To Garden in the West: The New Sunset Western Garden Book

I was in my late twenties when I made the move from east-central Vermont to Seattle, Washington in the summer of 1995. My mother traveled with me prior to the real move to help me look for houses, and our criteria for a “good possibility” of a place to live included the quality of the outdoor gardening space as much as the interior of the place or the surrounding neighborhood. In the working neighborhood of Ballard, on a plain and sloping street, we found a solid little rental house with a tiny backyard shaded by a big-old fruiting cherry tree; we knew we’d found a perfect place for me to live. I signed the lease. In the funky nearby Fremont neighborhood, we found a great little bookstore and a even better neighborhood nursery – Fremont Gardens. That afternoon to celebrate, my mother bought me my first “Sunset Western Garden Book” and a gift certificate to Fremont Gardens. The perfect house-warming gifts for a new western gardener.

While I grew up gardening in Colorado at close to 8,000 feet, I did not have a need for books of my own until I had my own gardens. Having moved to the northeast as a young adult, I relied heavily on my grandfather’s “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening” in my Massachusetts and then Vermont gardens. “Taylor’s” was not even close to adequate in my new western environs. Which is where the “Sunset Western Garden Book” came in – and still does, no matter where I have subsequently lived and gardened in Washington, Colorado and California.

This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Kathleen Norris Brenzel, editor of “The New Sunset Western Garden Book” and garden editor for Sunset magazine. At 768 pages, the 2012 edition of the Sunset Western Garden book is a weighty tome – and a thorough general resource for plants, gardening techniques, tools and gardening styles in the western U.S. Photo: Bio photo of Kathleen Brenzel Courtesy of Sunset.

Kathy has overseen the last four editions of the book often referred to affectionately as the “Bible” of western gardening. The edition before this one came out in 2007. When asked what was the goal for the 2012 edition, her response is quick – currency. And by this she means currency in a whole variety of ways – currency of plant names, and available cultivars, currency in terms of what aspects of gardening western gardeners are interested in now – with strong emphasis on both sustainability and edible gardening, currency in terms of how western gardeners garden, with less impact on our environment and strong bent toward technology.

Sunset’s original “Garden Book”, published in 1932 was 63 pages long and “really more of a pamphlet,” Brenzel tells us. “The forerunner of the “Sunset Western Garden Book” we know today was published in 1954, when we introduced the plant encyclopedia, and the first attempt at “Sunset Western climate zones” as far more detailed and precise in our region than those used by the USDA.”

“This year’s edition is probably the most extensive makeover we’ve ever done,” Brenzel shares. In preparation for this edition, Brenzel explains that “we assembled a panel with landscape architects, horticulture educators from UC Berkeley and UC San Luis Obispo, nursery people and new graduates who had used our last edition as a textbook. The recent grads told us that in order to make ‘The New Sunset Western Garden Book’ relevant, it had to have a digital component. They said: ‘We go everywhere with our smartphones, so we want to be able to take a photo of a plant we see on the hiking trail and look it up instantly.'”

“Now you can get the free mobile edition of this book’s Plant Finder on your smartphone. (Search for Sunset Plant Finder.) With it, you can access more than 2,000 plants — and search by plant name, ZIP Code, climate zone, sun and water requirements, and type. There’s a companion online Plant Finder that lets you browse by color, height, spread and special needs.” Furthermore, she continues, “The last section of ‘The New Sunset Western Garden Book’ is a practical guide. We’ve added a camera icon on the bottom of the pages, pointing readers to corresponding videos on the Sunset website. So you can read about how to plant a tomato in a container as well as have a video showing you exactly how to do that.”

“Sustainability and edibles were two areas where we really wanted to expand our coverage – to match what we’re doing in our test gardens and to match the interests of readers and gardeners around the west. I’m really happy with the “what edibles to plant when” charts for warm-season and cool-season veggies,” Brenzel says.

Beyond these, the lushly photographed sections of different garden styles and plant lists are as good as they have ever been. Some long-time “Sunset Western Garden Book” readers might like the color photos but miss the clear detail of the plant identification provided by the former line drawings, some advanced gardeners might love the new cultivars included in the favorite plant groups, but might miss some small elements about plant care and cultivation between this new edition and the last one. I personally miss but will adapt just fine to not having common names in the main encyclopedia pointing me in the right direction of the latin name. But I really like the addition of what beneficial wildlife each plant might attract.

My advice to any gardener? Keep all of your plant encyclopedias as long as your book shelves hold up. They are all valuable for what they offer up and for cross-referencing for changes and additions. As any good fact checker will tell you, it pays to corroborate any piece of information in at least three reputable sources. I have many more gardening encyclopedias than this and they all serve me well.

Enjoy this newest one to add to your collection. We always have more to learn, don’t we?

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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7 Responses

  1. Avatar Canda says:

    I've always loved that book. As a wanabee gardner, it's so fun to look at. I've just always had terrible luck growing any type of plant, indoors or out. Even in San Diego where the weather was perfect for flowers, I managed to kill things that should have thrived. Now back in Redding, I'm terrified to try anything. (sigh…)

  2. Lincoln Lincoln says:

    Missed you on the radio today (Saturday). Good advice, to keep past editions handy alongside the new one. Look forward to trying the new online features, bandwidth permitting. But I hope the new Sunset book is a weighty tome, not a "tomb," as per graf 3. Thanks again for a very helpful column.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      I am laughing…..given the number of plants I have killed as a gardener, it might be a tomb – but that's my fault, not the fault of any edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book. But I WILL make the correction. Thank you, Lincoln.

  3. Avatar pmarshall says:

    We have a real old Sunset book. I look at it occasionally; evidently,from the looks of my garden, I haven't looked at that book enough. Of course, this is Redding, and we did have an "odd" summer.

  4. Avatar Casey C says:

    I have the 2007 book and it is in my truck with me all the time. I have practically destroyed it running back to it with garden hands while out on jobs. I love this book and will be getting the new one for sure.

  1. September 8, 2012

    […] To Garden in the West: The New Sunset Western Garden Book My mother traveled with me prior to the real move to help me look for houses, and our criteria for a "good possibility" of a place to live included the quality of the outdoor gardening space as much as the interior of the place or the surrounding … Read more on A News Cafe […]

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