The Garden Genre; A Few Good Books

ImageThe Lost Gardens of Heligan reclaimed


I love to garden. In fact, if I had to choose a favorite second creative outlet I would choose gardening. It’s an artistic medium unto itself. I began my foray into gardening, and the rocky New England soil, with a small vegetable plot about twenty years ago in my mom’s back yard, and have grown vegetables almost every year since. But I’m not talking vegetables here. It’s not the thought of gargantuan squash plants that gets my heart beating faster in the middle of January. Vegetables are well and good, and necessary, but the challenges and beauties of creating a perennial garden are what have me prematurely planning and plotting in the midst of deep winter. I have a few favorite books to recommend if you also suffer, or would like to suffer, from this affliction, which I think is more acute for us northern dwellers, hampered as we are by the pestilence winter.  By the end of summer I am usually pretty well done with gardening, especially if I’ve built new gardens as well as growing and preserving vegetables, but come December I’m ready to have at it again. Unfortunately in New England we can’t even have gardens with “winter interest” as the Brits do because the snow inevitably comes and crushes everything, melting around late April and revealing garden beds that look something like a room ransacked by a group of toddlers. Speaking of Brits, three of my suggested reads are by British writers/gardeners and two are specifically about British gardens. I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to gardens. Let’s face it, they’ve been doing it longer than we have and they respect tradition. You’re not going to find a plastic Home Depot rose trellis in Sussex or Corwall. I’m sorry but it’s true. The Brits make those things out of sticks! It’s called wattle. That’s how seriously they take their gardening; they sit on their stone “fences” and weave their own garden ornaments while we inter a pot of marigolds and call it a day. Okay I’ll stop now. As you can see, I aspire to be a British gardener. 

The List

ImageThe Lost Gardens of Heligan by Tim Smit

If you like the abandoned castle genre, you’ll love this book. Located near Cornwall in fact, Heligan was once an ambitious and sprawling garden that included jungle plantings, ponds and extensive greenhouses with exotic fruits which serviced a large manor house. After the loss of much of its male staff in WWI, the garden fell to neglect and essentially suffocated in its own growth: think the Downton Abbey where-is-it-now 70 years later TV special. The gardens were rediscovered in the 1990s and a long period of reclamation began. Do a google images search to see more photos of the garden today. It’s astounding. The Lost Gardens of Heligan is the story of the gardens’ discovery and reclamation, but there are other Heligan-themed books out there. With pictures!

ImageThe Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

This one is set outside Shropshire in the dower house of Morville. The book takes the form of a Medieval book of hours, ticking off morning, noon and night, as well as seasons of the year by the progress of Swift’s plants and garden. Swift focuses on creating garden ‘rooms’, another peculiarly British tradition that most American gardeners haven’t adopted, or don’t have the space to adopt. This is a calming, poetic and meditative sort of book. I found it inspiring but not too agitating to read in winter. Some other gardening books can be too much of a ‘call to arms’ to pick up in February. And as many gardeners know, armchair gardening is akin to daydreaming about food during a diet.

ImageFounding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf

Written by a British woman but all about the gardening habits of our Founding Fathers. It’s been a while since I read this one. From what I can remember, Thomas Jefferson was quite a plant hoarder. He was responsible for bringing a variety of vegetables into the country, cultivating them and distributing seeds or cuttings. What struck me most about the story of our gardening origins is kind of obvious: they were all farmers back then. Everyone had to be a pretty serious farmer if he wanted to survive. We’ve wandered so far from those origins and we’ve lost so much of our plant diversity. This is one area in which we haven’t progressed. Our American ingenuity hasn’t been equal to cultivating a broader range of carrots, tomatoes and lettuces. There are some dedicated people and organizations working around the edges to distribute heirloom varieties and keep seeds in circulation, but I fear the powers that be in this country simply don’t find food security that compelling. Why else would they be so laissez faire about GMOs and Monsanto. Oh yeah, money.

I’ll give the titles of two more books I found inspiring and helpful:

Heirloom Flowers by Tovah Martin is an encyclopedia of sorts with beautiful color photos and descriptions. Martin is a New England garden writer who also worked on books by our doyenne of New England gardening: Tasha Tudor.

Leading me to: Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. Although Tudor didn’t have a hand in writing this, you’d think she simply called it into being with her creative magic, that’s how imbued this book is with Tudor’s spirit. She died a few years back in her 90s, but her legacy in gardens, paintings and picture book illustrations lives on. You have to experience Tudor’s gardens and lifestyle in the photos and writing to really understand her world. Check out her dollhouse book too.

My shelves are filled with many more gardening goodies but I’ll stop for now and leave you with a garden poem, of sorts.  If there’s no snow on the ground where you are, do a little garden clean-up with me in mind.


Taking Leave


The first family settled here, 1850.

He built stonewalls to contain

a flock of sheep. She tended the tiger

lilies and daffodils in the dooryard, growing leggy

for the sun. The farmhouse burned.

No one built new on the old site.


Sometimes you have to let a place go.


In our time we found a forest, trees

cracked through the hearth stone.

You ran the saw, I flagged

the wells and cellar holes, excavated

relics we could use: rusted tools;

and those we couldn’t: eyelets

from a woman’s shoe.


Who will collect the broken bottles I heaped for later?


The rough pencil sketch creased and dated

in your hand is all that remains of our cabin.

Fallen on better times we left

and arranged for its deconstruction. 

The sheathing and the steep pitched roof, the porch,

its three steps, the windows, the windows’

frames: all gone, to one who would take

the time to hammer out bent nails.


We’re the kind of people who have to let a place go, so


I scattered seeds for flowers first. Flowers

have minds of their own: cosmos, aster, sweet william

nicotiana. My bee balm spread rampant as fever.

Sowing seed is like whispering to the wind

                                                                 I’ll be sorry

                                                       to go


3 thoughts on “The Garden Genre; A Few Good Books

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