January 21, 2020

Two Outstanding Gardening Books for those Long, Winter Nights

Two rock stars of the gardening world have recently release significant works worthy of any gardeners bookshelf.
Ken Druse's 'The Scentual Garden' and Amy Goldman's The 'Melon' will inspire, inform and entertain you this winter as you plan your summer garden. I promise.

I just realized that these two books (The Melon by Amy Goldman and the Scentual Garden by Ken Druse) essentially deal with, well, sensuality. While one can certainly draw lines to why flowers are fragrant or why melons are luscious and desirable, the many metaphors aside, there should be no doubt that these books might be a good excuse to give a book as a gift for Valentine's Day to your secret (or not so secret) admirer? Certainly, I approve if you just buy them for yourself to get lost in on these cold, winter nights.

I have high standards for the gardening books I invest in. They might be beautifully designed, well crafted and printed on quality paper or the subject matter may be unique, but above all, they must be useful. Usefulness can be defined in a few ways as I'm not necessarily looking for a textbook or an encyclopedia but 'usefulness' can certainly be all about learning something new, referenceable (accuracy, factual and not simple second-hand information gathered from Google searches) and even inspirational - as a book with just lovely photos of gardens can be a journey that leads to new ideas.
Here are three books that have recently come across my desk and seem to deliver all of this.

Amy Goldman's newest book reads like a monography on the melon, but it is so much more. Artistic, scientific, botanically interesting and a cultural handbook. It's so beautiful that you won't want to put it on your bookshelf, and I promise that you'll be making room for melons this year (or at least following the many recipes in the last chapter in your kitchen!).

THE MELON - by Amy Goldman (City Point Press, 2019)

I've been waiting for this for years, as I knew that Amy was working on a revision of her first book on Melons entitled: Melons for the Passionate Grower (2002, Artisan) - still a useful book, but this new one is at least twice as large physically and has nearly three times the page count, most every one featuring stunning photography by Victor Schrager (from those early Martha Stewart Living magazines that we all hoard secretly in our closets).

Many melon groups and varieties are broken out into detailed sections with historical facts and many corrections to legends and lore that often comes with heirloom varieties of vegetables.

I could go on and on about each of Amy's books and about how useful and beautiful they are, but really - experience them for yourself.  Few, if any gardening books, in my opinion, offer such a wealth of accurate and well-researched information as do Amy's. A long-time philanthropist with hands in many initiatives ranging from global issues concerning agriculture, food supplies, and nature, Amy is well known amongst most scientists involved in agricultural crop research (particularly Cucurbitaceae and tomatoes) and not surprising - to gardening geeks.

Amy's experience, support, and involvement in other passion projects connect her to a wealth of information and resources few have access to. The best part is that this book is also written and illustrated in such a way that it's like a documentary because it entertains, inspires and delights us. It's easy to get the big picture regardless of how experienced you are. It's organized by the key groups of melons which helps one understand their fundamental differences.  There are precise descriptions about each melon variety, with history and facts, information on how to get seed and how to grow them to perfection. 

In a nutshell, here is what makes Amy's books so valuable. She is one of the very few authors who approaches her topics with expertise garnered not just from years of research but from first-hand from experience. I know this because Joe and I have been fortunate to visit her farm in upstate New York, we've toured through the fields of squashes, heirloom, and new ones, through acres of tomatoes, fields, and fields of peppers, and we've seen (and yes, tasted) many of here hundred of heirloom and new melons. I mean, even seed catalogs rarely grow everything that they sell.  her approach is old-school, 19th-century farm-style. Her fields are her laboratory and serve a bit like a museum of human agriculture.  One goes to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to see the floor with the skeletons of all the giant land sloths in one room, and one goes to Amy Goldman's farm in September to see almost every variety of melon known to humankind all in one barn.

Melons on Amy Goldman's farm are trialed often for years (some up to seven, others even longer) before she writes about them. Each is subjected to tests for sugar content, taste and in the kitchen.  Amy makes notes year after year in trials before writing about a melon, noting cultural quirks and performance in the field as well as noting failures and successes.  The information in this book in invaluable, but somehow, so readable, I can't even think of a book that does all of this. Her farm is life the 'America's Test Kitchen' for gardeners.

I won't wax on, but know that beyond the research, artistic photography and beautiful book design thanks to Doyle and Partners, the written word is by far even more useful. Like any of Amy's previous books there are fascinating stories behind every heirloom variety, clear descriptions about the merits of each variety, be they luscious, sweet-as-candy or 'not-worth pig fodder'. I find the lists of synonyms most useful as many of us know, over centuries, varieties often get muddled.

