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Gardening book reviews

You won’t lose the plot with these books

I’m an avid collector of second-hand books, usually gardening and food related.

Here’s some recommended gardening (and related matter) volumes, some easy to find, some rare – they all have something out of the ordinary to recommend them. Expect more to be added.


All-time favourite gardening book

The Bad Tempered Gardener, by Anne Wareham, photographs by Charles Hawes, 2011, UK, published by Frances Lincoln.

The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne WarehamApparently, a fitting gift from my partner, as I am the title, he pointed out. This did not engage me at first but I was totally wrong.

This book is everything you won’t find in common-or-garden horticulture books, with their fluffy reverence to the established order.

You’ll swing from absolute agreement with Anne, as she voices things others dare not (there’s a chapter called I Hate Gardening) to feeling ashamed (Plant Obsessives – yes, that’s me told).

Anne and her husband Charles (mostly Anne) created The Veddw, in Monmouthshire, Wales from two acres of pastureland, then added another two acres of woodland.

It’s an astonishing achievement and a garden I’d love to visit, (there’s a bugbear about the gardening media not visiting gardens they’ve written about, which is spot on).

Most of all, this is a book that will stay with me. It’s thought-provoking, brutally honest and challenging. There have been times when I’ve been afraid, I’m ashamed to say, to voice my opinions about the very odd horticultural industry, as I’ve often felt very alone out there.

Anne’s had the strength of character to do just that and that’s why this book means so much to me. Don’t take my word for it – this is a great book for anyone with a passing interest in that space tacked on outside your home.


Specialist plants

Collins Guide to Alpines & Rock Garden Plants (Revised Edition), Anna N Griffith, 1985, UK, published by Chancellor Press.

Wicked PlantsA pristine second-hand buy, 1,900 plants described and a mine of information.

The Alpine Garden: A Practical Guide to Planning and Planting, The RHS Collection, by Christopher Grey-Wilson, 1994, published by Conran Octopus.

Beautifully illustrated go-to book on all aspects of alpine care and selection.

The Green Tapestry: Perennial Plants for the Garden, Beth Chatto, 1989, UK, published by Collins.

Perennials for every conceivable situation, from waterlogged to drought-prone, written in Beth’s lovely style and with her design panache.

Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden: Shade-loving Plants for Year-Round Interest, 2002, UK, published by Cassell Illustrated.

A book that becomes more relevant as new urban/suburban housing casts long shadows over neighbouring plots – you can have a beautiful shady garden.

Wicked Plants: The A-Z of plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart, 2010, UK, published by Timber Press.

Wish I’d written this one. Funny, informative and stylish look at all that misbehaves in the plant world.

Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden: Drought-resistant Planting through the Year, 2000, UK, published by Frances Lincoln.

My favourite gardening writer and a true inspiration, this book charts the founding of the famous Gravel and Scree Gardens, planted to resist drought and left unwatered after first planting.


Famous gardeners

Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present, Catherine Horwood, 2010, UK, published by Virago Press.Vita Sackville-West anthology

The stories of women who succeeded despite a male-dominated elite, from Thomasin Tunstall in the 1620s to ‘the Charlie Dimmock effect’.

V. Sackville-West: The Illustrated Garden Book – a New Anthology by Robin Lane Fox, 1986, UK, published by Michael Joseph Ltd.

A month-by-month anthology of Vita’s columns for The Observer, from 1946-61, plus poems, drawings, and photographs. A lovely book to treasure.

The Unknown Gertrude Jekyll, selected and edited by Martin Wood, 2006, UK, published by Frances Lincoln.

Selected works from about 1,000 articles from this most iconic of gardeners, previously rarely seen by anyone other than scholars.


Winter gardening

Winter Blossoms from the Outdoor Garden, AW Darnell, 1926, UK, published by L Reeve & Co.

