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Ten of My Favorite Plant Books

(today, that is)

Following are some of my favorite horticultural books in my personal library that I would recommend to interested gardeners and hobbyists. In theory these are in a 'top-ten' format although that's really somewhat arbitrary.

#10 Agaves of Continental North America
Howard Scott Gentry
University of Arizona Press, 1982

Even if you think you don't like Agaves, by reading a few pages of this book you will quickly discover how exciting and fascinating they are. This work is everything a thorough and accessible monograph should be: a true masterpiece. Botanical descriptions, details, and photos are excellent; horticultural/lay descriptions are fun, interesting, and easy to understand; and locations of specimens studied clearly spelled out. Gentry was truly brilliant: I wish he were still with us and could provide an update of this most excellent book according to recent additions and changes to Agave taxonomy.

#9 The Cactus Family
Edward F. Anderson
Timber Press, Inc., 2001

Another astoundingly detailed monograph by a specialist, this one is slightly different from the previous. As it covers such a huge number of plants, it is necessarily more brief with each species described, and not everything is illustrated (though illustrations are still very numerous, and excellent). Still, the book is a remarkable feat, as such a huge number of species have been classified and described in one place, for a plant family that is exceptionally challenging for taxonomists. It is a very handy reference that I use frequently.

Despite how fabulous I think this book is, I have a few minor criticisms. Cultural information specific to each species would be nice. Altitudinal ranges for many species (especially where of particular interest) would be nice. To me the classification errs slightly too much on the side of 'lumping' together, or at least, fails to describe the significance to the horticultural world of variation within some species and genera. I dismiss these criticisms as generally insignificant, given the author was first and foremost a botanist rather than a geeky cactus collector or grower.

#8 So You Want to Start a Nursery
Tony Avent
Timber Press, Inc., 2003

Not strictly a book about plants, but definitely a book almost any serious gardener should read even if they have never been professionally involved in horticulture or the nursery industry. Learn how to import logic (fancy that!), passion, management and professional skills, and plain old common sense into the running of a business in an industry where (for some strange reason) these qualities usually fail to synergize and all too often are mysteriously lacking altogether. By the way, where was this book when I was in college?

This book has been criticized for being too heavy on making money and too narrow in its views of how a nursery ought to be run. To the first point I would say, if nurseries fail to make money, then you no longer have an industry in any sense. If that's what gardeners want, we can all go back to propagating and sharing plants with each other-nothing wrong with that, but you'll never find the plant you're looking for at a nursery again. To the second point, I interpret Tony's perceived "narrowness" as actually being more generous (compared to many authors) with helpful information specific to what worked for him. With that in mind this is a fun and very informative read.

#7 The Grevillea Book (Three Volumes)
Peter Olde and Neil Marriott
Timber Press, Inc., 1995

Once again, this book may seem to have nothing for you if you don't like Grevilleas, but a close look at it and you will be hooked by the allure of these fascinating plants. I include it basically for the same reasons as the Agave book. Olde and Marriott are true experts in their field and the sheer number of words they produced in this publication is astounding. Everything is completely illustrated and described in fabulous detail to the last point, so that we can all lust over the infinitely various rare species, forms of species, and flower colors of forms of species within the intriguing genus Grevillea. For those of us in the Northwest it even has specific information about cold-hardiness. Again some taxonomy updates would be needed if a second edition of this book were published, and it's hard to get a feel for how much that would really change things: perhaps not as much as with Agave since most "new" Grevillea species since the publication of the book have already been described as forms of an existing species (for example, G. parvula from G. victoriae). The only minor disappointment is that only species are described, and not cultivars - however, Peter Olde is apparently working on a book to describe cultivars, which, we hope, will be published soon.

#6 Trees of Seattle
Arthur Lee Jacobson
Arthur Lee Jacobson, 2006

It's rare to find a regionally focused book by a local expert who is truly well-researched, well-read and an excellent writer. Arthur Lee Jacobson puts the entire energy of his effort into this book describing every tree species and cultivar known to him that is grown within the city of Seattle. Valuable information about hardiness, ornamental virtue, and general performance in the Northwest is spelled out in splendid detail. However, this book deserves much greater promotion outside of Seattle just for the information about trees which will be of general interest to gardeners. Sizes of trees will be of particular interest; for example, most people who plant a Leyland Cypress hedge probably don't think about how it could grow (and, in Seattle, has grown) 90' tall, left to itself. Gardeners will learn to consider that the maximum dimensions listed for trees in garden books and on plant tags are frequently wrong for the Northwest, or just plain wrong altogether! This is a thoroughly enjoyable book for both reading and reference.

#5 Creative Propagation
Peter Thompson
Timber Press, Inc., 2005

There are a number of propagation books out there, but to me this one is by far the best. It actually describes for the reader, in superb detail, not only the technique and art of how to propagate plants; but also the science of what makes it all work in an easily comprehensible way that can be applied to your endeavors. And it's not just some plants, or common plants: a quick look at the index for how to propagate each genus will reveal that Thompson covers the propagation of pretty much ALL plants even the most obsessed plant geek would ever be likely to encounter, and then some.

