Yeah, yeah, I know I have too many gardening books. We all do. I flat won’t believe anyone who says they don’t.
I can’t resist ’em. I devour them; pore over them in bed at night. I have many favourites. But there are a handful that never leave my bedside. They are my comfort books, my desert island books, the ones I return to again and again. However bad my day, however uninspired I feel, however poorly I may be, leafing through these volumes cheers me up and has me raring to go again. They’re not always the most obvious, trendy or up to date, but they hit a spot. Every time.
These are my Desert Island Garden Books, in no order. That’s not to say it’s fixed – right up until that moment I’m stranded on a sandy beach with nothing but palm trees for gardening-fix I’m willing to change my mind so sadly my bank account can’t relax just yet…
These are not necessarily the very best gardening books out there; just the ones I like to cosy up with of a cold, wet February night. Perfect for planning, learning and dreaming.
Where I can I like to provide links to hive.co.uk. I like that they don’t have a minimum spend for free shipping and that they make a small payment to local independent bookshops when you purchase something through them. I don’t get any kickback for recommending them, I just think they do the decent thing.
Grow for Flavour. James Wong, Octopus 2015
This book came at exactly the right point in my gardening life. I had made the decision to become an ‘event gardener’ about six months ago and here was James Wong, pretty much advocating exactly that. I read this book again and again, still do. I have a dreadful memory and need constant reminding of reasons why certain methods work, certain varieties are tastier and certain crops just aren’t worth the effort.
I have followed Wong’s suggestions for many varieties, especially when making choices for long-term fruit trees – some have worked spectacularly, others have been less productive and some I won’t bother with again, but the sheer joi de vivre writing style and enthusiastic, experiential tone does this for me every time. I’ve just found it on special offer.
The Allotment Seasonal Planner and Cookbook. Andi Clevely, Collins, 2008
This was a Christmas present several years ago, while I was between allotments, having given up one when I moved and being stuck on the waiting list for another. This book kept me sane during a horrible horticultural impasse, and I read it cover to cover several times. I still do. I particularly like the seasonal quality of it; naturally the wintry pages have been thumbed rather more than the summery ones.
I went on to buy The Allotment Book by the same author, which I like, but doesn’t make it to this list.
Food From Your Garden and Allotment – Readers Digest, 2009
This came from a charity shop. I wasn’t convinced that a book by Readers Digest could be very comprehensive but I liked the pictures. I still love it for its easy-reading style, no nonsense advice and occasionally barbed asides.
Grow Your Own Eat Your Own – Bob Flowerdew, Kyle Books 2008
I enjoyed this from the moment I touched it – I loved the very paper it was printed on. Flowerdew’s advice is practical and grounded and if his style isn’t quite my own, his make-do-and-mend attitude certainly rings a bell. Always happy to leaf through this book for a cosy bit of horticultural reverie by the fireside on a winter’s day.
Miss Willmott of Warley Place – Audrey le Lievre, Faber & Faber 1980
I have never really understood why Ellen Willmott isn’t a gardening household name, save that she was, like so many of her hothouse flowers, a bloom so bright she couldn’t possibly last. Like her contemporary Gertrude Jekyll, Willmott was honoured by the newly-formed RHS. Unlike Jekyll, she ran out of cash and her gardens, especially the extraordinary paradise at Warley Place in Essex, ran to ruin even during her lifetime. Audrey le Lievre’s biography is beautifully researched and very thorough. I love it for the insight into this fleeting, often difficult horticultural genius even if today the writing style feels a little dated.
English Country Gardens Ethne Clarke and Clay Perry, Wiedenfield and Nicholson, 1985
A book of sumptuous photography and old fashioned reverie. I flip the pages and dream.
Good Ideas for Your Garden – Readers Digest, 1995
After not imagining Readers Digest to be much good, a second RD volume has sneaked into my desert island survival bag. This is very, very 90s in feel, but for sheer ideas, suggestions and lovely photographs, I still have a soft spot for white trellis and fancy fountains. So shoot me.
The Complete Gardener – Monty Don, Dorling Kindersley, 2009
Monty Don’s easy writing style is a joy. I could have chosen any of several of his books, but this one somehow hits the spot. With hindsight, reading how much he loves his box hedges feels slightly sad (I shall be watching his re-planting with yew this year with much interest since I, too, have box hedges and I live in fear of the dreaded blight) but generally, his honest, down to earth love of nature’s healing properties is life-affirming.
The Women’s Land Army, Vita Sackville-West. Michael Joseph, 1944
I found this book for £1 in a second hand bookstore but apparently it’s been reissued and is readily available again.
I am fascinated by the world of the Land Girl and intrigued that Sackville-West was chosen to write this particular volume. It’s a marvellous confection of stiff upper lip, hard toil, digging for victory and frank admiration. I love it.
Creating Small Formal Gardens – Roy Strong, Conran 1995
Like so many authors here, Roy Strong has probably written more seminal, harder-core books than this. This list, however, is not necessarily the very best book an author has written but the one I enjoy reading most. Another very 1990s volume, it still has the power to send me into realms of what-might-be, melding sound garden history with practical advice for people with small gardens, albeit not as small as the one I work.
I’d welcome further Desert Island suggestions in the comments…