Read This: Texas Getting Started Garden Guide

A new book for Texas gardeners

As a new gardener in central, south, or west Texas, you soon learn that most gardening books and magazines feature plants you can never grow and gardening advice that isn’t applicable to our climate. They’ll go on about summer as the high point of the gardening season, when you know darn well that it’s spring or fall, depending on your preference. Summer is a time for hunkering down in the A/C and dreaming of your next gardening project, not for any actual planting aside from popping an agave or yucca in the ground where your fetishized hydrangea, hosta, or heuchera just bit the dust.

So when a book about Texas gardening appears, I jump on it, although not without some trepidation. After all, Texas is a huge state, almost 800 miles wide and encompassing four USDA climate zones, with desert, plains, subtropical, coastal, and woodland ecologies. On the eastern side of the state, Houston gets 50 inches of rain in an average year; on the western side, El Paso receives less than 8 inches. Soil is largely acidic to the east and alkaline to the west, which, combined with average rainfall, is a huge factor in what kinds of plants will thrive in your garden.

Mary Irish, author of Texas Getting Started Garden Guide: Grow the Best Flowers, Shrubs, Trees, Vines & Groundcovers (Cool Springs Press, 2013), recognizes “the presumption,” as she puts it, of covering all of Texas. Her solution is to profile only (or mostly) those plants that thrive throughout the state. I was dubious at first, expecting that I’d see a lot of generic plant picks of the sort found in Neil Sperry’s Complete Guide to Texas Gardening (whose general gardening info is, however, still helpful to a beginner) — serviceable but uninspired plants like holly, liriope, and juniper. Instead, I was pleased to detect a bias toward drought-tolerant and native plants that grow well in the central, southern, and western parts of the state. I don’t know how East Texas gardeners will view Irish’s plant picks. For my part, I rejoiced in their applicability to my underserved region.

After 25 years in Arizona, where she served as Director of Public Horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden, Irish returned to her home state of Texas in 2012 and now runs the plant sales program at San Antonio Botanical Garden. With a number of desert-gardening books to her name, Irish certainly knows and appreciates dry-climate plants. However, lest you worry that the book is all about agaves and prickly pears, let me assure you that those make up only a small portion of her plant profiles.

Image courtesy of Cool Springs Press

Irish devotes a chapter each to annuals; bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers; desert perennials (cactus, plus what I call woody lilies); grasses; perennials; roses; shrubs; trees; and vines. Each featured plant, 172 in all, receives an entire page of information, including bloom period, size, botanical pronunciation, care suggestions, and companion planting and design tips. Helpfully, a final paragraph offers additional plant picks that are similar in some way to the featured plant, or that perhaps grow better in a particular part of the state. In all, they add up to several hundred plant recommendations. Irish is an engaging writer, providing succinct but evocative descriptions of each plant and often including personal reminiscences, which give the book a friendly tone. I particularly appreciated her ideas for companion plants; you can use these to put together an attractive combo or even fill an entire planting bed.

I do have a few quibbles. My eye was drawn to a number of typos, and I couldn’t help thinking that the book would have benefited from one more round of proofreading. For each plant profile, I would have liked a symbol indicating deer resistance, since that’s a big issue for many gardeners. Also, a map symbol to clearly indicate which part of Texas each plant is best suited to would have been helpful for new gardeners who aren’t as familiar with their soil types. Irish often includes such information in the text, but having it right at the top would have been nice. Finally, the title is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not really a primer on how to garden in Texas. It’s primarily a plant guidebook for Texas gardeners, and an excellent one at that.

Aside from these small issues, I found this to be a very useful book, one that any Texas gardener will appreciate. You’ll want to add this one to your holiday wish list.

Disclosure: Cool Springs Press sent me a copy of Texas Getting Started Garden Guide for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

2 Responses

  1. Kris P says:

    California gardeners face many of the same issues with general garden books – our best gardening seasons are also spring and fall and this is also a big state (tho’ not as big as Texas!) with a wide range of climates. (And, no, contrary to popular opinion, we can’t grow everything!) I was curious and checked Cool Springs’ book list to see if they offered something similar for CA gardeners. There is a CA guide, labeled volume II although there appears to be no volume I – still, I may order it as, after all, I haven’t bought a new garden book in at least a month…

    Good point about California gardening conditions, Kris, although I’m envious of your Sunset magazine and gardening-book series, which serve your region so well. I also like the way you think with regard to needing a new garden book at least once a month. :-) —Pam

  2. Marilyn Rodriguez says:

    I really enjoy your book reviews. As I am building my gardening library, I look to your blog for solid recommendations and critiques.

    That’s so nice to hear, Marilyn. I hope you’ll come back after you read this book and share your own impression. —Pam