Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Treasury of Garden Books

If you're stuck for a Christmas present or two for a gardening friend or family member, you may find something suitable in this selection of gardening books I've enjoyed this year...

For food growers

A treasury of garden books: Grow for Flavour
Grow for Flavour has turned out to be my hit of the year as it's the book I've returned to many times. James Wong has extensively searched through thousands of scientific papers and distilled the knowledge gained into this attractive and very readable book.

One of the reasons we grow our own is for the freshness and superior flavour our crops brings us. James examines the factors which influence flavour and delivers dozens of handy tips which are easily achievable.

It's not all theory and science, James also looked at which varieties do the best in our climate by commandeering some space at RHS Wisley to conduct a flavour trial. So for each popular crop examined you have a number of suggestions to try for yourself.

We noticed at the tomato trial earlier this year there was a distinct difference in flavour between tomatoes grown in pots in the greenhouse and those grown directly in the ground. The ground grown had more flavour and the Brix meter showed they were much sweeter. Sure enough, when I looked up tomatoes in James' book when I got home, ground vs pot is one of the factors discussed.

A treasury of garden books: Ferment Your Vegetables

Hot on the heels of the Fermented book I looked at last week comes Amanda Feifer's Ferment Your Vegetables.

Where last week's book served as a general introduction to the world of fermented foods, this one takes a more detailed look at just one aspect.

Here you will find lots of ideas for naturally fermenting your vegetables to produce kimchi, kraut and lots of pickles.

Being of American origin, this book has plenty of reassurance on how safe the fermentation process is and lots of troubleshooting guidance on what to do when things go wrong.

As a newcomer to fermented foods I'm glad to have both books to explore. This one is particularly good for dealing with future allotment gluts. The only downside to this book is the resources section only caters for the USA and Canada audience, so it's handy I have Charlotte Pike's book to plug that gap.

A treasury of garden books: Straw Bale Gardens Complete cover
I confess I read Straw Bale Gardens Complete in the spring, got all enthused to give it a go, but sadly family circumstances meant I couldn't put US author Joel Karsten's thorough guidance into practise this year.

It's great to have a book which puts a different cultivation technique firmly into the hands of ordinary gardeners like me. I saw instantly how it would help to clear and suppress weeds on part of my plot, and it would be easier to look after. It has all kinds of other possibilities e.g. where there is space, but no ground for cultivation - at some of our older schools which only have tarmacked space perhaps?

One caveat springs to mind for UK gardeners: no matter how well designed a straw bale garden may be, there will be plenty of onlookers who won't see its beauty. However, I'm sure there are plenty of instances where that doesn't matter.

Once straw bale(s) are sourced, there is a crucial time period where the bale has to be kept thoroughly wetted to start the decomposition process which in turn helps to feed the crops as well as providing a good water supply. Once this intensive time is complete, the amount of watering needed is far less than for more conventional growing methods - a definite plus for drier summers or where access to a water supply is restricted.

Can't source a supply of straw bales? No problem, this book shows how you can make your own.

This book is at the top of the pile for me to return to for 2016.


For plantaholics

I love this series of Plant Lovers Guides (see my previous review of Snowdrops and Salvias; I then acquired the equally delightful Sedums and Dahlias for my birthday). They deliver just the right amount of detail on how to grow, designing with the plant in question and planting companions, plus a great selection of species, varieties and cultivars to choose from.

This latest selection doesn't disappoint and I'm hoping Santa brings me Tulips and Epimediums this Christmas, and I see there are Clematis, Hardy Geraniums, Magnolias and Primulas to come. 

A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Asters cover
The name Picton is probably familiar to you already as The Picton Garden in Worcestershire is renowned for its autumn asters aka Michaelmas daisies, which has national collection status.

Therefore the selection of garden owner Paul Picton and his daughter Helen to produce the Asters guide is a wise one.

Another great thing about these guides is the authors' individual voices are allowed to shine through. Here it's much more of a conversation between Paul and Helen.

An immediate surprise when I opened the book is that asters have been reclassified into several new genera, with the brain taxing Symphyotrichum and Eurybia (and a number of others) sitting alongside Aster, which I briefly touched on in October's Blooms Day. The reasons why are tackled here with aplomb, and I've since learned our American cousins have had several years ahead of us to get used to the new names as they refer to genera hailing from over there.

I also learned several of the asters looked at in more detail originally hail from the Devizes area, most notably the popular S. 'Little Carlow'. I'm contemplating starting a collection of Wiltshire cultivars - I already have the foxglove 'Glory of Roundway' for the spring/early summer, and some asters would add an autumnal highlight.

A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Ferns cover
I was privileged to meet Richie Steffen last year, when my friend Marty arranged for him to be our guide (with Victoria and Charlotte) round the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he is the curator.

I came away from the garden enthused by Richie and by the many ferns on display, especially seeing how well they're used in the deeply wooded areas. So it's no surprise to me that Richie was chosen to co-author Ferns.

