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BOOK REVIEWS

The Dry Garden
Gardening with Drought-tolerant Plants


By Jane Taylor
Published by Godwit Press, Auckland, New Zealand, 1993

Reviewed by Ross Ferguson

This book appears to be a direct reprint of Plants for dry gardens, first published in the United Kingdom this year. Ms Taylor is a well known gardening writer, justifiably respected for her knowledge, her accuracy, and her style. Her previous books have proved most popular, and this new book has also been well received overseas. It appears to have been written for the international market, with great emphasis being placed on hardiness zones (although these are rather perfunctorily defined, without maps of the zones). The question, then, is whether this is a suitable book for New Zealand.

Many parts of New Zealand, especially those east of the main divide, have relatively low rainfall and can suffer extended dry periods. Even in much wetter areas, such as Auckland, gardens may require frequent watering during the summer, particularly those gardens that are on lighter soils. For gardeners in this country, the main use of this book is probably indicated by the subtitle, Gardening with drought-tolerant plants. A knowledge of which plants can tolerate drought, which look good under dry conditions, and which can withstand the owners' absence on extended summer holidays can only be very helpful.

A wide range of plants are described under the logical headings of trees and shrubs, conifers, palms and cycads, climbers, perennials and ephemerals, bulbs, grasses, succulents, and xeropytes. All this in just on 160 pages. The inevitable consequence is that many of the descriptions are very brief, often with cursory, indeed superficial, information as to the plant's form and the growing conditions required. Here, I would have preferred more details as to the amount of water needed than hardiness. Other important information is also not included, e.g., very sparse details are given as to the eventual size of the trees and shrubs.

The plants listed vary greatly in their suitability for New Zealand gardens — some would be only half-hardy in the north, others are only too well adapted to our growing conditions. Jack Hobbs in his rather cautious introduction issues a public health warning about 18 of the genera listed. Certainly gardeners here would be ill advised to follow the advice that the Chinese privet (Ligustrum lucidum) is "even more beautiful... an indispensable tree or large shrub for dry or desert gardens wherever the winters are mild enough for it to thrive." Even more misleading for novice gardeners in this country is the comment that "Crocosmia x crocosmiflora, the montbretia, increases fast to form weed-excluding carpets of narrow, arching, fresh green sword leaves." Weed-excluders are too often weeds under another name. Expected plants are missing — for example, proteas, leucodendrons, leucospermums, and many of the South African bulbs that do so well in much of New Zealand. These problems are perhaps inevitable when a book is written for many different markets with gardens having such different growing conditions.

The Dry Garden is very well produced: the binding is strong, the type good and clear, the layout most attractive. There is a pleasing absence of misprints, and Ms Taylor has obviously made a special effort to cheek nomenclature and adopt more recent changes. Many of the photographs are superb, and most are informative, giving a reliable indication of the plant. Some I found most irritating, being just out of focus; these appear to be mostly by the one photographer.

The back cover of The Dry Garden states that "this is the first guide to choosing plants that will flourish during water shortages." This is certainly not true, and I can think of a number of books on gardens for drier climates or on Mediterranean plants. A good example is Beth Chatto's The Dry Garden (J.M. Dent, 1978), which is almost dowdy in comparison, but much richer in detail and especially valuable for its discussion of general principles.

I enjoyed reading Jane Taylor's The Dry Garden. It is well written and attractive, it made me think, it gave me ideas as to what plants to try, it was certainly good browsing on a cold and wet night during the Auckland winter. I would recommend it, and would be happy to lend my copy. However, it doesn't compare with some other books on the same subject. Now Beth Chatto's book is one to treasure, one to be lent to only trusted gardening friends who are also rapid readers!

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1993 4(2): 18

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