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.