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Gardening Book Reviews: Dirr's Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates

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Dirr's Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

by Michael A. Dirr; Timber Press; 446 pages; $69.95

Well, it's high time. When Michael Dirr came out with Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs (Timber Press, 1997), I wailed and gnashed my teeth. It was a magnificent pictorial encyclopedia, to be sure, but it focused on woody plants suitable only for USDA Zones 3-6. Those of us with sense enough to live where the temperature rarely dips below 0°F were left out in the cold, so to speak. But now the renowned University of Georgia horticulture professor has admirably remedied the oversight. Dirr's Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates, the companion volume to the earlier work, is an invaluable addition to the library of anyone who gardens in the “warm temperate” Zones 7-11.

After a quick pictorial visit to the Dirr family garden, the author dives with characteristic gusto into an A-to-Z guide to trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers from more than 200 genera. Drawn from the well-traveled researcher's decades of obsessive observation and liberally seasoned with humor, the richly informative plant profiles provide multiseasonal descriptions and tell how to use and care for hundreds of species and cultivars suitable for Zones 7-9 and warmer. Over 1,400 high-quality color photos by the author vividly depict flowers, fruit, bark, fall color, or habit.

While Dirr's rundown of familiar woody landscape plants, particularly the ever-expanding pantheon of crape myrtle cultivars, is gratifyingly thorough, I was more fascinated to discover plants in here that I've never seen before, even some Dirr reports as hardy in my own Zone 7. Where, for example, has jacktree (Sinojackia rehderiana), with its high-gloss leaves and white flowers “suspended like spiders on webs,” been all my life?

As in the previous volume, the book concludes with helpful plant lists designed to aid the befuddled gardener in selecting plants for specific purposes, characteristics, or conditions, and there's even a when-to-prune-what list.

Bulbs for Warm Climates

by Thad M. Howard University of Texas Press; 288 pages; $60 hardcover, $29.95 paperback

Our cup runneth over. With the exception of Scott Ogden's well-received Garden Bulbs for the South (Taylor Publishing, 1994), I've not encountered another book on bulbous plants aimed specifically at gardeners in warmer parts of the country—until now. Thad M. Howard's Bulbs for Warm Climates is intended for gardeners in or near USDA Zones 8 and 9. Though it is of particular use to those who contend with the climate and soil conditions of Howard's own San Antonio area, the book is of value to gardeners in the Southeast and Pacific Coast as well.

Howard's no-nonsense introduction hastily dispenses with a diversity of topics, such as the difference between bulbs and corms, ethical collection of wild bulbs, refrigeration, and diseases and pests. The bulk of the book is arranged alphabetically by family. Starting with an overview of the plant family, Howard proceeds with brief but on-target descriptions of individual species and cultivars, often adding cultural tips and useful commentary on a plant's natural habitat.

The 1970 winner of the Herbert Medal, the International Bulb Society's equivalent of the Oscar, Howard has spent over 45 years collecting, growing, hybridizing, and writing about bulbous plants. He takes a special interest in bulbs native to the Americas and has explored extensively in Mexico and parts of South and Central America. Thus we find ten and a half pages devoted to the genus Nothoscordum (false garlic), with descriptions of over three dozen species, while the genus Crocus, most members of which fare poorly in Zones 9 and 10, according to Howard, receives an eight-line paragraph. Since we southerners, lured by catalog hype and discount store displays, routinely throw money away on bulbs that won't perennialize in our climate, Howard's survey of tulips and daffodils that can realistically be expected to succeed in lower parts of the South should be welcomed with alacrity.

Howard's approach is carefully scientific and scholarly (the glossary comes in mighty handy), and, though he wades into an occasional nomenclatural squabble, he writes with a smooth, readable economy and even an occasional touch of humor. One might wish for more and larger photographs, as the 179 small photos provide but a representative sampling of the species and cultivars discussed, but Bulbs for Warm Climates is certainly a worthy reference for the serious hobbyist or collector.

Gardening with Conifers

by Adrian Bloom; Firefly Books; 192 pages; $24.95

Both the oldest and the tallest living plants on Earth are conifers, as prominent English nurseryman Adrian Bloom points out in the opening chapter of Gardening with Conifers. Conifers bring color, form, texture, and fragrance to our gardens, fulfill vital design functions, and are of tremendous value to wildlife. Nowhere are these laudable attributes more beautifully illustrated than in this competently written, sensibly organized, and exquisitely photographed book.

