Debra Prinzing

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Spring Garden Books for Mother’s Day gift-giving

Monday, May 4th, 2009

805-may-09001My “In the Garden” column for 805 Living’s May issue is all about great gardening books to give Mom (or keep for your own shelves).

Grow your garden library: Just like plants, you can never have too many books that inspire and intrigue

By Debra Prinzing

I was on the East Coast recently to lecture at the Philadelphia Flower Show. While sharing gossip and a glass of chardonnay with my NYC-based literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, conversation turned to the sorry state of book publishing.

“When I give a gift,” she proclaimed in her always-alluring British accent, “I only buy books.” Her singular gesture of thoughtfully choosing, buying and giving a book (rather than an impersonal gift card) might be an important element of the reading person’s economic stimulus package.

In early March, I visited Philadelphia and met up with book-lover and awesome agent, Sarah Jane Freymann

In early March, I visited Philadelphia and met up with book-lover and awesome agent, Sarah Jane Freymann

Books, especially when they are hand-picked for the reader, convey as much about the giver as the recipient.

For my birthday, my writing mentor, Paula Panich, recently gave me American Writers at Home, by J.D. McClatchy, a fitting tome for a journalist who covers architecture, interiors and the garden – all aspects of the home. When Britt Olson, my best friend from high school, recently wed, she spent hours at the book store, choosing just the right hard-bound volume for each of her attendants. For me, she selected Barbara Kingsolver’s lovely memoir of a year growing her own food, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which fed my spirit and mind alike.

If you’re like me, you can “read” a person by observing the titles that fill her bookcase. So here’s a peek at what’s on my bedside table (a new crop of gardening books). Whether for Mother’s Day, a friend’s birthday, or just for your own pleasure, give the gift of a book. As the author of five books, I thank you.

A Rose by Any Name

By Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello [Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009, 320 pp., $19.95]

805-may-09002I met Stephen Scanniello, president of the Heritage Rose Foundation, in a Chicago radio studio several years ago. We enjoyed our banter with the host of a garden show, but the conversation continued well after the gig was over. His favorite subject? Roses. Scanniello lives, breathes, and designs gardens with roses. Not those scentless, thornless pageant variety roses, but ones with  storied pasts and interesting pedigrees. He teamed up with co-author Douglas Brenner, a former Martha Stewart Living garden editor, to document the origins, history, and lore of more than 1,200 rose names.

Their enchanting narrative follows the trials and tribulations of this beloved flower through the centuries to modern time. The rose has been entangled in love, war, politics, show business, fashion, sports and even automobiles (yes, the ruby-red ‘Chrysler Imperial’ rose was bred in the 1950s, right here in California).

A Rose by Any Name features all sorts of facts and anecdotes about the world’s most popular flower. There is even a chapter devoted to celebrity-named roses, including ‘Barbra Streisand’, a glamorous purple-blushed lavender rose that the star selected from a field of potential candidates. Even we nobodies can have a personalized flower. “As with vanity license plates, anybody can have his or her name officially conferred upon a rose,” the authors write. “All it takes is a phone call and a big check.”

Designer Plant Combinations

By Scott Calhoun [Storey Publishing, 2008, 240 pp., $18.95]

805-may-09003I’m a sucker for artful color combos,and I can often be found playing with paint-chip samples at the hardware store or mixing and matching blooming plants at the nursery. But here’s a guide that color-dreams for me. Designer Plant Combinations features inspiring techniques the pros use to pair color, texture, scale and form in the garden.

Tucson-based garden designer and book author Scott Calhoun is easy to envy for his writing and photography talents. Except that since he’s so likeable and engaging, I end up hungrily waiting for the next installment of his thoughts and images that appear in book form. And this vibrant guide doesn’t disappoint. Calhoun crisscrossed the country visiting the best residential and public landscapes to study and photograph stunning plant vignettes. Each of the 105 design schemes include six plants or less, which will inspire both designers and non-designers in their garden-making efforts. Detailed plant lists and photographs show you how to replicate the ideas in your own garden.

The book’s oh-so-alluring imagery is more than just eye candy, though. Calhoun explains why these perennials, ornamental grasses, annuals, ground covers, woody plants and dramatic accent plants are hardworking ingredients of successful garden design (look for useful designer tips, such as “when using one color, use different textures”).

A consummate plantsman, Calhoun is convinced that non-plant elements are crowding his beloved specimens out of the landscape. He writes, ” . . . good plant combinations are a little like the stanzas of a poem. That is, like the stanza, they are not trying to be a whole garden but a self-contained little part of one.” Whether bold or subdued, the groupings you’ll find here will give your garden personality and elevate it to something more than ordinary.

The New Terrarium

By Tovah Martin (photography by Kindra Clineff) [Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2009, 176 pp., $25.00]

newterrariumcover001Devoted subscribers of the original Victoria magazine know the work of garden writer Tovah Martin. In her stories, Tovah brings a sense of wonderment to each of her subjects, be they gardens, gardeners or the plants they love.

