Well, for one, it has to be accurate. Like a recipe book, I expect the suggestions to work. And, like a recipe book, I'd like to be able to find the ingredients. I'd like it to be inspirational. I want it to provide lots of colour photographs. I'd want it to be important enough to return to often over the gardening season. It has to be good value. Lastly I'd be willing to recommend it to fellow gardeners.
Euphorbia 'Fens Ruby' - a generous seeder - probably a THAT for many
I've been reading "Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants" by Andrew Keys, Timber Press 2012. He's got a lovely fun writing style. There are lots of photographs. There were plants I'd never heard of. And his premise that there are many interesting plants out there, why grow the dull and uninteresting ones is an idea that I subscribe to. Nothing like reading a book that confirms many of your long-held thoughts that is well written and fun to read. But, at the end of the day, was this a good gardening book?
Well, perhaps not. Taking the title to heart, I'm ready to read why a plant is a problem and how the alternative is better. So my first quibble was what made That Plant a problem, and why This Plant was superior - specifically, what plant traits were key to replace in the old problem plant.
Let's take a look at the dullest group of plants - the ground cover. Euonymus fortunei is one of the evil problem plants because it bursts out of its garden boundaries - not so much a problem here - but I do remember visiting forested ares around Philadelphia where it had gone nuts. He suggests Arctostaphylos uva uri instead. Bearberry is a sweet plant, but, if you're trying to cover ground, and a fence, it is more inclined to sit in one spot growing no more than a few centimetres (if I was lucky) in a year. He also suggests Mahonia repens as a replacement for Pachysandra. While it's called Creeping Mahonia, it really doesn't. It only grows 25cm (6-12") high and wide - although it is a more interesting shade plant, (I've had one for about 20 years) it really isn't a ground cover. In all fairness he does list the final growing size for the Mahonia, but 6-12"does not a ground cover make.
Another Gratuitous Flower Photograph
So what about a replacement for Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley)? While Polygonatum odoratum is a brilliant plant, I'd hardly say this 1 meter high plant, could be used in the same spot as I'd put my 15cm Lily of the Valley. And, sadly the other two alternatives while very pretty, would be dead by December - Cast Iron Plant Aspidistra and Poorinda Royal Mantle Grevillea - Solid Zone 8 plants. Is this the fault of the publisher hoping for the largest audience?
How about heaths and heathers for creeping juniper? Only in a perfect world. For anyone on this side of Lake Ontario, it might be nice to pretend we're living in the British Isles, but we're not. Creeping juniper is planted in the worst areas possible and you can count on it to thrive and do its very best, planting a pretty little wuss in its stead seems particularly cruel and possibly illegal.
Creeping sedum for moss? My experience with moss is that it grows in the shade - sedum grows in full sun. Persicaria polymorphya (Giant Fleese Flower) for Crape Myrtle - alas, can't grow Crape Myrtle, but wonder about replacing a small tree with a perennial (the best in my opinion if you have the room) that doesn't have winter interest, so you'd be looking at an empty space during the cold season. I also scratched my head at his suggestion of Japanese tree lilac for crape myrtle? I'm no myrtle expert, but wouldn't you be replacing a spring flowering plant for one that blooms toward fall? (Southern gardening experts jump in here please)
(G.F.P.) Polemonium at its best.
Euonymus atropurpureus instead of E. alatus. OK. Native rather than not, but really substituting an apple for an orange as far as appearance. And, just try to find Eastern Wahoo in the trade.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides instead of Tsuga canadensis. Might I suggest both instead. As Andrew says Hemlock does well in the cold, and my goodness, we have cold, so no replacement necessary here.
He also recommends Nyssa sylvatica, Katsura, Acer griseum, Cercis canadensis, and Heptacodium miconioides - all lovely trees. And the completely overused, but completely dependable 'Karl Foerster' Feather Grass instead of Miscanthus. Although I don't think the photo of Karl is correct.
So overall: low on the accuracy scale (although in fairness to Andrew - he appears to know his stuff) due to a publisher wanting something for everyone; low on being able to find those plants that work in my zone; medium on inspirational - if nothing else, he really makes you think about why you've grown what you have and to ponder about whether there's something better out there; low on returning to it as a reference; and a no-go as far as recommending it to others as a gardening book - but, if you want a pleasant book, with coloured pictures and enjoy a well written read - go down to the library, take it out and enjoy it with a nice big cup of coffee. Then, pull out your photos so you can think about why this plant and not that in your own garden.
(G.F.P.) Spring can't come soon enough.