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My Five Essential Garden Books

While the seed starting has begun in our new place, it's that purgatory time of year where not a lot else is going on, also known as....February. We have our fruit trees in. We have started our seeds. We've sown what seeds can go in this early (bachelor's button, spinach, borage, and trying some carrots & lettuces under row covers). We've ordered our seed potatoes since I didn't grow any last year (Peruvian Sunrise and Huckleberry Gold are favorites, and turned even a not-so-fond-of-potatoes gal like me into a believer).

So now we wait....and pull out our favorite garden books to prep for March in the meantime.

I've had a whole lot of garden books over the years, but there are a few which have managed to stay on the bookshelf as trusted resources, a couple literally for decades. Like cookbooks, I've found that too many garden books end up being useless, and having a few that focus on specific areas are much more helpful:

  • one that organizes edible gardening in multiple ways - by month and by food item, with tasks and projects.

  • one that takes a deeper dive into fruit, from trees to shrubs and more.

  • one that is a realistic and user-friendly approach to landscaping, with a variety of styles

  • one that is purely a 'dictionary' - i.e., where you can look up just about any plant out there and how to care for it.

  • one that is all about mine and my dad's favorite flower to grow - and happens to be handed down from him years ago - roses.

Here's why I love each of them...

Alan Buckingham's "the kitchen garden" is my absolutely most well-loved garden book which I've owned since it came out new back in 2009. It never gets antiquated in its advice, keeps me organized throughout the year through it's month-by-month seasonal planner (not just what to plant but all kinds of tasks to do, bigger projects to consider, things to look out for from sowing through harvest, sustainable pest management, and more), AND a separate section going through just about every type of fruit and veggie to plant. It also has a pretty kickass troubleshooting guide at the end. For me, the best books are visually user friendly, don't market to me, focus on sustainability, and are written in a way that MAKES SENSE, not just to the seasoned gardener but to the amateur. Because honestly? None of us are professionals - not even the 'master gardeners'. We are ALL still learning. Kind of like yoga, gardening is always a Practice - we are never done. This is my fourth home and while there are certain things I'm much more comfortable with, every place has its own quirks, from microclimates to drainage to soil behavior to sun/shade and then - as we all know - climate change that can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. If anything, these years as a gardener has made me more adventurous - but I think I'll always (and proudly) feel like a rookie! Buy this book used in the link above (I'm not an 'Amazon associate' pretending to be green while personally profiting from the world's most evil company) - it's only $5 - and love it like I have!

Lee Reich's "Grow Fruit Naturally" which I acquired when we moved to the farm and I planted a mini-orchard of pears, apples and cherries and knew I needed next-level assistance, quickly become indispensable. Yet even after we downsized? Still massively helpful, from the potted dwarf fruit trees to berries and everything in between. The photographs and drawings are really helpful for my visual nature (I cannot look at a one-dimensional garden plan with circles and squares and envision what something will look like - never have been able to, never will), particularly with how to prune. While my husband absolutely loves that kind of work, it's never been second nature to me, so I appreciate the specifics that simultaneously don't go technically overboard.

In my early years as a homeowner, I tended to collect multiple 'coffee table' size gardening books...and quickly realized many were not realistic partners to my efforts to design spaces in my front, back and side yards both in the city and out on the farm. From postage stamp-sized backyards to rockeries to figuring out deerproof infrastructure and plants to building retaining walls and gravel paths, I needed something that - yet again - gave me great VISUALS that suited my working class, DIY vibe and provided ideas for my very eclectic set of tastes. I'm not a pure cottage garden type nor modern nor Japanese nor anything else - I take my cues from a diverse bunch of spaces I've seen over my life, both in person and in media, from Pinterest to movies and more. So as nearly all of the hardbounds found their way into the donation pile, one has remained over the past decade-plus: Chris Young's "Garden Design". While it has areas that you can really geek out on if you like the one-dimensional planning, it provides a really great set of visuals through actual photographs of a multitude of gardens, from the simple to the utterly bougie AF. It gives really great step-by-step tutorials on projects ranging from building decks to training climbers to planting erosion-control shrubs, provides photos that quickly and easily identify the plants so you can see how they fit, then has a killer photographic 'glossary' of sorts that describe and categorize popular plants, materials and more. With my latest dream of figuring out how to design a Japanese-inspired garden on our back patio, this is going to be my BFF.

Always a classic, the Sunset Western Garden Book is good no matter what edition you buy. While I don't use it as much as the others, this is one my husband can curl up with for hours on end. It's your good old fashioned encyclopedia of plants that are described by zone, variety, and much more. Specializing in the Western US, this is not an internationally or even nationally helpful book in that regard, but I love the "best plants for..." sections in it with some good photos and where to find the lengthier descriptions of the recommended plants in the book. This helped me TREMENDOUSLY when we lived in our little cottage in the city, let me tell you, as we were set up off the street with a rockery in front and a slight slope on the north side, so I needed to be hyper-conscientious about erosion control, and immediately got to work on that aspect upon move-in.

And finally, there's the book I rarely look at anymore but means the world to me, All About Roses, which my dad sent to me from his bookshelf almost 25 years ago when I planted my first roses at the first house I ever rented back in Seattle in my mid 20's. He'd grown some Mister Lincolns in his greenhouse and gave them to me and I was so excited to try growing roses for the first time on my own. The book is sadly published by evil pesticide company Ortho, so I am not including any links to it nor showing the inside which has all kinds of recommendation for terribly toxic sprays to use on roses, but it did teach me about the various issues like blackspot and rust that can happen with roses (and the root cause), and ultimately I found more natural ways (like neem oil and ladybugs) to battle those foes in the garden. When I think of roses, I think of the umpteen hours we spent at the rose garden in our shared hometown of Portland perusing the blooms, of the crazy tall Mister Lincolns in his backyard in Tigard and the Double Delights that grew in my grandmother's garden where he grew up and inherited the love, then passed that down to me. Roses will always equal my father, and the books like this that he gave me.


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