Himalayan blue poppies: A stupendous new book

The Genus Meconopsis by Christopher Grey-WilsonThe blue poppies are amongst the most tantalizing plants we grow – or try to grow, at least. These exotic relatives of the corn poppy and Oriental poppy instantly attract visitors in any gardens where they’re in bloom. The Himalayan blue poppy… the very name is exciting. We’re almost in Indiana Jones country…

But there’s no doubt that not only are many species difficult to grow but their classification and naming has all been more than a little baffling. So the arrival of this fat – nay, enormous – new book from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the expert on Meconopsis, Christopher (Kit) Grey-Wilson, is very welcome.

So, first of all: 300 pages, 300 color pictures, large format (almost 12in x 10in/30cm x 25cmm), spectacularly thorough (except see below) and amazingly detailed. The photographs are superb, many of plants are seen in their wild Himalayan home which is not only a treat in itself, but also helps inform us on how to grow them. The writing is admirably lucid (as we would expect from Mr. G-W), especially considering some of the difficult botanical issues that he discusses. It’s such a relief to have all the classification and naming set out in a way we can all grasp.

But, to be clear: This is primarily a work of botany, and not a work of horticulture. Based on the latest field, herbarium and laboratory studies Kit has completely revised the classification of the whole genus, given us detailed new descriptions of all the wild forms and published many new names for the first time. Garden hybrids and garden cultivars are not usuallly discussed and even some that have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit in recent years are not mentioned. As I say, this is not a book for gardeners.

There are many striking results of all this, but two stand out. Firstly, the name Meconopsis baileyi is now, again, the correct name for what we all finally got used to calling M. betonicifolia – the blue poppy most often seen and the easiest to grow. Secondly, our old friend the lovely yellow Welsh poppy, so familiar as Meconopsis cambrica, and native not only to Wales but Ireland and parts of south west England, and naturalized all over Britain, is now Parameconopsis cambrica. (More on that another time…)

So. This a very impressive work, and the culmination of many decades of dedicated and insightful study in the field, in the herbarium and in the laboratory. It’s an amazing achievement. But, as with The Genus Erythronium that I discussed here in December, it’s expensive: $112/£68. Isn't it time these books were published as ebooks for a third (a quarter?) of the price?

Kit taught me taxonomy when I studied at Kew many decades ago and he was mad about meconopsis then. This book is the triumphant culmination of a lifetime of study. Perhaps, next, he’ll give us a book for gardeners.

The Genus Meconopsis by Christopher Grey-Wilson is published by Kew Publishing in Britain and by The University of Chicago Press in North America.


Classic tree and shrub reference goes online

Bean's Trees and Shrubs Online.The five volume Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles by W. J. Bean, usually referred to simply as “Bean”, is a monumental work running to over 4,000 pages. It does what it says: it describes in detail the woody plants (including climbers) that can reasonably be expected to grow outside in Britain (mostly zone 8, some zone 9).

The four A-Z volumes were last revised almost forty years ago, then a supplement appeared in 1988 (see below, click to enlarge), so it does not include recent classification and name changes and recent introductions. Otherwise, it's impressively comprehensive with good descriptions and boundless information on origins and differences between similar plants. It’s invaluable.

Now you can read it - free.

In the first part of a two part initiative, the International Dendrology Society has published the whole thing – all 4,027 pages of it – online. And it’s free: no charge for access. The original four A-Z volumes plus the supplement are currently priced on at £325/$504. Did I mention that the online version is free?

The new online version is easy to navigate and attractively presented. The next step is adding pictures.

You can read more about it on the excellent blog post by John Grimshaw, who’s been heavily involved with the project - and I see he’s had the same idea of including an image of his five volume set as I did!

Take a look at Bean's Trees and Shrubs online - it's invaluable, and it's free.

