I know that visitors to this site and the readers of PITH + VIGOR magazine are a book-loving bunch. I am too. As a writer and publisher, I think it is in my DNA to collect and hoard books. But I do recognize, that not all books are equal. And, not everyone wants to fill their home with endless volumes (though I really don’t understand why not?).
If you are looking to make a garden, I think that books are a better source of information than the internet. The internet can overwhelm. Plue, just as there is fake news, urban legends and piles of useless online information in any subject, the same exists in the gardening world. Books are better because they have had an editor (or three) review everything for accuracy. And since most gardening advice is timeless, if you get a book, you may never need to buy another.
Do you need a giant library? No. Here are the eight basic books you need to get yourself started.
When I was growing up in Denver, the Sunset Magazine regional books were my parents’ garden bibles. I think that for western gardeners they still have a rightful place. I live in New England now and need different advice from local garden writers here. The best way to find a good guide for your area is to visit a local garden center and ask someone with dirty fingernails.
There are some classics in the category. Square Foot Gardening has been around for ages and it continues to be relevant. One of my favorites is How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Explore books on perennial vegetables, permaculture, cold climate production and other special interests.
I love the British version of the Garden Color Book (it’s called the Conran Octopus Garden Colour Palette in the UK). Even though I can’t find half the plants in the book, I still use the flip format to imagine new combinations. Don’t limit yourself to just garden color books. There are many books about color that will get you thinking about how to mix and match things to suit your taste and style.
Don’t mistake pretty books with lots of inspiration for books that will tell you how to lay out a garden. I recommend two, The Garden Maker’s Manual and The Essential Garden Design Workbook: Second Edition. (P.S. – I worked on both of these). Both of these are used by good garden design schools and if you want to learn without the tuition cost, they are a good place to start.
There are many to choose from, but I like to keep my library simple. (I find that buying lots of books about this part of gardening has a tendency to ruin all my optimism). Start with Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically (All you need to know about the insects in your garden). If you need more, I suggest taking a sample of the damage and the critter to a good garden center for a diagnosis.
I have a well used copy of the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (DK RHS Encyclopedias). It is indispensable. I wish I had a copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs— I know I would find it similarly valuable. When shopping for encyclopedias, look for books written by horticultural societies or educational institutions. They will always be better.
This is where my personal library gets out of hand. My favorites are by my favorite designers (Arabella Lenox-Boyd, Diarmuid Gavin, Peter Fudge). My own book is an excellent resource because not only does it have over 1000 images – but it has all sorts of projects and practical advice. Organized similar to my own (by style), The Gardenista book is also great.
I love The Modern Japanese Garden and A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children. I find that books about specific regional styles or design periods are also a great resource.
Rather than trying to create a garden that looks just like your neighbors’, visit a used book store. Here you will typically find a plethora of garden books where you identify what uniquely appeals to you. And used books are cheap.
Also, there is pinterest. Use it to see what kinds of images appeal to you and then buy books based on what you have discovered about yourself.
What is drawing you into gardening? Is it grasses? Grasses are one of my favorite reasons to get in the garden. (Best book: Gardening with Grasses). Or maybe it is outdoor cooking, or maybe your space is small and you have only a balcony to work with, or you are into sheds? Rocks? Retro Design? Bonsai? Agaves? Alpines? Dahlias? What ever your passion — there is a book for you — buy a couple, go deep and let your imagination go wild!
These are my recommendations, but I am curious, what is your favorite garden book?
Need more recommendations? Download my constantly updated guide to the best gardening books in these 8 categories – It is in the Resource Library.