If you’re doing it right, a non-fiction book should take a good deal of time to research and write. The statement is also true for good, gripping, fiction, but the nature of many non-fiction books – as a thorough compilation of complex concepts, study, profiles, [often] photos, and conclusions laid out to be clearly understood, but not spoon-fed – means that time must be taken. Deep work must be done.
Certainly the stretch of time taken is not necessarily proportional to the quality of the book – as authors can dither and procrastinate as much as the next person (guilty!); but in a digital age where tastes, trends and techniques change with the speed of TikTok, many authors working in the genre of gardening or horticulture are not even given a full year to finish a book lest the zeitgeist that inspired it is nowhere to be seen upon publication.
If they want to be as thorough as they originally envisioned, it’s not a bad idea to have a book fully researched and half-written by the time they sign on the dotted line. And to pray that the zeitgeist stays around for an after-dinner drink.
Whether we like it or not, trends and influencers sell books these days. And that can mean that the books that we all need and should be buying as gardeners – the deep dive reference books written by true experts in their fields – are often sidelined for sexier topics and short reads.
This is presumably one of the reasons why AHS award-winning books like Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by Cole Burrell and the late Judith Tyler has not only, not been expanded and re-released to include the last decade’s revolutionary breeding in outfacing hybrids; but is out of print. A missing link for gardeners who would like that information from experts, not marketers. Timber if you’re reading this, gardeners need that book.
But enough of my cynical theories. Instead, I want to focus on my delight in finding out that in the midst of this changing marketplace, real time – deep work time – is still occasionally given; and the resulting book is indeed worthy of taking up precious space on my shelves. Plantsmen like Dan Hinkley, Tony Avent, and Panayoti Kelaidis agree.
The book is The Complete Book of Ground Covers: 4000 Plants That Reduce Maintenance, Control Erosion, and Beautify the Landscape by Gary Lewis; and over dinner at a Perennial Plant Conference in Pennsylvania last August I got a chance to talk to him about the book that took him nine years to write.
Nine years to write? What is this, the olden days?
Even I can recognize that nine years is probably a year or two too many, but Lewis is an incredibly busy man intensively working with the plants he’s writing about. His original contract specified a generous three years, but each time the sword was due to drop, he was granted an extension presumably justified by his expertise, his vision, and his schedule.
He’s the owner of successful retail and mail order nursery Phoenix Perennials in Richmond, British Columbia, and has many articles, talks, radio, and TV appearances to his name. Each year his nursery offers over 5000 plants to its walk-in customers and well over half that to online customers in Canada.
So yes, he’s busy. He also wanted to write the book himself, and not have it ghost written (you’d be surprised how much of that goes on). But most importantly, he wanted to compile an encyclopedia, something that will inform gardeners all over the world now, and twenty years hence.
(As long as the taxonomists cool their jets, that is.)
A reference for the bookshelf or bedside table
That goal of long-term reference is patently obvious in The Complete Book of Ground Covers, which does not make constant reference to, or provide apologies for, the listing of some invasive species, whose regionally subjective status changes by the day and by the region; but instead takes a common sense approach that discusses the definition and currently understood threat of invasive species early on in the text, urges readers to check with their local organizations as to status, and then gets on with it – pointing out aggressive tendencies in specific taxa if they exist. Remember when we used to do that?
High density planting is perhaps the ultimate groundcover – the ‘less mulch, more plants’ model – and Lewis picks up this baton and runs with it, moving beyond simple traditional ideas of ‘groundcover plants’. He lists species in such genera as Clematis, Euphorbia, Parthenocissus, etc. which will challenge the gardener looking for that low mat of something green to expand their box and include plants 12-18 inches high whose spread is at least double their height; or which work as well clambering along the ground as they do pulling themselves up a structure. Taller species are also included when they represent further options for genera already mentioned, in deference to those with larger properties.
For many genera, several species are listed. Others, only one. Regardless, each genus is given a family and common name reference, USDA heat zone hardiness, cultivation requirements, use in the landscape suggestions, and as a big bonus for the plant nerds out there – best propagation methods. Lewis also lists many of the most popular new cultivars that you’re likely to come across in your local nursery.
The photos are excellent and accurately convey the information you need, as well as the beauty that keeps you turning pages (that’s a tough dance sometimes); and with a few minor exceptions, they are shot by the author, which probably accounts for at least one of those contract extensions. Those photos make it both an idea book for an idle hour daydreaming, and a serious reference for serious gardeners.
Hooray for patience in publishing
Books, as Cool Springs Press acquisitions editor Jessica Walliser once said, represent a deep dive into a subject rather than a day at the internet seaside. Both wonderful, both very different. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to the trouble of buying scuba gear and renting a boat, I want the option of going as deep as my tanks will take me. Lewis’ The Complete Book of Ground Covers is that dive.
Bravo Timber for your extreme patience, and let’s see more books of the same quality for the gardeners that need them to get better at what they do. And to the gardeners out there: Please. Buy. Books. We can’t expect the publishing industry to flourish and support us if we don’t support it. – MW
The Complete Book of Ground Covers: 4000 Plants That Reduce Maintenance, Control Erosion, and Beautify the Landscape. By Gary Lewis. Timber Press. 455 pages. October 2022.