Ann Shayne

We swapped bytes with Diana Gabaldon a couple of weeks ago. Here are her comments on such items as the writing life on the Internet, grisly scenes, and gratuitous sex. You betcha!

You seem to have an enormous correspondence on the Internet. How many folks are you in contact with, and how often are you online either answering email—pesky interviewers, especially—or participating in the online literary forums?
Well, I have accounts on CompuServe and AOL. I keep AOL mainly because there are several areas on AOL with "folders" discussing my books—in the Writers Club Romance area, in the Science Fiction Realm, in the Book Nook (under Fiction Romance and Historical Fiction), in Book Central (there's a "live" Outlander discussion group starting up in their Cafe Books), and probably a few I haven't heard about yet.

I try to drop in on the folders dedicated to my books, at least every few days, and answer questions as best I can.

CompuServe is more or less my electronic "home," though; I got onto it by accident some 10 years ago (in the course of a software review I was writing for InfoWorld), and never left. The conversation and the company are stimulating—great depth and sophistication—and it is in fact where I made the contacts that eventually got me an agent and a publisher (I told you all that stuff, I'm sure).

Anyway, I'm now "staff" on CompuServe; I'm co-section leader of a section in the Writers Forum, called Research and the Craft of Writing; we address esoteric questions like how deceased animals are disposed of in Great Britain (just what do you do with a mad cow? You evidently don't just get out the backhoe and bury it in the back yard), or whether striped peppermint candy was available in the American colonies in 1793, or what kinds of voice substitution are possible for a person with a tracheotomy, or exactly what would happen—in physical terms—to the body of a person who had cut their wrists in a cabin in the woods in high summer, who wasn't found for several days…and also questions concerning writing technique: what are the advantages and limitations of telling a particular story in first person vs. third person? What's the best way to introduce backstory without boring the paying customers?

Occasionally people will put up brief snippets of work (not long pieces; we have formal workshop sections for those who want critiques of stories or chapters) and ask whether X works, or if anyone can see why Y doesn't work, or can anyone suggest what to do about Z?

To get back to your question—I average maybe 80-100 e-mails (that's private correspondence) on the two services per week, plus as many threads (topics of conversation) as I have time to participate in on the public areas—I probably post 50-60 messages a week in public areas. E-mail reaches me through the Internet, as well as from the online services. Normally (as though there was such a thing), I spend about an hour online in the morning answering mail and minding my CompuServe section, another in the late evening, before I start work. I'll log on from time to time during the day—to CompuServe—but just to collect messages and read them as a short break; I don't normally take time to respond then.

Has the Internet played a role in your ever-increasing popularity?
Yes, I'm sure it has. As my editor is fond of saying, "These have to be word-of-mouth books, because they're so weird you can't describe them to anybody!"

There's no better means of spreading word-of-mouth than the various pathways of the Internet. I've often "eavesdropped" on sections of AOL that I don't publicly participate in, and found people recommending my books to their friends, for example. It's also very common for people who drop by my CompuServe section to enjoy the conversation, then ask if I have anything published, and when I say yes, and describe it, to go out and get one of the books. And as a publicist at Delacorte once told me, "If you can get anybody to read the first one, it's just like pushing drugs–they're hooked!"

Drums of Autumn seems to me a gentler book in some ways than its predecessors: Jamie and Claire are basically together, Jamie wants very much to put down roots (that's a very moving scene in which he points out that despite his age, he doesn't even have a place to call home). Yet, the undercurrent of violence that is a part of the times is there: the threat of the Indians, the pirates, the Redcoats, and the simple rigors of living in a wild place. What are your thoughts about including such graphic scenes? They do make harrowing reading.
Well, it was a violent time, though the violence was often sporadic and unexpected. Daily life on a small homestead was frequently pretty dull—except that a bear could easily come by during the night and scare your pig under your bed. Or an Indian could stop by and die of measles in your corncrib.

