Reading a beautiful gardening book in the middle of winter is the easiest way to travel to a green space.
Pity those gardeners in warmer climes who garden all through the winter. Scarcely are the holidays over, and their hellebores are up and crocuses are showing buds. They never get to put up their feet and completely ignore what the plants are doing outside.
We cold climate gardeners, on the other hand, can fully and freely indulge in garden dreaming. And how better to dream than with a good book, the kind that takes you far, far away. I’ve assembled a collection of favorite books to dream by that I get out to browse this time of year. What they all have in common is the “oooh” factor, an abundance of beauty that seeps into my soul and eases a tightness there. See how many of your favorites are on this list, and tell me about your own.
William H. Frederick has an amazing garden of several acres, which he uses to illustrate his points in The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand: Plant Combinations for North American Gardens. I think this was the first book that introduced me to the idea that plants–shrubs and small trees, in particular–could be grown in huge swaths as sculpture adorning the topography of the site. It is garden design on a larger scale than I had previously considered, and actually an appropriate consideration for an old farmhouse on acreage. Frederick does not have an old farm house, however. His house of more modern vintage actually spans a stream, and the stream garden viewable from the house has four ponds and five waterfalls. The photos, while dreamworthy, serve to illustrate Frederick’s solid design advice and his thoughts on the need for “gardens of strong exuberance, gardens that represent a celebration of the merging of art and nature.” I bet, like me, you will wish you could walk through his gardens and maybe live in his house.
Want to tour an English garden? Better yet, want to see how an English garden designer renovates one? Mary Keen in Creating a Garden shows you some of the design challenges she faced and how she solved them. One thing I like about this book is there a map of the whole garden and a more detailed map of each section as she focuses on it. It makes it easier to walk through her garden and imagine I am there. While this book illustrates many design principles, it also offers a peek into a whole ‘nother climate:
Faced with growing flowers where the climate seemed cold, the gradients steep and the soil stony, I found it hard not to question the fact that the Cotswolds are famous for their gardens. Our last house was on a gentle south-facing slope. The gravelly soil drained fast, and it was easy to work and around the house it was always warm. Abutilons often lasted through the winter in Berkshire; there was a 9-foot-tall bay tree and we pruned our roses before Christmas. In the Cotswolds, the accepted principles seemed to be quite different. Gardening looked like much harder work and the wind was clearly a problem. Locals implied that snow fell every winter.
Snow fell every winter. What a shocker! Well, as I said, I read these books because they transport me to a different world. I try to ignore the fact that what some consider “much harder work” is the status quo for me and mostly just wallow in the beauty I find on every page.
A Way to Garden : A Hands-On Primer for Every Season was Margaret Roach’s first book, and the inspiration for her website of the same name. A Way to Garden is a series of thoughtful essays on the why of gardening, with plenty of how thrown in. Copake Falls, NY, where Roach gardens, is located in USDA Hardiness Zone 5, and she has learned her share of “zone denial” tricks. I’ve read all of Margaret’s books (reviewed The Backyard Parables here), but this one is my hands-down favorite, probably because it has more pictures. You can read about my visit to Margaret Roach’s garden here.
Since reviewing The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents in 2006, I actually had the opportunity to visit this garden in August 2013. And no, I did not go on the rope bridge. Les Quatre Vents is a wonderful mixture of strong formal elements with more informal, naturalistic areas, plus a generous amount of whimsy. Take heart that this is a USDA Zone 4 garden; assuming you have good snow cover, you can probably grow all of the plants showcased in this lovely book. The Greater Perfection got me through the final two weeks of a troubled pregnancy, on bed rest in the hospital more than ten years ago, waiting for my healthy daughter to be born–so it will always have a special place in my heart.
You may have noticed that all the books mentioned so far are at least ten years old and out of print. Perhaps, as a less experienced gardener, I was more impressionable back then, so that the images in these books have stayed with me, compelling me to revisit them, while more recent books have affected me less deeply. Maybe–however, one recent book stands out as equal to these old favorites, and that is The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage by David L. Culp with Adam Levine. As I page through the utterly gorgeous photos in this book, it is comforting to know that Culp has a slow-filling well and rarely waters anything, or uses chemical fertilizers or pesticides. He gardens within the restrictions of his land, and believes that “any resourceful gardener can come up with a satisfying palette of plants that will thrive on any particular site.”
The trick is to pay attention to what the garden is telling you, “to love what loves us back, and not to covet what loves the gardens of others.” In other words, grow more of what does well for you. Culp is a plant collector, so when something does well for him, he tends to explore the genus thoroughly, planting every species and cultivar he can find, and in the case of hellebores, breeding more of his own. There are many intimate plant vignettes in his garden, but I particularly studied how he incorporated a one acre hillside into his design, as our back deck faces a hillside and I would like to add more visual interest there. You may be more interested in plants he is able to grow under black walnut trees, but rest assured you will learn something new as well as feast your eyes.
In my cold climate, regular summer rainfall is expected, and my choice of books reflects that. If your climate has a hot, dry summer, these books may be hard for you to relate to. Please share your own favorite garden-dreaming books in the comments, so we can all broaden our capacity to drink in beauty while the world swirls white around us.
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