Recommended Reading

Despite the rise and rise of the Internet and e-readers, garden lovers still have an insatiable appetite for physical books. Perhaps it’s because gardening is essentially a low-tech pursuit, and so we prefer to receive words of wisdom ‘off line’? Or maybe it’s because we recognise a thing of beauty when we see it? Perhaps we just don’t want to get our Kindles and iPads clogged with compost in the potting shed?

For quick reference I often defer to online sources, but when in need of accurate, in-depth or insightful commentary I’ll always turn to a good book by a knowledgeable author. And then there are the pictures. In recent years photographers such as Marianne Majerus, Andrew Lawson, Clive Nichols, Val Cobbin and Jonathan Buckley have turned garden photography into a high art. Books, not screens, provide a fitting showcase for their craft.

'Layered Landscape: a moment captured' Marianne Majerus
‘Layered Landscape: a moment captured’ Marianne Majerus
As I build my modest book collection into a fully-fledged library, I will be adding new recommendations to this page regularly, restricting myself to a maximum of five titles per category. Where I have written a full review of a book, I have provided a link to take you straight to it. Some of my recommendations are not currently in print, for which I make no apology. Through second hand bookshops and online sellers it should be relatively easy to track these older publications down. It’s a fun and fulfilling pursuit which often turns up other little gems. Older books offer an insight into language (occasionally hilariously pompous) and points of horticultural detail which are rapidly being forgotten.

I have awarded each title a star rating. This indicates not the quality of the book, as all are excellent, but how important I consider it as part of a compact book collection. Those with 5 stars are my ‘desert island’ books; those I’d be lost without. They have guided my thinking and habits as a gardener, as well as enhancing my knowledge, and I would recommend them to you without hesitation. Those with three or four stars are gems that most gardeners would value and learn from. Any books with one or two stars (and I don’t intend to include many) are, like a Hollywood starlet, gorgeous to look at but very much of the moment. They may not stand the test of time, but shine brightly for the present.

My library and this list are both works in progress. I’d love to about books you think I should add to my collection in due course as well as those you find invaluable. Use the quick links below to jump to the category you are interested in. Happy Reading!

  1. General Plant Reference
  2. Specialist Plant Reference
  3. How to Garden
  4. Coastal Gardening
  5. Gardening with Exotics
  6. Greenhouse Gardening
  7. Garden History
  8. Garden and Flower Photography
  9. Our Environment
  10. Plant Hunting and Collecting
  11. Garden Design
  12. Planting Design
  13. The Productive Garden
  14. Gardens to Visit
  15. For the Coffee Table
  16. Bedtime Reading

General Plant Reference

RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers

At least one encyclopaedia of garden plants is essential in any gardener’s book collection. When you find one that suits you, buy two copies: one to keep in the potting shed and one for indoors.

  1. The Botanical Garden Volumes I and II (2002) **** Martyn Rix and Roger Phillips. Lavishly illustrated with clear, sharp photographs these beautiful books, ten years in the making, cover all the major plant groups in evolutionary order. Volume I is devoted to Trees and Shrubs, Volume II to Annuals and Perennials. Perfect for help confirming the identity of common garden plants.
  2. Botanica: The Illustrated A-Z of Over 10,000 Garden Plants and How to Cultivate Them (1999) ***** Various Contributors. For the last 15 years this book has been my bible. The A-Z of garden plants is undeniably comprehensive, written in an informative yet approachable style, but cultivation notes are only attributed to the select few. Naturally, as new garden varieties are introduced and botanical nomenclature is updated this book will become increasingly outdated, but I still wouldn’t be without it.
  3. RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers (2010) *** Christopher Brickell. Most keen gardeners will have a copy of this book, which has been revised regularly over the years and is rarely on sale for as much as its cover price. For many amateur gardeners it represents the gold standard of plant encyclopedias, but, as someone with botanical leanings, I find the organisation of the plant catalogue by height, colour, growth habit, season of interest etc. seriously unhelpful. Very tender / tropical plants are mixed in with hardy plants which I find misleading. Skip to the dictionary at the back for plants in alphabetical order, but don’t expect photos. Could be so much better, but still a sound reference book.

 

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Specialist Plant Reference

The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias, Andy Vernon, Timber PressOnce you’ve developed an interest in a specific plant group, it is highly likely to develop into a passion. Specialist plant reference books are generally written by authors with a deep love of their subject and a wealth of expertise to share. Occasionally a little heavy going, but essential if you want to acquaint yourself further with your favoured flowers.

