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Garden Edition: August, A Review of the Gardening for Dummies Books

by Linda Coyner

Summer in Florida is for reading, I've found; much like winter in the north, you're trapped inside. Except it has one cruel twist: the plants (and the weeds) keep growing while you're looking out the window at them. I took advantage of this forced respite to get to know the Dummie gardening books. They're not new--Gardening for Dummies, published by IDG, $16.99 is in its second revision this year--but its garden series was new to me. There are lots of others, including Perennials for Dummies, Trees & Shrubs for Dummies (new this year), Landscaping for Dummies, Annuals for Dummies, Lawn Care for Dummies, Roses for Dummies. Each of the Dummie books is penned by an expert in the field along with the National Gardening Association.* 
      Look elsewhere if you want a colorful coffee table book or even photos or sketches to help with plant identification. Not even close. Usually, the Dummie books have a handful of color photos in the middle of the book, but that's it. These tomes are meant to be used and perused--marked up, dog-eared, referred to, and even carried around. The format is easy to use: there's the contents at a glance and then a detailed contents, easy-to-read page numbers, white space in the margins for making notes, and a good index.

  What about the information? I didn't know quite what to expect--how basic was it going to be? Would it appeal only to beginning gardeners or, like the Dummie covers claim, be "a reference for the rest of us?" After an examination of four of the series--Gardening, Trees & Shrubs, Annuals, and Perennials--it's not hard to see how that's done. The Dummie information covers the basics so thoroughly that it's bound to teach something even to an experienced green thumb. And besides, as the Gardening intro explains, "Gardening is such a huge topic that no one ever comes close to knowing everything about it." 

  The Gardening for Dummiesbook, in particular, follows a very ambitious agenda. Besides the chapters on types of plants--roses, bulbs, perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs, and vines--it covers the basics of planting, growing, maintaining, starting plants from seed, lawns, tools, and power equipment. Obviously with such a universe to cover, the book is limited to the amount of information it can dispense. For instance, its lists of favorite plants gave only the most basic information geared toward gardeners in the central zones. 
      I expected more of Perennials, Trees & Shrubs, and Annuals for Dummies, however. Without the universe to cover, these books had the opportunity to describe the plants in detail. I was disappointed. For instance, Perennial's lists of ornamental grasses, foliage plants, variegated plants as well as its Gardening by Climate chapter supplied only the most basic information. Let's be realistic, though, those of us in extreme climates should look to regional books for regional information. One notable exception turned up in Perennials for Dummies. Its list of perennials offers great advice on the specifics of a plant's climate, water likes and dislikes, and sometimes even whether it'd cause a rash or was poisonous. It was good solid information from a gardener (Marcia Tatroe) who knows her subject matter. Another highlight was its "compendium of mulches" that allows a gardener to closely compare the different types. 
      Instead of giving more detail in their particular field, specialized Dummie books covered the same ground. In addition to the basics of planting and maintenance, Perennials sacrificed space for a discussion of companion plants--bulbs, annuals, shrubs. Trees & Shrubs wasn't as stingy with detail in its plant but still gave over a lot of pages to basic planting and maintenance. Annuals wasted precious space with a text layout that was full of white space and frequent meaningless subheads ("E is for English Daisy") instead of sharing the wealth of information available on individual plants.

  The gardening advice and information in the Dummie books is very good. I found suprisingly little to quibble with; here are some examples: Despite what Gardening says, I'd leave bulbs in the ground to decompose. Why bother digging them up for the compost pile? It also advises using grass clippings from a weed and pesticide free lawn--great idea, not very practical if you think about it. In the discussion of pest controls, Perennials didn't
mention the non-toxic products that are now available for slugs ( Also, Gardening warns not to buy a push rotary power mower that doesn't have a deadman switch. The only way that's going to happen is if you buy used--all the new models have engine-kill safety systems. In the power-tool area, readers would have been better served by steering them to Consumer Reports Magazine.

  The best part of the Dummie approach is its tone. Remember in school when they said there's no such thing as a dumb question? Well, here it is in practice, and without a trace of patronizing. The books vary in how much of the author's personality shows through, but they all accomplish a friendly, casual tone that's very inviting and supportive. It's very refreshing. The reader is encouraged to experiment with garden design and color--what's the worse that could happen? Colors clash so badly it "makes your dog howl" or a plant sticks out like a sore thumb? Both are fixable.

The new edition of Gardening for Dummies is more timely than I expected, considering its 1999 publication date. It's chock full of web site references, but shy on gardening software. It was au current in other areas. Ornamental grass is considered a structural element of the yard, just like trees and shrubs. It's true but you'll not often see it in print. It's okay to use newspaper, even color pages as a mulch now that most printers have switched to non-toxic inks. Gardening gave native plants their due, as well as the importance of recycling and non-atomic pest control, but water gardening definitely got short shrift. 

  A common element of the series is the use of cartoons by Rich Tennant (whose style is reminiscent of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons), which, along with the tone, help to lighten the message of the text. Dummie style is also to have The Part of Tens, a whole section dedicated to lists of "tens." Such
laundry lists are not something I'm a big fan of unless explanatory text is used to bring them to life. Trees & Shrubs, for instance, ticked off bare-boned lists of Ten Sets of Terrific Trees, Ten Lists of Super Shrubs, and Ten Types of Troublesome Trees

  Both Perennials and Trees & Shrubs suffered from a bad case of cutsie headlines: "Life's a beech," "Making a clean sweep with broom," "Hedging your bets with privet."  Where's an editor when you need one? Dummie books are also hooked on icons--you know, a graphical element that can be dropped in the margin to highlight certain kinds of information. An icon with a camera called "photo op" was used to cross reference plant descriptions with photos, not the clearest association in my mind. I thought it meant the plant was particularly photogenic. Icons for flower killer, garden guru, garden jargon, and shady character were also a stretch. The most successful is an 'eco-smart' icon with the recycling symbol that pops up alongside information and advice that's earth-friendly.

  The bottom line? Gardening for Dummies is worth making space for on your book shelf. It's a smart, up-to-date reference. Others in the series are just the icing on top of the cake.

*For Gardening for Dummies, it's Michael MacCaskey and Bill Marken; Ann Whitman co-authored Trees & Shrubs; Bill Marken, Annuals; and Marcia Tatroe, Perennials


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