While rearranging my bookcases the other day, it became increasingly clear that I have too many books on gardens and gardening. They’re all lovely and probably useful too, but I consult very few of them. There are maybe 20 books on herbs, testaments to the time when I was trying desperately to cultivate a garden of medieval herbs (primarily plague cures) in a plot that wasn’t particularly suitable. I made a pile of garden design books, whose advice I have completely ignored. And then there are the lavish “gardens of the rich and famous” books, most of which I received as gifts. These are beautiful but not really inspirational (rather the reverse). My favorite garden books were not even in a bookcase; they were piled by (or under) my bed, or on my desk, places where I can frequently access them. And here they are, in no particular order, with brief descriptions of why I like them so much. Please send recommendations! It looks like I’m going to purge my bookcases so I’ll have more space.
Penelope Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History. I have several of Penelope Hobhouse’s books but I like this one the best. The operative words in the title are “plants” and “history”, two things I like very much. As you can see from the subtitle, the thesis of the book is the influence of plants on garden design through the ages, and the illustrations are really amazing. A perfect book to leaf through casually, or with purpose.
Betsy G. Fryberger, The Changing Garden. Four Centuries of European and American Art. This book is more art history than garden history, but it’s still really beautiful, and instructive in its own (not practical) way.
Charles Quest-Ritson, The English Garden. A Social History. Like Fryberger’s book, this book uses plants and gardens as means to engage in a broader cultural history. This is an illustrated social history of English gardeners from 1500 to the present.
Alice Morse Earle, Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth. A big leap from the academic to the romantic. Massachusetts-born Alice Morse Earle was one of the major purveyors of “colonial” culture at the turn of the last century. She published books on ye olde everything: houses, clothing, pastimes, punishments, and gardens. First published in 1901, Old Time Gardens seems to have been continually in print in the first half of the twentieth century. My copy is a first edition, with a beautiful Arts & Crafts cover and several illustrations of “old Salem” gardens. I read it more for its charm than its accuracy.
Karan Davis Cutler, The New England Gardener’s Book of Lists. Another big leap, towards the purely practical. As the title informs, this book is nothing but lists, of plants for shade, sun, different soil conditions, etc…made by professional and amateur gardeners and nursery people. This book is New England-focused, but I’m sure there must be equivalents for other regions. I find this book so useful that, rather than leaving it by my bed or on my desk, I leave it in my car.
The Salem Garden Club, Old Salem Gardens, first published in 1946. This pamphlet was written by Mrs. Mable C.H. Pollack, who was no dilettante. She did a lot of research (more than Earle, I think) and the end result is a pretty substantive little book, better than your standard-issue garden club guide (although I have to admit that I’m a bit biased). Sometimes I carry it with me on walks around town, looking for forgotten gardens.