Read This: The New Southern Living Garden Book

The New Southern Living Garden Book

South by Southwest (SXSW) is not only the name of Austin’s famous music/film/interactive festival, but it also happens to be descriptive of our gardening culture. Here, the South meets the Southwest, with the Balcones Fault roughly delineating the division. Deep clay soil tends to be found east of the fault line, thin soil atop chalky caliche to the west. Both types run alkaline, making it challenging to grow acidic-soil Southern staples like azalea, dogwood, and camellia.

Although I’ve gardened on both sides of the fault line, and despite my South Carolina upbringing, I prefer Austin’s rugged, dry-adapted Hill Country style to Deep South verdant greenery. My own garden is definitely SxSW, but in gardening books I gravitate toward those with a Southwestern sensibility, not Southern. So it was with a little hesitation that I cracked open The New Southern Living Garden Book (Oxmoor House, 2015), edited by Southern Living magazine’s garden editor Steve Bender, aka the Grumpy Gardener.

I needn’t have hesitated. While the introduction plays up the history and gardening culture of the Deep South, the meat of the book is its plant reference section, which covers the South from Maryland to Florida and from North Carolina to central Texas. The South is, of course, geographically large and climatically diverse, ranging from mountains to low country, subtropical to temperate. With that in mind, not every featured plant is suitable for all parts of the South. But you’ll find plenty of plants listed for each growing zone and soil type, including the limestone soils of central Texas. With coverage of 8,000 plants (including many edibles) and 2,000 color photos, this textbook-sized paperback is jam-packed with information. Just thinking about all the research, writing, and editing it required makes me want to collapse on a porch rocker, under a haint-blue ceiling, with a glass of sweet tea in my hand.

I see this book as being most useful for researching plants you’ve encountered in a nursery or online and wondered how they might perform in your garden, rather than as a book to read straight through. Your intrepid garden blogger did, however, read through it page by page, quickly scanning some plants and reading others in detail. I found the descriptions of familiar plants to be not only accurate but detailed, well written, and occasionally witty. This is dense but not dry reading!

Experienced gardeners will enjoy reading up on less-familiar or zone-pushing plants they’re thinking of trying, while newbie gardeners will find solid information about plants commonly found in local nurseries or passed along from gardener to gardener. Also, new gardeners will especially appreciate the final section, which contains practical gardening how-tos, from preparing soil and proper pruning techniques to growing edibles and gardening for wildlife. All in all, this is an excellent reference for Southern gardeners (including us central Texans) and anyone on the fringe of Southern states.

I have two minor complaints. There’s a briefly confusing copy-editing error on page 64, with text that clearly belongs in a different section. Also, the font size in the plant reference section is so small I had trouble reading it. This section spans pages 124 to 651, so that’s a lot of squinting.

Even so, a few new crow’s feet are a small price to pay for the wealth of information and generous plant photos that make this book such a good resource for those of us gardening in hot and humid, long-summer climates. Add The New Southern Living Garden Book to your reading list this summer, as you lounge on the porch (or inside with the A/C), sip your iced tea, and await the fall gardening season.

Disclosure: I know editor Steve Bender personally. Oxmoor House sent me a copy of The New Southern Living Garden Book 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 © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

10 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    North Carolina gardener here. I appreciate your review. I tried to click on the book, but there is no link anywhere in your post.

  2. A very useful review. Sounds like a good reference book. It also sound like quite an undertaking to put it all together. Putting in on my list.

  3. Nathan Unclebach says:

    I own previous editions and I love them! Can’t wait to get this one!

  4. TexasDeb says:

    I have grown (or at least tried to grow!) every plant shown on the cover minus one, so it seems this book is a solid reference for our region, whether looking for old Austin Southern style plants (lawdy Missus Pam! Althea!) or more recently widely appreciated standards such as purple coneflower.

    I’m going out on a limb and betting, sight unseen, the font used for the plant descriptions is in the same realm as those used on those little plastic pot markers at the nurseries. There is no justice for the presbyopic among us!

  5. I like this invitation to look east again after long years of our drought-driven western focus. I’m fond of saying we live at the cross-roads of wet and dry, and hot and cold. So apart from the robust philosophical question of water resource management in the population growth environment, it’s fun to look all directions for inspiration and enjoyment for our central Texas gardens!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      We are definitely at the crossroads, which makes exploring gardens here pretty exciting. You never know exactly what you’ll find growing in someone’s garden. —Pam

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