One is never alone in the garden: a truism expressed as many different ways as there are garden writers. But the experience of that peculiar solitude, so filled with company, always feels as fresh as the sight of those brave snowdrops reaching for the sun. Many of us have just lived through a more prolonged aloneness than we ever thought possible, and we turned to the green world for solace. We crammed potted plants onto windowsills, crammed seedlings into freshly turned beds. As our hands crumbled earth, we found the pleasant company of frogs and fireflies, salamanders and snakes. As we weeded, we listened with our hearts and heard the voices of friends, teachers, poets — for “the leaves were full of children,” as T.S. Eliot put it. With this season’s bumper crop of books, gardeners share what they have been reading, thinking and planting.
Catie Marron came to her love of gardening through her library; she traces that journey “from dreaming to doing” in BECOMING A GARDENER: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About Living (Harper Design, 245 pp., $60). Marron, who is an International Council member at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has published two previous books, compilations of essays on public squares and public parks. This volume is more intimate and personal. She mentions in passing having a lovely garden on Long Island, but her real education seems to have started with a house she and her husband purchased in Connecticut in 2017. Deciding how to start a new garden, Marron began packing a lifetime of reading into a few short months; she admits that included “learning patience and perseverance.”
Thankfully, she does not move in a languorous fashion. The landscape designer Katherine Schiavone joined the effort as a mentor. Within a year, out went a disused basketball court. Bulldozers leveled a planting area. Dry, chalky soil was amended to become “chocolate earth.” In a nod to remnants of an agricultural past, up went simple but elegant wooden fencing for what would become a geometric arrangement of flower and vegetable beds. “I rely on orderliness as a way of living,” Marron writes. “I hadn’t realized how much I appreciate symmetry and structure until I tried to organize lettuce.” In went nearly a thousand tulip bulbs. Cold frames were splashed with a coat of happy yellow paint. Marron, having absorbed a lot of advice, has much to offer: what to read, what to plant — dahlias, in or out? — and, perhaps not surprisingly from a former Vogue editor, what to wear in the garden. Her suggestions are solid.
Planting a tree offers a chance to meditate on a sense of time deeper than the life span of any gardener. When each member of Marron’s family selected a tree for their new home, her husband of 30 years chose an American beech — an ornamental shade tree that “gives to others while having a beauty of its own, something that was also so true of Don.” A scant three months after their first vegetable harvest, Marron’s husband died suddenly. After the funeral, Marron returned to the Connecticut garden, sank her trowel into the earth and began to dig her way through her grief. “I felt my roots taking form even though the very root system of my life … was gone.”
“Becoming a Gardener” is a gorgeous book, brimming with vibrant photographs by the multitalented William Abranowicz. Watercolor illustrations are quirkily romantic — and if that weren’t enough, sunflowers and roses and tulips by Ellsworth Kelly and Cy Twombly splash across the pages. Marron’s exuberance for a gardener’s life of the mind will have you reaching into your library for old favorites and finding new friends.
“I am Federal Twist,” announces James Golden, the author of THE VIEW FROM FEDERAL TWIST: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves (Filbert Press, 239 pp., $55). As he prepared for retirement from a career in marketing, Golden and his husband found a handsome midcentury house hidden in woodland on a ridge above the Delaware. So began an obsession. Golden decided he “wanted to live in a garden, live a garden, in fact, to be a garden.”
Golden calls himself a “‘book’ gardener” with no horticultural training. Books have taught him well, but gardens are unpredictable places. He made the fateful decision to accept what existed: the “rough, coarse nature” of heavy clay, weeds, rocks, puddles, decay. Golden wanted to help the land “be a better version of itself.” He carved a clearing in the “woody ruin” of a hillside filled with tangled vines and dead trees, and embarked on the creation of an exciting American version of “naturalistic” gardening. Reading “Federal Twist” is like watching self-seeding plants pop up unexpectedly and settle companionably with unlikely neighbors.
