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Anne Marie Van Nest

Professional Gardening Expert

How to Garden & Best Garden Book

What makes a good reference book on Trees and Shrubs?

It is a book that has information on a broad selection of trees and shrubs. Many more plants than I can possibly use in my garden. The book also has to have all the required basic growing information (plant description, hardiness, soil preferences, and sunlight rating) in addition to handy tips that the author has observed. These extra tips can be valuable information like pruning instructions to encourage trees to grow with a good form (so important when young to set the framework for good strength at maturity). Also important when selecting a tree or shrubs for a garden are characteristics that differentiate one plant from another. When often only one tree will fit, it is important to get the perfect tree for a garden. A good reference book is the culmination of many years of growing, research, or observational experience possessed by the writer.

Good reference books are not totally about “glowing praise”. A valuable reference book will mention the downfall of some plants, too. Good authors will include justified candid comments about trees and shrubs, good or bad, that will be important information for gardeners.

Many good reference books have equally good images to accompany the quality text alongside. For books on shrubs, this is vitally important. A good visual picture of a shrub through the seasons and a landscape picture to show the scale is essential for readers to judge whether that plant is a worthy consideration for their garden.

Learning how to garden is easy with the right gardening tips for trees and shrubs and flowers. Our experts find the best garden selections that include the most artistic garden design books that will set your yard apart.

Best Books on Trees and Shrubs by Anne Marie Van Nest

The Best You Can Get

  • Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

    Anne says: Dirr has put together a first-class A to Z guide of the best woody plants for cooler climates, particularly for gardeners in hardiness zones 3 to 7. The book contains copious information on the flowers, fruit, bark, fall color, habit, etc., of more than 500 species and 700 cultivars. A straight shooter, Dirr is generous with his praise for deserving trees and shrubs such as the sugar maple, “The true nobility of fall-coloring trees - challenged by many, rivalled by none,” but he can also be frank with his scorn for those that don’t live up to expectations, “In all my traveling and consulting work, I have never recommended, at least when conscious, a poplar.”

    Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs has excellent photographs showing the size and shape of the mature tree or shrub, as well as close-ups of the leaf, bark, and fruit. Each plant has the botanical name, common name, description and many candid comments, such as for the Italian Alder, “Deserves a longer look by American gardeners.”

    Numerous lists in the back of the book cross-reference trees and shrubs by both their botanical and common name for easy perusal to find the right plants for a variety of conditions or with a particular characteristic.


    • By Michael A. Dirr
    • 494 pages
    • 1600 color photographs
  • Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses

    Anne says: The ideal companion to Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia, is the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. This book contains the words that go with the companion book’s pictures. An impressive book, the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is an excellent reference to get a well-rounded description of many of the plants found in nurseries and arboretums.

    Dirr, in his preface, comments on the fact that since 1930, there have been 9,700 plant patents granted. Now new plants are “rolling off the assembly line faster than anyone can evaluate them.” Dirr comments that there were 396 in 1997 alone. Still Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is the reference to use for every woody plant either obscure or everyday.

    In no way flashy, this book is all about substance and information (characteristics solely lacking in some reference books today). Handy diagrams of leaf shapes and their descriptive terms and a straight-forward introduction to botanical plant names are very useful for the novice gardener.


    • By Michael A. Dirr
    • 1250 pages
    • Line drawings
  • Native Trees for North American Landscapes

    Anne says: Sternberg and Wilson have shared a lifetime of experience they have gained from studying native trees and their environments throughout North America. They explain how to choose trees appropriate to a particular area and give guidance for either planting new specimens or preserving the existing trees. The bulk of the book contains tree profiles for 650 species and over 500 cultivars. The extensive profiles describe fruit, flower, range (both native and adaptive), culture, best features, and problems.

    Along with the detailed profile of each plant, practical information is included to help gardeners select the best plant for their landscape. For example, Sternberg and Wilson write about Smoke trees saying that “This tree can basically be planted and forgotten. It thrives on neglect once established and requires no attention to insect or disease control so long as it is planted in a well-drained soil where Verticillium wilt and root decay fungi are unlikely to bother it.”

    The “best season” information also contains interesting insights into each plant. As an example, Sternberg and Wilson say that dwarf hackberry’s best season is winter, when the intricate branching structure can be seen, especially up close and covered by hoarfrost on a cold morning or fall with its nice bright yellow leaf color and orange fruits.


