We gardeners love to read gardening books, because no matter how experienced we are, we can always learn something new. Every season a spate of colorful books comes forth, and the trend seems to be toward beautiful illustrations even while narrowing in on specific subjects. Which leads me to do a 180-degree turn and extol a thorough but simple, seven year-old gardening guide which is clear, succinct and very readable: you can’t go wrong, and will learn a wealth of information, from The Vermont Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Gardening in the Green Mountain State by Henry Homeyer. Whether you want to plant a sugar maple, a pot of petunias or a bed of zucchini, Homeyer will help with practical advice. He is the author of four gardening books and has been a gardening commentator for Vermont Public Radio as well as a gardening columnist for 12 New England newspapers. He lives in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, has been an organic gardener for some 60 years and has taught college- level organic and sustainable gardening. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about. The book begins with advice on the basics: soil, growing seasons (location and hardiness) and water. No matter what your horticultural interests, if you don’t pay attention to these most important elements you’ll be in trouble! The chapter on soil describes types of soil-sandy, silty, loamy and clayey – and the various nutrients in different soils and their importance. He explains how to test and improve them, if needed. Early on, every gardener learns the term “hardiness zones.” This means that most plants won’t grow everywhere, which is why, for instance, we don’t try to grow date palms here in Vermont and we pot our rosemary plants and bring them inside for the winter. Homeyer discusses weather variables, shade and sun, gardening on hilly and level locations, the use of hot boxes, cold frames and greenhouses to extend the growing season. He doesn’t write in jargon and he explains all the terms he uses. In fact, he supplies a comprehensive glossary at the end of the book.
Starting with Basics
The major part of this guide is divided into chapters on vegetables, annual flowers, perennial flowers and bulbs, trees and shrubs, lawns and invasive plants. He starts with How to Start a Vegetable Patch From Scratch, with advice on size, location, garden layout, even how to remove sod if you are placing the garden in a spot that has previously been a lawn or meadow. This is a man who tells you the basics. If you are an experienced gardener, you may know them already and can just skip those pages, although there may be something you thought you knew but didn’t—or you’ll surprise yourself by learning a completely new fact or procedure. The chapters on vegetables and annual flowers offer excellent advice on starting seeds indoors and hardening off if you don’t want to purchase seedlings. The chapter on veggies lists planting tips by vegetable and Homeyer’s favorite varieties. He emphasizes preparation, which can solve problems before they begin. One good idea for vegetable gardeners is to prepare the beds in the fall. He advises pulling out dead plants and weeds, working in compost and hilling the soil. In the spring the soil will drain quickly and you can “sneak in” seeds for early plants, such as lettuce and spinach, often as much as a few weeks ahead of time. The chapter on annuals gives some of the same advice and also suggests varieties for different uses: for containers, cut flowers for the house, for fragrance and foliage, tender perennials to use in Vermont as annuals and plants to grow in the shade. In each chapter Homeyer provides boxes with special information. Here, he highlights which varieties to deadhead to make sure that the plant will produce flowers all season.
We use similar procedures for growing annual flowers as we do vegetables, but perennials and bulbs are different. Homeyer gives good advice for selecting and planting them, listing classics, including delphiniums, various types of lilies, the indestructible daylilies and peonies, which are among my favorites. But he also describes some lesser-known perennials for woodlands—great Solomon’s seal and Virginia bluebells for instance—and shade gardens—wild ginger, astilbe, lungwort, sweet woodruff. A helpful box explains how to figure the size of the hole you should dig when putting in a perennial plant.
Homeyer’s chapter on Coping with Pests and Diseases is full of sensible recommendations.
Homeyer devotes three pages to planting trees, including a box discussing When to plant a tree (spring or fall? Maybe either, and the arguments pro and con) and pruning instructions for trees and shrubs. He lists classic and lesser known trees and shrubs that like Vermont conditions and also native species important to birds: American elder, Canadian hemlock, highbush blueberry, staghorn sumac and white pine. This chapter includes a box on growing roses in Vermont and four hardy varieties that will withstand our climate and growing conditions.
I have a large lawn, but as long as there are no big brown patches, I really don’t care what’s growing in it; in fact, I love dandelions. Homeyer’s chapter on lawns gives sensible advice for those fussier than I am, including how to grow and maintain an organic lawn. But I did read the helpful section on lawn pests and diseases, and I found a lot of good advice, especially the box on Henry’s Magical Mole Mix. Even I hate those mole holes and the tunnels that run through the lawn!
The chapter on Invasive Plants is especially informative. He describes them as “…foreign, nonnative species that have become pests…Most invasive species have no natural predators here, so there are few natural mechanisms to keep their numbers in check.” Homeyer provides an extensive list of invasive plants prohibited from being sold, imported, cultivated or distributed in the state, created by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. These are plants that can overwhelm entire fields of more benign plants and include common buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife and many others. He advises eliminating them with mechanical controls, and if worse comes to worse, biological methods. He includes three popular landscape plants that are not on the Vermont list, but on the Watch List: Japanese barberry, burning bush and the Norway maple tree. Homeyer even provides a box showing you how to identifying the Norway maple and distinguish it from other maples.
Homeyer doesn’t write in jargon and he explains all the terms he uses.
His chapter on coping with pests and diseases is full of sensible recommendations for preventing plant diseases, identifying and treating them, as well as distinguishing the good bugs from the bad and controlling the latter.
Something for Everyone
A very well organized book, the last chapters list garden centers and public gardens that can be visited for more information and inspiration, as well as seed and equipment suppliers, Master Gardener Help Lines, an extensive bibliography and the helpful glossary for the novice—or even the experienced gardener. No matter how knowledgeable we are, we can always learn something new, and this book is a great start.
Henry Homeyer is also the author of Notes from the Garden: Observations and Reflections from an Organic Gardener (2002), New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion: Insider’s Guide to Gardening in the Granite State (2006), Organic Gardening (Not Just) in the Northeast: Hands on Month-By-Month Guide (2011) and a children’s book, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet (2012).
FYI: The Vermont Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Gardening in the Green Mountain State by Henry Homeyer ($14.95 The Globe Pequot Press, 2008) is available at all book stores.