If design books are the brains of my garden book collection, then the beating heart of it all must be the plant compendiums. These are the reference books I check to make sure I’m putting the right plant in the right place. Sure that Arctic Ice azalea is a gorgeous plant, but how will it do on a windy bank in full sun? Years of doing this have given me a working knowledge of a lot of plant material, but I have yet to meet anyone who keeps an encyclopedic list in their head of every plant known to man (okay, one, but Paul Larson is an exception). I remember asking Dr. Michael Dirr about a fir tree, sure I would get the key indicator of species from the man who wrote the book. He looked it over in a perfunctory manner and pronounced “Hell, I don’t know, they all look alike!” (After we stopped laughing, he did identify it).

Books about Trees and shrubs

And that brings us to a logical place to start. The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is very familiar to anyone who has ever taken a course on trees and shrubs; this is the textbook in use all over the United States. LOTS of information on almost every tree or shrub you might run across; key i.d. features, growth habits, hardiness, pests, etc. But despite its textbook layout and lack of pictures (there are line drawings), this is no dry read. The little notes at the end of an entry alone are worth the read; the description of he and Alan Armitage trying to convince a Scottish bus driver to stop so they can get buddleia cuttings is a fine example of the flashes of good humor to be found throughout.

His description of the landscape uses of Buxus macrophylla reads, “Excellent as a hedge plant, for foundation, edging situations, parterres, formal gardens; too often pruned into a meatball and allowed to haunt a foundation planting”. We get not only information but opinion (anyone who has heard the good doctor speak has gotten an earful on the dreaded “green meatball” syndrome; I cannot drive past a heavily pruned landscape without a chuckle and a thought of the riot act he’d read the gardener).

Dr. Dirr gave heed to the years of helpful suggestion and came out first with the Photographic Manual of Woody Landscape Plants; in black and white, it was not what we’d all hoped for and after a few more years of collective nagging we got Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, the color version (yes, I was one of the naggers). This is a wonderful book with more color photos than any two other books combined; I think of it as an addendum to the Manual, but for those who don’t need all the scientific description this book might do it for you. These books should do it for most of us; the American landscape uses only so many plants.

Gardening Books About Everything

But for those who must know everything there is to know, may I suggest Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada by the staff of the L. H. Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University. This is not just trees and shrubs, this is EVERYTHING.

If it’s a plant and it’s available for sale in North America, it’s in here. It’s an esoteric book to be sure; if you’re not familiar with scientific nomenclature and plant morphology you may get lost here. This one’s gonna set you back a good bit; if you don’t want to spend hundreds on a book, you might find a used one, but usually if someone is serious enough to buy this in the first place, they’re keeping it!

Another book that I have not purchased yet (I’ve looked it over a few times), but heard good things about is American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, edited by Christopher Brickell and Judith D. Zuk. I have only browsed this book, but for those who are looking for one good i.d. book for all the plants in the yard, this is probably it. It won’t set you back like Hortus, and it’s got LOTS of color pictures (Hortus doesn’t). Anyone reading this can consider this to be the start of my Christmas wish list; I want this one and so would any of the gardeners on your list…

Books About Perennials

We have done a fair job of covering the basic trees and shrubs, so let’s turn an eye to the perennial end of the garden. If Michael Dirr is the granddaddy of the tree and shrub set, the nod for perennial guru goes to his friend and colleague, Allan Armitage. A professor at University of Georgia (like Dirr), he has written several tomes and countless articles on perennial plants and gets my nod for the best in the biz. Not just mine; I was talking with my old friend Stephanie Cohen earlier this fall, and she says that he’s the only one who knows more about perennials than she does! (Steph is a guru in her own right; keep an eye out for her book) From the good Dr. Armitage, may I recommend:

Herbaceous Perennial Plants
This is the one he teaches his perennial course from and remains my steadfast companion. This is the one I reach for first; not many color plates and mostly line drawings but the info is here for sure and much like Dr. Dirr, the innate good humor of the man is rife throughout the book. A must for the serious perennial gardener, he gives info not just on general species but cultivars and hybrids as well.

For those in need of visual stimulation, while no where near as complete, Armitage’s Garden Perennials: A Color Encyclopedia is chock full of great photos and info, although the gaps can be disconcerting at times (Doc, no lavender listing!?) Those with a bent for the cutting garden should read his Specialty Cut Flowers and I would be remiss if I did not mention his CD’s Allan Armitage’s Photo-Library of Herbaceous Plants and The Educated Gardener: The Interactive Guide to Herbaceous Perennial Plants

While not as warm as Dr. Armitage’s book, Dr. Stephen Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants is still worthy of note; it is another of the classroom texts on the subject and while not as complete as Armitage’s primer still imparts most of the basic info on a wide array of perennials. It too suffers from a lack of color photography but you can easily remedy that fault in your library by purchasing the two volume Perennials by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix. While slanted heavily to the British gardener on the cultivar end of the scale, the scope of this work is truly world-wide; indeed, that is the beauty of these books. Many of the pictures are taken of the plant growing in the wild, allowing you to see exactly the kind of requirements it has. While short on printed cultural info, this book is incredibly handy in that it is arranged by bloom time so if you can identify one other plant in bloom around the one in question, you are only a few pages away from an i.d. A true workhorse in my library.

