Plant these under the tree

This bunch of interesting and informative books is far from garden-variety

(Susan Chalifoux/Globe Staff)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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Ruth Kassinger had been hit hard by her sister’s cancer death at 45, followed closely by her battle with breast cancer. She never liked gardening and was repelled by worms, but after visiting the conservatory of the US Botanical Garden on the Washington Mall in winter, she astonished her family by announcing she would build her own private conservatory, “the perfect antidote to the losses and changes of middle age.’’ She did that and also wrote my favorite book of the year, “Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden’’ (William Morrow, $24.95). This is actually a couple of books in one. There’s the uplifting personal memoir of re-embracing life after illness, interwoven with a how-to book of advice on building a conservatory. The author happens to be an award-winning history and science writer, so she has also included a history of greenhouses, amusing profiles of leading greenhouse growers, and scientific information on how to use green technology at home.

“Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide’’ by Peter Del Tredici (Cornell University Press, $29.95, paperback): Just when people are getting used to identifying and battling invasive species, Del Tredici flips the idea with this paean to the value and beauty of weeds. It’s true that our embattled conservation lands are being overrun by alien superweeds. But cities, with their polluted air and soil, reflected heat, and abundance of pavement, offer such a hostile plant environment, he argues, that we should appreciate weeds that are tough enough to survive there and produce some fresh oxygen. A senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, Del Tredici offers a mischievous field guide covering 222 generally vilified species. It is the first of its kind, and some decades hence, when the larger environment has been further degraded by climate change, this guide may be hailed as prescient.

“Boston’s Gardens and Green Spaces,’’ by Meg Muckenhoupt (paperback, $22.95) takes a different look at the urban wild with this timely inventory of public spaces in Greater Boston, from the newly created Big Dig parks to the living roofs dotting the skyline. This Lexington-based environmental writer also shows how Bostonians use their public spaces with chapters on new harbor side sculpture gardens, community gardens, and estate gardens. There will be plenty in here that is new to you, no matter how long you’ve called Boston home.

“Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art and Landscape Design by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Elizabeth Eustis, and John Bidwell’’ (David Godine, $50) provides a historic overview. The Romantic movement which came to full flower in the first half of the 19th century was nothing less than a transformation of consciousness, elevating emotion over rationality, inspiration over rules, and personal liberty over class structure. Landscape design was a major element of this movement, which also encompassed the arts, politics, and technologies. Boston was in the forefront with its great new parks by Frederick Law Olmsted, who lived in Brookline, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

“So You Want to Be a Garden Designer: How to Get Started, Grow, and Thrive in the Landscape Design Business’’ by Love Albrecht Howard (Timber Press, $29.95): With joblessness at an all time high, many passionate gardeners fantasize about designing gardens as a second career. And a number of local institutions offer training — sometimes quite expensive training. Give your daydreamer this practical book, so he or she can see what’s really involved in working up a business plan. Howard, a successful Hingham-based garden designer, writes about how to prepare drawings and presentations, work with clients and nurseries, and price services.

The biggest trend in gardening is growing your own food. “Easy Container Combos: Vegetables & Flowers’’ by Pamela Crawford (Color Garden Publishing, $19.95, paperback) is terrific for beginners and people without garden space. It can be much easier to grow vegetables in containers than in the ground. Start with a potting mix (which is basically peat moss) and time release fertilizer and you can practically forget about weeding and bugs. Just add water! Last year Crawford test planted nearly 1,800 plants in more than 200 containers and recorded what worked and what didn’t. She provides profiles of her 18 winners — how much sun and water they need, what size container works best, plus fertilizing, pinching, and harvesting tips.

I love DK books because they are so well illustrated and organized. “Grow Fruit’’ by Alan Buckingham (DK Publishing, $22.95 paperback) is a case in point. Even Weight Watchers is saying now that we need more fruit. Here is an easy one-stop reference for growing your own grapes, tree fruit such as cherries, plums, pears, figs, and peaches, and soft fruit like berries. Directions are easy-to-follow, and the book includes a planner and troubleshooting advice for common pests and diseases.

And don’t overlook “The Cook’s Herb Garden: Nurture, Harvest, Cook,’’ by Jeff Cox (DK Publishing, $18). Vegetables and herbs can be tricky to grow, but fresh herbs are easy money-savers. If you are just starting to grow your own food, start with herbs and this plot-to-plate guide. From basil to vervain, this photographic catalog of more than 130 culinary herbs will teach you everything you need.

Carol Stocker can be reached at