My husband tells me that the books overall have something of the rhythm of daily life; not that I necessarily give a rundown of every detail of the day (it just seems like that sometimes), but that you get the feeling of interest in small details — the salamander that runs out of the wood in your fireplace, the ticks that bite you while you sleep, the difficulty of taking a bath—underlying the more dramatic events, throughout.

That is of course deliberate, and one of the characteristics that causes people who write to me to say that the stories are so vivid, they feel as though they're actually living in another time and place. It's a technique I call "underpainting," and it's very tedious to do—but worthwhile.

However, while the detailed background and sense of daily routine is the mortar that holds the book together, the interest of the storyline as a whole—the dramatic "shape"—is dictated by the more startling events and interactions.

As to harrowing…(shrug). If something happened, I just describe it. It would, however, be wrong—aesthetically—to gloss the more unpleasant events, while giving every detail of the pleasant ones. None of the scenes you mention are gratuitous; all are integral to the story, and in several cases, there's an underlying literary purpose, beyond the dramatic.

That's what usually bothers me about sex/love scenes in most novels (spy thrillers as well as romance, though it's naturally more prevalent in romance novels)—in most, the acts described could be taking place between any two persons with the necessary genital arrangements. Not in my books; any such act could only take place between these specific individuals—consequently, it's the interaction and relationship between the characters (and how it affects them) that's important; not titillation contingent on spinal-cord reflexes.

Ditto (re: literary purpose) the priest's execution by the Mohawk. You'll notice that Jamie remarks that he has seen precisely similar acts performed by French (i.e., highly "civilized") executioners—the only thing he finds shocking is the subsequent step of cannibalization.

And in Dragonfly in Amber, the hangman, M. Forez, gives a harrowing, step-by-step description (much more graphic than this "hearsay" description of the Mohawk torture) of the same process.

What we're doing here—and it's stated earlier, in more explicit terms, during their first encounter with the Tuscarora—is pointing up the fact that "civilization" is largely a matter of perception.

Your books are romantic but not romances; thrilling but not thrillers; historically rich but not history. If you had to categorize your books, where would you shelve them?
How would I categorize these books? I wouldn't. I didn't have any genre or category in mind when I wrote them—and they're all different from each other, in terms of structure, approach, and tone. While it was a sensible marketing strategy to call them "romance" in the beginning (they do have a lot of romantic elements; they just have a whole lot of other things you don't normally find in romance novels), that label is both limiting (insofar as a lot of people wouldn't even look at something called "romance," feeling that they know exactly what that sort of book is, and they aren't interested) and misleading (I get a lot of romance readers, who write to me, figuratively bug-eyed, saying, "But you can't do that in a romance!").

They sell under any number of classifications: I've found them shelved under Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, History (nonfiction) [Really. Foyle's, in London, keeps them in the nonfiction History section.], General Fiction, and—on a few memorable occasions—Literature.

I see Ingram is listing Drums of Autumn as General Fiction (defined as "any book that does not fall into another specific category"), which seems OK to me. I suppose I might call them "Historical Fiction," just to make it clear that they do have a historical setting.

Who's your favorite character? Why?
Goodness, I couldn't pick one—I love them all (including Jack Randall and Stephen Bonnet), or I couldn't write them.

Where do you write? Have you written all your books in the same place and way?
Anywhere (I have a laptop computer), but most frequently in my office. I used to write where my desktop computer was (before I had a laptop)—either in my University office (on lunch-hours), or my home office (a converted garage.) After I sold Outlander, though, we bought a new house, which has a real office). I've written on planes, in hotel rooms, and sitting in the middle of Discovery Zone (one of those places you take kids and turn them loose), though.

After all your research into the 18th century, would you want to return to that period?
Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

 

We swapped bytes with Diana Gabaldon a couple of weeks ago. Here are her comments on such items as the writing life on the Internet, grisly scenes, and gratuitous sex. You betcha!

