On Writing a Book 

March 1, 2024 is an exciting date for me. This is the release date of my book The Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants of the Southern Great Lakes Region. I thought that for this month’s article I would share a bit of what it took to get this book to publication. 

The Original Idea 

I started growing native plants in my yard around 2006. As with many native plant gardeners I’ve met, the process got off to a slow start. I knew nothing about our native species and, as many do, I soon learned that “wildflower” was not the same as “native” and that many of our wildflowers were actually garden escapes of European origin. What I really needed was a book to help me figure it all out.  

One of my first books was Lorraine Johnson’s fabulous 100 Easy to Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens (Whitecap Books, 2005). With lovely photos and vital statistics about each plant, it was a fantastic jumping off point on my journey. I soon found, though, that many of the plants in my little book weren’t actually native to where I live, so I started buying more books on the subject. (I now have over 20 feet of bookshelf space dedicated to nature – most of which are directly or indirectly related to native plants and native plant gardening!) 

The more I read, the more frustrated I became that I couldn’t find everything I needed in a single volume. Some books provided great growing information, some had wonderful photos of flowers, some had images of the seedhead and leaf, others had great anecdotal information about the ecology of the plants, but none seemed to have it all. And only one (Gisèle Lamoureux’s Flore printanièr [Spring Flora] – published by Fleurbec in Quebec and written in French) provided any kind of native range maps. I wanted to know if the plants I was about to add to my garden were actually NATIVE to my area, not just somewhere in my province.  

The Inspiration 

Then, around 2015, I bought a copy of Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide (I was living in Manitoba at the time) by Simone Hebert Allard and published by Turnstone Press (you can read my review of the book at https://www.amazon.ca/gp/customer-reviews/R39JQA3T4VPF1Y?ref=pf_ov_at_pdctrvw_srp). That’s when the lightbulb came on. This was the format that a book for native plant gardeners needed to have. A two-page spread for each plant, photos of the plants showing the leaf, the seedhead, the flower, and of the whole plant (ideally in a garden setting). But, critically, it also should have a detailed map of WHERE the plant was native. After all, native plant gardeners want to know if the plant they are growing is actually native to where they live.  

Research, Research, Research 

When I started putting together the book, I started by simply using the spreadsheet I had created that listed all the plants I was growing in my own garden. By that time, I had over 200 species of native and near-native plants. I created a file folder for each plant and then systematically began putting everything I could find into each plant’s respective folder. This included photos, maps, scientific journal articles, and a page of links to various websites.  

I then created a template of the information I thought was needed in such a book. I started to sift through the thousands of documents I had and fill in the blanks in each plant’s template page. This template grew as I added more sections, then shrunk again as I removed some which, for various reasons, we decided to leave out (edibility and medicinal uses, for example, were two we eventually removed). 


I spent about 3-4 years working on this project in my spare time. By this point, I had a mostly complete template page for about 230 species. I had no problem filling in the blanks for each plant from my research – information like plant height and width; flower colour; soil, sun and moisture needs; propagation; and so on. I realized that the book also needed a description of the plant to help people with more detail than you might see in a photo, and a description of the plant in the garden. But by this time I was running out of enthusiasm. It had been a solo effort that consumed almost all of my free time, often working late into the nights. 

That’s when I was inspired by an article I read by Shaun Booth. Shaun ran In Our Nature, a native plant nursery and ecological garden design and construction business in southern Ontario. He also launched the Ontario Native Plant Gardening group on Facebook (which now has close to 25,000 followers). I asked Shaun if he would be interested in writing up the plant description parts and he said yes.  

Bringing Shaun into the project launched a 2 year partnership that rekindled my enthusiasm for the project. It gave me someone knowledgeable to bounce ideas off of and, like me, Shaun believed the book was necessary. 

Getting the Picture 

Both Shaun and I have been photographing flowers in our gardens and in the wild for many years. But it soon became apparent that if we were going to use our own imagery in the book, we were going to need a lot more pictures than what we had (and, believe me, we had LOTS!).  

We quickly realized that we both photographed primarily the flowers. We were missing examples of the leaf and seedheads and of the whole plant in the garden for many species, and that meant we had to go back to the start and make a list of what we were missing then try to get those shots.  

While we pursued a publishing contract, we spent a lot of time getting those images. But just in case we couldn’t get good photos, we also started to approach folks who had posted the images we needed on iNaturalist and other sites. And almost every single person we approached agreed to let us use their image. Many didn’t even want the photo credit (but if we used their photo, we certainly gave credit). In the end, we managed to take most of our own pictures, and I want to acknowledge our heartfelt gratitude to all those who offered up their images. 

Making the Maps 

Mapping the native ranges for the plants was a whole other adventure. Fortunately, my background is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and making maps is what I did for many years. However, as I say in the introduction in the book: 

“The maps in this book have been generated using all the information we could find online and through scientific journals and other publications. Some species, such as the goldenrods and asters, have been studied extensively in Ontario and elsewhere, and their native range is reasonably well documented. For many plants, however, there is little information available at an appropriate scale. In some cases, multiple sources provided similar ranges, which made mapping easy. However, in a few cases the range maps were so different that I wondered if they were even talking about the same species.” 

Fortunately, we also had the fantastic support of ecologists and state botanists who graciously looked over the maps and pointed out any egregious misinterpretations we might have made. The result is that the book contains a map for each plant that shows its approximate native range in the southern Great Lakes region. 

Finding a Publisher 

Finally, we were ready to publish. That process was a long and challenging one. In Canada, the process for getting a non-fiction book published is very different than for publishing a novel. The industry standard is to produce a multi-page proposal that outlines what the book is about, provides examples of the content, compares it to books already on the market (the competition) and explains why your new book is needed. It requires references, ideally from other authors (which means they must read it first), and then you must show the publisher how you are going to help them promote and get sales for your book.  

In our case, we sent proposals to half a dozen publishers over the period of a year (in North America, publishers, more often than not, don’t even respond if they’re not interested, and if they do it can be months later before you hear from them).  

Finally, in frustration, I put together a mock up of what I envisioned the plant pages would look like and posted to various native plant gardening groups on Facebook, asking if something like this would be of interest. I was overwhelmed with the response. In 3 days, over 600 people got back to me saying they would definitely buy the book – in some cases saying they wanted multiple copies.  

One person who saw my post, Carol Pasternak, already had a book published by Firefly Books and asked if I wanted her to show the concept to her publisher. I did, so she did, and the publisher liked what they saw, and within a week we had a contract offer. 

Once the contract gets signed, you work with an editor to polish the book. The editor I worked with at Firefly was amazing. I found the process informative, extremely helpful, and working with Julie (my editor) was a wonderful experience. We had a couple of “creative differences” during the process, but were able to quickly come to a satisfactory compromise. The result is a book that looks great and that I hope gardeners will find to be extremely useful.  

Some images from the book:

Next Steps 

By the time you read this, the book should be available at bookstores and through online sellers. The book covers 150 plants but, if you remember, at the beginning I said I had about 230 species on my list. I was informed, and rightly so, that 230 plants (at 2 pages per plant) would make a volume that was large and unwieldy and very costly to produce (and therefore expensive to buy).  That means that I’ve already got close to 100 plants ready to go for a volume 2, if demand warrants.  Hopefully you’ll find this book to be a valuable addition to your library.  

I will soon be on the road promoting the book at speaking engagements and doing book signings throughout the region – my calendar is already beginning to fill up. But I am proud of the new book. It’s the book I wish I had when I started gardening with native plants. 

Happy Native Plant Gardening!