The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting and Pruning Techniques by Tracy DiSabato-Aust
By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Last year at a garden symposium, I purchased the 2017 edition of the gardening classic The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. When I recently had a chance to look through it more closely, I decided to compare it with my 2006 edition, which had already been expanded beyond the first edition of 1998.
The most recent edition is still divided into three main sections: Basic Perennial Garden Planting & Maintenance, Pruning Perennials, and Encyclopedia of Perennials. The first major section has been enhanced by the addition of inspiring new photos to demonstrate the progress of design projects over time. DiSabato-Aust has also included pictures showing beds in her own garden, Hiddenhaven, and in those of her clients 10 to 15 years after the original planting.
Some of the author’s advice on maintenance has been modified by new thinking on sustainable landscaping techniques. For example, in Chapter 2 on bed preparation, Aust has added steps for a percolation test in the sub-section on well-draining soil. It is interesting to note that she has omitted 8-32-16 fertilizer from her earlier “secret recipe,” and she now stresses the importance of using organic matter (leaf humus, compost, and peat moss) to provide proper soil nutrients. In Chapter 3, now renamed “Planting and Renovation”, she advises that gardeners allow plant remnants in naturalistic or informal gardens of mostly native plants to remain in place and break down over time as additional organic matter. In general, she recommends fairly dense planting in layers both to increase multi-season interest and to reduce the need for weeding and heavy mulching.
Similarly, the chapter on Pests and Diseases has been more clearly organized and revised with emphasis on the proper identification of insects. This is both to avoid use of pesticides on butterfly larvae feeding on host plants or the removal of beneficial insects that assist in pest control. The author has also added new information on botrytis and phytophthora under diseases and lily leaf beetle under pest problems.
The content of the book’s middle section on pruning remains essentially the same, although the use of contrasting colored markers and numbered steps in the 2006 chapter on deadheading makes the techniques somewhat easier to grasp. In the revised chapter on cutting back, color illustrations have been substituted for some of the original photos making it somewhat easier to see the recommended techniques.
The A-Z Perennial Encyclopedia is still the largest section of the book. As before, plants are listed alphabetically by scientific name, but key information on common name, plant family, and descriptive features has been made more readable by using various sizes and bolding of type and eliminating category terms. There are many lovely new photos, and older photos have been enlarged to more clearly show flower details.
There are 50 new entries on native plant species and cultivars such as Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Gillenia trifoliata (bowman’s root), Heuchera villosa (hairy alumroot), Silphium perfoliatum (cup plant), and Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink). There are larger sections on geraniums and sedum, and a new three-page section on ferns that describes a dozen, mostly native, species. A four-page section on grasses (formerly Appendix A) has been rewritten and includes a mix of native and nonnative species, plus sedges. Other encyclopedia entries reflect recent reclassification of plants, such as native asters from Aster to Symphyotrichum or Belamcanda chinensis (blackberry lily) to Iris domestica.
Several nonnative plants from the 2006 edition, now considered invasive, such as Aegopodium podegraria (bishop’s weed) and Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) have been removed. Surprisingly, others such as Liriope spicata (creeping lilyturf) have been retained and two others, Lysimachia clethroides (gooseneck loosestrife) and Lysimachia nummularia (creeping Jenny) have been added, despite the author’s characterization of them respectively as “high maintenance perennial,” “wickedly aggressive,” and “overzealous spreader.” This is puzzling since the author warns against the use of such plants in her discussion of design in relation to maintenance.
Some changes have been made to the supplemental materials in the 2017 edition of the book. For example, Appendix C of the 2006 edition has been revised as “Perennials by Maintenance Needs” and expanded from 14 to 35 pages with photos for easier reference. The section is clearly marked in light green pages.
The section “Perennial Garden Planting & Maintenance Schedule” (formerly Appendix B) is essentially the same, listing seasonal tasks such as planting, general maintenance, and pruning by month. The typeface has been reset making it easier to read the bulleted points. Photographs have been added, and the section is clearly marked with the use of light blue pages. DiSabato-Aust notes that the schedule is a guideline for Midwest gardens and points out the necessity of adapting it to local conditions.
The bibliography has been greatly expanded with books and articles written after 1995, and the index has been revised to include topics as well as plant names. References to encyclopedia entries are set in a darker boldface than that previously used, making them easier to distinguish. The metric conversion chart has been retained, but two helpful features of the 2006 edition, the USDA Plant Hardiness zone map and the glossary, have been omitted from the new edition. The author does provide a URL in the text for USDA map.
Finally, the Perennial Maintenance Journal, a 30-page section for personal notes at the back of the 2006 edition, has been omitted. Could this be because the author admits that she keeps her records in a soil-stained notebook rather than “a sweet journal with pretty drawings and inspirational phrases”? Elsewhere in the text, she recommends keeping records of some kind on a calendar or in a notebook. The new edition has a moisture-resistant cover, which would make it more usable in the garden.
On the whole, I believe I will be referring more frequently to the 2017 version of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, which is the product of DiSabato-Aust’s 40 years of experience in the horticulture trade. I may occasionally refer to the 2006 edition for its glossary and its clearer illustrations on proper deadheading.
The 2006 and 2017 editions of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden (Timber Press, 2006 and 2017) are available at the Arlington Public Library. The 1998 and 2006 editions are available at the Alexandria Public Library, and new and used copies of all three editions are available at national booksellers.