It’s not often I come across gardening books like this one, which — at least according to the promotional copy — advocates “leav[ing] the slacker plants behind and get[ting] the most out of your money and landscape.”
In fact, I was excited when I saw it because rarely do books of this genre eschew gentle, eminently practical advice in favor of “Step it up, you little dirt tumors! There are a thousand other seedlings just waiting to take your spot!”
Alas, as is often the case between a book and its marketing, there seems to be a mismatch.
At first (promising) glance, this book appears to have been written by the Blake of master gardeners, e.g.
Book: I’m not f*cking with you. The Extension Service sent me down here. I’m on a mission of mercy.
Book: You call yourself a plant, you son of a switch?
Book: Oh, have I got your attention now? Good! Now, as you know, first place is direct sunlight. Anyone want to see second prize? It’s rainwater from a bucket. Third prize is I UPROOT YOU AND THROW YOU ON THE COMPOST HEAP.
Little Sprout: [in plant-language] The soil is weak.
Book: The soil is weak? The f*cking soil is weak? You’re weak!
Plants [leaves rustling in terror]
Book: You’re pretty? I don’t care. You attract pollinators? Good, go home and play with your bees and butterflies! But do you have attractive multi-seasonal foliage? DO YOU?!?!”
And it’s a shame, truly, because I would totally buy that book. However, a more in-depth perusal of its pages reveals that the aggressively titled 501 Powerhouse Plants more closely resembles a judgmental, passive-aggressive WASP matriarch — putting you, the reader, in the awkward position of being the child she doesn’t much care for while casting your garden in the role of the grandchildren who profoundly disappoint her, perhaps on account of being unattractive, or too outspoken, or else of an undesirable ethnic or racial background.
Early on in the book, the author challenges the reader to think beyond the usual considerations — e.g. “looks pretty, is edible,” advocating for “less tangible” (more nebulous) qualities such as “elegance of habit.” (The author then adds, as an aside, “Another stretch for your imagination, true, but so rewarding.”)
Even the plants themselves don’t escape criticism. While the author doesn’t often name names, he does pointedly refer to shrubs that have the ill-breeding (and the audacity!) to go dormant during winter.* “For some, their winter stem color is the beginning and end of their contribution to the garden.” Moreover, when plants do get singled out for attention — such as roses, which “do one thing and do it supremely well: bloom” — it’s not clear if this is praise or insult.
That said, there’s good information in here…if you care to dig for it. (Ha!)
Mind you, accessing that information is made a bit more difficult by the fact that nearly every plant is introduced by its full Latin name, to the point where I look at the photographs and say, “Wait, is that pokeweed? Is this person seriously suggesting that I go out and intentionally plant a nine-foot monster that most gardeners would rather attack with a machete? (Also, has someone really gone to the trouble of cultivating different varieties of this stuff? Is one kind not enough?)”
All in all, it’s a resource that has its uses…not for my specific gardening needs, alas, which involve passing a very specific geography-based test — namely, “If a resident of the Southeastern U.S. plants this particular specimen, will it consume their yard and engulf his or her house in vines three days later?” — but those who live in more temperate regions are probably not risking life, limb, and the entire local ecosystem by following its advice.**
My bigger, more philosophical concern is that the book seems to be advocating gardens that appeal to other people, whereas I tend to think that the person doing all the horticultural work is the one who should benefit — i.e. your garden should please YOU, because ultimately, YOU are the one who’s going to be taking care of it in monsoon season or in drought, nursing it through blights and bug attacks, etc.
On a more practical note, your neighbors probably don’t give a $#!+ if your perennials provide a balanced color scheme, or if you have achieved optimal fragrance levels.***
If they’re anything like mine, they’ll walk past and say either “Oh, that looks nice,” or “Need your grass cut? I’ll do you a discount.”