Those of us who garden on California's North Coast tend to live in a state of denial about the fact that we are actually gardening in the Pacific Northwest. We like to think of ourselves as California gardeners. You know, California. Santa Barbara. Monterey. That sort of thing.
But the fact is that we have much more in common, climate-wise, with our horticultural compatriots in Portland and Seattle. So when Timber Press sent me a copy of their new Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Carol W. Hall and Norman E. Hall, I knew that the reference guides to gardening in California that I keep on my bookshelf were in for some serious competition. (That includes you, Sunset.)
If you are new to gardening in this climate, or if you know somebody who is -- maybe a new homeowner or recent transplant -- this is definitely the first book to get. The photographs are crisp, gorgeous and inspiring. They'll give you a very clear idea of what you're getting into when you start growing heathers or rhododendrons or roses in our climate.
The first couple of chapters describe, in simple and readable prose, what exactly goes on in gardens around here. One chapter, called "What's Different about Gardening Here," explains ... well, just that. It tells you that you will get rust on your hollyhocks and mushrooms in your lawn no matter what you do. It lets you know the difference between warm shade, which some shade-loving tropicals love, and the cool shade we get here. Another chapter, called "Where Our Plants Come From," will help people understand the Asian and Mediterranean influences in Pacific Northwest gardens, as well as the diversity of native plants available.
Most of the book is devoted to lists of recommended plants, and this is where it really shines. The authors are not trying to describe every single plant that someone might conceivably grow in a Pacific Northwest garden. They're pointing out tried and true specimens of trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses that are guaranteed to work here. They recommend almost 1,000 plants, so you could spend years working through this list before you started craving more variety. But if you just follow their ideas, you'll end up with a garden full of plants that can handle our dry summers, our wet winters and the diseases and pests that go along with them. That means you'll be able to garden organically from the beginning.
This book does not have everything. It does not get much into vegetable gardening or edibles, including the many fruit trees in berry vines that do so well here. That's fine with me -- I think that the best way to figure out what edibles grow in your climate is to buy plants at the local farmers' market and ask the farmers for advice. Local, independently-owned garden centers, which don't have to stock whatever plants the buyer in New Jersey or Chicago ordered for the whole country, are also in a great position to recommend edibles for your microclimate. And of course, there are loads of good reference books on vegetable and fruit gardening.
My only complaint -- and this is a small one -- lies with the book's gardening calendar. It's full of great lists for new gardeners who might have no idea what to plant when, but the narrative for each month reads like a kind of gardening boot camp, filled with admonishments for all the work yet to be done. In May, the "pressing task" is to get flower beds, containers, hanging baskets and vegetable beds filled with plants. In June, there are "plenty of other garden tasks" to get done, but we are reassured that they are not "overly demanding, strenuous or disagreeable" compared to all that hectic pruning and digging we just polished off in the spring. And in September, we are to be grateful that the weather is so good, because the gardening tasks "are tripled in addressing past, present and future." Gardeners should not pause for too long to enjoy the garden's beauty, the authors warn, because "this is September, and there's not a moment to be wasted."
While these narratives make gardening sound like a series of demanding tasks, the rest of the book is inspiring, personable and entirely useful. I particularly love the first-person accounts of how plants do in the authors' garden, which give you the sense that you're getting sound advice from an experienced gardener next door. We could all use a neighbor like that, but if you don't have one, Carol and Norman Hall will do the job. Check it out.