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The last bulb has been planted, the last tool put away. Time to catch up on our reading with some great gardening books

by Jodi DeLong

It will be no surprise to anyone who knows me, whether in person or through the pages of this magazine, to read that I have an extensive collection of gardening books. Some are curiosities more than 100 years old, discovered in bookshops or given to me by others who know of my obsession. Some are books I used as a student in plant science at the Agricultural College (now Dalhousie Agricultural Campus). There are many new titles on my shelves, and more arriving by post on a regular basis. Some of them even come from Atlantic Canada.

During the spring, summer and early autumn, there isn’t a lot of time to read garden books because we’re out in the garden. Come that killing frost, however, and the last leaf fallen off the trees, and we tend to turn to the stack of books and magazines we didn’t have time for earlier in the year.

Gardeners tend to love books almost as much as they love plants, so if you’re looking for something special to put in your green thumb’s stocking—or garden boot—this holiday season, here are a few to seek out. 

Favourite Perennials for Atlantic Canada

by Todd Boland. Boulder Publications, 34.95 hardcover.

Todd Boland is a horticulturalist at Memorial University’s Botanical Garden in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He’s also one of the most knowledgeable plant enthusiasts I’ve ever met, a masterful photographer and eager to share his passion for plants with others. He’s authored at least six other books—five of them field guides of Atlantic or Maritime flora, also for Newfoundland publisher Boulder—and while not everyone may share his fascination with wild flora, this latest offering is a book for any gardener, whether beginning from scratch or dealing with a mature garden.

Garden writers often say, “Plan before planting,” and then they fail to offer up how to plan a garden from scratch. Boland explains how to situate your garden for the best conditions in your yard, and if you have special challenges, he has answers for those, too. There are some handy lists of plants in the introduction that you may want to flag; plants for alkaline or acid soil, heritage varieties, pollinator-attracting species, and deer- or moose-resistant perennials, among others. He also graciously offers a list of some of the top gardens in our region that are open to the public, including the New Brunswick Botanical Garden, the Harriet Irving Botanical Garden, and Bowring Park in St. John’s, as well as his own workplace.

One particularly valuable point he makes is to encourage people not to be frightened of botanical names, demystifying their use and explaining some of the reasoning behind them. He points out that most gardeners already know more botanical names than they realize: “Phlox, Delphinium, Astilbe and Hosta are scientific names used as common names.” So, read this book, and make your “want” list for the spring. You know you want to.


Humble Burdock Farms: From Seed to Centrepiece

by Amanda Muis Brown. Nimbus Publishing, 34.95

Amanda Muis Brown’s stunningly beautiful book landed in my mailbox back in early summer, and I made a pot of tea, sat down and went through the whole thing. Brown is a flower farmer in the Annapolis Valley—the third generation of her family to farm—and she’s growing more than 150 different types of flowering plants, grasses and foliage plants, which she sells as cut flowers at farmers markets and for specialty events like weddings. Not one to hide her light under a bushel, she shares her wisdom on gardening to the eager reader who also has a love for flowers and wants to enjoy them indoors as well as out.

I love the way this book is set up, taking the reader through the seasons starting with spring and the emerging of the first bulbs, then on through summer, autumn, winter, and what she calls “bleak midwinter”—early January to early March. In each section, she profiles an assortment of plants that bloom in that season, giving notes on flower colours, plant origin, cutting and design tips, and recommended varieties to try. There’s a section on bouquet making, that will inspire anyone who ever brought in a bunch of flowers from the garden or bought flowers at a shop, got them home and said, “Now, what?” We’re introduced to the natural world that surrounds Brown’s farm—sometimes behaving as pests, sometimes as beneficials—and can’t help but be inspired by her lyrical yet informative writing.

Veggie Garden Remix

by Niki Jabbour. Storey Publishing, 29.95

Well-known writer and radio host Niki Jabbour is one of the best food gardeners I have ever met. In fact, after years of saying I couldn’t be bothered to grow vegetables, Jabbour’s first book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, got me rethinking that notion and turned me into a pretty good food gardener in a fairly limited gardening space.

