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Discover the best gardening books

The best books for plant lovers

We consider the best horticultural and gardening books that all discerning gardeners need on their bookshelves

There are plenty of gardening books that specialise in planting, whether their focus is on planting schemes, garden design or the botanical properties of the plants themselves. As there is so much literature to choose from, Gardens Illustrated put together a list of the best gardening books for plant lovers – the titles any discerning gardener should have in their library. Don’t miss designers Tom Stuart-Smith, Julian and Isabel Bannerman and Penelope Hobhouse’s best gardening book choices too, some of which are within this piece.

Tom Stuart-Smith with his favourite books
© Andrew Montgomery

Perennial Garden Plants or the Modern Florilegium

by Graham Stuart Thomas
Frances Lincoln
ISBN 978-0711224032

First published in 1976, this comprehensive survey of perennial garden plants has been hailed as a classic since its initial publication. It is one of the most comprehensive of surveys ever undertaken and includes practical information about garden pests, plant needs, propagation and cultivation too. There are over 2,000 species to explore within the book’s pages, and it is very helpful on tips for small gardens and hardiness. Author Graham Stuart Thomas himself is also a fascinating figure in the botanical world,  having worked on over 100 National Trust gardens and worked to preserve many heritage old roses on the verge of extinction.

Buy from Waterstones


RHS Latin for Gardeners

by Lorraine Harrison
Mitchell Beazley
ISBN 978-1845337315

In this gardening book Lorraine Harrison explains how an understanding of the meaning behind botanical names can reveal many of the properties of plants, such as their shape, scent and colour, which can help enormously when choosing the right plant for a garden. This is a Royal Horticultural Society publication, which aims to be very helpful and is filled with illustrations. There are also features on remarkable figures in horticulture throughout this book, including plant hunters such as Sir Joseph Banks and Alexander von Humboldt. One of the best books to help get over the sometimes intimidating Latin names used in gardening.

Buy from Waterstones


Trees and Shrubs
© Andrew Montgomery

by William Jackson Bean
(John Murray, 8th edition published in four volumes during the 1970s)

‘When I was in my early twenties I used to keep a volume or two of Bean by my bed, quickly skimming through Berberis and Contenaster, but salivating over MagnoliaQuercus and Stewartia. I loved reading about trees I had never seen, such as Carpinus orientalis, which, says Bean, ‘I have been told by an officer who took part in the Crimean War, much impeded the advance of our men, made under the cover of darkness’. I still turn regularly to those four thick, dumpy volumes as a gold standard of information. In my slightly chaotic book collection, they are about the easiest to find, along with the even larger New RHS Dictionary of Gardening.’

The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes

by Rick Darke
Timber Press
ISBN 978-0881928174

Interested in grasses but not sure where to start? Grass expert, Rick Darke explores the prominent role grasses play in the sustainability of green spaces in this gardening book, and provides practical advice for propagation, growth and maintenance. The book is illustrated with lovely photographs, mainly taken by the author, of both plants and gardens and while there’s a specific focus on sustainability and benefits to the environment Rick also looks at aesthetic qualities of the grasses and how beautiful they can be.

Buy from Waterstones. 

Dream Plants for the Natural Garden

by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen
Frances Lincoln
ISBN 978-0711217379

These are plants that require little input from the gardener but provide endless enjoyment. A dream of a garden book for horticultural enthusiasts written by legends Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen who are the designers behind the New Wave planting movement. Oudolf has worked on many hugely significant gardens including the High Line in New York and Hauser and Wirth in Somerset. Here you see Piet and Henk working together to pick out their ideal perennials, grasses, ferns and small shrubs for a more natural garden. Plants are categorised according to behaviour, strength and usage. The choices of plants are very much informed by form and how they can retain a sense of beauty throughout all seasons. If you’re looking to create a garden thriving with wildlife, this is the book for you.

Buy from Waterstones or Foyles


cover of Garden Design book by author Sylvia Crowe

‘My first choice must be that of the landscape architect Sylvia Crowe who published Garden Design in 1958. It remains the most comprehensive book on design I know… She covers Far Eastern developments, the Italian Renaissance garden, French formality, English garden development and finally the contemporary garden in the West. But it is not all history – she weaves in design theory as she describes historical settings.’

The award-winning landscape architect and garden designer Sylvia Crowe and wrote many books in her long life (she lived to the age of 96). Her work included making significant contribution to town and landscape planning for new towns along with forestry too. This book looks at the principles of garden design in countries including Italy, England, France and Spain.

