The must-have book for west coast gardeners has always been the Sunset Western Garden Book, also known as the "green book" in these parts, but it’s got some competition now. If I knew someone who was moving to Portland or Seattle or even Eureka, this is the book I’d buy for them.
Because gardening out here really is different. The fog, the chilly Pacific Ocean, and even the aesthetic approach demand something more than Sunset’s cheerful, sunny, California vibe.
First, a word about aesthetics. Some of you are probably going to the Garden Writers Association conference in Portland later this month; when you get there, you’ll see what I mean. If you head to Seattle, you’ll see even more of it. They’re really into Asian plants up there, and foliage is very, very important. You’ll see lots of crazy red plants, and lots of crazy gold plants. It’s a very Arts and Crafts look–natural, but stylized. Asian and a little Mediterranean, but native. This is Dan Hinkley country, remember.
And this book really lays it all out. It’s organized by type of plant–a chapter on shrubs, another on bulbs, another on ornamental grasses–and in this age of "outdoor living spaces" and "exterior decorating," this is a welcome and sensible approach. You’ll find all the basics about weeds and pests specific to this region, and some good philosophical information. A chapter called "What’s Different About Gardening Here" really tells it like it is: yes, your hollyhocks are going to get rust. Yes, you’ll get mushrooms and moss in your lawn. And yes, we garden all year long out here, so be ready to step up.
My only complaint–and this is a small one–lies with the book’s gardening calendar. It’s full of great lists for new gardeners and transplants who might have no idea what to plant when, but the narrative for each month reads like a kind of gardening boot camp, filled with admonishments for all the work yet to be done. In May, the "pressing task" is to get flower beds, containers, hanging baskets, and vegetable beds filled with plants. In June, there are "plenty of other garden tasks" to get done, but we are reassured that they are not "overly demanding, strenuous, or disagreeable" compared to all that hectic pruning and digging we just polished off in the spring. And in September, we are to be grateful that the weather is so good, because the gardening tasks "are tripled in addressing past, present, and future." Gardeners should not pause for too long to enjoy the garden’s beauty, the authors warn, because "this is September, and there’s not a moment to be wasted."
While these narratives make gardening sound like a series of demanding tasks, the rest of the book is inspiring, personable, and entirely useful. I particularly love the first-person accounts of how plants do in the authors’ garden, which give you the sense that you’re getting sound advice from an experienced gardener next door. I also like the fact that they didn’t try to cover every plant a person might grow, no matter how crazy that person is. These are "recommended plants"–the mainstays of Pacific Northwest gardens. Stick with these, the authors suggest, and you’ll live happily ever after.
Oh, and the photos are wonderful. Crisp, well-composed, large enough to be useful, and they show multiple perspectives of most plants, so you get more than just close-ups of the flower–you get a sense of how the whole shrub will look when it’s fully grown.
If I had read this book when I first moved to Eureka, it would have saved me a lot of heartache. And if I ever found myself transplanted to Oregon or Washington or Vancouver, trying desperately to figure out how to garden like the cool kids, this is the first book I’d pick up.
Does anybody need a copy? Post your very best story about why you, or someone you know, desperately needs help gardening in the Pacific Northwest, and we’ll send you one. Winner announced on Monday.