Book reviews and recommendations for gardeners

Book reviews and recommendations

These are most of the books I have reviewed in my blog and that I recommend gardeners read.  All of them can be purchased on Amazon and at other on line sites and most of them in old fashioned book stores too. Some may even be at your library.

Book Review- Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration

By Tao Orion, Chelsea Green Publishing (June 17, 2015)


Those of you who have read some of my previous newsletters know that I have a different take on invasive plants than many other garden writers.  I have done a lot of research on the subject.  Another person who has done a lot of research is the author of this book, Tao Orion. 

Did you know that one of biggest users of potent pesticides in our environment is the invasive plant movement?  Restoration projects across the US pour on the pesticides, often donated to them from big pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto and Bayer, in an effort to eliminate unwanted non-native plants.  Sometimes they “nuke” entire ecosystems to start over, with plants they feel belong in a certain environment.  Some of the biggest donators to native plant associations and invasive species removal councils are those big chemical companies.  Makes you wonder.

Did you know that because of modern DNA research that we are finding that many plants we thought were native really aren’t native?  They were brought with the first peoples migrating into the country or spread by trade from later settlements in South and Central America or maybe spread by animals, thousands of years  before European settlement.  So what is a native species and why is it better?

And did you know that those early civilizations in North America often drastically modified the environments they lived in?  Many of us think that before Europeans arrived indigenous peoples lived very lightly on the land, not interfering in ecosystems or changing the environments they lived in.  But what many people don’t realize is that before Europeans arrived, bringing their diseases with them, there were large colonies of people, thousands of people in some settlements, spread across North America.  These people farmed large areas of land and managed hunting and gathering to their advantage to support these large populations. 

First people burned grasslands, removed trees, mined for minerals, planted crops, built villages and roads, and yes, brought in many species of plants through trade between the continents of the new world.  Archaeology supports these conclusions.

But when early European explorers began to travel through North and South America, noting the large villages, prosperous farms and abundant game, they brought with them diseases like measles, small pox and the flu, which spread and killed thousands of people.   Great cities and croplands were soon abandoned. Populations vastly declined.  A 150 or so years later when European settlers began to spread from the Eastern coast line they thought they found untouched land, and native wilderness where once large populations of native peoples had lived and indeed, changed the landscape.

The author believes that what we hold as sacred, untouched wilderness is actually not.  She believes that when an environment changes, when non-native plants and animals gain a foothold and seem to overpower native species, there is generally a reason and before we try and restore an area to its “native” state we ought to think carefully about why the changes are happening.  What is different about the environment?  And do we really know the native state? Pre-European doesn’t mean much.

As the old saying goes nature abhors a vacuum.  Nature is not static and is constantly changing.  We ought to work with nature and not against it.  If it takes extensive “gardening” i.e. removal of species, cutting, burning, and use of harmful chemicals to keep an area “natural” then we are overlooking something and interfering with nature, working against it.  As the climate changes we will need to keep this in mind if we want to have vibrant, working ecologies.

Tao Orion teaches permaculture design at Oregon State University and at Aprovecho, a 40-acre nonprofit sustainable-living educational organization. She holds a degree in agroecology and sustainable agriculture from UC Santa Cruz, and Columbines School of Botanical Studies in Eugene, Oregon.  She has worked in the “restorative” field and in permaculture systems. She would like to see us integrate organic agriculture, sustainable land-use planning, ethnobotany, and ecosystem restoration to create beneficial social, economic, and ecological systems. 

The book is carefully researched and provides references and statistics.  It’s easy to read and will provide the reader with valuable insights and perhaps change their mind a bit about the wisdom of battling invasive species in the way we have been doing.  I highly suggest anyone who cares about the planet read this book.


Book review- Lab Girl- by Hope Jahren-released April, 2016

Hope Jahren was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and she has received many scientific awards.  This is the true memoir of her life, from her Minnesota childhood as the daughter of a dedicated scientist to her life as a respected researcher, now living and working in Hawaii.  Ms Jahren studies botany and earth sciences. Her writing is humorous, fascinating and poignant.  The book will satisfy those who like reading about plants, how our science is conducted today, women who overcome odds and fascinating relationships between people.

The book is a blend of fascinating botanical tidbits scattered through the author’s tales of finding funding to carry on her experimental work, her odd expeditions and experiments, her work as a college professor, and fighting her personal demon of a manic-depressive disorder.