The five volumes of Bean's Trees and Shrubs. Image ©

And what's coming next? Britain's Alpine Garden Society is well into the process of making its invaluable two volume Encyclopaedia Of Alpines available online. It's currently available from for £150/$250.74. You can track the progress of the operation here.

Books for the holidays

Gardeners always like to receive books as holiday gifts. Here are a few suggestions.


Great Gardens Of America by Tim Richardson (Frances Lincoln)
A reduced format, paperback edition of a sumptuous book first published in 2009. With wonderful photography by Andrea Jones, it features a more extensive, and more insightful, text than many well illustrated garden books. And at a more affordable price than the original.


The English Country House Garden by George Plumptre (Frances Lincoln)
From classics such as Great Dixter and Hidcote Manor, under appreciated gardens including Thorp Perrow and Helmingham Hall to modern creations by Dan Pearson and others – it makes you wonder why the gardens at Downton Abbey aren't more impressive.


The Gardeners Garden by Madison Cox, Toby Musgrave and more (Phaidon)
A very large, fat and extensive guide to the best gardens around the world which will be a travel guide to a few and an inspiration to many. Reveals vistas and details of more than 250 gardens ancient and modern with enlightening commentaries and over 1200 photographs.



Where Do Camels Belong? The Story and Science Of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson (Profile Books, UK, and Greystone Books, USA)
An essential truth telling using the science of invasive species to cut through the myth making and over exaggeration to explain the situation as it really is. Reviewed earlier this year.



Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade (Timber Press)
Inspiring, lively, well-written and well illustrated book which is a cut above the other recent non-scientific snowdrop books. Just in time for snowdrop season.

Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs by James Armitage, Dawn Edwards and Neil Lancaster (Royal Horticultural Society)
A very welcome and comprehensive revision of the classic tree and shrub reference guide written in accessible language and covering well over 13,000 trees and shrubs. Reviewed earlier this year.


Fine Foliage: Elegant Plant Combinations for Garden and Container by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz (St. Lynn’s Press)
An across-the-zones guide focusing on planting combinations, bringing out the best in foliage plants by partnering them together creatively. Good advice, well illustrated, good value. Winner of the Gold Award for Best Overall Book at the 2014 Garden Media Awards.

Month by Month Gardening Series (Cool Springs Press)
We all know that gardening in Maine is very different from gardening in California and these state-by-state guides provide invaluable local advice for local situations. Thirty six titles so far.

Choose one of the State by Sate, Month by Month Gardening Series published by Cool Springs Press

On the other hand, how about a copy of my latest book or my wife's latest book?!

Powerhouse Plants: 510 Top Performers For Multi-Season Beauty by Graham Rice (Timber Press)

Trees, shrubs, perennials, climbers and more to bring multi-season color to your garden. Just one plant can bring four bursts of seasonal colour. "Offers a mind-boggling number of suggestions. ... It's about making the most of the space in your garden. And that's always a good idea." Philadelphia Inquirer


Bloom-Again Orchids: 50 Easy-care Orchids that Flower Again and Again and Again by judywhite
The easiest Orchids to Grow! 50 great choices, plus how to make them rebloom. Includes judywhite's 10 best tips for growing orchids. "…gorgeous photos accompanied by concise tips and descriptions. The book is easy to navigate and the stunning photos lure you in." - Miami Herald


Happy Holiday reading!

Erythroniums: Impressive new monograph from Kew

The Genus Erythronium by Chris Clennet. © Royal Botanic Gardens, KewBotanical science is the basis for all serious discussion of garden plants, the foundation for everything we know about the plants we grow. By classifying and describing our garden plants in an impartial scientific way, science provides a dependable basis for discussing and growing the plants. And the public expression of this fundamental research is the botanical monograph.

For more than twenty five years the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the greatest botanical institution in the world, has been publishing a series of monographs in association with the venerable Curtis’s Botanical magazine, founded in 1787. The latest title has recently appeared.

