Book Review

Seven Gardening Encyclopedias

Reviewed by Robert R. Chambers (1/1997)

The November/December issue of National Gardening had an informative roundup review by senior editor Jack Ruttle of seven general gardening reference books. And although these books focus mainly on flowers, not edibles, they contain much of potential interest to CRFG members. The books reviewed are:

The Brickell book was written in England, is quite practical, has good illustrations and is an excellent book overall. There is a companion book, Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, also edited by Brickell (1992, 608 pages, $50) that has beautiful identification pictures of flowers and concise descriptions of varieties. Ruttle points out that the books do not reflect the dry climates or extremes of temperature that we have here.

The Bush-Brown book is one I am not familiar with, but Ruttle says it is very popular and easy to use, with copious tables and plant lists. First published in 1939, it was completely revised and updated by Howard S. Irwin of the New York Botanical Garden who also oversaw the latest edition.

I grew up with an early edition of Taylor's book on the shelf at home, but this version is entirely new. Ruttle praises the extensive information on plants, but I notice the book does not really include edibles. Taylor's Guides, a related series, are physically much smaller books, and I had the preconceived notion that they would probably be sections of the bigger book. The one I have Taylor's Guide to Fruits and Berries (Holmes, 1996; 452 pages, $20 is not. It is excellent for common temperate zone fruits.

The Wyman book describes more plants than any of the others here, according to Ruttle. He adds: "The book has an old-fashioned look....Its few photos and illustrations are all black and white, but the book is an excellent quick reference. The essays are thorough and accurate."

The Better Homes and Gardens book is one of three in the list published by magazines. I am not acquainted with the book. Ruttle says "[I]t provides a brief introduction to almost all aspects of gardening with plenty of color pictures," but a limited selection of plant varietal descriptions and garden techniques.

I have an older edition of the Reader's Digest book and found it to be accurate and to cover a very wide range of topics. However, the amount of information on any one topic was usually quite limited. Ruttle says that the edition cited here, written in England, has clear instructions and within its limitations is an excellent introduction to gardening.

Finally there is the Sunset Garden Book, which I have to admit a prejudice in favor of. Ruttle and I agree that this book is a must for gardeners in the western states. Ruttle goes on to say that it is also very useful in other parts of the country, especially the warmer areas. For its size and price it is an excellent book and the latest edition is the best yet. But don't throw away your old edition. They evidently cut out some of the good stuff they had in before to make room for the new.

I'll end this review with the words Jack Ruttle used in starting his overview:

"One key to a successful garden often goes uncredited: a bookshelf stocked with dependable references. They are where you go for a reminder on how much wood ash it is safe to scatter on the vegetable beds, or to make sure it's not too late to sow those expensive pansy or geranium seeds. The best encyclopedias also offer some fine reading after the day's chores are done.

"Surprisingly these books are rarely among the first gardeners obtain. They are often expensive, and many are short on color photos. But that is changing. Many major gardening encyclopedias have recently been updated, both in looks and information.

"Compared to the dictionaries of plants used by botanists and horticulturalists, gardening encyclopedias are written for gardeners. They not only name and describe plants, but tell how to grow them. They also encompass a wide range of gardening topics, not just plants.

"Preparing for this article, I reviewed all the gardening encyclopedias available in America today. I didn't include one of my favorites, Thomas H. Everett's The New York Botanical Garden Encyclopedia of Horticulture (Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1981) because the complete ten volume set now costs more than $1,000. Wonderful as it is, I felt it was beyond (both in scope and cost) what most gardeners need....

"Are any of the volumes here the only gardening book you'll ever need? Almost surely not. In fact, almost by definition, a gardening encyclopedia that does its job well will lure you back for more, first to more gardening, and inevitably more books.

"Happy hunting!"

Permission for references and quotes from Jack Ruttle's review granted by:
National Gardening
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