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Problem landscape? Solutions abound in ‘The Garden Bible’

Sacramento garden designer Michael Glassman’s own Davis backyard is featured in his new book, “The Garden Bible.”
Sacramento garden designer Michael Glassman’s own Davis backyard is featured in his new book, “The Garden Bible.” Images Publishing

It’s a small gardening world after all.

In search of a publisher for his latest book, Sacramento garden designer Michael Glassman found a perfect fit an ocean away – in Australia. The result is a problem-solving work of art with built-in appeal on both sides of the Pacific.

“The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space” (Images Publishing, 224 pages, $45) is now available in Sacramento via Amazon.com.

“I wanted to do a book that was really beautiful but not just pretty pictures. It had to have some meat to it, too,” explained Glassman, an award-winning landscape designer and serious photographer. “It’s pretty to look at, but has good information to take away. I found a publisher that wanted the same thing.”

Images Publishing, the Australian book company, is based in Victoria, a state with a similar climate to California on the southeast coast of the island continent. Many of the design and gardening challenges (such as smaller spaces, less water) faced by Californians can apply to gardens down under, too.

While American publishers are moving more material online, Australian book companies continue to put a premium on big format, photo-filled, hard cover books, said Glassman, author of seven outdoor living and garden-themed books including three for children.

“In Australia, Internet connections are still slow, so people are still buying books,” he said. “Their bookstores are booming. There’s a tremendous audience.”

Before publishing “The Garden Bible,” the publisher tested the book’s concept – case studies of problem landscapes – at Germany’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for publishers.

“They absolutely loved it,” said Glassman, who then spent a year getting it done.

His co-author is Barbara Ballinger, a longtime features writer for national magazines. Her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. They met when she interviewed Glassman for a story several years ago. Eventually, they worked on articles together and created a blog, The Bare Root.

Most people don’t even know there’s a problem until it’s brought to their attention.

Sacramento garden designer Michael Glassman

“I love that Michael is so knowledgeable and understands the importance of seeing a site, studying its topography, how much sun and shade there might be at different times of the day, the amount of rainfall, the soil type, and any other factors that influence a design such as zoning restrictions, including setbacks,” Ballinger said. “But most of all, Michael listens so well to what homeowner clients want and can afford.”

Glassman also helped Ballinger with her own landscape.

“The biggest lesson I learned from Michael...is that first gardens sleep, then creep and finally leap,” she said, because gardens change as they grow. “The second biggest lesson I learned from Michael is that there are no mistakes, but there are learning lessons. You plant something in the wrong spot, and you can dig it up and try it elsewhere, or try something different next time.”

For Images Publishing, Ballinger wrote an earlier book, “The Kitchen Bible,” on designing spaces for food and fun. She came up with “The Garden Bible” as a natural sequel.

“We’ve been wanting to do a book together for awhile,” said Glassman, who also credited Ballinger with making the book about more than California gardening.

A native New Yorker, she spent three decades in the Midwest before recently returning to the East Coast; that gave her a different gardening perspective to Glassman’s California experience and broadened the book’s overall appeal, he said.

“We featured 29 other designers from all over the United States plus Australia,” he said. “These are problem-solving solutions with a universal appeal. In Chicago, how do you relate to a California garden – or the drought? We have gardens in New Jersey, New York, Texas. No matter where they are, they have something they can relate to.”

“The Garden Bible” is built on case studies of fantastic-looking and functional garden spaces that started as problematic landscapes. The issues may not at first appear apparent because the solutions work so well.

“We want this book to be a go-to resource rather than just sit on a coffee table and look pretty,” Ballinger said. “If you’ve never had a garden, we want you to start at the beginning and leisurely understand all the steps.”

Those steps include deciding what type of outdoor space you like and want, determining a budget and finding skilled professionals to help make it happen, she said.

“(A major step is) developing a master plan that you can follow all at once or slowly as you can afford to tackle all parts of your yard,” she added. “This is so important so the look is cohesive, and you don’t have to go back and rip up a vegetable garden when you realize that was the spot for your terrace.”

Sacramento area readers may recognize some of the case studies. Glassman included several of his own projects in “The Garden Bible.”

They also may spot some familiar scenes in Chapter 6, “Recognize Problems Before You Start.” Glassman picked up several examples in his own Davis neighborhood: Bad drainage, runoff issues, poorly planned patios and decks, lack of walkways, bad choice of plants and many more.

“Most people don’t even know there’s a problem until it’s brought to their attention,” Glassman said. “I went around my neighborhood for what not to do and found plenty of ‘before’ shots. It was a fun chapter to work on.”

Glassman also included his own backyard, a space he originally created for then-client, now wife, Dr. Elaine Waetjen. The couple started dating after the project and eventually married.

“Who would have known that we would fall in love and get married?” Glassman said.

Starting with a “do-it-yourselfer’s nightmare,” the project became “The Eclectic Outdoor Room” in “The Garden Bible.” Glassman transformed the cramped and ugly backyard patio and narrow strip of landscaping into a livable outdoor dining room.

“It’s now a wonderful environment,” he said. “We spend every morning out there.”

In a Winters walnut orchard, Glassman designed a resort-like pool and patio combination. The mosaics of a Land Park artist became part of her garden makeover. A boring, tired, lawn-heavy Davis landscape transformed into an inspirational zen garden.

Each offers a lesson in possibilities.

“Every landscape not only has a problem, it has a back story,” Glassman said. “Why did they buy this property? How did they get into this situation? It makes this work very fascinating.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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