The annual choosing of garden books to carry me through the winter comes with such promise of pleasure. As girls, my sisters and I would be asked by our mother for a list of books we might like from Santa and we would diligently write down one or two. Without fail, she (Santa) would bestow those and at least one — maybe two? — more. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the additional titles were always based on a loving formula of the interests indicated from our original lists carefully warmed and expanded into larger (still unseen by us) hopes and dreams.
As an adult (avid reader and gardener), I spend plenty of time thumbing through how-to books, pest control and question-and-answer books that remind me of what I might not be doing well (or doing at all), what I don’t have, or of what I should be doing differently. There’s time for humility and righteousness the whole long year.
What I want in my holiday garden books is predicated on my expert gardener mother’s wisdom: I want well-worn books to comfort me, I want fresh, newish books to inspire me in my inquisitive rather than acquisitive gardening hopes, and I want a few big thinking books to dream over.
With that in mind, here are my recommendations for other gardeners this holiday season:
The category of Well-Worn Books to Comfort You is composed mostly of books about people falling in love with gardening through the trials, successes and beauty of their first gardens. For this I highly recommend:
- “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” first published in 1890s, by the famed author of “The Enchanted April,” Elizabeth Von Arnim. Its opening sentence is: “I love my garden.”
- “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” by Michael Pollan, 1992, Delta. A wonderful, funny, thoughtful read – sure to remind you why you love gardening as an intellectual and spiritual endeavor as much as a physical one. The subtitle is a literary reference to another genius book in this same class of gardening books: “The Education of a Gardener” by Russell Page, 1962, Collins Press. (Anything written by Mirabel Osler or Eleanor Perenyi could also be listed in this section.)
- “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold, 1949 Oxford University Press. Hands down one of the best, most moving treatises on gardening with your land and its natural history, rather than in spite of it, ever written.
Books to Inspire Your Inquisitive Gardener:
- “A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm” by Dave Goulson 2014, Picador. Written by a bumble bee researcher and expert, this very human book is intertwined personal journal entries and natural history essays on the lives of various bird, bees and other insects on the farm the retired author is making his home. It reminds us to keep our sense of humor, be present, observe closely and appreciate.
- “Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History,” Bill Laws, 2010, Firefly Press. Heavy tomes thoroughly researching the often dramatic history and cultural importance of individual plants is a whole class of garden books. While I am always interested in them, they can overwhelm me. Bill Laws provides a little more bite-size, fascinating dive into this kind of inquiry, where you can read one entry at a time, not necessarily in order and learn a great deal. From agave and saffron to crab apple and wheat, there are entertaining stories and intriguing trivia. The source of a good plants-person trivial pursuit over holiday tables, perhaps?
Finally, in Books to Savor and Dream Over, I give you:
- “Spirit: Garden Inspiration,” written by the esteemed British landscape designer Dan Pearson, 2014, Fuel Press. I have been a fan of Dan Pearson’s since enjoying one of his early books, “The Garden, A Year at Home Farm,” on one of his early garden endeavors (1990s) at a private garden called Home Farm. This newest of his books tracks his life-long love of plants and places he has helped to cultivate and places from which he has derived personal inspiration on how to create place. Physically this is a gorgeous book to hold and feel in your hands, with evocative and beautiful photography reminding us that the spirit of place is one of the most important elements in our best gardens.
- “The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning,” by Julie Moir Messervy, with photographs by Sam Abell, 1995, Little, Brown and Company. This is a fascinating anatomy of a garden from an emotional and psychological perspective – helping to illuminate how and why certain gardens, and certain garden elements like paths, porches, water features, create different responses in us. Each dissection then allows us to be far more aware and purposeful in the creating of our own spaces. The photographs by award-winning photographer Sam Abell are every bit as beautiful and important to the book as the text.
As we slouch toward the magic of the winter solstice, for me this collection of books represents a handful of visionaries/thinkers/writers/gardeners that ask readers to see beyond our gardens as personal possessions of utility or cache and see them instead as places that encourage us to see ourselves as part of a much larger whole — a whole in which we are crucial contributors rather than just consumers.
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