Gardening Books to Dream With

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Reading in the Secret Garden

Reading a beautiful gardening book in the middle of winter is the easiest way to travel to a green space.

Pity those gardeners in warmer climes who garden all through the winter. Scarcely are the holidays over, and their hellebores are up and crocuses are showing buds. They never get to put up their feet and completely ignore what the plants are doing outside.

We cold climate gardeners, on the other hand, can fully and freely indulge in garden dreaming. And how better to dream than with a good book, the kind that takes you far, far away. I’ve assembled a collection of favorite books to dream by that I get out to browse this time of year. What they all have in common is the “oooh” factor, an abundance of beauty that seeps into my soul and eases a tightness there. See how many of your favorites are on this list, and tell me about your own.

William H. Frederick has an amazing garden of several acres, which he uses to illustrate his points in The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand: Plant Combinations for North American Gardens. I think this was the first book that introduced me to the idea that plants–shrubs and small trees, in particular–could be grown in huge swaths as sculpture adorning the topography of the site. It is garden design on a larger scale than I had previously considered, and actually an appropriate consideration for an old farmhouse on acreage. Frederick does not have an old farm house, however. His house of more modern vintage actually spans a stream, and the stream garden viewable from the house has four ponds and five waterfalls. The photos, while dreamworthy, serve to illustrate Frederick’s solid design advice and his thoughts on the need for “gardens of strong exuberance, gardens that represent a celebration of the merging of art and nature.” I bet, like me, you will wish you could walk through his gardens and maybe live in his house.

Creating a Garden by Mary KeenWant to tour an English garden? Better yet, want to see how an English garden designer renovates one? Mary Keen in Creating a Garden shows you some of the design challenges she faced and how she solved them. One thing I like about this book is there a map of the whole garden and a more detailed map of each section as she focuses on it. It makes it easier to walk through her garden and imagine I am there. While this book illustrates many design principles, it also offers a peek into a whole ‘nother climate:

Faced with growing flowers where the climate seemed cold, the gradients steep and the soil stony, I found it hard not to question the fact that the Cotswolds are famous for their gardens. Our last house was on a gentle south-facing slope. The gravelly soil drained fast, and it was easy to work and around the house it was always warm. Abutilons often lasted through the winter in Berkshire; there was a 9-foot-tall bay tree and we pruned our roses before Christmas. In the Cotswolds, the accepted principles seemed to be quite different. Gardening looked like much harder work and the wind was clearly a problem. Locals implied that snow fell every winter.

Snow fell every winter. What a shocker! Well, as I said, I read these books because they transport me to a different world. I try to ignore the fact that what some consider “much harder work” is the status quo for me and mostly just wallow in the beauty I find on every page.

A Way to Garden : A Hands-On Primer for Every Season was Margaret Roach’s first book, and the inspiration for her website of the same name. A Way to Garden is a series of thoughtful essays on the why of gardening, with plenty of how thrown in. Copake Falls, NY, where Roach gardens, is located in USDA Hardiness Zone 5, and she has learned her share of “zone denial” tricks. I’ve read all of Margaret’s books (reviewed The Backyard Parables here), but this one is my hands-down favorite, probably because it has more pictures. You can read about my visit to Margaret Roach’s garden here.

Since reviewing The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents in 2006, I actually had the opportunity to visit this garden in August 2013. And no, I did not go on the rope bridge. Les Quatre Vents is a wonderful mixture of strong formal elements with more informal, naturalistic areas, plus a generous amount of whimsy. Take heart that this is a USDA Zone 4 garden; assuming you have good snow cover, you can probably grow all of the plants showcased in this lovely book. The Greater Perfection got me through the final two weeks of a troubled pregnancy, on bed rest in the hospital more than ten years ago, waiting for my healthy daughter to be born–so it will always have a special place in my heart.

You may have noticed that all the books mentioned so far are at least ten years old and out of print. Perhaps, as a less experienced gardener, I was more impressionable back then, so that the images in these books have stayed with me, compelling me to revisit them, while more recent books have affected me less deeply. Maybe–however, one recent book stands out as equal to these old favorites, and that is The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage by David L. Culp with Adam Levine. As I page through the utterly gorgeous photos in this book, it is comforting to know that Culp has a slow-filling well and rarely waters anything, or uses chemical fertilizers or pesticides. He gardens within the restrictions of his land, and believes that “any resourceful gardener can come up with a satisfying palette of plants that will thrive on any particular site.”

The trick is to pay attention to what the garden is telling you, “to love what loves us back, and not to covet what loves the gardens of others.” In other words, grow more of what does well for you. Culp is a plant collector, so when something does well for him, he tends to explore the genus thoroughly, planting every species and cultivar he can find, and in the case of hellebores, breeding more of his own. There are many intimate plant vignettes in his garden, but I particularly studied how he incorporated a one acre hillside into his design, as our back deck faces a hillside and I would like to add more visual interest there. You may be more interested in plants he is able to grow under black walnut trees, but rest assured you will learn something new as well as feast your eyes.

In my cold climate, regular summer rainfall is expected, and my choice of books reflects that. If your climate has a hot, dry summer, these books may be hard for you to relate to. Please share your own favorite garden-dreaming books in the comments, so we can all broaden our capacity to drink in beauty while the world swirls white around us.

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About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Joene January 24, 2014, 9:59 am

Hmmm, The Exuberant Garden sounds intriguing. Thanks for the great recommendations. These cold temperatures make me want to curl up under a blanket in a sun-strewn window to read … pure escapism!

Kathy Purdy January 24, 2014, 11:04 am

I hear ya!

