Michael Spencer’s Make It Green: What is the perfect plant book?

I am driven to help people become successful gardeners. But is it even possible? Of course. It is a simple matter of making mountains of opaque botanical data accessible to every gardener, and in a useful format that helps build the plant list. The perfect book shows you how to populate each planting opportunity with plants that will thrive.

More: it helps you consider every possible alternatives. Often I am asked by clients what I think should go here, or there. It’s not possible for me to remember all of the plants. A few will come to mind, but maybe the best alternatives are not even considered.

I hate that. I want to consider every single plant that will thrive.

I need to go to sleep right now.

The approach is straightforward: for all plants, develop a series of fields needed to describe the plant. Then, organize these fields so that the important ones are considered first:

Type (Tree, Shrub, etc.)

Zone

Height

Salt Tolerance

Light Requirement

Flower

Xeric?

These seven criteria will melt away 3,000 plants into a usable list. Secondary plant facts — more than 100 separate fields! — then come into play, among them flowering color and season, or fruit characteristics, or texture.

This kind of primary source must also include a glossary, and a bibliography, and many other front matter pieces.

For many, maintenance is very high on the list of plant characteristics, so I developed a list of ‘No Maintenance’ plants. Is there such a thing? No. Many plants are nearly no maintenance, though, and coupled with sensible design, maintenance burdens for homeowners, gardeners and HOAs can be dramatically reduced. This list has been sent to hundreds of people from all over the country and globe. When I expand to it, revisions go automatically to any previous recipient (just email me).

Everything must represent consensus of the world’s smart people. But guess what? These smart people disagree! Scientific names, for example, can become a focal point of disagreement. My job is to survey the literature and to use the one that makes sense scientifically.

It’s the design that matters

Design? Did I mention design? For many years I have been writing that ‘design is not opinion.’ This book is a terrific place to explain a bit about what this means.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? For the past three years, since I started this column, I’ve made a habit of asking people ‘Are you into gardening?’, which gives me a chance to talk about my column, about this newspaper, my editors, and about gardens in general. I get lots of feedback, too: people are enthusiastic lovers of the outdoors, they love plants, and want to build gardens, but are very discouraged by lack of success. Many have hired professionals, but still have limited success; these ’professionals’ value design over horticulture. This is the road to disaster.

In fact, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

And that is what drives the effort. We know that planting design and garden design proceed from a firm foundation of horticulture. We know that there are more than 3,000 commonly available plants in Southwest Florida, and we want to help people find the best plant.

How? By first teaching that garden design is not a search for a place to put your favorite plant. No, garden design is a search for the right plant in each situation. Make a list of all plants that will work in each garden spot — each open area, each shady area, each wet area, everywhere — and then sit down and combine those plants in a fun and creative way with full knowledge that the plants on your list will actually thrive. It’s invigorating!

How do we know that the plants will work? Because I have done my homework and so has Al O’Donnell. We have reviewed every important information source for every single plant. We have added our own experience, too, for each plant; both of us have been plantsmen for 30 years. In that time, we’ve learned a thing or two, and we have made every effort to pass what we have learned on to the reader.

And that’s the goal. To give people the tools they need to become successful gardeners with thriving plants.

Michael reminds everyone that his website and blog will be down until the middle of October as he moves to WordPress. And don’t forget that you can always email your DP with gardening or planting questions. Or questions about life, really: yourDP@msadesign.com.

Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: ms@msadesign.com. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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