A Gardener's Library
My favorite garden books, for your winter perusal
We still have about a month left in the growing season here in southern Missouri, but the first few days of autumnal weather have arrived. Even if I had time to do much in the garden, which I don’t, my opportunities are fast passing away. I confess I’m relieved. I am ready for the lighter, more sedentary garden tasks of winter: planning, organizing, ordering, reading.
Seed and nursery catalogs always make good winter reading, but a garden library also makes for a better gardener. Although the internet bursts with garden information and advice (some of it even good), books remain an invaluable source of information, inspiration, comfort, and pleasure.
My garden library begins with the reference works that guide my practice. Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard is the Bible for growing fruit naturally, and I consult it regularly for reminders on what chores I should be doing or guidance on techniques like pruning and spraying. (Unfortunately it’s poorly written and difficult to use, but over time one comes to speak Phillipsese and it becomes more usable.) My other essential reference is Toby Hemenway’s guide to home permaculture, Gaia’s Garden. Though I consult it less often now that I know its materials, its long lists of useful plants and accessible overview of permaculture techniques make it a pivotal work on my shelf.
To these core reference works, I add a series of more specialized volumes that have given me new horticultural ideas or information that can’t be found elsewhere. Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture (which I reviewed) introduces a perspective on gardening in nature’s image that has led me to a variety of exciting techniques like trellising grapes on trees while also providing a pragmatic sensibility toward gardening that has made my life easier and my garden more interesting. Similarly, Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener offers a guide to how to shape one’s garden so that it remains usable and productive even during hard times—the sort of hard times we all go through, of illness or stress or distraction—while also providing invaluable technical information on the crops she prefers.
Other works I find invaluable provide information on obscure plants that I like to grow. Finding information online is easy for common garden plants, but it’s not so straightforward if you are seeking guidance on growing maypops, jujubes, alpine strawberries or edible daylilies. For topics like these, Lee Reich’s book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (hard to find, but you can buy it from a small nursery here) and Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables stand practically alone. For some of the more unusual plants in my garden, these works are the only solid sources of information I have been able to find (after a fairly thorough search), and both feature a winning prose style and clear organization.
As a writer, I’m prone to seek out not just practical garden manuals but literature of the garden, and for this, my two favorite works are Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts and Karel Čapek’s The Gardener’s Year. Both works approach the gardener’s life with humor and a sense of how the garden forms an integral part of human culture, and though neither writer gardens in anything like the way I do (Perenyi at one point bemoans the difficulty of finding good garden help), their reflections enrich my experience of the garden. In a similar vein, I love browsing through Monty Don’s The Complete Gardener a work which is much less the comprehensive reference guide its title suggests and much more a literary and aesthetic look into the creation of one beautiful garden.
Finally, to complete my brief garden library, I need to include works that set the garden in its context, philosophically, culturally, and ecologically. Although recommendations here could proliferate, three books in particular come to mind. First is the radical architectural handbook A Pattern Language, which provides a guide for thinking about the built environment (in which we can include gardens) in a way that serves human community rather than undermining it. Reading this thousand-page manual is an investment, but it has changed the way I see the places I inhabit. Secondly, though many works by Wendell Berry have informed my garden practice, one which stands out is What Are People For?, a collection of essays that include essential reflections on the relationship between health and community, the role of technology in our work, and how to think about the gardening mistakes you will inevitably make. Last, a work that sets not just the garden but all human appetites and projects in their proper relationship to things eternal is Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb. Though the book is about cooking, and not gardening, Capon insists that the things of earth restore us to a proper perspective on the things of the spirit—a perspective that governs my own commitment to my piece of land. As such, his book could serve as something like the governing spirit for this library as a whole, and so I will leave you with these, his words:
“Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.”