10 Books on my Winter Reading List

Reading time 12 minutes


Having built myself a library, you would think I’d be spending all my time sitting about and reading. Unfortunately that’s so far from being the truth that I am rather embarrassed to admit it. Even when I have ‘spare’ time, there’s always another task begging for attention; usually a practical one. During my four-hour daily commute, I am either answering e-mails, writing this blog or having a sneaky doze. The only thing I’ve attempted to read on a train in nine months is a copy of The Garden from October 2017, now cowering, dog-eared in the deep recesses of my work bag. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading, it’s that I cannot rest when I know there’s a job to be done: that’s almost always, as anyone who’s ever owned an old house or a garden knows very well.

Having admitted to not reading enough, you might assume I’d have stopped acquiring new books. Au contraire. I am rapidly becoming a bibliophile on a biblical scale. ‘Put new books away’ is now a repeating reminder on my weekend to do list. I like to complete my lists, so frequently new books go up onto the shelves without me so much as scanning through them. Before I know it they are semi-forgotten, lost between other enticing spines, waiting to be rediscovered, read and properly appreciated.



Yet still the books keep rolling in; at Christmas, on my birthday and picked up cheaply from charity shops as gifts to myself in between times. I glanced innocently at Amazon on Thursday and before I knew it another four books were in my basket, on my debit card and on their way to The Watch House, safe and snug in their cardboard straight jackets. Then on Friday I realised I had forgotten one and bought that too. Oh dear.

To assuage my guilt I have committed myself to perusing at least one book per evening for the next two weeks. Full-on reading is too much to expect, no point setting myself up for failure. Once the evenings get lighter even that ambition will become hopeless, given the garden is a perpetual source of distraction. Here are ten of the books I want to get around to in the next fortnight, all of which have appeared in my library during the last six months:



1) The Book of Palms, Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, Taschen

A large and weighty tome cataloguing von Martius’s 1817-1820 expedition to Brazil and Peru. Here in the tropics the professor of botany at the University of Munich and director of the Royal Botanic Garden collated the sum of all known genera of the palm family. This book is a breathtaking work of botanical illustration and there’s minimal text to distract from the wonderful plates. Easy on the eye and perfect for the plantsman’s coffee table.

2) Tree Houses, Philip Jodidio, Taschen

A gratuitous purchase, but Taschen were having a half-price sale, what more can I say? There is something fantastical yet primal about a tree house. The weird and wonderful creations featured in this book demonstrate what happens when human imagination is permitted to run riot. The fact that trees are involved is a bonus. Production values are superb, especially the illustrations by Patrick Hruby, so this is going to be hard to put down and easy to get carried away with.



3) New Nordic Gardens, Annika Zetterman, Thames and Hudson

I have been ogling this lovely book since it arrived at The Watch House in late autumn. As one might expect, the gardens featured within are achingly minimal, precisely executed and expensive looking. The extent to which Scandinavian gardens are designed for outdoor living surprised me at first, but then, they do enjoy fabulously long and light summer days. Scandinavian gardens don’t get a lot of air time in the UK, but deserve to be more widely admired. This book will certainly get them noticed.

4) The Private Gardens of England, edited by Tania Compton, Constable

A very generous birthday gift from a dear friend, ‘The Private Gardens of England‘ is undoubtedly a lavish tome, but far more than a coffee table book. Thirty-five private gardens, many of which are not open to the public, are vividly described in the words of their owners. You will recognise some, but not all, and the variety of styles is as extraordinary as the individual gardens themselves.




5) The Great Dixter Cookbook, Aaron Bertelsen, Phaidon

I’ve become rather rusty in the kitchen department, so I was delighted to receive this book at Christmas. It’s packed with wholesome, simple recipes that are more about taste than looking impressive. I’ve already tried the recipes for tarragon chicken and apple crumble, both of which are excellent and easy to follow. Thanks to them my culinary confidence is starting to return. Arron Bertelsen is the long-standing vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter, and offers lots of helpful tips on growing your own for the table.

