"The New Complete Guide to Gardening," Susan A. Roth

Pros: Information about EVERYTHING
Cons: Assumes a high level of dedication; some information out of date?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 4/24/2003

This year I’ve spontaneously taken up gardening. Okay, it isn’t quite as sudden as I make it sound. I’ve always loved plants, it’s just that I tended to kill them all (I have a notorious brown thumb), so I gave up on them years ago. Then two years ago we bought a house with 3/4 of an acre of land and a bunch of flowers and bushes that we didn’t know what to do with. A friend of mine visited and started landscaping–our irises are now properly spread out, and on the spur of the moment we got baby lilac bushes last year to fill in the empty spots in our huge lilac hedge row.

Add in the fact that our next door neighbor has some serious vegetable gardening mojo, and invited us to scrounge through her garden as desired last summer (yum!). She told me that she, too, used to have a brown thumb, and that it can be overcome. To make things even more difficult, I’ve been talking to some friends who garden, and their enthusiasm for gardening is infectious.

After all of this my will was broken. I had to garden. I was going to wait until 2004, but things got stressful, and I decided that gardening would make good therapy as long as I could keep it inexpensive. A walk to the local Agway netted a bunch of cheap seeds, some peat pellets, and plastic trays. (And in a fit of imprudence, a Gurney’s order netted a promise of three blueberry bushes, a raspberry bush, and 25 strawberry plants.) But I had no idea what to do next–my father used to be a serious vegetable gardener, and my mother did the potted plant thing, but it’s hard to remember back that far. Memory is good for some general stuff, but not for the specifics of when to prune lilacs or where to plant the radishes.

So I did what I always do when faced with a new area of interest–I went book-buying. I ended up with a small handful of books, and the first to arrive was the Better Homes and Gardens “New Complete Guide to Gardening” by Susan A. Roth.

Complete Guide

When it calls itself the “complete guide,” it isn’t kidding. Chapter 1 is 60 pages of “developing the right landscape plan.” Not my cup of tea, but it’s still neat stuff. You can find out how to use roses in your landscape (complete with a chart of “companion plants for roses” and one of “favorite fragrant roses”). There’s a section on combining plants effectively (taking into account size, shape, texture, density and “visual weight”, leaf color, flower color, color of berries and bark). You can design with color, find out how to best use annuals, bulbs, or edible plants in your landscape, and so on.

Chapter 2 deals with solving landscape challenges. You can create a welcoming front entrance or a decorative driveway, make the most of a backyard, create some privacy for yourself, landscape for climate control, and so on.

Chapter 3 covers trees and shrubs. In 114 pages you’ll not only learn a lot of general tips (now I know why the rhododendron looks all brown after this winter, how to best plant trees and shrubs, and how to prune our lilac hedge. I also have a good idea of why the pear and apple trees we inherited are in such bad shape), but you’ll find several handy “encyclopedias”: one for deciduous trees, one for deciduous shrubs, and one for evergreen trees & shrubs. The encyclopedia entries include general information on each tree, what sort of site you should plant it on, how you grow the tree, and some basic information on various cultivars available.

Chapter 4 covers vines and groundcovers. Again, the book deals with both general tips (how vines climb, how to train vines, the climbing methods of various vines, controlling & supporting vines) and a vines and groundcovers encyclopedia.

Chapter 5 deals entirely with roses. There’s plenty of information on the care and feeding of roses, the planting of roses, the pruning of roses, and so on, as well as the by-now-familiar encyclopedia. I know lots of people love rose bushes, but we’ve come to call the two bushes we found on our property “satanic rose bushes.” They have insanely vicious spines, their runners try to take over the entire yard, and they really aren’t all that pretty. The aforementioned visiting friend ripped them both out last week, so now we’re going to replace them with fruit bushes!

Chapter 6 covers perennials, ornamental grasses, and ferns, while chapter 7 covers annuals. Note that this means perennial and annual flowers for the most part–vegetables, herbs, and fruit plants come later. Chapter 8 deals with bulbs, and finally chapter 9 starts off the edibles section with fruit and nuts (if you aren’t a big tree and flower gardener then try to find this book cheap, because that covers most of the content). Chapter 10 deals with vegetables (there’s even a chart of vegetables for shady places, and tips on harvesting and storing your vegetables), and chapter 11 delves into the wonder of herbs.

Chapter 12 introduces soil building, planting, and propagating, starting on page 506. This is where things really get interesting, at least to me. This chapter goes deep into soil texture and structure, nutrients, and pH. There’s plenty of information on the role of organic matter in your soil, types of fertilizer, how you can tell whether your soil is nutrient-rich or nutrient-poor by the types of weeds you have or the ways in which your plants grow poorly, and so on. There’s an entire two-page chart on various fertilizers, lots of tips on turning lawn into soil, and a two-page spread on composting that finally convinced me I could give it a try. There’s a full page chart on mulch choices and tips on buying and propagating plants.

There’s a chapter on garden tools and maintenance, and one on starting and maintaining lawns. (Now I think I know why our lawn really sucks in certain places.) You’ll also find hardiness zone and approximate frost date maps for the United States.

Out of date information?

My one worry is how out of date the information is. True, the book is copyrighted in 1997, which isn’t all that long ago. But their information on when which vegetables should be sown is very different, in many cases, than that on the packets of seeds I bought. Maybe it’s just that lots of new varieties of plants have been developed since this book came out. But in that case, a lot of the information in the “encyclopedia” portions of this book might not be entirely useful. And with every passing year it presumably becomes a little less useful.

Nice Details

There are a gazillion color photos, diagrams, and drawings. This book is very thorough and attractive. The writing is clear and straightforward–it’s easy to follow. There’s even a very long and thorough index to help you find what you’re looking for.


This book is really meant for the serious gardener. For instance, throughout the book you’ll find plenty of suggestions to get your soil tested by a soil lab before picking a fertilizer. I don’t know many casual gardeners who would want to find a soil lab, go to the trouble of collecting a good soil sample following the instructions in this book, and then specially-mix fertilizers based on that lab test! It isn’t until nearly the end of the book that, on one page, they finally admit that you don’t need to do this, and that you could instead give your garden a few years and only test areas that perform poorly year after year despite fertilizers and introduction of organic matter into the soil. Similarly, there are other places where their instructions can seem pretty daunting to someone who just wants to grow a few veggies or flowers.

Their lists of pests and plant diseases are also enough to almost make me want to throw in the towel. I had to remind myself that just because I don’t follow every last instruction about row covers and such doesn’t necessarily mean that every last plant will be devoured by pests. You’d need to have a bit of a budget in order to buy everything they say you should use.

For the serious gardener, however, who has that budget and has the time and effort to put preventative measures into place for all the pests and diseases out there, this is the perfect book. And even for people like me it’s remarkably helpful, as long as I remind myself that just because I don’t follow every last suggestion doesn’t mean that my garden will fail!

Consider my rating to be 4.5 stars. Whether this book is “perfect” or not is somewhat dependent on how dedicated a gardener you are.

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