"Gardening for Dummies 2nd Edition," MacCaskey, Marken, et. al.

Pros: Lots and lots of helpful information in non-threatening form
Cons: Light on plant details; lacks depth in a few areas
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 5/7/2003

As anyone who knows me can attest to by now, when I take on a new hobby I go a little crazy. I decided to take up gardening, and this doesn’t mean that I potted a couple of plants or dug up a few square feet of yard for carrots. No, I’ve planted 3 raspberry canes, 25 strawberry plants, radishes, lettuce of three kinds, beets, chard, cucumbers, various herbs, and broccoli–and I still have a bunch of squash, carrots, and three blueberry bushes to deal with. Not to mention those six baby lilac bushes I’m using to fill out the gaps in our hedge row, and a pack of dark purple pansies I bought on the spur of the moment. I’ve been digging up the yard for weeks now, literally.

Of course I realize that I don’t know nearly enough about gardening to make this work on my own, so I picked up a bunch of cheap gardening books at Half.com. I’ve already reviewed two; “Gardening for Dummies 2nd Edition,” by Michael MacCaskey, Bill Marken, and the Editors of the National Gardening Association, is my latest read. And so far, my favorite.

I have mixed feelings about the “for Dummies” series as a whole. Some of the ones I’ve read have been absolutely terrible; a couple have been so-so; and a very few have been absolutely fantastic. Thankfully this one falls smack into the “absolutely fantastic” range.

What it covers

This book assumes that you start out knowing nothing, but that doesn’t mean it gets condescending or fails to be helpful to anyone but a complete beginner. It hits the right happy medium of chugging along without losing you, and keeping things simple without keeping them boring and annoying. There are also plenty of illustrations and diagrams to help you out, as well as a few fun sets of color photo pages.

Part I: Getting Going with Gardening covers some basics–climate and microclimate, sun and shade, soil and water, plant hardiness, hardiness zone maps, heat-zone maps, growing season lengths, stretching your growing season and maximizing winter hardiness, and planning & designing your landscape (including tips on using your space effectively, remembering to take into account who uses your yard and why, and designing around what you already have).

Part II: Color Your World goes into plenty of detail on the plants and flowers you might want to work with, including an entire chapter each on annuals, perennials, bulbs, and roses. Each chapter starts with the basics (“what is an annual?”), discusses how you can work with these plants in your garden (“designing a perennial border”), talks about planting and caring for these types of plants, and then lists a few of the authors’ favorite plants of each type.

Part III: Sculpting with Plants deals with trees, shrubs, lawns, ground covers, and vines. It even includes the use of trees to lower heating and cooling expenses, what shrubs can do for you, planting a lawn from various methods (seed, sod, or plugs and sprigs), the care and feeding of a lawn, using ground covers instead of lawns, where you can (and shouldn’t) use vines, different sorts of supports for vines, and more.

Part IV: At Ground Level deals with understanding and improving your soil. A lot of this material is very similar to that in the “New Complete Guide to Gardening,” but it goes into more detail. For instance, now I know that the hard barrier I seemed to hit when digging up part of our garden was a hardpan layer–a dense layer of compacted soil that often gets called plow pan because it can be caused by tillers, which cultivate the soil only to one consistent depth and put pressure on the soil beneath that depth. There’s plenty of information here on clearing a site for cultivation, understanding your soil (including a simple test to help you figure out how much sand, silt, and clay your soil is composed of), improving your soil, and loosening your soil. Then there’s information on raising plants from seed (almost as much as you’ll find in “Starting Seeds Indoors,” but not quite–for instance, it doesn’t detail quite as many germination options), and on choosing and planting seedlings, trees, and shrubs.

Part V: Caring for Your Plants handles watering, feeding, composting, pruning, propagating, pests, diseases, weeds, and tools. It has a great deal of information on fighting pests as non-invasively as possible, and on encouraging beneficial insects to live in your garden (I think I’m going to be planting a few additional plants this year thanks to that section).

Part VI: Special Gardens tackles vegetable gardens, hybrids and heirlooms, herbs, fruit, container gardens, gardens that attract beneficial critters (birds, bees, butterflies), and gardening in tight spaces.

Part VII: The Part of Tens presents ten quick projects (herb vinegars, cut flowers that last, drying flowers, flowering centerpieces, an Autumn harvest wreath, and more), and perfumed garden flowers (including flowers that smell nice at night and aromatic herbs).

Finally, Gardening Resources goes into books, magazines, and finding resources online, and Mail-Order Resources presents a number of reputable sources for bulbs, flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries, perennials, roses, tools and supplies, trees and shrubs, vines, water garden plants and supplies, and wildflowers. Obviously not all of the web addresses are going to be valid any more, but a decent web search should find most of them.

How Much Can It Help?

Thanks to this book I have a very good idea of what I want to buy with next year’s gardening budget, and what I still need to do this year (and when!). I know when to prune our lilacs and why I shouldn’t do it right now. I know which tools I should still get my hands on and what they’re good for. I have a much better sense of what I need to do in order to assure an edible crop from our garden this year and the next. I know how many different kinds of blueberry bush I should get in order to lengthen the harvest time. And, perhaps unfortunately, I can see just how much mulch and compost I should really get my hands on in order to rejuvenate our poor lilac hedge and those unhappy-looking trees we have!

There are two things you’ll get out of the “New Complete Guide to Gardening” that I can think of right now that I didn’t find in this book. One is that this book doesn’t have the long listings of individual plants with details on their needs–you’ll have to get a separate book for that. The other is that this book doesn’t have quite the detail on pruning that the other book had.

So far, if I had to tell an enthusiastic beginning gardener what they needed in order to get started, I’d say this: first read “Gardening for Dummies.” Then get a copy of the “New Complete Guide to Gardening” to fill in some of the other things you’ll need to know. Those two books cover most of the basics and a surprising number of details as well!

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