Cold Climate Gardening Books: New Titles

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There are a lot of great gardening books out there, but when you read instructions like “plant in early spring, and thin in April,” and you think to yourself, “April is early spring where I live” you realize you might have to make mental adjustments to everything the author tells you. How refreshing then, to read a gardening book written specifically for cold climates! The author understands where you’re coming from: you don’t have to worry if the plants will survive the winter, you don’t have to mentally adjust the planting or maintenance schedule, and you’ll usually get a few tips on overcoming some of our climates challenges. A-a-ah!

A couple of years ago I gathered all the books I knew about cold climate gardening in one giant post. I intended to update it as I found new books, but I haven’t. (All book reviews can be found here.) Below I’ve reviewed four books that I should add to the list. (I receive a small commission from Amazon if you buy something after clicking through one of the links.)

The Northern Gardener

Minnesota is entirely in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 and 4. (Okay, there’s a teensy bit of Zone 5 in the latest revision of the map.) So when Mary Lahr Schier, the editor of Minnesota State Horticultural Society’s (MSHS) magazine, Northern Gardener, writes a book called The Northern Gardener, you know it really is going to be about cold climate gardening, by someone who has actually lived it and done it. This is a basic gardening book from a northern perspective, so you won’t get any inappropriate advice and the bloom times will be spot on. But it’s a basic gardening book with a twist–at the beginning of each chapter is a quote from the MSHS’s archives and some agricultural history relating to the chapter. I loved reading about these pioneer gardeners and their struggles and triumphs. I appreciate how much we stand on the shoulders of the gardeners who’ve gone before us, and I realize I’m not alone in my own garden challenges and victories. It really kicks the book up a notch.

But reading The Northern Gardener also made me a bit jealous. In my state the vast majority of the population gardens in a climate warmer than mine, and the nurseries, the newspaper columns, and even cooperative extension are focused on providing information and plants for that majority. Is there anywhere in New York, I wonder, where I could find ‘Northern Strain’ redbud? Does my local rose society know about the “875 roses that grow well in northern climates,” as the Minnesota Rose Society does? Where can I buy ‘Above and Beyond,’ “a peachy climbing rose that’s extremely hardy and blooms repeatedly”? I guess I have the rest of the winter to come up with the answers.

Fresh From The Garden

Fresh From The Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates by John Whitman is encyclopedic in its scope and very even-handed in its presentation of topics that many gardeners have strong opinions about. In “Types of Gardens,” for example, he discusses beds and borders, compost gardening, community and guerilla gardens, container gardening, lasagna gardening, level gardens, mulched and no-till gardens, raised-bed gardens, straw bale gardening, and vertical gardening–whew! And each type is discussed in enough detail so you can make an informed choice. Each chapter in the first part of the book is just as comprehensive and thorough.

The second part of the book describes how to grow individual vegetables, berries, and herbs. All the common vegetables are covered, as well as some that are challenging in cold climates, such as sweet potatoes and melons. He has entries for thirty-six kinds of greens–not including lettuce, which has its own entry–and twenty-nine different herbs. And then he has a section called Unique Plants with twenty-four entries, everything from Artichoke to Yardlong Bean. Plenty of the plants included in the Greens section were also what I would call “unique”. I didn’t know Malva was edible (it’s not the species commonly grown for its flowers) and I never even heard of Hanover Kale. I did find it odd that Nasturtiums got an entry of their own not in the herb section or the unique plants, but gooseberries were considered unusual enough to be in the Unique section. The omission of edible blue honeysuckle, which is extremely hardy, surprised me. Perhaps Whitman has never grown them.

If you’ve been growing vegetables for a while, you will love this book for the explanation of techniques and tips, and the many new vegetables you can try growing. But if you are just thinking of growing vegetables for the first time, this book may be a bit overwhelming. Whitman advises reading the whole first section of his book before getting started. That’s one hundred twenty very large pages of fairly small print. I’d suggest instead that you get Dee Nash’s The 20-30 Something Garden Guide in addition to Whitman’s, looking up the vegetables in Whitman’s book but following Dee’s plan for starting small and building on your success each year. And even though this book was written for cold climate gardeners, just about any vegetable gardener would learn from the general information in the first part and the extensive listing of edibles in the second part. It really is quite an achievement, with a refreshing candor that you don’t often find in reference books.

Hydrangeas In The North

If you have been struggling to get your blue- or pink-flowering hydrangeas to bloom, get your hands on Hydrangeas in the North: Getting Blooms in the Colder Climates by Tim Boebel. He has perfected a pruning technique to get the most bloom possible out of H. macrophylla and H. serrata. If, like me, you’ve decided getting shrubs native to southern climes to bloom in the frigid north is too much work, stick to H. arborescens and H. paniculata, both hardy to USDA Zone 3. Boebel also covers these in his book, as well as H. quercifolia, which is hardy to Zone 5. I am impressed how much Boebel has taught himself about hydrangeas through trial and error and close observation. Both the book and his website profile the most successful cultivars in each of these species, and the garden center he works for, located near Rochester, NY, carries over 200 different cultivars. Road trip, anyone?

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Primulas

Almost all primroses are quite cold hardy. What most of them need is consistent moisture, which I certainly have in my clay soil. Most of the primroses featured in The Plant Lover’s Guide to Primulas by Jodie Mitchell and Lynne Lawson are hardy to Zone 4, and many are hardy to Zone 3. If you have moist soil, everything else you need to know is included in this book, including loads of scrumptious pictures. I used to think primroses were difficult, but the authors reassure, “we have chosen only the more garden friendly species that have proved their worth.” I now have several different kinds in my garden and most of them are multiplying well. So what are you waiting for?

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.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

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Frank December 14, 2017, 12:07 pm

Merry Christmas to me! You’ve just added a few titles to my list, although I was determined not to bother with any more hydrangea.

Jane / MulchMaid December 14, 2017, 9:16 am

I’m not a cold climate gardener, but I’m glad to read a recommendation for the Primula book. I have several others in The Plant Lovers Guide series and they have all been uniformly worth reading. I’ve recently been adding a few primulas to the garden and I love them in spring. And in the Pacific Northwest, we can certainly provide the moisure they need. This book is going on my Christmas list!

Pat Webster December 12, 2017, 4:12 pm

Good recommendations, Kathy. The book on primulas sounds perfect for me… just need to let a family member know and then maybe it will magically appear under the Christmas tree.

Steve Whitesell December 12, 2017, 2:30 pm

Hi Kathy. I bought Rosa x ‘Above and Beyond’ bareroot from Jung in WI. I’ve always gotten good plants form them.

Kathy Purdy December 12, 2017, 2:43 pm

Thank you, Steve. I’m familiar with Jung. I’ll check it out.