University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

The Natural History of a Garden.
2003.  Colin Spedding.  Timber Press.  hardcover, 245pp.

If you're interested in what is going on in your garden, and who is really living there, then this book is for you.  It begins by advice on sharpening your observational skills, to notice all the animal life there, not just the insects for instance but their predators.  This is by area, whether it be a sunny bank, a path, or a pond.  Similar detailed studies are made of soil, seasonal changes, ecology, and water.  Emphasis, if any, is on the non-plant life in gardens, with brief descriptions but not too much to keep the reading interesting and not heavy as in a college text.  Although written by a retired professor from the University of Reading in England, with some examples strictly British, the principles apply anywhere in the world as his son Geoffrey in Los Angeles, and co-author, attests.  It is a good primer on basic ecology in your landscape.

There are a few color photos, but the book is replete with drawings and tables.  For instance in the chapter on control in the garden, there is a table on natural chemical weapons.  We're all familiar with bee stings, but what about the chemical taxol (the same as used now in cancer drugs) from the bark of the yew tree that halts cell division in pests.  Then there are examples of biological control organisms, some poisonous plants, examples of protective mechanisms in plants from being eaten, such as spines and stinging hairs, and use of plant toxins by insects.  Did you know the grasshopper and Monarch butterfly avoid being eaten by predators by absorbing cardenolides from the leaves of milkweed?

Another illustration caught my eye, that in the ecology section of galls on various plants.  These are the abnormal growths, usually on the outside of the plant, serving to isolate a pest larva or egg.  Often there are several other species living within the galls, including parasites of the gall-formers, that together form communities in microcosm.

Other illustrations and inserts describe life cycles of key insects such as aphids, spiders, or pollination by bees, pollen basics, life cycles of frogs, or the role of legume nodules.  Tables are most abundant in the book covering such items as already mentioned, or topics as diverse (yet appropriate and expected in a discussion of ecology) as gestation in mammals, water content of plants, and reproduction cycles in garden birds.  Interesting numbers are given to put the living organisms in context, such as numbers of bees in a nest, spiders in a field, or seeds produced by some weeds.  Did you that there are an estimated 1.6 billion insects for each living person on earth?

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