Gardening Books To Give Or Get

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Henry Nicholson Ellacombe believed that every great gardener reads a lot of gardening books:

I have always found that a lover of gardens and flowers is also more or less a lover and reader of books. … and the more they love their gardens and their flowers the more they wish to read about them; and the more they get to know from books the more they desire to know; and when cut off from their gardens by snow and frost they still find plenty of employment and pleasant work in reading of their favourites; and the best gardeners are the greatest readers, for Sir Thomas Browne’s saying holds good with gardening and botany as much as in other pursuits, “They do most by books, who could do much without them.” (from In My Vicarage Garden and Elsewhere)

Whether or not it makes me a better gardener, I love to read books about gardening–how-to books, gorgeous visit-garden books, insightful essays, inspiring memoirs, letters between gardeners, and gardening fiction. I bet you do, too.

Good gardeners make good friends


I recently read Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Carol Wall. Unlike the solitary nature of many gardening memoirs, the Guide to Gardening is about a friendship that develops through gardening. At the beginning of the book, Carol Wall is a non-gardener, stuck in anxiety and fear from her bout with cancer. She hires Giles Owita to tidy up her neglected yard, thinking him an uneducated laborer but admiring his work in a neighbor’s yard. She gradually comes to find out this unassuming man who holds a second job as a supermarket clerk has a doctorate in horticulture from a university in Africa, but has been unable to get a job in his chosen profession. What fascinates me most about this book is seeing how Giles gradually converts Carol from a non-gardener (in fact, because of childhood associations, almost a plant hater) into someone who delights in planning for and working in her garden. Carol eventually becomes friends not only with Giles, but his entire family, and has opportunity to help him in non-gardening ways as the story memoir unfolds. This is a true story, but I found myself thinking of it as a novel–perhaps because it is so thoroughly about relationships that aren’t predominantly about gardening, but are built through gardening.

The Garden Conservancy celebrates 25 years

I love the work the Garden Conservancy is doing preserving important gardens, and I love to visit private gardens through the Open Days that they sponsor. So I was delighted to have the chance to review Outstanding American Gardens: A Celebration: 25 Years of the Garden Conservancy by Page Dickey. I’ll be frank: this book is a tease. Even at an oversize 272 pages, there are so many gardens to profile that there is no more than a page of text and a few pages of gorgeous photos (all by Marion Brenner) for each garden. If you currently aren’t a member of the Garden Conservancy, merely browsing this book will prompt you to join. If you are a member, like me you will be looking up the gardens you already visited and checking out the ones you are likely to be able to get to. There were a few photos that gave me ideas for my own garden, but mostly it whetted my appetite for a gardening junket next year. So many gardens, so little time!

Secrets of the bulb-forcing ninja

If you have ever been disappointed with your attempts at forcing bulbs, Art Wolks’ Bulb Forcing for Beginners and the Seriously Smitten is your new secret weapon. As a two-time winner of the Grand Sweepstakes Awards at the Philadelphia Flower Show as well as “bundles of blue ribbons and silver cups,” what this guy doesn’t know about forcing bulbs is probably not worth knowing. What happens if you don’t give hyacinths enough chilling time? How can you slow down the rate at which the flowers open? And have you considered forcing arisaemas? Whether you just want a few flowers for your windowsill in the depths of winter, or you have hopes of winning blue ribbons at a major flower show, this book will show you what to do and when–and what not to do. The author writes in a very humorous style that will either have you chuckling or rolling your eyes, but he knows his stuff. This is a book I’ll be reading again and again, because I know I didn’t get it all the first time–and next time I’ll be underlining and taking notes.

The best children’s garden book, ever

If you didn’t read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett when you were young, it’s time to make up for a misspent childhood. Perhaps, like me, you grew up with the version illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I used to think that was the only illustrations the book ever had. Noooooo. Take a look! It’s not under copyright and anyone can print up a copy. Several years ago, my daughter and I checked every version available through our library’s interlibrary loan network, and I thought the version illustrated by Inga Moore
was best. Sadly, it is out of print and the few copies I found were rather pricey. But keep your eye out for it at book sales–you might get lucky. This is one instance where you really need to flip through the book and check all the illustrations before you buy it. Just because anyone can print a copy of it doesn’t mean they will do a good job of it.

Need more books?

Here’s a Roundup of Cold Climate and Short Season Gardening books, listed in alphabetical order with mini-reviews of each. Individual, lengthier book reviews listed here.

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens, who introduced me to the quote from Canon Ellacombe. I received a review copy of Outstanding American Gardens; other books reviewed were my personal possession or checked out of the public library. All links to Amazon pages are affilate links, which means I get a small commission if you buy something after clicking. It helps keep this place running.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Helen December 22, 2015, 6:50 am

Thank you Kathy for pointing me in the direction of Mr Owitas Guide. I loved it so much I have written a post about it.
https://patientgardener.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/a-timely-reminder/

Tilly December 21, 2015, 7:15 am

Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening – this is the perfect Christmas book for my aunt!

Donna@Gardens Eye View December 19, 2015, 4:35 pm

Thanks Kathy for the great ideas…I would love to read more about forcing bulbs.

Matt Mattus December 14, 2015, 4:40 pm

Hi Kathy. Mr. Owita’s Guide sounds great. I’m currently working on my own list, but I doubt that I will be sharing it on my blog since I would imagine that few would want the same books I do! For example, I enjoyed your post on Leeks, but I think I’ve been bitten by the crazy “competitive leek growers’ bug! Have you visited any of their sites or pages on Facebook? This has led me to start some early now, but I mean really – who needs a leek which is 9 inches in diameter – but surely, there are some good old books about that!

Kathy Purdy December 14, 2015, 6:57 pm

No, I haven’t visited the sites or Facebook pages of competitive leek growers. If I ever were to grow something competitively, it would not be leeks. I do aspire to have the largest colchicum collection in North America, but I don’t even know who I might be competing with!

Liam December 16, 2015, 9:39 am

As a person who love gardening, I was attracted to the title of Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, but I was shocked when in the Prologue, the author states her hatred for flowers! However, this is a life-affirming memoir was beautifully written by this first-time author, so much of which resonated with me on a deeply personal level. Great book really!

Zara Stone December 14, 2015, 7:10 am

This seems like a nice reading list 🙂 I didn’t have the pleasure to read “The Secret Garden” as a child but many people have told me that I should read it some day. I think this post is a sign 🙂

Alana December 13, 2015, 10:12 am

A good friend, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the time, read Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening and highly recommended it to me. Then I got busy – thank you for the reminder.

commonweeder December 12, 2015, 4:49 pm

I read Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening this summer, just before the GWA meeting. It was lent to me by a non-gardener so it would suit a lot of people with its wisdom. I’m doing book reviews and a book GIVEAWAY. I hope you’ll come visit before Sunday midnight!

Helen December 12, 2015, 1:40 pm

I love that quote, it is so true. And I think I will look for the first book, sounds fascinating

Carol December 12, 2015, 8:10 am

I think I need to read Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening! Thanks for reminding me and thanks for the link.