A good read for the green-fingered: Classic gardening books

An avid reader of all things literary and horticultural, Bryan Kozlowski chooses his classic book list for enjoyable armchair gardening.

It’s that time of year when snuggling up indoors and thinking about gardening is, for most of us, far more appealing than actually doing it—time for winter’s dormancy to make the garden of your imagination come to life.

Before you reach for another seed catalogue, there are other, more celebrated, ways to inspire your mental green thumb. So prepare a cuppa and cozy up with these classic literary reads that have kept generations of gardeners’ hearts warm and fertile in the frosty weeks.

classic gardening booksOld Herbaceous (1950)
By Reginald Arkell
A tender, reminiscing chronicle of the gardening life of Mr Pinnegar (aka ‘Old Herbaceous’)—literature’s quintessential country-house gardener. Crotchety, gentle and grizzled with unintended humour, Mr Pinnegar’s natural knowledge and earthy reflections have charmed countless readers into agreeing with Old Herbaceous himself that a well-tended garden ‘brings out all that is best in a man’.

classic gardening booksDown the Garden Path (1932)
By Beverley Nichols
If you’ve ever wanted to spend a year fixing up a dilapidated cottage garden, Nichols did it nearly a century ago with unmatched style, describing it all in some of the most delightful gardening language ever penned. It’s giggle-out-loud comical and charmingly smart—the perfect bedtime read, sending you off with sweet dreams of creating a cozy cottage garden of your own.

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden (1981)

By Eleanor Perenyi
Reading Perenyi’s classic collection of gardening essays feels a bit like getting horticultural advice from your (slightly spiky) neighbour over the garden hedge. Readers either love or hate her ‘opinionated’ style; those who appreciate it find her love for the garden, its lore and literary connect- ions, unique and utterly enchanting.

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classic gardening booksElizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
By Elizabeth Von Arnim
From the author of the flower-filled novel The Enchanted April comes this delightfully disjointed diary of one aristocratic woman’s ‘horticultural indulgences’. Reading like a 19th-century blog, Elizabeth shares simple, semi-autobiographical stories of one year on a country estate in northern Germany—a place in which the demands of a Gilded Age wife, mother and hostess are supported by frequent escapes into her soul-refreshing garden, her ‘world of dandelions and delights’.

classic gardening booksThe Gardener’s Year (1929)
By Karel Capek
Capek may be better known as a science-fiction writer, but his lovable account of gardening his native Czechoslovakian soil is a must-read masterpiece. Slim, yet chock full of witty, monthly reflections on the gardener’s glories and sorrows, Capek’s catching enthusiasm for gardening is frequently distilled in insightful aphorisms worthy of pinning up in your potting shed: ‘A real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil.’

classic gardening booksAn Island Garden (1894)
By Celia Thaxter
It’s difficult to find a gardening journal more full of love and longing than Celia Thaxter’s. Her endearing account of tending a ‘little flower patch’ off the coast of New England remains unsurpassed in its heartfelt simplicity. Follow Celia as she rises early, pulls weeds with poetic flair and gathers armfuls of blooms for her seaside cottage, all self-descriptively summed-up ‘with one word “Love”’.

classic gardening booksAn Episode of Sparrows (1955)
By Rumer Godden
If you’ve read (or cried over) this novel as a teenager, it’s time for another look. Often described as The Secret Garden’s urban cousin, An Episode of Sparrows follows two troubled children in post-Blitz London as they attempt to make beauty (literally) grow from the ashes. Originally published for adults, the tale has an ageless appeal and poignancy for anyone in similar search of ‘good garden earth’ just below the ruins of life.

classic gardening booksThe Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (1906)
By Edith Holden
A beautiful book to take in slowly, as Edith Holden took in the natural world of her native Warwickshire. A humble art teacher, Holden exquisitely captured the essence of British country beauty, peppering her diary with nature-inspired poetry and homey watercolours. Unknown until the 1970s, The Country Diary has all the charm of a secret, personal treasure never meant to be published, although we’re certainly glad it was.

classic gardening booksWe Made a Garden (1956)
By Margery Fish
Is it possible to create a harmonious garden by two people with vastly different tastes? Margery Fish wryly finds out in her classic memoir about maintaining a marriage on rocky garden ground. In one corner, Walter (her bossy-boots husband) insists on prim- and-trim neatness for their manor house garden in Somerset. Margery contrarily longs for an informal, cottagey style of mixed borders and dense flowerbeds. Who wins? (Spoiler alert) Margery does, making gardening history in the process.

classic gardening booksThe Secret Garden (1910)
By Frances Hodgson Burnett
We end, of course, with the one book that began so many of us on the garden path—Mary Lennox’s magi- cal search for a little ‘bit of earth’. What she finds behind that famous ivy-covered door has inspired generations of readers to discover the mysteries and enchantment of these earthly escapes where ‘everything is made out of magic’—the sort of magic that leaves us all wondering ‘do I tend the garden or does the garden tend me’?