The Genus Erythronium (cover left, click to enlarge) continues in the style of its predecessors. The simple and elegant design of the pages entices us into the depth of the comprehensive content while the fourteen paintings, shared mainly between two fine, artists Christabel King and Pandora Sellars, combine the beauty of the individual species with botanical accuracy. These are augmented by more than sixty photographs, and 30 color distribution maps (below, click to enlarge).

The text by Chris Clennet, the Gardens Manager at Kew’s satellite garden at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, covers the 29 species with the thoroughness we expect although it’s only fair to be clear that the language of the descriptions is necessarily botanical. The natural distribution and ecology is discussed thoroughly and there are very helpful notes on the cultivation of each species are the result of years of experience and research. Erythronium californicum, painting by Christabel King and distribution map

There’s also an invaluable descriptive list of 49 garden hybrids and selections, the plants that are most widely available from nurseries and which most non-specialist gardeners actually grow. Included are useful notes on the distinctive features that separate similar plants.

The book is not intended for the occasional gardener. But for serious enthusiasts and growers, and for people like me helping everyday gardeners choose good plants and grow them well, books like this are indispensible.

I was fortunate to be involved in the publication of the very first books in this series, back in the late 1980s, and it’s heartening to see that the tradition is thriving. However, my admiration and appreciation of these books is tempered a little by one important point: the price. In spite of support from the Finnis Scott Foundation established on behalf of my old friend, the legendary plantswoman Valerie Finnis, this 148 page book is listed at £52.00/$85.00, which puts it beyond the range of many who would appreciate it. But it’s made me want to plant more erythroniums.

Look out for the latest in the series - Meconopsis. Out in the UK now, due in the US in January.

The Genus Erythronium by Chris Clennet is published by Kew Books and distributed in North America by the University of Chicago Press.


For more on erythroniums, see my blog post from back in 2006.

Four plant books from Timber Press: Dahlias, Snowdrops, Salvias and Sedums

Plant Lover's Guide To Dahlias by Andy Vernon. ISBN: 9781604694161A 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. Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade. ISBN: 9781604694352All 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.

Plant Lover's Guide To Salvias by John Whittlesey. ISBN: 9781604694192A 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.

Plant Lover's Guide To Sedums by Brent Horvath. ISBN: 9781604693928It’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.

Plant Lover's Guide To Dahlias by Andy Vernon. 9781604694161Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in North America from in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon in Britain and Ireland from

Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade. 9781604694352Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in North America from in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade in Britain and Ireland from

Plant Lover's Guide To Salvias by John Whittlesey. 9781604694192Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in North America from in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Salvias by John Whittlesey in Britain and Ireland from

Plant Lover's Guide To Sedums by Brent Horvath. 9781604693928Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in North America from in both print and Kindle editions

Order The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums by Brent Horvath in Britain and Ireland from

Bee-friendly Himalayan balsam

Three of the colours seen in Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam, in Northamptonshire. Images ©
Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is a common plant of British riversides, pond margins and other wet places and is always said to be too invasive for us to be allowed to grow. It looks as if it’s smothering everything else where it grows, so it’s banned. It can be a lovely plant, so not being allowed to grow it is unfortunate.

On my recent short visit back to England I saw it along the River Nene in Northamptonshire (along with the American native Imaptiens capensis), by the Wey Navigation Canal and River Wey in Surrey and in other waterside places. Some stands of it looked dense and were well over 6ft/2m high.

Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam, growing by the River Wey in Surrey. Image ©GardenPhotos.comBut the most striking feature was the colours. The flowers varied from cherry red through various purplish and pink shades, including some pretty bicoloured forms, to almost white. Years ago I used to grow a pure white form called ‘Candida’ (with none of the anthocyanins that bring the red and pink colouring); it’s very pretty, but those pale flowered plants I came across this year all had a faint blush of pink.

Also known as policeman’s helmet from the similarity of the flower shape (though not the colour!) to the helmets worn by London policemen, it’s listed as a noxious weed in three US states though it’s not yet found in most country.

