Will “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” go Digital?


Well tended

Here's my latest for Kirkus Reviews, and check here to see Amy's review of the Bad-Tempered Gardener.

Back when perennials became the hot plant group for American gardeners, new fans of perennials glommed onto Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s 1998 book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden because it so clearly explained how to grow the plants.  (It’s not for nothing that she’s called the Queen of Deadheading.) Now in an expanded edition, the book has sold more than 184,000 copies, which makes it the bestselling title of all time for Timber Press.

So with book publishing awash in talk of new media, I asked DiSabato-Aust if there was a digital version of Well-Tended in the works. As excited as she is by the notion, she says not yet. But let’s consider the possibilities—it could be multimedia. More photos could be added. And videos! She envisions an e-reader version that includes videos of the very tasks she describes, which could tempt readers to buy the book again. (Now if we could just get one of the how-to-prune-shrubs authors to do the same. That’s a task that’s even more difficult to teach without showing.) 

When asked, Timber Press editorial director Andrew Beckman said that oh, yes indeedy, they’d love to produce Well-Tended for an e-reader, with enhanced content like videos. But here’s what it would take.

First, the book would have to be “rejiggered” for the digital medium, and since digitizing books is new, and suddenly everyone’s doing it, there’s a production backlog in the publishing world.  In fact, Timber is producing e-versions of new books but the backlog means they’re not available until sometime after the print versi Bringing_nature_home

Take another very successful book for Timber—Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, which is rightly credited with convincing the public that native plants are important. The paperback edition sells for $18 retail and is available digitally for just $8.19, a typical price for e-books.

  While Tallamy’s book was a straightforward conversion to digital, an e-version of Well-Tended with enhanced content would mean new expenses, especially to produce videos. Questions remain. Could they charge enough to cover those costs? Will e-publishing support higher prices for illustrated books, or for books with video or audio content? 

It makes sense that the most successful e-books to date have been fiction, rather than illustrated nonfiction, including gardening books. Programs for conversion Dirrs_tree_and_shrub_finder work fine for text only—all tho  se romance novels, mysteries and the like—but Beckman says, for the time being, that for illustrated books the “quality of content delivery is dismal.” One new application for illustrated books is expensive and the results are fixed, like a PDF, and not easily searchable. Still, e-publishing is changing fast and a new platform released last month makes it surprisingly easy to drop in videos and audio. 

In another digital move, Timber Press, the leading publisher of gardening books in the United States,  dipped its toes into the mobile world with their first app, Dirr’s Tree and Shrub  Finder. For $15, the app’s a bargain compared to Dirr’s classic Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, the book it’s based on, which rings in at $70 and 1,200 pages. Additionally, Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder has to compete with all the other free apps out theTracy1re. 

So we may or may not see a digital version of DiSabato-Aust’s books, and I was sorry to hear that she has no plans to write any more of them, though not as sorry as Timber must be. These days she stays busy with her garden-design business, speaking gigs and, increasingly, competing in triathlons. Here’s my story about her alternate life as a world-class triathlete.


  1. I have 5 plant-based apps on my iPhone (Audubon Trees, Audubon Flowers, Leafsnap, TreeID? and dirrguide), and they are all crappy, IMHO (plus EXPENSIVE). lots of room for improvement in the botany/horticulture digital world. i think the main issue is the small overlap between gardening/plant freaks and the digerati. Of course, the Garden Rant ladies are the exception to that 🙂

  2. I receive Organic Gardening on my NookColor. It is more than a PDF and quite enjoyable to read this way (and no old issues piling up around the house!) I haven’t tried viewing video on it yet.

  3. When you say, “Additionally, Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder has to compete with all the other free apps out there” are you talking about free apps dealing with plant topics or just apps in general? I thought there were only a handful of Horticultural apps available out there. Now I feel I may have missed something…

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