ST. JOHN’S, NL — “There are very few, if any, publications on how to garden specifically in acidic soil; in fact, many books provide the opposite – advice on how to make the soil less acidic. We live by the saying, “If life gives you lemons…make lemonade.” Working with nature, rather than trying to change it.
Horticulturists (and photographers) Todd Boland and Jamie Ellison have teamed up to present this strategy, tracing their response through chapters such as “Perennials,” “Ornamental Grasses and Herbaceous Plants,” “Ferns,” “Leaved Trees,” deciduous”, “Conifers”, “Shrubs”, “Ericaceous shrubs” and “Vines”.
They begin by defining acidic soil (“a pH below 7 is considered sour or acidic, while anything above a pH of 7 is considered alkaline or soft”), mapping its regions across North America (clearly articulated maps are among the many neat graphics found inside), and designating its chemical and nutrient components.
“Many plants are extraordinarily adaptable to various environmental and climatic conditions. Soil is the basis for the success of land plants and is host to a complex system of mineral cycles, microbial activity, pH and plant-soil interactions. This system is sometimes referred to as the “soil ecosystem” or “soil food web”… For gardener purposes, it is sufficient to know whether the soil is alkaline or acidic, as some nutrients are only accessible to plants when the soil pH is within an acceptable range.
They also explain the parameters and importance of the “Ericaceae”, as well as the characteristics of woodland and bog gardens: “Perhaps the most identifiable bog plants and the group that attracts the most attention are the bog plants carnivores. Even the coldest bog gardens are home to at least a few species.
“Many plants are extraordinarily adaptable to various environmental and climatic conditions.”
The design of the book is very user-friendly. Almost every double page is adorned with color photos; many are actually full-page images. Most have been broken by the authors, with exceptions being credited. The doodle-sized softcover format also packs a handy weight.
The color-coded chapters are organized around the different flora, with descriptions of what they look like and where they grow, and “Design Tips”. “Perennials” (the largest segment) opens for example on “aconitum/aconite”, sharing the number of species (“more than 100”), the height (“100 to 200 centimeters”), the range of its petals, a note that bees like the plant, and the warning that they are “very poisonous”. Always wear rubber gloves when handling them. Regarding “Design Tip: These tall plants are best used at the back of a border or in a wildflower garden”.
“Ornamental Grasses” and “Ferns” (as well as the concluding “Vines”) are, at around 10 pages each, the shortest chapters, but still packed with information and images. sweet flag, sedge, fern and ostrich fern are some of the plants considered; the latter “combines particularly well with hosta, astilbe and wildflowers in the spring woods. Stiff, black, barren fronds add interest to a winter garden.
“Deciduous trees” include the most familiar – maples, junipers – and the rarest, even exotic – magnolia, sassafras. The same goes for “conifers,” with balsam fir on one page and Japanese plum yew on the next.
“Shrubs” is a particularly attractive section, full of vibrant, even flashy flowers, leaves and berries.
Take the evocative name “Rose-of-Sharon.” Next to the detailed description (“lavender pink, lavender blue, white, red ‘eye'”) we read: “Full sun is best for maximum flower production. Propagation is by cuttings. Major diseases are various fungal leaf spots, rust or canker. Aphids can sometimes be a problem, but the most serious pest is the Japanese beetle.” Same for the “Ericaceous Shrubs”, with its bearberries, heather, leather leaf (much prettier than its name suggests) and the heather of St. Dabeoc.
The last chapter, and perhaps the most curious and alluring (which is saying something here), is “Vines”. Wisteria floribunda, for example, is magnificent. “Perhaps no other vine adapted to acidic soil conditions is so spectacular in full bloom,” write the co-authors. “It is unsurpassed for cultivation on gazebos and pergolas.”
“Acidic Soils” is much more than a how-to manual (not that those aren’t helpful); there is a whole mentality, even a philosophy, here.
And just as those of us who barely know how to toast bread can savor a sumptuous cookbook, the most incompetent or inexperienced gardener can skim through this text and images and dare to dream.
There is an appendix, “Species and cultivars of heath shrubs”, and the contents are indexed by both Latin and common names.
Joan Sullivan is the editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.