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Garden Basics

Martha Stewart Living, February 2009

The first step to being a good gardener is understanding the fundamentals. Our editors recommend their favorite gardening resources.

General Reference
1. "The American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" (DK; 1996), Christopher Brickell and H. Marc Cathey, editors in chief

Don't let the weightiness of this tome fool you. This user-friendly guide is excellent for beginners and seasoned gardeners alike, with entries on more than 15,000 garden plants and plenty of photographs.

2. "The Garden Primer" (Workman; 1988), by Barbara Damrosch

This essential how-to guide provides a blueprint for all things gardening with a methodology that is 100 percent organic.

3. "American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation" (DK; 1999), by Alan Toogood

If you're wondering how to propagate plants, you can't ask for a better primer. It's packed with clear illustrations, photographs, and instructions for everything from seed starting to grafting.

4. "Western Garden Book" (Sunset; 2007), by Kathleen Norris Benzel, editor

This go-to book for West Coast gardeners offers a very specific zone system and describes the various plants that thrive in each.

5. "Garden Bulbs for the South" (Taylor; 1994), by Scott Ogden

Even people in the Deep South can enjoy beautiful bulb displays. This guide celebrates the varieties native to warm-weather climates that don't require an extended chill period to burst forth with bloom.

6. "American Horticultural Society SmartGarden"Regional Guides:
Southwest (DK; 2004), by Rita Pelczar and Patrick Welsh
Southeast (DK; 2004), by Rita Pelczar and William E. Barrick
Northwest (DK; 2003), by Rita Pelczar and Peter Punzi
Northeast (DK; 2003), by Rita Pelczar and Trevor Cole

If you want to know what plants will grow best in your garden, check out the "American Horticultural Society SmartGarden" guides. These divide the country into four regions and catalog the plants that flourish in each.

Native Plants
7. "Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses: From Emerald Carpet to Amber Wave: Serene and Sensuous Plants for the Garden" (Houghton Mifflin; 2008), by William Cullina; "Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants" (Houghton Mifflin; 2002), by William Cullina.

Plants native to North America can be just as glamorous as those from farther afield. This book explains where you can find homegrown specimens in their native environments and how to incorporate them into your garden.

8. "Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants" (Brooklyn Botanic Garden; 2006), by C. Colston Burrell

Here's a book that doesn't simply decry the onslaught of invasive landscape plants. Instead, it offers beautiful native alternatives to use in the garden.

Specific Topics
9. "The Organic Lawn Care Manual" (Storey; 2007), by Paul Tukey

This comprehensive homeowner's guide details how to maintain a verdant lawn without the usual chemicals. It covers all the steps from grass selection to weed removal in an interesting, easy-to-read format.

10. "The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes" (Timber; 2007), by Rick Darke

Moving beyond what most people call grass (lawns), this book explores the rich variety of ornamental grasses, sedges, rushes, and cattails that populate much of the American terrain. The chapters focus on grasses used in different climates and settings, including natural areas and cultivated green spaces.

11. "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" (Stipes; 1998), by Michael A. Dirr

This book is essential reading for plant geeks. It catalogs nearly every hardy woody plant likely to be found in the country, listing the many cultivars and their respective merits. Plus, it can help you figure out when to plant, when blooming typically occurs, and which diseases a tree is susceptible to. The manual also includes diagrams of leaf shapes and fruit types, a discussion of plant nomenclature, and a glossary of botanical and horticultural terms.

12. "Bulbs" (Timber Press; 2002), by John E. Bryan

Once you see the color photographs in this book, you'll discover a whole new batch of bulbs -- Haemanthus, Lachenalia, and Sandersonia, for instance -- along with the usual daffodils and tulips. The monumental work is not only inspiring, but also filled with practical information about planting, growing, propagating, and coping with pests and diseases.

13. "A Year of Roses" (Cool Springs; 1997), by Stephen Scanniello

A winner of an American Horticultural Society book award, this tome isn't for the coffee table alone: It's far too useful and readable for a casual flip-though. Inside you'll find exactly what roses in your region need month by month in terms of planting, pruning, and training, as well as how to prevent their demise from disease and pest.

