The Complete Flower Gardener: Book Review and Contest

– Posted in: Book reviews

A Good Book for Beginners

When I was in high school, I wanted to know more about gardening than I was able to learn. My gardening grandmother lived hundreds of miles away. The library had a set of Time-Life books on gardening that made me feel I needed a greenhouse, or at least a potting shed, before I could hope to succeed. Not only was there no internet, but there was no Fine Gardening, Garden Gate, or Martha Stewart Living. My mother would buy one bag of peat moss and a couple of six-packs of whatever flower I chose, and after that I was on my own.

I would have been thrilled to have had a copy of Burpee Complete Flower Gardener to pore over and learn from. Not only would I have better understood how my soil needed to be improved, but I could have done the math and justified to my mother the expense of several bags of amendments. “See, Mom, it says right here . . .”

I remember in my senior year, I was talking to the mother of one of my friends, who told me of her dream to plant a perennial border along the driveway. Seeing my puzzled expression, she pulled out the Wayside Gardens catalog and showed me what she meant. Perennials! They looked like the illustrations in English fairytale books. With a sense of wonder and regret I realized those flowers weren’t make-believe; I could have grown them, if only I had known. That is why I was happy to see that a book designed for beginners covered all sorts of flowers: annuals, perennials, biennials, bulbs, and vines. None of these are any more difficult than the others, so why not familiarize the novice with a wide range of possibilities? I confess I didn’t notice until Susan Harris pointed it out that shrubs were missing: yes, no roses. But even though all the experts say you should start with shrubs and trees, that you should start with the backbone, really, most of us start with plants that require less financial commitment. Because, in the beginning, we’re not sure if this is just a passing fancy or a long term relationship, and we don’t want to commit to something we’ll regret later. So, I don’t think it’s such a crime that shrubs were left out.

Ha! What I do consider a “crime” (but only because they are my own little obsession) is that they lumped colchicums in with crocuses. Okay, so technically they were in a sidebar labeled “Other Choices,” but still, they called them autumn crocuses. They are not. autumn. crocuses! This would not be such a big deal except that there are bona fide crocuses blooming in autumn. If we can call delphiniums by their Latin name, why can’t we do the same with colchicums? All right. End of pet peeve.

No Soapboxes Here

The subtitle of this book is: The Comprehensive Guide to Growing Flowers Organically. Thankfully, you will find no drawn out diatribe on the evils of chemicals. Instead, organic methods are matter-of-factly presented as the standard, sensible way to do things. Their advice on everything from soil preparation to dealing with pests and diseases follows good organic practice–without using the word organic in every other sentence. There’s a lot of good information in the front section, but let’s face it–the eye candy is in the back. The selection in the Plant Portraits is broad but familiar. I don’t think any of the plants are hard to find or hard to grow. The entries are detailed enough to ensure success, but not so detailed as to make one’s eyes glaze over. And the appendix has a number of ways to point you to more information. I particularly like that they include not only a hardiness map, but a fairly extensive table of first and last frost dates for the U.S. and Canada.

Veteran Gardeners Will Enjoy It, Too

It may date me, but Bugs Bunny cartoons weren’t re-runs when I was a kid. Watching them as an adult, I catch a lot of wisecracks and puns that went right over my head as a youngster. The Complete Flower Gardener has garden quotations galore, which the novice may hardly notice, while the veteran recognizes the source as an old friend or a new writer to explore. Not only does every chapter start with a quotation, but garden writers and others (even Dave Barry) are quoted in the text to emphasize the point being made. With decades of flower growing under my belt, there wasn’t too much new information in the book for me, but the many literary allusions brought pleasure to every page.

You could win this book!

It just so happens I have a copy to give away. Tell me your most frustrating experience growing flowers. What confusion, disaster, or aggravation could this book have prevented, had you owned it? Relate the most convincing tale of woe (or humor) in the comments and this book will be yours. Contest is over on June 30, 2007 at midnight.The decision of the judge is final, and the winner must provide her or his mailing address so I can mail them the book. Deadline extended: Someone suggested that many blog readers are away from their computers because of the Fourth of July holiday, so I am extending the deadline to July 5th at midnight, in order to give more of you an opportunity to win this book.

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 its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~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.

Jeff Dahlberg December 3, 2007, 11:02 pm

My worst flower story is when my wife and I planted 5 pounds of wildflowers in a large area around our property between our lawn and the wild area that surrounded it. The flowers started to grow after about 10 days. It was a large area but my wife is very picky about weeds in our wildflowers so she convinced me to help her. We knew what most wildflower seedlings look like so we started picking the one we knew was a weed. We picked that weed for at least a month an a half. As it always is the case we missed a few of the “weeds” we were picking and to our amazement it turned out to be a beautiful looking purple wildflower named dames rocket. We knew of the flower but had never grown it and didn’t realize it was in the mix. We laughed so hard we almost passed out. We had almost killed ourselves trying to get rid of every last one. We still get a kick out of the story over 10 years later. Jeff

Trishia July 3, 2007, 2:51 pm

I sadly can’t give any garden-gone-sad tales of woe… I don’t have a garden! After years of saying to myself “someday” I am doing it! I have 5 young children (my oldest is 8yrs old, my youngest is 1 month old) and I figure that even if I stumble along the way, they will learn with me!

My mother gardens in pots (they built their house on an old corn field and are still working to get an actual lawn) and I love photographing the florals there. Some day soon I will have my very own garden to photograph!

So I guess I am saying this book would help me to start my first garden with the kiddies!

Nicole July 2, 2007, 9:16 pm

When I was a child my mother and I used to read the flower seed packets ( from the US and Europe) and buy the ones that claimed the plants were “hardy”. Of course we didn’t realize it meant hardy in terms of cold, not heat (which is what the term means here), and kept planting the all these temperate flower seeds!

kate June 30, 2007, 11:54 am

Well, if I had read a book like this before I wandered into my first garden centre, I might have realised that Pelargoniums are not perennials … at the time I thought well, Geraniums are Geraniums, right?, and the interesting, although mostly incomprehensible (to me in those days), garden writer in the newspaper said that Geraniums were wonderful perennials to get started with. If only there had been a picture, I might not have had to ask my neighbour why the Geraniums were not returning. He was such a sweetie and kindly explained the difference between annual Pelargoniums and perennial Geraniums. I learned a good lesson.

Oldroses June 29, 2007, 6:14 pm

Am I the only gardener who is willing to admit that she has made a fool of herself in the garden? Well, here goes. There was a time when I wasn’t clear about the difference between the common names of flowers and the botanical names. Most of the catalogs that I ordered seeds from at that time did not list the botanical names. I love sunflowers and when I saw perennial sunflowers in a catalog, I ordered them immediately. I WAS clear on the difference between perennial and annual, so these seemed really “exotic”. I planted the seeds and waited. And waited and waited. None of them germinated. I did get a lot of weeds, which I removed, but no sunflowers. Luckily, I missed a few of the “weeds” which turned out to be the perennial sunflowers, Helianthus maximiliani. They look completely different from annual sunflowers, Helianthus anuus. I definitely could have used a good book on flowers to explain all this to me and warn me that perennial sunflowers are prairie wildflowers that spread (and spread and spread. I’m still trying to get rid of them!) by underground stems. Who knew? A sunflower is a sunflower, right?

Carol June 27, 2007, 7:13 pm

Great review. I have a lot of books on gardening and growing flowers, but the ones I don’t have always sound better than those I do!

I’ll have to think what aggravation flowers have caused me. Most of my current aggravation actually takes place in the vegetable garden these days.