Think of them as self-help books — they inform and inspire, and set you on the right garden path, writes Bridget Hilton-Barber for the Sunday Times
In the chaotic pile of books that lives next to my bed, at least three will be gardening books. Bedtime gardening is one of my favourite things, and about once a week I fall asleep alongside Bold Romantic Gardens or Jane’s Delicious Garden or How to Propagate, depending on whether I’m concerned about my aubergines, needing an escape or just playing part scientist, part philosopher. I have a thing for gardening books, and am lucky to have inherited a fine collection from my grandmother and mother, to which I keep adding. I’m happy to lend them out as long as they get returned. If not – as we gardeners say, with fronds like you, who needs anemones?
In my grandmother’s day, gardening books were illustrated with exquisite line drawings; these days they use full-colour photography and enormous imagery, Lord help us and our credit cards. It was Cicero who said that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need. I’ll raise the game and say that if you have a garden and a library full of garden books you have more than your heart could desire.
Just what is it about gardening books that makes us happy?
Well they aren’t just about gardening, they’re about life, history, drama, travel, passion, escape and autobiography. One can pick a gardening book according to mood and genre. If I’m inclined towards local travel for example, I may take to bed Remarkable Gardens of South Africa (Nini Bairnsfather Cloete, Quivertree Publications, 2012) – and have an imaginary twirl around some of the most beautiful private gardens in the country, from the amazing food gardens of Babylonstoren in the Western Cape to the moody farm gardens of the misty KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
For the reassurance of the value of beauty, I will go for something like The Classic Italian Garden (Judith Chatfield, Rizzoli Books, 1991); if it’s history I’m after, perhaps I’ll meander through Great Gardens of the World (Ronald King, Peerage Books 1985), taking in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the nymph-haunted gardens of classical Greece and Rome.
In a crime-solving mood? I’ll try What Rose is That? (Mary Moody, Weldon Publishing, 1992). After personal inspiration – hand me Pippa’s Organic Kitchen Garden (Pippa Greenwood, Dorling Kindersley, 2000) in which she transforms a patch of weeds into a glorious kitchen garden. And if I’m into a little eroticism, I’ll dip into Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening (Louise Riotte, Storey Communications, 1975). There’s something deliciously racy in the slow unfurling of fronds, the skyward thrusting of velvety nosed shoots, the tangle of tendrils… As British author Sam Llewelyn wrote, in vegetable gardens beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death.
Garden books fulfil a variety of needs. You can read the real-life stories of those whose gardens were a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself. You can lose yourself in the micro world of composting and mulch, or soar heavenward with a book on remarkable trees around the world, from the giant sequoias of Canada to the ancient baobabs of Madagascar.
There is an increasing and healthy trend towards indigenous and water-wise gardening and these books can be invaluable, covering everything from how to grow an urban edible garden to recycling water. Change is part and parcel of gardening history – which is why gardening books are so important. Not only do they offer inspiration, but they provide a record.