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6 Gardening Books to Read This Winter


The creation of a good garden book takes experience, science, imagination, esthetics and organized development. Good photos and an expensive color printing job may add to the value. One that’s amazing can be the result of an author’s lifetime of experience and a publisher’s focus on bringing it beautifully to print. It must also have a personal touch. 

Here are favorite recent books that, to me, exemplify the highest values of garden book publishing. In various ways, each of these choices is a perfect gift, and possibly an essential guide for enhancement of your own living landscape. 

Ken Druse has been called the guru of natural gardening, and his book, The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 256 pages), shows why. An empowering read, it’s a guide to making a shady home environment that’s a haven of beauty while being kind to the planet. His version of naturalistic gardening is more dependent on knowledge than labor. With decades of experience with shade plants, Druse leads the way to best choices while avoiding errors. The large-format book is divided into six parts covering nature’s recent hard times; his own path to shade gardening; a consideration of types of shade; a program for our shade gardens; a directory of plants with purpose; and practical help for making a garden. He concludes with an afterword that’s an essay on sustainability. 

There’s a complete index, and Druse’s own stunning photos are part of the story. In 2013, by the way, the Smithsonian Institute announced the acquisition of the Ken Druse Collection of Garden Photography, comprising 100,000 images of gardens and plants. 

Thought to have been developed thousands of years ago in southeast Turkey, the pear has captured the imagination of scientist and pomologist Joan Morgan. At 304 pages, her amazing treatise, The Book of Pears: The Definitive History and Guide to Over 500 Varieties (Chelsea Green 714+7Vx2zfLPublishing), begins with the history and travels of pears throughout the garden world. She then discusses essential pear information and pruning techniques, and ends with an extensive directory of pear varieties. 

Much art and folklore is included along the way, along with the beautiful botanical paintings of artist Elisabeth Dowle. If perhaps some pear info didn’t meet your eye by page 266, you can use the illustrated identification key that begins there. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the rather obsessive development of choice French pears. A practical note from my own Mid-Atlantic experience: Pears are easier to grow and less dependent on insecticide than apples or peaches. 

I heartily recommend The Art of Gardening: Design, Inspiration, and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, by the Chanticleer Gardeners and R. William Thomas (Timber Press, 338 pages). The hundreds of wonderful photographs are by Rob Cardillo, with several additional shots by gardeners Lisa Roper and Jonathan Wright. The first third discusses design, and the remaining two thirds is a rich resource about the plants of Chanticleer in all their diversity. 

I happen to live very near this world-famous garden, and this colorful look behind the scenes increases my already great appreciation of all that happens there. It’s about gardening, of course. But it’s also about what happens when visionary experts are given creative freedom. True in the garden as well as the book, individual gardeners contribute their own aims, design thoughts and practices. Many voices combine in a compelling portrait here. 


There are not so many foods that can be grown in the shade, but one of them is a delicious, tropical tasting North American native plant that is now the subject of a book filled with history and stories. Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, by Andrew Moore (Chelsea Green, 320 pages), is a literary experience. The author begins a multi-year quest to experience the pawpaw and learn why this so-useful plant fell out of favor after sustaining generations of settlers and rural people. It turns out that, at one time, the pawpaw was so commonly found in wild places that it was not possible to sell it. In fall, kids would come home from school with pockets full of pawpaws that they picked along the way. The fruits must be picked when ripe. They bruise easily, and pawpaw orchards never materialized. 

All this may be changing now, as Moore helps us rediscover a native plant that grows easily, with no pesticides or herbicides, and with little pruning. He even introduces us to other pawpaw aficionados. A1MKApRaArL

British author Jenny Rose Carey presents us with Glorious Shade: Dazzling Plants, Design Ideas, and Proven Techniques for Your Shady Garden (Timber Press, 324 pages). This user-friendly take on shade gardening is aimed at home gardeners. It is especially valuable for the way it increases knowledge about the different types of shade (dry shade, partial shade, shade from walls and buildings, deciduous shade, etc.) and how to select plants that will thrive there and make it sparkle. I like the way she describes what’s underground—layers of soil, intertwined roots of diverse plants, and everything that’s part of the world of soil and roots. 

Carey makes shade gardening sound easy and sensible. It’s one of those books that you suddenly put down in the middle because you just have to get outside and start shoveling. 

The most personal of these special garden books is Big Dreams, Small Garden: A Guide to Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space, by Marianne Willburn (Skyhorse Publishing, 224 pages). Having gone through a disastrous time of change during the financial crisis of 2008, she and her husband ended up in a small house in a small, seemingly undistinguished town. With great honesty, this reader of posh garden magazines explains how she had railed at fate, but then pulled herself together and made the most of what she had. Her garden now is a manageable bit of paradise within walls she built herself with cast-off antique brick. Just as she’d wheel-barrowed her way to this marvelous wall, she has written a sharing, caring book.