In the world of knitting, there is a category of projects known as UFOs: Unfinished Objects. Everybody has them the knitting that is hidden away because it was too hard, too boring or too ugly to finish. First-time author Anne Bartlett, clearly a knitter, knows all about UFOs, and in this crisp, slim novel she introduces us to two women whose unresolved business of life threatens to overwhelm them.

Sandra and Martha meet on a city street where they both stop to help a fallen man. In this chance encounter, the two women begin a relationship that Bartlett renders in a totally unsentimental way. They could not be more different: Sandra is a buttoned-up academic, grief-stricken and furious at the recent death of her husband. Martha looks for all the world like a frumpy, wandering bag lady. After a few timid meetings, Sandra discovers that Martha is a ferocious, brilliant knitter, so she asks Martha to help her knit a group of vintage patterns for a textile exhibit she is mounting.

It is not easy to write about knitting without slipping into mawkishness. What is most admirable about this novel is the way Bartlett refuses to let Sandra and Martha become instant bosom buddies simply because they both love textiles. The fragility of their relationship it can't really be called a friendship is plausible because it isn't perfect. That texture, that imperfection, is what makes Bartlett's novel so compelling. Knitting is for anyone who has enjoyed Carol Shields or the brittle Anita Brookner. There is a lot in this book for anyone who ponders the big questions of life: the nature of friendship, the need for meaningful work, the comfort of sharing grief. But let's face it any knitter will be turning the pages for the true drama of this book: what is the elaborate white project Martha keeps working on? Will it become a UFO, too? Ann Shayne writes about knitting with her friend Kay Gardiner at www.masondixonknitting.com. Their book, Mason-Dixon Knitting, will be published next spring.

In the world of knitting, there is a category of projects known as UFOs: Unfinished Objects. Everybody has them the knitting that is hidden away because it was too hard, too boring or too ugly to finish. First-time author Anne Bartlett, clearly a knitter, knows all about UFOs, and in this crisp, slim novel she […]

I kind of wanted to despise Dominique Browning. She is the pale-blue-eyed editor of House ∧ Garden magazine, she has a fabulous house, she has a fantastic garden. And she's named Dominique, for heaven's sake. How glamorous is that? But you know, life is complicated, and nobody is perfect. In the course of reading Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener, it becomes clear that Browning has had her share of mishaps and troubles, not least of which was the collapse of an old wall on her beloved perennial border. This is where Paths of Desire begins, and by the time I finished this story of a garden and its gardener, I was rooting for this funny woman. This is a gardening adventure story set among the intrigues of suburban New York. Will the tree man save the pin oak? Who's been rooting around in the hostas? Browning's travails will resonate with every suburbanite longing for a little order in the back yard.

I kind of wanted to despise Dominique Browning. She is the pale-blue-eyed editor of House ∧ Garden magazine, she has a fabulous house, she has a fantastic garden. And she's named Dominique, for heaven's sake. How glamorous is that? But you know, life is complicated, and nobody is perfect. In the course of reading Paths […]

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never stops me from putting some little thing out that would have preferred to stay inside. I am very, very impatient. This year a number of books are helping me take a breath, step back, and find patience in waiting for the seasons to change. I have enjoyed the work of Ken Druse for many years. His first book, The Nat-ural Garden, was a revelation, filled with pictures of places that hardly looked like “gardens” at all. Artful jungles is more like it. Druse is not trimming topiary; he is creating subtle, elegant gardens that feel like they were planted by Mother Nature herself. He is all about staying close to the place you are gardening: use native plants, be sensitive to the microclimate of your property, remember nature. Each book he writes is an occasion for joy, and his new book, The Passion for Gardening: Inspiration for a Lifetime (Clarkson Potter, $50, 256 pages, ISBN 0517707888) is his most joyful yet.

