Monday, August 14, 2006
Garden books: the GWI canon
Not that anyone’s asked me, but I’ve noticed some posts—mainly on Garden Rant—on favorite or popular garden books, and figured I’d add my mite to the debate/discussion/observations.
Actually, I have been getting a lot of reading done during time that I ordinarily would be gardening, now that the garden is winding down and very little attention is needed. It’s been fiction for the most part—including some historical stuff by Philippa Gregory, who did do a very nice series about an early plant collector in her books Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys. She is trashy, but that’s what summer reading is all about.
Garden books, though. I used books in the early days to help me with plant selection and cultivation, particularly with bulbs and perennials. During this process, I inadvertently discovered the works of the late Christopher Lloyd, whose Gardening Year and Garden Flowers are still well-thumbed favorites. Lloyd is very opinionated, entertaining, and one of the most authoritative garden writers around. I was sorry to learn of his recent death and plan to search out his other titles so I have a complete library. He is to gardening what Julia Child and M. F. K. Fisher are to food, as far as I’m concerned.
Another book I lucked into was The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracey DiSabato-Aust. This is an invaluable go-to for any gardener: no-nonsense advice in an entertaining, lively style. I also get great pleasure reading the encyclopedic Botanica and Flora, just for fun.
Timber Press, which has published many of my favorites, is undoubtedly the gardener’s best friend in the world of books. Until recently, high-quality books on gardening were few and far between, particularly when compared to books on food. We’ve grown used to seeing fifteen titles or more come out every year on the most minutely esoteric of cooking specialties (Doggie Desserts, anyone?) but the world of garden publications has never been as bountiful. That’s why Timber Press, with its 400 titles, is so welcome. The company has now become part of the Workman group, but I am hoping the books will keep coming
Finally, I must once more recommend Beverley Nichols (1898-1983), as my favorite garden essayist (not that there are many in the field). In Garden Open Today and Garden Open Tomorrow, both originally published in the sixties, Nichols (in a rare departure) actually gives concrete garden advice, with many plant recommendations. That is not what is so enjoyable about these essays, and all of Nichols’ garden writings. It is Nichols’ rare combination of irascible humor and keen awareness of the beauty of plants that make these books indispensable for the gardener’s shelf. In Garden Open Today, Nichols has the last word on the importance of water in the garden:
“…I take this opportunity of reminding the reader that every garden must begin with water in some shape or form even if it is only a pool two feet square sunk into a little concrete terrace. If this reader’s retort is ‘In that case I haven’t got a garden at all because I haven’t got any water in it,’ my reply is, ‘Quite. You haven’t got a garden.’”
As for Michael Pollan: he’s a good writer, but a bit too preachy. No doubt, all he says is right, but it has little significance for my personal relationship with gardening.