Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tomorrow's Garden

This is a beautiful book. One look and I was excited to read it. The photographs are lovely and eclectic, the layout is modern and appealing, the binding is sleek and satisfying to hold. But overall, I can't recommend it.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad book. Stephen Orr is a good writer, and as an aesthetic object, the book gets an A+. But it's not the book I expected and if I'd paid hard earned money for it, I'd be taking it back to Barnes & Noble or sending it back to Amazon.

To be absolutely clear, I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher. I think there's an unwritten understanding among reviewers that if you don't like a book you just don't review it. But is that fair? Fair to the readers, I mean? I think not.

As I looked at my notes, it dawned on me why I was so disappointed: the book doesn't live up to its PR. The promo sent out by Rodale says that the gardens in this book aren't oversize or over the top; it promises gardening instructions, tips, and demonstrations. The Amazon blurb says the book presents gardens in 14 American cities that are scaled back and simplified.

What planet do these people live on? Maybe on the planet of Oh-My-God-I-Have-So-Much-Money-I-Blow-My-Nose-With-It, these gardens would be considered scaled back and simple. But it's time for a reality check. Do you own a building in NYC where you can plant a bi-level garden, part intensive green roof and part kitchen garden? Or perhaps you own a manse on Nantucket, gracefully located between the harbor and an obligingly scenic salt marsh. No? Too bad.

There are a few normal-ish gardens (a backyard in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, some community gardens), but the overall tone of the gardens featured here is ritzy, expensive, and professionally designed. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just isn't as advertised.

Which brings me to point # 2: 14 American cities. Yes. Well. Um. Technically I suppose it's true. But 8 of those cities are in two clusters in CA, where the climate doesn't even remotely resemble that of most of the U.S. Can you grow staghorn fern on your back fence? Me neither. But they can in LA and Venice. Maybe even in Ojai. The Bay Area is also well-represented: SanFran, Berkeley, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Napa. If you live there, you may indeed find some inspiration in the photos and plant lists.

I could go on about the fact that there's no index, the print is surprisingly small (10 pt?), and the captions (admittedly, in a more normal size print) are in pale green ink. But now I just sound petty. And I do have some positive comments. Stephen's writing really is very good. He keeps you interested even through descriptions of things most people will never have in their gardens. (If I ever install a gabion, I'll have to eat my hat.) The photography is top notch, and I got a few tidbits of solid info from the book, mostly relating to gravel. Seriously.

I did not know (and I am glad to now know) that pea gravel is not a renewable resource. It's strip mined! Also, in one of the very few how-to sections of the book, Stephen gives good instructions on how to lay down gravel. I'm not obsessed with gravel, but I DO like a good how-to.

Bottom line: the book isn't bad, but don't believe the PR. If you're looking for beautiful images of fancy, designer gardens, this might be an inspiring book for you. But if you're looking for practical information on how to make your own garden more at one with your surroundings and more environmentally friendly, this is probably not your best bet.

None of this is the author's fault! Which is why I feel bad about not being able to write a more positive review. So here's a suggestion for any publicists reading this: Do right by your authors and offer an accurate description of what the book REALLY is. He/she has worked hard and shouldn't have to suffer through tepid reviews just because a surly reader didn't get what she expected.


Laura W said...

I appreciate your honest review, and wish more folks would publish both their positive and negative opinions about books, tools, etc. Very refreshing pov, thanks!

Ellen Spector Platt said...

Betsy said:What a great post. I enjoyed every word. Your voice came thru loud and clear. I'll bet there is a market for a practical do-it-yourself book for city gardeners. You and Ellen could write it. Maybe just for the East coast, Washington to Maine,or Delaware to Maine. Perhaps with a focus on rooftops, alleys and containers of all sorts, beginning with 5 gallon buckets.

Urban Gardens said...

Brilliant and honest review. I still want to read the book as I am now curious and also the voyeur in me lusts for such inspiration. But I see your well made points and it just tells us that there is a market for that other kind of book--the one that offers inspiration and also tips for the not so lavish urban gardens. Those are the spaces that call out for real creativity.

Frank said...

" Oh-My-God-I-Have-So-Much-Money-I-Blow-My-Nose-With-It"

Love that. But really, even if you do have it, you shouldn't do it because it's dirty ;)

Maybe the easy to photograph glitz is harder to find in modest home gardens. There is a new attitude, however, and it deserves attention. Has this book already been written? Gardens for blokes who net under 30K? I wish I had property, maybe I'd start writing.

Negative reviews are fine with me.

Marie said...

Frank, start writing anyway...

Ellen - After our lunch discussion, and the fact that I'm sitting with the same book to review, what do I do? And I feel exactly the same way about the gravel! I did not know that about gravel.

I shall read the rest and give it a think. If I can manage the small size print!

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Well Ellen, this took courage.

Thanks so much for the frank review. I too respect his writing, but agree, enough already of the glitzy, I've got money spewing from everywhere, attitude.

Hmmm, wonder if Rodale will send you any more books to review??

I think that the comment number 2 must be from Betsy Williams. I agree with her, but then I USUSALLY do. I think such a book wouldn't need to focus on the northeast. Jeff and I were recently in Savannah and saw some good little alleyways planted like paradise.

All small garden joys to you,

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

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