Druse has covered a lot of technical ground in his previous books, the “what” of gardening. Here he focuses on the ineffable “why”: what is it that draws people to the garden? He introduces us to gardeners who share his passion for gardening as a lifelong pursuit. A varied group of gardens (one with a topiary, even!) is at the heart of this book, each photographed in a beautiful, careful way. At the core of these gardens is a lot of knowledge and talent and vision. But most of all, there is a passion an infectious kind of love that will inspire all of us who love to make gardens.

Dutch treat Cousins to Ken Druse might be Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen, a renowned pair of gardeners from the Netherlands who are getting a lot of attention for their idea of the natural garden. For the past 20 years, they have scoured Europe and the United States for plants that are sturdy and low maintenance, but have the beautiful appearance of familiar cultivated perennials and annuals. Their gardens have the same looseness and unmanicured appearance that Ken Druse's have. Planting the Natural Garden (Timber, $34.95, 144 pages, ISBN 088192606X) is their magnum opus of plants a Hall of Fame listing of their time-tested favorites. Included are cultivation details and photographs of each plant, along with suggested combinations and planting diagrams. Anyone who longs to move beyond the basics will marvel at this book for its fresh notion of a natural garden that holds up without looking weedy.

The basics? Begin here I am a Taylor's junkie. When I first got serious about gardening 10 years ago, Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening was my bible. If Taylor's liked a plant, so did I. If it wasn't in Taylor's, it wasn't in my garden.

The latest Taylor's Guide a whopper as big as the Master Guide continues the same concise, clear format that has helped me so much. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Houghton Mifflin, $45, 447 pages, ISBN 0618226443) is filled with more than 1,200 plants: perennials, annuals, grasses, trees, shrubs. It's not every plant ever propagated; it's every plant that the Taylor's Guide experts feel is a good choice for North American gardens. A plant encyclopedia can be many things: a reference, a wish book, a troubleshooter. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is all these, produced in the most straightforward, lovely way possible.

One small note: Taylor's gives the pronunciation of each plant, which is a merciful thing when you are trying to sound all smart and name that little blue flower but can't figure out how to say “platycodon.” (It's “plat-ee-KOE-don.”) Getting the yard you want The only television channels safe to watch anymore are the Food Network and HGTV. The worst beating you'll see on Emeril Live is a meringue in process; the most violent act on Landscapers Challenge is the brutal ripping-out of a crummy deck. The landscaping shows on HGTV are mesmerizing, the sort of armchair gardening that is perfect for those evenings when you have had it with your own plot of land. Those enterprising HGTVers have now turned to books, and there's much to absorb in Landscape Makeovers: 50 Projects for a Picture-Perfect Yard (Meredith, $19.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0696217643), edited by Marilyn Rogers.

This book gives the details of projects you may have seen on HGTV programs. Curb appeal, privacy, overcoming problem areas there are tons of ideas in here to help make your landscape beautiful. Each project is rated in difficulty, time, cost and skills required. Landscape Makeovers is as satisfying as a night watching HGTV. Unlike the shows, however, this book explains exactly how to achieve the results you want. In this book, all seems possible.

The ultimate in patience Sometimes, impatience is bad for the environment. Terrible, in fact. Now that I have read The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla, I promise I will never spray my roses again with that toxic, brain-eating stuff. It only takes a few minutes to pick off those Japanese beetles, and all the good bugs in my garden will thank me.

Denckla is such a gentle advocate for organic gardening that you can't help but want to try it, too. There is nothing shrill or dogmatic about the way she explains her subject. She debunks all the myths of organic gardening (it's expensive/difficult/time consuming) with sensible truths, and the result is this manifesto of how to grow food that is in tune with nature.

In the book, Denckla reveals her own evolution as an organic gardener. Wanting to learn about the old ways, she began collecting information, and after four years, she discovered she had a book. A wonderful one, in fact. She explains how to grow every imaginable vegetable, nut and fruit, explaining the importance of rotating crops, planting a diverse garden and growing certain plant allies near each other. There's a rogues' gallery of evil pests, with non-toxic remedies; a list of plants that grow well together allies; and appendices full of organic gardening standards and resources. You will learn a lot with this book, and it may change the way you treat your garden.

