The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants
By Neil Diboll & Hilary Cox
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 2023
- Paperback: 644 pages
- ISBN-10: 022680593X
- Dimensions: 6” X 9”
- Price: $47.31 (Amazon.ca); $34.99 (Kindle only – Amazon.com)
As both a gardener and a bibliophile, I splurged to buy this book (over $50 with tax here in Canada) because it sounded like an awesome guide to native plants, even if it was for a region slightly west of where I am in southern Ontario. And as a book collector (some might say hoarder) I have lots of books on my shelf that I seldom open after the initial reading. Was it worth the money? Yes and No.
In the Introduction, the authors state that it is “intended for use by both gardeners and professionals”. I would argue that it would make an awesome textbook for a college or university level course on prairie restoration. And though it does have considerable merit for the native plant gardener – there ARE a lot of things to like about this book, after all – there are also a few things that I find frustrating or questionable.
What I Liked
For starters, The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants is a very well produced volume from the University of Chicago Press with excellent quality paper and a sewn, rather than glued, binding so it should be extremely durable. It’s a hefty volume – well over 600 pages long. (Out of curiosity I stuck it on my kitchen scales and it weighed in at almost 3 lbs – you’ll not likely carry this around on your next trip to the garden center!)
The book contains your typical introduction that you find in this genre with chapters on how to use the book (including a section on the use of scientific names), the ecology of prairie, understanding your soil, and on designing, planting and maintaining a prairie garden. The chapters on ecology and soil are very typical of a school textbook with some good science written in an understandable way. The chapter on designing, planting and maintenance of prairie gardens is more geared to the average home gardener and offers lots of useful tidbits, such as why using cocoa bean hulls as mulch isn’t such a great idea (they can be toxic to pets).
Chapter 5, entitled “Prairie Species Field Guide”, is where the meat of the book begins. This section covers 148 species of prairie plants – chosen, for the most part, because they are commonly used in gardens, though the authors do include a few that are less common which they think should be in our gardens, too.
This “Field Guide” is, in my opinion, the best part of the book from a gardener’s perspective. For each plant the book is divided into two facing pages – on the first page the authors provide the scientific name, followed by one or two common names, and the family to which the plant belongs. This is immediately followed by three or four sentences about the plant.
The rest of the page consists primarily of bullet points covering topics such as habitat; uses in the garden; USDA Hardiness Zone; soil, moisture and light requirements; size and flower colour; aggressiveness; and even a brief note on propagation. It then lists a few bullet points on distinguishing characteristics, and finally, at the bottom of the page, it includes a map of the plant’s range in the US and the southern edge of Canada (more about the range maps later).
The second page consists primarily of photos. This is another unique and commendable inclusion in the book. So many native plant gardening books show a picture of a flower, or of the plant in situ, and a couple even show a photo of a seedling. But this book shows all of these, plus a picture of the seedhead, of a leaf, and of an emerging mature plant. At the bottom of the page is a paragraph identifying look-alike plants. All extremely useful for both new and experienced native plant gardeners alike.
The next 45 or so pages (Chapters 6 & 7) cover establishing and maintaining a prairie meadow. This section seems more geared to land restoration folks than your average native plant gardener. It’s interesting, but to a home gardener not all that relevant.
Chapter 8 is all about collecting seeds and propagating plants from those seeds. Chapter 9 covers propagating plants vegetatively. Both chapters would be useful for all intended audiences.
The Parts I Was Less Thrilled About
Up to this point we have covered just over 400 of the 644 pages. If they had stopped here, it would have been a great tool for gardeners, but MOST (not all) of the rest of the book seems far more appropriate for a college textbook or a landscape restoration manual than a Gardener’s Guide.
Chapter 10 devotes over 30 pages to ‘The Prairie Food Web’, from pollinators up through the web to rattlesnakes and bison (even though it might be exciting to see a bison in my garden, I think it is pretty unlikely to happen in my fenced-in suburban yard).
The next almost 200 pages are dedicated to tables. Lots and lots of tables with lots of cool information – from a purely academic standpoint, anyway – but overkill to say the least. If you can quantify it, there’s probably a table here for it. Everything from prairie seed mixes to tables on plant characteristics, on wildlife attracted, on aggressiveness of the plants, etc., etc. These tables provide a wealth of information for landscape restorers, but the font is small and the tables span multiple pages making them difficult to read. I’m not sure how many gardeners would take the time to find what they’re looking for in the tables. Most of the relevant information is already, or could easily be, incorporated into the plant descriptions in Chapter 5. Chapter 11 (Seed Mixes) consists of 12 tables spread over 34 pages while Chapter 5, simply called Tables, has 30 tables spread across 142 pages.
The second issue I have with the book is the way the plants are organized. I do like that the plants are listed in alphabetic order by scientific name, but they are subdivided first into Monocots, Dicots, and Grasses & Sedges and then further subdivided by family. How many home gardeners are going to know if the plant they are looking for is a monocot or a dicot or if it is Asteraceae or Fabaceae. How many will even care. Include this information on the plant page if it’s that important, but don’t divide the book into these sections. It just takes that much longer to find the plant you’re looking for.
The only other beef I have about the book is about the range maps. The maps are simply reproductions of the Biota of North America Program (BONAP) maps available on the BONAP website. These maps are pretty useful – if you live in the US – because they show plant presence on a county basis. In Canada, they only work at a provincial level which is next to useless if I want to know if a plant is actually native to where I live. And, like the complaint I have with so many American publications, the map only covers as much of Canada as is needed to capture the lower 48 states in one image. My research shows that there are more nurseries and garden centers promoting and selling native plants in southern Ontario alone than in any state in the US. We are a big market for native plant gardeners.
The other complaint I have about the BONAP maps is the lack of clarity about what the colour coding actually means. The legend indicates that the light green represents “Species present and not rare” – but “present’ and “native” aren’t necessarily the same thing. Another shade of green (very similar to the first one) indicates “Species native, but adventive in state”. Adventive, by definition, means “not native” (Dictionary.com), or “introduced to a new area and not yet established there; exotic” (Collins Dictionary). How can it be both native and exotic? Some time ago I reached out to BONAP to get clarification on the definitions but was no further ahead after getting a response.
What’s worse, the book doesn’t even include a legend to explain the colour coding for anyone not familiar with the maps, nor did I find any reference to the source of the maps to acknowledge where they came from or to allow the reader to look up the map themselves.
And the reproduction of the maps leaves something to be desired. By necessity they are small. Which means it is extremely difficult to differentiate the shades of green. For example, in the images below I have the original BONAP map for Silphium perfoliatum (Cup Plant) and I have circled those counties where it indicates “adventive”. Beside it is the same map from the book. Your eyes are a lot better than mine if you can differentiate the shades of green. And it is important to do so because Cup Plant is not native to New York state and is actually considered invasive there – it is illegal to sell or to grow it for sale in that state.
Range maps, like the ones in Flore printaniére by Gisèle Lamoreux (published by Fleurbec in Quebec, Canada) would have been much more useful.
Overall, this is a beautiful but pricey book. The “Field Guide” portion in the middle, with better range maps, would have made an excellent gardener’s guide on its own, and the resulting smaller volume would have made it more affordable to non-professionals. And because I have lots of books on my shelf that I have only read once, one more isn’t going to hurt so I will keep it. But whether you think it’s worth the price will depend on your book budget.
Happy Native Plant Gardening.
© The Native Plant Gardener 2023