By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
The difference between dedicated gardeners and those who plant bedding plants every spring and call it a garden is knowledge. Serious gardeners use reference books and reliable websites to learn best plants, methods and techniques that guarantee success. I will share some of my go to books and websites with you in this article.
I have three favorite books that I use so much of the time that I have a set in my car and a set by my desk. The first is “Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture and Garden Attributes” by Dr. Allan Armitage. Second is “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses” by Dr. Michael A. Dirr. Lastly is “Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs”.
I had the pleasure of hearing Allan Armitage speak and he is absolutely delightful. I find “Herbaceous Perennial Plants” often written in a very witty tongue in cheek way. I recall him talking about people overusing clematis to cover their mailboxes. He said he discussed this under the clematis section and called the plant Clematis mailboxia. A reader wrote him saying that he was unable to find the plant, duh! In this book you’ll learn general traits of the plant, what it likes, what it doesn’t like and a breakdown of the various cultivars. The 4th edition will be coming out soon. Armitage also has an app called “Armitage’s Great Garden Plants” that can be downloaded for a one-time fee of $4.99. The app is updated regularly as he experiences new perennials and cultivars.
As with Armitage, Dr. Michael Dirr is a retired professor from University of Georgia. Armitage said that when they would travel together, he would be looking down and Mike would be looking up. In the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” you will learn some history of the plant, the cultural conditions, how to propagate and a listing of cultivars and their attributes. I have read accounts of this tome that incorrectly say it only relates to the East Coast. That is totally inaccurate because Dirr talks about how a plant grows in all places in the United States. Woody ornamentals are an investment so make a habit of checking with Dirr before you buy. Both of these books have a very excellent glossary to reference when Armitage or Dirr use a term you are not familiar with.
I was given a copy of “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs” when it first came out in 1987. I have many herb books but I find that this one is my go to book. If you search to purchase the book you might find later dates, however, they may have been reprinting dates because there have been no updates. Therefore, there are some herbs like lemongrass that are not covered. It also has detailed chapters on companion planting and crafting with herbs including using herbs as dyes. Under each herb is listed history, medicinal uses, cultivation techniques and culinary hints.
Speaking of companion planting, it is difficult to beat Louise Riotte’s “Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening”. I believe this book was written in the 70’s and has since been reprinted. If you are having a problem with a particular vegetable, it is easy to go to the vegetable and read about the plants that will help with certain insects. My only problem with the book is that she does not give the scientific name of the insects. Just as plants are called different names depending on where you live, so are insects. What might be called a cabbageworm in one place is a cabbage caterpillar in another. Still I find this the best source for the facts on companion plants.
I feel plant botany is fascinating. “Botany for Gardeners: An Introduction and Guide” by Brian Capon is a very detailed source of how plants work. Think about it, plants live in one spot and from that one spot have to perform many functions. Plants must breathe, expel gases, make and consume their own food, drink and procreate while staying anchored to the ground. In a similar vein “What a Plant Knows: An Introduction and Guide” by Daniel Chamovitz from Tel Aviv University approaches plant life from another aspect. There is a companion course to the book on Coursera which is free and worth the time to participate in the web class.
When searching for gardening information on the web, it is very important to rely on websites with scientifically based information. Look for websites ending in .edu or .gov which are reliable resources. The information on a .com might be good or it could be completely inaccurate. I use the PLANTS Database by the USDA to find the native status of plants. It is very easy to zoom in and find information on your county. For native plants, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database is very useful. You can look for plants by specifying certain criteria such as area of the country, type of plant, plant dimensions, bloom color and bloom size. The Center is associated with University of Texas at Austin. If you ever find yourself in Austin, TX visit the Center for an amazing experience. The Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder is useful to find cultural conditions required for plants growing in the garden. This garden is a fantasy and a wonderful visit.
While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all county buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and make sure you are using reliable information when you make gardening decisions.