Book Review: Three for Reference

Autumn is a good time to start plans for next season in the garden, and the following three books are great aids to help gardeners to do so. Over the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of reading:

  • The mother of all plant reference works
  • A great boxed set to inspire the budding fruit and veg grower, no matter how small their plot
  • A book on design that's been a regular companion in my garden, whilst I ponder where it's headed next.

All three are review copies, I received courtesy of the publishers.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - book and slipcase images
This is no lap book, but a hefty tome weighing in at around four kilos. It merits a read whilst sitting at a table with a cuppa and notebook to hand.

This is the 4th Edition of Christopher Brickell's outstanding work. Around 5,000 plants have been added, to provide a comprehensive reference of over 15,000 garden plants.

I would have preferred the two-volume approach of the previous edition, but welcome the increased focus on plant descriptions of this one.

Other reviews have criticised the exclusion of some of their favourite sections from previous editions, most notably the one on pests and diseases. I have a well-thumbed copy of RHS Pests and Diseases, which is a more comprehensive reference, and I'd recommend that as a replacement guide.

Readers should note the entries are found under their Latin genus name, but are cross referenced against their common ones, so everyone should still be able to find what they're looking for.

The genus entry begins with an introduction and general cultivation notes, followed by specific descriptions of the species, plus variants and cultivars where appropriate. The usual descriptive information on flowers, stems and leaves; height and spread, and hardiness is all there as expected. I would have liked to have seen Award of Garden Merit information too, as this is often a deciding factor gardeners use when faced with a plethora of choice.

There are plenty of clear photographs on every page, though note not every plant has a photograph. Drawings of e.g. plant taxonomy are also included, where needed. The result makes this reference attractive to look at and read.

With the advent of the internet some might question whether there is still a place for this kind of work. I'd argue there is as I've found it particularly useful for choosing the replacement plants I'd like for my back garden. I've found it easier to look through and bookmark the possibilities, then look through them again to make my shortlist, Rather than trying to keep track of dozens of online equivalents.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants has a RRP of £75, which is good value for such a comprehensive work and some bargains may be found if you look around. It's worth consideration as a gift for the gardener in your life regardless of their level of ability.

RHS Fruit and Veg Box

RHS Fruit & Veg Box slipcase image
There are plenty of books on growing your own (GYO), but this one is a little different. It's actually three volumes, neatly packaged in a flip-top box, designed to lead beginner GYO gardeners from container growing (Grow Fruit and Veg in Pots), through starting their own veg patch (Step-by-step Veg Patch), then finally feasting on their harvest (Cook Your Crop).

Each book is bright and attractive, and the growing guides are packed with information to get budding fruit and veg growers off to a good start, no matter how small their dedicated GYO space may be.

The recipe book is divided into seasons, so fits in neatly with the GYO books. There are 100 recipes to help growers make the most of their crops, with a wide variety of starters, mains, puds and preserves. They also range from everyday cooking through to recipes fit to grace any dinner party or special family occasion. Most are quick and easy too and make good use of their fresh ingredients.

The RHS Fruit and Veg Box RRP is £20, and has an air of "buy 2 get 1 free" about it, as it's a combination of two RHS grow guides published already, plus a brand new cook book. It's a great combination. I'm going to pass on my review copy to a friend who is in the process of buying her first house and can't wait to get growing. I think this neat box is an ideal way to keep her enthusiasm going.

New Small Garden

New Small Garden book cover image
Noel Kingsbury's book is aimed at gardeners with smaller gardens than mine, but much of his advice and guidance is just as relevant to my situation.

It's also a timely volume as I'm planning a couple of replacement borders in my back garden. The strength of this book is it's rooted in reality as most of the gardens featured are real ones, rather than the stock photos of show gardens used in similar volumes. As a result it shows solutions to real problems overcome by garden owners, which are transferable to those gardens found on new or newish urban estates like mine.

Another strength is the emphasis on planting design which fits my needs exactly. However, that hasn't stopped me sitting in my garden mulling over the introductory first principles explained in the opening chapters, even though I already know my garden's soil and aspect, and the hardscaping is in place already.

A major takeaway for me from those chapters has been to look at my garden afresh from the patio and decide what needs to be done from there i.e. the place from where the garden is viewed most often. I now realise I've over complicated matters in the past by trying to design my garden to fit all viewing angles, and thus I've set myself up to fail.

I shall continue to use this book over the winter - along with the RHS encyclopedia reviewed above - to plan my new borders.

The New Small Garden has a RRP of £20, which I think is good value for the quality of practical information and great photography by Maayke de Ridder. You may also like to read Noel's blog about his writing process for this book, it's an interesting read.


  1. A good review of the three books. I would guess that the internet and price of the first will limit its market, but the other two should certainly have a wider appeal. Flighty xx

    1. Hi Flighty - interesting point about the internet... it's fine if you know what you're looking for, but not so good if you want to look at a number of possibilities to choose between them. For instance, I wouldn't be considering Amsonia for my garden without having the first book. I'd never heard of it before and it looks a wonderful plant to add autumn interest to my garden.

    2. Psst! It's £42.34 on Wordery including delivery, which is a bargain! Wordery are a British company that pay their taxes too :)

  2. Does the small garden book actually deal with small (as in urban small) gardens? The number of times I've looked at small garden books and they're talking about gardens which are palatial compared to my plot (my back garden is 25 ft x about 15ft. I often want to ring small garden designers up and ask them to come around and get a real idea of what small looks like :)

    1. Yes it does JR. It includes balcony and container gardens as well as those around your garden's size. Many of the gardens featured are in Holland, which tends to have even smaller gardens than we do.

  3. must make do with the internet, but I appreciate the link to Noel's blog.

    1. I'm pleased with that find too Diana :)


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