The winter months, I find, are a good time of year to relax and plan your next garden. Enjoying a cup of coffee and tasty, sweet treat at Barnes & Noble, losing yourself in a good gardening book can be inspirational and therapeutic. Brushing up on good design, learning a new plant or just looking at Garden Design magazine can more than eat up an afternoon and prove rewarding. Like any hobby or discipline you dive into, the more you learn… the more you find. It can be a bit daunting staring at the selection of books offered at Barnes & Noble, however, a good bet is seeking out the author Michael Dirr who seems to know almost all that the plant world has to offer.
Dr. Michael Dirr earned a Bachelors in Science degree in Plant Physiology, a Masters in Science Degree in Plant Physiology from Ohio State University and a Ph. D in Plant Physiology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1972. Dirr was an Assistant Professor of Ornamental Horticulture at the University of Illinois, Urbana and became a Mercer Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in the late 1970’s. Later, he was the Director of the University of Georgia Botanical Garden and since 1984 a Professor at the University of Georgia. Michael Dirr’s Georgia Plant Introduction Program introduced over 40 new cultivars into the nursery trades. He has published over 300 publications and authored eleven books. This guy is no dummy and has long been a favorite of mine. His contributions are enormous and his awards and honors are numerous. The medal of honor in 1993 from the Garden Clubs of America, the American Horticultural Society’s Teaching Award and Southern Nurseryman’s Association (SNA) Slater Wight Memorial Award to name a few.
A good starting place is Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs. I say this because it is easy to read, concise and offers brilliant pictures capturing many of the plants attributes. With some 500 species and 700 cultivar descriptions, you are sure to become inspired and implement a new plant into your own garden. It differs greatly from his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants which, in its own right, is so detailed and academic that most would find “the bible” a bit too much for an afternoon read. However, thankfully it was required reading for me studying at Rutgers University. After you have finished Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, which is more of broad paint brush stroke you can then hone your efforts to a few of his more specific reads. Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season and Hydrangeas for American Gardens are both photographic companions to the previous book mentioned. Vibrant pictures, many of which Dirr have taken himself and approachable text offers a relaxed but informed read. There is also the Great Flowering Landscape Shrubs, which describes more than 50 types of the best flowering shrubs and details their usefulness in the landscape while being punctuated with beautiful color photographs. Finally, another favorite you are sure to enjoy is Dirr’s Trees and shrubs for Warmer Climates. What I like about this book is that it entices us to push the envelope offering plant selections, which may survive, in our cooler zone 6 climate. Specifically, the enormously colorful and energetic habit of Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) will offer bright flowers most of the summer.
Dr. Michael A. Dirr’s lifelong passion for horticulture has had a profound impact on my life as well as that of a generation. I find his knowledge of the plant kingdom to be quantum and his writings articulate, opinionated and many times humorous. Specifically, his description of a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), “a rather scary growth habit; belongs in a horror movie (Adams Family Garden Show)”. Whatever Dirr book or publication you pick up you can be sure you will learn something new. Perhaps my favorite Dirr quote of all is his intimate encounter with Dr. Kassab, whose holly Ilex x ‘Dr. Kassab’ adorns many gardens. On page 479 of his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants Dirr writes, “There is no greater fraternity than that bound by the love of plants”. I find this to be true and while I have never personally met Dr. Dirr I am appreciative of a few email correspondences, a personally signed copy of his Interactive Manual and Photo-Library of Woody Landscape Plants and a personal Christmas card I received some years ago. Thank you Dr. Dirr for your contributions and for your part in “making me spiritually and academically whole and persistent”.