Fruits and Plains

Recently there have been a number of plant related books that have done really well in terms of sales.  Brother Gardeners is one and What A Plant Knows is another.  Personally, I think both of these books are nice additions to any horticulturists bookshelf.  But there are always those books that have been forgotten.  One of those books is Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America by Philip J. Pauly.  Published in 2008 this is an accurate history (much more accurate that anything by Pollan for example — Not that Pollan writes bad stuff, but let’s face it, he’s a storyteller) of the evolution of horticulture in the United States over the past few hundred years — If you really want to know the history of horticulture here in the US then this is probably the best place to start.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Right and Left

Just got a picture of the cover of a new book I’ve got coming up soon.  It’s a collaborative project with an old friend of mine who is a political science professor at UNC Charlotte.  We look at a bunch of different environmental issues, different things that the government could do about these issues, and then we rate these options by how the well the right and left wingers would like them.  Sure to tick people off!  The book won’t be out till next January — It’s typically over a year between when something is first turned in and when it comes out — that’s just publishing.

The No-Work Garden Book

Occasionally one of the GPs will blog about a book that’s particulary good – or not.  I was given a copy of Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book a few years ago and frankly hadn’t given much more than a passing glance.  But last week I thumbed through it and was immediately struck by the quality of science this self-taught gardener brought to her writing.

Much of Ruth’s gardening practices included the use of organic mulch on vegetable gardens, and she regularly wrote to scientists to ask for their interpretation of “expert” advice.  Here’s an excerpt from a letter written 50 years ago by Dr. Arthur Pratt from Cornell:

“Yes, leaves, hay, straw, etc. that are not decayed or that are only partially decayed will rob the soil of nitrogen if they are mixed into the soil. But when used on top the way you use them, I have never seen a nitrogen shortage as a result of the mulch.”

So, we’ve known for at least 50 years that organic mulches don’t cause nitrogen deficiencies.  Why does this misconception persist, especially for woody mulches?

Ruth also challenged the use of plastic mulches, then relatively new to the garden product market.  She understood the benefits of a no-till approach to maintaining healthy soils.  She has a whole chapter entitled “Make Mine More Mulch.”

So here’s to Ruth Stout, the original “Mulch Queen.”

If I’ve seemed distracted for the last few months, this is why

I just got this today – it releases in February!
Isn’t it a great cover?

And this one came out the week before Christmas – my holiday gift to myself!  (You try riding herd on 21 different authors and see if you like it!)

Getting these books done was a major milestone, and I hope that this year I might have time for some new projects.

Happy New Year!

To Prune Or Not To Prune, That Is The Question…

Dabney rules!

“Dabney! No! Wait!”  Just kidding. Dabney Blanton, our lovely and talented horticulturist, knows not to prune the Artemisia in the autumn.

I imagine most gardeners have experienced a frost or freeze by now [exceptions: our Southern Hemisphere readers (howdy to Jimbo)…or anyone in the deeeeep south].

The perennials here in Blacksburg have taken a couple of hits; time to start trimming things back. In the Hahn Horticulture Garden and in my own personal garden, we like to leave perennials and ornamental grasses up as long as possible – gives us something to look at besides mulch, plus the wee birdies enjoy it.

But some perennials just look yucky after a freeze.

Case in point: foliage of the popular perennial Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ resembles graying Kleenexes, hanging on the tips of the branches.  HOWEVER, do not cut this back in the fall.  It, like many other shrubby perennials, is sensitive to early winter whacking, in my experience,  Buddleia and Caryopteris also fall into this category.  Apparently the severe pruning sends a message to the plant to break bud – new shoots can appear and then “zap!”  Wait until new buds appear in the spring, and be careful not to cut back too hard. I’ve killed a few that way, thinking I was doing them a favor.

“Cut ‘em back, cut ‘em back, waaaaay back!”

The best resource ever on maintaining perennials is Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-tended Perennial Garden. I should get kickbacks, as much as I’ve promoted this book! Truly a wealth of info – when should you cut it back, will it rebloom if deadheaded, don’t do [whatever] or you’ll kill it – all broken out by genus. Outstanding!

Dabney rules!

Blog bizarre

Jeff’s post yesterday gave me the perfect opportunity to showcase the star of my bizarre book collection..  It’s called “Evolution of Botany:  More Fact Than Theory” written and published by Benjamin Zarr (author of several other books, including “Evolution:  No One Can Break Down My Theory!”)  Jeff, he’s written more books than you and I put together.

