Alan Titchmarsh: The best gardening books in my library of 5,000 volumes

The best of Alan Titchmarsh's gardening books have helped shape his career — he takes a look at some very special items in his library.

When my children were small, I told myself that the library I was putting together, as well as being for my own pleasure, would furnish them with all they ever wanted to know: ‘Dad; how do plants grow? Who built the Taj Mahal? Where is Azerbaijan?’ And then, when they were 11 and 13 years old, the internet came along. Once more, my study was mine alone.

When it comes to finding information about plants, gardens and anything green — as with any subject you care to mention — the internet is an instant source. And yet, and yet… when it comes to tactility — and illustrations — electronic communication is left for dead by the printed page. Not only do books furnish a room, they also furnish a mind and — equally as important — they stimulate the senses.

I confess to using the internet for snippets of information, but as a book collector of 50 years standing, my shelves give testimony to my delight in the contents that lie between the covers of more than 5,000 volumes on everything from art and architecture to natural history, botany and gardening.

I subscribe entirely to Sir Winston Churchill’s dictum: ‘If you cannot read all your books… fondle them… peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.’

“Kim Wilkie’s Led by the Land and Tom Stuart-Smith’s Drawn From the Land give an insight into the minds and manifestations of two of our greatest landscape gardeners”

Antiquarian volumes such as Gerard’s Herball and Redouté’s Les Roses sit side by side with leatherbound 19th-century volumes of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the hand-coloured plates of which astonish anyone who takes down a volume and thumbs through the pages.

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But my interest and delight does not have a cut-off point at the dawning of the 21st century. There are brand new volumes that give me pleasure and these tend to fall into two camps: those that are beautifully produced and well illustrated and those which are discursive and thought provoking. Some books managed to fulfill both requirements at one and the same time. Of these, Kim Wilkie’s Led by the Land and Tom Stuart-Smith’s Drawn From the Land give an insight into the minds and manifestations of two of our greatest landscape gardeners. I use the term ‘gardener’ rather than ‘architect’, as both of them have a great feeling for plants, as well as being sculptors of the earth.

Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s Gardens in my Life operates on a marginally smaller scale, but all three books are inspiring and enriching and I find myself flipping them open and poring over their glorious pages quite regularly, not only with envy, but with an eye to emulating their skill.

When it comes to inspirational writing, two contemporary exponents come to mind: Robin Lane Fox and Hugh Johnson. Better Gardening was published by Mr Lane Fox in 1982, but the writing has a freshness the years have not tarnished. Thoughtful Gardening from 2010 builds on those earlier experiences, as we all must.

“Wise, prejudiced, opinionated and mould-breaking, Christopher Lloyd fired up a generation or two of gardeners”

Hugh Johnson’s Sitting in the Shade is a brand new compilation of 10 years of the author’s diary. Having written about gardens and gardening since 1975 as ‘Trad’ at the front of the RHS journal The Garden, the current compilation shows that Mr Johnson’s palate, far from being jaded, has matured like one of the fine wines on which he is also an expert.

These two writers both have a style that is at once engaging and informative and their books are perfect for the bedside table — a section or two each evening before the eyelids begin to weaken is the perfect nightcap.

I cannot leave out Christopher Lloyd, whose friendship I valued enormously and with whom I would sit by a crackling log fire at Great Dixter and chew the fat. As long-term readers of Country Life will know, he wrote his weekly column in this magazine for 42 years, starting in 1963. Wise, prejudiced, opinionated and mould-breaking, he fired up a generation or two of gardeners with his well-crafted prose, shot through with experience and wit. When it comes to garden writing, he has never been eclipsed and when I want to renew our friendship I only have to pick up one of his books.

Friendship, wisdom and glorious pictures — on the page or in the mind — available now from a book near you.