A soggy epilogue At the end of Ken Druse's Passion for Gardening is a stunning photograph of his garden, his beloved garden, flooded by the river that runs beside it. However traumatic this was for him (it had to be akin to Hemingway losing a manuscript), he writes about it with equanimity. I am taking to heart his conclusion: “I am indeed the junior partner in this collaboration with nature” a partnership that requires nothing but patience. Ann Shayne is a former editor of BookPage. She tends her garden in Nashville.

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never […]

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never stops me from putting some little thing out that would have preferred to stay inside. I am very, very impatient. This year a number of books are helping me take a breath, step back, and find patience in waiting for the seasons to change. I have enjoyed the work of Ken Druse for many years. His first book, The Nat-ural Garden, was a revelation, filled with pictures of places that hardly looked like “gardens” at all. Artful jungles is more like it. Druse is not trimming topiary; he is creating subtle, elegant gardens that feel like they were planted by Mother Nature herself. He is all about staying close to the place you are gardening: use native plants, be sensitive to the microclimate of your property, remember nature. Each book he writes is an occasion for joy, and his new book, The Passion for Gardening: Inspiration for a Lifetime (Clarkson Potter, $50, 256 pages, ISBN 0517707888) is his most joyful yet.

Druse has covered a lot of technical ground in his previous books, the “what” of gardening. Here he focuses on the ineffable “why”: what is it that draws people to the garden? He introduces us to gardeners who share his passion for gardening as a lifelong pursuit. A varied group of gardens (one with a topiary, even!) is at the heart of this book, each photographed in a beautiful, careful way. At the core of these gardens is a lot of knowledge and talent and vision. But most of all, there is a passion an infectious kind of love that will inspire all of us who love to make gardens.

Dutch treat Cousins to Ken Druse might be Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen, a renowned pair of gardeners from the Netherlands who are getting a lot of attention for their idea of the natural garden. For the past 20 years, they have scoured Europe and the United States for plants that are sturdy and low maintenance, but have the beautiful appearance of familiar cultivated perennials and annuals. Their gardens have the same looseness and unmanicured appearance that Ken Druse's have. Planting the Natural Garden (Timber, $34.95, 144 pages, ISBN 088192606X) is their magnum opus of plants a Hall of Fame listing of their time-tested favorites. Included are cultivation details and photographs of each plant, along with suggested combinations and planting diagrams. Anyone who longs to move beyond the basics will marvel at this book for its fresh notion of a natural garden that holds up without looking weedy.

The basics? Begin here I am a Taylor's junkie. When I first got serious about gardening 10 years ago, Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening was my bible. If Taylor's liked a plant, so did I. If it wasn't in Taylor's, it wasn't in my garden.

The latest Taylor's Guide a whopper as big as the Master Guide continues the same concise, clear format that has helped me so much. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Houghton Mifflin, $45, 447 pages, ISBN 0618226443) is filled with more than 1,200 plants: perennials, annuals, grasses, trees, shrubs. It's not every plant ever propagated; it's every plant that the Taylor's Guide experts feel is a good choice for North American gardens. A plant encyclopedia can be many things: a reference, a wish book, a troubleshooter. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is all these, produced in the most straightforward, lovely way possible.

One small note: Taylor's gives the pronunciation of each plant, which is a merciful thing when you are trying to sound all smart and name that little blue flower but can't figure out how to say “platycodon.” (It's “plat-ee-KOE-don.”) Getting the yard you want The only television channels safe to watch anymore are the Food Network and HGTV. The worst beating you'll see on Emeril Live is a meringue in process; the most violent act on Landscapers Challenge is the brutal ripping-out of a crummy deck. The landscaping shows on HGTV are mesmerizing, the sort of armchair gardening that is perfect for those evenings when you have had it with your own plot of land. Those enterprising HGTVers have now turned to books, and there's much to absorb in Landscape Makeovers: 50 Projects for a Picture-Perfect Yard, edited by Marilyn Rogers.

