Timber Press Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

Should I buy this for my home library? This is the toughest question I can ask about a book, as I have a library of 15,000 horticultural titles at my professional fingertips. And my first impression of Gardening in the Pacific Northwest was . . . no.

Why? Like most of my fellow plant elitists, I first turned to the book’s encyclopedia, quickly dismissed it as too mundane for my tastes and experience level, and closed the book. Fortunately, I had reason to give Gardening in the Pacific Northwest a second read, and this time I started at the beginning.

With many reference books, especially gardening books, you can jump in and read only the sections of particular interest. But this book should be read . . . well . . . like a book: from beginning to end. By doing so, you allow the carefully crafted presentation by authors Carol and Norman Hall to unfold as they intended.

They begin by defining the region: Oregon and Washington west of the Cascades, with bits of southwestern British Columbia and northern-most California. They give well-reasoned arguments for this definition, but it also closely matches the areas in which they’ve lived and gardened—forty years together, with an accumulated total of 116 gardening years. These are experienced Pacific Northwest gardeners!

Next, they give an outstanding and most detailed accounting of the climate, topography, soils, and every other factor that impacts a garden—first, for the region as a whole, and then by carefully nuanced sub-regions. Turning to my own, I read,

Puget Sound soil is a mixture that almost defies description . . . one garden here can have soil of completely different texture, composition, drainage, fertility, and pH than that of a garden just down the street.

Can’t argue with that.

Other books similarly define gardening zones or regions, but none are so compelling as to make me read outside my own region, as this one did. (The authors should consider travel writing.) But the best was still to come.

Chapter four, Where Our Plants Come From, is a must-read for any serious Pacific Northwest gardener. Starting in Japan, the authors take us around the world, introducing the defining climatic elements of each area, and giving a detailed review of the native plants that will do well for us, that will get by, and that should be avoided (including an articulate side box regarding the threat from invasive plants).

But their comments go far beyond a simple plant list. In discussing Europe, the Halls astutely observe,

The greatest similarity in cultural conditions between the Pacific Northwest and Europe is human culture . . . we somehow automatically think European natives belong in our own gardens, whether or not they’re actually well suited . . .

The global tour is comprehensive, including even a few adaptable plants from the tropics. The tour finishes with our own native plants, rightly noting that, while many are excellent garden candidates, others are less suitable for cultivated or urban settings.

The rest of the book is more the garden handbook I first took the whole to be, with a useful gardening calendar and results-oriented chapters on the problems (pests, weeds, etc) associated with gardening. At the core are several chapters organized by plant groups, but this is not a comprehensive plant encyclopedia. Instead the authors present a highly selected listing of plants “. . . blatantly biased toward our personal favorites.”

These favorites may not inspire the adventuresome plant connoisseur, even though the authors are clearly familiar with an extensive plant palette. Instead, they highlight plants that are “. . . naturally healthy, vigorous, and hardy everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.” This allows a gardener at any level of experience to accept the plant recommendations with confidence.

So, is this book on my home shelf? Not yet, but it will be. Is this the essential reference for the region, as suggested by the subtitle? Given the many fine works written by other regional authors in recent years, this is an arguable point. But, is this book a worthy addition to the Pacific Northwest gardener’s bookshelf? Absolutely.

Brian Thompson, curator/Elisabeth C Miller Library
Seattle, Washington