Bookshelf Archive

On the Bookshelf: Archive

return to On the Bookshelf main page


Emily Levine, 2001

The number of horticulture books on the market today is truly stupefying; but once you've been through the basics of annuals/perennials, design principles, and arboriculture, they all start to seem the same. A few books that have stood out from the pack during the last year or so are the following:

Diane Ackerman. Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

Diane Ackerman, a Visiting Professor at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, is author of the popular and highly acclaimed Natural History of the Senses and numerous other works of non-fiction,as well as six volumes of poetry. Her latest book might appear to be just another in the endless line of "a woman and her garden" books. But Ackerman is a scientist, a poet, a Big Thinker, and one of our finest writers on the natural world. She uses her garden a as a springboard to the larger world of ideas. You will learn abut the shape and force of raindrops, literature from around the world, John Muir, the sex life of insects, eccentric bat enthusiasts, human nature, human behavior, the human spirit, and the concept of time. Based on her garden through the seasons of the year, Ackerman takes us on a far-flung journey of plant lore and esoterica. Of spring she writes: "One day, when the last snows have melted, the air tastes tinny and sweet for the first time in many months." Summer is "a new song everyone is humming," and in autumn,"Dawn frost sits heavily on the grass and turns metal fencing into a string of stars," and Ackerman asks, "Was that a goldfinch perching ina 100-year-old oak or just the first turning leaf? A cardinal or a sugar maple closing up its canopy?" Finally, "Now that the winter spider's spinning its white web in the trees, I like to drive throughthe countryside of rolling pasturelands and farms. Here and there horses stomp about achy, as metal shoes echo cold up each leg, and snow cakes underfoot." If you like to garden, if you find the world an interesting place, and its inhabitants worthy of study, thought, and musing, Cultivating Delight will not disappoint.

Michael Pollan. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001).

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. In the introduction to his offbeat and well-received Botanyof Desire, he posits a theory (whether a serious inquiry or simply a device for essays, who knows?) that essentially asks, "Have plants evolved alongside humans to fulfill our desires? Have they domesticated us as we have domesticated them?" Pollan chooses four plant/desire pairs to explore this possibility, but each of his corresponding chapters delves deeper into 2 or 3 additional aspects of the plant in question.

Chapter One, "Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple," reveals, among otherthings, the true story of John Chapman (known to you and me as Johnny Appleseed). Not the harbinger of wholesome Americana in the westward expanding nation, Chapman's seed apples were good only for hard cider and the entrepreneur new that if he scouted sites of future frontier settlement along the Ohio and other rivers and had his seedling orchards preplanted, he would make a living off the pioneers' need for alcoholic drink, continually moving ahead of the throngs of thirsty settlers. Not the grade school image we were all raised with. We also learn, through Pollan's lively writing, the natural history of the apple and we visit an heirloom apple orchard preserving the countless varieties disappearing under the ubiquitous onslaught of Delicious, Jonathan, and Granny Smith.

In "Desire: Beauty / Plant: The Tulip," Pollan moves through personal experience and botany to reveal the obsessive, over-the-top phenomenon known as tulipomania in Holland and throughout Europe. Fortunes were made and lost, theft and intrigue abounded, and "In the aftermath, many Dutch blamed the flower for their folly, as if the tulips themselves had, like the sirens, lured otherwise sensible men to their ruin." It is a fascinating study of how a flower determined the financial course of a nation, started an industry, and led individual men to madness.

"Desire: Intoxication / Plant; Marijuana," gives a history of Cannabis, a scientific discourse on dangerous toxins that plants manufacture for various reasons, and an examination of the concept of "magical" plants that cultures throughout time have utilized. Pollan recounts a humorous story in which he transplants a few tiny seedlings behind an old fallen down barn on his property only to forget about them till the end ofsummer when he discovers "what looked like a pair of Christmas tress, eight feet tall at least." As luck would have it, a man soon arrives to deliver Pollan's supply of wood for the winter–a man who happens to have a nine to five gig as chief of the nearby town's police. Pollan writes how he frantically tried to get the woodhauler-cum-policeman to let him unload the cordwood or at least drop it in a place out of sight of the barn and its nefarious crop. When the man drives off to get his second load, Pollan–like a whirling dervish–harvests his plants and squirrels them away in the attic. The second part of the chapter is an investigation into the breeding of Cannabis; Dutch pot growers crossing and recrossing their plants, hybridizing for the market uncannily like Decalb or Pioneer Seeds.Pollan ends with a discussion of neurochemistry, philosophy, and societal constructs to place marijuana in a larger context than it usually inhabits.

The final chapter, "Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato," an interesting and useful discourse on the new genetically engineered food crops. Pollan, an avid gardener, received permission from Monsanto to grow their genetically modified potato, the NewLeaf. NewLeafs are engineered with a gene from the bacteria Bacillis thuringiensis, or Bt, anorganism toxic to many insects, including the devastating Colorado Corn Beetle. The entire plant, including the tuber itself, contains the Btgene. Interwoven with progress reports on the growth of his spuds, Pollan relates the history of the potato, from its Inca origins to the Irish famine. We also visit Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis and learn some gene science from "one of Monsanto's senior potato people,"and travel to that farm entirely organically. Read Botany of Desire to follow Pollan on his genetically engineered food journey–and find out how his NewLeafs turned out.


