Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: The Perennial Care Manual by Nancy J. Ondra

As a longtime gardener, one aspect of gardening that often confounds me is what to do when the perennials stop blooming. I have been hunting for an easy to follow guide that would tell me which ones to cut back, how far, and when.

Over the years, my husband and I have acquired no less than a half dozen books that promised to be "complete guides" to perennial gardening, yet they invariably fell short with regard to seasonal care and troubleshooting. My Wish List has long included a thorough guide to actually caring for perennials throughout the year.

Nancy Ondra's The Perennial Care Manual fits the bill exactly and is the  comprehensive, easy to read guide that I was looking for. This is a book that every backyard gardener, both inexperienced newbies and those of us who have been around for decades, will find useful.  Filled with tips and information that is organized seasonally, with beautiful photographs by Rob Cardillo, this book instantly became my "Bible" for perennial gardening.

The book opens with a comprehensive review of perennial gardening "basics". I was delighted to see the attention she paid to preparing the garden bed. My husband and I learned the hard way that preparing the bed properly is the single-most important step in building a garden. From practical tips, like using laundry baskets to shade new transplants for a few days, to discussions about invasive plants, mulch, compost, and identifying and dealing with garden pests and weeds, the wealth of information in the first one hundred and twenty pages is incredible.

The second section of the book is devoted to the growing habits, propagation, seasonal care, and problems that affect individual perennials. Ms. Ondra chose 125 common perennials to feature and with each one, she goes through season by season, describing what to do and showing with wonderful photographs how to do it. She also describes and shows pictures of plant diseases, pests to watch for, and specific growing tips that are keys to success with certain plants.

When I first spotted the book at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's book booth at the annual garden show last month, I immediately flipped to the two perennials that I always struggle with in terms of season-long care - peonies, which I absolutely adore, but whose heavy heads invariably sag, and phlox, which likewise tend to flop and sprawl. Her commonsense suggestions for dealing with both of these problems were remarkably simple, yet I had not read them in any other reference (nor thought of them myself).

For each perennial she gives spot on, very specific information about propagation, growth habits, and care throughout the year.  The pictures are spectacular and range from distinctive or common cultivars, to pests and diseases, to techniques.  The information is organized in a way that is user friendly and makes it easy to both search for a specific piece of information and assimilate information about a particular plant's habits and needs.

It's hard to find anything to say about this book that isn't "over-the-top" positive. I wish the book was twice the size - more varieties within different plant types, and more plants period. (Maybe she'll come out with Volume II?) And I wish she had included more information about weeds. (I know, that wasn't her focus, but the information she did include was fabulous - I could have used a hundred more pages of it!)

Listing at just under $25.00, this book is a bargain-priced goldmine of information. I will be watching for future books by this same author. We paid full fare for this book at the garden show but a quick peek at brought up a list of her past accomplishments that includes two books that quickly rose through the ranks and won the top spots on my Amazon Wish List - I'll be getting those in the very near future as well. Her books are discounted at Amazon, but I don't regret paying the list price at the garden show - it's worth every penny and more. (In fact, I thought the list price was a bargain, compared to some of the books we've bought in the past.)


  1. Hi Cathy! Wow - thanks ever so much for the detailed and enthusiastic review. It means so much to have a fellow gardener really read the book and find something of use. Believe me, I too wish the book could have been longer. My original list had over 250 plants, but well...I was lucky to get the extra pages I did, so I had to make some brutal cuts. Who knows - maybe I'll do a follow-up as an e-book!

  2. I would LOVE that (an ebook)! The Manual has a permanent place on my nightstand. Steve and I love to page through it - we've learned so much already!


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