New York Gardening Books

– Posted in: Book reviews

Ralph Snodsmith lives in Suffern, NY. He worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension. I have no doubt that he is a knowledgable gardener. But this book reads more like an instruction manual for beginning gardeners than a regionally specific reference work. Sure, you’ll find a map of USDA Hardiness zones by county. Occasionally he makes references to various NY cities. But for the most part, it seems like you could be reading a basic gardening book aimed at a good portion of the U.S.

He organizes his book by plant type: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, etc. I will admit there are some sections aimed at New Yorkers. The chapter on seaside favorites would be helpful to all those gardening on the Long Island shore. And given the population density of New York City and the surrounding area a chapter on city and small-space gardens makes sense. But if you’ve been gardening for years in a different part of the country and want to know specifically how gardening in New York is different, you won’t get too much help here.

Another thing that surprises me: although he devotes an entire chapter to Integrated Pest Management techniques, and another to wise water use, he never discusses the problems invasive plants cause for many New Yorkers.

Bottom line: If you are new to gardening, this book is a good introduction. It would work well as your very first gardening book. But if you already have a shelf full of gardening books, this book won’t contribute enough new information to be worth a place on that shelf.

I confess I was deeply suspicious of Month-By-Month Gardening in New York : What to Do Each Month to Have a Beautiful Garden All Year before I even started reading it. Why? I’m pretty sure Jacqueline Heriteau lives in Connecticut, and I’m familiar with the Andre Viette Farm and Nursery in Virginia. It turns out Andre Viette’s parents owned a nursery on Long Island, and regardless of where he is now gardening, he seems to have had a longterm association with the New York Hortus Club. So my suspicions were somewhat ameliorated.

Unfortunately this is another basic gardening book, but it is structured in what I think is a more helpful manner. With only a few exceptions, the chapters are organized around garden plant type, just as with Snodsmith’s book. But within each chapter the information is broken down by month. For anyone trying to get used to the rhythm of the seasons, this is helpful. From my perspective, it would have been even more helpful to organize the chapters by month, and then break down each month into annuals, perennials, etc. As it is now, if it’s March and you have a diverse garden, you’re going to have to flip through every chapter to the March section to know what to do. I suppose if you’ve never grown perennials before it could be helpful to have an overview of the whole year, but there’s already a zillion books on perennials to tell you that.

The beginning of each chapter offers an overview of the plant type under discussion, information that you’ll need to know no matter what the month. In the perennial chapter they tell you how to divide perennials, in the shrub chapter they discuss pruning, and in the other chapters as well basic information is summarized. This is followed by a chart of suitable plants, often several pages long, with the most pertinent information provided. For a regional book, this is all you need–enough information to know it’s worth your time to do further research in a more specialized book.

After this broad overview comes the monthly divisions that give this book its subtitle. Within each month, the chapter is further subdivided into planning, planting, care, pruning, watering, fertilizing, and pests sections. These sections vary somewhat depending on the time of year and the subject. For example, only the chapter on lawns has a section on mowing, which replaces the section on pruning. Often the advice given in these sections isn’t based on a certain location or hardiness zone, but on more specific criteria that is actually more helpful. For example, they might say when the soil temperature reaches x degrees, do this, or perform this task when the forsythia blooms. This is a great improvement over the terms “early spring” or “early fall,” which caused me no end of head-scratching as a new gardener, and which vary so much from place to place.

Bottom line: This book still functions best as a basic gardening book, but it’s a better basic book due to its organization.

What do I want in a state-specific gardening book?

Whenever I’m critical of someone else’s work, I have to ask myself if I could do better. The honest answer is, I’m not sure. For one thing, New York is a pretty big state, covering hardiness zones 3 to 7, at elevations ranging from sea level to 5344 ft (1630 m). It’s a pretty big job to cover such a varied geography and climate in one gardening book.

For another thing, I would be aiming my book at a different audience. Instead of writing my book for the person who lives in New York and wants to start gardening, I would want to write for the gardener who will soon be living in New York. They already know a bit about gardening; they want to know how gardening in their New York location will be different from where they’ve previously gardened. So here’s my list of what I’d like to see in a New York gardening book, without much regard for how easy it would be to accomplish.

  • a map of hardiness zones by county (both books have this)
  • the AHS heat zones by county
  • Sunset Climate zones by county
  • a map of NY showing yearly precipitation
  • a chart or map showing yearly snowfall
  • a map showing Average Last Spring Frost Date for NY
  • a map showing Average First Fall Frost Date for NY
  • Average Freeze-Free Season For NY
  • a map showing general soil types in NY: clay, sandy, loam, acid, alkaline, neutral
  • a map showing the major geographic areas and their elevations
  • a list of all the county Co-operative Extension offices
  • a picture dictionary of common native plants
  • a picture dictionary of common weeds, including the seedling stage
  • a similar field guide for common insect pests. Did you know they don’t have Japanese beetles in Texas?
  • and another guide for invasive species
  • a list of plant societies and other horticultural organizations that have chapters in NY
  • a list of NY public gardens (both books had this)
  • a list of the best nurseries located in NY (the Viette-Heriteau book had a list of NY nurseries)

Quite a list, isn’t it? You notice there’s a lot of charts, lists, and guides on my wishlist. I envision it more as a reference manual than a how-to guide. Some of this information I have already found on the internet, and it’s linked in my list so you can find it, too. If you know where some of the other pieces are hiding on the World Wide Web, please let me know.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Alfred July 28, 2009, 2:28 pm

Most people forget how large New York is as a state and only think of it as a city. It’s nice to see something specificly for the whole area for once.

Andrea September 9, 2007, 8:39 am

What zone is southern westchester county?


jenn March 8, 2006, 3:07 pm

Oh my goodness, Laurie, your work is amazing!

Laurie Gano March 7, 2006, 8:23 pm

My idea of a great regional gardening book is The Undaunted Garden by Lauren Springer. There are no maps, but I already have a good idea of which zone I’m in. It has many clear photos, unusual plants to try and many lists such as plants for dry shade, plants for dry sun, length of bloom, plants that don’t get shredded by hail, plants deer avoid, etc. On top of that, it is just plain inspiring. I can’t grow all the plants she can in Colorado, oh well…