Likewise, her latest project, The New Terrarium, is a magical tome filled with small, planted scenes, diminutive landscapes, twee still-lifes and dwarf collections – all under glass. This dreamy book is captured on film by photographer Kindra Clineff.

The New Terrarium pays homage to the conservatory gardens of the Victorian era, as they were the first to perfect the art of gardening under glass. According to Martin, in today’s go-go, hard-to-find-time to garden world, the terrarium may be the best way to bring something from nature into your life. “A terrarium is any transparent confine that allows you to nurture the elements of the green world,” Martin writes. “[It] is truly a small world . . . a mini-environment that provides an atmosphere of elevated humidity for all the botanical contents it embraces.”

This idea is appealing – and relatively simple to do yourself. Martin presents an array of cool glass containers suitable for planting: Traditional cloches, “Wardian” cases (miniature glass greenhouses), hurricane lamps, recycled aquariums, vases and repurposed glass domes typically used to cover cakes or cheese platters. What to grow under these unique vessels? Martin provides a comprehensive plant encyclopedia, including orchids, ferns, heucheras, begonias, mosses, African violets, bromeliads, ivies, ornamental grasses, and more.

This writer’s enthusiasm for gardening under glass inspired me to buy a small potted fern and contain it under a cloche (also called a bell jar). Living in its charming covered world, the fern, I think, will be happy. And I know I will be, too.

Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love

By Julie Moir Messervy [The Taunton Press, 2009, 240 pp., $30]

805-may-09005Julie Moir Messervy is an amazing landscape designer, author and teacher who teamed up with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma to create the Toronto Music Garden, and with architect Sarah Susanka to co-write Outside the Not So Big House.

In her new book, Messervy asks, “Why do we spend the bulk of our resources on the inside of our house, while settling for so little on the outside?” In response, she walks readers through the process of turning any property into the “home outside” they’ve always dreamed of. If, like her, you believe that the nurturing nest, the place called home, begins at the edge of your property and encompasses everything within its boundaries (the porch, the patio, the lawn where your children play – even the pathways, edges and corners), then Messervy’s book is the ideal reference to inform and inspire your design decisions. If you haven’t thought of the landscape in this way, her design approach is the perfect starting point. It will equip you with both basics and intricacies necessary to create a personal outdoor space that feeds the eyes and the spirit.

Bursting with instructive illustrations and before-and-after photographs of do-it-yourself gardens, Home Outside helps you see a property the way a landscape designer views it. Messervy breaks down the design process into manageable pieces. Take her “Designer’s Personality Test” and learn more about your style of garden-making. After completing the quiz, I discovered that I’m more expressive (versus reserved) and more relaxed (instead of orderly).

Our Life in Gardens

By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd [Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009, 322 pp., $30]

805-may-09004My aforementioned agent, Sarah Jane, has a saying about what makes a good cookbook. “It must transcend the recipes,” she posits. In other words, we can now find recipes anywhere – in magazines, on the web, in grandmother’s dog-eared “Joy of Cooking.” But what makes a great cookbook resonate is the way it touches our universal relationship with food.

Similarly, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, Vermont-based garden designers and authors, transcend the typical gardening book in Our Life in Gardens. Their collection of nearly 50 essays (arranged logically from Agapanthus to Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata) is so engaging, so gratifying to read, that you truly forget it came from the section of a bookstore otherwise filled with “how-to” titles. There is a lot to learn from these celebrated designers, but I think the lesson is more about observing and cherishing everyday life in the garden than about how to grow delicious peas.

For example, in “Pea Season,” a chapter illustrated with one of Bobbi Angell’s charming plant drawings, Eck and Winterrowd philosophize on the rewards a gardener receives outside of the vegetable plot. The chapter opens with these lines: “No one can say that a gardening life is rich in leisured holidays, but a gardener’s rewards are festivals, big and small, though we make little distinction there, for they are all wonderful. There are other activities in which effort and labor are so certainly followed by achievement and celebration, and anyone who takes an active hand in shaping life must know equal causes for joy. We know only our life, which is largely one of gardening.”

Written with passion and honesty, this book is a keeper. Buy two copies. One to delight in yourself and the other to share with someone who needs to be lured outdoors.

Architecture and photography

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Welcome to my 101st post on Shed Style. I guess it’s a bit of a milestone, and I have been wanting to do something special to mark the accomplishment. For bloggers who post constantly, finally passing the one hundredth installment may not be that significant (some of my pals could do that in a month or two!). But for me, a relative newbie to blogging, reaching Number 101 is an exciting benchmark.

By moving into the triple digits as I document my little corner of the blogosphere, I realize how much I enjoy this writing venue. There’s a lot of freedom when a writer can sit down and compose her thoughts unhindered by another’s deadlines, tone, or style. No editor, no word-count restrictions. Sure, there’s no pay, and the circulation (readership) is certainly a lot smaller than the traditional print media that usually publishes my words. But even still, the presence of this blog in my life fills a personal and creative need that my other outlets don’t always satisfy.


