Gardening books can be entertaining as well as enlightening

Sep 5, 2015 | Books and Publications

by Cissy Henig, SCMG Intern

I think I have almost as many gardening books as I have cookbooks. I read them like novels. Some have absolutely no relevance to where I live or how I garden. But there is nothing more comforting on a cold winter’s day when it is snowing and the roads are bad, as reading about someone’s efforts to turn the earth and grow something. So I have a lot of stories about other peoples’ gardens. I collected Beverley Nichols’ books after I read both of Vita Sackville-West’s volumes of collected columns . Gertrude Jekyll, Russell Page, and Penelope Hobhouse followed. British gardens are impossible to create here so it truly is fantasy to read about them.

The one book that I read early and most influenced my gardening was Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts. She writes so well and you can open the book at almost any page and begin with an essay on herbs, a discussion about compost or gardens at night. I read it while I was struggling to adapt my East Coast gardening upbringing to gardening in Monterey, California – a place with two seasons which precluded so much of what was familiar. No fruit trees and no lilacs because there was no cold snap of winter. I learned to love ferns and fuchsias instead.

Moving to Albuquerque was a shock to my gardening soul. The soil, the climate and the lack of rain were not like either Philadelphia or Monterey. I had to begin again as a novice gardener. Thank god for Rosemary Doolittle. Southwest Gardening explained what was possible, what was feasible and what was not. The beginning of saving grace was the discovery that the American Southwest is a climate very like the Middle East, the original home of roses. Hot, dry and alkali soil. The more I read, the more I realized why I had always thought of roses as a royal pain. The Brits who love roses have a very hard time growing them as roses don’t really belong in England. So I read everything about roses and grew them. Thomas Christopher’s In Search of Lost Roses is the story of finding thriving roses in abandoned Texas homesteads where pioneer women loving transplanted a reminder of home. I’ve given up roses because my favorite supplier of old roses closed her mail order business.

Anna Pavord’s book about tulips is a fascinating read about a bulb that upset financial markets. Sidney Eddiston writes lyrically about day lilies. The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf is the story of John Bartram’s plant export business in Philadelphia and why so many great English gardens have American specimens. Thomas Jefferson’s garden journals shed a wholly new light on the most curious man in America who was obsessed with making his gardens produce every sort of flower or food.

And that’s just the garden stories. There are also the how-to books. I latched onto the Sunset books in Monterey. I was glad of them when I moved here. I just focused on different sections. If someone has suggested some new technique in a book, I’ve read about it. I love Judith Phillips’ books.

Books have been so fundamental in my evolution as a gardener. The internet will always provide sources of plants and information about them. But books will persist.

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Cissy Henig was born and brought up to garden in Philadelphia. She had to revise and relearn gardening when she moved to Monterey, California. Cissy moved to Albuquerque in 1980, bringing another abrupt shift in gardening, climate, etc. Cissy currently lives in Bernalillo, which wasn’t such a traumatic gardening change. She is a retired IT Project Manager whose career was mostly spent in healthcare. Cissy prefers mostly vegetable gardening and would really like to make a go of golden raspberries. She believes that one should always have something to strive for in the garden.