(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)
Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You by Amanda Thomsen
Published: Storey Publishing, 12/01/2012
I can’t remember exactly when I met Amanda Thomsen online, but I know it involved someone showing me her blog Kiss My Aster and asking me “Have you seen this yet?” In a better world, Amanda and I would be siblings, or possibly bandmates. If the planet were lucky, said band would combine the best efforts of Dallas music icons Kim Pendleton and Turner Van Blarcum. If it weren’t, we’d be found by palaeontologists some ninety million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs.
If that sounds a bit extreme, it’s all about gardening attitudes. Most of us dedicated horticulture freaks can live and let live on 9999 differences of opinion on what makes the “best” garden, but when we hit the thousandth divergence, watch out. In our case, it’s the eternal war between asters and chrysanthemums for autumn flowers. Her reasons for encouraging asters are the same exact ones that I have for good violet or burgundy chrysanthemums as edging plants around Halloween, and and they’re both logical and reasonable based on local conditions. Get us in the same room on the same subject, though, and the debate gets settled with chainsaw and rubbing alcohol at 50 paces.
And so what does this have to do with Amanda’s first book, with the appropriate title? Well, that sort of attitude is something that’s needed in gardening literature. You know what I mean. Half of the beginner’s books on garden construction and planning are little more than garden porn. They’re either too general, which means they have all of the intellectual depth of one of those free “Start Your Own Garden!” handouts given with a 50-pound bag of Scotts Miracle-Gro lawn fertilizer, or they’re too specialized, which means you finish the book with a complete understanding of how to recreate the author’s own garden. And don’t get me going about garden books that purport to be humorous, but resemble those horrible weekly newspaper columns with bylines like “Mr. Funny Guy” so you know the strangling sound you’re making is supposed to be laughter. (Sadly, none of these columns have a title that’s accurate and honest, such as “Otherwise Unemployable Douchebag” or “A College Buddy Who Owes Me Got Me This Column”.) Coherent, informative, and humorous: is that too much to request from a gardening book?
Think “Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs”. Were this my book, the illustrations by the Am I Collective scream too much “Lynda Barry” and not anywhere near enough “Evan Dorkin” or “Matt Howarth“. This sort of thinking is why Amanda has assistants whispering “The Secretary of State on line two” while she’s planting tulip bulbs, and why I need a permission slip to look in the lawn edger section of the local Home Depot. The art style fits Amanda’s book perfectly, especially when combined with additions such as “Bad Landscape Bingo” (with entries such as “Giant boulder in front yard for no reason” and “Gas grill that’s bigger than your car”). Again, it’s her book and not mine, which is why it has Landscaping Mad Libs in the center and not a surefire guide to setting up punji pits in the back yard to catch the neighbor kid when he jumps over the fence to get the golf balls he just put through the garage window. (I don’t have that problem right now, but I have Stories. Give me a book contract, and I’ll be glad to share them.)
And then there’s the whole layout. A serious problem with a lot of beginner’s gardening guides, and one that I faced myself when I started, was of an excess of riches. For instance, you usually want to get the garden beds settled and the grass in decent condition before you start fussing about greenhouses or automatic tranquilizer dart guns for the neighbor kid. (I didn’t want to kill him. I just wanted ants to crawl over his open eyeballs for twenty minutes or so until the tranq wore off, as an incentive.) Go through even something as beginner-friendly as one of my favorites, the equally punny titled You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail, and you’re paralyzed with options. Forget the eternal warfare between aster and most holy chrysanthemum: what do you do when you’re in the tree section of the local Lowe’s and you honestly can’t decide between “low-maintenance but boring” or “extravagant but feeds on the blood of chipmunks”?
That’s where Kiss My Aster separates itself from every other book I’ve read on the subject. Every section, every single section, has quick references to a comparable section, in the manner of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the early Eighties. It’s the closest thing to a hyperlink-enabled print volume you’re going to see, and it makes it a lot easier to decide vegetables versus herbs or which shrubs go best with what tree. This is one of the two reasons why, if some unthinking monster tries to take this book away from me (as a very well-meaning friend tried to do on New Year’s Day), I’d rush out to buy another copy and threaten to shiv the bookstore employee who tried to convince me that I needed some nice Derek Fell or Christopher Lloyd (the gardener Christopher Lloyd, not the actor).
The other reason? This is the only gardening book I’ve ever picked up that admits that there’s no shame in hiring someone to do the big jobs. There may be shame in letting trumpet vine take over the back yard (guilty) or leaving crushed white rock around the front porch as mulch (guilty, but it’s a rental house) or building a planter in an old toilet (guilty, but that’s because the Czarina’s never more beautiful than when that little vein on the side of her head pulses like a goth club strobe light), but hiring someone to save you time, money, backache, and mental health? Suggesting that getting a professional to put in your new concrete turtle pond might be more sane than mixing up your own Sac-Krete and going DIY? Heresy! Blasphemy! And you may notice that if I were worried about embracing heresy and blasphemy, I’d probably be a Catholic priest right now.
Now that she’s done with this first volume, I can only hope that my dear beloved Amanda, the sister who lived, has plans for a second one. One with this level of wit and patience that’s dedicated to indoor plants. Arioch knows we need one of these, too.