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Book Review: Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? by Andrew Keys

255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants


Why Grow That
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I was excited to read this book. I thought the concept was a great idea when I first read Andrew Keys' article by the same title, in Fine Gardening magazine. And I had the pleasure of meeting the author several years ago during a Tweet-up at the incredible Innisfree Garden, in Millbrook, NY, where his impressive knowledge and curiosity of trees and shrubs were made very apparent.

I was not disappointed. Although I occasionally found myself in the "Why Grow That" pile (What can I say, the blue spruce came with the house.), I felt vindicated whenever a favorite of mine was included as an "Extraordinary Alternative". But the real enjoyment here is that Keys delivers on his promise to help us upgrade our gardens, make sense of our options and discover some surprisingly marvelous, new plants.

The premise behind the book is that we all get seduced into buying the popular plants, whether or not they are well suited to our area. Keys gently persuades us to resist their momentary flashiness and teaches how to pick a plant that will be happy in our yards - and will make us happy in the long run. We may know what to consider when making a plant happy, hardiness, light exposure, soil type, etc., but for Keys, the major consideration should be maintenance. Minimal or massive, it has to be done. As he says, the plant can't prune itself.

Using maintenance demands as a springboard, the bulk of the book is about options; 255 of them! Just say no to the problem children in the nursery and be open to the alternatives. And the alternatives are well represented from region to region, whether it's a classic fir tree for the hot, muggy south or an exotic bloomer for the north.

His sense of humor and facility with analogies give the book a cast of characters, rather than a dry list of plants. "High school is a metaphor for life. And gardening is no exception. Step into our gardens and we find the prom queen and the star quarterback, the cheerleader and the rebel who cut class. Popular plants rule today's landscapes the same way popular kids run the school." The high school theme provides an accessible perspective and runs throughout the book; Italian Cypress is "..the haughty foreign exchange student." Remember those A/V nerds? They're running the world today. So get ready to check out what the uncool kids can bring to the garden.

The Bottom Line

The book is broken down into trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and grasses and groundcovers. Each entry talks about what makes the problem plants bad choices and the reasons the alternatives make better choices. There's also growing information and each selection is accompanied by a photo that gives you a good idea of the plant's attributes. If you are looking for something different, if you are tired of prima donas or if you just want to learn more about really great landscape plants, this is a crackerjack read and reference. I would argue some choices. (Prickly pear as an alternative for peony? Really?), but the majority of selections went on my wish list. I had never heard of the Eastern Wahoo, but now I definitely want one. And a Japanese Tree Lilac, 'Golden Spring' winter hazel, blue oat grass and some partridge feather...

Keys provides web resources and nurseries for finding these plants, so it's not like those magazines that tempt you with new plants you can never find. I learned a lot, but if I'm truly honest, I still want a romantic, lazy, space and water hogging, weeping willow. At least now I know there are alternatives.


  • Published 2012 (Timber Press, Incorporated)
  • Paperback, 340 pages
  • Suggested Retail: $24.95

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About the Author

Andrew Keys is a lifelong gardeners, transplanted from the deep south of Mississippi to New England. He is a garden designer and writer. He blogs at Garden Smackdown and hosts the podcast Garden Confidential, for Fine Gardening magazine

Disclosure: A temporary review copy was provided by the publisher, Timber Press, Inc., a company with which I have also published a book. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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