Yes, it’s February but it’s never too early to dream about the garden for spring. If you’re new to gardening chances are you don’t have a lot of books on the subject. Well, the truth is you don’t need that many but there’s one book I recommend to everyone when starting out. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.
Just the other day, I talked about this book with writer/interviewer Erin Popelka for the Must Read Fiction Podcast, where afterward I realized I didn’t do that good of a job in describing why you need this book. Hopefully, I can correct that here.
Who is The American Horticultural Society?
The American Horticultural Society is the oldest and largest non-profit gardening organization in America. Established in 1922, it works to promote plants and the natural world. They have the most experienced experts who write various books and speak at events to educate the public. One of those people is English botanist Christopher Brickell. He was the director of the Royal Horticultural Society and is still an editor, explorer, writer, horticulturalist, etc. He was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour in Britain, which basically makes him the king of horticulture.
Setting the Standard for a Comprehensive Garden Guide
In the 1990s, via the RHS, he, with Judith Zuk, edited the most comprehensive book on plants that grow in Europe and North America. It has over 15,000 entries and 6,000 pictures. Plants are arranged alphabetically and easy to find. Later, he updated it via the American Horticultural Society. This book is massive, it’s heavy, it’s my favorite. It’s the A-Z Encylopedia of Garden Plants.
Why I Love It
I love the A-Z because it’s easy to use and sooo complete. It has basic info about how the plant kingdom works, basic plant structure, cultivating in various regions and environments, simple pruning info, and the various categories that plants fall under. And that’s all before the directory! Afterward, there’s growing zone maps, a glossary, and a common names index, which is very handy for newbie gardeners.
In the directory itself, entries don’t just describe the plants generally, they go into depth. For instance, they discuss the hydrangea genus, its various species, its varieties and cultivars. It doesn’t feature them all but it gets pretty darn close — with pictures. By the way, what’s the difference between a variety and cultivar? I’ll let you discover that in this book! (But hint, it has to do whether the plant naturally changed or was created.)
Also, the A-Z entries don’t speak in dreamy general language, it’s all scientific botanical information. For instance, in Hydrangea arborescens, the cup symbol denotes that the AHS considers it a “Great Plant,” before offering its botanical name, common name, and characteristics: “Rounded, deciduous shrub with long-stalked, broadly ovate leaves, to 7in (18cm) long, dark green above and paler beneath.” It also describes its flowers, its height and width, where it normally grows, etc. In other words, it offers the most exacting, detailed information out there about plants.
Why You Need It
So, why should a beginning gardener spend the 100 bucks on this doorstop of a book? And yes, it is expensive. Because as a new gardener, you’ll go to the nursery, get inspired, buy a bunch of plants, maybe based on the nursery person’s advice, and then come home and need to know more precise growing information about the plants you just bought. This book will answer your questions.
The second reason is, if you’re blessed with a yard or green space where you live, you’ll be surrounded by plants you’re not familiar with. Yes, you can pay experts to come and tell you, which is not a bad idea. I’ve done consultations and I love doing them. They’re fun and enlightening for clients. But you can also save money by simply using the A-Z book.
Why Not Google It?
I wouldn’t because the virtual experience of surfing around on a screen, never quite knowing if you’re landing on a proper, valid website with accurate information or not, is stressful. Use Google for an initial search, I do it all the time, or use it if you can’t find the exact cultivar in the A-Z, but overall, isn’t sitting in a comfy chair with a cat and a cup of tea and a hefty book whose weight you can feel on your lap and whose glossy pages snap between your fingers a more rewarding experience anyway? The A-Z is a feast for the browsing eyes.
How to Use the A-Z Encyclopedia
Let’s say you know you have a hydrangea in your yard. You’ve seen them before at your grandma’s house and can recognize the little flat flowers. But your hydrangea looks different than the one at grandma’s house and you don’t know why. The flowers aren’t in a pom pom ball like you’ve seen. They’re tall and look like a cone. Start by looking at the leaves. Are they the oval shape with a pointed tip? Or do they look like an oak’s leaves? If they do, you’ll be able to, with a quick scan of the Hydrangea entry, discover that this is Hydrangea quercifolia, an oakleaf hydrangea.
Then you’ll know that this shrub blooms in late summer to fall rather than mid-summer. And you’ll know it gets really cool bronzy foliage during the autumn season. Plus, extra peely showy bark in winter. And that, depending on the cultivar, the white flowers may fade to a lovely pink. Perhaps, you’ll want to plant it by the front door based on that knowledge, perhaps you have another plant that will contrast or blend with those whitish pink flowers. The bottom line is since you know what you’ve got, you can make the best choice for your garden.
I’ve Given Myself Hydrangea Fever!
All of this talk about hydrangeas has made me want to put an oakleaf hydrangea in my garden! I’ve planted them for clients before and grown them at other homes where I’ve lived but I don’t have one in my current yard! Oh no. Emergency, emergency! They’re so cool, I really I need one. Hypnotized: now I must get to the plant nursery…