My garden book collection is by almost any standards a good one. I don’t have an exact count but it’s over 1000 books just on gardening because we’re talking over 20 years of serious book collecting. And I’m not talking the modern stuff – I rarely collect and keep books published after 1950, preferring mostly pre-1900 classic gardening classics. Having read gardening books in their original forms from the early 1800’s, I like to think I have a certain perspective on what makes a good gardening book.
Not only that but having been on the book awards committee for the American Hort Society, I’ve also seen and read all the gardening books published for the past three years (my term is now up) and that count is somewhere around 120. I note I only kept a half dozen of those books.
So when I tell you I have a passing interest in good gardening books, it’s probably true. 🙂
There are only two essential books I’d recommend for any gardener. And frankly, only two must-have books. To be sure there are other “good” or even a few great books I’d recommend (and will over this coming winter) but these two books are the foundation of any modern garden book collection. Both are classics, both award winners and both are still available in book stores.
The first is Allan Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants and this third edition is larger and better than any of the first two. We’re talking over 1000 pages from one of the leading experts on perennial flowers.
The book is not noted for its glamorous pictures but rather the line drawings that really show you what the leaves or flowers should look like. There’s very little frosted and spun sugar candy in this book but more meat than you can absorb in any given winter. It’s a book to put beside your desk or favorite reading spot because you’re going to be picking it up to browse or use to figure out how to grow that special plant, how to propagate it or fit something into that special spot.
From tables identifying the key differences within species to discussions of the performance of specific hybrids, this book gives you enough information to garden successfully at almost any level.
The fun part is that it’s just not another dry, dusty tome you’ll have to grind through. Allen is an entertaining guy and (like a lot of other gardeners I know) is opinionated about what makes a good perennial. In his own delightful style, he shares those clearly with readers often to the chagrin of the established nurseries I’m sure. While he’s originally a Canadian, he’s been at the University of Georgia for over 30 years and knows more about growing perennials in both the heat and the cold than just about anybody else out there.
The second must-have book for those in northern areas is Michael Dirr’s award-winning “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants”. Again, another edition (the sixth) has been released and it too is bigger and better than its predecessors (of which I own several). If you need to know something about growing shrubs and evergreens, this is the single best book to have on your bookshelf.
Dirr is one of those plantsman’s legends that everybody in the nursery trade knows about and you’ll find this on every nurseryman’s list of must-have books. Again, he’s not known for his shyness in telling you what he thinks about any given plant and with over 1200 pages of plants, there’s a heck of a lot of researcher and plantsman opinion in these pages.
It’s a classic book, without a lot of colored pictures but good line drawings of leaves illustrating the ways to identify individual plants and species. The strength of the book is in the depth of individual evaluations of just about every individual variety of shrub you’re going to find in your local garden center. The weakness (if there is one) is that it doesn’t extend into the warmer California type plants- but this isn’t a weakness if you’re gardening in a cooler temperate area.
Bottom line – both of these books demand space on any serious gardener’s bookshelf. And as I said, there are other good books and maybe some other great books, but there are only two essential books.
And while neither are cheap books, the important thing to understand is that you really only need these two books to have all the info you need to have an outstanding garden full of amazing plants. They’re both within easy arm’s reach of my desk.
I’ve written other book reviews on my garden blog right here