A new series of books for gardeners on individual plants is a big deal. In recent years we've seen fewer specialist plant books published and, as the market for books on many plants is limited, publishers will rarely sanction a new book on a subject even if an earlier one is not up to scratch.
Neither will publishers produce different editions for the British and American markets. So the one book on a specific plant has to provide good information for both British and American gardeners – and this is a definite challenge when the gardening conditions and techniques are so different, tastes are so different, and the plants grown are often very different.
The first four titles in the new Plant Lover’s Guides series from Timber Press came out earlier this year. I’ve been using them, let’s see how they stand up. There are four titles: Dahlias and Snowdrops are written by Brits, Salvias and Sedums by Americans. All the books share the same structure though, oddly, the book on salvias has the fewest pages in spite of the fact that there are at least twice as many salvias grown as there are snowdrops. All four are attractively designed, accessible, with excellent photography and clear typography. The authors clearly know their stuff, and write well.
The individual entries are similar in their structure, although organized differently, and each book includes 150 main entries – a tiny proportion of the more than 1500 salvias grown in gardens, and around 700 sedums for example. Clearly, many are excluded. In fact there's no entry for the first sedum I look up, the very widely grown ‘Iceberg’.
This prompts the question: are these books intended to highlight the author’s recommend plants, or for gardeners to find information about plants in which they’re interested? It’s definitely the former and of course an expert’s guidance is always valuable but these are books of inspiration not books of reference.
A big issue that these four books fail to address adequately is hardiness. In two of the books, Snowdrops and Dahlias, the USDA hardiness ratings of the plants are not given at all; a significant omission. None of the four provide plant-by-plant hardiness information for British gardeners; the Royal Horticultural Society’s system of hardiness ratings is not included. The publisher tells me it would be “too confusing” to include both the British and the North American hardiness zones. Gardens Illustrated magazine, which sells well on both sides of the Atlantic, don't agree: they include both. The battle to persuade the RHS to adopt the American system (I fought hard!) was lost. The RHS now has its own system for Britain; the RHS zones should be there.
Another thing that puzzles me is awards. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Award Of Garden Merit (AGM) is well known and widely used in Britain and, perhaps unexpectedly, often quoted in North America as well. In the Snowdrops and Dahlia books plants with the AGM are noted, in the Salvia book not only are award-winners not marked but only half the salvias awarded the AGM are included. Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ is not noted as the US Perennial Plant Of The Year for 1997. In the Sedums book, some AGM plants are marked and others are not.
It’s great to see this new series of plant books. OK, there are problems. It’s not easy to ensure that plant books work well on both sides of the Atlantic. And, of course, the individual requirements of these different plants should not be forced screaming into a rigid structure. What’s more, the economics of publishing are not at all what they once were and it’s tough for publishers to make a fair return on specialist plant books (tough for authors, too) and these books are issued at a fair price: $24.95/£17.99 before discounts, less for the Kindle editions although the Kindle versions are not available in Britain. Books on tulips, asters, epimediums and ferns on the way.
But it’s unfortunate that the value of so much good information, elegantly and attractively presented and brought to us by wise and experienced plantspeople, has not been matched by a consistent appreciation of the needs of gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, for gardeners not looking for exhaustive references, these books serve as a wide view into narrow subjects in an engaging and atractive way.
The Plant Lover’s Guides to Dahlias, Snowdrops, Salvias and Sedums are published by Timber Press.
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in North America from amazon.com in both print and Kindle editions
Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in Britain and Ireland from amazon.co.uk