This book gives the details of projects you may have seen on HGTV programs. Curb appeal, privacy, overcoming problem areas there are tons of ideas in here to help make your landscape beautiful. Each project is rated in difficulty, time, cost and skills required. Landscape Makeovers is as satisfying as a night watching HGTV. Unlike the shows, however, this book explains exactly how to achieve the results you want. In this book, all seems possible.

The ultimate in patience Sometimes, impatience is bad for the environment. Terrible, in fact. Now that I have read The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey, $22.95, 484 pages, ISBN 1580173705), I promise I will never spray my roses again with that toxic, brain-eating stuff. It only takes a few minutes to pick off those Japanese beetles, and all the good bugs in my garden will thank me.

Denckla is such a gentle advocate for organic gardening that you can't help but want to try it, too. There is nothing shrill or dogmatic about the way she explains her subject. She debunks all the myths of organic gardening (it's expensive/difficult/time consuming) with sensible truths, and the result is this manifesto of how to grow food that is in tune with nature.

In the book, Denckla reveals her own evolution as an organic gardener. Wanting to learn about the old ways, she began collecting information, and after four years, she discovered she had a book. A wonderful one, in fact. She explains how to grow every imaginable vegetable, nut and fruit, explaining the importance of rotating crops, planting a diverse garden and growing certain plant allies near each other. There's a rogues' gallery of evil pests, with non-toxic remedies; a list of plants that grow well together allies; and appendices full of organic gardening standards and resources. You will learn a lot with this book, and it may change the way you treat your garden.

A soggy epilogue At the end of Ken Druse's Passion for Gardening is a stunning photograph of his garden, his beloved garden, flooded by the river that runs beside it. However traumatic this was for him (it had to be akin to Hemingway losing a manuscript), he writes about it with equanimity. I am taking to heart his conclusion: “I am indeed the junior partner in this collaboration with nature” a partnership that requires nothing but patience. Ann Shayne is a former editor of BookPage. She tends her garden in Nashville.

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never […]

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never stops me from putting some little thing out that would have preferred to stay inside. I am very, very impatient. This year a number of books are helping me take a breath, step back, and find patience in waiting for the seasons to change. I have enjoyed the work of Ken Druse for many years. His first book, The Nat-ural Garden, was a revelation, filled with pictures of places that hardly looked like “gardens” at all. Artful jungles is more like it. Druse is not trimming topiary; he is creating subtle, elegant gardens that feel like they were planted by Mother Nature herself. He is all about staying close to the place you are gardening: use native plants, be sensitive to the microclimate of your property, remember nature. Each book he writes is an occasion for joy, and his new book, The Passion for Gardening: Inspiration for a Lifetime (Clarkson Potter, $50, 256 pages, ISBN 0517707888) is his most joyful yet.

Druse has covered a lot of technical ground in his previous books, the “what” of gardening. Here he focuses on the ineffable “why”: what is it that draws people to the garden? He introduces us to gardeners who share his passion for gardening as a lifelong pursuit. A varied group of gardens (one with a topiary, even!) is at the heart of this book, each photographed in a beautiful, careful way. At the core of these gardens is a lot of knowledge and talent and vision. But most of all, there is a passion an infectious kind of love that will inspire all of us who love to make gardens.

Dutch treat Cousins to Ken Druse might be Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen, a renowned pair of gardeners from the Netherlands who are getting a lot of attention for their idea of the natural garden. For the past 20 years, they have scoured Europe and the United States for plants that are sturdy and low maintenance, but have the beautiful appearance of familiar cultivated perennials and annuals. Their gardens have the same looseness and unmanicured appearance that Ken Druse's have. Planting the Natural Garden (Timber, $34.95, 144 pages, ISBN 088192606X) is their magnum opus of plants a Hall of Fame listing of their time-tested favorites. Included are cultivation details and photographs of each plant, along with suggested combinations and planting diagrams. Anyone who longs to move beyond the basics will marvel at this book for its fresh notion of a natural garden that holds up without looking weedy.

