Gardening with Native Plants book inspires perennial passions

Closeup of Linda Chalker-Scott
Linda Chalker-Scott

From sourdough to home-improvement projects, the coronavirus pandemic has inspired a renaissance in quotidian creativity.

Gardening, too, has blossomed in popularity in the past year and that’s a good thing, said Linda Chalker-Scott, an urban horticulturist and professor in the Washington State University Department of Horticulture. Gardening, she said, “is great for your mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.”

Chalker-Scott’s latest book is a perfect fit for the times.

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest was recently published in a much revised and updated third edition to great acclaim. The lavishly illustrated book won the 2020 Award of Excellence in Gardening and Gardens from the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, while Chalker-Scott garnered the R.W. Harris Author’s Citation Award from the International Society of Arboriculture.

Gardening with Native Plants was originally published in 1986 by the University of Washington Press and authored by longtime UW botanist Arthur Kruckeberg, with a second revised edition in 2006. The third edition, Chalker-Scott said, was a monumental, eight-year project.

An internationally recognized expert on the science of gardening, Chalker-Scott is also a prolific writer. She’s a founding member of the highly regarded Garden Professors blogging team, which answers gardeners’ questions (and busts gardening myths) with science, and the author of numerous Extension publications covering a wide variety of gardening and plant-health related topics.

Chalker-Scott was tapped by the UW Press editorial team to revise the book for a new edition. Given her expertise, she was the natural choice. “I was very flattered. I brought the practical science behind gardening to the new edition,” she said, and relied on a team of experts to make the book something totally new.

Two views, 40 years apart, of Linda Chalker-Scott and her husband, Jim: 1980 and 2020.

Chalker-Scott said she knew Art Kruckeberg socially when she was a faculty member at UW in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. “He was already retired,” she said. The first and second editions of Gardening with Native Plants were “always best sellers, but by the time for a third edition, he was in his 90s.”

When it was published 35 years ago, Kruckeberg’s original edition had descriptions and black and white illustrations of some 250 plants. The third edition describes a whopping 900 plants, all with color photos that had to be sourced. To further complicate matters, molecular genetics in the past couple of decades has overturned our understanding of the relatedness of plants—changing the names of entire families of plants, “much to the frustration of gardeners and scientists alike,” Chalker-Scott writes in the preface.

Richard Olmstead, a UW biologist, wrote the foreword for the new edition and guided the taxonomic revisions, providing both new and old scientific names.

Nearly a thousand color photos were donated for use in the book, a monumental task curated by Sami Gray. Chalker-Scott said she met Gray through the Garden Professors’ Facebook group, a stroke of serendipitous luck that also resulted in Gray writing descriptions of the new plants. “Sami’s a great writer in her own regard,” Chalker-Scott said, who “was able to channel Art’s voice” so closely that “you will be hard-pressed to identify which entries are hers and which are Art’s. I can’t believe how lucky I was to find her.”

One thing that has been omitted from the new edition is the location of native plant populations. “Harm has been done all over the world” by native-plant collectors, Chalker-Scott said. “Art would describe locations and how to collect seeds without digging them up,” but, she adds, while most collectors are ethical, it only takes a tiny minority to “decimate and damage” a microenvironment “due to encroachment.” Besides, “native plant nurseries are by definition local, so support them. There’s lots of information on how to propagate native plants” in home gardens.

Chalker-Scott said she has always been a gardener but never got into the science of it until she realized how very little scientific information was available. In addition to her many short pieces that explode gardening myths (and which have been collected in two volumes by the UW Press), she is also the author of How Plants Work, a sublimely accessible explanation of plant growth and development, health, and photosynthesis. Her free Extension publication on scientific literacy for citizen scientists is a must read in an era of conspiracy folklore gone wild and is used in courses on the philosophy of science.

“When we return to normal,” Chalker-Scott said, “I hope people don’t give up gardening. When you’re able to understand the science, you don’t get frustrated and you don’t waste money.”

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