Colour plate of Rhododendron dahuricum, from Winter Blossoms from the Outdoor Garden.
Colour plate of Rhododendron dahuricum, from Winter Blossoms from the Outdoor Garden

An oldie but goodie with colour plates and drawings by the author. Fascinating note on Fatsia japonica: “This handsome plant is quite hardy in Western and Southern counties of Great Britain and is rarely damaged by frost in the London district”. Global warming, perhaps?

The Unsung Season: Gardens and Gardeners in Winter, Sydney Eddison, 1995, US, published by Houghton Mifflin.

A lovely book focusing on how US cold-climate gardeners deal with winter in a myriad of ways – braving the weather in snowshoes to carry on, doing related crafts, bringing the garden indoors or creating gardens to shine on the coldest of days.

Winter Gardening, Stephen Bradley, photography by Marcus Harpur, 2000, UK, published by Murdoch Books.

The go-to book for what plants to grow, design, tasks and where to get inspiration. Photography is excellent.


Garden design

Garden Design Solutions: Ideas for Outdoor Spaces, Stephen Woodhams, 2015, UK, published by Jacqui Small.Garden Design Solutions book

Really useful design tips from an award-winning designer. Real-life money-no-object projects that can be translated into cost-effective solutions for ordinary gardens. Don’t miss my book offer – follow the link.

Front Gardens, Gay Search, 1993, UK, published by BBC Books.

Included because it focuses on that usually tiny patch of ground many of us have and don’t have a clue what to do with. More than 20 years on, it’s dated, but still some great solutions to common problems.

Take Chelsea Home: Practical Inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Chris Young, UK, 2013, published by Octopus.

Does what it says on the tin – dissects the often bizarre show garden designs into helpful chunks so you can design a better garden.


Garden history, folklore, spirituality

The Gardener’s Folklore, Margaret Baker, 1977, UK, published by David & Charles.

Gardens of the British Working Class Margaret WillesOne of my all-time favourites – covering folklore, witchcraft, the supernatural from the UK, North America, and Northern European emigres. Find it if you can.

Old Wives’ Tales: Remedies, Pills and Potions, Carol Cooke, illustrated by Shiela Graber, 2002, UK, published by Business Education Publishers Ltd.

A light-hearted look at the remedies of North East England, including an innovative use of hot vegetables for earache.

The Gardens of the British Working Class, Margaret Willes, 2014, UK, published by Yale University Press.

That rarest of books, detailing the gardening exploits of the working class for the past 400 years, from the origin of the cottage garden to show bench flower competitions.

The Making of the English Landscape, WG Hoskins, 1977, UK, (first published 1955) by Hodder & Stoughton.

Not strictly gardening, but how our landscape has evolved from pre-history to modern times. Makes you look at the countryside and towns with new eyes.

Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul, Elizabeth Murray, 1997, US, published by Pomegranate.

Thoughtful, unusual examination of creating gardens as a sacred place, from looking at Oriental practices to visiting famous gardens such as Giverny and the Moss garden in Kyoto, to creating a private spiritual place and memorial garden.


Famous gardens

A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Gardens, Fergus Garrett (pictures by Rachel Warne, foreword by Beth Chatto), 2012, UK, published by Frances Lincoln.Planting Schemes from Sissinghurst

Stunning photographs of Beth’s Essex garden throughout the year – hard to believe it’s all one tract of land. An inspiration for anyone with difficult soil of any sort.

Planting Schemes from Sissinghurst, Tony Lord, 2003, UK, published by Frances Lincoln in association with The National Trust.

A (nearly) pocket-sized guide to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s masterpiece – plant pairings translate well to modern schemes.

Gardens of Northumberland and the Borders, Susie White, 2006, UK, published by Sanderson Books.

A beautifully-photographed collection of ‘day trip’ gardens of my childhood, from the splendours of Wallington Hall, the newer Alnwick Garden to the beauty of Samye Ling monastery in Eskdalemuir.