  1. The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias (2014) *** Andy Vernon. When a writer knows their subject and chooses to write about it, the reader can sense it immediately. Not only is Andy Vernon a dahlia aficionado, but also an enthusiast. The Plant Lover’s guide to one of Central and South Amercia’s most fabulous flowers romps along like an Andrex puppy. It’s impossible not to fall in love with either the book or the flower.
  2. Garden Plants for Connoisseurs (1987) **** Roy Lancaster. This book may be almost 30 years old but has stood the test of time. Roy Lancaster sets out to introduce gardeners to a range of less pedestrian garden plants, some of which, Euphorbia mellifera and Hydrangea quercifolia for example, are now commonplace, but many remain relatively unknown. My copy is ex-Cornwall County Library. Worth tracking down.
  3. A Gardener’s Guide to Snowdrops (2013) *** Freda Cox. With snowdrop bulbs starting to sell for ridiculous sums, one could draw parallels with the Tulip mania that gripped The Netherlands in the early 17th Century. A botanical artist, Freda Cox explains the allure of these delicate spring bulbs and attempts the impossible in compiling a comprehensive directory of garden cultivars, each deftly accompanied by a clear illustration.

 

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How to Garden

RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening, Cover

Even the most experienced gardener needs to consult a reference book for guidance once in a while.

 

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Coastal Gardening

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens, Isles of Scilly
Good guides to gardening by the sea are rarer than hens’ teeth, which is crazy given the popularity of living by the coast. Many UK seaside gardens resort to a stereotypical palette of hebes, hydrangeas, cordylines, agapanthus and osteospermums, which is a pity given there are so many possibilities.

  1. Tresco Abbey Garden, A Personal and Pictoral History (2006) *** Mike Nelhams. Few of us can aspire to create a seaside garden on the scale of Tresco Abbey and even fewer have the requisite sub-tropical conditions. However, adventurous gardeners will learn a lot from Mike Nelhams’ account of steering Britain’s most southwesterly garden through fair weather and foul. Those with very mild gardens will find Tresco’s plant lists a source of inspiration.
  2. Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach (2004) *** Heidi Gildemeister. Ostensibly a guide to gardening in warmer climes than the UK, this book is still useful for anyone gardening on a well drained site in the south or west. Heidi lists over 1000 drought tolerant plants, few of which would prove too tender for an English coastal garden.

 

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Gardening with Exotics

Architectural Plants, Christine Shaw

If, like me, you are passionate about growing tender and exotic plants then there are many excellent books available, written by like-minded people.

  1. Architectural Plants (2005) ***** Christine Shaw. Here’s a book I could not live without. My own garden has always had an exotic bent and many of the plants in it were supplied by the nursery near Horsham which inspired and informed this brilliant book. Christine’s descriptions of the best architectural plants for the UK climate are both frank and funny. A good read.
  2. Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners (2007) ***** Christopher Lloyd and friends, photographed by Jonathan Buckley. If I didn’t know better, I might imagine that Christopher Lloyd had started this, his final book, with me firmly in mind as his target audience. As close to a perfect reference for an exotic gardener in the UK as you could hope for, Christopher’s unique way with words is complemented by other gardening greats such as Mary Keen, Roy Lancaster, Helen Dillon and Anna Pavord, who completed the book after his death. A rare jewel.

 

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Greenhouse Gardening

RHS Growing under Glass, Christopher Brickell

  1. The Greenhouse Expert (2011, revised 2015) *** Dr. D.G. Hessayon. It’s a pity that Expert Books have chosen to stick with the dated fonts, layouts and photographs of earlier Expert books for this more recent publication. If you can overlook these horrors you should find everything you need within the covers to get you started in the greenhouse, and it’s cheap too.
  2. RHS Growing Under Glass (1999) **** Kenneth A. Beckett. Better than the Expert book, in my opinion, this straightforward guide covers all the key techniques for cultivating plants in cold, cool and warm greenhouses. Text heavy with illustrations rather than photos, but could not be clearer.

 

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Garden History

  1. Heligan: A Portrait of the Lost Gardens (2004) *** Tom Petherick, photography by Melanie Eclare. The tale of the resurrection of the gardens at Heligan, Cornwall, has been told time and time again. It’s a story one could never tire of. I have been watching the remarkable transformation of these gardens, no longer lost, since they were discovered in 1990 and I visited as a student. This lushly illustrated book tells the tale as well any.
  2. More recommendations coming soon.

