New gardening books seem to pop up as regularly as springtime dandelions. Most simply rehash what has been said before—perhaps with a new twist or better photos. But How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do (Science for Gardeners) isn’t your typical treatise on how to grow what. Instead, the author, Linda Chalker-Scott, explains the “why” behind the “how.”
An extension urban horticulturist and associate professor at Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University, Chalker-Scott knows what she’s talking about. This is her third book on horticulture, but there is a lot more. She’s written a series of articles on “Horticultural Myths” that I strongly urge you to read. Then, learn more at “The Informed Gardener,” a series of podcasts, or the informative Garden Professors website. She’s also a driving force behind the Gardening Professors Facebook blog (an extremely helpful research-based Q&A site).
How is this book different? Perhaps most importantly, all the information inside is based on scientific studies rather than folklore, hearsay, or tradition. (The above-mentioned blogs and websites claim the same authenticity.) Then, Chalker-Scott gets into the details. How many gardening books introduce you to auxins, cytokinins, gibberellins, and abscisic acid (Chapter 1)? Or describe oxygen as a lethal, corrosive pollutant (Chapter 4)? Learn how plants tell time (Chapter 6), how sunflowers are able to follow the sun (Chapter 7), and how two stationary plants still manage to recombine their chromosomes and have babies.
With plenty of examples culled from her own experiences, and delightful analogies that simplify the science, Chalker-Scott’s book is highly readable even to a non-scientist. I thoroughly enjoyed many of the subheadings, such as “The Cell Membrane: Border Patrol,” “Solitary Confinement” (regarding plants in pots), “Heavy Metal” (she doesn’t mean music), and “Going to the Dark Side” (about phototropism).
A series of sidebars scattered throughout the book highlight common garden myths. For example, in the chapter about nutrients and fertilizers, you’ll find a box about Epsom salts, and why we shouldn’t use them in our gardens. In Chapter 5, you’ll find out why water crystals (aka hydrogels) won’t solve your watering hassles, and may instead make things worse. Because Chalker-Scott isn’t trying to sell any products, you can trust that her research-based conclusions are unbiased.
There were some pretty technical sections, for those who get their kicks from understanding photosynthesis down to the individual carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. It’s all very understandable with high school science, but if this isn’t your thing, you can skip over the details and still grasp the main points.
All in all, I enjoyed giving my brain a bit of a workout. So much garden advice is merely anecdotal, done that way because we’ve always done it that way—and it seems to work. Having a good understanding of plant physiology provides a firm foundation. Some of our habits we can dismiss as useless or harmful. In other cases, I now know why we gardeners do what we do, so I can do it even better.
While I’d recommend this book for anyone who is serious about gardening, I’d also recommend it for anyone who simply wants their horticultural investment to pay off in a beautiful, enjoyable, healthy landscape.