Monday, October 23, 2006

Old Books; New Ideas

I began my serious education as a gardener about ten years ago. We moved to a house that had a extensive, neglected garden in the back yard. The previous owner had been a Master Gardener who had been the inspiration and source for the gardens in the yards surrounding mine. There were even rumors that neighbors had raided the garden for plants before we moved in. Considering one neighbor grew award winning roses and the other owned a landscaping firm, this rumor gives you an idea just how extensive and interesting the garden I had acquired really was.

I had thought gardening was a trip to the grocery store to buy annuals before I watched spring do its job in my new back yard. The bulbs began blooming first and blooms did not stop until fall . Quite frankly, I was in way over my head and the only two options were to sod the whole back yard or learn about gardening. I chose to learn.

I bought a copy of Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide to Gardening (copyright 1997). As each new bed began to bloom, I sat with my new gardening book and searched the pictures for some resemblance to the plants that were growing in my back yard. Most of the plants ,at least, were identifiable but not all. A fair amount of weeds were allowed to grow that first year as I tried to figure out whether they were flowers or weeds. When in doubt I asked the advice of family members, who claimed they were gardeners, or neighbors. A whole bed of weeds were allowed to grow because my sister-in-law thought they may be Black Eyed Susans. They were weeds, but I waited months to make that call, trusting in the advice of an individual who had claimed to be quite the gardener.

I took an insect into the best nursery for identification. The staff of this garden center could not identify the insect which I was finding in abundance in the garden beds. I later found on my own that it was one of the healthiest grubs known to man. Since grubs are rather common, even if mine was rather large, I began to lose faith in the advice of my fellow gardeners. It was suggested that I call my local extension service for advice, but after the best nursery in town could not identify a grub for me , I decided to learn on my own and then seek the advice of others.

Ten years ago, the internet was not the force it is today. Furthermore, computers and I have an ambivalent relationship. Even in college, when I took a computer programming class, the computers began to go crazy while I was in the room and even the college professor could not explain what was happening. I dropped the class. This was more than twenty years ago and it has happened numerous times since. I think I put off a weird electrical charge, it doesn't interact well with technology, but plants love it. My family was not thrilled with the frequency that our home system crashed when I used the computer, so I focused on books and observation. Even today I find neither learning method has been made obsolete by the internet. Garden books, even old books ,have value for the serious garden enthusiast.

The first time I found old books of more value than more recent publications, was in finding out about my Bleeding Heart plant. Plants go in and out of style, just like furniture and clothing. While you may not know it today, with Bleeding Heart plants being sold at Lowes in a variety of colors, ten years ago they were considered old fashioned and could not be found in the gardening sections of your local gardening store. The plant was identified in my Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide to Gardening but I needed more information on it since the one I had was huge and thriving in a location that did not conform to the information printed in my book. It was also planted in a location that I found undesirable, since it grew where I planned to build a deck.

I pulled out an older version of the same gardening book I was using and found the information I was looking for. It had more detailed information on Bleeding Heart plants since they were more fashionable when the older version had been printed. I found out how to divide the plant and the best location to transplant it. Ten years and two houses later, that Bleeding Heart plant is still growing in my current garden. Instead of one huge plant, I now have three good size plants that bloom until early July. I still have not managed to get a rebloom in the fall, but I know it is possible due to the research I have done on this plant. Who knows, maybe next year I will have Bleeding Heart all season long.

Recently, an old gardening book kept me from transplanting my Siberian irises. I had seen Siberian iris thrive in a variety of locations. These plants had traveled with me from house to house and I thought I would create a iris garden in my front yard incorporating Bearded irises which I had in abundance at my new house. I planted my irises together and waited for sequential blooms.

Neighbors went out of their way to tell me that my Siberian irises would not thrive and were planted in the wrong location. Current books all told me that they needed marshy conditions and that the conditions that made the Bearded irises bloom would destroy my Siberian irises. I began to seriously consider transplanting my Siberian irises even though I had seen them thrive in non marshy conditions. Before I got my shovel out, I decided to do a little more research in the old gardening books I was given when my mother-in-law cleaned out her basement. In Crockett's Flower Garden ( copyright 1981) I found the information I needed to put away my shovel and wait until spring.

I had guessed my Siberian irises had been prematurely divided, thus explaining their poor performance the first year I transplanted them. I had not expected them to bloom, since they were transplanted in summer but I was concerned the foliage had not grown. Crockett's Flower Garden discussed how his Siberian irises were exposed to drier, sunnier conditions than they like. He compensated by keeping the irises moist ,especially during the spring. I got out my hose, put away my shovel, and I am glad I did. In spite of every neighbor's predictions, I had sequential blooming irises in my front yard this year and the plants look great for next year's blooms. Since my iris collection is on a slope, I can water my Siberian irises without drowning my Bearded irises. Observation of past Siberian iris behavior and an old gardening book let me follow my instincts and create an iris bed that no one but me thought would work. My neighbors do not comment on the location of my plants anymore, they just wait and see.

A variety of books is also great for flower identification. Several wild flowers come in so many cultivars ( varieties) that identification can become a nightmare. Is it a flower or is it a weed? Sometimes this question depends on the year, since wildflower gardens are fashionable one year but not the next. You may also have a cultivar of a flower type that looks nothing like the pictures you will find on the internet or in books. Having a variety of books, increases the likelihood that you will find a picture of the flower that is growing in your backyard.

I had what I think was a cultivar of self sowing cornflower in my neglected garden. My best guess is they were Bachelor's-Buttons but the plants I had were different than any picture I have ever seen of Bachelor's-Buttons or the plants I eventually bought at a greenhouse with the same name. My plants were similar, but different, to the plants labeled Bachelor's-Buttons at the greenhouse, thus resulting in my less than positive identification. All I know is the only way to transplant the flowers I had was to dig up the entire plant bed, including dirt and place the entire clump in a new hole, otherwise the plants died. I think I had a cultivar of cornflower but this identification has come only after looking at numerous pictures of cornflowers. If I still had the plant I would send this one into my local extension service for identification but alas, they did not survive the last move.

Landscape design is another reason to keep hold of old garden books. For amusement purposes only, I looked through the design section of the 1968 version of the Better Homes and Gardens New Garden Book. I was amazed to find the originals of the designs I see on television landscape shows. The retro look that inspires many new designers is there in all its original glory in the 1968 garden book. I am not sure I want to follow the construction advice in my 1968 book but the ideas are fresh and new for today; well at least a modified version of the look is new for today.

I am not sure I want to walk out my door and be transported to 1968, but I did consider some different ideas for hiding my air conditioner and electrical boxes that I had not thought of before. While the only idea I actually used was for creating a planter with a screen on the back , which hides my air conditioner and creates a raised bed for my basil, several of the other ideas are still under consideration. Especially interesting is the idea for screens with fabric inserts that I could change as the mood inspires me. I know I am keeping this book if for no other reason than the new ideas it inspires when I look through it.

Old books contain new ideas, at least new to a new generation of gardeners. They contain advice on plants that may not currently be in fashion but deserve or want a place in your garden. They contain design ideas that may be passe but may work for your backyard. I am keeping all my old garden books because so far they have served me well and allowed me to create even though conventional wisdom says my creations are impossible. If you are given an old gardening book, do not consign it to the trash can. Wait for a rainy day and look through it, the information or inspiration you need may be in its "out of date "pages.

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