It’s also a story about Bill, her long time lab partner and their odd fraternal relationship.  Bill, like Hope, has some personality disorders that make it hard for him to fit in.  While Hope marries and has a child and a somewhat normal life Bill floats in a world of his own, a man who seems to live for science, yet is unable to connect with most people.  Hope protects him and provides his income as they move from place to place, he’s her faithful sidekick and you’ll feel a little sad for him.  In the jargon of botany, they have a symbiotic arrangement.

I strongly recommend this book as a good summer read.  Learn about people as well as plants from this story.  It’s beautifully written and won’t disappoint.


Book review: Braiding Sweetgrass; indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants- by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a delightful book that blends Native American storytelling and plant lore with the author’s scientific knowledge as a professor of botany.  The story wanders from plant to plant and place to place following the author’s life and experiences but it’s all fascinating as well as educational. 

Ms. Kimmerer regards plants with a great deal of respect, much as her Native American ancestors did. She shares her understanding of how life is connected and her attempts to give her students an understanding of this and how people are connected to the land.  There are fascinating tidbits of botanical knowledge, both old and new, woven into sacred stories of the author’s ancestors.  Sweetgrass is one of the four sacred plants of Native Americans and a phrase about it starts each chapter. 

The book is soothing, uplifting, and insightful and will inspire you to get out and explore nature and learn more about plants.  It may also inspire you to search out more information on your ancestors and what connections they had with nature and the land. 


Book Review- Fastest Things on Wings- Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood by Terry Masear- Published June 2015- $16.95 print edition, $11.95 kindle edition.

I loved this book about a woman who rescues hummingbirds in California.  She spends 4 months a year feeding baby hummingbirds every 30 minutes, healing adults and releasing them and rescuing trapped hummingbirds.  California has 4 types of hummingbirds and she handles hundreds of hummers in her rehab center every summer.  Here in Michigan with our 1 species of hummingbird rehab places rarely get 50 birds in a season.

The book was an enjoyable, easy read. You’ll learn a lot about these tiny birds.  What it takes to rehab hummers will amaze you and the efforts of a few people to care for these birds is truly heart-warming.  How Terry Masear finds time to write with her teaching career and work as a hummer rehabber in the summer is hard to imagine but the book is well worth reading. 


Book review-The Unexpected Houseplant –220 extraordinary choices for every spot in your home by Tovah Martin- 2012 ($3.03 amazon/kindle e-book until the end of the month)

This is a delightful read, not just a care primer for houseplants.  The author talks about her love for houseplants and all plants, her experiences with them, her charming older home and even her cat.  Ms. Martin has written numerous popular garden books and is a frequent article writer for popular garden magazines.

You may not find your houseplant in this book, many of the plants Martin describes are the unusual and eclectic houseplants, some of which I mentioned above.  The more common houseplants are left to other authors to worry over.  But when she’s through discussing her choices, you’ll want to run out and try to find some of them. 

She talks about the plant’s needs, how to display them, what type of container to grow them in, and many other things woven into a narrative story beginning from the best fall houseplants through summer and permanent houseplant residents.  Martin is an organic grower, so there are no plants discussed that require intensive pest control, although she lists what pests and problems a plant may have.  There is a summary of care requirements at the end of each section. And there’s a section devoted to houseplants that Martin doesn’t recommend.

This may not be the book for you if you are looking for basic houseplant care.  But if you are looking for houseplant inspiration this is it. When you get done reading this book you’ll know there is no excuse not to have houseplants.  I bought the kindle version; it’s on sale now for $3.03 until the end of the month.  Of course this version only has black and white photos.  The hard bound version has beautiful color photos but it will set you back a bit more money.  This book would make an excellent Christmas present for any gardener.


Seeds of Hope- a book review

Jane Goodall, of chimpanzee fame, has written a book about plants- Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants.  The first part of the book is quite a wonderful story of her childhood experiences with plants, about daring plant explorers of earlier times and wonderful awe inspiring facts about plants.  The second part of the book fades into a less than interesting rant about GM modified foods and modern farming practices.   While I agree with some of what she talks about she presents nothing new in this part and lots of old, discredited science as well. 