6) The Country House Library – Mark Purcell, Yale University Press / National Trust

I would have liked to have read this book before I designed my own library, but alas it was not published until the end of 2017, by which time it was already finished. When my family visited National Trust properties I was always overwhelmed by their magnificent libraries. This beautiful book charts the history of the country house library and reveals that they were not just for show, but for intellectual pursuits and the betterment of friends and family.



7) The Living Jigsaw, Val Bourne, Kew

Val Bourne has gardened organically all her life. ‘The Living Jigsaw‘ is a genuine and approachable account of how to garden naturally, accompanied by Marianne Majerus’ marvellous photography, practical tips and heavy doses of reality. As someone who will use chemicals when needs must, I am interested to learn techniques that might help to wean me off the nasties and thereby lessen my impact on the environment. Reading this book will be a good start.

8) My Life With Plants, Roy Lancaster, Filbert Press

Anything written by the excellent Roy Lancaster begs to be read. If it were not so weighty, this is a book I might consider reading on the train. What the author does not know about plants is not worth knowing, and this promises to be a fascinating account of one man’s passion and devotion to plants.



9) Exotic Gardening in Cool Climates, Myles Challis, Fourth Estate

It was Myles Challis that first piqued my interest in exotic gardening with his occasional appearances on BBC Gardener’s World in the 1980s. We tend to associate the late greats Will Giles and Christopher Lloyd with the popularisation of this planting style, but Myles Challis got there first. When it was published in 1988 ‘Exotic Gardening in Cool Climates‘ was heralded as the first book in the 20th Century to be devoted to the subject. I recall thinking Myles Challis was rather dishy, posing moodily beneath a Musa on the back cover. The book looks dated now, but I am hoping it will offer up some forgotten wisdom that I can learn from.

10) Wildflower Wonders, Bob Gibbons, Bloomsbury

When I was young I used to marvel at the documentaries about barren deserts that would burst into life following a short period of rain. Through this book I will rediscover the incomparable Namaqua Desert and Carrizo Plain, as well as learning about the astonishing natural flora of 22 other countries. Gorgeous landscape and close-up photography makes this book a feast for the eyes. Once read, I know I will be yearning to travel the world in search of such natural spectacles again.



Time to start my challenge. The blinds are down, the fire is lit, there is hail drumming on the windows and a G&T begging to be poured. Where else would one be other than in a library, curled up with a beautiful book? TFG.

Do you have too many books and no time to read them? Which titles have kept you engaged over the winter? I’d love to hear your recommendations and know that I am not alone in my bibliophilia.


Categories: Book Reviews, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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42 comments On "10 Books on my Winter Reading List"

  1. A great selection and loads of variety, excellent. I like the idea of The Great Dixter Cookbook, the vegetable garden there always looks so well-tended.
    I have been re-reading my books on Sissinghurst as we are off to stay in the B&B there this summer, a special treat. Vita and Harold’s efforts always inspire me when the winter weather is cold and horrible.

    1. OOooo, lucky, lucky you! I have always wanted to do that …. or stay in one of the National Trust cottages. I have always felt I live a bit too close to justify it, and now I don’t have a car. Anyway, I shall make my annual pilgrimage Chelsea week I expect.

      The Great Dixter Cookbook is just as you’d expect. Rustic and unpretentious. Stuff one might actually have the ingredients for!

      Enjoy your trip to Sissinghurst. I want to hear all about it. Dan

  2. I have enjoyed ‘Rhapsody in Green’ by Charlotte Mendelson. She captures the madness that is gardening, and I identified strongly with her reluctance to ever go on holiday and leave her plants.

