Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden and The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook by Penelope O’Sullivan
By Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener
Without a doubt, Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is the most useful book I own and, to my mind, one of the most helpful “tools” a gardener can have at hand. Originally published in 1998, an expanded version followed in 2007 (both are available at the Alexandria Library). The newest version published in 2017 (with a gorgeous color cover) is just now available through the Arlington County Library system. This is a book that gardeners throughout the country want to own and use to renew self-knowledge and highly recommend to friends, neighbors and fellow Master Gardeners.
As the book jacket describes, “This is the first, and still the most thorough book to detail and illustrate essential practices of perennial care such as deadheading, pinching, cutting back, thinning, disbudding, and deadleafing.” The whole second half of the book is an A-to-Z encyclopedia of important perennial species – Acanthus spinosus to Viola odorata – each entry providing information not only of common name, zone, description, size, exposure, flowering and pruning, but also describing in detail each plant’s maintenance needs. The author shares her years of invaluable experience having her hands in the dirt and on pruning shears clearly and explicitly, making it easy to find answers to a myriad of questions. Her book reveals many tricks of the trade not found in any other gardening book of which I am aware.
Beth Chatto, author, designer, and owner of The Beth Chatto Gardens, Colchester, England, says, “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a breath of fresh air among today’s plethora of gardening books. It is so full of original ideas combined with earthy, hands-on experience. I could not put it down, but spent two days making notes to pin on the potting-shed wall – and that after 60 years of gardening.”
I have no 60 years of gardening experience to expound from, but I too find myself drawn in, turning page after page, loving learning new tidbits, writing down names of described cultivars for specific types of settings, being reminded of when and how to prune back spiderworts (Tradescantia X andersoniana) for peak-season long performance.
Subtitled “Planting and Pruning Techniques,” this book offers so much more. A purchase not only will make you a better gardener now but will stand you in good stead for years to come – highly recommended!
The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook by Penelope O’Sullivan has been for me what its subtitle describes: “The Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting, and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants.” Published in 2007, it continues to guide my choices of trees and shrubs that not only fit in my home landscape but also thrive with the soil, exposure, sun and water limitations of my lot. This book is available at the Alexandria Library.
O’Sullivan not only provides a comprehensive overview of woody plant options for gardeners in temperate zones of North America, she and photographer Karen Bussolini describe and illustrate the various aspects of planning a home landscape design, choosing plants, and the nitty-gritty of how to plant and care for your new “woodies.” There are step-by-step drawings of how to prune, lists of plants to prune after flowering and those to prune while dormant, as well as close up photographs of plants that make good hedges or will take to espalier.
The third section of the book is described by Amy Zwifter on the website GardeningProductsReview.com as “a tree and shrub dictionary with each plant’s ‘vital statistics’ and notes about its landscape use, strengths, and weaknesses, with notes on notable cultivars.” Especially since I know less about trees and shrubs, I have found this section invaluable, both for myself and as a Master Gardener often asked for recommendations for home landscapes in Arlington, VA. This A to Z “dictionary” gives detailed information about specific species from Abelia to Zenobia. Each plant is not only described in depth, but cited as to its landscape use, origin, hardiness zone, light, soil, and growing condition preferences, followed by “Designer’s Choice” recommendations. Species such as Viburnum cover seven full pages of suggestions about various cultivars that might be considered for your landscape. Some of these plant cultivars may well go out of favor or stock each year, but you will have guidelines to find substitutes that have similar characteristics. One last but not least “plus” for this section is that each entry begins with the Latin name followed by the phonetic pronunciation (Yay!) followed by the common name.
Artful design features (sketches, colorful informational sidebars, helpful lists related to text) and gorgeous photography make this book a treat for the eye and a lovely read. Echoing Amy Zwifter’s February 2017 review mentioned above, I too was impressed with O’Sullivan’s encouraging readers to educate themselves about what is likely to succeed in their area. “She stresses regional appropriateness and the necessity of learning all the ins and outs of one’s property before making any major changes; she encourages readers to learn about plant communities and the animals that inhabit them and counsels them to use nature as a guide when selecting and combining appropriate plants. I heartily agree with all of this and more.” I couldn’t say it better!