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Make Room On Your Garden Bookshelf
updated: Jan 29, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I slid into the soon-to-be-shuttered State Street Border's store a few weeks ago looking for sweet close-out deals on garden books. What was I thinking? I've never purchased a garden book at Border's. Apparently, their buyer thought we garden in the Pisgah National Forest, or have an insatiable urge to provide habitat for double-breasted pinstriped warblers.

Regardless, I optimistically raked through the dregs, recalling that my own garden library is a mess. (When I'm working, books fly off the shelves like startled bats.) I didn't reshelve everything - I wanted to let you in on a few of my faves. Spring is just around the corner - be prepared.

If You Only Buy One Garden Book…

Back at my office, while struggling to impose a little discipline on the teetering stacks threatening my desk, I ran across my very first copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Nostalgia welled up. This was the book I bought after deciding to hang up my drumming career in the early 70s, having been seduced by bonsai and all things chlorophyll.

This book is old, I tell you, OLD! I thumbed through tattered pages with outdated plant lists like "Pterydon-proof Plants" and "Primordial Ferns That Will Eventually Be Refined Into High Octane Fossil Fuel."

My newest edition of Sunset is already showing signs of abuse, and for good reason. "Sunset", as it's expediently called by its loyal readers, features the most comprehensive encyclopedia of plants for western gardens (over 8000 listings), informative explanations of 29 climate zones, and a massive encyclopedia filled with practical gardening information - a book unto itself. (Not sure whether your lawn is infested with cutworms, or about to burst open, spewing forth monsters from the bowels of Hell? It's probably in there.)

There's even a botanical name pronunciation guide - no more embarrassing gaffs at celebrity horticulturist soirees!

If You Only Buy TWO Garden Books…

My single regret about Sunset is that the level of information they provide ABOUT each plant can be inconsistent - sometimes delving into great detail about one plant, while omitting a critical piece of information about another. That's why I always pray that the plant I need to know more about is also listed in the California Gardener's Guide, Volume II, by Nan Sterman (Cool Springs Press).

Sterman's book takes a "less is more" and a "more is more" approach: It lists only 186 plants, but packs each entry with well-researched, necessary information that helps gardeners make intelligent plant selection decisions.

The book is organized by plant categories (annuals & biennials, bulbs, fruits, ground covers, herbs, shrubs, succulents, trees, and vines) and each listing includes an overview of its qualities. There's also information about where the plant is most likely to thrive, maintenance needs, suggestions for plants that look good with it, and its relatives and hybrids.

An added bonus is Sterman's inspiring and informative introductory chapters, explaining California's enviable Mediterranean climate and its affect on the garden, how to get along with your soil, and a must-read section stressing the need to create wonderful gardens without squandering water.

The Natives Are Pestless [Not really, but that's a great subheader!]

I'm privileged to be working on a large-scale residential garden in Montecito, coming onboard shortly after the owners converted their two massive, immensely thirsty lawns into meadows of California native sedge stippled with wildflowers. My job has been to tame the "visual noise" of the surrounding overgrown beds, and introduce locally appropriate native grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees.

My treasured reference book for finding the best plants for this garden is California Native Plants for the Garden, co-authored by Carol Bornstein (a local icon for her years at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden), David Fross, and Bart O'Brien, all legends in the California native plant community. There are over 500 plant profiles, lists of plants for special uses (hedges and screens, deer resistant, erosion control, etc.) and introductory chapters offering a history of California native plant horticulture, design ideas, care, and where gardeners can purchase native plants.

Authors Who Inspire

All these technical books about plants are great, but plant selection comes at the very end of the garden design process. Long before considering which plants to put where, there are hundreds of decisions to be made: making the garden comfortable for people, fitting the new elements on the land as gently as possible, deciding on colors, shapes, and patterns that please the eye.

In those bleak moments when my creative lobe is backed up like a sink full of chili, I grab a copy of one of my John Brookes' books, flip open to any page and always find inspiration.

Brookes' The Book of Garden Design, (Macmillan Publishing Co.) is without a doubt, t h e b e s t g a r d e n d e s i g n b o o k I've come across in the last 30 years. Though I find that most books written by British authors don't make the 6000-mile trip to Southern California with much of their intended cargo intact, his approach to landscape design is universally valuable. His writing connects the history of gardens with the styles we've come to love in our own landscapes. His design process -- from site analysis to concept to design and finishing touches -- inspired me to throw out my teaching curriculum and redesign it based on Brookes' framework.