However – is it really that bad? Needless to say Ken Thompson gives us the low down in his latest book, Where Do Camels Belong? The Story and Science of Invasive Species. Himalayan balsam in Britain, like purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in North America, turns out to be an example of a plant that looks as if it’s smothering everything to extinction while the basic science tells a different story.

Dr. Thompson reports that a large scientific study that compared areas that had been invaded with similar habitats that had not concluded that “it (Himalayan balsam) does not represent threat to the plant diversity of invaded areas”. But although one visual assessment turns out to be misjudged, another turns out to be valid. The late flowering of Impatiens glandulifera provides valuable food for bees when few other plants in its favoured damp habitats are flowering. So it’s actually quite useful as well as attractive – so it’s shame that we’re not supposed to grow it.

Book Review: A brilliant new month-by-month bird book

September Swallows by Carry Akroyd from Tweet Of The Day. Image ©Carry AkroydBirds and plants seem to go together naturally. Birders usually seem to be interested in plants, while gardeners enjoy birds. In the US, there’s even a very popular magazine, Birds & Blooms, that combines the two enthusiasms. But not all bird books appeal to gardeners – they may be too focused or too esoteric – but this one is different.

Tweet Of The Day began as a BBC radio series, a one hundred second daily focus on an individual British bird starting each time with its song (the closest North American equivalent is the two minute BirdNote). The popularity of the series has led to this enticing book in which the bird song of the radio series is replaced by bold and captivating illustrations (click to enlarge). The result is an enjoyable month-by-month guide to birds by two of Britain’s most acclaimed naturalists and one of Britain’s premier wildlife artists.

All the familiar garden birds are included, along with many that we’ll see on our walks and drives around Britain. But rather than provide a detailed description of each one (there are plenty of illustrated field guides, after all) authors Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss concentrate on the birds’ habits, their song, and their jizz – what it’s like to see them and how they behave – all clearly derived from their own long day-to-day experience with the birds. And there’s a tempting sprinkling of intriguing stories as well: find out which bird stays in the air for eighteen months after it leaves its nest and check out the traditional way of cooking baby gannet!

Their style is relaxed, conversational almost, yet they pack in so much information without being heavy-handed about it.

And everything is enlivened by the full page, full colour illustrations from Carry Akroyd (click to enlarge), as well as dramatic July Kestrel by Carry Akroyd from Tweet Of The Day. Image © Carry Akroydendpapers, chapter openers and a neat one-shot black and white cameo of each bird.  Her colour work very effectively sets the birds in their landscape: the pheasant and brambling under an autumn oak, the kestrel hovering above a rural road, the kingfisher streaking over the stream, the grouse on the moor. She has the knack of making us feel familiar with a bird even if we’ve never actually seen it, and even the small black-and-whites give you a snapshot of how they behave.

While it’s the illustarions that first grab you, this is a great book for people who are interested in birds but don’t know very much while seasoned birders will discover details they never knew. You start by dipping into it – and end up forgetting about lunch.

BBC radio's Tweet Of The Day is available as a podcast.

* American readers may not be familiar with the birds but they will surely find the text fascinating and certainly enjoy the illustrations.

Tweet Of The Day by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss, illustrated by Carry Akroyd, is published by Saltyard Books.


Book Review: Trees and shrubs - a new edition of the essential reference

Hillier ManualOf Trees and Shrubs - new edition now outThe classic British* reference book on trees, shrubs and climbers is The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. My copy sits with a small and very select group of references just to left of my computer monitor; I probably use it every day.

Now, a new revised edition of this classic has been released by the Royal Horticultural Society, twelve years after the last edition. It has been significantly updated and expanded to include an amazing total of 13,215 individual plants (plus 3,258 cross-references and synonyms) from 706 genera; 1,490 plants have been added to those in the previous edition and this confirms the book’s status as the essential reference on woody plants for British gardeners.

