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Book Review of: The All-New Illustrated Guide to Gardening

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Review of The All New Illustrated Guide to Gardening, Reader's Digest, by Trevor Cole Fern Marshall Bradley (Hardcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This visually stunning book weighs about five pounds. Its 557 pages contain over 2,500 full-color photos, over 200 tables, and over 800 diagrams. Even the inside cover is a two-page spread color graphic. The plant directory covers over 700 plants.

I come from a family of gardeners, and have been gardening all of my life. I've grown some pretty impressive produce, using organic methods. And yet, I found myself learning new things as I read The All New Illustrated Guide to Gardening.

This book defines "garden" to include the yard and general landscaping of a home, rather than just the vegetable garden out back. So it also addresses how to have a healthy lawn, keep trees strong, obtain the best shade, provide shelter for birds, and create peaceful areas within even a small back yard. And how to do all of that in a manner that is sustainable and affordable.

This book consists of twenty-seven chapters, each of which addresses a specific type of plant (except there are two topical chapters). It has an introduction and an extensive index. The two topical chapters "book end" the other chapters, and are:

  • Planning your garden.
  • Lawns and ground covers.

The chapters on plant types include:

  • Lawns and ground covers.
  • Ones on various types of flowers. For example, there are chapters on irises, peonies, and roses.
  • Ferns.
  • Bushes.
  • Trees.
  • Shrubs and vines.
  • Fruits.
  • Vegetables.
  • Herbs.

The book has a big yellow "sticker" looking graphic on its cover. The "sticker" says, "Now All Organic" and that may put some people off. There is nothing weird about organic gardening. Most people use a mix of organic methods and chemical gardening. While you often get faster results from chemical gardening, you do not get better results.

Organic gardening has several benefits:

  • Food smells and tastes better. There simply is no comparison. My organic tomatoes and peppers are bigger, darker, more aromatic, and tastier than those of chemical gardeners in this same locale. My plants are bigger, also.
  • Food is better. It's got more nutrients and fewer toxins than chemically grown food.
  • It's sustainable. Chemical gardening destroys the soil, creating dependency and then ultimately failure. Organic methods build the soil.
  • It costs less money out of pocket. Sure, you are going to do more work than simply spraying chemicals on your garden. But you don't have to buy those chemicals in the first place.
  • It's earth-friendly. You recycle kitchen scraps and yard waste, thereby reducing landfill requirements. If you need to use pesticides or fungicides, the recommended ones break down quickly and thus don't load our streams and soil with long-lasting chemicals.
  • It's harmonious. Animals love an organic garden. Each spring, robins perch on my garden borders while I work the soil. They sing to me, as I dig up the worms they love to eat. Many kinds of birds visit my garden, eating many kinds of pests while there. Toads perch under the kale leaves, and consume massive numbers of insect pests. I have a clover patch for a rabbit that lives in an evergreen in my backyard (for some reason, the robins keep the rabbit out of the vegetable garden). Bees visit me while I am tending my basil, and alight on my arms (they never sting, as I give them no reason to). Who needs a prescription tranquilizer, when you have this kind of peace and harmony?

Even when you follow organic gardening methods, you do have problems--up to, and including, crop failure. That's a risk you take. The information in this book helps reduce the risk. For example, you prepare the soil properly, plant a variety of crops (if one fails, you have others), rotate crops, watch for problems and catch them early, and so forth.

With organic methods, you don't try for perfection. You reduce risk factors and thus bring problems down to a tolerable level. In so doing, you eliminate the "cure is worse than the disease" problem that inflicts so many chemical-dependent gardeners. This book reminded me of my own laxity in practicing crop rotation. It's something I need to improve on ("It's the rotation, stupid.").

Planning, prevention, and focused attention are the "secrets" to successful organic gardening. These prevent you from needing to throw chemicals at a problem that shouldn't have occurred in the first place. Follow the practices recommended in this book, and the garden just about takes care of itself. In the event it doesn't, this book provides a wealth of advice on remediation.

Even if you already enjoy success as an organic gardener, you will no doubt find much value in this book. And, you could use it to teach people who ask why your flowers are so bright or your tomatoes taste so good.

Another benefit of reading a book like this is that understanding this information can help when you seek professional advice. When I visit my garden shop with a problem, the fact that I am generally following recommended practices means something to the experts. (I suppose it doesn't hurt to give a 9 lb honeydew melon to the resident expert, either....). When you don't grasp the fundamentals, it's discouraging to those who could help you. This book clearly explains the fundamentals, and then takes you beyond them.

For a book of this size, there are surprisingly few editing errors. The writing was clear, requiring no mental gymnastics to understand what was being said. Typos are almost nonexistent, and the grammar is correct throughout. I have found correct grammar to be the exception, not the rule, in publishing today--kudos to those who care enough about readers to respect our language.

The All New Illustrated Guide to Gardening should be on every serious gardener's bookshelf or coffee table. Read it through once as a tutorial, and refer to it often. Its organization and arrangement make it easy to find answers to just about any gardening problem. Reviewing the applicable sections in winter before planning spring gardening activities is also a wise investment of time.

The one sad thing about this book is it's so useful that you're going to end up leaving its beautiful pages soiled and dog-eared. At least, I know that's what'll happen with my copy. Whether you want a great coffee table book or a practical guide to healthy gardening practices, this book is for you.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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