    1. That’s on my list too! I have not quite reached the stage of refusing to go on holiday because of the garden, but I am on the cusp. At the moment I can’t afford to travel as much as I once did and worry that I will get so attached that I won’t want to go in future. Fortunately I have a good plant waterer and some willing house sitters that cover me for business trips. Dan

  3. Your books sound really interesting. I must admit that some of my favourite gardening books are rather old fashioned. I just love Beverley Nichols’ ‘Down The Garden Path’ and many other books about his garden and house. They have charming illustrations by Rex Whistler. I have read them many times and never tire of them. A few years ago a friend bought me Piet Oudolf’s ‘Landscapes in Landscapes’ which I am constantly dipping into. Happy reading. Maureen

    1. Piet Oudolf is appearing in lots of comments. Currently I only have ‘Hummelo’, which is the follow-up to ‘Landscapes in Landscapes’.

      On Beverley Nichols we are both agreed. I could read ‘Down The Garden Path’ over and over and still laugh out loud. Dan

  4. Haha this could be me! I have had two spine surgeries this Autumn/Winter, I am going stir crazy to be outside (I did manage to get some tulips in), and had a place to start floristry at the Duchy college, Cornwall in September which I had to sadly forego. Never fear, Amazon is here! I duly have a stack like that too (mixed with a few trash novels for good measure), although mine are flower farming themed. And a book on Wabi Sabi, as there’s nothing better than perfectly imperfect 😉 PS snow is forecast – maybe enforced reading is on the cards.

    1. I wish, but these days everything I can do at work I can pretty much do at home thanks to the wonders of technology. So I would not get away with that 🙁 The train has just pulled in to Sittinbourne, Kent, where it is snowing, but in Broadstairs we just had hail and cold rain.

      It sounds like you’ve had a pretty tough autumn and winter. I hope you are on the mend and will be able to get back out into the garden come spring? In the meantime, enjoy reading!

  5. Any fiction or testimonies that include descriptions of gardens, and/or vegetation that can only be imagined (which is pretty much anything floral or green at this time of year in Ontario, Canada) including, “The Summer Before the War,” and your blog 🙂

  6. Nice blog today as I to enjoy books on gardening, My number one book of your list would be Roy Lancaster’s book on his life. Enjoy your winter reading.

  7. I’ve been trying to get some good reading in this winter as well. At the moment I’m in the middle of Square Foot Gardening, as well as picking through a PDF version of the third edition of The Vegetable Garden by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux. Happy reading!

    1. Thank you! The kitchen garden section of my library is the least well developed, probably because I don’t grow a lot of fruit and veg. Thank you for bringing square foot gardening to my attention as I had not heard of this before. Since I have a small plot it is probably very relevant. Dan

      1. You’re very welcome! Hope you find it useful. My entire garden is in containers, so anything I can do to grow more in less space is very appealing. It is a very no-fuss method, which makes me think I may try to use it even once I have an in-ground garden. God bless!

  8. This post was the antidote to stripping down a hedge trimmer and servicing a lawnmower this afternoon! By the bedside: Flora Britanica, RHS Propagating Plants, and Dream Plants for the Natural Garden (current fave); on the floor of the spare room:piles of reference books; in the shed: everything else. I need a library.

    1. I can heartily recommend a library. It’s a luxury, but a worthy one. Jane also mentions the Piet Oudolf book so clearly I am missing out. I wouldn’t mind the other two either.

      Well done you for getting ahead of the game and sorting your equipment out … as it were 😉 Dan

  9. A wonderful selection of books! (not one novel). My favourite is Piet Ouldolf’s ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’. And lots of novels.

    1. No, no novels Jane. Where would I find the time? I tend to save novels for beach holidays, which are also scarce these days! Never mind. I don’t think I have that particular Piet Oudolf book. It’s now on my list. You’re not helping 🤓

  10. I am relieved to hear you describe your condition. One I share. I too have a house (big old farmhouse that always needs something), a very large yard and gardens, chickens, outbuildings. I also have a demanding job that takes up all kinds of time (since that takes priority, it seems to get most of my energy too). I have a million interests, and several plant collections (potted). Books. Love, them, I buy them, I shelve them or stack them but do I ever get to read them? I am currently working my way through a year’s stack of Gardens Illustrated issues that I didnt’ have time to read when they arrived. But I also bought 3 books last week that I will probably never read. It is fun to dust them once in a while and find things I forgot I had.