    • By Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson
    • 552 pages
    • Color photographs and line drawings
  • Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

    Anne says: Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates is a sister book to his Hardy Trees and Shrubs, this time focussing on woody plants that grow in “warm temperate” areas found in USDA Zone 7 to 11 (where winter temperatures do not fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit. This book shows the habit, fruit, flowers, bark, fall color and more for 400 species (and hundreds of cultivars). This book is based on Dirr’s 22 years of gardening in the red soils of Georgia and offers reflections on his success and failures.

    Dirr’s often humorous comments liven up the text throughout. For "Blue Pyramid" smooth cypress, he writes, "'Blue Pyramid' appears similar to ‘Blue Ice’, and both, growing side by side in my Georgia trials, look like rockets on the launching pad."


    • By Michael A. Dirr
    • 448 pages
    • 1400 color photographs and line drawings
  • The Botanical Garden: Volume 1: Trees and Shrubs

    Anne says: This team of photographer/artist and botanist/gardener has been collaborating since 1977 to produce their distinctive style of book. The Botanical Garden is a pictorial reference book that brings plants to people who what to learn about the identification of more than 450 genera of trees and shrubs from around the world not just in their own backyard.

    This is a no-fluff book, written for an international market that avoids the overuse of common names, hardiness zones, or unnecessary growing details. Each plant listing includes the botanical and common name, date of discovery and range. A detailed and concise scientific description follows with key recognition features, ecology and geography notes, and cultivation requirements. Each plant is beautifully photographed in its entirety and shown as a close up of the flower or fruit against a white background to accentuate details.


    • By Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix
    • 492 pages
    • 500 color photographs

You will be happy with any of these

  • The Tree Identification Book: A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees

    Anne says: Divided into two parts, Symonds and Chelminski have organized this book in a similar way to The Shrub Identification Book. In the front, they have put together numerous pages of pictorial keys which give a comparison to a small group of similar trees. In the second half, they include master pages where similar trees are place together to highlight the differences. This book makes identifying mystery twigs quick and easy because of the large, detailed photos.

    This is not a showy coffee table book and is not pocket sized for easy portability on a hike. But it is a handy reference upon returning home with an unknown tree to identify.


    • By George W. D. Symonds and Stephen V. Chelminksi
    • 272 pages
    • 1500 black and white photographs
  • The Shrub Identification Book: The Visual Method for the Practical Identification of Shrubs, Including Woody Vines and Ground Covers

    Anne says: A sister companion book designed similarly to “The Tree Identification Book” with two parts. In the front, Symmonds and Merwin have put together numerous pages of pictorial keys which give a comparison to a small group of similar shrubs, vines, or groundcovers. Once a match is found in the thorns, leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs or bark section, the reader is referred to the second section for more details. In the second half are the master pages where similar shrubs are place together to highlight the differences. This book makes identifying mystery plants quick and easy because of the numerous, large, detailed photos.

    Even though the photos are black and white, the details that emerge when you start looking beyond the color (such as leaf margins or bud shapes) are very helpful.


    • By George W. D. Symmonds and A. W. Merwin
    • 379 pages
    • 3,550 black and white photographs
  • Trees for Urban and Suburban Landscapes

    Anne says: This is an extensive book that discusses care for over 1,000 tree species. Essential for tree management professionals, this reference is very informative for anyone who loves trees or wants to learn more about them. It is not a colorful picture book. It is a serious reference book, written in easy-to-understand language, which would be particularly useful for those responsible for the care of trees in an urban or suburban environment. The essentials for tree care are covered from selection, planting, establishment, and fertilization for trees growing across North America.

    Twenty cross-referenced appendices will help readers match the right tree to the right location.


    • By Edward Gilman
    • 688 pages
    • 500 color photographs
  • Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification

    Anne says: This is a no-nonsense, easy-to-use book that is an ideal size for carrying along on outdoor activities. Contains over 730 native (and important introduced foreign) tree species that might be found on a wilderness hike. It is very nicely presented with numerous leaf samples on each page for ease of comparison. Some entries contain flowers, bark, fruit, winter silhouette or landscape shape and size to help with identification. Brockman also includes a guide to tree families so that the relationships can be understood better.


    • By C. Frank Brockman & Rebecca Marrilees
    • 280 pages
    • Color photographs and 160 range maps
  • The Tree and Shrub Expert

    Anne says: One of The Experts series of gardening books by Dr. Hessyan. “The Tree & Shrub Expert” is filled with solid, usable, basic information. It is a good guide to over 800 trees and shrubs for the beginning gardener or anyone that wants a quick reference. The book is chock full of color photos and illustrations. There are a few references that do reflect the British focus of the book (ie: chalk soils, greengrocers) but these are limited.


    • By Dr. D. G. Hessyan
    • 128 pages
    • Color photographs and line drawings

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