The disillusioned philosopher Ecclesiastes writes in the Old Testament “Of making many books there is no end”. This is no less true of gardening than of any other subject and in the run-up to Christmas when there is likely to be less to do outside in the garden I am devoting my article to books on gardening. Maybe this will offer some ideas for Christmas presents or just improve your gardening knowledge …To my wife’s great delight I have just started sorting and weeding out the books on my bookshelf and I have started with the gardening books. Sorting them in alphabetical order of authors didn’t seem to be very helpful so I have done in it by putting the books into broad categories. The most obvious group covers advice on what to do and how and when to do it. These can be in general categories such as vegetables or flowers or container gardening or in single subjects with detailed information about particular plants or a particular activity like pruning or garden design. Fashions in gardening change over time and these are recorded in books on the history of gardening. Others concentrate on the beauty to be found in gardens and these offer striking photography, often in coffee table volumes and there are many well-illustrated books describing particular gardens; generally ones which are open to the public. Other books, often enhanced by stylish writing, just revel in the delights of gardens and gardening. If you take delight in sheer weight, encyclopaedias are the ones to go for and are very valuable for a quick reference.
Book reviews in gardening magazines are a good place to go for guidance on choosing books but I offer a few books here which I have found helpful or enjoyable.
My ornamental gardening guru is Beth Chatto, who died last year. She publicised her style and philosophy with displays at the big garden shows like Chelsea and she has written several books. She was a great advocate of gardening with the right plant in the right place and she championed a naturalistic and free flowing style, emphasising the value of contrasting structure ,size and shape in foliage as well as flowers. The results of her ideas can be seen in the beautiful Beth Chatto gardens near Colchester which have a superb nursery of often unusual plants attached (mail order available). Beth Chatto writes about her garden with detailed descriptions of the plants in three books; The Shade Garden, The Green Tapestry and Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (the ground breaking garden devoted to drought-proof plants which she created out of a car park).
There are a number of books which give you a month by month guide throughout the year of what to do and how to do it. These can be a useful reminder of jobs that might be overlooked and the practical advice is often useful. The two examples I have are Alan Titchmarsh’s The Gardener’s Year and the RHS book Gardening Through the Year, by Ian Spence. A very attractive volume that combines superb large-scale photography with a substantial text on the history of the different styles of English gardens is Ursula Buchan’s The English Garden, with photographs by Andrew Lawson. Most of us need guidance on planting schemes, colour combinations and so on and a very practical and useful book that I have is How to Plant a Garden by Matt James.
My favourite gardening book is the Morville Hours by Katherine Swift. Katherine Swift was once a garden columnist writing in the Times and formerly rare book librarian at Trinity College Dublin. She combines a deep knowledge of gardening and the natural world with an academic knowledge of history and weaves all this together in a beautifully written account of how she created a garden in the dower house of a country house owned by the National Trust at Morville near Bridgnorth in Shropshire. The garden is laid out in a number of ‘rooms’ each reflecting the historical period of one of the owners of the big house. It also has a theme of the passing of time throughout the year based around the illustrated mediaeval prayer book or book of hours on which the seven daily services of monastic communities are based.
My final recommendation is Your Wellbeing Garden by Alistair Griffiths and Matt Keightley, based on research by the Royal horticultural Society. This book was published early this year and coincided with the strong body of evidence produced during the Covid 19 pandemic of the many benefits of gardening in relation to mental and physical health. The book has four main sections; The Protective Garden, The Healing Garden, The Nourishing Garden and the Sustainable Garden. It is a combination of the benefits of gardening that research has revealed and practical guidance on how to achieve the benefits.