Category Archives: Garden book reviews

Abbie’s book reviews

A book worth buying – The Sceptical Gardener

img_2087A sign of an interesting book is when you find yourself keeping it to hand so that you can refer to it in numerous conversations. Not a showy book, in this case. There is a not a photograph in sight and the production values are what might be called utility, so it fails to fit the traditional definition of a coffee table book. Perhaps the descriptor of ‘aircraft reading’, or even ‘loo reading’ captures the format – short pieces between about 700 and 1200 words long which can be read in a few minutes. But for the last few weeks it has been sitting close to hand as we discuss many of the points made in its text.

I don’t want to over-state the case; it may not be life-changing. But if you have a curiosity for information backed up by reputable science in an easy reading style, it may appeal. It is a collection of just over 100 columns first published in The Telegraph newspaper in the UK between 2010 and 2015. These are grouped into loose categories – Garden wildlife (neonicotinoids and bees, the correlation between healthy birdlife and house prices plus more), Native and alien plants – and animals, the entertaining Not worth doing (I was quite pleased to see the author in total agreement with what I have written about planting by the moon and he is illuminating on demystifying permaculture and food forests), Growing food, Practical gardening and more.

The author is both a keen gardener and a scientist – a plant ecologist – with an eye for information which is often not brought before the general public. He has the ability to communicate this information with clarity and wit to the lay person. I have come to the conclusion that, as with the best of UK gardening television, UK newspapers are capable of delivering some really thought-provoking garden writing. I wish I could say the same for New Zealand but too often we seem determined to head in the opposite direction and gear our mainstream gardening media towards absolute novices and newbies.

I bought my copy through Book Depository and it was ridiculously cheap at $NZ16.21, delivered to my letter box within a few days.

The Sceptical Gardener by Ken Thompson. Published by Icon Books ISBN 978 178578 038 7

All About Roses by Diana Sargeant

d68458bf-8598-4fc7-9e33-200637668d7c - CopyI approached this book with a little trepidation because it seemed to be part of the trend to release Australian publications in this country, assuming that they will be equally relevant here with no significant difference in conditions and plant varieties. In this case it works. This is a charming and helpful book written by somebody who combines vast experience with a genuine love for the topic. The author ran a rose nursery for 25 years where they chose to go to organic production well before many others came to realise that our growing of roses had become bad practice environmentally. There is no doubt it would be easier in Australia to grow good roses without chemical intervention because of their dry climate, but her experience is invaluable. I am not sure how readily available some of her alternatives are in this country yet – but they are stocked even by Bunnings in Australia so if the demand is here, I am sure we will see them soon. That is eco-fungicide, eco-oil, eco-neem and eco-amingro.

There is a wealth of information and ideas in this book in a deceptively simple presentation. She gives a very clear explanation of the different types and, surprisingly, the genetic breeding lines. Recommendations are given on good varieties – thornless ones, pillar roses, scented varieties, cut flowers. As far as I know most of the varieties are available in this country. Growing information is down to earth and practical.

For once, the photos are not just an endless array of close-ups of a single bloom but they also include clear practical photos as well as some lovely mood images.

It is a book for the amateur enthusiast, not the experienced and knowledgeable expert. My one gripe has to do with the publisher, not the author. Where is the index? It needed one and its absence is a glaring omission.

All About Roses by Diana Sargeant. (New Holland; ISBN: 978 1 92151 732 7).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury

58195Despite the subtitle, An Illustrated History, this handsome book is more for the coffee table than a library reference. The selection of trees – and there are about 100 different tree species, each given at least a double page spread, sometimes more – is a little too random and eclectic to make this useful as a reference book. It is more testimony to a love affair than a work of scholarship.

The entries are put into six categories – antiquity (trees with very long histories including gingko and magnolia), ecology (such as the swamp cypress or Taxodium distichum), sacred, utility, food and ornament. Sometimes the tree species is generalised. The Japanese cherry is described as ‘Prunus x yedoensis and related varieties’ which is pretty broad. Yet the magnolia entry is limited to just one species, M. sprengeri. I was perhaps a little surprised to see the jacaranda missing from the section on ornamental trees given the international focus. But any selection is going to be arbitrary when the world of trees is to be narrowed down to 100.

