ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — “Very few, if any, publications are available on how to garden specifically on acidic soil; in fact, many books provide the opposite – advice on how to make acidic soil less so. We live by the saying, ‘If life gives you lemons … make lemonade.’ Work with nature, rather than trying to change it.”
Horticulturalists (and photographers) Todd Boland and Jamie Ellison have teamed up to lay out that strategy, plotting their response through chapters including “Perennials,” “Ornamental Grasses and Grasslike Plants,” “Ferns,” “Deciduous Trees,” “Conifers,” “Shrubs,” “Ericaceous Shrubs,” and “Vines.”
They begin by defining acidic soil (“below pH 7 is considered acidic, or sour, while anything above pH7 is considered alkaline, or sweet”), mapping its regions across North America (cleanly articulated maps are among the many crisp graphics found within), and denoting its chemical and nutrient components.
“Many plants are extraordinarily adaptable to various environmental and climatic conditions. Soil is the basis for success with terrestrial plants and is host to a complex system of mineral cycling, microbial activity, pH, and plant-soil interactions. This system is sometimes referred to as the ‘soil ecosystem’ or the ‘soil food web’ … For the gardener’s needs, it is enough to know if the soil is alkaline or acidic, because certain nutrients can only be accessed by plants when the soil pH falls within an acceptable range.”
They also explain the parameters and importance of “Ericaceae,” and the characteristics of woodland and bog gardens: “Perhaps the most identifiable bog plants, and the group that garner the most attention, are the carnivorous plants. Even the coldest bog gardens support at least a few species.”
“Many plants are extraordinarily adaptable to various environmental and climatic conditions.”
The book’s design is very user-friendly. Almost every two-page spread is adorned by full-colour photos; many in fact are full-page pictures. Most were snapped by the authors, with the exceptions credited. The scribbler-sized, soft-cover format also has a handy heft.
The colour-coded chapters are organized around the different flora, with descriptions including what they look like and where they grow, and “Design Tips.” “Perennials” (the bulkiest segment) for example opens with “aconitum/monkshood,” sharing the number of species (“over 100”), height (“100 to 200 centimetres”), the palette of its petals, a note that bees like the plant, and the warning that they are “highly toxic. Always wear rubber gloves when handling them.” As for the “Design Tip: These tall plants are best used in the back of a border or in a wildflower garden.”
“Ornamental Grasses” and “Ferns” (as well as the concluding “Vines”), are, at about 10 pages each, the shortest chapters, but still packed with information and imagery. sweet flag, sedge, lady fern, and ostrich fern are among the plants considered; that last “combines particularly well with hosta, astilbe, and spring woodland wildflowers. The stiff, black, sterile fronds add interest to a winter garden.”
“Deciduous Trees” encompasses the most familiar — maples, junipers — and the more rare, even exotic — magnolia, sassafras. The same with “Conifers,” with balsam fir on one page, and Japanese plum yew the next.
“Shrubs” is a particularly attractive section, full of vibrant, even flashy blooms, leaves, and berries.
Take the evocatively named “Rose-of-Sharon.” Alongside the detailed depiction (“lavender pink, lavender blue, white, red ‘eye’”) we read: “Full sun is best for maximum flower production. Propagation is by cuttings. The main diseases are various fungal leaf spotting, rust, or canker. Aphids may sometimes be problematic, but the most serious pest is Japanese beetles.” Ditto for “Ericaceous Shrubs,” with its bearberries, heather, leatherleaf (so much prettier than its name might suggest), and St. Dabeoc’s heath.
The final chapter, and perhaps the most curious and alluring (which is saying something here), is “Vines.” The wisteria floribunda, for example, is gorgeous. “Perhaps no other vine suitable for acidic soil conditions is as spectacular in full bloom,” the co-authors write. “It is second to none for growing over arbours and pergolas.”
“Acidic Soils” is much more than a how-to manual (not that those aren’t useful); there’s a whole mentality, even philosophy, here.
And just as those of us who can barely finesse toasting bread can savour a sumptuous cookbook, the most incompetent or inexperienced gardener can peruse this text and pictures and dare to dream.
There’s an appendix, “Ericaceous Shrub Species and Cultivars,” and the contents are Indexed by both Latin names and common names.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.