As you can tell, it’s comprehensive. I’ve only failed to find one shrub I’ve looked up over the last few months and believe me I check on some pretty unusual plants. Another thing is that, as with my Encyclopedia of Perennials, the descriptions are written in accessible language – you don’t need to be a professional botanist to understand what’s being said. So no words like “bipinnatifid” and “orbicular” except where absolutely necessary (and of course there’s an easy glossary).

Wherever possible the text notes when species were introduced to western gardens, who discovered them in the wild and who introduced or developed cultivars and other interesting snippets of information. I’m pleased to see that plants which have been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM) are marked but plants are not given hardiness ratings – not the USDA ratings nor the new RHS ratings. I’m told that the RHS hardiness ratings will added in a future edition.

This medium format book has no colour pictures, and so is priced at under £20 for almost 600 pages of the highest quality information. And it’s worth mentioning that commenters on are comparing the book unfavourably with previous editions because there are no colour pictures. But as far as I’m aware the Hillier Manual never had colour pictures; they’re confusing it with the old, extremely outdated and much less useful Hillier Colour Dictionary of Trees and Shrubs and Hillier Gardener's Guide to Trees and Shrubs which included many colour pictures – but covered far far fewer plants.

And, as Roy Lancaster says in his preface: “Even without illustrations, it offers a window on the wonderful world of woody plants to be seen, admired, cherished and ultimately enjoyed.”

But one thing that disappoints me. Bamboos are included, over thirty pages of Rhododendron hybrids are included, there are seven pages of Clematis hybrids – but only ten pages of roses, and none of the huge number of hybrid roses that are so widely available. Considering that in much of the country it’s impossible even to grow rhododendrons (because they need acid soil), to include so many seems perverse when at the same time excluding roses – which anyone anywhere can grow.

The RHS tell me that this is a matter if history - Hillier Nurseries, who developed the original manual in 1971, were never big on roses - and also that modern rose introductions disappear so quickly it would be impossible to keep the book current. My view is that while roses may not have been important to Hillier Nurseries, they're very important to gardeners and including old roses, or AGM roses, at the very least, would have been very helpful.

Finally, let me mention the book’s stout binding (although it’s a paperback it should last like a hardback), its clear typography and layout, and its valuable updated lists of plants for purposes. Excellent.

In all, this is an essential reference, with far more information for your money than any other guide to trees and shrubs.

* I should make clear that, while the book is intended for British gardeners, serious enthusiasts for shrubs in North America and around the world will find plants and information included that are in no other reasonably priced guides – or, in many cases, in any other guides at all.

The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs is published by the Royal Horticultural Society.


Book Review: Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson

Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad by Ken ThompsonIn Britain, this invaluable book is subtitled The Story and Science of Invasive Species; in North America, the more provocative subtitle is Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad. Both are appropriate; look dispassionately at the science and it’s clear that invasive species are not all bad.

So often, discussions of the whole issue of natives and non-natives (plants, animals, insects and the rest) are run through with the repetition of bold assertions, unproven by science, that it’s a relief to find a book in which the whole issue is viewed more calmly, in a broad context, considered over time, and backed by solid science. It's just what we need: more unbiased science and less thoughtless hysteria – and that is what this book provides. And it’s all presented in a lively, and very readable.

Ken Thompson discusses how we define “native” and how we stretch our objective definitions to take account of subjective impulses; he reveals how little we actually know about so many non-native species and how very few ever cause problems; he examines whether the most hated invasive species really are as destructive as we’re told and points out that some have positive impacts; he discusses how natives and non-natives can happily co-exist in the same habitat; he applies science to the myths surrounding invasive species.

One of the striking features of the response to the presence of non-native plants, in North America in particular, is the frequency with which they’re simply removed – just in case – rather than studied. As Dr Thompson points out, the proportion of non-natives that arrive in natural habitats and end up causing problems is minute. And when non-natives are studied over the long term, we sometimes find that their initial dominance is followed by a sharp decline followed by a stable balance.

