A Garden Design Sampler: Book Reviews

– Posted in: Book reviews, Design

It’s great fun to compose wishlists of seeds to try and plants to grow, but, you know, you have to put those plants somewhere. Figuring out where to put them is called the design process. I’ve come across two books lately that help.

The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer by Stephanie Cohen and Nancy J. Ondra provides in one volume the kind of information it took me several years of reading gardening magazines to acquire. If, like me, you’re a magazine addict of long-standing, you probably won’t learn much, though you’ll be reminded of an awful lot you might have been on the verge of forgetting.

The biggest problem with most introductory books is they are superficial and boring. Cohen and Ondra manage to avoid both.

They inject a lot of themselves into the text in the personal, honest manner that you’ve come to expect from your favorite garden blogs. In fact, the final section of the book demonstrates how they’ve put the ideas set forth in the previous sections into practice. They develop a border at Ondra’s newly constructed house:

Knowing Steph’s favorites ahead of time, Nan was prepared to ask that the design not include daylilies, irises, or peonies; instead, she wanted to use as many ornamental grasses as possible ( a lot more than Stephanie would usually consider).

They rework an awkward area of Cohen’s existing garden:

On the paper plan, I had envisioned the border being the same thickness throughout. But when it came time to remove the sod, I decided to widen the far right edge of the border, to help tie it in with the adjacent bed that wrapped around the end of the fence.

Finally, they give Ondra’s first garden, located at her parents’ house, an overhaul:

If you’ve been gardening on the same property for more than a few years, you’ve probably collected gardens the same way other folks collect baseball cards or antique china. It starts with one here, then another over there, and yet another, until you run out of space for new plantings. That doesn’t mean you must give up the fun of starting gardens–now it’s time to redo the old ones.

Boy, do they have my number!

These two women cover just about every topic concerning perennial gardening you could think of, providing one or more garden plans for each one. If you need an introduction to growing perennial plants or just plain feel like a beginner, this book will give you a great start.

For those of you who have “been there, done that” and are feeling a bit jaded, this next book will be more to your liking. Noel Kingsbury, the same guy who brought you Seedheads in the Garden and Natural Gardening in Small Spaces, traveled around the world to bring you Gardens by Design. This is the kind of book you like to sit by the fire and drool–uh, I mean, dream with. It’s the kind of book that makes me say, “Holy cow! That must have cost a small fortune!” Kingsbury interviews big-name garden designers on their specialties, emphasizing “innovative and contemporary design over the traditional, but at the same time tak[ing] care to avoid the gimmicky and the pretentious.” Here are a few snippets to whet your appetite:

  • Kingsbury: “Good design is not just about coming up with an original idea but about responding to the type of site and developing a creative dialogue with it”
  • John Brookes: “You are creating a piece of sculpture carved from vegetation, and unlike other materials it may take years to mature.” And, “I love taking the odd thing out–you get a whole new perspective.”
  • “A great advantage of rocks as aesthetic elements in the garden is, as Isabelle [Green] half-jokingly observes, that ‘they are low maintenance.'”
  • Ted Smyth: “I don’t use water plants, I’ve been through all that. . . . water is about what’s not there, rather than what is there.”

There are a few ascetic designs in the abstract, minimalist style that leaves me cold (such as Ted Smyth’s), but most of the gardens are wonderfully innovative, with a focus on sustainability and a blowsy, almost-wild look that appeals to the romantic in me. You may not be ready to install a hidden-edge pool or relocate large boulders, but if you don’t come away with at least one idea you can use in your own garden, I’d be very surprised. Read this book and get out of your rut.

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.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kim (Blackswamp_Girl) February 6, 2007, 7:50 pm

I picked up the Primer at Borders one day to leaf through, fully expecting that anything with that title and a hot-pink cover would have me rolling my eyes in a few minutes. But your positive review was right on, Kathy.

One other “Garden Design” book that’s definitely worth a look is “Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space” by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. I read 3 pages at the bookstore and decided that I must own it… and go back and reread parts of it quite often.

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2007, 7:22 pm

Pam, I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get coffee-table type books, even relatively informative ones, out of the library. Look for it there first.

Tracy, I am glad to hear your assessment of the book coincides with mine.

Tracy February 6, 2007, 6:00 pm

Kathy: I just purchased The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, and it’s the best of it’s sort I’ve seen. I am just starting to put perennial beds in my yard, and the shape, size, orientation and sun/shade mix is intimidating. This book has giving me lots of great ideas for specific spaces. They also give just enough plant information to be useful (I can always look up more details). I really like that for just about every plant recommendation they give alternate choices, which I haven’t seen very often before.

Pam/Digging February 6, 2007, 5:52 pm

I will definitely look for “Gardens by Design.” Sounds intriguing.