Bird Songs Bible: The Complete Illustrated Reference for North American Birds

by Les Beletsky, Editor

536 pages
Chronicle Books, October 2010
List price: $125.00

This is a North American birder's dream - plain and simple. Gardeners will love it, too, for its unsurpassed ability to help identify just about any bird they might see frequenting their gardens. I've used other audio aids to try to identify the birds in my yard and they were time consuming, inefficient, and left me frustrated.  Many were not comprehensive enough to include the birds I sought to identify. This is as complete as they come. 

Right out of the box (the book and audio player comes in a heavy, decorative box with a plastic handle), I needed no instructions to immediately put it to use, though a detailed guide appears on page 24.

The digital audio player sits to the right of the book, with volume controls and numerical buttons. Bird profiles contain an illustration of the bird - many with both male and female versions - as well as description, distribution, habitat, behavior, and vocalizations data. Each is numbered and when the number is entered into the audio player, a clear recording is played. In addition to an index of common names, there is a checklist where you can tick off those birds that you've observed.

Be warned, this book is heavy. Ordering it online will likely incur extra shipping charges, which is understandable. It measures 15 x 14 x 2.3 inches and Amazon lists its shipping weight at 10 pounds. But you'll not find a more delightful, thorough treatment of North American bird identification than Bird Songs Bible.

Les Beletsky is a celebrated bird biologist and the author of Bird Songs and Bird Songs from Around the World. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit institution located in Ithaca, New York. Its mission is to interpret and conserve the earth's biological diversity through research.

The publication being reviewed in this blog post was the sole compensation for reviewing the product. All opinions expressed here are mine. If I like it, I'll say so. If I don't, I'll say that, too.

Bizarre Botanicals

by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

284 pages
Timber Press, October 2010
List price: $24.95

I don't know about you, but I'm drawn to the unusual, whether it's interior design, fashion, or plants.  It doesn't mean that the unusual is right for me all the time, but every now and then it's fun to experiment.

The plant world is chock full of weirdos. Some stink, some are ugly, some are eerily animal-like in their behavior, but every one of the plants in Bizarre Botanicals is downright fascinating. Seventy-five of the out-of-the-ordinaries that are available to us are highlighted, and most are fairly easy to acquire, even if you have to purchase them online.

I love trivia when it comes to plants and there's plenty to satisfy me here. Each plant profile also gives basic growing information, including a difficulty rating, and its characteristics are discussed in a conversational style, making this a fun book to read. The photography supports the text well, although I have a hard time looking at page 255 for long; it's just a little creepy to me. But creepy equals bizarre, too.

I'm only giving it four stars, though I considered five. The only reason I didn't give it the highest rating is because even though the authors wanted to feature plants that nearly every gardener could get their hands on, I would have loved to have read about some of those other strange ones they alluded to. Still, if a gardener friend who has an extensive collection of horticulture books doesn't have this one, there's your gift problem solved. I can't imagine they wouldn't enjoy Bizarre Botanicals.

Larry Mellichamp is a professor of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he has taught for over 30 years. He is also director of the University’s botanical gardens. He has written many technical and popular articles on plants and gardening, appears regularly in the local media, and has co-authored three other books.

Paula Gross
is the assistant director of the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens. She has a masters in horticulture from the University of Georgia, and teaches courses on horticulture and plant identification. In addition, she writes a periodic column on horticultural issues and provides information on gardening questions.

The publication being reviewed in this blog post was the sole compensation for reviewing the product. All opinions expressed here are mine. If I like it, I'll say so. If I don't, I'll say that, too.

Holy Shit

Holy Shit
by Gene Logsdon

204 pages
Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2010
List price: $17.50

It was so tempting to make light of the title of this book. But I wanted my review of it to be taken seriously, so I'm taking the high road. Besides, no one could do it any better than the author himself.

Few people could make manure sound so amusing and so fascinating, while sharing more than one person should know about it. Logsdon knows The title is more than just a play on the irreverent expression - it portends the invaluable and practical information between the covers of this small and easy-to-read book.

Gardeners have long known the benefits that aged manures can impart to their gardens. But as Logsdon points out, we are not making use of them to their full potential. We can learn from our ancestors and from the practices in other cultures and countries. And it's not nearly as disgusting as you might think.

I enjoyed this book to the point that I want to meet this man who knows his shit. I have a feeling he talks like he writes and that's the best kind of book, especially when the subject matter has the potential to be off-putting. It could happen one of these days, if I decide to get in the car and drive the hour and a half to Upper Sandusky, where Logsdon lives. He's practically my neighbor.

