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Garden Edition Book Review:
The Intuitive Gardener by Marilyn Raff

by Linda Coyner

The title grabbed me right away. Ive always believed much of gardening is spontaneous, even impulsive. So does Marilyn Raff, the author of The Intuitive Gardener (Fulcrum Press, 2002, $24.95 paperback). Raffs credits her freestyle gardening approach to Jungian philosophy. For her, the Jungian concept of transformation became a lens to view the world, and led her to gardening, something she sees as a continual process of creating, re-creating, and transforming natural elements.

The author believes some gardeners get stuck on rules and what the experts say, hesitating before taking action or simply freezing in inaction. Raffs approach encourages gardeners to rebel against such restraints. She advocates a laissez-faire approach to gardening. Some might call her a 'garden libber.'

Raff says to follow your own innermost hunches about what looks and feels right. Throw away the rulebook and the experts opinions. The adventures and blunders that follow, she promises, will help each person makes her own guidelines and discover her own personal style.

What does a garden look like when the gardeners style is, well, so carefree? A jungle? Possibly, but not Raffs, because she factors in restraint as a design element. She trusts her intuition only up to a certain point. The Raff garden, a one-half acre plot high in the Rocky Mountain region (USDA Zone 5), is the result of her controlled abandon. It has been featured on HGTV and consists of dozens of rooms filled with hundreds of plants.

Aside from the discussion of the importance of intuition, the book is part personal diary, part tour of Raffs garden. She took the first step into the world of gardening 15 years ago when she volunteered at a botanical garden. Her personal journey mirrors her gardens transformation. A yard with grass, a lone cottonwood tree, and a few petunias are transformed into a Garden of Eden. A neophyte in the garden goes from volunteer at a botanical garden to student to horticulture professional.

I especially liked her reflections on how her passion for gardening evolved. She takes us on the personal journey that taught her to take the pulse of the garden while being in tune with her inner sense. Its a journey thats revealed in the transformation of her garden, from petunia-and-lawn yard to a Garden of Eden featured on HGTV.

The book introduces us to her garden today in the Denver metro area. She details plant compositions at every turn, explaining why she thinks a group of plants works and sometimes what she has to do to make it work (such as intense pruning to keep it under control). Such a written tour is hard to pull off, especially when dealing with visuals. The tour gets bogged down in the details of plant combinations. The occasional photograph helps but many more are needed to hold the readers interest.

Midst reflections and touring the garden, the author interweaves her gardening style, being careful not to make rules: mulch (it has its advantages but she doesnt; instead she plants closely), composting (she doesnt, but believes strongly in the importance of good soil), tool care (she admits to being remiss but loves sharp pruners), making potting soil (creates her own soil mix by selecting ingredients by the truckload), weeding (therapeutic for her), botanical names (stimulating and revealing about the plant but not for everyone), fertilizing (rarely, but she does add compost every year).

The authors special passions rock gardens, roses, and grasses occupy a big part of the book. Rock gardening is a natural, since her introduction to gardening was as a volunteer at the Denver Botanical Garden in the rock garden. Rock gardens and rock-garden plants consumed her for more than a decade until she moved on to hardy roses.

When Raff discovered the chemicals involved in conventional rose care, she fled the class. The instructor, she explains, was completely covered in protective gear. Eventually the author gravitated toward roses that didnt need coddling. She discusses the early one-time bloomers in her garden and multiple bloomers, like rugosas, Griffith Buck roses, Canadian, Kordeses, and David Austins varieties that won her respect when they proved to be tough and resilient in her Colorado garden. She also covers ways to combine them with annuals, perennials, and shrubs in the garden.

Grasses, her third passion, won her over with their repetitive thin and wide lines, panicles, and varying heights and colors.... Grasses, she says, are showstoppers, without even trying. The projectile appearance, she finds, is helpful for contrasting with flowers, which tend to be circular, delicate, wide, or short. One technique she uses with grasses is to place colorful plants behind them so that glimpses of color peek out from behind the blades.

The organization of the book is as loose and free flowing as the authors gardening style. Open-ended chapter titles like Intuitive Imagination and Everything Under the Sun give her free reign to follow her imagination wherever it takes her.

Overall, the authors voice is engaging, like that of a friend who wants to share her knowledge. Despite being very knowledgeable, the author never adopts a patronizing tone.

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