Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue'

This is definitely not an attempt to construct a definitive list of gardening books as there are an enormous number of gardening books out there, Amazon alone lists over 70,000 books in their gardening section. This is a list of the books I have found interesting, useful, influential and inspiring with an explanation of why I value them so much. I do not for one minute imagine it is going to be in any way complete but I do hope to provide some guidance through the world of gardening literature. If you have one you feel should be in the list I would really like to hear from you to see if it can't be included, in which case you might like to write about yourself.

As for which books I intend to include; anything as long as it's related to gardening, new or old, it doesn't mater if it's out of print, as there are many good suppliers of second handbooks. The only real criterion is that it's worth having on the bookshelf.

I hope to introduce to you to my favourite books which have influenced me; some of which I hope will be new to you and some you may enjoy as well. By way of clarification all the books will be book I personally like or you have recommended, in which case you might like to write about yourself.

Succulents Simplified by Debra Lee Baldwin

First off I was kindly lent a review copy of this book by the publishers Timber Press.

Its is clear from the book that Debra is a very knowledge and experienced grower of a group of plants which is often overlooked by UK gardeners, but non the less a very useful one. She does fall into the trap of all specialist plant books of seeing the subject of her interest as the solution to a gardens wants; but still finds many interesting and original uses of succulents.

The book is very richly illustrated with some mouthwatering plants and interested uses making it a useful reference book. The only real drawback is that the author is living and gardening in southern California where she enjoys a far milder climate that the UK, or for that matter most of America. This means a large majority of the plants are only going to be suitable as house-plants for most of us.


Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon

The danger with this book is that is title may well put off many potential readers. The vast majority of gardeners do not see themselves as botanist: but spending hours studying the plants they grow, can’t grow and aspire to grow. As a gardener you consider the plants shape, colour, needs development and reproduction; yet little thought is given to the science under pinning these characteristics. All too often the science bit it shied away from as being too difficult or not relevant; more likely than not because we were put of the subject at school. The thing is gardening is to a large part applied botany and to deny it is not only short sighted but also making life harder. The problem is at first botany can be off putting in its apparent complexity and little is available in the way of bridging this gap. Brian Capon has set out to do just that with this book.

A professional botanist by training and a gardener by inclination, he has set out to provide a means of introducing gardeners to the how and why of plants. In doing so he has created a book that fills a real gap in gardening literature.

His years teaching botany, often to non-botanists, has given him a natural ability to do mystify his subject. Like all good teachers he has a natural gift for bring his subject to life and sharing his enthusiasm. The different aspects of the subject are approached in a logical order and the book is kept sufficiently concise so that it dose not intimidate those new to the field. It is well illustrated with photographs, line drawings and examples to add understanding. Though no part of the book can go into great depth, doing so would be counter productive, it ends with a list of further reading to encourage the reader to delve further into the subject.

Hopefully the present upsurge in interest in science will encourage gardeners to set aside there feat of it and temp them into learning a little bit more about the plants they grow. The book will not necessarily make them botanist; but it will make them better gardeners.

Nutcutts Book of Plants

It may seem strange to include in this list what is to a large part a nursery catalogue, and it is unashamedly in a part an advertisement for Nutcutts. The thing is it is a treasure trove of information on garden plants presented in a concise and assessable style. Thought the content is about the 3000 plants they grow; that range is sufficient to cover most plants you will encounter in the average garden and the plants included come with wealth of pertinent information regarding a plants size, features and where to plant it.

Divided into 5 sections, of which the second and fourth are the most valuable. The first deals briefly with Nutcutts history and present services but the second section provides a vast wealth of information set out as short detailed notes on a vast range of plants grouped under trees, shrubs, climbers, etc. The third section extends this range by treat a range of that plants they sell but do not produce themselves in the same way.

The fourth section though provides a collection of lists. Each list provides a range of plants suited to specific locations and/or uses. These lists can be cross referenced with one another and the descriptions in section two and three to provide a very powerful tool for gardeners to build up a list of possible plants for a specific location and/or use in the garden. Equally they will though up suggestions that you have not heard of or that had simply slipped your mind.

