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. 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.

Decorating Ideas for your Garden with Recycled Bits and Pieces

by Cyndy Crist

Fairy garden edging (by Cyndy Crist)
Fairy garden edging (by Cyndy Crist)

Remember the last time that a favorite pot from your garden broke?  Perhaps a friend offered you left-over bricks from a patio project and you wondered what to do with those that were broken or less than perfect.  Or maybe you brought some stones or shells back from a vacation on the beach or hiking a rocky trail and they’ve been collecting dust on your porch ever since.

With a little thought, you can reuse these bits and pieces in your garden, taking something that might otherwise end up in the garbage can and repurposing them to add interest and texture to your garden.  And best of all, they’re free! Here are a few ideas to set you searching for your own trash-to-treasure finds.

Sunken pot and day lily by Cyndy Crist
Sunken pot and day lily by Cyndy Crist

One fun thing to do with a large pot that breaks into big pieces is to partially sink a piece into the ground, positioning it so that it looks like a plant is growing out of it.  I did this with a tall, cobalt blue pot, which I sunk into the ground at an angle, at the “opening” of which I planted a daylily.  The pot fragment adds a bit of color that is especially welcome in the spring when the garden is just starting to grow. An added benefit of my pot placement is that it allowed me to plant near the roof line of our porch without worrying about run-off drowning or washing out the lily, since the pot surface helps deflect the water.

Broken bowls set in garden (by Cyndy Crist)
Broken bowls set in garden (by Cyndy Crist)

Another way to use fragments of pots, saucers, or other dishes is in the edging of a garden.  I have used pieces of a pair of broken, glazed, and painted Italian pots to create a kind of mosaic, interspersed with bricks, around my potager or kitchen garden.  Now, after many years, some pieces have broken down and lost some of their decorative value and soon they’ll have to be replaced entirely, but for many years they’ve added color and style to the garden’s border.  More recently, I set the two pieces of a small bowl that broke neatly in half into the edging to replace some of the older pot fragments.  I think they add a quirky, three-dimensional touch to the garden.  And I used the ruffled rim of another broken pot to create a kind of border in my fairy garden.

Mosaic stepping stone by Cyndy Crist
Mosaic stepping stone by Cyndy Crist

Small pot shards and other miscellaneous materials found around the house (such as marbles, shells, and smooth pieces of glass) can also be used to create actual mosaics in the garden. Community-minded neighbors in the Midway area of St. Paul have added color and interest to a busy street through their neighborhood by covering large concrete planters with mosaics, creating objects of beauty out of otherwise unremarkable, if practical, objects.  I have a mosaic stepping stone in my garden that I made using a kit that was a gift, but with just a little research into workable materials (primarily the right produce to provide the mortar or base and a sturdy box of suitable size to use as the mold), a similar result could easily be achieved with found materials.

A non-decorative, but very practical, use of fragments of unglazed terra cotta pots is to cover drainage holes in the bottom of pots.  Since their surface is porous, they’ll allow some water to soak through but staunch the heavier flow that would result if there was no cover over the hole.  When a terra cotta pot breaks, I keep the pieces on my potting bench for the next time I plant a container, throwing them on the garage floor to create smaller shards as needed (okay, it’s not elegant or precise, but it works).

Cup and saucer bird feeder (by Cyndy Crist)
Cup and saucer bird feeder (by Cyndy Crist)

You can also use un-broken items in the garden that might otherwise be discarded.  For example, if you have a stray cup and saucer, you can glue the cup to the saucer to make a little birdbath or bird feeder. This works especially well if you fasten it to a stake so that it sits up off the ground.  You can also use a cup and saucer as a planter, though without drainage in the bottom of the cup, a little extra caution is needed to be sure you don’t drown whatever you’ve planted in it.  And, of course, stray saucers and dessert plates can always be used under pots on a porch or balcony; over time, I’ve built a little collection from attractive finds in antique and second-hand shops that allow me to vary the color scheme on my porch as I wish.

If you’ve ever edged a curved bed with bricks, you know that broken or imperfect pieces can actually be a godsend, helping create curves in a way that intact bricks simply can’t.  It takes a bit of experimentation to fit the pieces together, but it’s worth the effort.  If what you have is masonry bricks (like the ones we asked the roofers to leave when they re-bricked our chimney), you may not like the looks of their holes, especially if they’re still filled with mortar.  But if you set them in the garden on their sides, you can get a decent-looking edge, even though it will be narrower than what you’d get setting the bricks in flat, and if you leave the holes on top and fill them with soil, some groundcovers will grow into them.

Writing in a recent email newsletter from Horticulture magazine, Emily Dydo offered some other great ideas for reusing terra cotta pots.  I especially liked her idea of writing the names of vegetables on pot shards for easy garden labels.  Depending on the size and shape of the shards, these could be laid flat on the ground by the plant or stuck into the ground so that they stand by a plant. I’ve done something similar by writing the names of herbs on flat, smooth rocks with Sharpies (silver works well for dark stones) and then placing them in the garden. This creates simple, long-lasting, and natural-looking labels for your plants at virtually no cost.

Edging out of clay pots (by Cyndy Crist)
Edging out of clay pots (by Cyndy Crist)

I once did something similar to an idea suggested by Dydo – setting a row of plain terra cotta pots, bottoms-up, along a garden edge to create a three-dimensional border.  Mine was a temporary solution for a newly created planting, and in any case this can’t be a long-lasting solution since unglazed terra cotta breaks down fairly quickly when left outside. But just as gardeners seek to create plant designs that provide a changing array of colors and textures across the seasons, periodically changing borders and other garden hardscape can add interest and variety to beds of ornamentals and edibles from year to year.

Another idea from the Horticulture post is to use pot shards like mulch on the surface of soil in a container.  I just tried this with a decorative terra cotta pot of pink-hued plants, thinking it would give the pot, which sits on a deck railing, a more finished look. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on how much it adds aesthetically, but I’m hopeful that this “mulching” may reduce the need for watering.  What I like much better is something I was inspired to do after trying the shards – arranging small shells in the same way. I think the pearly shells add a finished look to the pot and a nice color and textural contrast to the succulents and soil.

And that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it – to share ideas with others as a way to stimulate their creativity and yours.  The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more ideas I’m beginning to generate for ways to re-use or re-purpose things in my garden.  I’m ready to head out to the garage now for more inspiration – how about you?