June 6, 2015


Ken Druse proves not only that his talent is still relevant today, he reinvents the shade gardening genre with his newest book, THE NEW SHADE GARDEN. Today, shade gardening can mean so many things, dry, water wise gardens, mossy gardens, or woodland plants integrated into natural plantings.
My gardening library is full of Ken Druse gardening books.  Rich with his gorgeous photos and well informed horticultural text, they were some of the most influential gardening books for me, as I a started rebuilding this old family garden of 4 generations just when I bought the house back from my family. Even today, it's a little ridiculous how many influences  I can trace back to his books, in particular his book THE COLLECTORS GARDEN (now available in paperback), which introduced me to many of the rare trees and plant ( and eventually, to almost all of the folks profiled in it as now most have become my friends). How many books and authors can do that?

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What was once just a novelty subject in the gardening world where the only solution was either hosta or ephemeral wildflowers, has evolved into numerous solutions which are often more sustainable, responsible and even horticulturally  more interesting - Ken makes the argument that shade gardening itself, is now 'new' too.

Regardless of the fact that  Ken's publicist approached me to see if I would review his latest book - THE NEW SHADE GARDEN just published by Stewart, Tabori and Change, but I hope that it seems obvious that this would be no problem for me. Sorry - no giveaway, usually they send us bloggers two but some publishers don't do this, and well, this is one book that I want to keep. If you love books, this is a large book, hardcover and full of both terrific content found in few other books, and many, beautiful images - after all, it is a Ken Druse book, an author and horticulturist who has that special talent to combine a love for visual language with the mind of a plant person. This book is the perfect addition for both the thinking gardener and for the visual gardener. It's kind-of who Ken Druse is himself, which makes the content in this tome not only original, it makes it truly authentic.

I thought that I would take a photo showing some of the Ken Druse books in my library, but I noticed that THE COLLECTORS GARDEN was missing - actually, it sits upstairs by my bedside as I reference it so much. These are books you will want to journey through on snowy days over and over again.

Ken's books though are not necessarily for the plant geek, they appeal to a much broader audience, perhaps broader than any other garden writers creating books today, as he actually thinks holistically about his books ( being a designer, photographer and plant person himself). His books are never dumbed down (except for that chapter title called GOT SHADE, but I'll blame that on his editor), or over-simplified, - tang gardeners will find these books interesting and helpful. There are highly interesting plants ( you will want to make plant lists),  combined with common plants that are often used in smart ways, all illustrated in beautiful photography which by itself merits focus (one of these days, a gallery or museum will feature his work, as first and foremost, Ken Druse is a talented artist and photographer and an alum of RISD.).

I feel so disappointed when I buy a gardening book which focuses on a subject or theme, such as shade gardening, only to discover that 3/4 of the book is just an encyclopedia of plants. Not this book - Ken creates interesting chapters, and illustrates a story for each one. His talent for photography, stye and horticulture doesn't' hurt, either.

This book I believe marks a big departure for Ken though, and although he would never admit it, I know just how challenging and difficult it can be to leave behind large format, traditional photography which was Ken's expertise back 20 years ago. As digital photography came along, few artists were able to make that transition elegantly, either holding on to the older, slower medium, or just giving up. I can only assume that Ken had some hurdles to overcome given my knowledge of his immense library of slides and transparencies which many of us in the plant world knew that he kept and protected. Somehow, he made this leap, and whether it was with confidence or fear, this book proves that his talent and art jumped along with him.

I so appreciate that his publisher continues to keep the larger, hard-cover format of his past books. As a graphic designer myself, the typography is thoughtful and elegant, as is the book layout which returns to Ken's original and more familiar model of grids and full page images which both set a tone, and carry the reader on a journey where they can both read good content, and be inspired by imagery. A rare task, and one which few books do very well.
In my own garden, there are many influences gathered from Ken's books. Even though I use a few hosta here, this THE NEW SHADE GARDEN doesn't default to recommendations of hosta and epimendium - it offers cleaver options for everyone, even the Californian gardener or the Austrailian shade gardener.

In a time when most gardening books which focus on a thematic subject default to an encyclopedic review of plants, Ken's books never take this route, a fact which I too am most grateful for. These books might appeal to the meta geek or beginning gardener, but in a world of Google Images and Pinterest, who needs an encyclopedia of all the plants one can grow in the shade. I want interesting planting combinations, I want to see other peoples gardens, and I really want to see what a plant looks like in different settings.

Ken has repurposed a few images from his past books ( in particular, the famous moss stairs designed by Fletcher Steele in the Mrs. Robert Stoddard Garden - stairs which I spent 6 years of my life on weeding by hand as this was my first job back in 1970-something), but each image was thoughtfully curated, obviously by Ken, so it works.

I started planting trillium species after reading Ken's first shade gardening book, today, I continue to buy every species I can find of this North American native, including raising some from seed.

If you are thinking that this second shade gardening book from Ken till just repeat much of what existed in his first book, relax, it doesn't.  In the 1990's, hosta, hellebores and epimediums were just coming onto the gardening scene, so of course, his first book introduced us to sources and ways to plant these woodland plants in ways that no other book ever did, but THE NEW SHADE GARDEN, is just that - a new book, with new ideas, and new, relevant issues. Ken shares thoughts on many subjects from global warming to sensible advice for water-wise gardens - he even addresses or shall I say, dances between controversial subjects such as the use of compost tea and sustainability, without really recommending one side of the political issue or the other - he just thankfully provides facts from both sides. Maybe our Senate can use a little Drusian injection, as often there is no right answer to many of this issues.

In the end, THE NEW SHADE GARDEN should offer both inspiration to both the new and the experienced gardener, as well as providing visual delight to the artistic aesthete.


  1. Like you, I have all Ken's book and so am very excited by your description of this news one. Raining here, so sounds like book shopping is in order.

  2. john in cranston10:18 PM

    A friend gave me a $50 gift certificate in January for my 50th. Now I have something to spend it on...
    Convincing review.
    Can't wait for it to arrive.


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