Friday, August 25, 2017

Reviews: In Texas, fall is gardening’s second spring

Earlier this week, I wrote about a nostalgia for school days revived by the approach of autumn. For gardeners, fall brings another revival of interest – the arrival of spring bulb catalogues! Some of these even include listings for perennials and woody plants. Fall rivals spring as a time for these plantings. And in Texas, fall is a second, in some ways better, spring. The scorching heat relents, but leaves us two, even three more months of frost-free time to enjoy our gardens. And of course, to read about them. To celebrate this autumn revival, I’m posting short reviews of two gardening books I’ve loved – an old favorite and one that’s not new, but new to me. Happy reading, happy gardening!

Review of: Passalong Plants
Authors: Steven Bender and Felder Rushing
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

The first thing I demand from a gardening book is good writing. Perhaps it sounds strange that great illustrations/photographs are only the second thing I look for, but add those to wonderful writing, and a book becomes one I dip into for years to come. Passalong Plants, co-written by longtime Southern Living gardening editor Steve Bender and the guru of the slow gardening movement, Felder Rushing, meets both criteria.

Sure, the writing is a little folksy for my taste (and sometimes unabashedly politically incorrect), but it vibrates with the voices of the writers. Writing alternately (and part of the fun is figuring out whether a particular section was written by Bender or Rushing), they describe scores of ornamental plants that abound in old-fashioned southern gardens, but may be difficult to locate through commercial sources. Luckily, they list mail-order sources, and in fact, since the book’s publication in 1993, far more are available even from walk-in nurseries.

Given that a major reason plants become passalongs is their ease of propagation. I was relieved that Bender and Rushing don’t look down on the favorite propagation method of this not always energetic gardener – rooting cuttings in water. And to learn how many plants I haven’t yet tried water-rooting on are more than amenable to the tactic. (Hold on a minute while I dash out back to grab the few remaining stems of white datura that survived last winter’s first surprisingly hard freeze and stick them in the nearest glass jar I can find. But not a jar I’ll use for putting up jelly – all parts of the beautiful, fragrant-flowered datura are toxic!)

I occasionally shuddered at Passalong Plants’ paeans to plants that have become horribly invasive in mild-climate areas: Chinese tallow tree, sweet autumn clematis, loosestrife, Chinaberry tree. At least they come with warnings about their rampant natures.

Add plenty of gorgeous photos taken by the gardeners themselves and a foreword by another favorite gardening author, the late Allen Lacy, and it’s a must even for gardeners who’ve ever set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Review of: A Southern Garden: A Handbook for the Middle South
Author: Elizabeth Lawrence
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Source: Personal collection
Grade: A

It’s been decades since I first read Elizabeth Lawrence’s A Southern Garden, first published in 1941. My paperback copy of the revised 1967 edition, with its charming watercolor illustrations, has long since fallen into tatters and been passed along to my daughter. But not before I secured a hardback copy containing a photograph of Lawrence and her beloved spaniel at the entrance to her Raleigh, North Carolina, garden.

Since then, I never pass by a used bookstore without checking for any of the too-short list of Lawrence’s books. A long-time garden columnist for the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, Lawrence was the first woman to receive a degree in landscape architecture from the University of North Carolina. Less often mentioned among her writing credentials is her degree from Barnard College in New York, but her education there informs her writing as much as her passion for plants. Even the limited number of black and white photo illustrations can’t diminish the exquisite descriptiveness of Lawrence’s writing.

Lawrence used her own gardens (first in Raleigh, then in Charlotte) as testing grounds for her landscape design work, giving her discussion of plants a hands-on credibility. A Southern Garden (actually applicable to any gardens in USDA Zone 8), is arranged chronologically by season, and contains extensive notes on blooming dates, updated material, and lists of nurseries (some, alas, no longer in existence).

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