The Plant Listener by Julie C. Kilpatrick has two statements on the cover explaining Kilpatrick’s intent. “Plants are talking to us every day …. All we have to do is learn how to listen.” With that, she takes us on a journey of discovery, showing us how plants have evolved and, given that, how best to care for them. There are no photographs or other images, but her words and explanations are clear (and sometimes humorous).
Kilpatrick is a gold medal-winning garden designer and lecturer in garden design, landscaping, and horticulture. She is editor of the online gardening advice website http://www.gardenzine.co.uk.
What if Plants Had Brains?
This preface opens with a startling statement, “If plants had brains, they would probably have just one thing on their minds, and that’s sex.” Plant sex is indeed covered liberally in the five sections of the book. Those of us who have been planting pollinator gardens will understand this simple truth. Hers was not an original statement. She quotes Charles Darwin who ‘believed that the tips of a plant’s roots acted like the brains of one of the lower animals, receiving information from its environment, communicating that information to other parts of the plant and directing movement accordingly.” This first of five sections of the book begins to explain how this happens.
Part One: The Evolution of Plants
It took eons for the bacteria and algaes found in the oceans to evolve into mosses and liverworts. Then it took more eons to evolve and give birth to seed bearing plants. Domestication of plants is what brought about the domestication of humans. Cultivating wheat was a big development and gave humans more control of their food sources. Besides this kind of science, Kilpatrick offers humor and gives practical information about caring for the seeds produced by your own plants.
Part Two: Sex on the Brain
This section is obviously about sexual reproduction. Throughout the book, Kilpatrick uses charming analogies to make it easy to understand the science. All dressed up in its finery of color and shape “the plant is sending out a clear signal. I’m here, and I’m sexy. Come and get me.” Those flowers don’t limit themselves to one technique of pollination. They can throw their pollen to the winds, or make sure their petals have the necessary allure and shape to make it easy for bees and other pollinators to do their job. She gives a practical list of plants appealing to bees and butterflies.
Kilpatrick writes about unusual seeds like the world’s largest seed, the coco de mer seed which takes five to six years to come to maturity. When it is bouncing around on the ocean waves it looks like a female bottom. Sailors in those old days thought they were looking at a mermaid’s bottom.
Part Three: A New Life Begins
This section is all about seeds, their life, development, and needs. The practical advice in this section has to do with caring for your seeds and how to plant them indoors. Once started, there is more advice on necessary light and the hardening off that is necessary before planting in prepared garden soil. There is also advice about pruning shrubs, and step by step directions for cloning plants by stem cuttings.
Part Four: Worshipping the Sun
Sunlight is vital for all plants, but in different amounts. Foliage colors and shapes indicate what light the plant needs. Some plants, the epiphytes, live in high in rain forest trees, getting all the nutrition and water they need without soil.
Part Five: Getting Enough to Drink
Like us, all plants are vascular with a system that moves water, oxygen, and nutrients to all parts of the plant just as blood travels to all parts of our human bodies. It is in this section that Kilpatrick explains the ways plants do talk to each other and offer support to each other.
Part Six: We All Have to Die Sometime
Though this section is about death – and compost, it touches on all types of flowering plants, including trees and shrubs. There is even advice about design, and how to plant flowers in groups of three, or five or seven.
The Plant Listener is a small book with a big story and I recommend it to gardeners who want to understand more about the evolution and science of plants. Kilpatrick’s science writing is brief and clear. Her object is to show us how plants have developed and give some practical information on how to care for them.
The cover states “The theory behind some of our best horticultural practices” which makes it sound like a dry, academic work. Well horticultural lecturer Julie Kilpatrick has a novel, engaging and readable way of bringing her subject to life.
For example one of the sections is about the reproductive strategies and methods used by plants. Which would sound about as exciting as watching paint dry! Instead the section is called “Sex on the Brain”. Well the title alone grabs your interest.
She covers some quite technical concepts in an enjoyable way you can relate to and understand. Understanding the processes and mechanisms that control how plants grow is very useful for the gardener.
The Plant Listener starts at the beginning with the evolution of plants, then the many ways plants reproduce themselves before moving on to how new plants grow. Next she turns to the sun and light before covering water and watering. She finishes, logically, with death and the lifespan of plants.
There’s a nice simple piece on composting in this section. Composting being a topic that I believe is frequently made overly complex, it’s good to read straightforward information on the topic.
General Knowledge for Specific Problems
All that general knowledge can be applied to individual situations, solving your problems even if you don’t know the name of the plant. There is some specific advice as well on methods such as how to propagate from cuttings. Once you’ve read the whole book, not only will you know what to do but why to do it.
I’d suggest you read this book as a whole and then keep it on the shelf as a reference. That way you can dip back in when you have a problem and need to refresh your memory. I do feel that reading this book will make you a better gardener. They say knowledge is power and this book is empowering.
Paperback, 300 pages with a handy index at the end.
The back-cover of this book says it is part one of a series. Julie poses some tantalising questions on the back-cover such as do plant get hangovers and why does moss get the better of our lawns? The latter question is of particular interest to me as I often have more moss than grass.
Julie is a lecturer and an award winning garden designer and it is clear that Julie is writing from a position of knowledge. The book is text only, there are no pictures and yet it does not feel dense; it is an easy and compelling read. You pick it up and start to read a chapter and you are led on to the next section and the next. I learned a lot. I learned about RAM and how vital they are for the plant's underground network and absorption of water. It was information I already knew in practice that I have to ensure that plants get the best start in life, but this book provides the 'why'. By understanding better why these things matter then it becomes easier to make sure you are providing your plants with the best start of life when planting them into the garden.
The chapter headings give a sense of Julie's in depth but lighthearted approach to her subject: Plants on the pull; Choosing the right matchmaker, Abandoned at birth, Dolly the Sheep aint so great, to name but a few.
I admit to disappointment that Julie declares that she no longer talks to her plants, I had a chat with my aspidistras about this and they felt rather sad about this.
I enjoyed reading Julie's book. It is a good book to dip in and out of. I found Julie's writing style very accessible and informative, which is always a good mix. I hope that it is the first book in a series as I would genuinely love to read what comes next.