Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gardening Books

There isn’t much happening in my garden, with things slowed down by excess cloudiness. (OK, the daffodils are still looking good despite last weekend’s howling winds, the bleeding hearts are beginning to bloom, the Lavender, Verbena and Pennisetum I’ve mentioned earlier are probably dead, but all the Lillium are spearing up.) So I’ve decided to write about my favorite garden books.

I just counted my gardening books. I have 98, unless I missed a few, and I’m damn proud of it, thank you very much. (If I had to report an even 100, you’d assume I was estimating or even exaggerating the count.) Most of these I bought cheap at yard sales, library sales, used book stores, or discount sections. This would of course count as a huge waste of time, if I didn’t enjoy the pursuit. Although library sales and book stores almost always have a separate section for gardening, I count myself lucky to find one useful or interesting book in a rack. It seems inevitable that more than half will be on house plants or will have titles like “Gardening,” with no focus whatsoever. (For me, the latter category can occasionally be worth purchasing if it’s big, old, well-illustrated, or written by one of the greats, who mostly seem to be British).

I won’t tell you which used book stores have had the most interesting selection, because I am selfish, but I will tell you to check out the New England Mobile Bookstore (so-called, it’s actually a masonry building) in Newton, MA. I used to take my lunch break there twice a month just to see what was new in their unusually large section of discounted books.

One of course has to have reference books showing specific plant species and types, ideally some that are broad but shallow, and others that give a whole page or more per species, with cultural information and photos of various cultivars. If you’re reading an essentially photo-less book like The Damp Garden, by Beth Chatto, the presence on the same table of a well-illustrated reference tome makes all the difference between completely useless incomprehension and full knowledge of what she’s talking about.

So, apart from reference books which one generally doesn’t “read” as such, here are the 4 books to which I return again and again:

The perennial garden: Color harmonies through the seasons, by Jeff and Marilyn Cox (1985).

This book has a lot of useful things to say about color and garden design. Some of the color theories presented are flaky and esoteric (such as detailed color-emotion link tables, and matching hues to musical notes and making a literal “color harmony”), but the reader is free to learn and choose from many color and design theories. Since garden design is a subjective art, I can reject the need to use, say, the “golden section” in a given design, yet believe that it’s a good idea to consciously consider it. (I may blog later on different cultures’ contributions to ideas about symmetry, at least 3 of which I am open to.) The book also has about 150 pages of information on specific perennials, by genus, and chapters on matters such as building up soil, and building paths – wasted pages if you already have a good basic library. For me, the book’s best feature is its 80 well-annotated color plates, arranged by season, showing either a medium close-up of 2 or 3 plants or a broader landscape view. It always inspires and humbles me. I got the book at a yard sale for a buck; it’s almost as cheap used via Amazon. (Jeff Cox’s Perennial All-Stars: The 150 Best Perennials for Great-Looking, Trouble-Free Gardens, 2002, is also a very useful possession, but not as fun or inspiring to read.)

Crockett's Flower Garden, by James Underwood Crockett (1981)

Despite its age, if you live in Zone 6 or 7 in the Northeast, this may still be the most useful “what to do when” book you can find. The book is arranged by month, with what should be done to various plant species arranged alphabetically (by common name), along with a few broader pointers, also by month. It can be a bit frustrating to have to look in 2 or 3 places to read all that is written about, say, Phlox, but since now is in fact May, it is most useful to be able to scan one short chapter to see what can be done now, and what you might have overlooked. Has color photos of given plants on almost every page, but not much on putting together plant combinations, or on good garden design. Dirt cheap used on Amazon. (Jim Crockett was the first host of the PBS show “Crockett's Victory Garden” – this, his last book, was finished by Marjorie Waters and John Pelrine, who received credit only inside the book.)

Penelope Hobhouse’s Natural Planting (1997)

This book covers the use of native and other well-suited plant choices to match your local conditions and create beautiful, generally lower-maintenance, informal gardens. Beautiful photographs, tips for various cultural types (e.g., meadow gardens, shrub borders, woodland edges) and design theory, with a moderate emphasis on the temperate conditions one might find in England or New England. New England Mobile Bookstore has long had a stack of this book selling new for $9.98 (paperback edition). This book has no section arranged by species, but that’s no loss for most garden readers, and Hobhouse shows a detailed knowledge of plants and gives plenty of tips on their specific use within the culturally arranged sections. (Hobhouse has a large number of books in print and out; all that I have read have been worth purchasing.)

