by Felder Rushing
Tough Plants for Southern Gardens is written for novice and accomplished gardener alike, and for all gardeners who value their leisure time. They also value the appearance of their home and appreciate the benefits of well-placed landscaping; however, they do not want to devote too much time to keeping it beautiful.
As someone who only began to take her garden seriously within the past few years, I still have a lot to learn-- but one thing I picked up pretty quickly is that some plants are much easier to keep alive than others, and gardening is much more enjoyable when the bulk of your garden is made up of these "easy plants". I've also learned to value the wisdom and experience of those who garden in my own part of the world, so I try to get my information from as local a source as possible. As the title suggests, the focus of this book is tough plants ("easy plants") for the southern United States-- perfect (for me, a relatively lazy gardener who lives in Alabama)!
This doesn't have to be a cover-to-cover read, though it can be. It's thoroughly readable-- somewhat less chatty and informal than Passalong Plants (also co-authored by Felder Rushing), but more useful for quick reference. It's great for dipping into for a few minutes here and there, and the index makes it simple to find a specific plant right away.
Divided into sections of types of plants, this book covers everything from fool-proof annuals and dependable perennials to easy-care trees and shrubs (and everything in between, as the saying goes).
Each plant was selected on the basis of its "toughness" and suitability for the Southern garden. Most featured plants get one full page including a photo, common name, Latin name, sunlight requirement, description of the flower (if applicable) and plant as a whole, soil/water needs, best propagation method(s), and "interesting kinds", which suggests specific, named varieties or cultivars (helpful for narrowing the field when making a wish list). There's also a small snippet of chit-chat about each plant, as well as one "tip" per entry-- some are about that plant, others are more tangentially related, but all are either informative or entertaining.
At the beginning of each section, there's a list of plants that are "Best for Beginners" and another that can be "Kinda Tricky" (probably self-explanatory). Then at the end of each section, there's a page or three of short blurbs about "Other Good Grasses" or "Other Great Garden Bulbs"-- plants that didn't quite make the "best of" list (for whatever reason), but which are also promising candidates for the Southern garden.
As much as I like this book, I do have one quibble. "The South" is a large area covering several states and USDA hardiness zones. The region is frequently divided into four gardening sub-regions: Upper South, Middle South, Lower South, and Coastal South-- and that's not even including the Tropical South, which is mostly confined to southern Florida.
The Upper South gets more of a real winter than the Coastal South (where I live), which means its gardeners can successfully grow plants (some bulbs and fruits, for instance) that need a little winter chill. Those same plants don't perform well this far south. On the other hand, I can grow delicate, subtropical plants outdoors. They may die back to the ground, but they reliably return with spring. Someone growing them on the northern edge of "the South" will have to dig them up every year or grow them in containers that can be moved into shelter for the winter.
Now, it is just a quibble, but just because a plant is included in this book doesn't mean it will be ideal for your garden. A little further research might be in order before you start your plant wish list, just to be on the safe side. (Besides, isn't researching plants part of the fun?). You may have a Southern garden, and the plant in question may be "tough" in some Southern gardens, but there's still the potential for plant failure and disappointment. Of course, you don't need to compare regions to witness the fickleness of Mother Nature's green children. Your next-door neighbor may rave about a plant that refuses to "do" for you.
To be fair, the author acknowledges all this, right there in the beginning! In gardening, there are no guarantees, even with so-called tough plants, but this book does give you a good shot at success, and I do believe that by far most of these plants will perform well through most of the region. I whole-heartedly recommend it-- particularly to beginning gardeners or anyone who's interested in learning more about plants that really want to grow in the hot and humid South.