The basics? Begin here I am a Taylor's junkie. When I first got serious about gardening 10 years ago, Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening was my bible. If Taylor's liked a plant, so did I. If it wasn't in Taylor's, it wasn't in my garden.

The latest Taylor's Guide a whopper as big as the Master Guide continues the same concise, clear format that has helped me so much. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is filled with more than 1,200 plants: perennials, annuals, grasses, trees, shrubs. It's not every plant ever propagated; it's every plant that the Taylor's Guide experts feel is a good choice for North American gardens. A plant encyclopedia can be many things: a reference, a wish book, a troubleshooter. Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is all these, produced in the most straightforward, lovely way possible.

One small note: Taylor's gives the pronunciation of each plant, which is a merciful thing when you are trying to sound all smart and name that little blue flower but can't figure out how to say “platycodon.” (It's “plat-ee-KOE-don.”) Getting the yard you want The only television channels safe to watch anymore are the Food Network and HGTV. The worst beating you'll see on Emeril Live is a meringue in process; the most violent act on Landscapers Challenge is the brutal ripping-out of a crummy deck. The landscaping shows on HGTV are mesmerizing, the sort of armchair gardening that is perfect for those evenings when you have had it with your own plot of land. Those enterprising HGTVers have now turned to books, and there's much to absorb in Landscape Makeovers: 50 Projects for a Picture-Perfect Yard (Meredith, $19.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0696217643), edited by Marilyn Rogers.

This book gives the details of projects you may have seen on HGTV programs. Curb appeal, privacy, overcoming problem areas there are tons of ideas in here to help make your landscape beautiful. Each project is rated in difficulty, time, cost and skills required. Landscape Makeovers is as satisfying as a night watching HGTV. Unlike the shows, however, this book explains exactly how to achieve the results you want. In this book, all seems possible.

The ultimate in patience Sometimes, impatience is bad for the environment. Terrible, in fact. Now that I have read The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey, $22.95, 484 pages, ISBN 1580173705), I promise I will never spray my roses again with that toxic, brain-eating stuff. It only takes a few minutes to pick off those Japanese beetles, and all the good bugs in my garden will thank me.

Denckla is such a gentle advocate for organic gardening that you can't help but want to try it, too. There is nothing shrill or dogmatic about the way she explains her subject. She debunks all the myths of organic gardening (it's expensive/difficult/time consuming) with sensible truths, and the result is this manifesto of how to grow food that is in tune with nature.

In the book, Denckla reveals her own evolution as an organic gardener. Wanting to learn about the old ways, she began collecting information, and after four years, she discovered she had a book. A wonderful one, in fact. She explains how to grow every imaginable vegetable, nut and fruit, explaining the importance of rotating crops, planting a diverse garden and growing certain plant allies near each other. There's a rogues' gallery of evil pests, with non-toxic remedies; a list of plants that grow well together allies; and appendices full of organic gardening standards and resources. You will learn a lot with this book, and it may change the way you treat your garden.

A soggy epilogue At the end of Ken Druse's Passion for Gardening is a stunning photograph of his garden, his beloved garden, flooded by the river that runs beside it. However traumatic this was for him (it had to be akin to Hemingway losing a manuscript), he writes about it with equanimity. I am taking to heart his conclusion: “I am indeed the junior partner in this collaboration with nature” a partnership that requires nothing but patience. Ann Shayne is a former editor of BookPage. She tends her garden in Nashville.

Books that soothe the itch to get back in the dirt Anybody who loves to garden is having a hard time right now. Here in the mid-South, March gives up a few days so mild that I can't help but get outside and dig something. The last frost doesn't come until mid-April, but that never […]

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