This book was “willed” to me by a dear colleague at Buffalo State College after he retired.  When I first received it, I tried to read a chapter, but found it impossible to finish.  Here’s an example of one of the numerous illustrations on a chapter about plant heredity:

The discussion around this illustration is too long for this blog.  Plus, it hurts my brain.  You might notice some interesting botanical terms, like “red paste” and “yellow dough” for instance.  Here’s part of the text on these details:  “I say red “dough” and red pastes always reproduce the color red because pollen always inherit a specific “melting” point.  When the heat of the sun warms the starchy contents of a seed or the pastes of a seed coat red has the lowest melting point therefore it shows up before any other color.  Just like in a specturm of light red appears first and purple last, all other colors come in between.  When red has been eliminated it fades into pink, then into the color with the next higher melting point until white appears as the hardiest color of all.”

Ack.

Not content to write just about plants (which evolved after animals, but that’s a whole different chapter), he ventures into the evolution of animals:

Words fail me.  (But they don’t fail a reviewer for the Quarterly Review of Biology, which you can read here.)

Though this book is an extreme example, it fits in with Jeff’s post yesterday about critical thinking.  (If you’re interested in the dissection of yet another book – The Sound of Music and Plants – click here for an online column of mine from 2003.)

As Bad As It Gets?

Last week I took a look at old, out of print books that are worth finding and reading.  This week I think I’ll take a slightly different track and instead turn my attention to a book that is currently in print, but which shouldn’t be.  In fact, 1001 All-Natural Secrets to a Pest-Free Property by Myles H. Bader can be found in many bookstores, was actually one of the best selling garden books of 2006, and is still selling today.  There are other books that I have problems with (Jerry Baker comes to mind) but when considering the worst of the worst this book is all by itself.

I was first introduced to Dr. Bader (he reportedly has a doctorate in Preventive Care from Loma Linda University) one night when I couldn’t sleep.  He was on one of those “paid programming” shows talking about homemade cures for insects around the house.  Normally these half-hour long advertisements cure my insomnia, but not this time.  As someone who loves to learn about and test homemade remedies I was mesmerized by his recommendations and quickly ordered the book.  Sure, on the show he seemed to “dumb things down” a little, but here was a bonafied professor who might have some really cool stuff for me to look at!  I couldn’t wait.

After I received the book I discovered that Dr. Bader used the English language poorly.  This didn’t turn me off to the book though.  I’m pretty forgiving of bad English.  I know that mine isn’t the best and there are sections in all of my books which still haunt me.  Still, the sheer number of errors in Bader’s book was staggering.  For example, here’s a paragraph from page 3:  “His interests have always been in the field of food and cooking and many of his books are related to helping the chef or cook with cooking and kitchen secrets that may gave been forgotten over the years.  This has lead him to include household hints and other related subjects in his books.”   (yes, the words gave and lead are used in the book exactly as they appear above).  And this is just the first page with a significant amount of writing!

Still, I didn’t buy this book for good editing; I bought it for cool, “all-natural” cures.  And so I turned the pages hoping to find something useful.  On page 23 I discovered that the insecticide “Sevin” is organic and is composed of pyrethrums and diatomaceous earth (This is completely wrong, the active ingredient in Sevin is carbaryl, a synthetic insecticide).  I also learned, on the same page, that mixing horse manure with hot water, letting the mixture cool, and then spraying it onto fire ants will kill them (What!?!!?).  There are no instructions about how much of the manure or hot water to use.  Other interesting remedies that you should probably avoid include spraying hairspray onto flies to kill them and using a mixture of 1/3 cow manure, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 clay to coat the trunk and branches of a tree infested by aphids (I’m not sure how this would work since most aphids attack the leaves of trees…). At the end of the book there is a glossary where I learned that Rotenone is a low toxicity poison (never mind that this organic poison was recently voluntarily withdrawn by its makers for use as an insecticide at least in part because of safety/health concerns).  Indeed, almost every organic pesticide was treated lightly, apparently simply because they’re “natural” (which, as some of you may know, is a pet peeve of mine).

The interesting thing about this book is that there were a few useful tips, but with so much hooey it was often tough to tease those tips out.  If you’re one of those people who thinks that a book can be so bad that it’s good then you might enjoy paging through this book, but, other than that, I think this book is best used as a doorstop.

And now I have a challenge for all of you.  Does anyone know of a worse book?  (and, if so, where can I buy a copy?)