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
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