Do You Remember Your First?


The new edition covers 500 new plants, bringing the total to 8,000. To
make room within the book’s 768 pages, some plants had to go, and the
plant index disappeared altogether. (The book is organized by species
name, so the index was handy if you only knew a plant’s common name.)
When I talked to an editor at the garden show, he explained that the
index was already integrated into the encyclopedia: if you’re looking
for mint, just look it up alphabetically, and you’ll see a note
referring you to Mentha, the plant’s species name. This works well for
specific plants, but just try looking up “grass.” You’ll find an entire
essay on the species names of various plants that we think of as grass,
and it’s sandwiched between Graptophyllum pictum and Grevillea.

The editors also added short sidebars on the care and feeding of
some of the most popular plants in the book. Junipers, for instance,
get four pages of charts listing eighty-six varieties, and after that,
a sidebar explains their sunlight, soil, water and pruning needs. For
most gardeners, that’s all the information you’d need to satisfy your
juniper jones.

The book still offers good, detailed information on climate zones,
and the plant selection guide continues to offer good recommendations
for plants that tolerate damp soil or deep shade or prolonged drought
or a number of other typical West Coast environments.

I was disappointed to see that, given the lack of space in the new
edition, the editors decided to devote eighteen pages to short essays
by garden writers in each region. They’re not useful as reference
material; they’re the sort of thing that you’d only read once. The
photographs that accompany these essays are fantastic—Sunset knows its
plant porn—but I would have rather seen the sections on each climate
zone expanded to include more pictures, then forget about the cute
little essays.

I also wish the editors would come up with some other way to
organize the “Practical Guide to Gardening” in the back of the book.
I’m glad it’s there—by including some basic gardening information, this
book really can be the only book a beginning gardener would need—but
organizing the topics alphabetically means that, for instance,
Composting is found between Bulbs and Container Gardening, not near
Mulch or Soil where it should be. It would not be difficult to come up
with a better arrangement and include a short table of contents at the
beginning of the section.

But that’s a minor complaint. It’s great fun to have a new “Green
Book” and in fact, I’ve already taken it out into the garden and
smudged some dirt on a couple of pages. If you have a seventh edition
that’s in pretty good shape, you wouldn’t be missing out on too much if
you just decided to stick with what you have. But if you’re a couple
editions behind, or if your book is a little too well-loved, it’s time
to upgrade.


  1. My “first” was a hand-me-down. When I bought my house and got my first garden with it, my mother passed on to me her old copy, a vinyl-covered, spiral-bound Second Edition copy from 1963. It’s arranged topically rather than in the encyclopedic fashion the book now has; it’s also missing pages. And the book is so well-loved, that the cover title is barely readable. I keep it for sentimentality rather than usefulness. That being said, the folks at Sunset should seriously consider going back to the vinyl-cover and spiral binding. All things considered, I doubt that the current edition’s softcover binding will hold up nearly as well after years of being thumbed, dog-eared, and dragged in and out of the garden.

    And I agree with your comments about the new edition and would add one more–big mistake not devoting more pages to a better index. I may be hyper-sensitive to this issue since I do book indexing for a living, but a subject index would add a great deal to the usefulness of this book. The alphabetic arrangement alone is not enough.

  2. I’ll probably never buy this book for obvious reasons, but I did attend a presentation by the editor of Sunset at a recent magazine conference.

    She was charming and I picked up some good ideas about home/garden coverage.

  3. My first Sunset Western Garden Book was assigned to me as a text book in the Ornamental Horticulture department at Hartnell Community College in Salinas California.

    I had just immigrated from the east coast and was absolutely delighted to be able to go to any book store besides the dreaded pocket book sucking college book store and purchase a text book that was under $ 60 dollars.

    This ” text book ” proved to be my most closest ally in navigating the new horticultural waters of the Pacific west coast.

    And compared to my former text book, Hortus Third, it was a real back saver too .

  4. I have a fourth edition, 1979 printing, in excellent condition for sale. One dolla.

    It has the latest thinking on water use after the West’s great drought of 1975-1977.

    Available only in my carport in Maui.

  5. In May, 1975, I applied for a job mowing lawns at Marylhurst Convent. I had arrived in Portland a few months earlier, and, on the strength of a falsified résumé, I took a job frying chicken in an all-you-can-eat glutton shop near Lloyd’s Center. Eight hour stints in the choking fumes of old grease had planted in me a powerful urge to work outdoors. With no real experience as a gardener, but with a gift for creative résumé writing, I went knocking on the doors of institutions with lots of grass—colleges, golf courses, city parks—figuring that an entry level groundskeeping job would be mostly lawn mowing.

    At Marylhurst, the boss nun told me they already had a groundskeeper, but I was welcome to fill out an application in case they ever had an opening. I did so, making much of my several summers of working on Uncle John’s farm, waxing technical and poetic about driving tractors, baling hay, and hoeing corn out of beans.

    I had already scoped out the joint. The convent’s grounds had seen better days, but the 80 acre estate was still overflowing with interesting nooks. Huge mature rhododendrons gloried against the three-story Big House. A sprawling rose garden greeted visitors near the front door. Out back were extensive garden beds dedicated to growing altar flowers. In its early days the convent had included a working farm—dairy and livestock, row crops, a mixed orchard of over a hundred trees. The barn was still intact and a dozen head of white-faced steers kept the pastures cropped. There were even few acres planted to Christmas trees. Whoever he was, the man who had the job of caring for this place was a lucky, if maybe over-worked, guy.

    Three day’s later the boss nun called. The convent’s groundskeeper had been AWOL all that week—I later learned he’d gone on a bender, and not his first—and the nuns had an immediate need for, not a lawnmower, but a widely-skilled groundskeeper. Did I want the job?

    As quick as I’d answered, “I do,” I walked to the nearest bookstore and bought the Sunset Western Garden Book. I was the happiest imposter in garden land—a feeling I still experience every day, thirty-some years of hard gardening later—and the heft and systematic organization of that book gave me the chutzpah I needed to pick up a shovel and start digging.

  6. Keeping company on the gardening shelf in my home library, along with the newest one, are The Sunset Western Garden Books from 2001,1995,1967,1962, and one from 1936 with the title “Sunset’s All-Western Garden Guide”. I come from a long line of gardeners. ;>)

  7. I am looking for the Sunset all-western garden guide 1932 and the sunset garden book all year gardening in the west 1932 any sellers Thank you

  8. I am looking for the SUNSET GARDEN BOOK, ALL YEAR GARDENING IN THE WEST, circa 1932. Thanks for any help.

  9. I would love to have the complete list of the western garden books,if you have a list from the S.F. garden show, please e-mail me with it. Thanks so much

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