Book Review – How plants work: the science behind the amazing things plants do

"We often make gardening more of a chore than it needs to be, making decisions about plant care based on how we think plants will respond." - Linda Chalker-Scott

Author: Linda Chalker-Scott

Year of Publication: 2015

Publisher: Timber Press, Inc.

When I started reading this book, I was expecting it to be a basic plant biology or a plant science book written for gardeners. The beginning of the first chapter started with a description of what a plant cell is, and then the contents of the book became more complex really quickly and took quite a different direction. 

A unique aspect of this book is that even though very complex plant science topics are presented, they are presented in a way that is accessible to someone who has absolutely no knowledge of biology. 

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the author, Linda Chalker-Scott, is very much a gardener as she is an academic. As given in her biography in the book, she “has a Ph.D. in Horticulture” and “is Washington State University’s extension urban horticulturist and an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture”, among other accomplishments.

Throughout the book, the main idea that the author tries to (and does) get across to the reader is that a lot of well-known gardening practices are actually unnecessary and can even be harmful to plants. She emphasizes that very often, we as humans think that plants will perceive the world in the same way that we do and treat plants in ways that we think are correct, leading to a range of well-accepted gardening myths.

Judging by the titles of other books written by this author and her academic work, shedding light on these myths seems to form the core of her life’s work. This is also evident from her Washington State University website, which is titled “Horticultural Myths.” 

This book, ‘How plants work’,  is not at all a ‘how to garden’ sort of book that would tell you what to do and what to not do. Although it touches on a few dos and don’ts, what it really made me want to do is look further into the don’ts in particular.

This book is most suited for “the curious gardener”. Most of the concepts presented are followed by a very general gardening example. So, having any experience at all with gardening would help the reader put these examples into context and know that this knowledge can be applied immediately. 

Being a gardener alone won’t make getting through this book easy, not that it is boring or dragged but because it is a book that is full of details. You need to have a real liking to understand the inner workings of things and be a person who constantly looks at everything and questions “why”. If that sounds like you, then this book is for you.

The gardening examples included mostly deal with situations and problems encountered when growing plants directly on the ground. Less emphasis is placed on gardening in a much more controlled environment. There is also a concentration of examples on growing larger trees, but most facts presented are either directly or indirectly applicable to all types of gardening, including vegetable gardening and container gardening.

When I first started gardening, I thought that I had to kind of “mother” all my plants. As I gained more experience I realized that the more I interfered with my vegetable plants, especially those that I grew directly on the ground, the less productive they were.

Eventually, I realized that nature is called “mother nature” for a reason, and other than making sure that my vegetable plants had access to everything they needed, I started being more hands-off and the plants really thrived.

Overall this book was a very informative read. It has confirmed my ‘suspicions’ that growing plants directly on the ground and in any type of a controlled environment, such as a container or a greenhouse, need very different types of inputs and maintenance. It has made me want to question commonly accepted gardening practices and to really research and find out which gardening practices are useful, which are just a waste of time and money, and which are just plain harmful.

Have you found that certain gardening practices don’t produce the results that people claim they do? Let us know in the comments below

Book Review – How plants work: the science behind the amazing things plants do

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