If you need the detail—a talk with Allan Armitage


I wear about seven different hats [teacher, writer, speaker, plant researcher, owner of his own perennial business, and more], and I’m really involved in the industry. I’m disturbed by much of what I see happening. “Gardening” has become a hated word. People think it’s too much work. Landscaping is in; gardening is out. As for vegetable gardening, I think it’s always been popular and always will be. It gets talked about a lot now. I would say that it’s stronger today than it was three years ago.

Ultimately, the plant is still the currency. We—the researchers, the growers, the distributors, the retailers—have to give the consumer a chance of success. But too often, it’s about the color of the containers, about the lifestyle.

What about garden writers? Can they be too close to the industry?

I work with breeders, selectors, producers, and I write an article every month for Fine Gardening. I’m out there speaking on a regular basis. I think it’s scary when I go into a bookstore and I see all these books and I don’t know who these people are.

Anything else for our readers?

The biggest oxymoron I think is “serious gardening.” We need to understand that gardening is not serious. If you kill something, move on—plant something else. This book won’t make you a better gardener, but we really tried to make it a good read. My editor Judy Marriott Laushman deserves a lot of the credit for that.

Armitage has promised to respond to your comments here, so if you have thoughts about Herbaceous Perennial Plants or anything brought up here, go ahead.

ADDENDUM: And here’s a P.S. for those who may not be familiar with Allan Armitage. He’s famous for his authoritative books on perennials, as discussed here, but he is also well-known as a researcher who has introduced such cultivars as ipomoea “Margarita,” verbena “Homestead Purple,” ruellia “Ragin’ Cajin,” and dicentra “Athens Yellow” to the market. He even has his own plant line, Athens Select. So when he says he knows the industry, that’s what he means. It’s interesting and somewhat curious to me—in the art world, which I know well, you have the painters, the curators, and the critics; rarely does one person do all three. But plants are different, and I can see how this hands-on experience makes it possible for Armitage to share such a reliable body of knowledge such as that found in Herbaceous Perennial Plants. Finally, Chris C. asks if we’ll have one of the books to give away. I am sure we will. Watch for that post.

UPDATE: I will have 2 books to give away and the contest for them will happen on Sunday.

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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 yahoo.com


  1. What, no free copy of Herbaceous Perennial Plants to give away? I’m still learning in my new zone here.

    Interesting his list of “ordinary” plants deserving of more attention. Those are all native or established and self sowing perennials for me. I have to agree on the heuchera comment. The ones I see in catalogs are wretch worthy and the plants themselves are so meek and petite they get lost in the exhuberant abundance of the “ordinary” plants.

  2. I have the first edition and it is/was a landmark book – owned by almost every member of PPA when it was published. I’ve seen it on more office bookshelves in garden centers than any other single book (including any of mine – sigh)

    This one is on my to-get list as well.

    As for Heuchera – not even the pro’s can tell those darn varieties apart. We ran a trial at the nursery a few years ago when I was still gainfully employed (rather than writing full time again) 🙂 – Put several leaves of each cultivar (around 25 if I remember correctly) on individual white sheets of paper around the board room table and invited all the plant’s-people in the company (some serious folks) to identify them all. Nobody could. Nobody. We reduced the number of varieties on offer immediately.

  3. I don’t rule out having one to give away–but I can assure you I’m not giving away mine. I wouldn’t be surprised if the publishers would give one though. Stay tuned.

  4. Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants is a great read for those of us that never get enough of books about plants. I am glad to hear that many native plants are included in the new edition. I do not own the previous copy (read a library book that was late being returned)but will add to the list of books to buy. I have learned much from pouring over pictures and info in reference books.
    As for gardening being a hated word that is the nature of new generations. What they do must have significance in their life.
    Living green, eating well, consuming with intelligence.
    Hard work does not scare people off if it fulfills some need.
    The Renegade Gardener says it well here.

  5. I’m gradually combing through my copy of the hefty 3rd Edition and finding it even meatier than I’d imagined, and more fun to read. It’s one huge plant-geek-encyclopedia/horticultural rant from a very passionate writer. I love that he takes horticultural and garden-world seriousness down a notch or two with, for example, this proclamation on correct pronunciation: “It’s only the garden snob who continually tries to correct you”, his focus on fun, and lots more. I just wish I’d just gone out and bought the last edition before writing 35 or so perennial profiles on my website – damn!
    Allan, I look forward to meeting ya in Portland, and how about a photo (with me in it) for my garden-world power wall?

  6. Just want to thank Dr. Armitage for his comment re the paucity of aster varieties in common (or even, not so common) trade. Its such a shame–and its curious–that these wonderful plants have somehow become yesterday’s news. I’m waiting for a nursery to bring back all the Heronswood varieties of yore….

  7. I agree on the lack of interest on asters. I come from Texas and one native that gets zippo attention anywhere is Wedelia texana (which is a member of the aster family). I literally give it to people everywhere and they are in love with it once they plant it but it is gets no garden lit play in the more common commercial reference guides.

  8. Shame on me I do not have this (or any of his books). I keep meaning to add this one to my collection though.

    I don’t know if these two are in his book but they should be – Allium cernuum (Nodding Onion) & Ruellia humilis (Wild Petunia). These are a couple of gasp! short prairie plants which are showy and extremely tough. They’re almost absent in the garden centers though which is too bad.

    Agree with his thoughts on Heuchera – too many cultivars. One I do like is the one I grew up with Heuchera sanguinea – it’s very under appreciated with its green leaves & hot pink flowers. I’ve found it to be, along with the native H. richardsonii, much hardier then many of the colored leaved varieties.

  9. I am glad that someone is still writing books for those of us who, as a commenter above said, can’t get enough of reading all these details about wonderful plants! We are still out there with our hands in the dirt, despite all the people who now “landscape” instead.
    An example of a detail important to me (I wonder if it’s in his book?) is a question I had about why I could never get heucheras to survive in my zone 7a garden. I finally learned the answer during a tour of David Kulp’s garden, where he told us that H. villosa does much better in our heat and humidity. Since then I have bought nothing else and – surprise! – they are thriving!

  10. On Smart Gardening Allan Armitage had a great segment on promoting good drainage in pots. He held up a wet sponge horizontally until it stopped dripping, but then he held it vertically and a bunch more water dripped out. The lesson being that tall pots promote more efficient drainage. The next shot was a generous layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot that was being used as a demo.

    Linda Chalker-Scott, at http://www.informedgardener.com, has blasted that gravel (or potshard) layer to promote drainage as a myth. It was shown more than a century ago that water doesn’t move well from the fine medium of the potting soil into the coarse gravel layer. Just a nit, but it’s been bothering me.

  11. That sounds like a book to splurge on!

    Susan and Allan – when are you coming to Portland? Oregon I hope! If you need an insiders guide to great gardens to tour, let me know.

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