The book is lusciously illustrated with photos, character sketches, selected details like gates and paving surfaces, and full-blown plans - there's also a robust section about putting your design on paper. If you're an aspiring designer, find this book. And if you can't get enough of Brookes' stuff, his Garden Masterclass (Dorling Kindersley publishers) takes the concepts of landscape design from the broadest regional vision to the minutiae of arranging cobbles and gravel with Zen-like perfection.

Other books I don't have space to expound on here, but are worth a long look, include:

•Scott Calhoun's Designer Plant Combinations (Storey Publishing - read my review at Fine Gardening)

•Debra Lee Baldwin's Designing With Succulents (Timber Press)

•John Greenlee's passionate plea for murdering lawns and replacing them with meadows, The American Meadow Garden (also reviewed at Fine Gardening).

These books are in print, so if you want them PLEASE start by visiting a local, independent books store (my two faves for garden books are Chaucer's and the SB Botanic Garden).

I've got a few more books I think you should have on your radar, so keep your eyes open for another blog with more recommendations.

:: :: :: ::

While I've got you here, if you're thinking about redesigning your own garden, sign up for my half-day workshop at Nopalito Nursery, in Ventura, Saturday, February 19. Details about the class and sign-up at their website

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-29 11:27 AM

Thanks, Billy, great advice, I'll have to pop for the Brookes book for sure.

Love your columns!


 COMMENT 141409 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-30 08:04 AM

"backed up like sink full of chili" --that's going into my 'classic goodnickisms' list. how do you do it??

May I chime in to add 'Trees and Shrubs for a Dry California Climate' by Bob Perry, from the 80's--one of the best early published guides to dry-region sustainable gardening, with discussions of and plant lists for 'fire-'scaping' . I believe there is an updated edition as well. If you know it Billy, does it stand the test of time and experience with fire? I found it indispensible in my retail nursery days.

I was just at the Botanic Garden for a class, and didn't have time to stop at the bookstore, but they usually stock many good titles in their inventory, but you have to pay admission, be ther efor a class, or be a member to get in.


 COMMENT 141474 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-30 10:39 AM

Hey Billy,

I'd have been shocked if the Sunset had been anything but #1 on your list. I've been using it ever since my Gram taught me about gardening as a little kid growing up in Sacramento (and that was a looong time ago). My question for you is that I am currently using the 2001 edition. Is it worth upgrading to the 2007?

I also love California Native Plants for the Garden. It was a much-needed book and I ran out and bought it almost as soon as it was published. Based on your recommendation, I'm going to go get Nan Sternman's book too.

Thanks for a great article.


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-30 12:43 PM

It is impossible to garden in California without Sunset. I second the question about versions; how often does one need the new one? (Also, I thought they were going to do a CD version with much more info? Did they? Your thoughts?) Bonus points for, "The Natives Are Pestless." That is a great quip.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-30 09:21 PM

MTNDRIVER: If you're looking to up your design game (or just drool on the pages) it's a great book.

SEEDLADY: I hope that Billyism doesn't put you off your dinner. The Perry book you mentioned is also truly great for our region. I looked through his new book (Landscape Plants for California Gardens) but haven't yet made heads or tails of it. It's an amazing piece of work, filled with lots of information, but I'm not sure how I'd use it. But I'll spend some time with it and see if perhaps it's worth forming a new cult or religion around it. Probably a lot more technical than the average gardener needs.

BECKY and 141474: I guess it depends on your disposable income - I always have the newest edition. But I can tell you that the next one promises to be completely different. When I spoke with the editor, Kathleen Brenzel, last year, they were in the midst of think-tanking and brainstorming a new approach. I haven't seen a CD, but I did find a "plant finder" feature at their website that's pretty trick [http://plantfinder.sunset.com/sunset/plant-home.jsp]. And thanks for the nod about "the natives are pestless." I giggled as I wrote it.

Later, skaters.


 COMMENT 145301 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-02-12 12:50 PM

All these books are available from your local public library, too. (You might have to request a copy from another branch.)

If you go to the shelves in the Dewey number 635 area for Plants, and around 712.6 for Garden Design, you'll find lots of inspiration. And you can make a "suggestion for purchase" for a book you think the library should have but doesn't already own.
www sbplibrary org


 COMMENT 164569 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 08:11 AM

The latest book from the icons of native plants, Reimagining the California Lawn is excellent. Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien have written a timely and informative guide to ridding Southern California of thirsty turf grasses while creating something beautiful and appropriate in their place. Highly recommended!


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