Why Grow That?


“The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.”  ~Carlos Castaneda


As winter continues here in my area of Central New York, I am thinking about native plants I want to purchase.  I am gazing upon my decaying garden as it sleeps wondering what changes I can make this year.  It is easier to look at the bones of the garden in winter, and consider what might be.

So I am always looking for new ideas for my garden, and when I heard about a new book that was getting some buzz I decided to order it since it was all about alternatives to problem plants.

I have a tendency to leaf through a book to get an overall picture before I read it.  Not always a good idea as I found out with this book.  As I was leafing through it, I was shocked to see so many beloved plants on the hit list to lose, launch or get rid of in your garden.  These favorites were labeled “Everyday Problems”, and this started me thinking negatively about the book.  How dare these wonderful, beloved plants of mine be cast into this negative light.  This author was insulting my garden, my family!

OK step back and look at the book again Donna. Yes, I have these internal conversations frequently and sometimes out loud.  If so many people like this book, you are missing something here.  I reminded myself not to judge a book by its cover, and read the whole book which helped.  This was not an easy review for me because I wasn’t sure if I was sold on the book.  But I thought I would still review it, for my post to link in with Holley@Roses and Other Gardening Joys and her monthly Garden Book Review meme that takes place on the 20th of every month.


Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?:

255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants



Author: Andrew Keys
Paperback:  340 pages
Publisher: Timber Press (November 13, 2012)
Amazon Price: $16.47 (Paperback)






In A Few Words

This book purports to solve garden problems.  It is broken down into 3 distinct sections.  The first is an introductory section called Upgrade Your Garden:  Forbidden Fruit and How to Choose All-Star Plants.  The author outlines how popular plants grow to be garden problems that come with baggage.  The biggest issues that cause these problems revolve around the idea that we cannot give some plants what they need.  They require too much effort, water, fertilizers, etc.  So this idea started to intrigue me as I have dealt with these issues with plants.   My original judgement of the book was beginning to waver as I read on. The next quote below really made me stop and consider what plants could be this wonderful and do I have them in my garden…

To grow an  engaging, original garden means choosing original plants.  Instead of problem plants, consider these problem-solvers:

Plants that tolerate summer heat and winter cold, even in the most rugged garden

Plants with vibrant color, tantalizing texture, and elegant structure virtually year round

Plants that attract birds and bees, benefiting both their ecosystem and ours

Plants that require less water

Plants that aren’t necessarily popular today, but will mature into the true garden originals of tomorrow.


These are exactly the types of plants we all want, right?  So I moved on to the next section, Everyday Problem Plants and Extraordinary Alternatives which was broken into subsections:  Trees, Shrubs, Vines, Perennials and Grasses and Groundcovers.  I was amazed at the hundreds of alternatives to choose from and equally amazed at the popular favorites like hosta, astilbe, daylilies, Japanese maple and holly that were now labeled problems.

The last section contained many Resources:  Recommended Reading, Websites, Mail Oder Sources, Metric Conversions, and an Index.  I have purchased from many of the mail order websites with pretty good luck.



What I Liked

First I loved Andrew Keys fun writing style and his expertise as a garden designer.  His section on How to Choose All-Star Plants is a great introduction as he moves the reader through his comprehensive process of choosing plants : Seduction-color, shape, texture, size, character; Location-hardiness, light, water/soil, maintenance, geography; and Selection-plant names, shopping.

The majority of the book is about the problem plants and their alternatives.  The problem plant’s hardiness, shape, color,  texture, light, character and size are provided with a brief description of the plants problems.  Then a few alternative plants are described with their pertinent information as well and why they may be a better alternative.  The photos give a great view of the plants.

What was intriguing about the problem plants, was that so many popular and favorite plants were on the hit list; some I can say are problem plants for me too, and some are plants I like that seem to do well in my garden.  But when I read through this section paying attention to the problem plants, I had to shake my head in agreement for many of these plants even though I love them.  For instance birch trees are native here and so why wouldn’t we plant a native tree.  Well in the snow belt, birch trees have a tendency to bend and break when they are young.  Keys has other reasons why not to grow them, but I know my dad tried to grow them year after year only to find defeat until he finally resorted to a red maple.

