The Perennial Care Manual

  • Post published:09/30/2009
  • Post comments:1 Comment

The pace is slightly more relaxed, but the fall season can be just as busy for gardeners as the spring season.  Many of the same tasks are required, clean up, soil building, compost building, and planting.

            In the autumn, all gardeners, both novice and experienced, have another chance to launch the next attempt to improve their gardens.  For flower gardeners this means a comprehensive new guide to perennial care might be in order.

            With The Perennial Care Manual ( Storey Publishing) Nancy J. Ondra has given us A Plant by Plant Guide: What to Do and When to Do It. The first half gives general information that is useful across the garden, the second is devoted to advice for 125 plants in particular.

            Ondra’s own experiences in the garden are wide and deep. She has a Bachelor’s degree, not in gardening exactly, but in Agronomy and Environmental Science. This indicates the focused and scientific mind she brings to her subject; her passion and aesthetic sense are clear in the books she has written about her experience with plants including the 2008 award winner Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers.

            The Perennial Care Manual, Ondra’s twelfth book, is stunningly illustrated with beautiful, clear and useful photographs by Rob Cardillo, who also did the photographs for Fallscaping: Extending your garden season into fall  that Ondra wrote with Stephanie Cohen.

            When I got my copy I instantly looked up epimediums in the excellent index. I have a patch of Epimedium rubrum, planted as a ground cover. In spite of my original fear that my climate was too harsh, and that I had little shade, this variety has done very well. It has needed dividing, but enough of my first fear about its tenderness and fussiness remained that I had put it off. And besides, when would I do it? It stays green all winter.

            Ondra gave advice about dividing epimedium, spring or fall.  Just like it was any other perennial!  How could I get myself so worked up about the difficulties? Ondra’s straightforward directions are very calming.

            There are many varieties of epimedium. Epimedium rubra is perhaps the hardiest and easiest to grow. I bought mine at Blue Meadow Nursery in Montague not long before they closed.  Since then, I feel that I have graduated to Zone 5 because Heath winter temperatures very rarely go below minus 20 degrees anymore.

Manuals are not usually books that you sit down and read cover to cover. Still, Ondra’s friendly style is an invitation to start the conversation at the beginning. She reminds us that we all have our own gardening style, enjoying some chores, and avoiding others which means that for a garden we will continue to enjoy we should take these into consideration when choosing a site and plants.

When a gardener wonders what to plant where, and with which companions Ondra says it all depends – on your soil, the site, and the needs and habits of each plant. In the second half of the book she gives the requirements of each plant so that you can match those up with your own site. A key to success in the garden is putting the right plant in the right spot.

            Ondra helps new gardeners to choose plants that are easy and dependable, and warns us all about problem plants, those that self sow all over the place, and even worse, invasive varieties, some of which are sold at nursery centers.  A little knowledge can provide a lot of protection.

            Bits of useful information are scattered throughout the book in sidebars and captions. I was glad to see that she warned gardeners about throwing rooted weeds into the compost pile where they might be happy and take hold.  I learned the hard way, and now I throw my weeded and rooted tansy, quack grass, and mint onto the brush pile where they will eventually be burned.

            Ondra also advises including a nursery or holding bed in the garden. This can be used for very small seedlings from nurseries or plant swaps, or for those impulse purchases.  I cannot count the times I have come home with a plant I couldn’t resist and then stuck it in the garden any old where I could fit it. Never a good idea.  I suspect this is why no one has admired my sense of garden design, and why I have more work than is strictly necessary.

            Gardeners will find useful information on every single page of this beautiful book, whether your questions are about planting, dividing, staking, pruning, mulching, composting or propagating.

            The book is organized so that you can find any specific piece of advice you need easily. The table of contents and the index quickly lead you to needed information whether it is dealing with pests, diseases and weeds, or fall and winter care for delphiniums.

            Fall is a good time for planting. We can take divisions of our own plants. We can get bargains at the nursery. If you get a nursery bargain check the roots which may be pot bound and be sure to loosen them well before planting. Ondra and I both advise that plants be kept well watered while they are settling into their new home.

            To see what Nancy Ondra does in her own garden through the seasons you can logon to her blog 


    Between the Rows  October 5, 2009       

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Pol48

    It seems positively Dickensian now. ,

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