Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: "Plantiful" by Kristin Green

Plantiful? Or INVASIVE? (...cue sinister music.)
"Plantiful" by Kristin Green was just published at the end of January by Timber Press, and already I've gotten to read it (I love it when my local library is able to purchase books right away, not after months of waiting, since reviews are not nearly as helpful later on).

But it's a book that, despite its usefulness, I'm a bit surprised was ever published at all, due to the controversy over plants that spread, which some people confuse with genuinely invasive plants.

The premise of the book is that to make gardening easier, cheaper and more serendipitous, we should grow plants that are bountiful and exuberant in their nature: plants that self-seed and spread generously of their own accord. In this way, gardeners can save money by buying fewer plants and have a garden that fills in quickly.

Uh-Oh, I hear gardeners everywhere chiming in together. Doesn't that mean the author is telling unknowing new gardeners to plant INVASIVE species? No, in fact she spends a section of the book addressing that question:
  1. Not all aggressive or weedy plants are invasive.
  2. Not all invasive plants are invasive everywhere.
  3. The term "invasive" should be used only for introduced species that have escaped cultivation, colonized vulnerable ecosystems or outcompeted native species, and deprive insects and birds of edible species. 
  4. The term does not apply to plants that can be fairly easily controlled within a tended garden, despite their spreading or seeding tendencies.
  5. Gardeners should consult invasive species lists for their state, as well as local extensions or master gardeners for advice about what is truly invasive and what is simply exuberant. Additionally, the author lists the states (if any) in which the plants on her lists are actually considered to be invasive.
With that in mind, Green has provided lists of:
  1. 50 self-seeding annuals and perennials and general information on seed saving and propagation from seeds.
  2. 50 spreading perennials and shrubs and general info about dividing and propagating them.
  3. 50 tender perennials that can be overwintered in cold frames, basements and indoors. 
Cleome seeds around, but
who really minds?
The first section doesn't seem controversial to me; most gardeners value the way annuals and perennials can seed themselves into spots that we would never think about or be able to purposely plant things, and our gardens are the more interesting and beautiful for it. Most, if seeded in excess, can be easily be pulled out or moved by any but the most neglectful gardener, and her list includes such cottage garden stalwarts as chives, Queen Anne's lace, milkweed, cleome, larkspur, foxgloves, columbines, California poppies, hellbores, bronze fennel, lupines, forget-me-nots, nigella, nicotiana, feverfew, mullein, and verbena bonariensis. Most gardeners love these flowers and wouldn't want to garden without them.

What's wrong with a few self-seeders? This certainly looks beautiful to me.

The second section of spreading perennials is probably what will leave some gardeners (such as the first reviewer of this book on Amazon.com) frowning in disapproval, perhaps even gasping for breath in horror. I myself have never had problems with many of the plants on this list here in Iowa: Yarrow, Japanese anemones, mums, cranesbill geranium, lysimachia, lamium, monarda and phlox (both tall garden and creeping). However, there are undoubtedly some species on the list that have caused gardeners grief: plume poppy, lily turf, Mexican evening primrose, and even spearmint (which I still love because it's so delightful in fragrance and indispensable for julips or mojitos, although she sensibly recommends planting it in a place with natural boundaries, such as between house and sidewalk).

Spearmint: It's thuggish, but I still wouldn't be without it.
Mmmm... mohitos.
She does mention in her text (but does not include on her lists) plants that she personally doesn't have problems keeping in check but that might actually be invasive in some places: ox-eye daisies (leucanthemum vulgaris -- one of my favorite plants which I couldn't live without), lamb's ears, ajuga and borage among them.

Her lists don't include gooseneck loosestrife, physostegia, bishop's weed, comfrey, lily of the valley (which, for some reason, I can't seem to make flower or spread at all), trumpet vine or many other plants that are widely acknowledged as highly aggressive or even truly invasive.

The dreaded plume poppy.
Nevertheless, many gardeners will still be horrified at the thought that new gardeners may unknowingly plant some of the things on her lists and end up regretting the amount of time and physical labor they will spend trying to eradicate them, and there is some truth to this worry.

However, she is absolutely right that beautiful and enjoyable gardens are filled with plants that flourish and look exuberant. Should we avoid those plants and grow only species that behave themselves by not spreading or seeding?

How could I ever live without ox-eye daisies?
It seems to me that there is a continuum of species (which is different for each location and each gardener's desires, of course):
  1. Species that are prone to dying immediately and are wholly unsuited to our climate, soil and location. We will have to coddle these constantly to even get them to survive. In my opinion, a gardener who desperately wants to grow a species like this should probably either move to a place where it will grow or simply give up.
  2. Species that will survive and grow without heroic intervention but will never flower that well or look happy, because growing conditions are not quite right or the plants are generally weak in constitution.
  3. Well-behaved species or cultivars that grow well but hardly increase in size or spread seeds. If a gardener wants a carefully-controlled garden as a work of art, she should limit herself to growing these. These plants should probably also be the foundation of most gardens.
  4. Self-seeders and exuberant spreaders that delight the gardener. These pop up in unexpected places and allow serendipity to have a hand in creating our gardens. As such, many gardeners will want to include them, even though there is some additional work in keeping them from spreading "too much" (whatever each gardener's definition of that is -- it's like defining a weed). This is what "Plantiful" is about.
  5. Truly invasive species that damage natural areas, farms or other people's gardens, which should be avoided and destroyed when possible.
It's too bad that some gardeners will condemn this book outright because of their inflexible opinions and their certainty about which plants are suitable for every gardener's location and temperament. There certainly is a place for a book about deliberately and knowledgeably growing self-seeders and spreaders -- the author is indeed right that gardeners can make delightful, cost-effective gardens by including these exuberant plants.

The third section of the book covers overwintering tender perennials, which seems somewhat unrelated to the first two sections. I know her reasoning is that overwintering allows gardeners to save money by not re-purchasing frost-tender plants each year, and since she spent time in California, she undoubtedly misses growing many things now in Rhode Island. But overwintering seems to involve so much extra work to make them survive, which is unrelated to plants that grow well (perhaps too well) outside. Sure, I'd love to be able to grow rosemary and lemon verbena here, but I'm not certain that the trouble of overwintering it would be worth the money saved in not replacing it each year. But perhaps I'll give it a shot this year and see how it goes.

One of the few photos in the book showing a larger view of a garden: a path edged with chives in bloom. Beautiful.

The photos in the book are not particularly glorious, with only a few showing the larger design of gardens and most of them just closeups of listed flowers, but they suffice for the task. Her writing is certainly both knowledgeable and enthusiastic and does inspire me to try some of her ideas, while providing advice about how to go about doing it. Altogether a useful book, although one that is doomed to be condemned by gardeners suffering from invasive species hysteria.


  1. Enjoyed your review, Beth. I've had experience with several plants growing much too aggressively in my garden. The worst were Queen Anne's lace, mint, and comfrey. I have been trying to get rid of the comfrey for many years. I dig and round-up it; still find some every year. Hope to eventually get a handle on it.

  2. Hi Beth, I'm trying to become a follower by Google Friend Connect but when I click on it, I get an error message: We're sorry...We were unable to handle your request. Please try again or return a bit later.
    I'll keep trying. Not sure what the issue is but periodically there will some glitch (different things) in Blogger that are worked out over time. I do have your blog URL in my Feedly reader so whenever you have a new post, I'll see it and can hop over and read it. :)