Book review: Tree and shrub gardening for Alberta.


I must be suffering from the wrong kind of fever:  I think I’m still possessed of the malingering “cabin fever” instead of the more desirable “spring fever.”  (I suspect it has something to do with the persistently falling snow outside).   Regardless of the correct diagnosis of my current malaise, I find myself trying to gain solace by reading gardening books, and, recently, while in pursuit of some information about trees that are particularly attractive to birds, I came across a certified gem:  Don Williamson’s Tree and Shrub Gardening for Alberta (2009:  Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB).  As with all of Lone Pine’s publications, this one is concise, precise, and chockful of great photographs and little sidebar tidbits and handy lists.  (Plus it’s a paperback, inexpensive, and – best of all – portable.  Seriously, take these books along when you’re shopping in nurseries and garden centres.  Plant labels can only give so much information, and that horticultural consultant you would love to speak with may have dozens of clients waiting in line before you.  Trust me, I know).   I get rather gung-ho about interesting plant facts, and Williamson delivers:  fr’instance, did you know that the fruits of sumacs are not only edible, but can be made into a summery little pink lemonade-like drink?  (If anything will cure my cabin fever, it would be sumac lemonade!).  And that we can grow apricots in Alberta, in the province where it is winter 365 days of the year?  (No, I joke…we’re usually snow-free in July and August.  Ahem).   They’re called Manchurian apricots (Prunus mandshurica), and they’re super-cold hardy.   And did you know that when selecting a new birch tree, you may want to look for a black birch (Betula nigra), as they’re more disease and pest resistant than other species?  From A to Z, Williamson covers the gamut of tough, cold- hardy, resilient trees for our tough, cold, and resilient province, and he does so with easy-to-understand and clearly stated instructions regarding planting and culture for each plant.  He also carefully notes the best cultivars for each species, an extremely valuable tool for anyone shopping for trees.

And the thing I like best about this book?  Williamson is not afraid to push the boundaries a little.  My biggest peeve regarding gardening is that too many gardeners don’t experiment:  with their plants, with their hardiness zones, with their microclimates, with their creativity.  Sometimes a little ingenuity and mindfulness is all it takes to make something grow, despite the fact that  the plant label suggests it isn’t possible.  (Of course, there is common sense involved in this – some plants simply cannot survive our climate, and that’s that.  You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a tree just to have it croak because it’s not suitable for its new location).  Williamson suggests that maybe it’s not such a bad idea to try yew, or cherry prinsepia, or maybe yucca…if you want to.  You just might be able to make it work.  Gardening isn’t a rigid science governed by strict laws that must be adhered to.  I mean, plants are alive…they don’t always act the way we think they should.  Isn’t that element of chance and surprise part of the reason we keep digging in the dirt?


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