Gene Logsdon is one of the clearest and most original voices of rural America. He has published more than two dozen books; his Chelsea Green books include Small-Scale Grain Raising (Second Edition), Living at Nature's Pace, The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, Good Spirits, and The Contrary Farmer. He writes a popular blog at, is a regular contributor to Farming magazine and The Draft Horse Journal, and writes an award-winning weekly column in the Carey, Ohio Progressor Times. He farms with his family on thirty-two acres in Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

The publication being reviewed in this blog post was the sole compensation for reviewing the product. All opinions expressed here are mine. If I like it, I'll say so. If I don't, I'll say that, too.

Garden Guide: New York City (Revised Edition)

Garden Guide: New York City (Revised Edition)
by Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry

424 pages
W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
List price:  $22.95

I visited New York City for the first time in January this year. When you've never been there before, there's a list of iconic NYC landmarks that are de rigueur for tourists. Though the impetus for my visit was to attend a taping of The Martha Stewart Show, in the matter of just a few days, I also managed to fill every spare moment with many of those landmarks: The Empire State Building, Staten Island, Ground Zero, Rockefeller Plaza, Hello Deli, The Gugenheim Museum, Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, "Phantom of the Opera" show, Macy's, and Central Park.

The visit to Central Park was a highlight of the trip, being chauffered around by a local in a rickshaw, then spending some time just wandering around this marvelous piece of green space in the middle of a sea of architecture.  My mother was with me and as enchanted by Central Park as I was.

(Galanthus sp.)
Though it was the middle of January, we were treated to a rare warm day of 50° F, twelve degrees above normal. I'm fairly certain that the city was working its charms just for the two of us that day - two avid gardeners - because strolling through Strawberry Fields, the snowdrops were blooming. God bless America.

We both commented that we simply had to come back to the city in summer so we could see Central Park in bloom. And The New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, The Gardens at The Battery in Battery Park – a garden tour of New York City. While these places may be on every gardener's itinerary at some point or another when in the city, New York City is a very large place, you know, so it would be helpful if there was a guide to worthwhile gardens to visit. Thanks to Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, there is, and it's in its revised edition, released in August.
Garden Guide: New York City is a pocket guide and sized as such, a chunky book. The city is divided into its five boroughs, with Manhattan further sectioned into five neighborhoods of its own. Gardens large and small and of all types are highlighted, with just enough vital information for visitors to make decisions as to which gardens they deem worthy of a stop on their tour. Included with the usual fare are some lesser-known plots, including community gardens and neighborhood parks.

While there are some lovely photographs scattered throughout its pages and when reading the enticing descriptions of the gardens, I wished for more, this is not a picture book. It is a compact guide for both residents and visitors alike and the reason for it in the first place is to get you to the gardens, where you can take your own photos.

It's not certain just when my mother and I will make that summer city garden tour, but with Garden Guide: New York City, we'll be prepared when we do.

Nancy Berner has worked as a book editor and an editorial consultant to several non-profits. Susan Lowry was a television journalist in Canada and the United States before switching fields and earning a diploma in landscape architecture. Both Susan and Nancy live in New York City, where they are longtime volunteers at the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. Together, Susan and Nancy have lectured widely in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut on the subject of urban public gardens.

The publication being reviewed in this blog post was the sole compensation for reviewing the product. All opinions expressed here are mine. If I like it, I'll say so. If I don't, I'll say that, too.

Backyard Giants

Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever
by Susan Warren

256 pages
Bloomsbury USA, 2007
List price: $24.95

I had no idea. No idea that so much went into the growing of the world's largest pumpkins. I guess if I'd thought about it, it would have come as no surprise all the lengths giant pumpkin growers go to, as they pursue their dream of growing a world champion.

What might have been a boring textbook of botany is deftly crafted into a suspenseful story of the personal quests of some of the best pumpkin growers in the world. Their triumphs and their disappointments are recounted by Warren in such a way that by the time I was nearing the end, I couldn't put it down. I knew there was something waiting for me and I couldn't wait to get to it.

Of course, I'm a gardener and how things are grown is of great interest to me, but I think even the casual reader will find Backyard Giants a fun and easy read. If I had the room to grow a few of these big pumpkins, I'd say this book inspired me to do so. But I'll have to leave that up to the Steve Connollys and Ron Wallaces of the world.

2007 World Champion, weighing in at 1,502 pounds
Photo from

Susan Warren is Deputy Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal in Dallas, Texas. She writes and edits news and feature stories related to oil and gas, discount retailers and airlines. The Journal also gives her freedom to pursue stories about other things she finds interesting for its famed "middle column" feature on its front page. She has written on such wide-ranging topics as people who buy Silly Putty by the pound, the dangers of frying turkeys in boiling oil, and the spring ritual of dewberry picking in the South.  Backyard Giants grew out of Ms. Warren's October 2005 story about the trials of growing giant pumpkins.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.