You’ve seen the glamour shots; now read the book!


The Well-Tended Perennial Garden
Expanded Edition
By Tracy DiSabato-Aust
Timber Press, 2006

Like an old friend who hasn’t visited in a while, this essential gardening guide is making a welcome reappearance. For anyone who cares about plants, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is one of the few sensible and truthful explanations of how most perennials work in real gardens. First published in 1998, the book has been expanded and revised, adding more pages in every section and a gardening journal for a new 2006 edition.

So, that said, is it worth it? Do we really need the reprise?

I’m saying yes for two reasons: 1.) this new edition will bring the book to the attention of gardeners who haven’t seen it; and 2) the additional photography throughout all the sections greatly enhances the quality of the information. Now you can really see what she’s talking about. This is a much more attractive and comprehensively illustrated publication.

Text-wise, there is very little that is different or new here. In fact, though I’ve not done a word-by-word comparison, it looks as though the text is pretty much the same as in the previous edition. It begins with an explanation of the basic principles of design, planting, and maintenance for spring, summer, and fall-blooming perennials. Then, an A-Z plant directory explores the needs of specific plants. The emphasis is on the importance of pruning, cutting back, trimming, and, of course, deadheading. In fact, DiSabato-Aust has been called the “queen of deadheading.” She’s studied the behavior patterns of every plant she writes about and she knows when constructive intervention will do the most good.

You will not read rhapsodies over the loveliness of certain cultivars, or vague promises of unending bloom times. What you will read are matter-of-fact comments such as these:

“We have become a society of over mulchers, feeling compelled to go out every spring and mulch, whether it’s needed or not.”

“Sorry to say it, but this is a rather ‘doggy’ perennial … Really not worth all the trouble!”
(on Tanacetum coccineum/painted daisy)

“To my dismay, the first perennials that a beginning gardener wants in his or her border, often because of the gorgeous pictures seen in English perennial books, are high maintenance “traditional” perennials, such as Pacific Giant hybrid delphiniums.”

I believe this last quote expresses one of the basic reasons I would never be without this book. As much as I admire the prose and passion of such writers as the late Christopher Lloyd, I pay little attention to his specific advice on plants; he created a type of garden that is on a different planet (let alone zone) than mine. When I need to know what will work in the pedestrian confines of my zone 5 garden, DiSabato-Aust’s book has the closest thing to an answer I’m likely to find.

Though when it comes to celebrating the sheer romance of gardening and the beauty of plants, you can’t beat the Brits.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Ah… there it is… garden snobbery. Unabashed.

    I love and have always loved delphiniums (the x elatas, not so much the grandifloras – for me). I just ordered A BUNCH of seeds for some blue giants (with white bees) and white giants (with blue bees).

    They will be magnificent. This is not opinion, this is imperical fact. A delphinium stalk is one the grandest blossom shows in the garden… never mind a hundred of ’em. But apparently this is dismaying. Tanacetum coccineum doesn’t seem to measure up either. I guess every “beginner” gardener should know better than to hope to grow what they want to grow. Shouldn’t they know that they run the risk of dismaying the superior garden thinkers?

    Those comments are simply smug, self important and indicative of an inflated value placed upon one’s own opinion (over the harmless desires of others.) (Why be dismayed that some one else is gardening?)

    I have no tolerance for smug in my business, my family or my garden.

    Fortunately, gardening is something I can do without approval from anyone. It is usually a way to escape the small smug people… not today.

    What I need is information so I can make MY OWN judgements. I can never get enough info. However, I could not be LESS interested in buying JUDGMENT from others.

    Very off-putting.

  2. Yes, they were the first plants I bought too–and among the first to perish. I even tried again; more failure. Whatever conditions they need, they sure don’t exist in my garden.

  3. Back in the day, there was this guy who did short book reviews. I mean really short. One sentence usually. Often a short one.

    After reading the tome, “The Physics of Baseball.” He penned:

    Curveballs really curve.

    It’s been a long time since I read Tracy’s book. But I remember when I was done thinking:

    Plants flower shorter and later if you hack them back early.

    Not quite as succinct. But that’s pretty much what I took away.

  4. A beginning pianist does not start with Bach and such is the case with delphiniums but they are well worth the repeated effort and practice it takes to grow them well…for me anyway! Something worth striving for! I have not yet even tried the Himalayan blue poppy though! Just one more opinion!

  5. Yeah, it’s a simple lesson. But one that has had substantial results, at least for me. I now get aquilegia rebloom in late July! I think people fear the shears, and this book helps with that.

    Not a small thing.

  6. Delphiniums, I had some vague notion of what those might be. I did a search and they were what I thought, those fancy pants snapdragons.

    You say they are fussy huh? I will keep that in mind after I get over the shock that you are supposed to deadhead flowers. I thought that is what winter was for.

  7. Chris C: HUGE Fancy Pants snapdragons. I’ve had some with flower stalks 6 + feet tall… though there are hundreds of cultivars in smaller sizes.


    I always chuckle when Delphiniums are called border plants (as they ALWAYS are). I think maybe most people grow smaller varieties. Mine (at the farm) are enormous and are sort of the “main attraction.”

    HUGE! Is it spring yet?

  8. Beginner gardener, that’s me! I bought 3 potted starter giant Delphiniums this spring (about 3″ pot)and WOW! I’m in love! No problems, except for the dog breaking off two flower stalks, which recovered and bloomed, but on a shorter stalk and a little later than the one which didn’t get mangled. I’m going to plant lots of these next spring. The delphie’s flowers are just now falling off after a long bloom season. Totally beautiful!

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