And who doesn’t love forsythia.  How can it be a problem?  Keys finds the problem in the fact that it is too common.  My problem with this plant is that it is not native, and the plant dies back every winter.  It then flowers unevenly if at all with our crazy spring weather.  He offers a few alternatives that are not native for me.  But one alternative,  St. John’s Wort, is was native to my area.  He also had many of the problem plants that I lamented about last week as they never showed last spring:  lilacs, bleeding hearts, delphinium and hydrangea with some wonderful ideas to replace them.  So we shall see if I find a suitable replacement.



Not So Much

There are couple of issues for me still with this book.  You really have to pay attention to the plants Keys is recommending as they may not be hardy for your area or they may not like your climate even though they grow in your zone.

And when Keys gives the invasive plants the boot, he does not always choose native alternatives which is a problem since some of the alternatives may not be the best choice.  You could be replacing one invasive with another invasive or with a non-native plant which makes no sense.  I do wish the author had picked more natives from different sections of the country as they are the best, least fussy alternatives to most problem plants.  Of course this is my bias so keep that in mind.



Final Thoughts

No one book will please everyone and this book may outrage some because a beloved plant is being labeled a problem child.  It may be because the plant is invasive, or hard to grow without a lot of fussing over.  And in that respect Keys is right.  Many of our tried and true plants have become problem children.  And I will remind the reader that the book is supposed to help you solve garden problems.  If you don’t have problems and love a problem plant, then keep it.  But if you have fussy plants or you want to get rid of non-natives, you now have some ideas.  But be forewarned you will have to do some homework before you can pick just any alternative mentioned or you could have another problem plant.

This book is also a good resource if you are looking to refresh your garden, and find some new interesting plants.  Do I love the book?  No not entirely, but it certainly was an interesting read.  You too might consider the book if you want some new ideas or are looking for some new plants.


**All pictures, except for the honeysuckle at the top of the post, are plants from my garden that the author of this book has labeled problem plants.  I do not agree all are problems although some have been a bit of a problem of late.  The honeysuckle is actually an alternative to the invasive Japanese honeysuckle.


“Helped are those who create anything at all, for they shall relive the thrill of their own conception and realize a partnership in the creation of the Universe that keeps them responsible and cheerful.”   ~Alice Walker


“Grow Your Blog” Party


Please join me in my Grow Your Blog post.  I have linked in with almost 400 bloggers around the world and from a variety of different types of blogs.

As part of the blog post I have a giveaway going on until January 31st.  Winners to be announced February 1st.  I am giving away 10 garden books.  It will be open to all readers who leave a comment.

If you want  meet some new bloggers I invite you to join Vicki@2 Bags Full for this blog party.  You can check out the details here.


Next up on the blog:    On Wednesday, I will have the first in a new series called Wildflower Tales.  Next Monday brings another post in the Simply the Best series which will be all about Herbs this year.

I hope you will join me for my posts once a month at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. See my current post now.

Please remember, to comment click on the title of the post and the page will reload with the comments section.

All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Gardens Eye View, 2010-2012.  Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.

46 Replies to “Why Grow That?”

  1. I like your candid review. Your list of “problem plants” startled me, but I do know that every garden is different, and what may be a problem plant for me may not be a problem plant for someone else. And, as you pointed out, if we are lamenting about a plant, perhaps we need to grow something else. Finding alternatives is often like a treasure hunt, and I suppose his book is meant to help narrow that hunt down. You’ve piqued my curiosity in this book. Thanks so much for joining in!

    1. I had a hard time reviewing the book, but that is because I am looking at it through a special lens…but it is a very well researched book and is interesting. I tried to join in but the link is not showing. I didn’t want to duplicate it and mess up your links.

  2. Hmmm…astilbe a problem? Foxglove a problem? Hostas a problem? I don’t understand; guess I’d have to read the book to get the author’s take on it. You know what works and doesn’t work in your garden, and what you like. I say go with your instincts!

