Great big garden coffee table books are a marvelous thing, but I still think I prefer a different genre in my garden library: memoir.
If gardens are as particular as their makers, then every garden has a personal story best told through memoir.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Skymeadow: Notes from an English Gardener (2018): A charming story of one man’s escape from noisy London to make a garden called Peverels. In making a garden, Charlie Hart finds healing for grief and depression.
The Morville Hours (2008): Memoir and history rolled into one, Katherine Swift’s book follows the form of a medieval Book of Hours, as it reflects on one woman’s place through the seasons.
The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden (2007): William Alexander’s memoir is hilarious and honest about the hard work, and frequent setbacks, of gardening. A fun book that will only inspire readers to keep on growing.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007): Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir of a year spent eating only what she and her family can grow themselves or source locally was the book that first made me dream of a vegetable garden. A passionate, informative story that is part memoir, part journalism. This book could change your life (or, at least your diet).
Permaculture. What is it?
You can find complex definitions, descriptions, and guides all over the internet, but here’s a starting place for the general gardener:
Permaculture is garden design that seeks to work with the natural cycles and processes of nature. Its goal is an environment that is rich and abundant and sustainable
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Even if a full permaculture garden feels out of reach, there are so many simple, good ideas we can easily implement in our own spaces.
Here are two resources to inspire you:
A book: Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Ed. An accessible and inspiring read. Learn how to build and maintain soil fertility and structure, catch and conserve water, provide habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and animals, and grow an edible “forest” of seasonal food.
A film: The Biggest Little Farm (2020): A sweet and inspirational documentary. The subject is one couple’s family farm on once-barren land in California, but there’s a lot to inspire home gardeners here. This one might even inspire some of the younger gardeners in your life. A great film for families (though scenes of birth and death might be disturbing for some younger viewers). I was particularly taken with their story of how they brought dead soil back to life.
A high-quality seed or plant catalog can be as helpful as a gardening textbook. The best catalogs aren’t simply trying to sell, they’re hoping to educate.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few of my favorite mail-order sources. I’ve noted those that do an especially good job of educating their readers:
- Rare Find Nursery: This New Jersey nursery is an especially good source for a wide variety of azaleas and rhododendrons. Their growing tips are so clear and helpful, they might encourage some gardeners NOT to buy. It seems clear to me that Rare Find only wants to sell you a special plant if you have the right place for it and some knowledge of how to care for it. I discovered them when I was looking for a source for winterberry shrubs with more unusual gold and salmon-colored berries.
- B&D Lilies: Apparently, Tasha Tudor bought her lily bulbs here. Enough said.
- Seed Savers Exchange: I’ve mentioned this organization and their special catalog in many places over the years. Wonderful heirloom varieties, including their fascinating histories. I have enjoyed seeing more heirloom flowers in this catalog in recent years. Also a helpful resource for learning about seed saving: both why and how to do it.
- Brent and Becky’s Bulbs: They sell more than bulbs, but this family-owned business in Virginia is one of the best sources for quality daffodils, tulips, and other spring-flowering bulbs.
- Park Seed: I always seem to buy at least a few seed packets from this company every year. Simply put, they seem to carry the particular flower and vegetable varieties I want. When I can’t find exactly what I want anywhere else, I’m usually satisfied here.
- Bower&Branch: Gorgeous, inspiring website and catalogs. Innovative sales model. I scroll their tree listings just for fun. Each one tells the story of a tree and makes me long to find room for it around my home.
- Pinetree Garden Seeds: Great selection and amazing prices. Don’t miss this one if you are trying to grow more food or flowers for less.
I am a book lover and a garden lover, so it is perhaps no surprise that my garden library has kept pace with my growing garden.
Here are a few of the books I most appreciated in the early years of my gardening:
- The Garden Primer, by Barbara Damrosch: Once, I read this book to learn about the kinds of plants I might want to grow. Now, I refer back to it when I need reminders like how shallow to plant a bare-root peony.
- The New Victory Garden by Bob Thomson: I picked this one up years and years ago at the home of my in-laws. In many ways it is out of date (even then I knew that I didn’t want to use the chemical fertilizers Bob recommends), but his enthusiasm for every kind of vegetable was so inspiring. I thumbed through this book so many times, my in-laws finally gave it to me.
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver: This one is more memoir than how-to, and I found it enormously inspiring. Kingsolver is an incredible writer, and her personal stories are compelling and educational.
As my experience with plants has increased, I find myself seeking out books that are less plant-focused and more design-focused. I’m beginning to learn what so many have learned before me: it’s one thing to know how to grow a beautiful flower, but it’s another task entirely to cultivate a beautiful garden. Here are a few I’ve recently appreciated:
- The Artful Garden by James van Sweden: I feel sure that I would not have appreciated this book in my early years as a gardener. Back then I simply wanted to learn about plants and how to grow them. Van Sweden’s book is a call to integrate our appreciation for one art (say, painting or sculpture or music) into our garden design. I am only a very new designer, but I appreciate this reminder to pay attention to my own creativity and find inspiration in all the arts.
- Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf: I’m a big admirer of Oudolf’s naturalistic garden designs (like the Lurie in Chicago and the High Line in New York City) and found this book very helpful for considering how I might bring some of that naturalistic style to my own space.