author, and television presence. Her husband Elliot Coleman is legendary for his innovations in cold weather vegetable production (I’ve eaten some of his work on a Maine vacation). But first and foremost, Ms. Damrosch is a real, dirt-under-the-fingernails gardener, and her practical experience is what makes the revised edition of The Garden Primer so valuable.
One of the reasons I found so few general gardening books on offer is that the topic is too vast for an ordinary book or an ordinary author. But the goal of The Garden Primer, while ambitious, is not unachievable. In the author’s words, “The aim of this book is to answer as many fundamental questions about gardening as possible.” She goes on to reassure her readers that “Good gardening is very simple, really. You just have to learn to think like a plant.” (Many of my friends and relations would assert that I have had this basic qualification for years.)
Each of The Garden Primer‘s eighteen chapter subjects could – and has – formed the basis for entire books. In fact, many of the individual entries in the plant lists have entire libraries devoted to their subjects. But Damrosch is dealing with fundamentals, and by and large, she does an outstanding job. The book strikes a good balance between theory and practice, providing explanations of why certain processes and preparations are important, as well as clear instructions for carrying them out. The sections on soil preparation and culture are especially excellent, obviously rooted in a lifetime of practice. If I were asked to recommend just one book to a novice gardener, this one would be among my top choices.
The book’s weakest sections are its plant lists, particularly the ornamentals. The information provided is accurate and helpful, but, as is inevitable in the plant world, not always current (this revision was published in 2008). It also includes a few bewildering examples, especially in the Shrubs and Trees sections, of desert, Mediterranean, and tropical plants. I understand the desire to make this as universal a reference as possible, but some limits are necessary, and geographical limits might have been a good place to start. A related problem is the inconsistent provision of hardiness data for the various genera and species listed. These criticisms are minor, and shouldn’t detract from the fact The Garden Primer is an outstanding introductory reference for beginning gardeners, and a comfortable companion for more experienced gardeners as well.
The New York Times 1000 Gardening Questions and Answers is also an attempt to answer fundamental gardening questions, in this case by using the actual questions of New York Times readers, and by consulting horticultural experts around the country to provide answers. Loosely organized in five sections, it lends itself to dipping and skimming rather than purposeful reading, but it contains an immense amount of information. Drawing on their own considerable experience, and the wisdom of famed plantsmen (and women), garden directors, and scientists, the editors have covered an astonishing variety of garden topics, often in considerable depth. Want to know how to build a sunflower house? When to plant a magnolia? Why your basil is wilting? Can you grow yams in a window box? The answers are here.
The problem with 1000 Gardening Questionsis rooted in its basic premise: if you don’t know the question, it’s hard to find the answer. The index is good, but it’s still a little difficult to focus in on a set of symptoms or a specific cultural question if you don’t already know the terms included in the answer. Having said this, 1000 Gardening Questions has the style and snap you would expect from Times authors, and is fun reading regardless of your immediate needs or concerns. Wandering through the book is a lot like wandering through a garden, where one feature steals your attention, diverts your intent, and captivates you for as long as you like. Leave it by your breakfast table, leave it in a guest room, bring it with you on vacation. Gardening should be fun, and 1000 Gardening Questions captures that spirit.
Both The Garden Primer and 1000 Gardening Questions are available directly from Workman Publishing, or here and here at Amazon.com.