 

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Garden and Flower Photography

Encyclopedia of Flowers

  1. Encyclopaedia of Flowers (2012) **** Makoto Azuma, photography by Shunsuke Shiinoki. Books do not get any sexier than this, in fact I’d go as far as to say the Encyclopaedia of Flowers is better than sex. This divine book of flower photography almost defies description, but do not expect an encyclopaedia in the conventional sense. Haute florist Makoto Azuma creates incredible montages of flower and foliage – sometimes dark and moody, other times bright and saturated – which are then photographed by Shunsuke Shiinoki. A key at the back of the 500 page volume provides the botanical names of duo’s subjects. The Encyclopaedia of Flowers is guaranteed to change your view on flowers and how they associate with one another forever.
  2. Painterly Plants (2012) ** Clare Foster and Sabina Ruber. I could sit and admire flowers for an eternity, but to do so through someone else’s eyes is a treat.
  3. The Art of Flower and Garden Photography (2007) *** Clive Nichols. Candid and uncomplicated guide to flower and garden photography written and illustrated by an award winning photographer. Useful section on digital manipulation.

 

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Our Environment

  1. A Fragile Paradise, Nature and Man in the Pacific (1989) ***** Andrew Mitchell I believe it’s encumbent on all gardeners to understand something of man’s impact on the environment. Only then can we properly make informed choices about how we wish to cultivate plants. This book, an alarming assessment of man’s impact on remote Pacific Islands, was my first wake-up call, leading me to write my university dissertation about new, ecological principles of garden design coming out of Germany in the early 1990s. More alarming, twenty six years on, is that little seems to have changed since Andrew Mitchell penned this brilliant book.
  2. More recommendations coming soon.

 

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Plant Hunting and Collecting

The Weeping Goldsmith, Discoveries in the Secret Land of Myanmar, John KressTales of plant hunters and collectors from history up to the modern day have fascinated me since I was a little boy. If I could start my life all over again a plant hunter’s what I’d be. Perhaps there’s time yet!

  1. The Collector’s Garden (2004) *** Ken Druse. If, like me, you have a serious addiction to buying plants then this book will prove you are not alone. Ken Druse is one of ‘us’, a plantaholic, a plant nut with a gift for writing about his obsession. He begins his book:  “If it’s rare we want it. If it’s tiny and impossible to grow, we’ve got to have it. If it’s brown, looks dead, and has black flowers, we’ll kill for it. We’re collectors and little will stand in the way of bagging our quarry. We are driven by a must-have passion that singles us out from other gardeners.” If this describes you, Ken’s accounts of our kinfolk will only serve to fuel your personal passion.
  2. The Weeping Goldsmith: Discoveries in the Secret Land of Myanmar (2009) *** W. John Kress. When we visited Myanmar (Burma) one of the first flowers to capture my imagination (and defy my powers of identification) was the weeping goldsmith (padeign gno in Burmese, Globba magnifica in latin). Legend has it that this delicate white and saffron-coloured flower, a member of the ginger family, is so called because a goldsmith was reduced to tears by his inability to reproduce the flowers, despite all his tools, skills and experience. In this book W. John Kress, a doctor at the Smithsonian, catalogues nine years of botanising in policically repressive and socially stifled Myanmar. Fascinating.
  3. The Plant Hunters (1998) **** Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardner, Will Musgrave. Were it not for the endeavours of plant hunters such as Frank Kingdon-Ward, Robert Fortune and George Forrest, Britain’s gardens may not enjoy the reputation they have today. These intrepid fellows, funded by wealthy benefactors, journeyed through remote and unforgiving territories in search of the new, conferring prestige on their employers and bringing wealth to the British Empire. A great introduction to these fascinating historical characters.

 

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Garden Design

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  1. Bold Romantic Gardens, The New World Landscapes of Oehme and van Sweden (1991) ***** Wolfgang Oehme, James van Sweden and Susan Rademacher Frey. This book, which set me back a pretty penny when I was a student in 1993, shaped my early thoughts and ideals about landscape design and still does today. Quite why we never heard more about the work of this dynamic duo (sadly no longer with us) I’ll never know. The pair are credited with developing the ‘New American Garden’ style and their firm, which lives on, was recently awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects’ 2014 Landscape Architecture Firm Award, recognising a “distinguished body of work that influences the professional practice of landscape architecture.” This rather bland-sounding accolade doesn’t do justice to two garden design innovators who were at least 10 years ahead of their time.
  2. Garden Design: A Book of Ideas (2015) *** Heidi Howcroft and Marianne Majerus. I confess to being particularly biased about this book, as it features my own seaside garden not once, but twice. As a source book for garden ideas and a collection of some of the most accomplished garden photography, it’s an inspiration.
  3. Connected, The Sustainable Landscapes of Phillip Johnson **** Phillip Johnson. The author came to prominence in the UK in 2013 after his Chelsea show garden, designed for nurserymen Flemings, won ‘Best in Show’. Through insightful commentary and lushious photography this book deftly illustrates more of Phillip Johnson’s gardens, including his own. ‘Connected’ will make you want to emigrate to Australia, build a billabong, plant a tree fern and live happily ever after in harmony with nature.

