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Holiday Gift Guide - Books for Gardeners

Robin Schachat

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It’s time for another look at our favorite gift – a book!  For our gardening friends -- or our gardening selves.  Here are a few recent publications you might consider, as well as one ten-year-old amusement.

Let’s start with a few lessons in what’s good for us (and get that over with).  Nancy Lawson’s The Humane Gardener:  Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife is an excellent new volume, compact and practical, that invites the reader to dip in for a few minutes and a quick anecdote, or to read it all at one gulp.  The photographs, while pretty, are illustrative of specific wildlife gardening objectives, and the guiding principles are what most of us dream of -- “The Beauty of Letting Go”, “Let Leaves Blanket your Garden”, “Get into the Weeds”.  In other words, garden less and relax more.  Most importantly, “Make Animals your Allies”.  That is the ultimate lesson of this charming book:  by allowing nature to have protected space in which to take its course, your own garden habitat will be healthier for you while supporting an entire thriving ecosystem that, in the end, is necessary for life on earth.  This enchanting bedtime book might just as easily be called Relax and Enjoy.


For those looking for more philosophy and science, and less relaxation, I recommend Timothy Beatley’s Biophilic Cities.  At heart, Beatley’s story is not far from Lawson’s:  humans require nature to thrive.  Beatley’s essay (merely 158 pages, if you discount the copious footnotes and references), explains how urban life can incorporate nature for the betterment of all of us, and the specifics to be gained when it does.  This is a simple, clear, friendly explanation of how we can live in nature while residing in cities.


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Next we’ll look at one of those books every gardener wants to keep hidden away, so she can whip out factoids to astonish lesser beings.  A Botanist’s Vocabulary (Susan Pell and Bobbi Angell), will educate you in terrifying terminology.  Why say fiddleheads are “all curled up” when you can call them circinate?  Why call lamb’s ears “fuzzy” when you could correctly call them pubescent?  Thrill your buddies by knowing the true meaning of pseudocopulation (hint:  it is not done in the back seat of a car).  Know a true leaf from a cotyledon!  Go to town with this totally easy, cleanly illustrated, priceless little reference work!



Coloring books for adults are all the rage right now.  They are supposed to keep us young by allowing our minds to wander at some deep level while the surface concentrates on being creative.  There’s a nice new series of coloring books for adult gardeners, all of which reference greyscale coloring in the titles.  I recommend Greyscale Adults Coloring Book of Landscapes 2 and Nostalgic StillLife, depending whether you prefer landscapes or floral close-ups. 

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But why not take things one step further?  In 2015, Batsford published A step-by-Step Guide to Botanical Illustration for Beginners (Meriel Thurstan and Rosie Martin).  Together with an illustration block and a box of colored pencils or watercolors, here is a holiday gift that cries out to be given.  Explanations, expositions, and exercises:  this book takes you through all you need to know, with thorough illustrations every step of the way.  I guarantee to you that this is a gift your friend or family member will enjoy.



I am awaiting delivery any second now of John Phibbs’s Placemaking:  The Art of Capability Brown.  It’s late;  it was supposed to be published on November 15.  Should be along before Christmas, though.  It’s my “every year I buy myself a beautiful garden book full of magnificent illustrations” choice for this year.


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If you can’t wait, or if you worry about receipt in time, may I suggest one of two more excellent choices?  The first (I admit it) is ALSO on my “buy it for myself list”.  It bears the cumbersome title Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in America, The Work of Five Contemporary Masters.  Those of you who have read my occasional columns on visiting fine Japanese American gardens know that this is a favorite topic of mine.  Kendall Brown’s emphasis in this volume is on the current American evolution of gardening in the Japanese style, and I can’t wait to get into it.


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But if your taste runs to the classics, the latter of these recommendations is bound to spin your beanie.  It is a few years old, a Rizzoli beauty by Johann Kraftner called The Elegant Garden:  Architecture and Landscape of the World’s Finest Gardens.  It’s not a subtle title, and it’s not a subtle book, but it sure is pretty.  Beautiful.  Special.


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Finally, I will point you to a ten year old novel that somehow I have missed until now.  I love mystery novels, I love the study of English literature, and I love books about gardens.  I commend, to any of you whose tastes jibe with my own, Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden.  Barron may be known to you from her Jane and… novels, featuring Jane Austen as a sometimes spy/detective who nonetheless leads precisely the historic life we see documented in her biographies.  Translation:  Barron is a master of historical fiction.  The White Garden takes place simultaneously in a rather hectic present and a somewhat impressionist, dream-tinged time late in the Battle of Britain, as bombs drop all around.  Fun stuff.  Makes you wonder.

Enjoy these gifts, my friends!