I won't steal the author’s thunder by summarizing his invaluable discussion of how we define the word “native”, except to say that picking any date as a cut-off point after which an arriving species is declared an alien is clearly arbitrary and ignores the fact that ecosystems have always evolved over time and continue to do so. And suggesting that only new arrivals in natural habitats that are unassisted by man can be classified as “native” ignores the obvious fact that nowhere on the planet is unaffected by man’s influence, so nowhere is genuinely “natural” anyway.

So. What a refreshing book and one that’s full of stimulation and reminders to look at the evidence and not listen to the hearsay. This book effectively skewers the prejudices and pseudoscience of the plant police extremists for whom natives are, by definition, good and non-natives inherently bad. It should be read by anyone with an interest in native and non-native plants, by those working in the field, and also by natural history and garden writers like me - so we don't simply repeat misconceptions in our work. The book is stimulating and refreshing: as soon as I got to the end I immediately started again at the beginning. [The anwser to the book's title, by the way, is a fascinating one. Needless to say, it's not what you think.]

Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson is published in Britain by Profile Books. It will be published in North America as Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad by Greystone Books in September. North American readers who are eager to read it before September can order the British edition from


Book Review: Coffee For Roses by C. L. Fornari

Coffee For Roses by C. L. FornariGardeners often pay more attention to what they hear over the garden fence than to science. Of course, friends and neighbors often provide good advice but sometimes they’re way off the mark. In this “let’s get it straight” book, Cape Cod garden guru C. L. Fornari not only debunks many of the myths of gardening but details why they’re myths and then explains how we should be looking after our plants once we’ve thrown out the old wives’ tales. Let’s look at a few examples.

For sweeter tomatoes, water with sugarwater? No. C. L. explains that watered-on sugar is not even taken up into the fruits, but that for flavor choice of variety is crucial.

Daffodils poison tulips in a vase? No. C. L. points out that tulips are more sensitive to bacteria in the water than daffodils so the tulips collapse first. Just because the tulips were the first to wilt, it doesn’t mean the daffs made them do it.

Mothballs repel garden pests? No. Even assuming you can still buy mothballs, C. L. points out that there’s no evidence that mothballs repel squirrels, mice or any other creatures.

Goldenrod causes hay fever? No. It’s the inconspicuous flowers of ragweed, which often grows with goldenrod, that causes hay fever.

I need to do something before it spreads? Not usually. As C. L. points out, the mildew that attacks your phlox will not attack your roses.

Seal wounds on trees? No. Again, as C. L. points out, covering tree pruning wounds locks in moisture and encourages rot as well inhibits the natural healing process.”

Always put drainage material (crocks) in the bottom of containers? No. Actually, I was taught that before the invention of plastic pots it was a good idea to at least partially cover what was often a large drainage hole in clay pots because the soil really would wash out. Not any more.

You get the idea, really valuable science-based advice instead of hearsay. In all over seventy different issues are covered and I find I only disagree with C. L. on one. You should always stake a newly planted tree. C. L. says that’s almost always wrong but I disgaree, I'd say it’s almost always true. But instead of using a traditional 3-4ft high stake, use a very short stake to keep the roots secure and allow the stem to flex.

This is a really useful book, engagingly written, that will help us all become better gardeners and, as well as righting a few wrongs, Coffee For Roses also encourages us to think about, and perhaps re-assess, all our gardening techniques – and that may be its most valuable lesson.

By the way: Although most of the issues discussed relate to gardening in North America, British gardeners will certainly find Coffee For Roses by C. L. Fornari interesting.

PS Don’t put the coffee grounds on the roses, put them on the compost heap.

Coffee For Roses by C. L. Fornari by published by St. Lynn’s Press

Listen to C. L. Fornari being interviewed about her book on NPR's Weekend Edition.