Q&A with Karen Bussolini on "The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook"

by Shelley Pierce May 8, 2016

Q&A with Karen Bussolini on “The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook”

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Karen Bussolini is a lifelong organic gardener and lover of nature. She has had a long career as a garden photographer, speaker and writer and is a frequent contributor to The American Gardener, the magazine of The American Horticultural Society and Wildflower, published by The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. She has six books to her credit, including The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook and Elegant Silvers, which she also co-authored. She is a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional with an eco-friendly garden coaching practice devoted to teaching homeowners to garden more sustainably. Her focus is on creating healthy yards that are resilient, full of life, diversity and delight.

The book “The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook” was a collaborative effort.  Penelope O’Sullivan authored the book while Karen contributed her photography talents.  Read on for more information about this book and enter to win a copy from Storey Publishing!


1. What is your background and why did you decide to write “The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook”?

Although I am also a writer, I was trained as a painter and have been primarily a garden photographer for more than 30 years – and have been a gardener ever since I can remember. More recently I established a practice as an eco-friendly garden coach. I was thrilled to be asked to provide photographs for the book and to be part of a super team of a very accomplished writer and editor whom I have liked and respected for many years. We were all on the same page in many ways.

Author Penelope O’Sullivan also has a background in the visual arts, and is an accomplished writer and landscape designer. She has a lovely way of taking the reader by the hand and sharing her knowledge and passion. Editor Gwen Steege was top garden book editor at Storey Publishing for many years, and impressed me by, among many other things, taking tree and shrub classes at the Berkshire Botanical Garden a year in advance to prepare herself for editing this particular book. It was intended to be for trees and shrubs what their very successful The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible was for edibles.

2. In a positive review of your book, The American Gardener mentioned that “One problem with garden books that try to say too much about everything is that they often end up saying too little about anything.” How does your book avoid this common pitfall?

This is very much, as the title The Homeowner’s Complete Handbook: The Essential Guide, to Choosing, Planting and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants indicates, a Guide and a Handbook, not a plant encyclopedia. It’s curated and very focused. Although we needed to be national in scope, the intent is to not describe every tree and shrub in existence, but to recommend and show how to use the best ones for home landscaping. All plants are not given equally allotted space – there’s plenty of room devoted to plants of particular value. We decided that it was time to retire the title “Bible” but it does, in that sense, offer a great deal of well-integrated inspiration, advice and information, all in one fat volume.

The book is divided into Part 1: A Practical Plan for Landscape Beauty, which includes a chapter on design (including advice on habitat as part of design and a sense of place as well as more straightforward site design) and one on making good choices (incorporating guidance on right plant/right place and – I love it – “Beyond the Practical – Beauty Rules.”

Part 2 coaches readers on how to buy, plant, water, prune and otherwise care for landscape plants.
And Part 3 is comprised of “Trees and Shrubs A-Z.” Penny’s opening statement says it all: “I chose the trees and shrubs that appear here for several reasons, but mostly for their garden merit. My favorite landscape trees and shrubs will work hard for you: they usually have more than one season of interest. Their fruits and flowers may feed birds, bees and butterflies, and their trunks and twigs shelter them. Not all these trees and shrubs are for sale: some may grow wild on your lot and are worth saving if you can.”

3. How does your book help us to pick the best plants for our garden?

I strongly believe that the plants we select should be beautiful, solve problems and support wildlife.

The book tells how. Opening chapters discuss criteria for selecting plants, so the reader gets tips and background information. Charts suggest plants for challenging situations and are accompanied by photos and sidebars. The “Trees for Shady Places,” chart, for instance, is divided into Full Shade, Partial Shade and Dappled or Light Shade, with a sidebar describing how to evaluate what degree of shade you have, and photos of shade-tolerant woody plants. Other charts have recommendations for deciduous or evergreen trees or shrubs for dry soils, or for wet soils or salt tolerance. Interspersed sidebars list trees with striking silhouettes, good candidates for topiary or coppicing or for a garden allee, so information and inspiration are accessible in many ways. The A-Z section then fills in more detailed information on origin, size, use, where to grow, plant care, problems and solutions, landscape use, designer’s choice. Some selections are marked with a very useful * to signify “Easy.”

As someone whose coaching, speaking and writing work is devoted to encouraging people to use native plants to support wildlife and restore habitats right at home, I especially appreciate the attention to native plants and notations such as, for the paper birch entry, that it is a larval host for luna moths.

4. What feature(s) of your book do you think your readers will find the most useful?

A number of teachers at universities and botanical gardens have told me that it’s the best book they’ve ever found for teaching. And I refer to it all the time myself as a garden coach when I’m stumped on what plant to choose for a particular situation, but also just to leaf through and see what jumps out at me. But it depends very much on what the reader is looking for or needs to know. I think that having something for everyone is a great strength of the book.