I originally started this blog in March 2007 to document the creation of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, the book that photographer Bill Wright and I produced and published this past April. The early morning, “on-location” photo at right is from our year-long odyssey to discover and document the stories of the most creative and inspiring shed designs around the country (not to mention their inspiring owners).

[As an aside, the idea of writing a book-in-progress blog didn’t really take off until AFTER the photography and manuscript finished in the fall of 2007 . . . best-laid plans, and all that!]

Bill and I talked about this book for a long time (we’ve worked together since 2000). But by the summer of 2005, we got serious. Bill had just started to taste the sweet and satisfying flavors of the book world by collaborating with interior design writer Brian Coleman on a book called “Window Dressings” (Gibbs-Smith Publishers). I had worked on four previous books and in June 2005 I traveled to NYC to meet Sarah Jane Freymann, with whom we signed on to represent us as agent.

We began with a fairly decent catalog of shed photography, images Bill and I produced earlier for my articles in Seattle Homes & Lifestyles and Romantic Homes magazines. We created a book outline, gathering up bits and pieces of ideas, including some concepts I played around with in 2002 when Gary Luke at Sasquatch Books and I briefly toyed with ideas for a shed book.

Bill and I sat at the island in the kitchen of our (former) Seattle home, joined by our friend Marcy Stamper. A talented writer, editor, and photographer in her own right, Marcy introduced the two of us when she was art director at Seattle Homes and assigned Bill to photograph my first shed design piece for the magazine in 2001. Now freelancing and living in eastern Washington, Marcy was back in Seattle for a few days. We asked her to meet with us and come up with a design concept that we could use to “sell” our book to a publisher. We called our project “Shed Style.” The resulting 12-page mini-book she designed was called a BLAD (which stands for: book-layout-and-design).

Our meeting took place mid-day in early August. The conversation was punctuated (interrupted) with the screaming, ear-splitting, sounds of the Blue Angels flying overhead. It was a few days before Seattle’s popular Seafair Festival and the Navy jets were in town to perform. Their practice runs and actual performances occur over Lake Washington in Seattle.

Um, yes, right over the rooftops of my former neighborhood in Seward Park. We could barely hear ourselves speak and eventually, we gave up and went out front to witness the spectacle. (Well, Bill and I did. I think Marcy was hiding under the table, reminding herself that it was noise like this that drove her over the Cascades to the solitude of the town of Twisp.) Bill took a great photo of the jets flying by (seen at left).


With the book successfully sold to Clarkson Potter/Random House, we began this journey. Although we had a few sheds “in the can” when we started this project a summer later, in July 2006, Bill and I had no idea what kind of momentum we’d soon experience. That same month, even before the contract was actually signed, we photographed five chapters (five shed locations) all around Washington state.

I still remember the euphoria I felt on July 5, 2006 when we came back to Seattle on the last ferry from Vashon Island where we’d photographed Edgar Lee’s magical little chapel-shed, fully lit with votive candles from his former business Votivo (see Bill’s photo, right).

I laid awake half the night replaying the thrill of the setting and the joy I felt looking through the lens of Bill’s camera as it framed the scene we’d created.

The following month, in August 2006, I moved with my children and dog to join my husband in Southern California (he preceded us by a few months). A week or so later, Bill and his wife Pauline welcomed their brand new baby Ella into the world. How many more life-altering things could we manage in such a short period of time?

We got back on the road by November ’06 when Bill flew down to Burbank to spend a few days before Thanksgiving photographing San Diego area locations with me. After the holidays, we started on an intense marathon of travel to scout and photograph sheds, sheds and more sheds.


Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways was published in late April. Since then, Bill and I have pursued our own projects, but we continued to scheme about how/when we could again collaborate.

In the six months since our book’s release, we’ve had some great adventures – together and individually. Bill continues to photograph GREAT projects and I continue to write design pieces for national and regional magazines and Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Recently, Bill nailed two great covers, which I want to share here:

Left: Fall 2008 cover of Arts & Crafts Homes (for a Brian Coleman story); Right: Cover of Rejuvenation Lighting’s Fall catalogue. [William Wright photography]


Our work has appeared together in several recent magazines, including stories for the October 08 issue of Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air magazines, the November 08 issue of Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, and others, but since completing the G-R-I-N-D of our “year of the book,” Bill and I had not been able to find the time to create any new stories together.

That opportunity finally came last week, when Bill flew from Seattle to Southern California. We drove up to Ojai, the historically famous town located east of Santa Barbara near the Topatopa Bluff, to photograph a 1908 bungalow, its grounds and interiors, for Arts & Crafts Homes. See Bill at work, right.

We enjoyed two days of hard but gratifying work, thanks to owner Kathy Couterie (an ace stylist in her own right!).

The article about the home she owns with her husband, Emmy-winning director and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Couterie, will appear in 2009, but until then, here is a preview of our photo shoot:

 Lights, camera, action….the Couterie dining room, styled, lit, and ready to photograph.

 Kathy Couterie (foreground), followed by Bill Wright, as we finalize the garden shot for Arts & Crafts Homes.

 The sun is about to set, we’ve photographed the garden, and we’re ready to call it a day.