by Lyndon Penner. Published by Sagebrush, 2014
Reviewed by Jon Brehaut
Growing up in Calgary in the 50s and 60s, I watched my mother annually transform our yard from a brown, desiccated, Chinook-ravaged landscape to a vibrant, colourful and fruitful garden. Perhaps ‘watched’ is too strong a word, for I didn’t seem to spend a lot of time doing it, but somehow I absorbed the fact that it was not through any natural process, but through her efforts that our yard looked as wonderful as it did. (It took me over 40 years though to act on this realization!) Having herself come from Quebec in her early thirties, she had to learn her gardening skills all over again, for a much cooler and more variable climate zone. How did she do it? She turned to Alex Munro, whose book Alex Munro’s Gardening Book (a book written specifically for Calgary), became her bible. I still have her copy in my own collection but not having lived in Calgary for most of my life, I have seldom opened it. Still it remained in my mind as the quintessential gardening book…that is, until I read Lyndon Penner’s new book, The Prairie Short Season Yard.
Lyndon Penner has done for me what Alex Munro did for my mother. He has laid out some principles, suggestions and advice that I can understand and follow in my own Sherwood Park garden. And he does it in such an earthy fashion, I think he is right here talking to me about my own decisions, my own problems. True the book covers the standard topics: soil, basic seasonal maintenance, garden tools, garden rules, plant diseases, creepy crawlies, and even gardening with animals. But he does it all within the confines of a northern prairie environment. Right off the bat, he emphasizes (and again and again throughout the book) that we need to be realistic in our choices: “While it is possible” he says, “that you may get a magnolia to live, it is never going to perform like it would in Abbotsford. (In fact, ‘live’ is about all it would do, if you were lucky. ‘Just wait till my magnolia blooms!’ said no one in Saskatchewan ever.)” or “…just because a plant is hardy enough to survive your winter does not mean it is well suited.”
The meat of the book, of course, covers plants: choosing them, buying them and taking care of them. Because this is about the prairies, he focuses on plants suitable for the prairies: bulbs, perennials and trees and shrubs. He skips annuals as there is nothing much special about growing annuals on the prairies versus other areas. Talking about buying plants, he doesn’t spare the gardening industry either: “Zone ratings make me absolutely insane…. More often than not, zone ratings are totally inaccurate….” A sentiment I think we can all agree with. And when he talks about choosing plants, he is equally honest: “I have sad news for you. Your astilbes are never going to look as good as they do on the labels or in the gardening magazines. They just won’t.” His advice on what to choose is based not only on the climate we garden in, but also on the recognition that garden suppliers change cultivars faster than you can change your socks. Whatever cultivar he might recommend, he says, would no longer be available in the garden centres by the time the book came out. So he sticks to species and leaves the rest up to us the readers. But he gives us so much on the species that we are well-guided in our choice of cultivars.
I hadn’t even finished the book, when an issue arose in our garden this spring…my immediate response: let’s see what Lyndon has to say! Move over Alex Munro; a new guru is in town.
Lyndon Penner, gardening rock star, has been getting dirt under his fingernails since the age of three. He’s never forgotten the thrill of growing his first flowers from seed. A landscape designer and horticultural consultant, Lyndon is a gardening columnist on CBC Radio in Alberta and Saskatchewan. He appears frequently as a guest speaker at universities and colleges in Western Canada. Lyndon lives in Calgary.