As a user of the book, not just because I took the photos, I appreciate the wealth of images – more than 600 – that jog my memory and suggest design uses. With every photo I asked myself “What is this plant about, what do I want to communicate?” You don’t just stand there and go “click-click-click” with the camera, there’s a thought process involved. It’s a challenge to understand a plant well enough to know how to recognize and find a representative example, then to show accurately what the plant looks like – structure, color, bark, berries or flowers – while also revealing it’s character and beauty, to give people an idea of why they’d want to grow it in the first place. And we placed a priority on showing not just specimens, but how trees and shrubs are used in real-world attainable residential landscapes.

In the garden world I find that people seem to either have a feel for plants or for design; very few really “get” both. Author Penny O’Sullivan certainly does and I feel that I do as well. So for people who struggle with aesthetics and design, very good, non-intimidating design guidance is there in the text. And for those who need plant information, that’s there too, with all the practicalities. There’s a mix of text and charts, plus galleries of photos that show plants with special qualities – interesting bark, fall foliage, berries, evergreen color, wildlife value. So whatever the reader’s learning style, there’s a way to engage.

The A-Z section is invaluable as it gives you relevant information about plants themselves – size, cultivars, origin, family, cultivation and care – but continues the discussion of how to use them in the landscape, the seasons in which they shine, the wildlife they support, the author’s experience with them. Each entry has a symbol showing the shape – oval, pyramid, weeping, etc., and each page has a key at the bottom so you don’t have to go nuts turning back to the beginning to see what they mean.

5. What are some things that gardeners find the most difficult when choosing, planting or maintaining landscape plants and how does your book help them solve them?

It’s hard to know what to choose with relentless marketing of everything newer – bigger –better, and how many to plant. With my garden coaching clients I find that people tend to either buy every new thing that comes along and plant too many of them for the space, or else they go to a big box store and buy the same old plants that you see everywhere because they require no attention and are cheap at the big box stores – then surround them with a sea of mulch. But why plant something that commands no attention, gives no pleasure, supports no life?

The other thing that seems to intimidate people is pruning. Either they do nothing for fear of making a mistake, to the point of not being able to get in the front door sometimes, or else they lop off branches willy nilly leaving ugly stubs.

6. What is some of the best advice you offer to your readers when it comes to choosing, planting or maintaining landscape plants?

Buy this book and spend enough time with it to get familiar with plants, both by reading and looking at the photos. But also go to public gardens, join the Garden Conservancy and visit gardens on Open Days, to develop an appreciation for woody plants and how they can be used. It’s perfectly acceptable to copy ideas. In fact, I get my very best ones while photographing gardens or just walking around being receptive.

Pay attention to how big a plant will get and what its habit is. So many fine trees and shrubs are available at independent garden centers, in sizes that we can handle to plant ourselves. Remember that just because something is little when you plant it, it will grow both taller and wider, so look up the numbers and go out there to get a physical sense of where it will be, what space it will take up; measure if necessary, or stick branches or stakes in the ground to help you visualize mature size.

I’m a big fan of understory trees and shrubs, so look at those shade-tolerant – or shade-requiring plants, and group them under taller trees, as they would be in nature. Put back the layers you see in a forest and you will lower maintenance while increasing your own pleasure and the wildlife value of your yard.

As for pruning, don’t be afraid, but don’t just hack away either. Bone up on how to make a proper cut, pruning strategies, then sharpen your tools and start with an intent. Ask yourself “What am I trying to accomplish here?” I always advise people to look at a branch and imagine where it will be in 5 years if it keeps growing. If it’s going to poke you in the eye or scratch the side of your car, cut it off – all the way back to the trunk or to a fork. There are helpful charts in the book that list what trees and shrubs should be pruned while they’re dormant and which ones to prune right after bloom.

WIN A COPY OF The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, May 15, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What tree or shrub are you interested in learning more about?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

UPDATE 5/26/2016: Congratulations to Coral Chasalow!

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7 person already talking about this.
    Kristen
    Answered on May 12, 2016Reply

    Would love to learn more about forsythia

    Ashley Jones
    Answered on May 11, 2016Reply

    I really would like information on Hebes please! I haven't grown them in SE Scotland before

    coral chasalow
    Answered on May 10, 2016Reply

    I'm interested in shrubs that can be grown in succession for blooms in zone 9.

    Denise B
    Answered on May 10, 2016Reply

    I'm interested in new flowering shrubs for Zone 4.

    Cindy Vincent
    Answered on May 10, 2016Reply

    I'm interested in learning more about Rhododendrun

    Sandy Zimmer
    Answered on May 9, 2016Reply

    Magnolia is what I would like to know more about.

    Audrey H.
    Answered on May 9, 2016Reply

    I'm interested in cold/frost resistant (zone4-5) rose shrubs. We're New to this area so have been learning a lot as we go. thanks.

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