These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Reading Gardening Books in a Blizzard)

Mar 15, 2017

The view from my window is more January than March, thanks to a late-season blizzard.

The worst of the storm hit north and west of us, but we still have more snow, and colder temperatures, than we’ve seen all winter. Yet more snow is driving hard past my window, but the wind is scouring our driveway clean. I am glad since Tuesday’s heavy, wet snowfall damaged the snowplow we attach to our tractor mower. Of course, I write “we” in the most generous sense because my contribution to clearing snow is keeping the children out of their father’s way.

It’s a strange day to browse my favorite gardening books, but this is the middle of March, and I must keep faith with the angle of the sun, no matter the peculiarities of the weather.



The literary letters Elizabeth and I have recently exchanged here on the blog have had me giving a great deal of thought to the epistolary genre. As a form of artistic creation, it is centuries old, though today’s epistolary novels are perhaps more likely to include email transcripts than handwritten letters.

It is not a form you tend to see in garden writing, but exploring the form these past few weeks has reminded me of the quality I most appreciate in my favorite gardening books: that is, the singular human voice writing from a particular time and place.

My preferred gardening books are written by gardeners who love their own plot of earth and know it well. It is tempting to think their advice might be of only local importance. The needs of my own garden will be very different from a garden with rocky New England soil near the salt-air of the ocean. Yet I find precisely the opposite to be true. This may be one more case of greater love leading to greater wisdom.

Here are a few of my favorite garden books, just in time for spring. These are not exhaustive and impersonal garden reference books. These are more like letters from a gardener, or better yet, missives from a particular plot of cultivated earth. I hope they inspire you to better love the ground beneath your own feet.

    • Henry Mitchell is one of my favorite garden writers. Usually he makes me laugh out loud, but he often surprises me with eloquence and emotional insight. For many years he wrote a garden column for The Washington Post, and it is these columns that make up collections like The Essential Earthman and One Man’s GardenHis style, geared toward local Washington D.C. newspaper readers, probably comes the closest to the intimacy of the epistolary form.

    • Tara Austen Weaver’s memoir Orchard House is a perfect example of why I prefer the personal rather than the encyclopedic approach to garden reading. I am easily overwhelmed by lists of plant varieties, but when Weaver praises a particular variety of homegrown strawberry, I find that I want to plant and taste nothing else. This is a lovely memoir of growing a garden and healing a family.

    • If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s approach to food writing, you will love his gardening book: Second Nature: A Gardener’s EducationIt is another well-researched book filtered through Pollan’s everyman voice and his particular gardening adventures. Flipping through my tattered old copy, I’ve decided it’s time for me to reread it.

    • I do not recommend Katharine S. White’s book Onward and Upward in the Garden to many people. If yours is only a casual interest in garden writing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you are at all intrigued by the idea of an experienced gardener and knowledgeable writer examining seed and plant catalogs as a reviewer would study a just-released novel, then you might enjoy this book as much as I do. Here is another enticement: Katharine was the wife of E.B. White, and her descriptions of their Maine garden helped me to see Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan in a fresh light.

    • The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy leans more toward the encyclopedic, but this astonishing account of the importance of native landscaping for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet is told through from the perspectives of scientists making important observations in their very own gardens. I used to think that native plants were a nice extra, but Darke and Tallamy have transformed my thinking. This may be one of the most important garden books you read.

    • If you love keeping fresh flowers in your home, I highly recommend the beautiful just-released book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein. This book is practical, gorgeous, and inspiring.

I’d love to know: do you read garden books?

And if you’d like to read a little more from me, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “Sunlight, Shadows, and a Supper Club.”




  1. cabinart

    Christie, I love reading the Mrs. Greenthumbs books. She is so weird and funny and helpful. Her real name is Cassandra Danz.

    • Christie Purifoy

      Can’t believe I’ve never heard of Mrs. Greenthumbs! Thank you so much for the recommendation.

  2. kelly hicks

    Thank you so much for the recomendations. I was able to put 3 on hold at my library. We are in North Idaho and still surrounded by snow, so looking forward to these reads for inspiration and hope that spring will arrive someday!! So weird to have robins and meadowlarks arrived while it is still white outside, but they do give me hope spring will be here soon.

    • Christie Purifoy

      That’s good news about the birds! I’m sure they know more about it than we do. Spring must be near. Happy reading and garden dreaming!

  3. Judy

    I really loved “Orchard House” Christie, so I’m happy to see it recommended on your list.

    Two books you might enjoy as a gardener – one especially relevant to your post, is an exchange of letters between two gardener/cooks –

    “Dear Friend and Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening.” by Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, which I found in our public library,

    and the other a lovely, old novel, recently reprinted, “Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden.” by Reginald Arknell

    • Christie Purifoy

      Oh, Judy, what delightful recommendations. I know the garden writing of Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, but I had no idea they’d collaborated on an epistolary project. How perfect! And Old Herbaceous I do know. I actually finished it only a few weeks ago – such a lovely book. I am so glad you mentioned it.

  4. Johanne Lamarche

    Hi Christie, Bonnie O”Neil introduced me to your blog. I love reading my garden books during the winter as well. Some of my favorites are The Greater Perfection by Francis Cabot on the making of his garden Les quatres saisons in Québec and a collection of essays: The Writer in the Garden edited by Jane Garmey. As a resource, I turn to The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy Disabato-Aust over and over. I am looking forward to getting lost in Paris in Bloom next. I will look forward to looking up some of your recommendations.

    • Christie Purifoy

      Thank you so much, Johanne! These are excellent suggestions. I, too, often turn to The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. Paris in Bloom looks incredible! I’ve added that one to my wish list, along with The Greater Perfection and The Writer in the Garden. Do you know the book Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden? I found a used copy a few years ago and really enjoyed it.

  5. caallyn

    I usually have at least five books on the go yet no garden books so I will definitely research your offering of books. As we are moving in four months I confess that I have been planning a garden in my head instead of packing. I desire a more holistic type of garden. Vegetables and flowers mixed. Herbs of all types.
    But there is always time for another book.

  6. Candy Gray

    I’ve joined the conversation a little late to thank you for your recommendations and to share a few of my own. “Green Thoughts” by Eleanor Perényi is a classic and a treasure. Others on my shelf include “Bringing a Garden to Life” by Carol Williams, “The 3,000 Mile Garden”, an exchange of letters between Leslie Land and Roger Phillips, and, finally, for a sense of whimsy, “A Blessing of Toads” by Sharon Lovejoy.
    Happy gardening!


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