I was surprised to win Andrew Keys’s drawing for his new book Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? in early January. It even arrived at a propitious time, as I was heading up to the family winter cabin to break my hip. New reading material was a welcome distraction to ice packs and pain killers.
It proved to be even better than a mere diversion; Andrew’s book is a fun read. He takes the angle of talking about plants and their shortcomings as though they were a cast of players in a high-school social-set drama. Given the number of players Andrew lists, I’ve come to the conclusion that my high-school years were very dull. It’s a fun hook for the few of us Gen Y-ers getting an earlier start in gardening. High school may have been over 15 years ago, but the memory isn’t too dusty just yet.
Basically, Andrew wants us to stop sticking plants in the ground for sentimental reasons. Sound advice for happy gardening if I ever heard any. But, as a cursory reading of Proust taught me, sentiment can be a powerful thing. Given that most people begin to garden later in life they usually begin from a desire to recapture some vague feeling of beauty or comfort. I would say nostalgia is the number one reason for why Lilacs remain as popular as they do. Yes, Lilacs need cold winters, they sucker like crazy and generally look dumpy for most of the year. But, when a Lilac bush blooms for two weeks in May, its unmatchable smell can transport you magic-carpet-like to distant places and memories like no Korean Spice Viburnum can. Sentiment is also a power motivator for horticultural development. In the case of the lilac, the desire to have its perfume in warm climates resulted in the impressive Syringa x hyacinthiflora crosses. That being said, American gardens have basically looked the same for over a century, so it’s probably still a good idea to get people to try something new.
Andrew’s plant selections do encourage you to branch out. His list of “Grow This” plants are adventurous, but a bit on the mild-growing side (zone 7+) and Asian in flavor. I can’t help but feel that this is a list of plants that he wants to grow rather than a list of plants that he has trialled and can recommend. To be fair, this is to be expected when authors must write for a national gardening audience. I have yet to meet a someone who has established a garden in every USDA zone. Also, his focus on various plants’ attributes feels a bit narrow at times. It’s rare that I plant something for only one of its attributes. I would love to see this book in an app form, breaking down a plant by several features in an index whether it be shape, color, texture, or flower.
For all the new and interesting plants Andrew recommends, I found some suggested plants like Mugo Pine and Lamb’s Ears to be a bit quotidian. For a book that encourages us to look for better options out there, in these cases especially, there are better options out there. (Marrubium rotundifolium or Salvia argentea instead of Lamb’s Ears; or a miniature white pine instead of a Mugo). But therein lies the spirit of the book—that for every plant that is tried and true, there is usually something untried and transcendent.