Gifts for the Gardener: Gardening Books to Inform and Delight

By Cyndy Crist
Books about gardens and gardening make wonderful gifts for the holidays (or, frankly, any time of the year), in part because garden-related activities in the winter are primarily vicaious for many gardeners.  During this planting hiatus, gardening books offer opportunities to learn and plan, to dream and be inspired, and to travel around the world without leaving a comfy armchair or while curled up in bed.
Here are some of my favorites, any of which I can recommend without reservation as gifts for friends or family – or for yourself (since I have no doubt you deserve it).

Gardening Books For the Specialist

Amy Goldman books

Amy Goldman books (by Cyndy Crist)

Gardeners who have passions for specific plants, herbs, fruits, or vegetables have many wonderful choices of books to deepen their knowledge.  My gardening library contains books focused solely on lilacs, roses, peonies, auriculas, and other favorites.
To my mind, one of the best authors of books focused on a single type of fruit or vegetable is Amy Goldman.  Her tomes are filled with some of the most beautiful photography I’ve ever seen, along with useful and reliable information for growing and preparing the fruit or vegetable in focus, along with some fascinating background and historical insights. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit is a comprehensive treatise on the vast array of varieties within this member of the nightshade family. I purchased Melons for the Passionate Grower even though my small, urban garden lacks the space for these ramblers; what I’ve learned has helped me make good choices at local markets. Amazon.com describes The Compleat Squash as “part gardening book, part ‘encounters with remarkable vegetables,’” and I hope to add it to my collection in the new year.
Another wonderful author who has focused books on a single species or genera of plants is Anna Pavord.  Her book Bulb is full of eye candy for the gardener who loves tulips, narcissus, galanthus (snowdrops), fritillaria, or any of the dozens of other bulbs that are the focus of this gorgeous and informative book.  I first became aware of her with the publication of The Tulip, which offers a fascinating history of the bulb that sparked a true mania that reached its peak in 17th century Europe and thus something of a cautionary tale. A few years back, I learned that Pavord is as entertaining as a speaker as she is as a writer when I heard her talk about and read from her 2005 book, The Naming of Names, a comprehensive and engaging botanical history that spans the globe. I have also put to use in my little potager much of what I’ve learned from The New Kitchen Garden. Pavord has a rare ability to present deeply researched information in a thoroughly engaging way.
Beverley Nichols books

Beverley Nichols books (by Cyndy Crist)

Gardening Books For the Anglophile

 Some of my favorite gardening authors are British and apparently I’m not alone, as I’ve recently noticed that a number of older books that had been out-of-print are now available in newly released editions.  One of the most entertaining authors I’ve found is Beverley Nichols. Mr. Nichols gardened for many years at his home, Merry Hall, which is described on one dust cover as a “wonderful Georgian house in Meadowstream,” located in Surrey.  Nichols was an extremely prolific author, with more than 30 books to his name.  Not all focus on gardening; those that do include Merry Hall and its sequels, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, as well as the earlier Down the Garden Path and Green Grows the City and the later Garden Open Today. Their observations about garden design, garden ornamentation, and the foibles and pleasures of plants in the garden (as well as of the people who tend and visit them) are alternately informative and witty, useful and entertaining.  Many of the garden-focused volumes are beautifully illustrated by William McLaren, which adds to their pleasure.   These are books worth seeking out for those who enjoy making armchair visits to the stately homes and lush gardens of England.
Vita Sackville-West books

Vita Sackville-West books (by Cyndy Crist)

 

I also collect gardening books by the incomparable Vita Sackville-West, to my mind one of the most interesting members of the Bloomsbury Group, which also included Virginia Wolf, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and others.  Some of her books focus on her famous garden at Sissinghurst, while others are compilations of gardening columns written for The Observer. Some volumes are back in print in new editions while others can only be found used.  An example of the former is In Your Garden which is (or was) also available on that fading audio format, the cassette tape, read by none other than Janet McTeer. Although, like Nichols, Sackville-West’s published works also include poetry (such as the superb The Garden) and fiction, I am particularly fond of the gardening books, which remind me that while fashions may come and go, good advice about gardening and garden design is timeless.