Let me rave about the photos, all but one of which were taken by the author and his talented son Richard Bloom. From technically precise, close-up documentation of the development of a cone from early growth through maturity to disintegration, and step-by-step views of planting, pruning, and propagation, to dreamily artistic visions of exceptional gardens in far-flung corners of the world, including the author's own splendid six-acre Norfolk garden, the skillfully executed photos make the book a joy to peruse.

Sandwiched between chapters acquainting us with the conifer's history, anatomy, practical and artistic functions in garden design, propagation, and care, is a meaty 85-page directory to over 600 primarily dwarf and slow-growing cultivars “more suitable for smaller and average-sized gardens.” Entries include brief but pertinent commentary and an estimate of a cultivar's eventual size and probable hardiness range, though, as Bloom points out, the latter should be taken only as a rough guide, given the extremes of North American climate. Certainly we in the steamy South should cock a skeptical eyebrow at the suggestion that either Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) or English yew (Taxus baccata) will thrive in our version of Zone 8 without air conditioning.

Two pages in the back list gardens and specialty nurseries in 11 countries (with web sites and e-mail addresses) where one might see or purchase conifers. If you're one of those gardeners who is attracted to conifers but is at a loss how to choose among them, start with this book.

Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden

by Diane Ackerman; HarperCollins; 262 pages; $25

As writer Eleanor Perenyi noted in the foreword to her modern classic Green Thoughts (Random House, 1981), “a writer who gardens is sooner or later going to write a book about the subject.” Best known, perhaps, for her best-selling book A Natural History of the Senses (Random House, 1990) and the PBS series it inspired, Diane Ackerman is a university professor, naturalist, adventurer, acclaimed writer of poetry and nonfiction, and, as it turns out, a passionate and pensive gardener.

Loosely tethered to the passage of a year's worth of seasons in her upstate New York garden, Cultivating Delight is not a how-to-garden book, though we learn how and why Ackerman gardens, but a chain of 52 essays, bubbling with effervescent imagery, that celebrate the sensory delights of the garden and explore man's role in nature. (“We are nature,” she argues, “and our cities and inventions, like termite mounds, are part of its complexity.”) A cheerleader for the senses, she writes of smelling a peony's blossoms “until the nose quits from the sheer abundance of scent.” (I'm sure I'd die sneezing first.) With the lightness and quickness of one of the resident hummingbirds about which she repeatedly writes, she darts from subject to subject, briefly lingering here or there to ponder a question or recite a few dazzling statistics before zipping on to alight on some new topic of enthrallment: bats, birds, bugs, slugs, frogs, deer, plant explorers, John Muir, pollen, Gertrude Jekyll, and roses galore. “I don't apologize for being a poet who loves roses,” she shrugs. (She grows at least ten dozen rosebushes.)

I confess that, while I admire the agility of her writing and the strength of its imagery (blackbirds perched on a wire “like a run of eighth notes”), Ackerman's over-the-top vivacity provokes an unflattering cattiness in my nature. Though resigned to my Jekyllian dumpiness, I have difficulty warming to a woman whose ballerina-like grace inspired her husband to nickname her “Swan.” Or, knowing that the weeds are overtaking my garden even as I pore over the pages of her book, I fester with envy when Ackerman writes of the loyal, young, Earth-friendly couple employed to assist in hers, doing “the heavy work, or what I don't especially enjoy.” And, being every bit the control freak she insists gardeners are, I am dumbfounded when she cheerily hands neighbor children bags of bulbs to plant, like Easter eggs, wherever they please in her yard. (I rely on squirrels for this.)

“The Earth is a garden in space,” she writes, “and we are some of its blooming life. How odd to be a sack of chemicals that can contemplate itself, and how much fun.” Pass the peonies, please. H

From Our Contributors

Valerie Easton (a contributing editor to Horticulture) has just released her latest book, Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest (Sasquatch Books, 2002), the best of her popular “Plant Life” column in the Seattle Times. The book follows Easton's garden throughout the year, and features photographs by Richard Hartlage.

Charles Elliott, a longtime Horticulture contributor, has published The Potting-Shed Papers: On Gardens, Gardeners, and Garden History (The Lyons Press, 2002), a collection of essays that originally appeared in Horticulture.