Useful Yard

This out-of-print guide is handy and if you see it, buy it. I make that recommendation despite it being one of the books that challenges me the most. With a very human-centric approach to gardening, the Gossler’s guide has little to say about native plants and ecology; the focus is on choosing unique plants, so that you can dazzle a neighbor. A plant might be called perfect simply because of its bloom time.

Still, even if you’re trying to support local wildlife and be better than beautiful, your yard is bound to have some ornamental plants, like a hybrid witch-hazel, and this book is a good one to reference. The writing is clear, the advice insightful, and with the focus on hardy shrubs, the scope is contained. This makes way for a reasonably sized book (“more than 350 expert choices…”), in a welcoming 5x8 format, with a nice design. This is in contrast to many Timber Press books that overreach with their page design, typography, and use of color.

“The main idea we want to stress is the importance of forming your own opinions on design and personalizing your landscape to your taste — even if you are the only one who can tolerate it, at least it reflects your own dreams.”

Like a lot of the messaging in the book, the first half of that quote is great advice. But there’s something deeply problematic to me in thinking that a garden could be just for one person to tolerate. That premise denies that wildlife, from birds to small insects, are ever a factor. And it ignores death—the trees you plant should outlive you.

Similarly, their goal of selecting plants “that have the greatest possible chance of success in a variety of climates and locations around the country” is, at first, a worthy goal for a nursery. But read it again and you have to wonder if this form of success is anything but a commercial goal. Just as phrases like “new treasure” sound like marketing, and represent the type of thinking we should leave in the past centuries.


Putting aside the Gossler’s framing of the garden, I want to be clear that the guide is helpful. This is especially true for the Northwest, because they are based in Oregon. For instance, if you wanted to plant a camellia here, it would be easy to go to a large nursery, see a dozen options, and choose on impulse. Their many decades as growers leads to this type of advice:

“We have tried many forms… but our climate is too cool and the flowers are ruined most years by rain and cool weather…. We strongly encourage you to try the species and newer hardy hybrids from the eastern United States to see what will grow in your garden.”


Winter might be my favorite season. The yard is exposed and the brain goes to work. Though it’s not always easy working when it’s 42° and raining, I find myself busiest when the new year begins. The book has a good anecdote:

“One recent January, Roger was giving a lecture in Portland, Oregon, and when he suggested to the group that they should be out gardening during this time of year, they broke out in uncontrollable laughter. We do the bulk of our gardening maintenance from December through February. While this may seem psychotic to some people, we feel strongly that this one act saves us hundreds of hours during the rest of the year.”