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Reader’s Digest Complete Book of the Garden

Mz. Geri was sitting on a worn wooden bench drinking from a cup of hot lemon tea (hot water and a whole peeled lemon) when I asked her about the books on her shelves. We were relaxing on her porch, hidden from the street by a large Rose of Sharon and some blooming Azealia bushes that were over 4 feet in height. She loves the privacy and the colors that the plants give her, but sometimes she wishes she could see to the street like she used to.

Before the plants?

Before the glasses.

Mz. Geri had grown up in the City of New York in Queens in the aftermath of WWII. Her mother would tell her about how much of the city used to be farmland and would always have a small plant or two- basil or rosemary- that would spend most of the time on the kitchen window or the fire escape. Mz. Geri always dreamed of having a garden and loved to have flowers around, but it wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she had the opportunity to grow anything.

My son had a spot in his lungs from the pollution and the doctors said he needed fresh air to help strengthen them. So my husband got a job in Florida and we moved there. There was Nothing in that town. It’s gotten bigger now. But then the only entertainment was the church groups and the bars. The lack of shops was a big shock to me, but the heat was the impossible to describe. We had a small attached house-a duplex- with a fenced yard and a tree by the side door. I didn’t know anything about taking care of a house that big. The closets could hold a queen sized bed.

My first time planting…I had gotten these flower seeds.. multiple types of daisies and I had hooped to see a row of colorful plants down the fence line. I spent hours digging up the ground and planting them. I followed the directions watered them, and waited. Nothing grew. Not even a seedling. I tried it again in another spot. Nothing.

My neighbor was this older woman who was always dressed up. She wore good clothes all of the time. I don’t think I could survive today, now that I am her age, in that much hosiery and layers in the heat. Still she would work in her garden and it looked amazing. I asked for her advise. Mz. Geri laughs softly, a smile erasing the wrinkles from her face. I showed her the instructions and told her I was too exhausted to plant them correctly. I only dug down to my knee height and not the five feet. She looked at me, looked at the seed packet and said ‘Geri, the ” mark means inches.’ My poor seeds! I was so embarrassed. I dug down 4 feet to plant them. They are probably finally reaching the surface!

I planted them again, correctly this time. By the end of the month I had some growing. It was a battle with the heat, but the soil was much better then. Now I always need extra fertilizer, some 10-10-10 or horse manure, but then it seems like I only had to dig a little and it was fine. After I replanted them, my neighbor came over for brunch and she left that book for me. You have to remember that in the 70s Reader’s Digest was considered one of the better sources of information. I still have a copy of the home repair guide somewhere. This book was amazing to read and has been very helpful.

Reader’s Digest The Complete Book of the Garden was published in 1966. According to the introduction this 800+ page book was intended to create and cultivate a successful gardener who understands the basic principles, can easily adapt to changing conditions while being able to glean information from the experts. From the basics of choosing planters for indoor use to what plants are better for your living spaces, this no nonsense guide explained zoning and composting, and even when to purchase the plants for your particular use.

You must understand that many guides of the times were designed for the expert. I could find some on Bonsai trees, or roses, but there were only a few on wild flowers or normal flowers. A lot of them focused on the designing or the pruning of the plants. While it was nice to know how to arrange the roses for different occasions, I couldn’t figure out how to get them to bloom. What made this book my favorite was that in each section they tell you what plants to use. With both names: the common and the Latin.

And it does. Each section offers at least 10 plants that are optimal for the conditions. The plants are described in each stage of growing for easy identification, and the possible issues and diseases they are prone to as well. There are also some pastel colored line drawings to give the reader a better idea of the types of plants.

The section on compost was very helpful. I would take the bus down to one of the beaches and ask at one of the seafood restaurants for clam shells and fish bones to use. People would back away from me when I would come home with a small red cooler or some buckets. Ah it reeked! All of that rotting in the heat. It reminded me of when my mom would send us to my Uncles in Maine during the summer and we would have to wait for the fishing boats to come in. We would gather the lobsters and clams then walk up to the town so we wouldn’t be showing up empty handed. But the ladies on the bus would be “tut-tutting” me and eying my kerchief covered hair. One time I got on wearing a straw hat-oh the whispers. Most of those ladies seemed to do nothing but dress up and ride the bus. Considering the price of the bus fare was much less than the cost of a bag of horse manure I didn’t care. Could you imagine how they would have reacted if I came aboard with buckets of manure? I would have been told to take the migrant worker’s bus for sure.

Over the years I have taken the information about different types and styles of gardens and mixed them together. I don’t think flowers should be in straight rows. I started planting seasonally, so that there is always something growing. She shrugs.

I would rather there be some color somewhere. So what if the only thing growing is red tulips next to the mailbox? When they start to die off the geraniums will be blooming in the other corner. I’m not the best note keeper. I write them perfectly: what I planted, when they will bloom and where, but I keep misplacing them. When I die people will find years of garden designs in cabinets, drawers and possibly the bathroom cabinet. Who knows? If anything there is one failing of this book. There should be a section for notes. Not to write in, but a little card section. Like the library books used to have to stamp when the book needed to be returned. That way you could keep your notes in the same place.

I would suggest that anyone who wants to start gardening should have a copy of this book. I don’t know if it is still in print, but I’m sure there are plenty of used copies around.

Reader’s Digest does not currently offer The Complete Book of the Garden in any format at this time. Mz Geri is correct in that a simple internet search will bring up many used copies. Some of them all chipped on the spine as hers is. (see photo).

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