A dark winter evening, in the middle of a pandemic, is an excellent time to curl up with a garden book and dream of spring. There are literally millions of them out there, but below are listed some of my favorites, with an eye to Midwestern and Iowa gardens.
Where to get garden books? Check out your local bookstore, of course. There’s nothing better than giving yourself the gift of an hour or two to browse, sip a cup of hot tea, and choose just the perfect book.
Also consider used books because, let’s face it, the fundamentals of gardening don’t change a whole lot over the years.
Online options for both new and used garden books are literally endless. Boo me off the stage if you must, but I confess to liking Amazon, especially since I have Amazon Prime with its free, fast shipping. However, like a lot of people, I am concerned that Amazon might one day completely rule the earth, so I also try to purchase my books at other places online, like Thriftbooks, which has excellent options.
Then there’s your wonderful, reliable, heroic local library. It is free, instant, and populated by some of the best people you’ll ever meet — librarians — who live to help patrons like you find exactly what book you need. The Cedar Rapids Public Library is now even delivering to your doorstep, for a small fee.
The Secret Garden
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Ever since this children’s book was published in 1911, it’s been a beloved favorite of children and adults alike. It’s delightful to get lost in the story of children reclaiming a neglected English estate garden, forgotten tucked behind tall walls. The theme of the healing power of gardens holds as true today as it did more than a century ago.
Square Foot Gardening
“Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew
This classic shook up the world of vegetable gardeners back in the early 1980s and now many of its techniques have become standard practice. Bartholomew was a pioneer of gardening in small spaces and this book fundamentally changed the notion that to grow a lot of food you need a lot of space. And even if you do have plenty of land, the methods detailed here will help you grow just about anything more efficiently with less time and energy.
“Parsnips in the Snow: Talks with Midwestern Gardeners” by Jane Anne Staw and Mary Swander
Parsnips in the Snow
Written in part by former poet laureate of Iowa, Mary Swander, this collection of interviews with a dozen vastly different gardeners — a Trappist monk, a retired mail carrier, an advertising copywriter — is an engaging read chock full of practical tips and hints to implement in your own yard.
A big coffee table book on gardening
It doesn’t matter what it’s about or who it’s by. Treat yourself to one of those glorious photo (or illustration) driven books that are designed purely for dreaming and drooling. Whether it’s Japanese moss gardens or estates of the English countryside or landscapes of Tuscan villas, these books are unadulterated indulgence and pleasure. They don’t have to be expensive. One of my favorites was purchased for just a few dollars in a remainder bin at a supermarket. The only requirement is that they are big, have tons of colorful images, and speak to your soul.
Just about anything by Piet Oudolf
This Dutch landscape designer’s unique eye has sparked a garden design revolution. Rather than focusing merely on pretty flowers and foliage at its peak, Oudolf loves plants in what we think of as their decline — that point in the growing season when they start to dry and fade, revealing their sculptural beauty and subtle coloration of browns, russets, dull golds and grays. You’ll never look at a garden in autumn the same way again.
“Gardening Through the Ages” by Penelope Hobhouse
It’s tough these days to travel the globe, but you’ll travel through many cultures — and many centuries — in this encyclopedic book by one of the world’s foremost Western garden authorities. Starting with Egypt and carrying on through the Islamic gardens of Spain and 18th century European landscapes, these pages will give you a better appreciation of the role of gardening in world culture and how all of them effect the way we tend our own little patches of earth.
“Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” by Michael Pollan
Before he was famous for demonizing high-fructose corn syrup (in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), Pollan wrote this meditation on buying an old dairy farm and attempting to create a garden with minimal interruption of nature. It didn’t exactly work, and Pollan’s account of his experiment is funny, informative, and profound.
A Vintage Garden Book
I find it deeply soothing to find a garden book from 40, 80, or even 100 years ago. It’s a sweet form of time travel to a simpler era. I’ve collected old garden books from the 1920s through the 1950s on flower arranging, landscape design, garden structures and more. They’re pure pleasure to page through and nearly always put a smile on my face. Antique stores and thift shops are the most economical source of these books, but Etsy.com and Facebook Marketplace also have a robust selection of antique and vintage garden volumes.
Black Rose (The Garden Trilogy)
The Garden Trilogy by Nora Roberts
If you’re looking for a soapy romance novel (or three) with a gardening theme, check out The Garden Trilogy by bestselling and prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts: “Blue Dahlia,” “Black Rose,” and “Red Lily.”
Gardening in Iowa
“Gardening in Iowa” by, well, me
Shameless plug here. Twenty years ago I wrote a book, in cooperating with the Federated Garden Clubs of Iowa, about gardening in our state. Its key feature is monthly lists of what you should be doing in the garden, and lots of plant lists of recommended flowers, trees and shrubs.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.