 

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Planting Design

365 Days of Colour in Your Garden, Nick Bailey

  1. 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden (2015) *** Nick Bailey. Every gardener strives to make their garden as interesting and colourful as possible. In this beautifully illustrated book the author provides detailed descriptions of plants organised by their main season of interest.
  2. Colour for Adventurous Gardeners (2004) **** Christopher Lloyd. The late, great Christopher Lloyd was all about understanding the rules of gardening and then breaking them. In this book the author encourages brave gardeners to shake things up a little, disrupting ‘polite’ colours and introducing a touch of delicious rebellion to their planting schemes. Brilliant.

 

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The Productive Garden

Creative Vegetable Gardening, Joy Larkcom

  1. Creative Vegetable Gardening (2004) **** Joy Larkcom. The definitive book for gardeners who want their vegetable patch to be beautiful as well as productive. Joy Larkcom dismisses the notions that any garden is too small to be productive and that vegetables should be hidden from view.
  2. More recommendations coming soon.

 

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Gardens to Visit

NGS GARDENS TO VISIT 2016, FRONT COVER

  1. NGS (National Gardens Scheme) Gardens to Visit (annual) *****. Fondly known as ‘The Yellow Book’, this paperback is published annually in February, announcing the opening of thousands of private gardens around the country. Indispensible.
  2. The Gardener’s Garden (2014) **** Madison Cox. Billing itself as “the ultimate book on the world’s outstanding gardens” this tangerine coloured tome with its beautifully tooled front cover comes mighty close to matching its own hype. Travel the world from your armchair through the gardens of Australia, Africa, America, Asia and Europe, absorbing the sumptuous images which crowd every millimetre of every page. A little more white space might have made this book feel more luxurious, but otherwise it’s hard to fault.

 

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For the Coffee Table

The Green Florilegium, Hanne Kolind PoulsenBooks for browsing when we have time for a coffee or glass or wine are a luxury, but make great gift ideas for our families and friends.

  1. The Green Florilegium (2013) *** Hanne Kolind Poulsen. The original Green Florilegium, now in the care of the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, is neither signed nor dated. However it’s believed to have been painted in the 17th Century by a German artist named Hans Simon Holtzbecker. In this century the book has been painstakingly restored so that the original colours and details shine off the pages once again. The Green Florilegium reproduces Holtzbecker’s entire catalogue of 400 beautiful illustrations in its entirety. This is an expensive book, but one doesn’t expect to buy diamonds for coals.

 

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Bedtime Reading

The Moth Snowstorm, Nature and JoyLike most gardeners, by the time it gets to bedtime I am ready to sleep. However, just occasionally I’ll sneek up to bed a little early to enjoy a little light-hearted literature before visiting the land of nod.

  1. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (2000) **** Susan Orlean. In this book, which I last read some years ago, the author tells the story of John Laroche, a charismatic schemer once convicted of attempting to take endangered orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp in Florida. Laroche dreams of making a fortune for the himself and a local tribe by cloning the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii. Better than fiction.
  2. Dear Friend And Gardener: Letters On Life And Gardening (1998) **** by Beth Chatto & Christopher Lloyd. This book catalogues a long exchange of letters between two of my gardening heroes, the late Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto. Their affection for one another, as well as their ideas and knowledge, shines through. Easily put down at the end of one letter, ready to be started again at the beginning of the next. A new edition in 2013 includes illustrations and an introduction by Fergus Garrett.
  3. Uncommon Ground: A Word Lover’s Guide to the British Landcape (2015) ** Dominick Tyler. This is one of the many purchases I’ve made whilst waiting for Him Indoors to finish browsing one National Trust shop or another. It’s a lovely, chunky, square format furnished by the author with his own evocative photographs. On each double page spread Dominick Tyler describes a word used to describe a landscape feature in a particular part of the British Isles. In the West Country we learn about Zawns, Tolmens and Logans. In the Lakes and Dales we discover the nature of Epilimnion, Doake and Ginny Greenteeth. A great gift for any lover of the great outdoors.
  4. The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (2015) **** Michael McCarthy. I have yet to finish reading this book, but can already recommend it. McCarthy suggests that instead of trying to put a financial value on the natural world, we should measure its worth by the amount of joy it brings us. A new and fascinating way of looking at the landscapes and wildlife that surround us.

 

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