Books for Gardeners

By: Jennifer Jewell
Jennifer-Jewell

Jennifer Jewell is the creator, writer, and host of the public radio garden program Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History…

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The annual choosing of garden books to carry me through the winter comes with such promise of pleasure. As girls, my sisters and I would be asked by our mother for a list of books we might like from Santa and we would diligently write down one or two. Without fail, she (Santa) would bestow those and at least one—maybe two—more. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the additional titles were always based on a loving formula of the interests indicated from our original lists carefully warmed and expanded into larger (still unseen by us) hopes and dreams.

As an adult (avid reader and gardener) I spend plenty of time thumbing through how-to books, pest control, and question and answer books that remind me of what I might not be doing well (or doing at all); what I don’t have, or what I should be doing differently. There’s time for humility and righteousness the whole long-year. What I want in my holiday garden books is predicated on my expert gardener mother’s wisdom: I want well-worn books to comfort me, I want fresh new books to inspire me in my inquisitive rather than acquisitive gardening hopes, and I want a few big thinking books to dream over.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations for other gardeners this holiday season:

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Well-Worn books to Comfort You

(mostly about others falling in love with gardening through the trials, successes, and beauty of their first gardens):

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Armin, The Macmillan Company
I believe it has been re-issued recently, by the famed author of Enchanted April. Its opening sentence is: I love my garden.

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan, 1992, Grove Press
A wonderful, funny, thoughtful read—sure to remind you of why you love gardening as an intellectual and spiritual endeavor as much as a physical one. The subtitle is a literary reference to another genius book in this same class of gardening books: The Education of a Gardener by Russell Page, 1962, Collins Press.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, 1949, (reprint edition 1986, Ballantine Books)
Hands down one of the best, most moving treatises on gardening with your land and its natural history, rather than in spite of it, ever written.

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Books to Inspire your Inquisitive Gardener:

A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson, 2014, Picador
Written by a bee researcher and expert, this very human book intertwines personal journal entries and natural history essays on the lives of various birds, bees, and other insects on the farm the retired author is making his home. It reminds us to keep our sense of humor, be present, observe closely, and appreciate.

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws, 2011, Firefly Books
Heavy tomes thoroughly researching the often-dramatic history and cultural importance of individual plants are a whole class of garden books. While I am always interested in them, they can overwhelm me. Bill Laws provides a bite size, fascinating dive into this kind of inquiry, where you can read one entry at a time, not necessarily in order, and learn a great deal. From Agave and Saffron to Crab Apple and Wheat, there are entertaining stories and intriguing trivia.

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Books to Savor and Dream Over:

Spirit: Garden Inspiration by Dan Pearson, 2011, Fuel Publishing
I have been a fan of Dan Pearson’s since enjoying The Garden, A Year at Home Farm, about one of his early endeavors at a private garden in the 1990s. This newest of his books tracks his life-long love of plants, landscapes he has helped to cultivate, and places from which he has derived personal inspiration on how to create place. Physically this is a gorgeous book to hold and feel in your hands, with evocative and beautiful photography reminding us that the spirit of place is one of the most important elements in our best gardens.

The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning by Julie Moir Messervy, photographs by Sam Abell, 1995, Little, Brown
This is a fascinating anatomy of a garden from an emotional and psychological perspective—helping to illuminate how and why certain gardens, and elements like paths, porches, or water features, create different responses in us. Each dissection then allows us to be more aware and purposeful in the creating of our own spaces. The photographs by award winning photographer Sam Abell are every bit as beautiful and important to the book as the text.

Happy winter dreaming and reading.