    1. I agree Beth as we get more experience our instincts kick in…it is an interesting read just to find out the author’s perspective…

  3. Hi Donna! Nice book indeed, I often think of some kind of plants I shall use when I make plans and then I end up planting other stuff which is maybe more sustainable and easy to grow. I can’t spend my life running around the garden with buckets of water! Having a good book with some valid alternatives sounds really good!

  4. Hi Donna, Great review. Although I think books like this have merit, I still prefer the ole tried-and-true method. If we don’t at least try, we’ll never know. Each garden is so different.

    I hope you have a wonderful week.

    1. Thanks Grace…trying plants is the fun way…the author wants to help gardeners and I applaud his efforts in that regard…the weather is very cold and snowy right now, and I am traveling again to the State Ed Dept for more training…

  5. The book certainly sounds as if it can offer inspiration, with alternatives. I must admit I have had a lot of “problem plants” over the years – most are now dead! So new ideas are always welcome.

  6. Hi Donna
    I hope I remember some day how to comment on your blog – I know it’s easy, just different. 🙂
    When I read of your hesitation for a positive review on this book, I think a lot depends on the level of gardener reading it. The suggestions about using low maintenance or native plants is a no brainer for you and I but a beginner just might be mesmerized by the guidance offered.
    My book reviews are usually done through my gardening column but I think the blogging audience might be receptive too.
    I have lots of native plants and shrubs because I know they can survive our crazy weather conditions.

    1. I would love to read some of your reviews Judith. I agree part of a book’s appeal is in the level of knowledge of the gardener and from what perpsective we are seeing the book…some designers loved the book as they looked at it from a purely design perspective. Glad you are getting used to commenting. I leave a statement at the bottom of the blog in blue to remind folks how to comment. Someday I might update my template.

  7. It is nice to hear an author tell it like it is. Daylilies are favorites but every summer here in my garden they fade away, only to reappear when the rains return. It is most annoying and not so good for just a few weeks of stunning blooms. Irises are another one that can be considered a problem. Astilbe too as it also tends to fade out in the summer. The problem is it is very hard to find plants with vibrant color that hold up to tough conditions in a garden. Even natives struggle sometimes; such as when we have no rain for months on end. Sigh. I think I’ll be checking out this book soon. I really want to hear the alternatives he offers.

    1. Perfect book for you Tina as you have many of the issues the author mentioned. I hope you find some wonderful alternatives for your garden.

  8. Astilbe will never be a problem in my garden because I simply can not get it to grow. But the perennial morning glory “Blue Dawn Vine” has tried to take over my yard and the neighbor’s as well. You wrote an excellent and very honest review of the book. We live in such a large country that a problem child in one zone could be a model student in another!

  9. Someone else reviewed this book for a different meme, or I saw a review on Facebook, or something. The other review was more favorable, but I agree that different plants work for different spots and different gardens. Thanks for your honest review. I wonder if I could check this out from the library…

    1. Beth I hope you can find it in the library…it was just released. I did like it but still have a few issues with the plants chosen for the problem and alternative list…oh well different strokes. I actually saw a few good reviews so I wanted to buy the book. Still glad I did.

  10. Sounds an interesting book, but maybe it is impossible to produce a book that that is correct for every garden, let alone gardener. Choosing the right plant is all about knowledge and this book may help with that. My advice is know your plants, but more importantly know you soil, climate and water availability. Christina

    1. Exactly Christina which is why I tried to leave too much judgement out of the review. We must still learn the basics and I was glad the author provided lots of that info for gardeners to learn.

  11. Donna, I suppose my initial reaction would also be, do I really want to read this book.
    I guess a plant which may be a problem in one part of the world may well behave itself in another.

    1. I think you are right Alistair…plants behave differently in different areas of the US too. The author wants gardeners to have better choices that require less work, water and chemicals. I applaud that just not some of his choices.

  12. I am eager to read this book, but I think you have made a good point about things to think about. Not everything the book recommends may work in our own garden, but it is all food for thought. Thanks for the extensive review.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I like to approach my reviews from the average gardener view. The book certainly gave me food for thought.

  13. A good review and very honest. My gardens in Maine are filled with plants the author wouldn’t like. A lot of them may be common but they survive the harsh winters and give me pleasure without much work.

