The best gardening books to read in 2022
Leading garden writers, designers and horticulturists recommend classic gardening reads – the gardening books they lift from their bookshelves and refer to again and again.
There are many top-notch gardening and plant books to choose from, so we asked leading garden writers, designers and horticulturists – garden writer Anna Pavord, organic food grower Claire Ratinon, the Horniman Museum's Errol Reuben Fernandes, garden designer Isabel Bannerman, writer Alice Vincent and Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward – to come up with a selection for garden and plant lovers. Treat yourself, or gift a book to someone else.
The best gardening books to read in 2022
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver Faber & Faber, £12.99 ISBN 978-0571233571
Chosen by Claire Ratinon, a writer and organic food grower
This book was recommended to me by my RHS Level 2 Horticulture tutor and it was the first text that I’d encountered that depicted the act of cultivating food and the edible growing season as a narrative. Best known for her novels, Kingsolver is a master storyteller and she skilfully depicts a year where herself and her family attempt to live off the land, bar a handful of luxury items. By employing the most joyful prose, deft interrogation of the systems that feed us and a necessary acknowledgment of the dedication, skill and hard graft that goes into growing food, this book somehow manages to inspire while exploding romanticised notions of bucolic self-sufficiency with a hearty dose of realism. I’ve bought multiple copies of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle but I don’t own one now because I’ve given them all away to friends, urging them to read it whenever I can.
Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent, Canongate Books, £9.99 ISBN 978-1786897725
Chosen by Claire Ratinon
Rootbound is a book that tells the story of moving from heartbreak through healing and coming back around to love, all while discovering how the alchemy of growing plants can steady a wayward soul. This book deepened my appreciation for the green spaces of London – the city where I realised my food growing ambitions – while offering snippets of botanical insight and gardening history, all woven through a very human, very heart-centred story. I read Rootbound at a time when I was coming to truly understand the intimacy that I felt with the plants that I nurtured and was, myself, beginning to write about the role that growing had played in helping me see that I am a being who needs to deeply sense my connection to the natural world in order to feel whole. If Alice Vincent hadn’t written Rootbound, I’m quite certain I would never have found the courage to write my own story and, for that, I am eternally grateful that Rootbound exists.
Don't miss Alice's column in Gardens Illustrated.
Dictionary of British and Irish botanists by Ray Desmond, CRC Press ISBN 978-0850668438
Out of print but search online for secondhand copies.
Chosen by Anna Pavord, garden writer
The first is the book that I asked to have with me when I was a castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. It is Ray Desmond’s Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists, published in 1994. A bit dry you might think. But you’d be wrong. Desmond is the kind of miracle that does not exist any more: meticulous but never dry, scholarly but totally engaging.
I love garden history in all its forms and can dip anywhere into the 800 pages of this book and be absorbed. Why is the Baron de Soutellinho here? He rediscovered Narcissus cyclamineus in the wild. Who else remembers Sarah Coleman who in the 1820s ran a nursery in Tottenham? Gradually the dictionary enmeshes you in a vast, intricate web of plantsmen and gardeners that spans 500 years.
The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William T Stearn, ACC Art Books, £35 ISBN 978-1851491773
Chosen by Anna Pavord
From several shelves of books about botanical art, I most often reach for The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William Stearn (1994). This isn’t a how-to manual, but a much rarer thing: a history of flower painting from a wall painting of a Madonna lily at Knossos that dates from around 1550BCE to the anatomically precise water colours of Arthur Harry Church made in the 20th century. It’s particularly good on the Renaissance, giving a wonderful insight into the gradual shift away from myth and magic to the microscopic precision of the paintings of Nicolas Robert and Georg Ehret. It’s not only restful, but restorative to gaze at these pictures from a pre-Instagram age, to forsake for a while the twitchy practice of click and forget. The images shown in the Blunt-Stearn book show centuries of care, love and a wonderful delight in the complexity of nature.
Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, Penguin, £6.99 ISBN 978-0241341292
Chosen by Isabel Bannerman, garden designer
Mary Antoinette Beauchamp, born in Australia, was brought up in Europe in Bohemian circles. In 1898 she wrote this instantly best-selling novel under her married name although she is now better known for her later books, particularly Enchanted April. A fictionalised account of living with her children and German husband – ‘the Man of Wrath’ – in Pomerania, this book is a semi-autobiographical account of making a garden, although not in the same way you or I make gardens as it would have been ‘indecent’ to get stuck in as an important lady at the time, although later in life she really gardened. Funny and vibrant Von Arnim discovers that the path to joy lies in having a garden, rather than a room, of one’s own to escape husband, family – ‘relations are like drugs, useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them’ – and servants, mocking her gardening mistakes, her love for lilacs, Madonna lilies and roses is altogether captivating.
A Gentle Plea for Chaos: Reflections from an English Garden by Mirabel Osler, Bloomsbury Publishing, £12.99 ISBN 978-1408817896
Chosen by Isabel Bannerman
Writing a small book about making a garden at our new house I turned again to this text. Memory told me that Osler’s ethos was uncommonly akin to mine. Written at the end of the 1980s, a decade when the haughty lady horticulturists had exported the English ‘supergarden’ in books and reality worldwide, this book was a blast of fresh air. Osler started garden writing at my ripe age, living near Ludlow, she wrote for the journal Hortus, as well as award-winning books. Timeless and evocative, vivid and dreamy, opinionated and dryly amusing this book has never been out of print. In not so gentle language, it is an intimate story of how she and husband Michael let the garden take over their lives. She advocated a controlled disorder, less dominance over things, more intimate understanding and enjoyment. This lesson is more salient than ever.
Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Workman, £25, ISBN 978-1604695533
Chosen by Errol Reuben Fernandes, head of horticulture at the Horniman Museum and Gardens
A truly innovative guide to horticulture and garden design. It speaks to the zeitgeist of contemporary gardening practice, being guided by observations in nature, our understanding of the soil, sustainable approaches and climate change – all under the veil of good design. Thomas Rainer is a landscape architect and Claudia West a wholesale perennial grower, so they know their subject inside out. Their advice is applicable to larger landscapes as well as smaller ones – even planters. Their fundamental message is to think in terms of ‘vegetations’ – plant communities that thrive alongside each other. It’s not a new message, but it’s from a design perspective. The ideas not only take aspect into account but also soil, topography and the local climate in summer and winter – dry, wet, mild etc. They also state that ‘plant stress’ (growing plants ‘hard’ with no coddling) is an asset – an idea championed by Great Dixter and Beth Chatto and an increasing number of growers. Everyone should read this book.
The Well-Tempered Garden by Christoper Lloyd, Orion Publishing, £16.99, ISBN 978-1780227825
Chosen by Errol Reuben Fernandes
I return to this book again and again, sometimes for knowledge and advice but more often than not for the late Christopher Lloyd’s dry sense of humour and entertainment. Lloyd writes so beautifully of his experience gardening at his home, Great Dixter, effortlessly conveying his colour, personality and opinion within the pages. Lloyd was a character who was larger than life, often sporting a colourful shirt, a hand-knitted waistcoat and an avant-garde approach to gardening. Clashing colours, playful juxtaposition, vastly knowledgeable, yet never taking the subject of gardening too seriously and always displaying the confidence to rip up the rule book. This is a wonderfully conversational read that leaves you feeling as though you have wandered the paths up to his Peacock Garden, discussing the best time to go about you pruning with great man himself. The best time according to Lloyd, of course, is when one has the time and inclination, and the tool in the hand.
We Made A Garden by Margery Fish, Pavilion Books, £9.99, ISBN 978-1849943642
Chosen by Alice Vincent, garden writer
It was only after I had read this book that I learned how large Margery Fish’s legacy loomed in British horticulture. This was a happy accident, I think, as Margery’s frank, and often funny, record of redefining the modern English cottage garden at her home of East Lambrook Manor in Somerset unfolds best when you don’t quite know what the outcome will be. Mrs Fish’s Garden, as those who still tend to it call it, heaves with visitors most weeks of the year, but this book allows the reader to conjure an exquisite image through her words. Fish writes with the clean, plain passion of the plant-devoted and determined, and what I find most inspiring about her account of the garden is her growing confidence as the years pass and, in the wake of her husband Walter’s death, a permission-granting of taking the garden on as her own.
The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden by Katherine Swift, Bloomsbury Publishing, £14.99, ISBN 978-0747598237
Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours is like one of those plants you learn about and then see in all the best gardens, quietly astonished that it took you so long to find. It was published in 2008, and is usually on book shops’ gardening shelves, but I didn’t read it until 2020, during that locked-down winter, finding myself transported from the same south London walls to the crisped lawns and moonlight of New Year’s Eve in slumbering Shropshire, where Swift begins her richly layered story of The Dower House Garden in Morville. The book’s chronology spans years and hours simultaneously; Swift bases its structure on the ancient Hours of the Divine Office, used by monks. But in gardening time is both everything and nothing at all, making it an ideal summer read, too. As Swift writes: ‘In the garden, where I was acutely aware of the passage of time there was paradoxically the feeling of having all the time in the world, of hours and days stretching and expanding into a shimmering pool of now.’
Constance Villiers Stuart: in Pursuit of Paradise by Mary Ann Prior, Unicorn Publishing Group, £30, ISBN 978-1914414435
Chosen by Christopher Woodward, director of the Garden Museum
Garden history gets a new heroine in Constance Villiers-Stuart. Mary Ann Prior’s biography begins with a surprise discovery in a Norfolk country house where Villiers-Stuart lived until her death in 1966. Out of a suitcase tumbled diaries and sketchbooks, revealing a remarkable life. The heiress to a cotton fortune, she married a soldier and when he was posted to India, became an expert on Mughal gardens, and friends with the Maharajah of Kashmir and the Begum of Bhopal. Her illustrated Gardens of the Great Mughals (1913) concluded with a plea for the gardens of New Delhi to be Indian, not English in style. During the First World War, her husband Patrick was posted to Salonica (now Thessaloniki in Greece). And that gives us one of the most startling garden images you will see all year: photographed from a biplane, ornamental parterres laid out by soldiers around their garrison bell-tents. A reminder that the most interesting gardeners are never just gardeners.
Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught me About Living by Catie Marron, Harper Collins, £40, ISBN 978-0062963611
In Becoming a Gardener the writer Catie Marron describes planting a garden around a new family house in Connecticut. She shares her garden as a sequence of decisions, beginning with picking the right type of fence (something I obsess about). It’s a modest perfectionism born of reverence towards a garden as a sacred thing. Marron was widowed shortly after buying the house and she feels her late husband’s spirit as she digs with the hand-forged trowel, which was one of his last gifts. What I also loved is how she turns to her favourite writers for advice, from Cicero to Anna Pavord, as if they are her friends. Beverley Nichols is, as ever, the most quotable: ‘you can no more stop a garden from walking, in spirit, into the house of a gardener than you can stop the sea from flowing, in spirit, into the house of a sailor’. A generous book and a beautiful garden.
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