Tough Plants for Northern Gardens: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews

Quite a while back I cast aspersions on the ability of a southerner to write a book about northern gardening. I take it back. Felder Rushing has done an excellent job writing Tough Plants for Northern Gardens: Low Care, No Care, Tried and True Winners. Mr. Rushing, sir, I apologize.

Turns out the man has done a lot of traveling, and what’s more, he was paying attention and taking notes the whole time, or, as he puts it, “While looking for real gardens in the older parts of town, I have spent more time backing up for a second look than going forward.” (p. 23) As you might expect from a man who also wrote Passalong Plants, Rushing is not interested in pushing the latest patented hybrids. He is writing a book for those who sorta think they might like to garden, but feel intimidated. He wants gardening to be as common sense and matter-of-fact for these people as it was for their grandparents or great-grandparents. And isn’t that where we all start, no matter when we started? We stuck a plant or seed in the ground; it grew, and we thought to ourselves, “Gosh, even I can do this.”

Rushing goes out of his way to avoid jargon, and is never patronizing, though he is often funny. He states that the book covers the Northeast and moister parts of the Midwest, roughly Zones 4 to 6. And in case you’re still not sure if he’s covering your region, he provides a list of “Other ways you can tell that you might be a Northern gardener”:

  • Folks wait until after Memorial Day to plant tomatoes.
  • You know what “heaving” is–and it ain’t about drinking too much.
  • Fire hydrants in your town are wrapped for winter.
  • Someone in your neighborhood has a large boulder as a lawn ornament.
  • It’s easier to say “youse” or “youin” than “y’all”.
  • Your lawn mower has a snowplow attachment.
  • You worry about runoff from the driveway or street causing salt damage to plants.
  • You have ever actually put snow chains on your personal vehicle.
  • You can recognize a groundhog’s night work from the kitchen window.
  • You know exactly how deep the average frost line is in your soil.
  • An unusually warm winter kills plants because there’s not enough snow cover.
  • You give away your first tomato, as a gift, because it is so special.
  • There’s a Union soldier statue in the town square. (pp. 14-15)

This list did more than anything else to convince me that Rushing knew whereof he spoke, because every last one of them is true. Not only was I grinning, I was thinking, “Wait–you mean not everyone has to do that?” Only someone with one foot on each side of the Mason-Dixon line would know the little quirks that distinguish the two regions. And it’s clear he doesn’t hold that statue against us.

If you’re a veteran gardener, you’ll recognize his “Best for Beginners” plants as the ones you cut your gardening teeth on. They’re easy, hardy, and familiar, and I bet you’ve still got quite a few of them growing in your garden. So you don’t need this book for yourself, though if you need cheering up, it might be just the ticket. However, if you’ve ever have a friend or relative wander through your garden, sigh wistfully and say, “I wish I could grow plants like you do,” this is the book to put into their hands. Before you know it, they’ll be swapping seeds with you and asking for a piece of great-aunt Sarah’s favorite rose bush.

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.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Diane Farrall May 3, 2010, 3:25 pm

I would like to obtain a book for Zone 3a(Northwestern Ontario, along the Rainy River, just west of Fort Frances, and across from Baudette, MN) to chose and plant Perennials, Flowering shrubs and vegetables in the garden.
Pls send pertinent details and information to my personal email address, as stated.
With kind regards, D. Farrall

TC April 6, 2009, 10:13 am

Did you like my foreword? ;~)

(My wife is wearing the blue shirt, and that’s me wearing the blue hat in the photo spread on Page 152.)

One last tic: The next time I see Felder (probably down in NC at the 2009 GWA Symposium) I’m gonna ask him why he chose not to comment on about him. He’s told me on the phone that he shies away from doing that. And yet, I see he commented here. That old coot!

(I helped him research Tough Plants, and he spent a couple nights here. I’m in touch with him often.)

TC’s last blog post..Say Nothin’ Saturday

Kathy Purdy February 25, 2007, 7:46 pm

Yeah, the hydrants in the nearest village aren’t wrapped, either, but they do attach long stakes to them so they can be found under the piles of snow that accumulate on the edges of the road. It seems to me I remember seeing hydrant wrapping done, somewhere . . .

Lori Skulski February 24, 2007, 5:33 pm

“Fire hydrants in your town are wrapped for winter.” Huh? This must be a warm zone thing!! I’ve never ever seen it up here in the land of -40 degree F winters!

Kathy Purdy February 20, 2007, 11:55 am

Laurie, have you read Dryland Gardening by Jennifer Bennett? I know she used to live in a colder part of Canada, not sure if it would be equivalent to your climate or not.