Few, if any books can create spreads like those seen in this book. Photographer Victor Schrager actually creates a studio inside Amy Goldman's barn as she hauls in melon after melon from her fields all summer long. Freshly picked, identified, labeled and photographed is only part of the story here. 

Oh, and this. As my friend Jess said one day over the Holiday when I was talking about this book: "who the Hell would buy a gardening book that is just all about melons?"
OK, well, I would, and I rarely grow melons, but I know that I can (I know this because every few years I do, and I never regret it because melons are one of the few fruits that you can rarely buy ripe and locally-grown. This means the few of us have ever truly experienced what made melons so popular centuries ago. I'm not kidding, melons are worth growing in much the same way that tomatoes are.

I appreciate any book that has step-by-step photos in it, especially when it if for something like how to pollinate or crossbreed cucurbits like melons or cucumbers. 

Amy's book THE MELON has details about how to grow them well, how to sow them and start them early, and how to navigate around any problems. Even if you don't plan on growing melons, this book is a great read, informative on many levels and useful if you are a home chef, professional chef or just an amateur foodie.  I should mention that Amy's is a rather good cook herself, and has included many recipes in the back of the book with stunning photos so even armchair gardeners might find this book useful as a cookbook!

Ken Druse's newest work THE SCENTUAL GARDEN  is much more than just. a book with photos, it's a journal of discoveries, learnings, and inspiration that any gardener will appreciate.

THE SCENTUAL GARDEN - Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance
by Ken Druse (Abrams, 2019)

ll disclosure - I learned about Ken's new book a couple of years ago while I was setting up the national show of the American Primrose Society at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. A long fan of artist Ellen Hoverkamp who mentioned to me that she was working with Ken on a book idea he had about fragrant plants (Ellen created many of the montage photos in this book with here unique photo-scanner style that she has made so famous). She said that she was going to stay late at the garden to see if she could photograph some of the lemon trees for the citrus assemblage that she was working on, when I offered that if she wanted, she could stop by my garden on her way home to Connecticut to see if there were any fragrant plants there that she or Ken might want to use.

This book has both artistic photos and garden photos. This allows one to view all the similarities and differences with 'like-plants' such as these alliums, but also see how they might look like growing in the garden.

In the end, a few plants did make it into the book from my garden (a page on daphne species, some bulb plants, and citrus), but I almost forgot about this book until Ken had emailed me near the end of the editing process asking me for some descriptions about the unique fragrance of a few bulbs. If you own any of Ken's books then you know about his approach, background, and expertise. Few garden authors today brings such a wealth of experience to a book. His years as one of New York's premier photographers (back when photography was truly an art form with 8x10 transparencies and large format cameras). This means that Ken brings not only the eye for excellence and lighting with his photos, but he also brings knowledge that few today can combine which in my opinion makes him the ideal photo editor, garden writer and book designer. Believe me, I know what it takes to create a well-designed book in a digital world! I can only imagine what working with Ken might have been like from his publishers' perspective, but I would imagine and hope that Abrams (very respectfully) appreciated his input and control.

When a plant lover and serious plantsperson creates a book about something like fragrance, no stone is left unturned. Fragrance can mean 'stinky' or alluring, but Ken Druse digs deeper into all sorts of adjacencies with plants and how or why they use fragrance and scent. It's a fascinating read.

This book is stunning (no surprise, what Druse book isn't) but while even I thought that maybe it was just a photo book discovered that moment that I opened it that it is much, much more. Ken writes about how the scent was appreciated (and sometimes, not) in ancient times to today. He taps into details about the complexities of the fragrance industry, examines the chemistry of flowers and the plants we both love the smell of and hate, and he then goes into greater detail about groups of plants and flowers that share similar scents, with descriptions worthy of a wine connoisseurs notebook or a cheese monger's book of descriptions (hello: baryardy?). I've been keeping this book by my bedside at night then bring it downstairs on snowy days to read through near my plant window - just because it's that good. It's one of those few books that I have to resist enjoying it too quickly, just because I don't want the experience to end.

Ellen Hoverkamp's artwork using a laser scanner and plants from gardens that she has access to round out this book with beauty and celebration, capturing each season or even each week of bloom from real gardens. Anyone who grows plants will recognize these relationships in her images.

Both of these books are art. They are 'work's that will never be in that pile of books that gets earmarked for the trash bin or for donation (you know what I mean!). These books will bring you joy (over and over again). They are not one-read-wonders.

I also should preface this post with the fact that  I purchased Ken Druse's book myself on Amazon and Amy Goldman's I accepted gratis from her publicist as a review copy (of course, I was pre-ordering it anyway!). As always, my reviews and recommendations are my own and always come honestly after reading a book in its totality. I like books, what can I say? I also not afraid to advise when a book wasn't right for me, or if it fails to deliver what was promised.