Great garden books, part 1

Garden writers recommend eight top garden books.

Courtesy of Trinity University Press
'Places for the Spirit' is a book of photographs taken by Vaughn Sills of traditional African-American gardens in the South. It's a powerful tribute to a way of life and gardening that is slowly vanishing.

At the beginning of each year, I typically look back over the garden books I read during the previous 12 months and pick the best to recommend. But because I moved from Massachusetts to South Carolina last year, I was pretty sure that in the process, I fell off the mailing lists of various publishers and probably didn't get to see all the good garden books that were released.

So I asked garden-writer colleagues to step in and recommend what they thought were the best books they'd read in the previous year. Since there are a number, I'm breaking this into part 1 (today) and part 2 (click here).

"One of my favorite books this year was 'Boston's Gardens & Green Spaces' by Meg Muckenhoupt (Union Park Press, $22.95), says Hilda M. Morrill, columnist and editor who’s in charge of the website Boston Gardens (no connection to the book).

It has “great photos, great information and history, and introduction to gardens I had never been aware of,” she explains. “Much to look forward to! Good resource for both visitors and residents alike.”

Helen Yoest, who writes at Gardening With Confidence and twice a month here at Diggin' It, says: “I would like to recommend Bobby J. Ward's book: 'Chlorophyll in His Veins; J.C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador' (BJW Books, $20). Dr. Raulton is the man for whom the North Carolina State University Arboretum is now named. He had great influence on gardening and horticulture over the past quarter-century. Click here to read Helen’s review of the book.

Helen's second recommendation is: “Rain Gardening in the South,” by Helen Kraus and Anne Spafford (Eno Publishers, $19.95), which won a prestigious "best gardening book" award from the Garden Writers Association.

Dee Nash, well known for her Red Dirt Ramblings blog and articles in gardening magazines, says: “I really like the writing in ‘Thoughtful Gardening,’ by Robin Lane Fox (Basic Books, $29.95). “He doesn't advocate organic gardening (in fact, he thinks it's ineffective), but his essays are great."

Dee also recommends “Gardening for a Lifetime, How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older,” by Sydney Eddison (Timber Press, $19.95) and “The New Low-Maintenance Garden, How to Have a Productive, Beautiful Garden and the Time to Enjoy It,” by Valerie Easton (Timber Press, $19.95). They “are really good,” she says.

In addition, Dee says, “ 'Garden Anywhere,' by Alys Fowler (Chronicle Books, $24.95) shows you really can garden anywhere. I reviewed it on my blog awhile back. She has a charming style.”

'Gardening for a Lifetime'

Also recommending “Gardening for a Lifetime” is Karan Davis Cutler, who blogs here at Diggin’ It: The subtitle explains it all, she says: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older.

"In addition to being a practical guide to making gardening less labor-intensive, it's an engrossing story of Sydney's Connecticut garden from its beginning in 1961 to 2010," Karan reports."While written with the older gardener in mind, it's a wonderful guide for anyone whose beds and borders have gotten out of hand.

“Sydney is a graceful writer, author of six other books, and the recipient of a truckload of horticultural awards," adds Karan. "Additionally, she's a seriously hands-on gardener; the creator of a garden that's been featured in magazines and is a regular stop for garden clubs, plant societies, and more. To wit, she knows about what she writes, and she writes with enthusiasm and style.."

"I second Karan's recommendation of Sydney Eddison's 'Gardening for a Lifetime,' " says Doreen Howard, who writes the gardening blog at the Old Farmer's Almanac website. “I read it to do the book review [for] The American Gardener, but was so struck by her wisdom that I ended up reading it again. We all slow down with age, some of us (like me) slow due to temporary injuries, and Eddison's lessons on gardening and life are almost the holy grail for gardening through time.”

'Places for the Spirit'

One garden book that I did read this year and am happy to recommend is "Places for the Spirit" (Trinity University Press, $29.95). Subtitled Traditional African American Gardens, this evocative book is filled with black and white photographs taken by Vaughn Sills across the South over the past almost 20 years.

To non-Southerners, many of these gardens may appear to be mostly collections of random items strewn about. But look more closely, Professor Sills urges in her photos.

"I see a sense of both order and mystery," she says, "with visual and soul-satisfying contrast between open space and dense arrangements of plant life." Many of the objects in these yards and gardens (which may seem to the casual viewer to be ordinary) have symbolic and spiritual meanings going back centuries to andestral African homelands, she notes. Bottle trees, for instance, provide ceremonial protection.

The long introduction, by Lowry Pei, helps enlighten the reader to whom this subject matter is new. It's impossible to read this book, or even leaf through it casually, and not want to learn more about the traditions of African-American gardening and the meanings behind them -- the use of water, circles, pipes, and shiny objects, for instance..

"Places for the Spirit" is a beautiful and respectful introduction to these traditions and to those who are continuing them in their yards and gardens. What a joyful group of people and what a joy-filled book this is.


Judy Lowe is a long-time garden writer and blogger. Her latest book, about how to create many different types of herb theme gardens, has just been published.

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