Growbag Blog

Books every gardener should read

Blogs, vlogs, Insta, Facebook, Twitter – they’re all very well but sometimes, and especially over Christmas and New Year, there’s nothing better that curling up with the comforting, tactile engagement of a good book. This week we’re each going to make some recommendations about the authors who make the best company on these long dark nights and Elaine’s up first.


A dear friend of mine is moving.  She and her husband are downsizing and are determinedly chucking out or re-cycling furniture, crockery, linen ……..and books.  But. She is a fabulous painter (do look in our Shop for the wonderful Christmas and greetings cards, even book covers, that she has designed exclusively for us). So she is totally refusing to ditch a SINGLE ONE of her beloved art books. Absolutely. I would feel just the same about my appallingly large collection of gardening books, which I, like my friend and her art books, I often pick up and browse through.  There are certain authors who are represented much more than others, though

Do you want to get books for yourself or others to inspire a lifetime of gardening?  Then the collection MUST include some Vita Sackville-West.  She is, by turns, hilariously blunt (“Have you got Viburnum carlcephalum? If not, please get it at once”) and swooningly sensual: [the Old Roses reminded her of Persian carpets] …”rich they were, rich as a fig broken open, soft as a ripened peach, flecked as an apricot, coral as a pomegranate, bloomy as a bunch of grapes”.  (Can’t you just sense Caroline rolling her eyes, as she flicks over another page of Cosmopolitan….)

Rosa 'Charles de Mills'
Rose ‘Charles de Mills’ – Vita revelled in the sumptuousness of its colouring

No one has inspired my gardening life more than Vita. She may have been upper-class, but she was happy to get down and dirty, and laid down some important truths. “The true gardener must be brutal, and imaginative for the future”.  Dead right, but ah, so hard to do.

Christopher Lloyd never wrote a word about gardening that wasn’t worth reading either.  He was famous for his gleeful icon-bashing, digging up rose gardens to make way for tropical exotics long before they were trendy etc. This is him on Chimonanthus, so beloved of lists of scented winter beauties: “[in October] my wintersweet was as scruffy and unprepossessing as an unshaven tramp.  For the umpteenth time, I must wait upon leaf-fall for a merciful release.” Often rude and fun, yet still so informative – perfect.

Chimonanthus praecox – wintersweet, fabulous scent but so tatty!

One more thing – my go-to bible in my early days of horticulture was the Readers Digest Guide to Creative Gardening. It’s still as relevant, thoughtful and helpful as it was when it was first published in 1984, despite the plant-name changes. In our feature pic today, you can see me sharing it with a maniac, aka our new kitten Lulu. The book is out of print now, I think, but there is a thriving second-hand market for it (good for minimising de-forestation!) – it would make a great gift for a newbie gardener.

A deeply inspiring and helpful book for a new gardener

Now, Laura, have you got some stultifyingly boring scientific treatise to recommend to our readers…………?

Filling a pot

It’s true I love a reference book and my RHS Encyclopaedia of Perennial Plants (aka ‘The Gardeners Bible’ ) actually fell to pieces through over-use, but these are more daytime tools of the trade and of an evening I’d rather share my time with someone who knows their stuff but has a sense of humour too and so my first recommendation would be:

Helen Dillon; I nodded and giggled most of the way through the first Helen Dillon book I acquired, (picture below), it’s like sitting down and having coffee with the horticultural equivalent of Miriam Margoyles – you never know what she’s going to say next. But her self deprecating writing style belies her gardening wisdom, and I’m now on the hunt for her earlier book ‘On Gardening’ – a compilation of the quirky gardening columns she wrote for The Sunday Tribune back in the 1990s which are still circulating as second hand copies online.

Helen Dillons’s Garden Book
Helen Dillon’s Garden Book is the literary equivalent of coffee with an old friend.

Dan Pearson is another fave, more serious minded but I love his interweaving of horticulture and ecology and you feel utterly immersed in his landscapes as you read. I have his book ‘Natural Selection’, but I’m sure there are others equally worthy, and Louise has put me onto his blog site Dig Delve (link at the end)

Dan Pearson ‘Natural Selection’
Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection weaves gardening and ecology into one unified landscape

Marianne North is my final offering and a fabulous tonic if you want to be transported from the quiet palette of a British winter to vibrant colour-drenched countries around the world. Marianne North was actually a painter not a writer and at a time when Victorian ladies were supposed to stay at home and do embroidery she travelled the world with her maid to paint glorious and accurate botanical portraits of plants, many of which had been not recorded before, in their natural setting and you can see them for real in a dedicated gallery in Kew Gardens.