The book is not without controversy, there were many charges of plagiarism when the book was first published and it had to be withdrawn and republished with 50 some pages of foot notes.    Goodall is 80 years old and passionate about saving the environment and I suppose some lee-way can be given for her less than scientific or accurate “facts” and her carefully picking only studies and opinions that support her views.  To be fair, Goodall is not an expert on plants.  But I also found that she had some inaccurate historical dates, misinformation about farming practices and other little errors that to me indicate too much reverence of the author for the editors to do a good editorial review of the book. 

Still, I would recommend reading the book, if just for the first half of the book, which is quite enjoyable.  It’s still a bit expensive; especially print editions, so you may want to wait a few months when the price will probably come down.  It’s available on Amazon and through many bookstores.


Wicked Plants, the Weed That Killed Lincolns Mother by Amy Stewart

This is an excellent book about the poisonous and dangerous plants that surround us and that have been used by man for thousands of years.  Read about strychnine, oleander, rosary pea, peyote, deadly nightshade, hemlock, coca, opium, death camas and some 200 toxic plants.  Tales of botanical crimes and intrigue are sprinkled through the book.  It’s written in a charming manner that will make you want to sit and read the book at one sitting.


The Drunken Botanist, also by Amy Stewart

This one is about all the plants that make the alcoholic beverages man has been enjoying since the beginning of time.  Without plants the liquor counter at the local store would be empty.  Stewart explores the grains, fruits, vegetables and herbs that make up common and uncommon alcoholic drinks.  And for those of you who like to experiment with alcoholic beverages she sprinkles recipes for unusual cocktails and mixed drinks through the book.

If you don’t know what absinthe is made from or what a marasca cherry (not maraschino) is then this book is a fascinating read.  Both of these books are packed full of odd and unusual things you didn’t know about plants.  Amy Stewart is a fascinating garden writer and also writes Garden Rants- a popular garden blog.


Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden published in 1918 by Gilbert L. Wilson

I was searching for a book on line when I came across this book.  Wilson was pursuing a doctorate in anthropological studies at the University of Minnesota and decided that for his thesis he would study the agricultural practices of the Mandan-Hidatsa Native American culture.  Wilson had already been a missionary among the tribes and had collected historical artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History.

Wilson chose for his study to interview a 75 year old Hidatsa woman, Maxi’diwiac or in English, Buffalo Bird Woman, who had always been a gardener/farmer for her family. Her son was Wilson’s interpreter and also contributed some drawings to illustrate points of his mother’s conversation.  The interview was conducted over several years.  When Wilson’s book was first published it was called Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, An Indian Interpretation.

Wilson faithfully recorded Buffalo Bird Woman’s recollections, using her words as well as they could be interpreted and for an older book it is easy to read and quite fascinating.  It is written in the story telling mode that many Native Americans find easy to use, but it is all factual information.  Buffalo Bird Woman is careful to remind readers that this is how her family and she herself did things and sometimes mentions how other families differed from hers.

The Hidatsa tribe Buffalo Bird Woman belonged to lived at the headwaters of the Missouri river in the Minnesota-North Dakota area.  The Hidatsa tribe’s agricultural practices were probably pretty typical of Northeastern Native Americans.  And in her early adulthood her tribe had little influence from white settlers.

When Wilson interviewed her in her 70’s Buffalo Bird Woman was still mentally sharp and physically active.  Her thoughts were well organized and she was very through in giving information.  She talks about each of the five crops they typically grew, corn, squash, beans, sunflowers and tobacco in great detail from preparing the ground, to how they selected good seed, to cultural practices to harvesting and even how they cooked the crops.

I found the agricultural knowledge the native people had to be amazing and I loved the humor and little insights into tribal relations that she included in her story.  Besides gardening she told how certain tools were made- such as how they made baskets from the scrotum of a buffalo.  The lifestyle was very rigorous for women, who did most of the gardening, and it was sobering how much time and effort went into growing and storing food in earlier times.  However Buffalo Bird Woman never complains about the work and seemed to enjoy gardening.

If you are interested in farming history or origins of American crops, or you enjoy reading about Native American customs this book will give you much enjoyment.  It includes some photos from the early 1900’s and drawings.  I bought mine as an e-edition on Amazon ($2.99) but I understand a hard copy is available.  It’s pretty inexpensive.


