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A Bookworm Hits the Garden
Gardening books that will help you become a better gardener

So much of gardening is about how you plan, work and maintain your garden. It's not really a matter of how hard you work in your garden; it is how smart you are working that is the final determinant in the success of your garden (I suspect I’m preaching to the choir, as you yourself are already here seeking information).

The Web is an unprecedented source of information; there has never been the access to knowledge we currently possess. Yet I find myself drawn back to the written word time and again, the old lure of the turned page calling me... I guess it’s clear that I’m fond of books and gardening books in particular. I have collected them for fifteen years now and in that time I have come to know a lot of books on gardening.

Some have come and gone and some have stayed with me for over the years; while it is strictly opinion and not a critique of true merit, I will offer a listing of the latter and sprinkle in a few new favorites. (Please feel free to contact us with any book you feel I’ve over-looked; I’m always interested to see what everyone else is reading; yes, it is me reading over your shoulder on the train).

Garden Planning and Design
If the garden is a labor of the mind the most prodigious task is the planning and design of it (I suspect it is as much a labor of the heart, but even the heart needs guidance sometimes). Books on garden design make up a large portion of my library and number among my favorites; I have started with this category so I can start with my favorite book, The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning by Julie Moir-Messervy. I come back to the phrase I just wrote, the garden as a labor of the heart and it has been this book that has shown me how true that saying is. Julie asks us to touch the child inside and remember what a garden meant to that person who still lives in our past, to bring what once was childhood fantasy into our adult reality and change our present in the doing; gardening is, at its roots, getting in touch with the primal. I fell in love with this book a decade ago and time has not tarnished that; if you are looking for that big idea to pull the rest of the garden together, this is the book. (Of her other books, Contemplative Gardens is a study of some of the most fascinating gardens on earth and The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden is a perfect start for the beginner- available new or like new ).

Native Plant Garden Books
Some of my other design favorites include the wonderful books of Ken Druse, in particular his first two, The Natural Garden and The Natural Shade Garden. It was these books that opened my eyes to the potential of native plants in the landscape, and the need, with our modern lifestyles and schedules, for a more relaxed, wilder style of landscape design that doesn’t require the maintenance of the older, more formal techniques.

Ken Druse was also was my introduction to two more of my design heroes, Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, who had been preaching just that tenet of freer plantings of grasses and perennials in drifts and sweeps since the 50’s when they started their landscape design business in Washington, D.C. (If you’re in D.C., check out the gardens around the Federal Reserve Building, it’s a signature Oehme/Van Sweden design).

Their books, Bold Romantic Gardens, Gardening With Nature and Gardening With Water have held a place on my shelf for years, just never the same space as they are in use constantly. They coined the phrase New American Garden to describe their style, but it took Carole Ottesen to write the book by that title New American Garden. The subtitle of the book, A Manifesto for Today’s Gardener, gives a small hint of the revolutionary ideas this book introduced in 1987. It historically tracks the American landscape from inception and then presents a case for throwing the old model out (Hear, hear!)

The Traditonal Garden Book
For those who are looking for a more traditional look to the garden, I recommend Penelope Hobhouse’s On Gardening. Penelope is the grande dame of the English bed & border set and her book, Garden Style (out of print but available like new) adds to her reputation. But lest we take the opinion that she is locked into that supposedly stodgy English mindset, we need look no further than Penelope Hobhouse’s Natural Planting to see that neither she (or English gardens, for that matter) are entrenched in any rigid or inflexible styles.

But if that traditional garden is exactly what you’re looking for, The Classic Garden by Graham Rose is a great read and an inspiration for your space. Graham explores the English garden from its archetype, the 19th Century manor garden, but don’t feel you need the big garden to pursue that big idea; many of the tips in here are just as rewarding in the small garden as they are in the bigger landscape. Another great glimpse into the minds of the classical English garden designer is George Plumptre’s Great Gardens, Great Designers. A decidedly British look at the world of garden design, it does touch on a few of the American masters like Church, Steele and Oehme/ Van Sweden ( be sure to look for Church’s Gardens are for People; this is the designer who gave us the kidney shaped swimming pool and “California Style” gardens). But we are looking more at designer’s here than gardens, let’s get to some more tactical tomes.

Focus on Garden Design
The real crux of garden design is finding the theme, and then finding the right plants and features to convey your theme. Hopefully one of the books that we have discussed has given you the former; let’s look at some to help with the latter. I often turn to nature for inspiration and that’s the theme for Reflecting Nature: Garden Designs from Wild Landscapes by Jerome and Seth Malitz. This father/son team looks at archetypal landscapes like waterfalls or deserts and then shows you both wild and garden examples to illustrate. The final chapter on Japanese gardens was a treat as I am a big fan; more on that in a moment.

Another inspiration is Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden. Basically it’s the true story of a suburbanite gardener who began to notice that as she gardened on her property, nature began to leave. She tells in her own words of her conversion from a regular shrub and flower gardener into a backyard naturalist, and of the amazing garden she gained in the process. If this book shifts your paradigm as much as it did mine, then you have to get Planting Noah’s Garden as well; it is the step by step plan for doing the same in your yard. This is a timely book and an even better idea for much of our suburban landscape; it’s both low-maintenance and easy on the planet. I completed a native landscape for a customer this year who tells me she is already seeing more species of birds at the feeder; I feel like I climbed Everest when I hear stuff like that.