Buy from Amazon

Henk Gerritsen: Essay on Gardening

by Henk Gerritsen
Architectura & Natura Press
ISBN 978-9461400123

From his earliest memories of gardening, his inspirations, his working relationship with Piet Oudolf and the impact of the New Perennial Movement, this garden book Henk Gerritsen goes on to discuss ecology, the building blocks of a garden, from plants to ‘frills and knick-knacks’, and the impact of urban development. Gerritsen’s work includes the Dutch Priona gardens and the renovation of the organic gardens at Waltham Place near London. This book explores the power of nature in comparison with that of man and nature’s unpredictability, and how to work with that. The book also has a foreward by Henk’s close collaborator, Piet Oudolf.

Buy from Abe Books


by James Hitchmough
(Timber Press, 2017)

‘I went on a plant-hunting trip to western Sichuan with James this spring, along with Cassian Schmidt and Piet Oudolf among others. It was one of those enthralling times when you realise that you are bumping along the foothills of plant knowledge. But James seemed to know just about everything. I love his company, and his apparent belief that all life is an experiment so best not to hang around. We have worked together on some great projects – the results are always a bit unpredictable, but normally exceed my most psychedelic dreams. I love the mix of scientific rigour and visual extravagance. This book is a great repository of knowledge. Gratifyingly geeky, with lots of charts.’

Buy from Waterstones

The Rose

by David Austin
ACC Distribution
ISBN 978-1870673785

The world’s most expert rose grower and breeder David Austin’s book has clear advice and a comprehensive list of roses illustrated with colour photography. The Rose is an invaluable reference gardening book for rose lovers, which offers some intimate knowledge from his experience working with the plants. The historical development of the rose is explored, while David also picks his favourite roses for gardens today. The book includes luscious photographs as well as details of his 50 years of hybridisation. Perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about growing roses for their own garden. It’s also ideal for the beginner and for the expert.

Buy from Amazon

Botany for Gardeners

by Brian Capon
Timber Press
ISBN 978-1604690958

Known for his clear description of how plants work, Brian Capon uses Botany for Gardeners to provide a detailed guide to a plant’s inner workings, from the biological detail of the plant itself to its relationship to the natural world. Ever wondered how plants actually work? This is the book for you. It also demonstrates how plants work together and with animals to survive and how they reproduce. The book includes microscopic photographs and answers questions like ‘Why are plants edible?’ and looks at the role of genetic engineering in the growing of plants. Perfect for those beginning as gardeners, and expert gardeners alike and for practical gardeners or just those who like to visit gardens.

Buy from Waterstones

PENELOPE HOBHOUSE RECOMMENDS: Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India by Elizabeth B Moynihan

Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India by Elizabeth B Moynihan

Highly readable, this book is a brilliant synopsis of garden-making from Cyrus the Great’s garden in the 540s BC until the decline of the great Mughal dynasty after the death of the Taj Mahal’s builder, the Emperor Shah Jahan, in 1666 AD. The book explores design, architectural development and relation to the Paradise myth.

Buy from Amazon

RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening

Edited by Chris Brickell
ISBN 978-1409383949

Divided into two parts – Creating a Garden and Maintaining the Garden – the book provides advice on garden design along with practical planting tips. It’s a classic reference book for any level of gardener, beginner or expert and offers knowledge on propagation, pruning and vegetable gardens as well as planting guides, living roofs and how to plant in containers. It’s created by editor Chris Brickell and a team of specialist contributors and has been updated since it was first published 20 years ago.

Buy from Waterstones

PENELOPE HOBHOUSE RECOMMENDS: Manual of Trees & Shrubs by Hillier Nurseries

Manual of Trees & Shrubs by Hillier Nurseries

by John G Hillier and
Roy Lancaster
Royal Horticultural Society
ISBN 190-7057471

‘Reference books lie in a small heap beside my desk. For me the most valuable is Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs. I have various editions, all heavily annotated by me or my husband.’

A revised and updated version of this book has been released, with over 1,500 new plants featured. Hillier is known as a nursery with a specific focus on trees and shrubs and its Chelsea displays are legendary. This is considered one of the foremost books on hardy woody plants today and is perfect for the beginner gardener as well as the professional. Former curator of The Hillier Arboretum Roy Lancaster worked with Sir Harold Hillier on the first Hillier Manual and has contributed his knowledge on wisdom to its revisions over the years.

Buy from Waterstones

Annuals and Biennials

by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix
Pan Books
ISBN 978-0330373524

Annuals and Biennials, the tenth volume of Phillips and Rix’s Garden Plant Series, showcases more than 1,000 plants, both wild and cultivated, making it one of the best reference guide gardening books. The book features photography throughout and explains how annuals are easy to grow and offer a quick way to give your garden a natural, wild look. While it’s aimed more at the professional landscaper than beginner, there’s still lots to take away from this book, whatever level of knowledge you have.

Buy from Amazon