University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

Sunset National Garden Book.
Sunset garden editors. 1997.  Sunset Books, 656 pp, softcover.

The Sunset Books, based in Menlo Park, Calif. were one of the first series of inexpensive paper garden books, begun over 50 years ago. Originally based on and for western gardeners, more recent titles have covered the entire country or various regions. This book does just this, and has used input from specialists and Extension persons nationwide in its compilation, so seems fairly accurate in many ways.

Its main importance, use and uniqueness is its 45 climate regions into which they've divided the country, and the extensive listing (most of the book) of all types of plants. Each plant has brief cultural notes, followed by listings of main species or cultivars and particular descriptions or culture for each. Of course with each description is a listing of the climate zones where the plant may be grown. Prior to this extensive listing is a set of tables of plants by type (such as trees) or special situations (such as seacoasts). Each table lists a few basic plants, the page reference for more information, climate zones, and icon keys to culture such as light and moisture.

As most experienced gardeners know, hardiness zones given in most references are only a starting point to whether a plant will survive in an area. So many other climate and microclimate factors come into play, which the authors have tried to account for in their climate zones. For instance a whole different set of perennials will grow in the same hardiness zone, whether it is in the high altitudes of Colorado with much snow cover and bright sunshine and longer dry growing seasons and less rainfall; or if they are in Chicago with similar cold but with much hotter summers and more rain; or if they are growing in northern New England with similar depth of cold, but shorter growing season, much less light, often much rain, and much cooler summers.

When looking at the map for New England, the same zone covers the Champlain Valley of Vermont as well as most of western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire and "downeast" Maine. Many evergreens for instance can't be grown reliably in Vermont, but can be in these more southerly and easterly locations, so even these zones are not the last word. But when combined with the hardiness zone maps, one can get the best currently possible idea of plant survival in a location. I only wish the book contained a big map of the whole country, so one could easily see other similar growing areas in other states and regions.

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