Friday, October 19, 2012

From The Garden Bookshelf-The Unexpected Houseplant

The Unexpected Houseplant

By Tovah Martin with photographs by Kindra Clineff.
Timber Press, 2012

I have to admit that I had just about written off the growing and care of house plants as an endeavor I should simply leave to others with greener thumbs than mine.  I have never been accused of outright premeditated botanicide but, on the other hand, my friends know that, through a combination of stupidity and negligence, I'm perfectly capable of inflicting great injury on even the hardiest and most street-smart of indoor potted plants.  Friends and family abandoned the idea of bringing me gifts of indoor plants long ago as a hopeless cause.  And, I never get any house-sitting requests from friends who need a little plant care while they're away on vacation.  They never call.  And for good reason. Because I've never been able to master even the simple basics of nurturing a houseplant, like the whole overwatering--underwatering thing, they know that the plants would probably have a greater chance at survival if they grew legs and went searching for food and water on their own.

But now, there's this great new book by Tovah Martin that gives me hope that, with just a little intervention, even a serial begonia killer like me might once again hold his head high among indoor gardening society.

photo copyright Kindra Clineff

In the very beginning of The Unexpected Houseplant, published by Timber Press, Tovah wastes no time in boosting our confidence by telling us that absolutely, we can do this!.  "We'll do it together," she says.  That's a good message to start with.  I feel more comfortable already.  I can't think of anyone I'd rather have lead me on this journey than Tovah.  She's a renowned plant expert whose authored some of the most classic gardening books (The New Terrarium, Tasha Tudor's Garden) and I can't tell you how many articles on gardens, plants and horticulture. She's also a gifted teacher and a botanical evangelist who has lectured all over the country.  And, by her own admission, she's a gardening fanatic. I can identify with that.  

photo copyright Kindra Clineff
But I'll warn you--as therapeutic and motivational as Tovah's confident message of hope might be for indoor gardeners like me, who tremble at the mere sight of a north-facing window, don't get the idea that this is just your run-of-the-mill self-help gardening book.  What's really unexpected about The Unexpected Houseplant is how personal this book feels. Don't expect to find an A to Z list of the 50 most popular houseplants complied by a bunch of editors who have spent more time growing manuscripts than plants. Instead, the 220 plants featured in this book, and organized by season, have been chosen by Tovah because she has personal experience with all of them.  Can I say intimate relationship? She writes about them as if they are dear friends.   And, she either grows all of these plants or has grown them at one time.  They have, in other words, become part of her life.  As they have for her Maine Coon kitten, Einstein, who--true to his name-- often enjoys rearranging them in ways that only a physicist would truly understand.  But that's another story.  According to Tovah..."this [book] is the chronicle of the highlights of my indoor garden.  It's about my very own, overly green, botanically jam-packed home."  

photo copyright Kindra Clineff
And, speaking of Tovah's indoor garden...I promise that you will be as surprised as an aphid on a blind date with a ladybug when you see some of these "houseplants."   The first thing you'll notice is that many of the plants in this book are those that we already grow outdoors and so, right from the start, we have some familiarity with their habits.  (Note to self--Hey, I can grow outdoor plants!  Another ray of hope?) There are grasses, herbs, stately trees, leafy branches, twisting vines, springtime plants like primulas, and holiday plants like amaryllis and echeverias.  Wait a minute...echeveria?  A holiday plant? Really?  You bet your succulents, Santa!  As Tovah explains..."Okay, so echeverias are not official holiday plants.  I confess, this is just an idea I'm hoping might catch on. The fact is, most echeverias are sending up flower spires right about when the holidays are looming around the bend."  Echeverias, yes...but you won't find any poinsettias here. "Enter my home for the holidays, and I can guarantee you won't see a single one." See what I mean about surprises?  You're probably starting to get the idea right about now that this book represents a breakthrough in the way we think about houseplants.  It moves us beyond languishing philodendrons and dusty african violets to a world of fresh spring bulbs and lush perennials.  Indeed, you are even given fair warning on the back cover of the book that "this isn't your grandmother's houseplant book."

photo copyright Kindra Clineff

Tovah wants nothing more than for us to join her in this revolutionary way of thinking about the houseplant: "I'm hoping you'll buy into this," she says.  "I'm doing my best to demonstrate how plants can change your psyche when you welcome them into your life.  It's radical.  It's the difference between holding nature at arm's length and embracing it into the heart of your home.  ...I'm a confessed missionary and I'm trying to dangle the lure and offer the tools to rope you in as well."