What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz

This is a book on plant senses. One example is that while plants don’t have eyes they do have photoreceptors similar to those in animal eyes.  One type of receptor is located in the tips of shoots and tells the plant to grow toward light.  There are different types of light receptors in leaves that measure the length of light- how long the day is.  The day length determines many plant processes, such as flower initiation.  Only one leaf exposed to light can relay that information to the plant.  For parts of the plant to send information to other parts of the plant implies a “nervous system” and some sort of conscious “control”. 

I used to joke that vegetarians were worse than meat eaters because they ate defenseless creatures alive. (A carrot is alive until you cook it.)  What will it mean to vegetarians if we find out that plants actually feel fear and pain, if even in a primitive sense? Even seeds are tiny plant embryos and they are alive.  There are some intriguing hints that this may be so.  A fascinating book well worth reading.


Essential Perennials by Ruth Rogers and Thomas Christopher

This book was published January 2015 by Timber Press and is an updated look at 2700 garden perennials in alphabetical order, some 452 pages of them.

The authors give short growing details, suggested plant combinations, their own observations on the plant and other tips. There is updated info on name changes and new cultivars. Lots of color photos in the hard cover, my kindle reader only showed them in black and white but some ebook readers probably show them in color.  If you don’t have a modern perennial guide this one is a great book to have.


The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation-  by Fred Pearce

This new book explores why we need to think differently about invasive species.  If you have always been a bit skeptical of the scare mongering done by many organizations and “experts”  this book will confirm your suspicions that much of the hoopla around invasive species is not justified.  And if you are one of those native plant Nazi’s you need to read this book with an open mind.  And if you know a plant Nazi buy them this book!

Nature knows more than we do about what species should grow where and it’s time we start respecting that.  Invasive species are what drives change, adaptation and the evolution of new species in the environment, all vital for continuing life on this planet.  It’s not man’s place to decide what’s native, what’s invasive and what species are right for any environment.  Invasive plants have helped the environment much more than they have harmed it. Why worry what trees make up the forest as long as there is a forest? 

This book should be read by every gardener as well as every conservationist so that you have a balanced perspective on the natural world.


The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson

This book is a fascinating look at seeds and their adaptations for survival.  It’s a well written, easy to read book even though the author rambles a bit with personal stories. It’s written with a bit of humor even as it explores scientific details and most gardeners will find it pleasurable reading as they gain a lot of information.

Many people are unaware of how important seeds are to life on earth and how they shaped our civilization.  If you like reading fascinating facts about nature and our relationship with it this book should be on your reading list and it makes a great gift too.


Glorious Histories: Tales from the Traditional Kitchen Garden by David Stuart

At the cost of only $3 every food crop gardener should buy this book in its ebook format because you will find some new and interesting information on a very broad number of crops, some of which I have to admit, I had never heard of before. The book has tips on how to harvest/ cook/prepare each crop and some recipes are given.  This is an English writer and some of the information given seemed skewed a bit toward European experiences and customs but that of course can't be helped. But for the price this book is an excellent reference if you need a brief history of a food crop. (This book does not cover medicinal plants except that when a food plant also had some medicinal uses they were briefly mentioned. People who are looking for herbal medicine information won't find it here.)

This seems a labor of love by the author.  I like that the author can relate personal experiences with even some obscure crops. It’s well edited for an ebook and you won’t find the annoying spelling and grammar mistakes many ebooks contain. There are pictures and illustrations with every crop mentioned.  It might be hard to give an ebook as a gift - and I don’t see it listed in any other format- but it’s worth buying for yourself.


Raising Chickens for Dummies 2nd edition- Kimberley Willis

Fair warning- I’m the author of this book and it’s not about plants, it’s about the next best thing- chickens.  Every gardener wants chickens; they are the perfect re-cyclers and provide lots of manure for building good soil.  And as living garden art they can’t be beat.

If I do say so myself this book is a very complete and detailed reference for beginning chicken owners or even those who have had chickens for a while.  And it’s written in an easy to read, slightly humorous format I’m sure you will enjoy.  In fact you’ll enjoy reading this book even if you don’t have chickens.

Raising Chickens for Dummies covers everything from baby chick care to collecting your own eggs to butchering your own meat.  Learn which chickens make good pets or great layers. Learn how to build a coop and what to feed your chickens.  Learn how to protect your chickens from disease and predators.  And the new edition actually has color photo’s.


If you or someone you know wants chickens for Christmas- (don’t laugh – chicken keeping is actually a popular trend and people are asking for chickens and related items for Christmas) - then this is the book you need.

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