Marianne North book
Wonderful horticultural escapism with Marianne North


Being younger than my sisters I get most of my gardening information online. Vita Sackville West, Christopher Lloyd and Ms North + her maid were no doubt horticultural icons but they are also, by a country mile, deceased, and gardened in a different age. 

So when I go to bed I am actually far more likely to be scrolling through Facebook forums such as ‘Gardening UK’ or ‘My Scottish Garden’ where we corporately struggle with the realities of cat poo, neighbours’ fences, collapsing greenhouses, recycling pots and Lidls’ plant offers (the amaryllis bulbs have landed by the way).

I know books have a ‘winter’s evening’ charm about them and I’ll put money on you getting a book by Monty Don this Christmas. Be warned though, if you don’t have a similar acreage in Herefordshire or southern climate, you’re about to feel outclassed.

Muscular, entertaining and knowledgeable. Sounds like a Tinder profile but actually a gardening book

No, personally I need to know what to plant, when to plant it and how to get it to survive in pretty dodgy conditions rather than purple prose about its charms at maturity. So if I do curl up with a book it will be ‘Garden Plants for Scotland’ by Ken Cox. After some brief notes about overcoming gales, salt, and rocky outcrops, you’re into a no-nonsense A-Z of plants that stand a chance of surviving in the North + occasional views on whether they’re worth the bother.

If it’s vegetable growing you’re after, obviously there’s only one book you need…. ‘Beginner’s Veg, Easier to Grow than you Think’ by The3Growbags! Perfect for every aspiring veg grower this Christmas and wonderfully complemented by the gorgeously photographed ‘A Plant for Each Week of the Year’ by our columnist Louise Sims. They’re both stocked in our expanding shop below.

Can you feel a note to Santa coming on?

We’d love to hear who your go-to gardening authors are!

You can listen to a podcast chat based on this post here

NB Here is the link to Dan Pearson’s Dig Delve blog

Another NB – Plenty of tasks in the garden to do – here are a few of them!

Another NB Louise has chosen a little geranium that keeps on giving as her Plant of the Month, click on the box below to find out which one.

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

12 replies on “Books every gardener should read”

Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, ‘ Dear Friend and Gardener’ Is a delightful book of published correspondence between the two. I lovely gift book, I found mine in a charity shop but am happy to see its recently been republished.

Couldn’t agree more, Gay! Elaine here. It’s full of stories, irreverence and wit, but most of all the friendship just shines through between these two fabulous gardeners. A brilliant book.

I have a fair few gardening books too, and most used are practical ones like the RHS book on pruning. I can take it go the garden and follow the advice exactly. However my top book is No Nettles Required: the Reassuring Truth About Wildlife Gardening by Ken Thompson. The author writes from a scientific background, but in such an amusing way it is a treat to read (you may know him from his occasional Telegraph gardening articles). As someone who would like to garden with wildlife in mind, this book helped me create a new garden from a paved desert – and no nettles were required.

Thank you for writing in, Barbara. This is a new one on me, but it sounds RIGHT up my street, so I shall definitely seek it out. It does really make a difference if you can see the gardener’s personality in the writing, doesn’t it, especially if it’s fun!

Barbara, Caroline here, thank you so much. I’ve just ordered this on your recommendation. About two days ago on one of our numerous Growbag zoom calls I asked my sisters if I needed to keep the jungle of docks, nipplewort and nettles which is my ‘wildlife area’ or whether I could plant anything else that was as useful but less, well, unattractive, as its in quite a prominent position in my garden. This sounds like it will tell me the answer! Brilliant!

I loved gardening in my nightie by Helen Yemm. Practical funny and relevant as I live in East Sussex . Frances

Yes, you’re right, Frances, Helen is another really engaging writer. Belonging to the same Cottage Society group as her, I have had the great privilege of seeing round her delightful East Sussex garden too, which was a real treat. Thank you for the recommendation. All the best, Elaine.

I have thoroughly enjoyed your recommendations and was very amused because my daughter has acquired some land to enlarge her garden and I have just passed her my copy of the Readers Digest Creative Gardening for inspiration telling her it’s my bible for inspiration!

Oh fantastic, Jane! Elaine here. This book has definitely struck a chord with lots of people – they should probably reprint it for a whole new generation of gardeners – I reckon they’d make quite a killing. I hope your daughter has fun planning and planting up her new plot of land – that’s always such an enjoyable part of the whole horticultural process, isn’t it.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. It’s less about gardening than being in the garden (and avoiding the house).

Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, ‘ Dear Friend and Gardener’ Is a delightful book of published correspondence between the two. I lovely gift book, I found mine in a charity shop but am happy to see its recently been republished.

One of Elaine’s absolute favourites Mathew – a very special book, that as you say, deserves to be constantly in print. Very best wishes to you from all of us

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