(As a side note, one of Thompson's other books, The Looking Glass Garden, seemed like a concept full of potential, but the book turned out a major disappointment. Just the opposite of Creative Propagation, it is annoyingly vague, inadequately illustrated, and fails to deliver in the practical information department.)

#4 Proteas for Pleasure: How to Grow Them and Identify Them
Sima Eliovson
MacMillan South Africa Publishers (Pty), Ltd., 1983 (1979, etc.)

Although somewhat outdated, this book deserves credit for being very practical and informative about a group of plants that remains quite obscure to most gardeners. The tone of the book is such that, as I turn the pages, I get a feeling somewhat akin to what I would get when my old grandma is trying to teach me something valuable from her life of experience, that might be lost if ignored: the tone is authoritative, antiquated and splendidly descriptive. And I have to wonder if this information has been lost on gardeners, since no better book on Proteas that I'm aware of has been published since 1983, when Proteas for Pleasure was last published. (I also have Lewis J. Matthews' The Protea Book; perhaps sometime I'll have the opportunity to comment on where it falls short of this degree of acclaim.) Since that time, it seems that the cut flower industry has taken over the growing of Proteas while they remain largely ignored by nurseries and home gardeners. This is a serious tragedy and your first step as a gardener towards correcting it would be to read this book. Propagation, cultivation in containers, planting, landscape design, and descriptions of most South African species are all covered thoroughly to the extent of the knowledge of that time, all still applicable today. Unfortunately the book predates the release of many (all?) newer Protea hybrids - but then, in many cases, the species remain superior in certain respects and deserve more attention than they receive (for example, have Protea enthusiasts considered that few of these newer hybrids are bred for superior frost hardiness?). As of this writing, used copies of Proteas for Pleasure are available cheaply online - get one while you can! Try to get the latest (1983) edition.

#3 Trees for all Seasons: Broadleaved Evergreens for Temperate Climates
Sean Hogan
Timber Press, Inc., 2008

I don't actually have this book, but I should, since no one else ever gets to read the North Olympic Library System's only copy of it, because it's always checked out and sitting in my living room. Aren't I naughty? This is the authoritative book about ornamental broadleaf evergreen trees for less-than-subtropical climates. It seems the general public is hooked on deciduous trees and conifers, but if you are one of those people this book may just convince you to change your mind. There are so many exciting broadleaf evergreen trees out there, and many of them very rare, that this book can only scratch the surface in attempting to cover them. Even so, it manages to go beyond merely generating interest and is quite comprehensive at least to the genus level. It is also full of valuable cultural information and specific details on frost hardiness based on the author's extensive experience. A must have, especially if you don't have a library card!

#2 A Cactus Odyssey: Journeys in the Wilds of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina
James D. Mauseth, Roberto Kiesling, Carlos Ostolaza
Timber Press, 2002

I like this book so much that for some reason I have three copies of it. (One was a gift.) This is a unique book in several regards. It follows the journey of three cactus enthusiasts as they hunt for cacti throughout South America researching and collecting specimens of various species. 'Botanical exploration' or travelogue-style books, common a century ago, are becoming rather rare in the modern world; yet this book persuasively brings that concept back to life in modern terms, revealing how cacti are indeed still sufficiently fascinating yet poorly understood to warrant these forays. The book is highly readable with excellent illustrations and descriptions of plants, and stories of the adventures plant explorers must endure to achieve their goals. As such it is much more accessible for those who perhaps aren't naturally drawn to cacti like I am. Even with the travel format, the book is packed full of botanical and horticultural information and it doubles as a great supplemental reference on cacti for me.

#1 The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate
Olivier Filippi
Thames & Hudson, 2008

Put simply, this is the awesomest gardening book ever in every possible way. It is also possibly the only book that has impacted my gardening goals and practices to any significant degree, because it partially synthesizes and gives direction to all the nebulous ideas I had about how a concept of xeriscaping for the Pacific Northwest might be developed. If you're one of those people for whom phrases like "changing climate" are an immediate turn-off, give the book a chance: there is actually almost nothing in the book about climate change and I'm not even sure why this is mentioned in the title. The book is more about "changing attitude" for the gardener hooked on irrigating copiously, and is written with the primary objective of describing how to garden for drought in Mediterranean climates. Yet it is also much more: it goes from a lengthy and very intriguing discussion of the diversity and adaptability of dryland plants, to understanding degrees of drought and climate, to proper (and for some, revolutionary) planting and watering practices for these plants. The section of the book describing many of these plants in detail is also excellent: some might criticize it for excluding important drought-tolerant genera (for example, Arctostaplylos gets only a passing mention, with no species described), but I can't really fault the author for that since he is clearly regionally focused to the Mediterranean, and pretty much any gardening book that isn't strictly conceptual has to be regionally focused to be any good (does that sound snotty or what? But really, think about it...). And many intriguing rare plants - especially from the Mediterranean region - are described that I had not been aware of, and that deserve more attention in gardens particularly along the US West Coast. Throughout the book the vast practical experience of the author with all these plants, and general expertise on the subject matter, shines through splendidly; far more so than any other book on the topic. Illustrations and layout are also excellent: the book combines coffee table appeal with practical information as well as any garden book I can think of. This is the book we need for beating the drought in the Northwest (with some adjustments, perhaps, for our own local plant palette) and I can't recommend it enough!

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