photo copyright Kindra Clineff

One of the lures that Tovah dangles in front of us is the gorgeous photography in this book by Kindra Clineff.  All of the photographs were taken in Tovah's home and to say that they are beautifully styled and expertly shot would be an understatement. And, just to add to the seduction are the beautiful plant containers.  Boy, do I ever lust after some of these!  There are stylish vases, bowls, antique urns, gorgeous terra cotta and ceramic pots, and wonderful glass cloches.  

photo copyright Kindra Clineff
Tovah Martin is one of the wittiest, most engaging garden writers on the scene today and this latest book clearly demonstrates that.  If you've tried plodding through houseplant books in the past and found many of them to be as dry as a spindly cactus, you're in for a real surprise. This book is truly a joy to read. In the spirit of full disclosure...most of the regular readers of this blog know that Tovah is both a friend and an occasional guest contributor here on Notes from Juniper Hill so I can hardly be expected to be completely unbiased. However, don't take my word for it--check out a few of the early reviews of The Unexpected Houseplant below. I'm betting you'll want to buy several copies of this book. One for your own reference shelf and a few to give as gifts. After all, I'm sure you know at least one gardener out there like me, still stuck in the dark ages of indoor gardening with little more than a half-dead spider plant and a total lack of confidence, who is ready to walk out into the light and join Tovah in her houseplant revolution.  

What they're saying...

"Will boost the confidence of even the most black-thumbed houseplant owner. Martin’s can-do enthusiasm is infectious, her creativity inspiring." (Booklist )

"For her 15th book, garden writer and plant expert Martin seeks to encourage the indoor plant maven in each of us. With the help of Clineff's eye-catching photos, which depict how correctly chosen plants placed in creative containers can enhance indoor living space, Martin shows how imagination and use of fundamental ground rules for growing and proper placement should result in an indoor horticultural paradise year round. Martin covers over 220 plants, ranging from exotic to conventional, but her unusual plant-container pairings give all of them an artsy flavor. Her text is engaging and personable. Growth requirements, propagation advice, problems, and attributes of plants are outlined. While Martin provides a resource list, she encourages the use of even "lowly" grocery store specimens. She presents planning and work schedules within a framework of the four seasons. VERDICT As the title suggests, this is not a typical facts-only presentation of how to cultivate houseplants. All indoor plant hobbyists in every geographic area will enjoy and learn from this book. Its fresh approach deserves a thumbs-up." (Library Journal) 

"As the air gets crisper outside, it’s time to rethink what plants can do to enliven our interior spaces. Tips on how to care for ordinary and not-so-ordinary species are revealed, so non-green thumbers need not fear." (Design New England )

"For those who have tired of spider plants and cactus, garden writer Martin (The New Terrarium) suggests a year’s worth of new options. She begins her tour in autumn (the start of the indoor gardener’s year) and offers dozens of tempting suggestions. There are familiar bulbs and unexpected conifers, fruiting trees, and carnivorous plants. Each plant listing includes a photograph and an information box describing its flower, foliage, cultivation requirements, and potential problems. What really sets this apart from other reference guides are Martin’s imaginative choices. She dares readers to invite conifer trees and summer coleus inside for the winter and explains how to help the plants thrive there. She lures readers beyond the Christmas poinsettia to the whimsical, Dr. Seussian charm of a holiday Echeveria. She offers fruit, fragrance, foliage, and flower. Clineff’s full-color photographs provide plenty of inspiration for the home gardener and decorator. This is an imaginative guide to bringing the delights of the garden indoors." (Publishers Weekly )

"Refreshing in the world of garden books."
(The Philadelphia Inquirer )  Click here to

"[Martin] has a witty, creative voice that warms her new book."
(Traditional Home )  Click here to

"This book is just a lovely long conversation with a knowledgeable, but candid friend who doesn’t want you to get into something you can’t handle." (Commonweeder)  Click here to read more...

If you are at all interested in growing houseplants you will enjoy this book, even if you aren’t I would recommend it as it is a good read – charming, engaging, witty and you never know you might have a change of heart. (Patient Gardener)  Click here to read more...

All photos copyright Kindra Clineff, The Unexpected Houseplant.

You can also follow Tovah Martin on her blog, Plantswise, at

For more featured books from The Garden Bookshelf, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Aw Shucks, Joe. Thank you! Love this lighthearted review. But don't I remember something about a phormium that survived a winter at Juniper Hill? Clearly, you've already got your inner serial killer under control. I give you my two (green) thumbs up.


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