’Tis the season to stop digging, fa la la la la, la la la la. Really though: stepping on your soil now will compact it, the rain will pool up in your bootprints, and no matter what you have left to do this year in the garden, for now it can wait. My dahlia tubers remain naked and shivering in the garage, my garden renovation plans are paused in dismal disarray, and I’m turning from outdoor responsibility to indoor pleasures. Reading is at the top of my list. Here are five favourite gardening books to get you through the season (or in a gardener’s heart).
Part coffee table eye-catcher, part colour theory, part treatise on beauty, Color by Design: Planting the Contemporary Garden is perhaps the most influential gardening book of my life. Written by Canadians Nori and Sandra Pope about their time gardening at Hadspen in England, this book offers an entirely ‘colourist’ slant on gardening. I heard the Nori Pope speak at Kew in the 90s and later visited Hadspen so I may be somewhat biased, but their writing is both elegant and informative, and the images by esteemed photographer Clive Nichols sublime. A book to make you see plants and colour in a whole new way, Colour by Design is the perfect book for gardeners and designers wondering why their designs aren’t harmonizing and how to work with colour through the seasons.
We all may be a little weary of the man and message that is Michael Pollan these days, but his early memoir Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, remains a favourite of mine. Pollan’s humour is at the foreground of this book as he plays the naif, attempting to develop a garden of his own in upstate New York. The groundhog/woodchuck scenes are Caddyshack classic.
One of the most poetic gardening memoirs I’ve read is The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift. Swift worked as a rare book historian at Oxford and shapes her story of developing a garden in Shropshire around medieval Books of Hours which detailed the agrarian year. Her prose is alive with images, her mind wide-ranging, and her writing exquisite. This is a book to be savoured slowly. Interestingly, Swift wrote The Morville Hours in a room overlooking her garden, and much like Annie Dillard writing A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she drew blackout curtains over the windows to better render nature on the page.
The design book of 2015 is Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. Oudolf is a leader in the Dutch Wave of naturalistic design which emphasizes diversity, sustainability, and plant structures and forms. He developed the High Line in NYC, gardens at Wisley, and other public spaces and private estates, and though he has written other books (Designing with Plants is a good introduction to his ideas), Hummelo follows his long career as a nurseryman and designer.
Sarah Raven’s classic The Cutting Garden is an informative guide to both growing and designing with flowers. She covers flower conditioning (how to prevent wilting), arranging, and basics of cultivation. By shifting the focus from annuals to shrubs and perennials, The Cutting Garden opens up an incredible range of plants to the home grower and designer. Be warned: this book will lead you to her website—a great source of seeds for those whose sugarplum dreams have turned to the promise of a new year in the garden.