Laurie Gano February 17, 2007, 8:48 pm

I liked the book review, but it made me wish (again) that there was a good book for zones 3 and 4, arid climates, iffy drainage, fierce wind, in other words, a book for my climate!I like lauren Springer and Rob Proctor, but they write about zone 5.

Kathy Purdy February 15, 2007, 9:16 pm

Hi, Terri–
Glad you stopped by. Yes, my husband uses the same excuse when asked why we don’t have a dishwasher. “We’ve got plenty of dishwashers, and they’re all human!”

Terri Pollhein February 15, 2007, 7:37 am

LOL! We are renting this year so driveways aren’t our problem, but when we were at the farm (which had a very long driveway like yours) my husband used to tell the boys (we have 5 children) that “snow like this was the reason we had so many children! Here’s your shovel!” LOL
Stay warm!

Jane February 13, 2007, 6:30 pm

Okay, I have looked at the feds’ plant hardiness website and it seems like there is no direct comparison by temperature because the USDA system is based only on extreme minimum temperatures and the Canadian system uses 7 different climate variables in a formula.

E-mail me privately if you want me to send you some of the links I’ve got.

Jane February 13, 2007, 2:04 pm

I don’t know offhand of a website that compares Canadian and US zones but I’ll dig around a bit. I don’t believe there’s a huge difference in the zones – I think I’m zone 3 on the old US maps that included Canada as well.

I am in Edmonton so I’m glad to know this book does include photos from up here 🙂

felder rushing February 13, 2007, 12:47 pm

thanks, lady, for a fun review of my book – and believe me, i spent a LOT of time in northern areas researching – in fact, quite a few photos are from around lake itaska (northern MN), ontario (mostly toronto and quebec), and even edmonton – way up from calgary. i also visited gardens in nova scotia, and my list of hardy roses includes Canadian research.

MOST of these “comfort food” plants certainly will grow in the, uh, POPULATED parts of canada…

y’all stay warm, it’s 70 degrees F in my garden and the grape hyacinth and some daffodils are a’bloomin’…

Kathy Purdy February 13, 2007, 12:21 pm

Jane–I am so glad you stopped by. Do you know of a website that compares the US and Canadian hardiness zones? I could find a map of Canadian zones easily enough. (I already have a link to it in my Cold Climate section.) But that map doesn’t say what the temperature range is for those zones.

Anyway, for a book on northern gardening, Rushing’s book really addresses the warmer part of the range. I’d be the first to concede that. My point was that, considering it was written by a bona-fide southerner, it was pretty accurate.

Kathy Purdy February 13, 2007, 11:50 am

Annie–I hope you didn’t think this was Rushing’s newest book. The man is prolific, and has written several books since this one came out in 2004. However, it was on the new shelf at my library, which caused me to check it out and review it. Most of his books are written for a more southern audience. Not sure if he’s written one for Texas or not. At any rate, he’s definitely written some that will be closer to your current gardening situation, and if you liked Passalong Plants, I’m sure you’ll like any of his that you pick up.

Kathy Purdy February 13, 2007, 11:34 am

Carol, I live in the part of NY state that shares a border with Pennsylvania, and we currently have 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground. However, there is a Heavy Snow Warning in effect starting today at 3pm and continuing through Wednesday, and “By the time the snow ends Wednesday night… 16 to 24 inches of snow accumulation is possible.” There are plenty of New Yorkers in the Snow Belt (like my sister Ro, on the shores of Lake Ontario) who would say that is still not a lot of snow, but it will be a lot of snow to me!

Jane February 13, 2007, 11:05 am

Excuse me? Zone 4-6 is not northern! Humphf. I garden in zone 3a (Canadian map) and my sister is zone 2a. Now THAT is northern.

That aside, this sounds like a useful book, although probably one I would get from the library, rather than buy. I can manage some zone 4 plants if I’m careful about microclimates.

Annie in Austin February 13, 2007, 9:58 am

Kathy, when I lived in the North I bought “Passalong Plants” and loved it to pieces. It didn’t matter that many of the plants were too tender for Illinois – reading about them was fun, and the information became useful when I moved to Texas. From this Southern state, I’m now looking forward to the fun of reading Felder Rushing’s new book, and there would also be a nostalgia factor involved this time.

Thank you so much for this review!

Annie at the Tranplantable Rose

BTW, many people down here also have large boulders as lawn ornaments…and if I had access to one, it coulda been me! Rock-love crosses borders.

Carol February 13, 2007, 9:06 am

Great review. I haven’t done everything on his list, but I’m still zone 5 and right now feel like I am zone 4. I’ll have to take a closer look at this book…

By the way, are you in the part of New York with all the snow?