Kelly January 23, 2014, 6:22 pm

You are so right! I just finished ‘The Layered Garden’ and loved it! And I second Deborah B on Helen Dillon’s ‘Down to Earth’ – it’s a favorite of mine.

Since it’s cold where I garden too (in Maine) I enjoy the break with lots of seed catalog browsing (and buying) and garden book reading. I’m currently reading ‘Virginia Woolf’s Garden’ and am enjoying it so much, I also just bought Alys Fowler’s book, ‘Edible Gardening’ that I am excited to read. My husband and I have been renovating our litttle bungalow and one of my major projects this year will be the kitchen garden so I am excited to hear Alys’ take on it.

I haven’t heard about ‘A Year at North Hill’ but it’s now on my ‘need to read’ list! Thanks for all the book suggestions! ~Kelly

commonweeder January 23, 2014, 12:42 pm

I am familiar with these books, and I am looking forward to reading The Layered Garden. The book I dream over in winter is The Glory of Roses with its beautiful photographs, and delightful text by Allen Lacy.

Deborah B January 22, 2014, 11:08 pm

Thanks for the Garden Dreaming book list. I’m familiar with some of them, but will watch for the others. I have to add Helen Dillon’s Down to Earth to the list. I love the humor and wit of this woman. The book is filled with photographs of her garden in Ireland for you to drool over, but she also shares her practical experience and notes about her days that let you know she is out there in the mud just like you. I would love to spend a few hours in Helen’s garden, but I’d really die happy if I could spend a few hours with Helen.
Another of my favorite books to dream with is A Year at North Hill, by Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck. This is one of the older of their books but by far the best, in my opinion. The story of the garden is absorbing, along with their discussion of many plants to die for. I find the authors a bit too impressed with themselves in their later books; I don’t get that vibe from this book. And unlike Helen Dillon’s garden, North Hill is in a climate zone just like our own here in upstate NY. You can more easily fantasize about accomplishing what Winterrowd and Eck did at North Hill. (It’s at least possible climatically.)
I also spend time every year with Adrian Bloom’s Gardening With Conifers. I use it for a reference sometimes. But I could sit for an hour just looking at his beautiful photographs of conifer gardens, trying to puzzle out how he makes a landscape look so beautiful with so many different conifers in the bed. I had the pleasure of hearing Bloom speak in Albany in 2010, and he confessed that since that book was published, he has had to remove some of the more overgrown trees in the beds at Foggy Bottom, his garden in England. So even Adrian Bloom sometimes overplants.

Kathy Purdy January 23, 2014, 8:20 am

I have a few of Helen Dillon’s books, but not Down to Earth. I had considered her books but decided to save them for another blog post (maybe next winter’s?). A Year at North Hill is one of my all-time favorite books to read, but really, photographs are not the big draw in that book. I was featuring books in this article where the photographs were a lot more prominent. And I agree with your assessment of their latest books, though they do still have a lot of good information for cold climate gardeners. I have never read anything by Adrian Bloom, and I’m not that big on conifers. But maybe if I read his book that would change. I’ll have to see if it’s in our public library.

Deborah B January 23, 2014, 9:19 pm

You’re right, I caught your emphasis on photographs but decided to ignore it for the Year at North Hill book because it truly sends me into Dream mode. And I admit my love of the Helen Dillon book is more connected to the text than to the photographs, although it has lots of them too. But I’m sure the Adrian Bloom conifer book qualifies. The photographs are THE thing for me in this one. 🙂 Other books I love for the eye candy include The Passion for Gardening by Ken Druse, Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden by Adrian Higgins (with Rob Cardillo photographs), Fall Scaping by Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohen, Great Planting by Lucy Gent, and The Bold and Brilliant Garden by Sarah Raven.

Kathy Purdy January 23, 2014, 10:50 pm

Well, well, well this calls for a trip to the library. Never heard of Lucy Gent. Never read the Chanticleer book or the Ken Druse one, although I’d heard of them both. Love any book by Nancy Ondra, and own Fallscaping. And I think I may have come across Sarah Raven’s book, but obviously need a refresher.

Donna@Gardens Eye View January 20, 2014, 8:24 pm

Kathy I love this post and your choices. I have only read one of these so many more books to wrap my brain around and start the dreams over and over again…ah winter!!

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern January 19, 2014, 5:59 pm

I think I am addicted to gardening books almost as much as gardening! I fell in love with the Layered Garden – so beautiful and actually read the words, too. It is a book I should own. Last Winter I spent reading Margaret Roach’s newest book the Backyard Parables. I love the connection she has to her garden and feel that connection, too, to my own. I will have to check out all the books you mention here!

Frank January 19, 2014, 11:31 am

Nice collection of titles! I should really just get the layered garden, I’ve been eyeing it for a while but you make it sound like it’s a book right up my alley.
Enjoy your reading, sounds like there’s another blast of cold coming and that should just encourage more feet up in the warmth relaxing!

Diana January 19, 2014, 9:06 am

Kathy – Those all look like wonderful books and I will definitely have to find a few of them for my own collection. I do have The Layered Garden and feel the same way you do about it. It gives me hope for layering over time, and for dreaming big in my garden. The gardens and photos are stunning. Happy reading.

Pam/Digging January 18, 2014, 4:48 pm

“Pity those gardeners in warmer climes who garden all through the winter.” Ha ha, good one, Kathy. 😉 Those do look like excellent gardening books to curl up with. Thanks for the recommendations! Pam in Austin

Kathy Purdy January 18, 2014, 5:38 pm

It’s called making lemonade out of lemons. What I really don’t envy about your climate is the summer heat.