14. "The Natural Shade Garden" (Clarkson Potter; 1992), by Ken Druse

The breathtaking photos in this volume make shade gardening seem like a blessing, not a curse. Taking inspiration from natural and cultivated settings, Druse also features case studies from shade gardens across the country and offers technical growing advice.

15. "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques" (Timber; 1998), by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

For those who don't consider gardening to be an art, this book will surely change their perspective. Using her own garden as a laboratory, the author discusses which perennials respond to pruning (and when), setting guidelines for gardeners who like a neat, manicured garden. This is a useful perennial guide as well, even for people who welcome a bit of unruliness into the garden.

Fruits and Vegetables
16. "Straight-Ahead Organic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Growing Great Vegetables in a Less-Than-Perfect World" (Chelsea Green; 1999), by Shepherd Ogden

This opinionated book offers practical wisdom about planning, siting, and maintaining an organic vegetable garden, with tips on just about every variety you'd want to grow. There is plenty of advice for serious gardeners, but absolute beginners will find it helpful, too.

17. "Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long" (Chelsea Green; 1999), by Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch

The real treasure in this essential vegetable book is its winter growing information: The authors demystify the seemingly counterintuitive process, making it accessible to even the casual gardener. There are also valuable tips on storing your harvest over long or short periods of time, as well as construction advice for cold frames and other elements necessary for a year-round harvest.

18. "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden" (Timber; 2004), by Lee Reich

Why grow conventional fruits when you can cultivate lesser-known ones like beach plum, pawpaw, and Juneberry? To introduce readers to these fruits, Reich includes historical background, notes on flavor and culinary use, growing guidelines, and recommended cultivars. There is also a section on pollination, which is key to growing fruit.

19. "Growing Herbs and Vegetables: From Seed to Harvest" (Knopf; 1999), by Mark Silber

Unlike other print-heavy vegetable references, this oversize one includes plenty of glossy photos while sacrificing none of the useful information. Count on thorough instructions for harvesting, storing, and using different kinds of produce, especially herbs. Thanks to its many small features, it's a good book to flip through to learn something new.

Garden Design and Inspiration
20. "Plant-Driven Design: Creating Borders That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit" (Timber; 2008), by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden

In this book, two outstanding plant-minded people travel across the country, examining garden design in a variety of conditions and taking note of the plants that make it happen.

21. "The Essentials of Garden Design" (Knopf; 2008), by John Brookes

This English garden designer tackles a range of issues that crop up during every stage of the design process and offers solutions that utilize more than just plants.

22. "Other People's Gardens" (Viking Adult; 1996), by Christopher Lloyd

Here, the undisputed master of plants and design takes a tour of noteworthy gardens in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, proving that travel can inspire.

23. "Trellises and Arbors" (Sunset Publishing; 2005), by Kenneth S. Burton, Jr., editor; "Walks, Walls and Patio Floors" (Sunset Books; 2008), by Jeanne Huber

These companion volumes from the editors of Sunset Magazine offer a starting point for finding your own style, with trellises and gates and design ideas that you can implement yourself.

24. "Shocking Beauty" (Periplus Editions; 1999), by Thomas Hobbs

With unconventional color and foliage combinations, this book flings hard-and-fast rules out the window, proving with examples from around the world that shock value can be used to stirring effect.

25. "The Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations" (Firefly; 2005), by Tony Lord

The fundamentals of garden design, a portfolio of talented designers, sensible plant combinations, and plant profiles are all compiled in a single volume.

26. "Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs" (Princeton University Press; 2004), by Whitney Cranshaw

Get to know your bugs -- the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful -- by thumbing through 650 pages of photos and text, and learn how to control them using the least toxic methods.

27. "The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small" (Cornell University Press; 2006), by Stephen W. Kress

With advice and plant recommendations from this renowned bird-advocacy organization, you can enjoy the beauty and benefits of birds in your garden, woodland, or meadow by creating an ideal habitat for them.

28. "The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control" (Taunton; 1996), by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar, Helga Olkowski

This is the ultimate resource for dealing with critters that go after humans, pets, or plants, and it provides effective, nontoxic solutions for keeping them at bay.

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