The Appreciation of Nature
Another incredible find for my wild garden collection came from a most unlikely source; I was not expecting a new book from Henry David Thoreau as he’d died in 1862! Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript was the labor of Bradley P. Dean who gleaned through the notes of what was to be Thoreau’s greatest labor and finished the work of the man cut down at 44 by tuberculosis a century and a half earlier.

Thoreau had not really accepted the acclaim for Walden or A Week On The Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He wrote shortly after, “I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing, can’t discover what that thing is.” He envisioned a sweeping master work that would put Nature’s secrets in order, “To watch for, describe all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in Nature- to know his lurking places.” His close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had published the manifesto of the Transcendentalist movement, Nature, in which Emerson writes “foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not enjoy an original relation to the universe?” I suggest that this Transcendentalist Imperative, as it became known, was the inspiration for Wild Fruits.

Thoreau offers the woods as a cornucopia, a forgotten market basket of things to sustain the body and yet, in the detection and collection thereof, provides those first hand glimpses of God as Emerson had suggested. Dean has done an admirable job of organizing the thousands of notes on flowering and fruiting times for the wild plants of New England and they are invaluable to the wild gardener, but it is the prose of Thoreau that springs out of the myriad of dates and fruiting conditions of this plant or that; of red oak acorns he writes, “How munificent is nature to create this profusion of wild fruits, as it were, to merely gratify our eyes! Though inedible they are more wholesome to my nobler part, and stand by me longer than the fruits which I eat. If they had been plums or chestnuts I should have eaten them on the spot and probably forgotten them; they would have afforded me only a momentary gratification, but, being acorns, I remember and as it were feed on them still. Yet as it respects their peculiar and final flavor, they are untasted fruits, always in store for use, and I know not of their flavors as yet. That is postponed to some yet unimagined winter evening. These which we admire but do not eat are the real ambrosia- nuts of the gods. When time is no more we shall crack them.” This is more than a native plant primer, it is an American literary treasure that could only be critiqued for its incomplete nature; a great shame that he did not live to finish it.

A More Civilized Book
If your design tastes run to the more civilized styles, perhaps Hillier Garden Planning by Keith Rushford, Roderick Griffin, and Dennis Woodland is the book for you. A soup to nuts look at planning, and planting your garden, the only downfall might be the lack of connection to the American gardener as many of the cultivars and a few of the species listed may be impossible to find in the States. The same critique could be made of Roy Lancaster’s What Plant Where, and yet I find that both these books come off the shelf with regularity when I am stumped for just the right plant or grouping, so they merit inclusion on that basis alone. Graham Rice’s Plants For Problem Places also falls into this category; English and invaluable.

Color in the Garden
Color is one of the most defining elements in the garden; I tend to find myself thinking in terms of “blue/ yellow” or “hot” colors or “soft” colors when devising garden schemes. The two books I return to again and again are Modeste Herwig’s Colorful Gardens and Color Echoes by Pamela Harper. Both these books offer a full treatment of the color theories and scientific view of color, but it is in the celebration of color as the true medium of the garden arts that sets these two books apart. I am particularly fond of Color Echoes for the way it addresses the plants as colored parts that make the whole flower- I no longer think of a Shasta daisy as a white flower. It is white and yellow and green and all these colors can (and should) be contrasted and complimented. My blurb on color would not be complete without mentioning The Color Garden by Elvin McDonald. A set of four books breaks the colors into blue, red, yellow, and white and gives a listing of bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that mirror the chosen color, I find myself using these in the “I need a two foot medium blue for the partial shade” mode. Very handy, very pretty, little books.

Adding a Theme
Perhaps you are looking for the book to help you conquer a particular site challenge or create that specific theme. A good book for those looking to include the whole family in the garden is Creating A Family Garden by Bunny Guinness. As I just opened the book to refresh the memory, a half hour sprang by as I perused the pages. This book mesmerizes with the plethora of ideas for a family friendly garden; no one is forgotten and the parents will be as pleased as the kids with the ideas from this book. If you are interested in building a garden specifically for your children that you can live in (comfortably) too, this is your book. Often I hear customers talking about screening out neighbors or unwanted views; Julia Fogg’s Creating Privacy In The Garden addresses the topic in a clear, concise manner that pauses at just the right places to give distinct, professional advice in detail. Wished I’d written it myself.

Interest in herb gardening seems to be on the rise again, and there are a few books I fall back on again and again. The aptly named Herb Garden Design by Ethne Clarke is an invaluable collection of designs that one can imitate, but the underlying reason and horticulture are explained is so that you can use certain features as a baseline and improvise off them yourself; handy for beginner and expert alike. Landscaping Herbs by Barbara Collins and Floyd Giles is the book for those that will never have a formal herb garden, but want herbs in the garden just the same. While this is more of a plant by plant treatment (I almost put this with the plant compendiums), its main focus is how to work these often forgotten garden plants into the home landscape, and thus I feel it warrants inclusion here.

A Road Map
To finally close out this section, I include a textbook on the subject. Planting Design: A Manual of Theory and Practice by William Nelson is probably the book you’d be using if you took a college course on design (that is certainly its intent). It gives a very good (if slightly dated) overview of the design process and, for the budding designer, will provide a road map of what to look for and/or avoid in designing the landscape in a professional manner. I found the book to be a great help when I was starting out, but include it here for the charts and tables in back, as they still have me pulling this one off the shelf for help in finding the right plant for the right place. For those who would become designers someday this is a must-have book.

Again this is not a complete listing of design books nor is it intended as such. It is simply my favorites and books I am familiar with. IF you find others that excite you please let me know (believe me, I’ll read ‘em!)

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