Books for Gardeners

Gift ideas for that gardener in the family

By Carol Papas ©2013
Penn State Master Gardener

If your holiday gift list includes an avid or aspiring gardener, you might think that frozen soil and frigid temperatures preclude a gardening gift. But those of us who can’t wait to get out and dig in the dirt at the first forsythia flower, secretly love winter dormancy.

We are plotting our strategy for the upcoming year, resolute not to repeat the previous year’s mistakes, hopeful that this year our gardens will be the most beautiful and bountiful EVER.  Most gardeners cherish the stacks of seed and plant catalogs that arrive during the winter months.

But if you really want to warm a gardener’s heart, consider the gift of a book, replete with images of gardens in full bloom or shots of perfectly ripe vegetables right out of a Dutch still life. Garden books can educate, inspire and amuse. When choosing a book for a garden enthusiast, the first step is to know what kind of gardener they are.

Do they grow vegetables or prefer ornamental gardening? Is their passion perennials, or do they admire the trees of the forest, not caring about the minutia of a flower garden? Is their idea of gardening a day spent turning compost and weeding until the sun sets, or do they employ a gardener and wave their arms, and their wallets, creating an enviable garden? I asked fellow Master Gardeners their thoughts on the best reads for gardeners and resources that they turn to again and again. The books listed include old favorites and newly published works.

General gardening reference books

The “Sunset National Garden Book” by Sunset Books, “Garden Primer: Second Edition” by Barbara Damrosch and “Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener” edited by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara Ellis and Ellen Phillips were cited by Master Gardeners as one stop garden references they consistently rely on.

green beetles

Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically” by local author Jessica Walliser provides tips to manage the insects that plague many gardens without resorting to an arsenal of chemicals.


Books focusing on special interests- trees, perennials, herbs, native plants or annuals

Pruning Made Easy: A Gardener’s Visual Guide to When and How to Prune Everything from Flowers to Trees” by Lewis Hill demystifies one of the most common garden chores.

The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance” by Arthur Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio is a complete herbal and the perfect gift for anyone with an interest their usage.

Since 1945 the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published guidebooks for gardeners with specific interests. Many gardeners are embracing native plants and several books address this niche including-  “Great Natives for Tough Places”, “A Native Plants Reader”,  “Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants” and “The Wildlife Gardener”.  

Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide, Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies” by The Xerces Society educates gardeners on the need to attract and protect pollinators.

The Most Popular Book?

The most often recommended book by local Master Gardeners is “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  Detailed information on the most commonly grown perennials in our region, plus excellent tips on maintaining perennial gardens are found within its pages.

Books to inspire- perfect for the coffee table, filled with photos of dream gardens

Planting: A New Perspective” by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury illustrates the bold strokes of perennials Oudolf is famous for. The High Line gardens in New York City exemplify his style.

The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage” is a lovely book by David L. Culp. His garden is an inspiration for a garden of any size, with plantings that feature great diversity, from large trees to tiny bulbs.

A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello” by Peter J. Hatch brings Jefferson’s Monticello garden to life. It was the winner of a 2013 American Horticultural Society writing award.

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch” by Nigel Slater comes recommended by a Master Gardener and professional cook, a great read with the bonus of providing recipes for the garden’s bounty.

Garden Essays

The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden” edited by Thomas C. Cooper makes a perfect stocking stuffer.

Two writers who combined gardening, humor, philosophy and great writing are the late Eleanor Perenyi, author of “Green Thoughts, A Writer in the Garden” and, my personal favorite, Henry Mitchell.

Mitchell wrote for the Washington Post and “The Essential Earthman” and “One Man’s Garden” are collections of his columns.  He describes true gardeners as “the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises”.  Those words will resonate with your favorite gardener.


Moon Gardens

Happy, Healthy Gardening




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