Wihelm Miller. The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening. Introduction by Christopher Vernon (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, reprint 2002). Originally published as Illinois Experiment Station Circular no. 184. Dept. of Horticulture, College ofAgriculture, University of Illinois, Urbana, Nov. 1915.

The American Association of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Centennial Reprint Series gives new life to ten well deserving, if often overlooked, classics of landscape design. Funded by the Viburnum Foundation and developed under the auspices of the Library of American Landscape History, the reprint project is, in a way, an homage to the developers of a uniquely American landscape sensibility.
A lengthy introduction by Christopher Vernon, Senior Lecturer at theSchool of Architecture and Fine Arts at the University of Western Australia, to The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening places Miller's work in historical and cultural context, giving it new meaning and usefulness in today's field of landscape design.
Born in 1869 the son of a German immigrant, Wilhelm Miller grew up inDetroit and attended the University of Michigan. After graduate work at Cornell under famed botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, Miller shifted focusfrom floriculture to landscaping, becoming the horticulture editor of the widely-read magazine Country Life in America. During the first decade of the 20th century, Miller began to develop his concept of the American style of landscape gardening, eschewing old European influences. When he moved to Illinois in 1912 as an assistant professor of landscape horticulture, he found recognition and affirmation of his design theories in the burgeoning Chicago School or Prairie Style of Architecture exemplified by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and in the related work of Chicago landscape architects, notably Jens Jensen, who became a close friend and ally.
Miller used his University position and Experiment Station Circulars to promulgate his Illinois or Prairie Style of landscape design. He saw in the natural landscape of the prairie an embodiment of the progressive political ideals and democratic values he held dear. The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, his 1915 circular, was the culmination of his marriage of an ideal prairie ethos with cultivated landscape.
Profusely illustrated and beautifully designed, the treatise lays out Miller's three main principles of the Prairie Style: 1) Conservation of native scenery, 2) restoration of local vegetation, and 3) repetition of the dominant line–the horizon. Prairie Spirit is Miller's direct appeal to the people of Illinois to participate in the new Prairie Style for both horticultural and civic reasons. His quirky pledges ending each chapter (with check off boxes for such items as "We will have a prairie garden, miniature prairie or prairie border" and "We will restore native vegetation to our city lot. . .") invite the reader to join Miller in transforming landscape design.
The volume ends with an extensive list of native plant materials foruse in a variety of landscape conditions. Always an advocate of natives, Miller's distain for "exotic," showy, Eastern plants are evident throughout his writing. And his democratic progressive ideals shine at the close of the book with "The Illinois Citizen's Oath":

The Prairie Style of Miller, Jensen, and others fell out of favor for decades and Americans in the Midwest planted the same cookie cutter landscape at their urban and suburban residences landscape architects did no better for public and commercial spaces. In recent years however, the principals espoused by Miller have taken hold again. A tUNL, beginning around 1980 with a permanent landscape architect position, the Prairie Spirit acted as a basic design premise. Massplanting, a less formal approach to green spaces, and extensive use of native plant material–including grasses–all now grace our campuses.
For people interested in the history of landscape design and the Prairie School as well as anyone who gardens at all, The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening is a must have.


Sally Wosowski. Photography by Andy Wosowski. Gardening With Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

As homeowners gravitate toward native plants and bringing the prairie into their backyards, a number of books have seen publication addressing this trend. The best I've seen is Sally Wosowski's Gardening With Prairie Plants. For the novice gardener or the experienced designer this is a complete book. Wosowski's long time passion for natives, coupled with her husband's sumptuous photographs provides the reader with all the inspiration they need to explore the world of prairie gardening.

In Part I, Wosowski provides a comprehensive background to gardening with native plants by backing up and taking a look at just what a prairie is. She writes about what she calls the "anatomy of a prairie,"that is, how a prairie is built–from Weaver's root layer up to the tallest grasses. She also examines "shapers of the prairie": wind, fire, grazing mammals, and burrowing animals. We are led through examples of existing home and public prairie gardens with easy to read planting plans and photographs. Wosowski also teaches the reader how to use preserved and replicated prairies as models for their own designs.

Part II is a thorough look at designing, installing and maintaining prairie gardens. Again, Wosowski presents text, designs, and photographs to address the needs of different types of gardens: wet sites, those used for food and medicine, birds thickets and savannahs, a nectar garden, and others. "Installation" will teach you everything from enriching the soil and preparing the seed bed to seed collection,plugs, and transplants. Weed control, burning, and other topics are covered in the maintenance section.

Many gardening books include some sort of encyclopedia of plants.Wosowski calls hers "plant profiles" and they cover hundreds of species divided into grasses, sedges, and rushes; cool season forbs; warm season forbs; and savanna trees and thicket shrubs. There are charts delineating what sort of prairie each plant is native to, maps showing growing range, a short bit of text, and photographs that really show what the plant looks like. The volume also has a glossary of terms anda good list of resources for prairie gardeners.

Sally and Andy Wosowski have created a book that will allow even the novice to feel comfortable undertaking a native plant installation and, at the same time, provides a stunning resource for the more experienced horticulturalist. As Floyd Smith of the Morton Arboretum has written,"This book will be an anchor for prairie enthusiasts for years to come.