    1. I agree that sometimes the tried and true are best. My main problem was even common natives made the list. Glad you liked the review. If nothing I am honest 🙂

  14. Strange because hydrangeas are among the most reliable, trouble-free plants I know. I see my precious foxgloves are on the back-list too.

    1. I suppose in some climate areas here hydrangea are fussy as mine was last spring due to the extreme cold. That was the first time actually. And yes the foxglove is on the list.

  15. Sounds like an interesting book, and your review of it is quite honest. However everyone has different ideas about plants and what one problem plant is for one gardener, is a joy to another. Looking forward to another garden book review.

  16. Excellent thought provoking post, Donna. I read with great interest. My conclusion is that after a life time of gardening , I can say I embrace the wisdom that I have gleaned: if a plant performs well in my gardens, it may stay. If it doesn’t meet my expectations, it must go… although I must say I allow it to stay for a couple of seasons to give it a fair chance. I’m surprised that you have trouble with hydrangeas. They are among my best performers… have you tried the Hardy Hydrangeas? They are all I grow… Quick Fire does extremely well, but Limelight has to be in partial shade to withstand our hot summers, and last year I introduced Pinky Winky, we’ll see how she does after this frigid Winter has left. They provide year round interest in my gardens, I love them in Winter just as much as any other season. I prune in very early Spring.

    1. Thanks Carolyn. Hydrangeas are hit and miss for me especially any that bloom on old wood as the buds are then going to be frozen with our winter and precarious spring freezes….but Endless Summer was always a good performer because it bloomed on new wood. This past spring in April we had freeze after freeze after freeze the whole month. So there were no flowers on Endless Summer as it took all of May to recover.

      Of course hydrangea Annabelle performs beautifully in any of our weather conditions….I will be assessing them all again this year to see who is too troublesome and must go and what I might find to replace them with….

  17. I’m with Christina, where as I really like the idea behind the book, surely whether a plant is, or isn’t a problem – or indeed is an alternative for a problem plant – is down to the specifics of your own location? Soil, climate etc. are so key to these issues. So congrats on managing to read the book properly despite having been put off, and I am all in favour of getting rid of plants that require pampering to survive and finding good alternatives. Good luck working thorugh your own garden assessing what still deserves a place and what needs a re-think.

    1. Thank you Janet. I think the author was trying to get to that point of what key issues makes a plant work or not work. It is vital to know your garden and then keep making your own assessments. I keep a mental note on my plants so i know who may be going this year. It is so cold right now (-9) that I wonder how some will survive but they seem to manage.

  18. Donna, I always enjoy your reviews — both your opinions and the format you use. You always make it so clear what works and what doesn’t! This one sounds like the kind of book that’s really designed for people in rainier climates, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen astilbe, hydrangeas, or foxgloves offered here even at the big box stores! Still, just the process of asking yourself, “Why am I growing that?” and thinking through alternatives has to be helpful.

    1. Stacy I do think it has more offerings for those not in a desert or drier climate. Glad you enjoy the reviews. The books certainly get me thinking about gardens, issues and the like.

  19. I enjoyed the comments as well as the post. Lots to learn. I feel as though I have come to gardening from the back door or maybe over the fence as I want to help wildlife first and now am thinking about the colors and things that people usually consider first. I finally had a garden dream after months of nothing but bad dreams…Hopefully I can focus on this which brings me joy…Michelle

    1. Doesn’t matter which way you get to gardening as long as you get there Michelle. Your garden dream will continue to come true as you work on it little by little…Your critters will love you for it…I need a bit of gardening right now!

  20. Donna, Like others, I appreciated your honest and thoughtful review of this book. I’m always wary of books that purport to identify plants that everyone should or shouldn’t grow because we garden in such different conditions, with different aesthetics and different personalities. Even the list of invasives we should avoid is not universal. As Alistair has pointed out, what is invasive in one region or on one continent is a beneficial native somewhere else.

    1. Thanks Jean…you certainly hit the points that had me wary. I still have issue with getting rid of natives or repalcing invasives that are a problem in many areas of the US with other invasives or non-natives. I realize what the author was trying to do and I applaud his efforts as a designer trying to give new gardeners ideas for more care free plants.

Comments are closed.