The Green Tapestry, by Beth Chatto (1989)

This book has a similar philosophy and arrangement by cultural conditions as Hobhouse’s. While Hobhouse’s looks to gardens around the (temperate, Western) world, this book is all based on Beth Chatto’s garden. But that’s enough, as these are the large and varied display gardens at her retail and commercial nursery. The gardens are set in Essex, an area of England with harsher conditions (drier year-round, with a cold winter) than most of the country, and thus more like that of much of North America. While the book doesn’t have a big alphabetical plant reference in the back, Chatto does have a few pages on each of many of her favorite genera. Amazon shows used Simon & Schuster copies available from $4.50 (Another edition, presumably the one printed in Britain, starts at $124.31!) Chatto has other books worth purchasing if they match your local conditions: The Damp Garden (1996), The Dry Garden (1996), Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden: Drought-resistant Planting Through the Year (2002), Beth Chatto's Woodland Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (2002), and no doubt the revised Beth Chatto's Damp Garden: Moisture-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest (May 2005).


Entangled said...

Great post! Can I plug my one of my favorite garden design books here? Pamela Harper's Color Echoes is one I bought on a whim in a used bookstore, and when I finally got around to reading it, I read it cover to cover. She starts with the usual color theory/color wheel basics, but most of the book is an explanation (through specific examples) of her own personal thoughts about color combinations. She really knows her plants, and since she is a photographer, most examples are illustrated through photos. I don't know if I agree with her in every instance, but this book really opened my eyes and made me think.

I've always been curious about Beth Chatto's books, but never picked one up. I think I see a trip to the used bookstore in the very near future.

DWPittelli said...

Thanks entangled,

Feel free to plug away (as long as, if you have a personal commercial interest in a book, you disclose it, and you don't just post copy from the book publisher's marketing department).

The Pamela Harper book looks interesting, judging from reviews on Amazon, which also mention "outstanding photos." I have not read her books; the ones on perennial plant selection also look good.

Entangled said...

Sorry, forgot to add the disclaimer. Don't know Pamela Harper; have never been in the book business except as a customer. Well, not quite true - I have sold off some of my collection on eBay, but don't currently have anything posted there.
I just really like this book, and am always interested in what others have on their shelves.

Anonymous said...

Good to see you plugging Jim Crockett's flower gardening book. His vegetable gardening book is also quite excellent - it was my first introduction to gardening of any sort and it led me step by step, month by month, to a very successful initial effort.

For plant reference, I like Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. No fancy pictures, but tons of information from a guy who really knows his plants and isn't afraid to state his opinions.

For native plants, the two books by Bill Cullina, Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the US and Canada and Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, are both great. Lots of solid information and a love for plants that shines through. (I admit I'm biased here, as I know Bill through my work at Garden in the Woods, but I still think his books are great.)

I could go on... (I too have tons of garden books), but I have an appointment to go to, which is probably a good thing...

I'll definitely have to look up the other books you mentioned, a few of which I'm not familiar with.

DWPittelli said...

I agree that Dirr's "Manual" is the best source for reference on woody plant species and cultivars -- although it would benefit from photos. (His book with photos is less comprehensive.)

Another book I've gotten from the library several times but have not purchased (I am cheap!) is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. It is especially good with detailed info on pinching, shearing and cutting back perennials, and the effect on height and flower times if done at various dates.

I have also spent about an hour in a bookstore reading DiSabato-Aust's book The Well-Designed Mixed Garden: Building Beds and Borders with Trees, Shrubs, Perennials, Annuals, and Bulbs -- it's excellent, much better than any other book I've seen with the specifics (as opposed to examples and theories) of putting together such a border, but I couldn't bring myself to pay retail ($39.95).

DWPittelli said...


You have no need (ethically or by my rules) to explicitly disclaim a personal commercial interest, just to mention it if you do have one. Thanks for your tip.

Jenn said...

"I may blog later on different cultures’ contributions to ideas about symmetry"

Please do this. I would be delighted to read it!

(My garden page is here.)