The photography is beautiful at first glance, with many full page spreads. Some are magnificent images but not all. At times the field of focus is not sharp throughout. The selection of image is sometimes more about looking good than being helpful. The carob tree, for example, has a full page shot of a carob bean only which is in sharp focus on the bean itself but blurred top and bottom. The appearance of the tree itself remains a mystery.

The text is engaging and filled with some wonderfully random, fascinating pieces of information. While one can be picky (well, I can be picky I admit), in the context of a handsome coffee table book, it is unreasonable to expect the rigour of a work of scholarship. In terms of an interesting and rewarding browsing experience, it delivers well.

The high quality, large format, hard-covered coffee table garden book has all but disappeared in this country so it will come as no surprise that this is an English production. In fact, Mark met the author briefly when we were over there last June.

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury, photography by Andrea Jones. (Frances Lincoln; ISBN: 9780711235809).

First published by the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The 1-Minute Gardener by Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember

9781743517000I am totes the wrong demographic for this book. Believe me. It is zip zap instant gratification for the iPhone generation where everything has to be easy-as and fun fun fun. I am sure Mat and Fab have their loyal following in Melbourne although I think that hailing them as “Australia’s No 1 gardening authors” might be a little over-hyped by the publishers. However there is a contagious delight in their exuberance, even when you are not their target audience and that is not to be derided.

The book is a collection of 70 step-by-step photo sequences showing assorted, and often somewhat random, gardening skills. You too can “pimp your soil” with a one minute tutorial, just as you can learn how to manufacture a stink bomb (an old sock filled with blood and bone) to deter possums from coming on your property. The technical information is patchy, as is the photography. The enthusiasm is relentless.

This is urban food gardening for hipsters. I have heard it described as “the $70 lettuce approach to gardening”. At the end of it, you will get a nice lettuce (definitely not an uncool Iceberg variety) which you can pick leaf by leaf, but it will have cost you $70 to grow it. Need some compost? Cut open a 25 litre bag and tip it on. Need to top-up a no-dig garden? Layer on a variety of materials you have purchased at the store – pre cut mulch, pelletised fertiliser, mushroom compost, all purpose compost, potting mix AND worm castings. Your vegetables can hardly fail to grow in that environment. Just add water. By the way, a little metal letterbox makes a perfect small-space shed for your garden tools.

There is no concern about sustainability. Shipping sugar cane mulch from Queensland to Victoria is not an issue. This is about the urban good life. If it gets people gardening, that is good. With experience, they will learn what works and maybe consider the environment.

Maybe, just maybe, with experience they will also discover that one of the joys of gardening is that it can take time to get good results. By very definition, it is not an activity that gives instant gratification. If it takes the help of Fab and Mat to reach that stage of awareness, then all is not in vain.

The 1-Minute Gardener by Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember. (Pan Macmillan Australia; SBN: 978 1 74351 700 0).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton

dig-deeperThe subtitle of this book is “ Seasonal, sustainable Australian gardening” and therein lies a problem which I do not think the distributors, Allen and Unwin, understand. While only three hours away by jet, Australian gardening might as well be a world away. It is different in so many ways that it is difficult to understand how a publisher might think that it is appropriate to claim this book as “the definitive gardening manual for the modern gardener” in New Zealand. It isn’t.

To be brutal, it is not likely to be a definitive manual for Australians either. We left this book sitting on the table for a week, browsing it in passing on frequent occasions and every time both of us came to the same conclusions – this is the most random collection of gardening information we have ever seen in a book. I think the reason why it seems random is that both author and editor lack sufficient technical expertise to make the decisions on sifting information. Mark couldn’t get over the referencing of obscure camellia species like C. amplexicaulis and C. assimilis. I was surprised to see the better part of a page promoting Cornus mas as a fruiting cherry substitute without a single mention of either taste or yield. Given it seems to like similar growing conditions, why wouldn’t you grow a good Black Dawson cherry instead? Then there are the sweeping statements, for example on growing mushrooms and fungi at home: “…more of the exotic Asian types, such as shiitake and oyster, coming on the market daily.” Daily? Oh really? If you want to know how to grow these, buy a mushroom kit and then all you need is a cool, dark place. That is the advice.