The final short section provides a range of tips and advice on the establishment and care of plants.

As it is a small book the depth of information and the range of plants covered is very limited, but it still covers most of the plants found in gardens and garden centres, or at least a close example, making it invaluable when first point of reference when trying to decide what to do with a particular plant or part of a garden.

The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms by Michael Hickey and Clive King

This may not seem an obvious choice to include in this list and retailing at about £38 for a paperback it is not exactly cheap; but it does plug a very important gap. This book provides an accessible explanation of the often confusing technical terms used to describe plants. These are words used in botanical and horticultural books and other literature to describe plants and their characteristics. Their use causes considerable confusion and, sadly, puts off many; but are vital to help describe plants in an unambiguous way. The result is that many plant descriptions rely on words which make no sense to most people or very specific uses of words with much broader colloquial means. Frustrating as this is the accurate naming and description of plants would be impossible without them; as they allow the necessary degree of precision when trying to describe the difference between plants.

To achieve this, the book is divided into two sections; the first provides a list of words with a brief explanation of the meaning and cross references to the appropriate illustration in the second section. This second section justifies the large size of the book: being A4 in size. This is a selection of clear black and white line drawings illustrating the many terms. Most books attempting to describe this with illustrations rely on photographs, but such a technique could never achieve the clarity that these accomplish.

While of limited use to many people, and hence the publishers high price, anyone serious about understanding plants and there descriptions would do well to get hold of a copy. This is not the sort of book you are going to sit and read it is one you are going to find you are repeatedly pulling down of your shelves to refer to.

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.

The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Ivies by Peter Q. Rose

Anyone who dismisses ivies as just green climbers should take the time to look through this book by Peter Rose. The current 1996 edition is still in print and regarded as a standard work on the subject of garden Ivies. Peter Rose (1916 – 1997) gained a National Diploma in Horticulture at Wisley before working as a commercial nurseryman before joining the Ministry of Agriculture as a Plant Health Inspector. He developed a special interest in ivies and wrote extensively on the subject, developing an international reputation for his knowledge.

The book is a development for one of his earlier ones, simply titled “Ivies” and published in 1980. Peter was a horticulturalist not botanist and his book is very much written from that prospective. The first four chapters cover the background to ivies, including their history, uses, biology and naming; but in a manner that non botanist will find very accessible. The fifth chapter takes up about 60% of the book and is an A to Z of the different ivies. Over 285 different ivies are described in detail with notes on their habit, appearance and history with extensive use of colour photographs. The final two chapters deal with the use and cultivation of ivies in the garden.

Being 16 years old will hamper the book a little, as some of the botany has moved on, but the book was so well researched and written in the first place it is still very relevant today. It has the added advantage that ivies are a sadly over look group of plants – often relegated to quickly covering an eyesore – so they have not seen the influx of new varieties a “fashionable” plant does.

The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd

I am starting with this as when I’m stuck this is generally the first book I turn too. I was first introduced to the writing of Christopher Lloyd by my amenity horticulture lecture, Richard Bisgrove, as an undergraduate and I have been a fan, particularly of this book, ever since. This is not so much a ‘how to do’ book’ as a ‘how to think’ book. Far too much published in the name of gardening is a repeat of ‘now do this, now do that’ (copied from innumerate books of the same ilk and with the same errors repeated!) with little thought about why you are doing it an for what purpose. With Christopher it was written principally from personal experience, mistakes and all, and when not he is careful to state so.

First published back in 1970 with a revised edition published in 2001 this was, I believe, his first book having been writing of country life from 1963. By virtue of its age some so of the technical details are a bit dated but that is not as important as the underlying garden philosophy which is as relevant now as it was when first written. The 2001 edition is now, I believe, out of print but the book was sold in sufficiently large numbers that used copies can be very readily found.

I was told one day all gardens will be kept like this, hopefully many more gardening literature will be written liked this.