The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook


by Penelope O’Sullivan (Storey Publishing, 2007, 408 pgs.)


The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook is one of those rare reference books that you will want to read from cover to cover. Whether you are daydreaming about adding a single plant or redoing your entire landscape, you will be sure to find what you need in Penelope O’Sullivan’s invaluable guide.


Sometimes we gardeners tend to overlook some of the most basic components of our personal landscapes. Trees and shrubs are likely to be the largest and longest-living plants we grow, and they often provide a garden with an essential backbone, but they do not always garner the same amount of attention that we lavish on perennials and vegetables. They may be outnumbered in the average garden, but they are no less important. Fortunately for us, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook provides an extensive overview of these stalwarts of the landscape and draws the gardener’s attention back to these essential elements of the home landscape.


In Chapter 1, “A Matter of Design,” the author discusses some of the considerations that go into the effective selection of a tree or shrub. This includes design elements, the garden’s year-round climate, how the tree or shrub will complement the house and other structures, and what kind of habitat surrounds the garden. The process of planning a new garden or making changes to an existing garden is broken down into five basic steps, accompanied by a worksheet with over 50 brainstorming questions that will get you thinking about what you want from your garden and a checklist that allows you to summarize what you want to design or redesign in your yard.


Chapter 2, “The Choice Is Yours,” expands on the basics that were covered in the first chapter, introducing such topics as light and soil considerations, long-term landscaping goals, plant placement within a landscape design, and more. In addition to these practical considerations, the author emphasizes the importance of various aspects of visual interest, such as bark, flowers, fruit, and foliage, and even trees that have interesting silhouettes after they lose their leaves in the fall. Native plants that attract wildlife are also touched upon briefly here and are highlighted in the plant-by-plant discussion later in the book. Throughout the chapter, handy lists point out top choices for each design consideration, such as trees with outstanding flowers or fruits.


In Chapter 3, “Buying and Planting Your Landscape Plants,” the author goes beyond design considerations and provides practical advice on purchasing and planting trees and shrubs. This chapter is loaded with practical information that is unusual to find in a gardening book. For example, there is a “Tree and Shrub Buyer’s Checklist” that walks you step-by-step through the evaluation of a potential plant’s health. Buying mail-order plants is discussed briefly. Buying and planting container-grown, balled-and-burlapped, and bare-root trees and shrubs are discussed, and step-by-step instructions are accompanied by illustrative photographs to show the proper planting method for each. Watering and mulching are also explored.


After the first three chapters have taken you from the drawing board to the purchase and installation of your trees and shrubs, Chapter 4, “Caring for Your Landscape Plants,” completes the cycle with important information on keeping your new purchases happy and healthy. The essential task of pruning is covered in detail, with helpful illustrations of both tools and techniques. The author provides a wealth of handy tips on using plants to their full advantage. Both natural and synthetic fertilizers are touched upon, followed by an extensive section on common diseases and pests. Local gardeners are sure to appreciate the discussion of “big pests,” i.e., deer. The author lists 30 deer-resistant trees and shrubs.


Following these four introductory chapters, an alphabetically organized discussion of recommended trees and shrubs takes up more than half of the book. The overview of each plant includes its Latin and common name, general shape and size, landscape use, origin, hardiness zone, light and soil needs, and growing requirements. This information is accompanied by a description based on the author’s expert insight, as well as a “designer’s choice” section that lists outstanding or recommended varieties. The author’s descriptions of the various trees and shrubs are especially helpful, as she does not pull any punches. If a plant has potential drawbacks, she is quick to point them out. Likewise, if a plant has unique qualities that would make it a standout in specific landscaping situations, she highlights these points.


A handy quick-reference chart towards the back of the book lists all of the recommended trees and shrubs. The chart includes such essential information as their hardiness zone range, light requirements, optimal soil type, general shape, and whether their leaves are evergreen or deciduous. It also points out whether each plant has special features, such as flowers, fruits, fall color, or unique bark or stems. A USDA hardiness zone map, an appendix of relevant resources, a glossary, and an index round out the book’s supplementary material.


Profusely illustrated with color photographs, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook puts to rest the notion that perennial and annual flowers are the only source of color and interest in the garden. Please stop by the Rochester Civic Garden Center’s library to check out this unique guide to choosing, buying, planting, and maintaining trees and shrubs.


Reviewed by Andrea Kingston, RCGC library volunteer, December 2010.