After all these years, time to revisit landscape guide

I can tell you, after almost eight months of the most intensive work of my professional life, being an author has to be one of the loneliest, most solitary means of existence.

It has been 23 years since Neil Sperry’s Complete Guide to Texas Gardening was published. I took 14 months doing that book. That “boot book” has been remarkable, and I’ve been blessed by its success. But I knew it was time for something new. I didn’t want a revision. I wanted something entirely different. Gardening, after all, isn’t a static science.

I worked for 15 months on a different version, but that was just before the bust of 2008, and that publisher canceled the deal before I finished my manuscript. Concurrently, I had a couple of other odd business experiences, so I decided to self-publish this new book.

That means that I’ll be selling it myself from my website and magazine office, and I’m really OK with that. It’s given me the chance to work with two other wonderful people. Carolyn Skei is editor of the book, and Cyndy Smith has done all the graphic design. We are the Team of Three. We’ll have more than 750 photographs in the book, and Cyndy has had to arrange those to fit into the volumes of text and 25 or 30 extensive charts of “best plants.”

Now our team is in the final leg of the relay, and Neil Sperry’s Lone Star Gardening will soon become a reality. It will print in San Antonio in late February or very early March. That’s where I was born, and that’s where I wanted my book to be born as well.

The first thing I’m going to do when I finish my last page is to take my family out to dinner. I have seven wonderful grandkids who have hardly seen me since July. The next thing I’ll do is to take my office staff and our book team out to dinner to tell them how much I appreciate them. Two evenings’ worth of dinners, after eight months of quick snacks and on-the-fly meals. I can handle that!

All of which is to say, if you enjoy reading, and if you’ve never tried writing, give a special thought to the authors you enjoy the most, because they’ve devoted a lot of quiet personal time developing their topics and stories. Words aren’t like varnish. They don’t pour out of a can. They are born, and they’re arranged, rearranged, embellished and deleted, only to be replaced by another set of words — and it goes on and on. Some days are easier than others. Some days it’s difficult to blot out real life as you write. Some days you just fly. You pray for more of the latter, fewer of the former.

Then the third thing I’m going to do when the book has been sent off to the presses is to head back into my yard as spring begins to arrive. I need to convince my gardens I’m still around, and that I still love them. That’s going to mark the beginning of my life’s return to reality. I can handle that, too!

Observations as I’ve been writing

There certainly have been a lot of changes in Texas horticulture since the second edition of my Complete Guide was published in 1991. My bet would be that half of the shrubs, annuals, perennials, and fruit and vegetable varieties you’ll find in nurseries this spring didn’t even exist at that time.

In some cases (fanflowers, Encore azaleas, sun-tolerant coleus, Earth-Kind roses, grafted tomatoes, fringe flowers, Shantung maples, Dynamite and Red Rocket crape myrtles, and on and on), it’s plants we never dreamed of back then. In other cases, it’s dwarf and improved varieties of shrubs consistent with today’s smaller landscapes. Plant people have been really busy, and it has been exciting to realize all of these changes as I’ve been writing.

Many of the years since 1991 have found Texas in drought, so water conservation has become a key issue. That had to enter my thoughts as I was writing — plants that could keep Texas beautiful, yet not drain area lakes. To that end, I’ve been able to write about “smart” controllers, low-flow heads and other irrigation developments aimed at reducing our water consumption even more.

The last extreme cold that we’d faced in North Texas was Dec. 23, 1989, and since then, we’ve relaxed our vigil on winter hardiness of new plants. Why, the new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map even moved DFW into the warmer Zone 8 rating.

I’m really glad I was writing during this cold winter of 2013-14, because it has given me the courage to recommend “old-school” thinking, and to visualize our area as truly being Zone 7. Except for gardeners within the urban heat zones of Fort Worth, Dallas and the major suburbs, I’ve felt good advising that we limit the numbers of Zone 8 plants (gardenias, loquats, oleanders, etc.) that we use in our landscapes.

So that’s where I’ve spent the past eight months of my life — tethered to a computer, listening to Vivaldi on Pandora. Let’s see. One more month until we print. That would be nine months from conception. Good things can happen in that length of time!