Book Review:
Burpee’s Complete Flower Gardener


There are 175 herbaceous flowering plants
profiled, with great photos and interesting extras like plant legends
and the origins of names. Plenty for beginners and advanced plant geeks

For example, did you know that the growing of salvia was first
recorded in 200 BC?  Yeah, me neither, or that it was brought to North
America by early
settlers as a cure for venereal disease, among other uses.  Puritan
John Winthrop
ordered a half ounce shipped to him in 1631, although history doesn’t
reveal the actual use he put it to.


  • Nearby Baltimore has 207 frost-free days every year, more than
    Yreka and Santa Cruz, CA with only 117 and 196 respectively.  Where ARE
    these places?
  • Great links and sources, like


  • Why "flower" gardening?  The book covers herbaceous flowering
    plants, which curiously are sometimes referred to as "flowers".  But
    all sorts of foliage plants are covered, like hostas and liriope, and
    no flowering shrubs like hydrangeas or roses.  I assume that this focus
    on herbaceous plants – and calling them flowers – was the publisher’s
    book concept, not the authors’, and when the jacket mentions a
    companion book to this one covering veggies and herbs I flinch because
    shouldn’t it be about woodies?  As a relentless cheerleader for shrubs,
    I kept noticing their absence from this book.
  • And two of my pet peeves made appearances in this book, one of
    which is compost being recommended as a mulch, particularly the
    statement that it "keeps soil free of weeds."  But isn’t compost just
    the dandiest growing medium ever offered up to the world of weeds?
    I’ll admit that I’ve seen other very reputable garden writers also make
    this statement – Barbara Damrosch – so help me understand this
    disconnect with observed reality, somebody.
  • And in my continuing campaign against plant generalizations, I
    prefer plant origin to be identified with enough information to be
    helpful, like "native to Midwestern plains," rather than the overly
    broad "native to North America" used in this book’s plant profiles.  I
    hear the resulting confusion in frustrated gardeners all the time: Why
    isn’t this native plant doing well for me?  Because it’s native to hot,
    dry areas, not the humid East.  Or it’s native to moist coastal areas,
    not your sunny front yard.  Barbara’s response to my question about
    this was that "space is always at a premium in garden books." So
    publishers, when space is limited how about losing the legends and
    adding a few more words about the plants’ natural conditions?  I was
    happy to hear that in Barbara’s new book about ground covers, Covering Ground, native
    ranges are given.

But considering how opinionated I am, my list of complaints is
surprisingly short and I’d recommend this book for beginners and
experienced gardeners alike.  Then in the same breath I’d recommend a
book about woody plants, and the name Michael Dirr springs to mind.

Now if I haven’t totally aggravated these two passionate gardeners
who also write so well, can I come see your garden, Barbara?  (She’s
right here in Maryland, Karan in not-so-nearby Vermont.)

Oh, I almost forgot.  BUY IT HERE.


  1. Great review! I’m sure there will be a follow up tome on shrubs and trees. Maximize the profit!

    I have used compost as mulch. Compost which has been formed from a ‘hot’ composting method has very little viable weed seed in it. Yes, it is a great medium for seed germination but mulch will also do the same and if there are few weed seeds in it, it is great. The source of the compost is important with hot composting. A pile of manure which is turned weekly will generally ‘steam’ on cool mornings whereas a pile of kitchen scraps probably will not. I took of picture of just that this morning. It was 37 degrees here and there is nothing more satisfying than a steaming pile of …compost!

  2. As I see it, lots of seeds lie dormant deep in soil until turned up close to or on top of the soil surface. Temperature and light requirements vary greatly.
    So any relatively weedfree cover woody (mulch)or herbacious (compost) would help. Weeds flying in after cover is another story. I pick many a tree seedling from the most woody of mulches. Even gravel is a great seed starter.Areas of living ground cover have proven to be the easiest to maintain. Nothing is completely weed free without a bit of help.

  3. I don’t mean to be harsh, ladies, because I think you’re site is an entertaining read.

    However, you’re blanket approval of the age-old recommendation: “add(ing) organic matter; it’s single most important and effective thing gardeners can do to improve garden soil,” really got my “rant” up this morning!

    Would mulching mangroves with compost at low tide in the Florida Keys “improve” the limestone in which they’re growing? What about cactus growing in a Tucson garden, bog laurel at 8,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, or native winterberry (Ilex verticillata) planted in a constantly wet corner of an upstate New York garden?

    To me, gardening “organically” is simply another way of trying to “improve” nature – and can be a lot of work!

    Rather, why not focus on “fitting the plant to the site, instead of fixing the site to fit the plant!”

    Finally, along the same lines, “native” plants are fascinating – but waaaay over-rated. Sugar maple may be native to upstate New York, for example, but it’s not native to the compacted soils of a new upstate New York housing development!

  4. Terry,good call on the organic materials and about fitting a plant to spot and purpose.
    you move a rant in me with that refain from so many about natives.
    Not every native works for every spot any more than cultivated hybrids.
    Here in Chicago at TREEKEEPERS
    a swamp white oak would be only one of the choices in those circumstances. It does well in compacted soils that have little oxygen exchange, survives in the climate and can tolerate a drought once established.

  5. By the way, there is nothing wrong with using non-native plants. But if a native plant is one of the choices that will thrive in said spot I say use the native. Many natives have almost disappeared because of lack of interest or preference and planting of other species as much as disturbance of habitat. I would like to see that remedied.
    Seed dispersal helps a plant migrate in climate change. Humans can be as enterprising as a bird or wind at least, don’t you think?

  6. For the vast majority of home owners who do not live in mangrove swamps, Tucson deserts, craggy peaks in the Rockies and cranberry bogs and are growing the most ordinary of flowers and shrubberies, adding organic matter to the soil is the single most important and effective thing gardeners can do to improve garden soil. Doing that makes for much healthier plants which will then need far less poisonous bug sprays.

  7. Btw, here’s the formula for how much mulch is needed:
    Multiply area in feet by the thickness of the mulch (say 2 inches) and divide the product by 324.

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