This is a big book and it must have taken a great deal of work by the author. There are many photos though most are small and of patchy quality. It is eclectic rather than definitive. Its recommended retail price in New Zealand is $75 so it is expensive. Despite the fact we have two gardening daughters living in Australia, I do not think I will be carting this book over to them. With only 10kg baggage allowance, there are other items I would rather be taking.

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton. (Murdoch Books; ISBN: not given).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Backyard Bees, A guide for the beginner beekeeper

backyard-beesI just read that a report to our Parliament set the contribution of bees to the New Zealand economy at $5.1 billion dollars. It is a bit sad that we have to put a dollar value on something to give it gravitas because actually bees are essential to the pollination of a very large number of crops we grow and a vital part of eco-systems but they are struggling in our modern world. Increasing numbers of people are looking to keep a hive or two in their back yard in an attempt both to make a difference and to harvest honey at home.

I have spoken to a professional beekeeper who finds it quite distressing to be called in to help with badly managed home hives. This is not an activity for the well meaning but naive enthusiast who thinks one can do it with little knowledge or support. Much can go wrong, including the death of the bees.

Will this book help? Yes and no. It is an Australian book so conditions are not the same. Indeed on page 12, the author says: “Australians are very lucky. At the time of writing Australia is the only country in the world without varroa mite and colony collapse disorder.” Don’t expect any advice on dealing with these. Varroa mite is a major issue in New Zealand.

This is a book written by a genuine enthusiast with an engaging writing style. Chapters cover hive location, equipment, beekeeping in each season, general management and maintaining bee health so there is some good generic information which is transferable. It is just not a complete reference of all you need to know and should not be treated as such. Just to back up the lifestyle genre, the final chapter has recipes using honey and beeswax.

If you are serious about keeping beehives, you will need more local information and additional resources. If you are more of a dilettante, you may enjoy reading this book while deciding that you will delay any commitment to getting your own hive and plant flowers to feed other people’s foraging bees in the meantime.

Backyard Bees, A guide for the beginner beekeeper by Doug Purdie. (Murdoch Books; ISBN: 978 1743361719)

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie

9781775536512If this book looks a little familiar, it is because it is a new edition of one first published in 2001, updated in 2008 and again for 2014. It is a handy book, not comprehensive because it only covers 100, but many are varieties of native plants that you may want to know about. Credit to both author and book designer for having a flexible approach where the sections on each plant can vary in length rather than dumbing the content down to fit a formulaic lay-out of the style seen in recipe books.

The author is head gardener at Larnach Castle in Dunedin and a passionate advocate for using our native flora. Her information is useful. Plants are given their botanical name, Maori name (which is often the name we use most widely) and any common names. General information is given about each plant – identification, location in the wild, important botanical information such as whether both male and female are required, followed by handy info on using these plants including preferred garden situation, pests and problems, landscaping suggestions, a short list of some different cultivars available and related species. There is plenty of information, delivered in a user-friendly form. All plants are photographed, though the photography is a bit patchy in quality.

If you have earlier editions of this book, the 2008 version changed 17 plants from the 2001 edition and this one changed a further 16 plants so it is about one third of new content over the original. I notice the price has not changed in the six years since the mid edition. The only thing that really annoyed me is the sales hype on the back cover (for which the author has no responsibility). “An expert guide to the top 100 New Zealand native plants…” it trumpets. What a cheapening effect one word can have. Not “THE top”. It is “an expert guide to 100 top plants”. There is a difference.

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie. (Random House; ISBN:978 1 77 553 651 2).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.