If you love trees, read this book

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)  photo by Rob Young

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) photo by Rob Young

“Trees,” by Charles Fenyvesi (Avon Books; $8), is one of the most delightful plant books to appear in recent years. It is mainly an impressionistic study yet contains both scientific research and practical wisdom.
It is among several books gardeners and their friends can consider for holiday giving.
Fenyvesi’s insights are shared with disarming candor in an unassuming voice. Because of this, his writing is both memorable and persuasive.
“Fall is the prime season of the root,” the author writes. “More than 80 percent of all root development takes place during the fall. . . . Even when the air temperature drops, the roots, insulated by the soil, keep absorbing nutrients and moisture, and they thicken and spread. . . . On account of the peak root activity, fall is the best time to plant most trees.”
Other tree-planting recommendations also are noteworthy.
“There must be a distance of at least 20 feet between the tree and the house – and 30 is even better. If the tree is closer, roots in search of moisture and nourishment may probe the weaknesses of a cinder-block foundation or a concrete patio, and the odds are better than even that both the tree and the structure will suffer as a result.”
By this standard, probably half the trees in Los Angeles are planted too close to the foundations of houses and other buildings.
On planting-hole specifications, he refers to the International Society of Arboriculture, which now advises digging “a satellite-dish hole” no deeper than the depth of the tree rootball but, ideally, three times the width.
Contrasting opinions of various tree experts are offered on a variety of topics. The author concludes that “gardening is a craft practiced by individuals rather than a science seeking consensus.”
Another book, “500 Terrific Ideas for Gardening,” by Ann Halpin (Simon & Schuster; $10.99), is a collection of single-paragraph “how-to” tips, garden design recommendations and solutions to gardening problems. This would make an excellent gift for the gardener, novice or expert, in your life.
I discovered some time ago that snails could be kept out of the garden by using as a mulch the chopped-up leaves and branches produced by tree trimmers. However, I still have problems with slugs.
Halpin suggests a mulch of shredded pine bark to repel these shell-less, slimy creatures. Pine bark and other exotic mulches are available through companies listed under “Soil Conditioners” in the yellow pages.
A sage piece of advice is offered to beginning gardeners.
“Plant your garden as close to the house as possible, so you will pass through it often. Close contact with the garden allows you to spot problems when they first appear, before they have a chance to really take hold.”
To select plants for shady locations, remember that “most broad-leafed evergreens tolerate – or even prefer – some shade. The shrubs with the biggest leaves can stand the most shade.”
When planning a shade garden, aside from the traditional azaleas and camellias, make sure you consider abelia, mahonia, barberry, holly, aucuba and viburnum.
“The American Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia of Gardening” (Dorling Kindersley; $59.95) is a book for experienced gardeners who want to refine skills or fill gaps in their practical knowledge.
Despite its size (648 pages), this is not a reference volume for armchair students of horticulture, but a hands-on guide for people whose own lives are inseparable from the lives of their plants. Don’t pick up this book unless spending time with plants is a top priority in your life; otherwise, you will find it tedious and frustrating.
Propagation is a major focus of the book. Virtually any plant in your garden can be propagated, whether from seed, shoot cutting or by grafting. To be a successful propagator, timing is of critical importance. For instance, boxwood and butterfly bush are best propagated from hardwood cuttings taken during this time of the year.
A shortcoming of the book as far as Californians are concerned is its eastern U.S. orientation. However, sections devoted to succulents, ornamental grasses and other dry climate plants are included.
The photography is exceptional, particularly the close-ups of a gardener’s hands engaged in pruning, potting or propagation.

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