Winter is a rest season for vegetable gardeners, but it won’t be long before we start planning for the year ahead. Not so fast. Before I start making lists and sorting through seeds, I like to spend time studying and dreaming with the help of wonderful gardening books. Here I am not talking how-to books, which will come into season soon enough, but rather masterful works on nature and gardening that illuminate the green world in fresh ways.
Starting with what’s new and backtracking to revered classics, here are seven unforgettable books to savor while it’s too cold to garden.
Best Contemporary Gardening Books
I am on my library’s waiting list for The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world, by German forester Peter Wohlleben. This best-seller looks at a woodland as an interconnected, actively communicating community of life forms. Do trees have “brain-like structures” in their root tips that make them remember traumas such as droughts? As a fan of fungi I am inclined to believe in Wohlleben’s “wood-wide web,” in which even dead stumps receive nurturance from their neighbors. In addition to a good read, I expect The Hidden Life of Trees to bring a new level of enlightenment to my winter walks in the woods.
Speaking of walks in the woods, What the Robin Knows: How birds reveal their secrets of the natural world, by Jon Young, will change the way you do that, too, because you will be hearing birds with informed ears. This time of year, when I go outside and walk past the empty bird feeder, I will be called to by nuthatches, as if they know my name. They do know me well, as the provider of sunflower seeds. When I hear pileated woodpeckers making their chicken-like calls late in the day, I know that a mated pair are checking in with each other before heading to roosting holes in different trees. I have read this little book at least three times, but I’m thinking of buying the e-book anyway because it includes audio files of bird chips, chirps, whistles and songs.
The Earth Knows My Name: Food, culture and sustainability in the gardens of ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst won a National Book Award in 2007, and there could be no better time than now to discover this amazing volume. The United States is no longer the world’s only cultural melting pot, and this book explores the importance of food gardens as people adapt to a new climate and culture. Reviewer Ann Lovejoy had this to say: "This provocative, wide-ranging work looks at the deep connections between people and the land. It will leave you blessing the ground you walk on and appreciating every petal and leaf you see."
Classic Garden Books
Today’s used book market is bursting with fine classics you can buy for the cost of shipping, or even less at a used book store. Beautifying space with ornamentals was the specialty of British country gardener Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006), whose spirit sings in several of his “Adventurous Gardener” books that are still in print, including the original The Adventurous Gardener, first published in 1983. You can’t help but learn new things from any page in a Christopher Lloyd book, but one page is never enough because of his charming wit:
“Many gardeners will agree that hand-weeding is not the terrible drudgery that it is often made out to be. Some people find in it a kind of soothing monotony. It leaves their minds free to develop the plot for their next novel or to perfect the brilliant repartee with which they should have encountered a relative's latest example of unreasonableness.”
The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell (1924-1993), first published in 1981, works similar territory, American-style. The 20-year period when Mitchell wrote his Earthman column for the Washington Post were high times for flower gardeners, though Mitchell regularly dipped into edibles and soil, too. This being a gifting season, here is a typical Henry Mitchell quote:
“A stout plastic bag of manure is a splendid gift. I think a whole load (of manure) is too much like giving emerald cuff links - a bit much and rather improper, unless you know the gardener well."
I like all of Michael Pollan’s books, but for me the life-changer has been The Botany of Desire, which questions the idea that humans are in charge of plants. What if plants use their assets and talents to make us work for them, like bees to a flower? Using apples, potatoes, tulips and cannabis for his case studies, Pollan paints delightfully interesting pictures of mankind serving plants. If you prefer video, the Public Broadcasting System produced an educational series based on the book in 2009.
People have definite tastes in poetry, and I am no exception. That said, The Wild Braid by Stanley Kunitz is the “gardening book” Kunitz proudly finished before his death in 2006 at age 100. Poet laureate and winner of a Pulitzer Prize and an American National Book Award, Kunitz once said “All I want to do is write poems and think about the garden, and be in the garden.” The book includes pictures of his seaside garden on Cape Cod, but if you need more convincing to try some Kunitz poetry, watch him read one of his most famous poems, “Touch Me”.