With her latest book, Jabbour is encouraging us to up our vegetable game a little, by introducing some new or new-to-us varieties of veggies. Ever eat a watermelon radish? These cool-season radishes are beautiful as well as tasty. Don’t like the mess that red beets make when you cook them? Grow golden or even white beets instead.

One of the clever aspects of this book is how Jabbour introduces us to new varieties to try. Each section is called “Like X? Try Y”; for example, if you like tomatoes, try ground cherries, Cape gooseberries or tomatillos. Some chapters also include unusual varieties of the original veggie, so in the tomato section, she includes some unusual heritage varieties. There are dozens of varieties of greens, which tend to be very easy to grow—the perfect veggies for a beginner.


Escape to Reality

by Mark Cullen and Ben Cullen. Nimbus Publishing, 25.95

I received a digital copy of father-and-son duo Mark and Ben Cullen’s new book a few weeks ago, prior to its being launched as a paper book. Even after reading it in digital form, I’ll be buying a hard copy of this book, because they had me from the dedication page. The book is “dedicated to the 159 Canadian men and women who lost their lives in the Afghanistan conflict. All royalties from the book’s sale are going to the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, a planting of 117,000 trees—one for each of Canada’s war dead since 1812.”

Gulp. With this somewhat unorthodox beginning, Escape to Reality is also an unorthodox gardening book. It’s a series of short, informative essays, focused more on the why we garden than on the how, but there are plenty of hints on gardening along the way. Cullen has been an organic gardener for more than forty years and has a profound passion for sharing information to fellow plant addicts. He has a deep and abiding love for encouraging pollinators—especially native bees—and on encouraging other creatures to live in the gardens we plant and tend, pointing out that 99 per cent of the insects in our gardens are beneficial and that there is no need to wage war on them.

Not only is this book a joy to read, it’s a thing of great beauty, lavishly illustrated with watercolour illustrations that make reading the Cullens’ essays even more enjoyable. It’s a perfect read for a winter’s afternoon cozied up in your favourite chair with favourite hot beverage at hand. 

The Indestructible Houseplant

by Tovah Martin. Timber Press, 34.95

If I had a loonie for everytime someone said to me, “I can’t grow houseplants,” I would be able to buy even more plants! The truth of the matter is, everyone can grow some houseplants, but not everyone has the right indoor conditions for all houseplants. However, this delightfully encouraging book by gardener and writer Tovah Martin is subtitled “200 beautiful plants that everyone can grow,” and surely you can find a few plants that will satisfy your indoor craving for green living things. The secret, of course, is matching the right indoor plant to your home environment, just as it is when gardening outdoors.

One of the many things I like about Martin’s writing is her honesty. I follow her on Facebook (she’s @Plantswise) and the same cheery encouragement and honest appraisals of plants are in all of her books. Whether you’re gardening indoors or out, some plants billed as being indestructible are not really that way. Martin has a section on “Tried and Failed” plants that didn’t make her list of tough indoor plants, but there truly are plants for every situation. Another great thing about this book is that the plants she mentions are readily available—at department and grocery stores, at florists and garden centres, and even seasonally at some farmers’ markets. 


by Christopher Woods. Timber Press, 59.95

Most gardeners love to visit other gardens, both locally and while away travelling. There is always something new to learn or be inspired by, because this passion for plants that we share generally means that our gardens are ever-changing. Not all of us like to travel, or can afford to travel the world, but we really don’t have to, thanks to books such as this magnificent work. Its subtitle tells its story perfectly—“A botanical tour of the world’s best new gardens”—and while there are no entries from Canada among the 50 gardens profiled, the gloriously illustrated chapters fill the eye with delight and the soul with passion as you read through Woods’ skillful, often quite amusing, stories of each garden. Probably my favourite would have to be Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, Washington, which is a breathtaking small garden of delights studded with glass sculptures by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Maybe we won’t all be adding marvelous works of glass to our own gardens, but sometimes, you just have to escape into another world occupied by passionate plant enthusiasts. I sure do.

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