Kate asked me a while ago how applicable this book is to a UK-based audience. Having now worked through the book and produced a long wishlist of ferns for the front side garden, I can assure her that it's provided me with an invaluable guide.

A treasury of garden books: Claire Austin's Book of Perennials cover
Claire Austin is noted for her displays of Irises at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but a visit to her nursery on the Welsh border quickly shows she has a great depth of knowledge of hardy perennials.

So it's great to see she's put that knowledge to good use and produced a guide to her personal selection of 800 'good doers' for our gardens in the appropriately titled Claire Austin's Book of Perennials.

This is a useful guide for any beginner or gardeners facing a completely blank canvas to fill, or for those like me who go mad from time to time and clear out a bed entirely and start all over again. There's good guidance on 'plants for the right place' in your garden and notes on good perennials for attracting insects, or for cutting.

Irises and peonies get an extra special nod as Claire specialises in these at her nursery.

I was delighted to catch up with Claire in the pub after the GMG Awards, where she had just picked up the award for Reference Book of the Year and was 'chuffed to bits' (her words not mine). Her success shows it's possible to self-publish an award winning book and her advice to those tempted to follow in her footsteps is to hire a good editor.


For a sense of place

A treasury of garden books: Great Gardens of London cover
Victoria has quickly followed up her hugely successful Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds (she tells me it's probably thanks to a prominent placing in the window of a Cirencester bookshop) with an insiders guide to the Great Gardens of London.

This time Hugo Rittson Thomas is joined by award winning photographer Marianne Majerus to bring us the mouth watering images this book delivers and I had a lot of fun trying to match the gardens to each photographer (I scored a pleasing 80%).

Here the definition of great is used in a wider sense to include gardens which have a firm place in our history, and may not necessarily be classified as such design-wise. All are worth their inclusion whatever the reason.

Many of the gardens aren't open to the public, so it's great to have the chance to 'sneak in the gate' of gardens such as 10 Downing Street and the American Ambassador's in Regent's Park to see what's what.

There are 30 gardens to view, divided into 'Pomp and Circumstance', 'Wild in the City', 'Gardeners' Worlds', 'High-Rise Retreats', and 'Private Paradises'. The variety is vast, from the Downings Road Floating Gardens to our latest public park, the Olympic Park. London is huge, so there's a supplement of a further 46 suggested gardens and events to explore.

A treasury of garden books: Oxford College Gardens cover
The first thing to note about Tim Richardson's Oxford College Gardens - apart from its delicious cover - is its weight, at just under 2.5 kilos according to my kitchen scales.

Like Victoria, Tim has drawn on his insider knowledge of a place - as an Oxford graduate in his case - to bring a detailed guide to the best college gardens Oxford has to offer.

Not every college makes the grade, with some of them grouped into a summary guide, before the more 'meaty' gardens are considered in turn.

It is possible to visit many of the college gardens, but Tim's scholarship and Andrew Lawson's expert lens also draws us into those parts not usually on public display, such as the fellows gardens.

I was pleased to see the gardens I was familiar with whilst working in Oxford made the grade (Magdalen, New College and St Anne's) along with my personal favourites, the non-college gardens of the Botanic Garden and University Parks.

Tim's text is engaging and the photos delightful. Once you've worked up the strength to pick it up, this is a great book for anyone planning on a trip Oxford (you can look up college opening times here), or wishing they had a souvenir of the golden times they had whilst studying there.


Disclosure: These are review copies I've received from various publishers. Note I've only reviewed the books I'd recommend and the links are non-affiliate ones to a book company that pays its UK taxes (and delivers worldwide). The exception is Claire Austin's book where the link goes to her own website.

If you prefer to support independent bookshops, then online ordering via The Hive allows you to do so.


  1. I think our Victoria is too modest, don't you? It's a great book. You have quite the roundup. Thank you so much for this excellent and varied roundup. I've got to get that asters book. You know how I love my asters all stripes. The reclassification stuff drives me bonkers as a writer btw. If I don't get by again before Christmas Michelle, Happy Christmas.~~Dee

    1. Yes Dee, Victoria is far too modest, but I also know what she says is true as the publisher has detailed sales stats! I'm driven bonkers by all that reclassification stuff too, but heartened that it took the botanists and geneticists around 40 years of arguing before coming to an agreement on what the reclassification should be!

      Merry Christmas to you and your family Dee, I'm so looking forward to seeing you here in the UK next year :)

  2. A good, and varied, selection of books. I'd certainly like to look through the Great Gardens of London. Flighty xx

    1. Thanks Flighty, I'm sure the London book would be right up your street in view of where you live :)

  3. Thanks for the suggestions VP. I've borrowed James Wong's book from our local library a couple of times - if I take it out again I will have to get my own copy. I have the Plant Lovers Guides covering snowdrops, epimediums and ferns and they are all most excellent. I think that I could be tempted by asters and hardy geraniums will be a must have!

    1. Even though I don't grow Epimediums (yet) it's still a must have book because there's so much information. Too bad Evolution plants has closed, I was intending to buy some this year.


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