Natural Companions, the garden lover’s guide to plant combinations
I began mentally rejuvenating my garden the moment I saw the cover of Ken Druse’s book, Natural Companions, the garden lover’s guide to plant combinations with botanical photography by Ellen Hoverkamp (Stuart Tabori & Chang 2012).
While in a quandary about my garden’s best color scheme, I suddenly knew what I wanted, then changing my mind with every turn of the page that revealed another up-close photograph of luscious flowers that grow together.
Natural Companions is my new bible. It’s the dream book of every person who loves gardens, whether gardener or artist or devotee of beautiful things.
Brilliantly conceived, this coffee table book is multi-layered and comprehensive, just like Hoverkamp’s images of plant combinations that illustrate Druse’s multitudinous gardening and design concepts.
But first, the images. They are photographic scans of real flowers, foliage and all things botanical that appear together in a garden at the same time. The image is arranged like a slice of deep-dish pie viewed from the slender point of the edge: groundcover and earth-huggers on the bottom, short plants slightly above, with taller perennials, shrubs and vines above them. They appear in sections according to season, color (lots of interesting color wheel info there), families, growing conditions, habitat and more.
From the bottom up, the construction of the book reflects that of the images. First you open the book flat on the coffee table and look at the scans without reading. You can’t help yourself. It’s like “Oh wow!” The physical beauty, the visual of the coffee table book is like the bottom earth layer. Then you start reading it and get inspired, a level up. Then you read more and get ideas – a higher level – all through the book as you read it like a novel front to back. And then when you get done with reading all of it – the canopy layer, it becomes a reference book that you have to go back to and back to and back to. It’s brilliant.
“It was totally calculated to do the first thing that you said,” says Druse. “I wanted to make something that when people picked it up, they would have trouble putting it down. I would have made it smell if I could have.”
So the plan went thus: make a book that is irresistible and different, work with Ellen Hoverkamp whose work he had admired, develop an idea with a “how-to” element.
“I thought ‘what could I do to make it work with Ellen’. I wanted her to do more botanical, scientific, formal images. She always wanted to do a book so she was all for it. It was a collaboration with lots of people, like making a movie but on a small scale,” Druse says.
“So I had to figure out something to say. Ellen had to scan everything as quickly as possible while the cuttings were fresh. But it’s all slices of time. That was one way I got the idea of doing the combinations because all the things bloom at the same time. Another thing I wanted to do was wedges – think of a perennial border and take a slice like a pie wedge. All the plants in that pie wedge were blooming at that time. The idea of time got me to the companion idea because it’s a natural to show what’s blooming at the same time.”
As a writer myself reading this book, I cannot separate the writer from the content – Druse’s writing style and the way he blends his own esthetic and humor with blood and guts science is admirable and fun to read. The concept and design of the book, the stimulating content, inspiring writing and gorgeous images, it’s all there.
“This book is for everybody, for people who want pretty pictures, or want something colorful and beautiful and never gardened in their whole lives, people who like art, photography, and people who garden and who might want to use it,” Druse says. He accomplished just that. Natural Companions is in the Top 10 recommended books for 2012 in the amazon.com Home and Garden category.
“This was one of the nicest experience I]ve ever had working on a book,” he says of his 18th book in its 3rd printing.
“The first thing I did was make as many lists as I could of the things I wanted to show and then we went looking for the plants. About 60 of the scans came from here, which I couldn’t do anymore; the plants are gone.” Druse’s garden was flooded out two consecutive weeks in 2011, some parts covered in sand, others swept downriver. “In a nice way that’s kind of a memory of what used to be here, which is not so nice and I never look at it that way but I kind of say it sometimes because a lot of the scans were of plants from here.” Other plants came from friends around the country and from Hoverkamp’s friends.
Ellen Hoverkamp trucked her large scanner to Druse’s northwestern New Jersey home, where she worked in a cool, dim basement with fresh-cut plants in buckets to create the images. Druse built her a metal frame to go over the scanner so she could suspend parts of plants on wires to give images a little depth. Then she retouched the scans in Photoshop, removing pollen and generally cleaning them up. But finding the names of all the plants was the hardest part of all, Druse says.
So who is this guy, anyway?
Publisher’s Weekly calls him “a gardening superstar” and The New York Times says he’s “the guru of natural gardening.” Druse is a celebrated lecturer and an award-winning photographer and author. He has contributed to nearly every gardening and decorating magazine.
And what is it about plants that he loves?
“The biggest thing is I have an overwhelming need to nurture stuff. I need to care for things. When you’re a partner with a plant it depends on you. There is excitement in growing a plant, especially from seed. You’re there when it sprouts, when it gets its first leaves, when it becomes a handsome plant and when it has beautiful flowers. You participate in its life. For me it changes all the time. I just love this.
“When you’re involved with plants and are interested in them, you see the detail – the way they grow, the veins in the leaves. The scans in the book, they’re gorgeous and show plants just the way I’ve always seen them - up close and personal. It’s right there in the book in the scans. It just drives me wild.
“When I go someplace new to me, another climate, like Northern California and see plants up close, they are unbelievably beautiful. Every time I go there I meet something new. It’s so exciting! But you have to look – maybe you have to have a teacher or want to look. I want to participate in their lives. I care for them and participate in their lives. People need plants. We can’t survive without plants.
“The pictures in the book really tell the story of me, why I’m so into it. The two scans of the double-flowered hydrangeas – when I look at them I think, ‘This is why I love plants.’”
If you love gardens or know somebody who does, this book is for you!
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published December 18, 2012