One I do not own but have heard wonderful things about is Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials by Ellen Phillips and C. Colston Burrell (Sorry, Cole, I’ll go straight out and buy it!) Having perused it online, I can truly say that this is a great book for those who want just one on the subject (I can neither understand nor empathize with that kind of crazy thinking, but I understand there are those of you who don’t want shelf after shelf of gardening books. Go figure…)

Cole Burrell

Cole Burrell is not just another garden author; this is a designer and naturalist, well thought of in the trade and he will offer more nuggets of garden wisdom in a chapter than many do in a whole book. His A Gardener’s Encyclopedia of Wildflowers won the American Horticultural Society’s Book Award. For those looking to jazz up the border with some knockout perennial combo’s you need Perennial Combinations: Stunning Combinations That Make Your Garden Look Fantastic Right from the Start. The title says it all, and most good design is knowing who to emulate and Cole is better than most; I use this book all the time when I’m stuck for an idea. You should, too

Books About Grasses

Grasses have become a staple of the perennial border; you would be hard-pressed to find a design of mine without them and I see more and more of them in the American landscape all the time. Two books stand above the rest here; The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by John Greenlee and the like-titled The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by Rick Darke. While both are complete texts with great photography and pertinent text, I have to give the nod to Rick’s book; it is just a bit more complete and informative, although the grass garden design in the back of John’s book are worth the price of purchase (John, if it’s any consolation, I’ve had a beer with both of you and you’re a lot more entertaining…). Why choose? Get both!

Care of Established Perennials

What to do when the perennial border is all planted and mulched (other than read gardening books?). While much is written on what to do up to that point, there has been a dearth of good info on how to care for your perennial plants AFTER they get established.

That has been ably remedied by Tracy DiSabato-Aust in The Well-Tended Perennial Garden – Planting & Pruning Techniques. This was an eye opener for me as I began to see the possibilities for extending bloom time, corralling those rampant characters and in general, maintaining a better border. This is a book for beginners, intermediate and experienced gardeners; everyone will find value here. The species by species listing is worth the price of the book alone, but the photos of Tracy’s borders give ample demonstration of her technique (as well as giving a bunch of great ideas for you own border). A new favorite.

My Favorite Books About Roses

Roses are a hot topic nowadays and seem to be heating up (Oprah was talking about roses on her show!). I don’t own a lot of rose books but have two that have served long and well. One is Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix’s Best Rose Guide: A Comprehensive Selection , again with Random House and again with a slant towards the U.K., but the pictures of species roses in their native habitats are worth it.

The other I find indispensable is The American Garden Guides Rose Gardening; this is my usual go-to for roses. Mostly the basics for actual listings, but there is lots of good info from experts in the field. I love this whole series; perennials, annuals, herbs, Asian garden style, indoor plants, I have them all and use them all regularly.

One could do much worse than to rely on these books alone for your garden knowledge and for those whose thinking runs that way (?), these are worth a look. Good pictures. Good text and like I said, advice from some of the best gardeners this country has offer. But for those who must have that erudite tome of knowledge, The Rose Bibleby Rayford Clayton Reddell was highly recommended by my cognoscenti, along with his All America Roses, a compendium of the All Americal Rose Selection winners to date.

Best Books About Native Plants

So much for the cultivated look. Let’s look at a couple of books to help us select native plants for the garden. My first listing is my old standby, The Native Plant Primer by Carole Ottesen. This is a wide topic that she endeavors to cover in a single volume and the breadth of the task sometimes shows in the occasional absence of some plant or other you may be looking for. That said this book is still on the shelf and dog-eared from much use and for those looking for one good book on the topic this is a good choice.

There are a pair of books that have taken its place in my heart (if not on the shelf), despite rather unwieldy titles, The New England Wildflower Society Guide To Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada and its sister book, Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American plants, both by William Cullina.

These are the books I have waited a decade or more for; the incredibly complete and concise listing of native plants and almost everything you could ever want to know about them. Yet, like the Thoreau book, there is more here. Having become acquainted with Bill I can tell you that there is a piece of him with almost every plant description, be it the story of a childhood tupelo or the description of Japanese pachysandra as “that vinyl-siding of groundcovers.” His humor and good nature are readily apparent to anyone lucky enough to read these books and I would recommend them even if I disliked Bill (I decidedly do not). Buy these books. Half of profit goes to the New England Wildflower Society and Garden in the Woods; you’d be helping Mother Nature AND getting your hands on an amazing treasure trove of knowledge.

Great as Bill’s books are, they are not what I would think of as a field guide; for that task I turn to Roger Tory Peterson’s (and Margaret Mckenna’s) A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern/North-central North America and George A. Petrides’ Trees and Shrubs. These are the ones I drag out into the woods with me (and they look it). Both are part of the excellent series of Peterson’s Field Guides; anyone who has birded or studied butterflies is well aware of the Peterson’s contribution to the natural world and these books are not least among them. If you are wanting to find out what that little woodland gem is, this is the right book for you (assuming you live in the Northeastern U.S. as I do. The tree book covers the eastern U.S. If any of you have field guides specific to your own area, just place a post on our Gardening Forum and I or someone else will be able to help you out.).

I have many other books in the library but the plant compendiums are the ones that see daily use and where I go to get my ideas from. I hope that you find at least a few of these books helpful; that’s what we’re here for… Enjoy!