    1. You’ve made me feel a whole lot better Dean. I am worse with magazines. I keep them imagining that one day I will read them, then they go out into the garage. A long, heathy retirement is what I need. Still, better to be busy and interested in stuff than lazy and bored. Dan

  11. Yes too many books and so little time also a huge backlog of unread gardening magazines! By the way don’t go to the bookshop at Wisley if you want to cure your bibliophila it is just too tempting!

  12. Ah books. I was lucky to experience a super bloom in the desert a few years ago at the Mojave desert in Nevada it was mind blowing. Vegas was not for me but the hinterland surrounding Vegas makes you feel like your in a John Wayne film. You see tumbleweeds, roadrunners, and wild horses. (donkey’s)

    1. A super bloom! Is that the actual name for it. Not a bloom bomb?

      I am 99% sure I would hate Las Vegas. It’s at the bottom of my list of places to see before I die, along with Dubai. Too manufactured for me. I like a bit of natural beauty.

  13. Book acquisition. Yes. Garden reading in ‘winter’ (it was 23 c here today) involves your blog, a delight. But among the pile that has collected, ‘A grammar of spice’ is gorgeous, and replete with so many insights, including how they grow and the history of the spices we use. Andrea Wulf’s ‘The invention of nature’ rebukes me from the pile that always accumulates. ‘Nature and Cities’ , a gem on bringing natural systems back into our infrastructure thinking and built environment is occupying any leisurely morning coffee sessions.

    1. What an excellent list Margaret. I fear my innocent question is going to result in an elongated wish list! All those titles sound like they need to be read properly though. I enjoyed Andrea Wulf’s Brother Gardeners before Christmas so I am sure I’d like her other books too.

      Enjoy those balmy temperatures!

  14. Ahhh yes… another exciting book I just must have…and add to the piles that keep getting higher and higher around my chair…along with diggers catalogues, and all the other subscriptions to gardening mags…..alas no magnificent library to ‘merchandise’ my purchases…. I still love buying them though. I have a number of Paul Bangay books, very un-Australian as he is inspired by the symmetry of French gardens but the pictures are so beautiful and inspiring…Dan the library looks so beautiful and the book presentation is so lovely and gives you joy so who cares if you don’t read them cover to cover….xxx by the way I pack garden mags and cats to read every trip and they don’t surface from my bag..another failing on my behalf…🤫☹️

  15. You have loads of book on your shelves that I haven’t read. I am looking away now!! And, forget about the books, the ceramic fox and hare are gorgeous – where did you get those, if you don’t mind me asking? The most recent gardening/plant book I read was Jinny Blom’s ‘The Thoughtful Gardener’ – beautiful plant combos and interesting to read her approach to design.

    1. Right, well, the hare is by Jenny Winstanley who is a Suffolk potter famous for cats and dogs mainly. Purchased in Broadstairs from a collectibles shop. I love it. Not the cats so much. The fox vase is by Quail. They have an enormous range. Sold in at least one shop in Deal, one in Broadstairs and at Liberty. They do a brilliant Zebra. I have the Jinny Blom book, also not read properly 😱

      1. Thank you, Dan. A friend of mine does Quail’s photography – she gave me a wall-mounted ceramic hare’s head a couple of years ago! I’ve seen their stuff in Deal but not noticed such a fine fox before. I have shelf envy 🙂

  16. Loved all your book choices Dan! I am a bit shy to write that a beloved book on my shelves is now 25 yrs old : The Garden At Ashtree Cottage by Wendy Lauderdale. I fell in love with this beautiful book & the amazing story of the challenge accepted by the Lauderdale’s to transform a National Trust property & garden from a derelict, barren situation to a spectacular & enchanting home & garden. The photos show the garden in each of the annual seasons of life in it, & I’m still inspired after all this time!

    1. Don’t be shy Kathleen. On your recommendation I’ve looked it up and have it sitting in my Amazon basket already! If The Garden at Ashtree Cottage has kept your interest for 25 years it must be very special.

