Even though I’ve been gardening for many years now, I’m often stumped by plants. Why is that leaf curling under? What do those black spots mean? What happens when the blossom falls off? Sometimes you have a very specific question and need a more experienced gardener to answer it.
In the past year, I’ve acquired two books (three actually) that attempt to answer the myriad questions gardeners have. I picked up 10,000 Garden Questions – Answered by 20 Experts, Volumes 1 and 2, at the annual Northfield Hospital Auxiliary Book Sale last spring for $1 per volume. Published beginning in 1944 by the American Garden Guild, my version is from 1974. (The latest version is from 1994.)
The two volumes cover everything from soil to weeds. Each section includes a basic overview of the topic, followed by questions the experts writing the book have heard from real gardeners. Some of the questions seem odd: “What is dust mulch?” Others are heart-tugging: “How can I plant a 90 x 100 ft garden? My husband died and I want to make a garden for myself and two children.” But many are questions that gardeners have today: when and how to prune plants, how much fertilizer do roses need, does black plastic work as mulch, what plants grow well in shade, how can you tell when melons are ripe? The section on the home vegetable garden, which is the first part of volume 2, is particularly thorough and useful. While the advice here is generally good, I also enjoy looking back to see what kinds of questions gardeners had 60 or more years ago.
For a more modern take on the Q and A, consider buying Ask the Garden Doctor, published in 2010 by Meredith Corp. (the Better Homes and Gardens folks) and edited by Denny Schrock, who has a PhD in horticulture, hence the title. Minnesotans may remember Denny from his years as a graduate student here. He describes working a shift at the University of Minnesota’s Dial-U Clinic as an “8-hour oral exam” in horticulture that prepared him for his career in extension and now garden writing. Denny joined Meredith in 2002, where he edits the company’s Landscape Solutions magazine.
I picked up my copy of Ask the Garden Doctor as a door prize at a Garden Writers Association regional meeting in St. Louis. Ask the Garden Doctor covers 1,200 typical questions and is well-organized into plant-by-plant, problem-by-problem sections. It’s also illustrated with color photographs throughout, which is especially helpful in the sections on insects and diseases. I used this book recently to find a list of plants most likely to be attacked by Japanese beetles (canna, astilbe, azalea, crape myrtle, grape, hollyhock, linden, raspberry, rose and viburnum).
With the Internet everywhere, books like these may be less profitable for publishers in the future, which is one reason I’m buying them at used book sales. Still, I often find I can come up with information more quickly looking in a book’s index than using a search engine, especially if my computer is off. Also, as much as I use and appreciate the web, the digital mob does not always have the correct answer to every question. Sometimes you really do want to “ask the doctor” or get your garden information from “20 experts.”