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.
Plus, 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 good book, you may never need to buy another.
Do you need a giant library? No. Here are the eight basic garden books you need to get yourself started.
The 8 Books That Every Garden Creator Should Own
A Book About Gardening in Your Region
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.
A Book About Growing Food.
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.
A Book About Color
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.
A Book About Design.
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.
A Book about Bugs, Pests & Diseases
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.
A Plant Encyclopedia (or two)
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.
A Smattering of Inspiration Books
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?
I’ve revisited this a few times since I originally wrote it and found little needed an update from what I originally said.
I realize that while I still insist that you need at least one book about gardening in your region and you also must have at least one plant encyclopedia – there is another type of book you really ought to have. It is a hybrid of these two types of books.
A gardening book for your region will help you to understand the seasons and the culture of growing where you live. It will also give you advice on how to care for plants that are typically favored by gardeners in your area. And an encyclopedia’s main purpose is to help you move beyond the typical – to help you stretch and find something special and different. It is for research but most of all encyclopedias are arguably the richest source of inspiration a person can find for discovering something they didn’t even know to look for.
You need a Book about Native Plants in your Region
As we increasingly understand that our private gardens profoundly impact the health of ecosystem beyond the fence, it becomes important to think of our managed areas in the context of how they impact everything around us. Native plants help us to reconnect the ornamental and utilitarian garden plants with what might have otherwise grown wild. The wild plants support habitats for wildlife and insects and they define the vernacular of a region. Native plants are often easier to grow – often requiring less water resources, fertilizers and pesticides to thrive.
So I propose you need a 9th book (in addition to the other 8). And that is a book about the native plants in your region. While a book about all regional natives is interesting – I’d suggest that you should focus your choice on a book that aims to narrow the list a bit – and present just the natives that are good for gardens. It is true that many natives are not very showy, or they struggle to meet the exacting desires of most garden designers. It is worth seeking out the best varieties for your region and keep it easy by letting a knowledgeable author do all the research for you.
If you are in New England – Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe (of The New England Wildflower Society) have a new book called Native Plants for New England Gardeners with over 100 great native plants for New Englanders. I’ve already made a short list for some my spring projects.