Book Review: Garden Problem Solvers

Dec 30, 2014 | Books and Publications

Pictured above are two reference books commonly available to the home gardener. I have both of these books, and this review will discuss and compare them. First of all, both books are large format (approximately 8-1/2 x 11 inches), printed on heavy paper. Both are profusely illustrated with excellent color photographs. The Sunset book has 320 pages, and the Ortho book has 400. Versions of these books are in the SCMG reference library in the Casita (a Professional Edition of the Ortho book is also in the Casita, which is much larger in terms of page count). Each of these books is a source of good reference material for the home gardener, and even Master Gardeners can use them to research plant problems because of the wonderful illustrations and descriptions. The major difference between the two is the organization of the material. The tables of contents are shown below. I have inserted subheadings with bullets in the Sunset table of contents so you can compare the coverage. You will see the similarity in the types of plants covered (trees, lawns, perennials, etc).

The books are both produced by knowledgeable and authoritative sources that can be trusted. Ortho, of course, suggests solutions which utilize their proprietary garden products. Sunset offers fewer specific solutions. However, once a problem is identified, the internet and SCMG resources can be researched to find recommended treatments.

The Sunset book includes a section on weeds, which might be useful for identifying a weed but is not quite in line with figuring out why my pine tree has sap oozing out. The Ortho book has a section on houseplants, which similarly might be useful except that the book is a garden problem solver. Ortho’s section on household pests is likewise unrelated to gardening, but maybe the household pests go along with the houseplants. Both books include up-front sections with general gardening advice. The Ortho book includes all types of problems in the specific plant discussions in the “Problem Solving by Plant Type” section. Sunset, on the other hand, has four sections to cover problems: “Problem Solving by Plant Type” (which includes common problems of each plant type, and the most common problems of the most common species of each plant type), “Symptoms and Causes at a Glance” (which discusses general problems by symptom such as discolored leaves or oozing sap with illustrations), “Encyclopedia of Damaging and Beneficial Creatures” (insects etc.), and the “Encyclopedia of Diseases and Cultural Problems”. The user needs to become familiar with whichever book is at hand in order to make the best use of it.

Certainly Master Gardeners have a huge advantage over ordinary homeowners in solving garden problems: our training.

Chapter IIIA of the SCMG manual, “Plant Disorders and Diseases”, by Dr. Natalie Goldberg, defines a “disorder” as any abnormal development in a plant. The chapter discusses “abiotic disorders” resulting from non-living causes (environmental, cultural, etc.) versus “biotic disorders” resulting from infectious organisms – i.e. plant diseases.

Dr. Goldberg teaches us the difference between symptoms, which are visual indications that some problem exists (such as wilting) versus signs, (such as a white powdery growth on plant surfaces). Symptoms are non-specific – many things can cause wilting, for example. Signs are more specifically related to the cause of the problem.

In addition to her sections in the manual, Dr. Goldberg teaches the SCMG classes on plant pathology, and also on the diagnostic process.

Chapter IIIE of the manual, “Arthropods Associated with Turf and Ornamentals”, by Dr. Carol Sutherland, discusses insects. Insects can chew, suck, bore, girdle, and otherwise cause serious damage to plants.

In Chapter 7 of the manual, “The Diagnostic Process”, by Curtis Smith, a minimum set of questions is listed for systematic collection of information regarding a problem.

A Master Gardener investigation into a plant problem involves collecting a lot of information. A homeowner asking for help is likely to describe only the symptoms he or she sees – the plant is wilting, or the leaves are turning brown. The Master Gardener knows how to collect comprehensive information in order to obtain a complete picture*. Then books such as the Sunset Western Garden Problem Solver and the Ortho Home Gardener’s Problem Solver can provide valuable reference material in a compact, easily researched format. Books like these are in the front room of the casita for a reason: in many cases, they can provide the quickest route to diagnosing and solving a problem. When you are on Telephone Hotline, take the time to look through these books and learn about a couple of good tools at your disposal.

For those who want their own copies, these books are available at garden centers, home improvement stores, book stores, and on the internet (the least expensive option).

*Note: Sometimes a site visit is required to see the problem firsthand in order to collect correct and complete information because homeowners don’t understand the question or can’t adequately describe what they see.

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