Planting Spring Preview

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Planting Spring Preview

Books for Twiddling Green Thumbs

Seed catalogs come in the dead of winter for a reason. After a couple months of freezing temperatures and dormant brown plant skeletons everywhere, a feeling of general disconnection from the natural world develops. Thankfully there are books that feature photos of flowers and plants for readers who dream about digging in the new spring greenery. Outdoor gardens and indoor houseplants are featured in the following titles to read as the snow turns into snowdrops.

Thomas Rainer is a local landscape architect who teaches at GWU. Claudia West is an award-winning horticulturist who speaks regularly at symposiums. Together they have written Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (2015), an amazing book that clearly explains new concepts in landscape design.  Although the book is aimed toward professionals, amateur gardeners can learn so much about constructing a planting that mimics natural layering to some degree. Resiliency is the most important keyword, which applies to both ecological responsibility and for ease of upkeep. Instead of planting and mulching to keep weeds away, Rainer and West write about creating plant communities, with layers of plants that support each other, designed like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.  It’s a holistic approach that incorporates both native and non-native ornamental plants.  

The Lurie Garden is a celebrated 3-acre prairie garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. There is a lot to admire in its design by Piet Oudolf. Oudolf creates dramatic and kinetic spaces using a mix of native and nonnative plantings that take advantage of the Midwestern climate. While the size of the Lurie makes for some spectacular large-scale views, some of its innovation can be applied to home gardens. In Gardening with Perennials: Lessons from Chicago’s Lurie Garden (2014), Noel Kingsbury shows how to incorporate perennials in the home garden for maximum effect. He says that gardeners should create microclimates, planting strategically to construct an environment that takes advantage of natural plant structures and the like. This leads away from conventional labor-intensive horticulture. Lots of good information about strategies and particular plants here, but the best parts of the book are the photos of the Lurie featured throughout.

Wildlife gardening is another departure from traditional, control-heavy gardening. The idea of planting to attract insects, birds, and forest creatures to the garden is not an easy one for me to process. I’m a selfish gardener who plants vegetables and flowers to use - and the thought of sharing with the squirrels isn’t appealing. On the other hand, it’s great to see the bunnies and songbirds enjoying the space. April Pulley Sayre’s Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids (2013) is about the joy of watching wildlife. It’s not exactly a how-to book, since Sayre notes that all wildlife gardening is specific to its location. Instead, she helps readers figure out how to use materials and arrangements to make the garden area more inviting to wild neighbors. Perhaps I can come to an understanding with the groundhog villains who eat the zinnias. And send away for some milkweed seeds to attract monarch butterflies.

Judy Kameon is a Los Angeles-based landscape designer with a background in art, and the spaces she designs feel welcoming but have a big aesthetic impact. Kameon’s book Gardens are for Living: Design Inspiration for Outdoor Spaces (2014) is filled with gorgeous aspirational photos that show how landscape and hardscape can work together to evoke specific feelings, using the five senses to create an experience.  Among the photography are pages that list strategies to help readers along - to create inviting spaces, install lighting, cook outdoors, add art, extend the season, and basically turn the outdoor space into an organic extension of the indoor home.  Maintaining a garden may not be effortless but it can be supremely enjoyable, especially if the plantings and furnishings have been arranged with care.  Some examples of Kameon’s projects can be found here.

Plants inside the house add life and visual interest, and they clean the air when people are all sealed in during the winter months. There is an enormous variety of choices, and each has specific care requirements. Put the wrong plant in the wrong spot and it dies. Give it too much water and it dies. Taunt it and .... In The Indestructible Houseplant: 200 Beautiful Plants that Everyone Can Grow (2015), Tovah Martin demystifies indoor plants for beginners. While the list of plants included is indeed informative for anyone who is interested in buying and keeping houseplants, Martin’s charming and assured writing style distinguishes this book from others on the same subject.  This is a great starter book for choosing, planting, and caring for indoor greenies, written by an expert with an encouraging voice.

Baylor Chapman’s The Plant Recipe Book: 100 Living Arrangements for Any Home in Any Season (2014) is the second in a series of how-to “recipe” books from the publishing house Artisan.  Chapman’s approach is to create living centerpieces using masses of plants in unusual and beautiful containers.  The plants are not permanent installations but elements in an temporary arrangement that can be broken down and reused.  Chapman’s approach is fun and accessible.  She wants readers to be brave, creative, and break some rules when planting.  She introduces a particular plant, then suggests 3 ways to plant it:  on its own, with company, and as a special occasion arrangement.  The photography in this book is beautiful and the step-by-step instructions for each arrangement are clearly written.  It’s a fantastic hybrid of floral design and horticulture for anyone who thinks plants are a creative medium.