  17. Oh, that’s great, I hope you enjoy the book Dan. I no longer buy novels, except e-pubs to read on my Kobo, so now my bookshelves have tons of room for beautiful gardening books. Your recent list was inspiring to me & so easy to jump right to ordering online! I have recently started a collection of books on orchids & bromeliads.

    1. Great. I have some airplants, so I found a slim RHS book online which has helped me with those, and on Saturday, funnily enough, I picked up an orchid encyclopaedia. Book collecting is highly addictive, but it does not need to be expensive, which is one good thing.

  18. Welcome to the club, then – as everyone above seems a member, too 🙂 . Which list would you like to have: the ones I bought recently – or the ones I’ve actually read? 😉 Have to admit I’ve developed a nasty habit of starting to read a book for one or two evenings and then abandoning it for the next. There are simply too many fascinating books around!
    I did lately read and loved Beth Chatto’s “Shade Garden” & Christopher Lloyd’s “Meadows” – both republished last year – as well as James Hitchmough’s “Sowing Beauty” to go with the latter. I also loved Roy Lancaster’s autobiography – if you want to read my review, you’ll find it here: http://www.lifeinplants.com/life-in-plants/plant-hunting-hero-roy-lancasters-autobiography but feel free to remove the link if you consider this too cheeky – as well as Monty Don’s “Roots”. Latest purchase is Penelope Lively’s “Life in the Garden”. But the book that perhaps stuck with me most in recent months is “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams (and yes, I wrote a review on that one, too 🙂 ). Cutting edge scientific research into how nature affects humans.
    Loved your artful library arrangements – no chance of that at mine – and to thus glimpse an even wider selection of tempting titles… 😉

    1. Hi Stefanie. I keep meaning to photograph every shelf properly so I know what I’ve got and what I haven’t. Its getting to that stage where I am buying books twice now. Oh dear! You have given me even more books to find now. I have a stack of smaller books by my bed and I will read Monty Don’s ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ next …. I hope.

      Please feel very free to leave a link in your reply. It’s all good information and appreciated. I shall read your review when I get a spare moment. Even my train time is booked up this week 🙁

      1. I use that method (photographing shelves) in the gardening book section of bookshops – for when one day I win the lottery 😉 . No joke, I am that mad. For my own books, I have an Excel sheet with title, name, publisher and year which I update ever so often. It helps keep track, especially because you can easily search by author or subject matter (assuming the title gives the right clue) but it hasn’t prevented me from buying the odd book twice, either… Maybe we should swap lists of “doubles”??

        Hope some of that booked-up time at least is booked for something truly enjoyable!

  19. Hi Dan – You probably already own Lanning Roper and His Gardens by Jane Brown. If not it is a beautiful read and a book that I always go back to each winter when unable to physically garden.

    1. I am going to have to double check that one Kathryn. I don’t think so. On your recommendation I have added a copy to my Amazon basket. At 81 pence it won’t break the piggy bank. It’s a pity Amazon don’t sell time as well. I could do with a basket load of that!

  20. 100 gardens you must see before you die – RAE SpencerJones and The Origin of Plants by Maggie Campbell-Culver are two books 📚 on my shelf. Love the idea of placing ‘non-book items’ amongst the books. The hare is delightful.

  21. So many books, too little time. A common problem for busy people. Piet Oudolf is one of my favourites however as others have mentioned him above I shall share these three: instead: Dear Friend & Gardener, Letters on Life and Gardening ,Beth Chatto & Christopher Lloyd. An insightful look into the lives and writings of two of the most incredible gardeners and writers. Their tips ideas and opinions are useful and sometimes amusing. Worth a read.
    Cuttings A year in the Garden with Christopher Lloyd. Set out month by month, these are some of the most useful tips and thoughts taken from his column in The Guardian. This is a book I refer to from time to time as it acts as a reminder of what to do, when.
    Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City Dan Pearson. Dan P has a soft, gentle, style in the way he writes and gardens. This book is full of beautiful descriptions backed with mouthwatering photographs.

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