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Perennials: The Gardener's Reference

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Book Review By Karen Preuss

By Susan Carter, Carrie Becker and Bob Lilly
Timber Press, 2007, $49.95

Would that I could download the whole of Perennials: The Gardener’s Reference into some slick little, pocket-sized electronic gadget, to carry with me on weekend sojourns to nurseries and gardens. Oh, to have all of this information at my fingertips when I’m shopping for something new for the garden! (Because this is a big, HEAVY book; one that I won’t be carrying around with me everywhere I go, although I wish I could.)

A good rule of thumb in life, I’ve discovered through much trial and error, is that when you need good information, go to the experts.

In Perennials: The Gardener’s Reference we’ve got a veritable triumvirate sharing their many years of experience and knowledge with the reader. Susan Carter has twenty-five years of professional training and experience in garden and landscape design. Name a local horticultural organization and Susan has probably been involved with it: Master Gardeners, Northwest Perennial Alliance, Northwest Horticultural Society, and the Association for Women in Landscaping, to name a few.

Carrie Becker is well-known as an instructor for Edmonds Community College’s horticulture program (I personally would love to take a few of her plant i.d. classes). She has been a professional gardener, landscape designer, and consultant for more than twenty-five years, and has been gardening in Seattle for more than forty.

Bob Lilly is no slouch, either. Seventeen years experience working at Wells Medina Nursery, then a few more as Nursery Manager at the Herbfarm. These days, he’s a grower, lecturer, and writer, specializing in—what else?— perennials. Together, these three have contributed their considerable time and talents to the design and maintenance of the Northwest Perennial Alliance Borders at the Bellevue Botanic Gardens, marshalling and mentoring the many volunteers who help keep these internationally-acclaimed gardens looking so beautiful.

So it would seem inevitable that they would join forces to put their knowledge down on paper. Years in the making, I believe you will find it worth the wait! Perennials: The Gardener’s Reference is 542 pages containing everything you need to know about growing and maintaining perennials. The authors are clear in their mission. What you won’t find in this book, they tell us, is anything on “annuals, trees, most biennials, and most bulbs and shrubs.” This is all about perennials.  Lots of perennials. Over 2,700 species and cultivars in some 250 genera, actually. (I didn’t count them myself, but will take the publisher’s word for it.)

The authors have included opening chapters on basic maintenance guidelines; a listing of the plant families and the characteristics of those genera selected for the A–Z listings; and a short chapter listing plants for specific types of gardens, such as seasonal borders, shade borders, and meadows.

The real reason to run out and pick up this book, however, is the A–Z listing that comprises the bulk of Perennials. This is a reference book that you’ll enjoy browsing as much as you will appreciate the thoroughness of the information you’re seeking on a specific plant. Arranged alphabetically by genera, each entry begins with a few paragraphs describing the genus and its general habits. Scientific and common names, geographic origins, preferred growing conditions, propagation and management tips particular to the genus follow.

I was thrilled to find recommended companion plants included for each entry; these authors are, after all, experts in putting plants together to the best effect. Special notes regarding growing idiosyncrasies are included. Did you know, for instance, that all convolvulus climbers twine to the right? I had no idea.

Species and cultivars in each genus are listed in an extremely well-designed chart format. Here you’ll find specifics on height and spread, USDA hardiness zones, flowering information and bloom times, foliage, and a section for comments that don’t fall into any of the other categories. The thoroughness of this information can not be overstated. The chart for geraniums goes on for seven pages; hostas for eight, to name just two. Every one of the genera entries is accompanied by at least one lovely photograph of one of the genera’s species or cultivars, shot by photographer Lynne Harrison.

Hurry and get yourself of copy of Perennials: The Gardener’s Reference. Failing that, stop in the Miller Library and spend some time browsing our copy, and then go out and buy your own. You won’t regret it.

Karen Preuss is the Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens in Seattle.

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