Gardening Books For the Practical Gardener

While I don’t want to suggest an absence of practical information in the volumes previously described, some gardening books have a clearer focus on how to select, plant, tend, and combine plants.  In this category, I have a favorite author and a favorite series to recommend, though there are many others whose books I own and frequently consult.  But these two, for a number of reasons, are stand-outs in my library.
Larry Hodgson books

Larry Hodgson books (by Cyndy Crist)

The author is Larry Hodgson, a Canadian gardener whose books Making the Most of Shade: How to Plan, Plant, and Grow a Fabulous Garden that Lightens up the Shadows and Perennials for Every Purpose are pulled from my shelves many times during each growing season.  Published by Rodale Press, both are organized by plant with sections for each that offer growing tips, information about problems and solutions, and suggestions for “top performers” and other recommended varieties for each plant featured. Hodgson also provides a “plant profile” in list format for each plant, along with either “garden notes” or “smart substitutes.”   This combination of information has proven very useful in selecting plants for garden designs as well as their subsequent care.  Perennials for Every Purpose was also my mother’s favorite gardening book at a time when she tended more than a few plants on her balcony, offering some proof of its utility for multiple growing zones, garden styles, and generations of gardeners.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden books

Brooklyn Botanical Garden books (by Cyndy Crist)

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published a wonderful series of excellent books on a wide array of topics.  I have nearly a dozen of these small, inexpensive, and extremely useful volumes on topics that range from Natural Insect Control: The Ecological Gardener’s Guide to Foiling Pests (21st Century Gardening Series) and Designing Borders for Sun and Shade to Easy-Care Roses and Salad Gardens. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been described as the publisher of America’s first gardening handbooks half a century ago, and fortunately they have continued this important mission into the current century.  Their books are well illustrated and full of concise, practical information. Whenever I see a new (or new to me) volume, I add it to my collection because I have found them all to be excellent resources for the home gardener in any zone.

A Great Source of Gardening Books

Although many of the books I’ve referenced here are available from the omnipresent Amazon and other booksellers, I first found several of them at Terrace Horticultural Books, a gem of a store here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Kent Peterson, the owner, has amassed an unbelievable collection of horticultural books, mostly used, that fill the rooms of the first floor of a charming brick home.  I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I walked in and saw the front room filled with library-style bookcases full to overflowing; the second, a cozy room graced with inviting armchairs and floor-to-ceiling shelves that include, among other things, one full section of English gardening books; and beyond that, a kitchen bulging with – what else – books about vegetables, fruits, and herbs. And that’s only part of the collection!
For those of you who reside far away from Saint Paul, don’t despair – Kent sells his books on line as well.  Although his direct site doesn’t appear to be in operation at this time, you can find his collection on-line through AbeBooks, or you can contact him at 503 Saint Clair Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55102 or by calling 651.222.5536.  Or better yet, make a trip to our beautiful city and visit in person, as Martha Stewart did when she was in the Twin Cities a few years ago.  I’ll bet you’ll be as impressed as she was.

Closing Notes

Although I’ve always enjoyed opening a spanking new volume with a crisp, clean cover, used books have a magic all their own.  Not only do they allow the reader to enjoy books now out of print and to experience them in their original design with a style particular to their time of publication, but one never knows what might be found between their pages.  In my copy of Vita Sackville-West’s A Joy of Gardening, I found an article about her and her Sissinghurst garden that had been published in the July 1977 issue of Horticulture magazine.  My copy of Let’s Make a Flower Garden by Hanna Rion, originally published in 1912, contains as a bookmark a tag from Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, a gorgeous place on Cape Cod.  I’ve also found pressed flowers or ferns in some books and, in others, inscriptions dated from years before my birth and written in the kind of beautiful “hand” now long lost.  These treasures offer proof of the timelessness of books, a little peek into someone else’s existence, and a sense of shared passion.  To me, that’s its own kind of gift.

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