The lure of gardening books

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A recent renovation saw me having to remove all my gardening books from their shelves and place them in piles in my daughter's room for a week. It was lucky she was away on a holiday at the time, as the books seemed to take up the whole room, making me aware of just how enormous my collection had become.

Those who know me are aware of my weakness for gardening books, which began at the same time that I became addicted to gardening. As an avid reader from childhood, it was a joy for me to discover that along with the pleasures of actually doing gardening, there was a whole world of books on the subject to be read.

An old favourite

Handling each book and glancing at them as I stacked them up on the floor, gave a snapshot of my gardening journey over 30 years. The earliest books were very much how-to manuals, giving earnest instructions on all the practicalities of gardening: when to prune, when to plant annuals, what to spray for pests and diseases. These books were my bibles and I studied them fervently, trying to acquire what seemed like an insurmountable body of knowledge. Some were very dry tomes, but others, such as Alan Seale's Gardening for Pleasure, were reassuring and comforting books that encouraged me with the idea that one day I could become a gardener. Shirley Stackhouse's Gardening Year was another early favourite, as it took the reader through the year a month at a time, gently guiding on gardening tasks but also expanding the reader's horizons on plant choices and seasonal themes. Reference books on plants were also read and reread during this time.

Vintage gardening books

A whole section of my shelves is devoted to my English cottage gardening years, mainly during the 1980s, when I was fired up with the idea of creating my garden into something transplanted from a Cotswold village, or in my more deluded moments, something akin to a garden of a grand country estate in England. I devoured many English gardening books, by authors such as Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey, Anne Scott-James, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll and Beth Chatto, making endless lists of wonderful perennial plants I must try and drooling over stunning photographs of superb borders , coloured-schemed to perfection. I was obsessed with Sissinghurst, and have a number of books about that garden, as well as all the vintage gardening books written by Vita Sackville-West. This era of my gardening life culminated in a trip to England in 1987 to visit all the gardens I had read about in these books, which remains one of the highlights of my life.

However, eventually I discovered that it was not so easy to create an English garden in Sydney, because our climate is so very different, and sadly, I had to give up that particular dream. I never lost my love of the wonderful colour schemes that I had seen in English gardens, nor the exhilarating effect of exuberant, billowing plants growing together to form a coherent picture. I bought books about colour in gardening, such as Penelope Hobhouse's Colour in your Garden, photographer Andrew Lawson's The Gardener's Book of Colour and the brilliant Colour Echoes by Pamela Harper, which explained the principles of colour and how it can be used in planting schemes. I also realised the importance of foliage, and read books devoted wholly to leaves!

For a while, I was interested in the idea of Mediterranean gardening, thinking this could be the answer, and I acquired a number of books on the subject, before realising that this was not quite right for Sydney's climate either.

I then moved on to the world of semi-tropical gardening, using warm-climate plants from South Africa, Southern and Central America and other regions with climates similar to ours to try to recreate the effects I had adored in the English gardens. So there are shelves groaning with books on tropical gardens and tropical plants. One thing I had learnt during my English garden phase was the importance of good structure underpinning lush planting schemes, so I read books on garden design, such as the classic Education of a Gardener by Russell Page and Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck.

My horizons were also expanded when I discovered a number of American garden writers who wrote engagingly and amusingly of their own personal experiences and ideas, and introduced me to a different perspective on gardens and planting altogether, authors such as Ann Lovejoy, Henry Mitchell and Allan Lacey. And of course, I read any books written by Australian gardeners telling of their own gardens and experiences, including those by Leo Schofield, Michael McCoy, Edna Walling and Tom Garnett. Other books on my shelves speak of passing fads and phases: grasses, earthworms, North American prairie plants, hellebores, species geraniums, herbs and seed-raising. I also have enjoyed books exploring the meaning of gardening and why we garden, such as Peter Timms's The Nature of Gardening and Karel Capek's quirky The Gardener's Year.

I think I have spent more time reading gardening books over the years than actually gardening, and I certainly have never put into practice a fraction of what I have read. Still, perusing gardening books remain one of the joys of my life!

Many of my gardening books have come from the book shop Florilegium at 65 Derwent Street, Glebe, and it is having a sale to mark its 21st birthday, from 18 August to 8 September.

Reader Comments

  • By Peta 6253 Monday, 16 August 2010

    Gardening books! I have had to invest in more bookshelves over the years to accommodate my collection which has many titles in common with yours. Occasionally I try to reduce my collection just to make space, but find it very hard to give away anything. Reading or digging - both are essential!

    I agree! I don't think I would enjoy gardening as much if it were not for the other dimension of reading gardening books. Deirdre.

  • By Sue 2073 Monday, 16 August 2010

    I still try to keep an English cottage garden with roses, lavender violets etc. struggling a bit , but I now find myself putting in small natives such as correas and groundcover grevillias which work well. A beautiful gardening book is wonderful when the knees or the back protest at the real thing.

    So true! Re cottage gardens, I still have some much-loved plants from that era in my life. Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 Monday, 16 August 2010

    Dear Deirdre, I love sorting through my collection of gardening books. The only problem is I spend hours getting them back on the shelves as I start to read bits out of favorite books as I go! Georgina.

    Thanks, Georgina. I have re-read some of my favourites many times. Deirdre

  • By Robin 2121 Monday, 16 August 2010

    Collecting gardening books is as addictive as collecting plants. However, after reading Susan Irvines Garden of a Thousand Roses years ago I now enjoy books about gardeners and the gardens they have created more than books about plants and how to garden.

    Yes I love those ones. And my favourites include the quirky garden novels by Beverley Nichols.Deirdre

  • By jan 2072 Monday, 16 August 2010

    Hi Deidre, Ive been given for my birthday The Constant Gardner by Holly Kerr Forsyth. As well as collecting books I have early cuttings from newspapers with gardening advice. Now you are my electronic gardening bible. Saves a lot of space on my bookshelves. Jan.B.

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 16 August 2010

    know what you mean about gardening books! However, I often snuggle up in bed in winter with an old one, and am reminded of my love for gardening and plants. A favourite book of mine is Leo Schofields The Garden at Bronte House.

    Yes, such a joy to re-read old favourites. I love that Bronte House one, too. Deirdre

  • By trish 4068 Monday, 16 August 2010

    I often think that if I spent less time reading about gardening and garden design,and more time out there getting on with it I would have a fabulous garden! I love Trevor Nottles take on gardening - his Gardens of the Sun in particular - examines the reality of gardening in Australia.

    I read Trevor Nottle's books fairly early in my gardening life and loved them. I definitely spend more time thinking and reading about gardening than actually doing it! Deirdre

  • By Jill 3941 Saturday, 21 August 2010

    You have a wonderful collection of garden books. I didnt notice the new book by Stephanie Alexander, which I was given for my birthday. It is called The Cooks Gardeners Companion and is a very large tome. From it I gathered the information to create 3 apple crate gardens, a wonderful idea.

    Thanks, Jill. I do not have that book but would love to acquire it one day as I am keen to do more vegetable growing and it seems a great book. Deirdre

  • By dorothy 4060 Tuesday, 31 August 2010

    I have a few garden books and do like to browse when I have the time. It must have been wonderful to see the books you have read on English gardens in reality.Dot.

    Thanks, Dot. Yes, it was truly a wonderful experience when I visited England all those years ago. Deirdre

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