Sooner or later, most ornamental gardeners wind up getting a basic encyclopedia of perennials. Usually sooner. The novice gardener, planning his or her first garden, needs to get some idea of “What’s out there? And will it grow here?” Most of the general, try-to-cover-the-whole-country perennial encyclopedias make the cold climate gardener’s job more difficult, trying to weed out all the plants that aren’t hardy before even deciding what looks good. And if you read more than one of this type of book, you begin to realize that not all authors have the same idea of what a hardy plant is.
But Growing Perennials in Cold Climates makes your job easier. It’s not only an encyclopedia of herbaceous perennial plants that are hardy in USDA zones 5 and colder, it’s also a manual of gardening techniques. Unlike most other books of this type, they put the plants first, and the techniques come after that. I think that’s smart. The first thing a gardener wants to know is, what does it look like? Only later, after one has successfully pulled it through a few winters, does one want to know how to divide the thing.
But the plant profiles are far more than pretty pictures. They are full-fledged articles on each genus. With a few genera, such as Iris, it’s even divided into two articles, one for bearded iris and one for Siberian iris. Each profile starts out with a brief intro, and then goes into the first section, the growth habit of the plant. This is something that you often have to learn for yourself. Occasionally some aspects of growth are touched on, but I’ve never seen a book that systematically covered the structure and growth habit of the plants under discussion besides this one. When I read this section and I know the plant, I smile in recognition. When I don’t know the plant, I immediately have a better idea if it will “play nice” with the other plants in my garden.
The other sections in each plant profile are pretty much what you’d expect, but they’re all very thorough–sometimes too thorough. To read this book, you’d think every plant in the world needs a little 10-10-10 every spring, but while I try to improve the soil structure before planting, I rarely fertilize any plants later on. Still, each profile will clearly state whether or not the plant needs deadheading or staking, what problems might develop and how to avoid them or take care of them, where to plant it, when to plant it, what looks good with it, how to make more of it, and ends with a section called “Special Uses,” where you will learn if it is good as a cut or dried flower. Following that is a list of sources and a chart detailing the characteristics of the varieties available in that particular genus.
The authors share their considerable experience in the second half of the book, when they describe gardening techniques in greater detail. Mike Heger is the owner of Ambergate Gardens and his co-author John Whitman has been gardening for over forty years, so between the two of them they have a lot of information to share. They take each section of a plant profile and expand upon it. For example, in a plant profile they would tell you to mulch. In the back of the book they describe various mulches, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, and suggest the best time to apply them. They also distinguish between summer mulching to conserve moisture and winter protection. Snowfall, of course, is the best winter protection for plants.
The book is copyrighted 1998, but the book isn’t really dated, except in a few respects. They pay some lip service to organic techniques, but they don’t seem to be as familiar with them as they are with traditional chemical approaches to fertilization and pest and disease control. There weren’t as many organic options at that point and they certainly weren’t as well publicized. I say find that information elsewhere and don’t hold it against them. Also, you won’t find a single web or email address in here! That problem is easily remedied with your favorite search engine. And sadly, though not surprisingly, some of the sources have gone out of business. Again, if your search engine doesn’t turn it up, it’s probably one of the nurseries that no longer exists.
If a friend or a sibling keeps asking you which plants are “safe” to grow, or if you know a cold climate gardener with a gap on their reference shelf, Growing Perennials in Cold Climates would be a good book to put in their hands.