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Book Review: The Little Book of Gardening by Rhoads Murphey

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There are an awful lot of books about gardening. Big books, small books, books about perennials, books about bulbs. Need I go on? The Little Book of Gardening is the first book I’ve seen written by someone who has been doing it for 80 years (gardening, not writing). In his introduction Murphey writes that the book is for beginners and intermediates (“established gardeners”), not for experts and professionals. 

Beginners seem to like books with lots of splashy color pictures, featuring color-saturated close-ups of flowers and beautifully landscaped gardens. There are lots of big, heavy gardening encyclopedias that fit that description. The Little Book of Gardening is a sparingly illustrated volume, small in size, that offers the reader the benefit of 80 years gardening experience. The only color photograph is on the cover. Murphey does supply samples of garden layouts for a variety of situations (including city gardens) that are easy to follow. Included illustrations are line drawings of various flowers and United States zone maps. 

The Little Book of Gardening is not a guide to what flowers look like as much as it is a guide to how to garden. It contains the kind of information that an experienced gardener would share to help you succeed. Along with information about dirt, fertilizer, and compost, the reader finds an homage to China, where beautiful gardens originated (what happened to Eden? — I’ll get to that shortly). 

Murphey emphasizes the importance of planning (hence, no Eden since it wasn’t designed by its inhabitants), an area that many novice gardeners overlook. We start out thinking, wouldn’t this look great here, and that there, and since each element was a project unto itself, we end up with a hodgepodge. If you’re growing a wildflower garden, that’s great. If you want to achieve a formal garden with fountains, benches, and statuary, it’s not too great. If you want flowers blooming in all areas of your garden throughout the growing season, you must plan. If you don’t, you’ll have a garden that looks like mine. Don’t worry, you don’t have to see the photos. 

Murphey gives brief descriptions of a number of trees and flowers, and provides a gardener’s year-round check list (yes, we really are supposed to take care of our gardens when they seem dormant). When I first began seriously gardening (10 years ago), I was so ignorant I thought annuals were plants that came up every year. The Little Book of Gardening is for people at that stage. 

Gardening is different for each season, and Murphey offers suggestions for the spring, summer, winter, and autumn gardens. He includes a list of seed and bulb suppliers (although my favorite, Wildflower Farms, is not on it), garden catalogs, and other resources. The advice in The Little Book of Gardening ranges from not very helpful at all (what to do for your garden when you’ll be away for two weeks and have no one to tend it) to crucial (soil conditions, appropriate plant varieties). Readers will also learn about pests: weeds, bugs, and animals. Isn’t it about time you knew what a nematode is? 

Bottom Line: Would I buy The Little Book of Gardening? No. It’s a handy guide for beginners, but once you’ve had your hands in the dirt for 10 years (and collected dozens of books) you won’t need it (you’ve probably got the county extension agent on speed-dial anyway). However, neophyte gardeners who haven’t begun their libraries will find a treasure trove of valuable information. 

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