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THE GARDENER'S BIBLE : In the nearly 40 years since it was first published, novice and professional gardeners alike have come to regard the Sunset Western Garden Book as the essential reference guide on plants and planting in West.

May 23, 1993|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Klein is a Monrovia free-lance writer

Doty was in charge of the first real Sunset Western Garden Book, published in 1954. "It was a magnificent book, widely acclaimed. Doty was full of imagination and challenges," recalled Joe Williamson, who took over when Doty retired in 1964. Doty died in 1990 at the age of 94.

Doty's partner in publishing was Elsa Uppman Knoll, who served as Sunset magazine's garden editor. Knoll graduated from Stanford University in 1928 and attended the California School of Gardening for Women in Hayward. She took over the school in 1936 and in 1939 Sunset Magazine profiled her and she met Doty, who later hired her.

"I learned so much from him. This was my treasure and my dream, to be able to work with someone who wrote with such grace," Knoll said.

She attributed Doty's meticulous writing style to his days in advertising, when he wrote the slogan, "Let's Get Associated" for the Associated Oil Co., one of his accounts.

"He was a natural about clean, straightforward, simple, direct information and giving it in that way," Knoll said.

Knoll, who lives in Carmel and still gardens at 85, is no slouch with words herself. She stated her philosophy of gardening in the introduction to her 1941 Visual Garden Manual:

"Yes, the soil gives us much more than flowers that are beautiful to look at or fruits and vegetables that are good to eat. It gives us hope, courage, patience and quiet joy. It anchors us to something solid, fundamental, timeless and constructive."

When Doty and Knoll first set out to write the Western Garden Book in 1954, they had scant material to build on.

In November, 1933, Sunset had released a book called the "All-Western Garden Guide."

The 96-page paperback's main claim to fame was a dictionary-encyclopedia, the first of its kind published for gardening west of the Continental Divide. In those days, Sunset summarily divided the West up into three climate zones: the Pacific Northwest, Central and Southwest.

The Garden Guide was illustrated with panel drawings called "Western Garden Movies" on topics such as "Diary of a Dahlia," written from the point of view of a flower as it progresses from seedling to pruning to winning first prize at the San Leandro flower show.

In the book was a coupon offering a two-year subscription to Sunset Magazine, plus the guide, for $1.

"Those meager books were selling because there was nothing better. People were even calling them 'the bible.' It was embarrassing," Williamson said.

When Sunset decided to do the job right, Doty and Knoll, along with 20 other staff members, worked for a year to put together the 384-page, spiral-bound tome.

The book was immensely popular. At $2.95, it sold 100,000 copies in the 21 months after its publication on March 5, 1954.

The book included a 25-page section on perennials and 13 pages on California natives, although drought-tolerant plants were seldom used in the 1950s and 1960s,

The Sunset Western Garden Book has been updated about once a decade since the first edition. The price has gone up each time and it now sells for $18.95.

Williamson, who took over the book in 1964, made a major contribution to the 1967 edition by introducing the 24 climate zones of the West. He based his climate maps on preliminary data done by the UC Agricultural Extension Service.

"You can be in a nursery and you'll hear someone say, 'I can't grow that, I'm in zone 17, or zone 24.' It's used as a currency now--everyone understands what that means," Williamson said.

He was also responsible for one of the most controversial changes to the book, made just after the 1967 edition was published. It was at that time that DDT began to be suspected of causing the rapid decline of the peregrine falcon and other birds.

"The people making money from (DDT) would deny the stories about it causing the problem for top-of-the-food-chain birds, who were in a hell of a fix," Williamson recalled. "But we chose to go along with the scientists rather than the farmers or the pesticide manufacturers."

In August, 1969, Williamson persuaded Sunset to cancel all DDT advertising in the magazine. He rewrote the insecticide chapter of the garden book before the next printing--leaving out the references to DDT.

"It was quite a task to get all the brass to go along with me," he said, recalling that the chemical companies had lucrative advertising contracts with Sunset.

Currently, the information in the book on treating pests and diseases is weighted toward using natural methods.

During his tenure, Williamson also instituted panels of experts that met regularly to consult on future editions, providing invaluable in-the-soil experience for the book.

"We'd meet about nine times a year, no more than 25 people from growers to home gardeners to university people and agricultural extension agents. There would be a carefully worked-out agenda of questions about the degree to which particular plants would grow in certain areas, how tall they'd get, how they'd fare over the winter," Williamson said.

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