B.Garden and gardening books range from instructional manuals to narrative works that highlight our emotional connections to plants and planting. While there is definitely a place for how-to-garden books, these are not the volumes I turn to when looking for inspiration or want to think more deeply about why and how we grow.
Gardens can be places of liberation, queer expression, and political defiance, as well as simple beauty and peace. When I was writing Grounding I turned to writers whose work explored these aspects of gardening and our relationship to the natural world. His books illuminate our colonial past, unravel ideas of belonging and home, and describe the ways the small act of nurturing a plant or piece of land can change the world for the better.
In my book I explore the connections between artists and writers and their gardens, and some of the books I have chosen here also reflect this interest in creativity and the human drive to cultivate beauty. Gardening and writing have been the mainstays of my life during a period of great uncertainty. I hope you find similar comfort in some of these books.
one Elizabeth and Your German Garden Elizabeth von Arneem
This semi-autobiographical novel is an account of the protagonist Elizabeth’s efforts to create a garden from nature on her country estate. Cleverly drawn and with feminist overtones unusual for its time (it was published in 1898), the book shows how the garden provides Elizabeth with a place of escape from her husband (known as “the Man of Anger”) and her children. . Originally published anonymously to prevent her husband from feeling that he was being publicly ridiculed, Arnim reveals the garden as a haven from stifling domestic life and the demands of others. This is a utopian vision of feminine retreat, experimentation, freedom, and creativity in a society where there were few places of self-determination for women.
two Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature
A poetic, powerful and wide-ranging account of Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, on the Kent coast. Creating beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power plant in a pebbly desert, Modern Nature showcases Jarman’s deep love and knowledge of plants, his enormous creative force, and his belief in gardening as a radical act. As he falls ill with AIDS, we see that the garden replenishes him and provides him with a stake in the future, as well as sending him back to his kindergartens.
3 Sweet Grass Braid by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer is a renowned botanist, professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. This book helps us better understand our reciprocal relationship with the world, fostering compassion and wonder as ways to repair the damage we have done to the planet. Although not specifically about gardens, Kimmerer’s knowledge and perspective will change the way he sees and connects with his garden.
4 The well-kept mind of Sue Stuart-Smith
Psychotherapist and psychiatrist Stuart-Smith investigates the ways in which gardens improve our mood and well-being. Using a fascinating mix of story and science, this book shows how powerfully our environment affects us and the healing potential we find in the natural world. It’s a life-affirming read and helps explain why a few minutes with your hands on the floor makes you feel so much better.
5 Christopher Lloyd’s Well-Tempered Garden
Straightforward, funny, and extremely knowledgeable, Lloyd’s writing on gardens always lifts my spirits. His glorious garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex is loved by gardeners all over the world, and throughout his life he has been generous with his advice and hospitality. This book is full of practical ideas and wisdom on all aspects of gardening, peppered with anecdotes and wry commentary. Keep it handy.
6 The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift
This beautiful and evocative book tells the story of a National Trust garden in Shropshire using the structure of a medieval book of hours. Swift excavates the history of this land and the people who have lived there, as well as his personal travails by creating a garden in a temporary home. The story spans centuries but also draws closer, revealing the beauty of a flower along with echoes of the past.
7 The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbarium by David Hoffmann
A practical and comprehensive guide to the medicinal use of plants that will help any gardener grow plants to heal himself, his family and his community. There is something immensely attractive about the autonomy we gain by cultivating our own medicine. This book shows you what and when to pick and grow, and how to prepare and apply different treatments.
8 Alys Fowler’s Edible Garden
Fowler’s Polyculture Garden mixes edibles with annuals and perennials to create a wonderfully wild bounty. She sees gathering and growing our own food as a way to counteract the inequalities inherent in capitalism and structural oppression. Every book she writes is brilliant, but this is the one I come back to again and again.
9 The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
A book of poems covering a year in the garden, this book portrays the creative interplay between words and plants, the page and the natural world. Glück deftly conveys the strange elasticity of time in a garden: longevity and simultaneous transience. Plants speak poems, perspectives change, material and spiritual worlds collide. He explores the cycles of nature, death, and rebirth in sharp, precise language in this intimate exploration of loss, longing, and beauty.
10 My Jamaican Kincaid Garden
An impassioned and poetic collection of New Yorker column essays exploring Kincaid’s relationship with his garden and the plants he grows (or fails to grow). It intertwines botanical and colonial history with personal stories of the intuitive way he cultivated his garden in Vermont. Kincaid is interested in ownership, displacement, and the history of botanical classification, asking us to examine imperial history and ancestral memory within the context of the garden.