This being the digitally jazzed 21st century, a private pursuit quickly went public. Golden cherished the hidden entrance to his garden even as he fed his Instagram account alluring photographs and filled a blog with interviews and stories of adventures abroad. He built an avid audience, then launched a new career as a designer. A productive retirement. Those of us who like breaking the rules in our own clearings are all the more fortunate for his generosity.
One of the many pleasures of this book is Golden’s well-researched approach to planting within the “all-encompassing greenness” of the woods. He has a terrific eye for muscular plant combinations that look interesting throughout the seasons. He responds to the rhythms of light through the days, and opens himself to the magic of meandering paths. His acre and a half looks and feels much larger. I appreciated his musings on the stranglehold native plants have on some designers. Too much of what began a couple of decades ago as an important dimension in planting has atrophied into “a narrowing of vision and a flattening of the aesthetic and moral potential of gardens.” Rigidity makes no sense to him.
Golden freely admits to hating “the labor of gardening” — the mess of digging and weeding and untangling root balls has no appeal. He makes lists; a gardener has arrived weekly for 14 years. Marauding deer (doing what comes naturally) must be held at bay with fencing. Golden cares mostly about “design, meaning, history, and the mystery and romance of the garden.” To all aging gardeners, Golden’s closing thoughts will ring true: We begin to “think less about what a garden can be and more about what it can do.” What it can do, Golden shows, is change our lives.
The excellent and prolific British writer and garden designer Noel Kingsbury has put together an inspiring survey of the looser, bolder and more biodiverse way of gardening that has taken hold around the world, one that flirts with the edges between wild and cultivated. Kingsbury has been leading the way here for decades. I’m a convert — as was Golden when he created Federal Twist. WILD: The Naturalistic Garden (Phaidon Press, 319 pp., $59.95), with striking photographs by Claire Takacs, displays over 40 gardens. This extraordinarily useful compendium should be required reading for anyone aspiring to a design degree — or a gorgeous garden. Kingsbury’s intention is to shed light on the organization and layout of what, to an untutored eye, might appear shambolic. Mess is a positive term, and there’s plenty to entice the birds and the bees. These are gardens that push back against a rigid, geometric and “human-oriented set of aesthetic values.”
It is a treat to visit old favorites, such as the designer Bernard Trainor’s personal garden in Monterey, Calif., exuberant with succulents and ground covers that “crawl and ooze out from under larger plants.” Equally compelling are the dry layers of a garden in Provence, a lush spirit-filled mystery in Japan and a muted gravel garden in New Zealand, where I lingered. Underscoring the point that no one gardens alone, Kingsbury notes the influence here of the British gardener Beth Chatto, who introduced the idea of “choosing plant species on the basis of the existing garden habitat.” She famously sowed plants into the gravel of a former car park; it ultimately became one of the most influential gardens of the end of the 20th century.
One of the reasons this is a terrific book is the attention paid to the captions. Indulge me a pet peeve: Caption writing is too often relegated to an afterthought, whereas those of us poring over photographs, desperate for identifications, are annoyed by nameless splodges of color in rumpled beds. Kingsbury includes a small but useful directory of key plants for those itching to get started.
The formidable best-selling author Anna Pavord, of “Tulip” fame, has extensively reworked a book she published 20 years ago. The result is THE SEASONAL GARDENER: Creative Planting Combinations (Phaidon Press, 207 pp., $49.95). This smart volume is worthy of a new audience. Most of us get bogged down at the start: What goes with what? Pavord’s organizing idea is to feature 60 of her favorite plants that provide pleasure through all four seasons and give them partners to “make them sing.” Pavord explains that her own style has evolved. She has added flowering shrubs. She’s also gardening in a “looser, less controlling way,” more aware of the “creatures that need and use our gardens much more than we do.” Simple, straightforward photographs and helpful captions accompany text that is lively and amiable. You can tell this is a book written by someone who loves to get her hands dirty. “Violas do not grab you instantly by the throat,” she writes, but mats of these small and tenacious plants will partner with aquilegia; when violas need deadheading, it’s “a job to fit in as you wander round your garden in the evening, a glass of wine in hand.” Pavord herself is an indispensable garden partner.
Next time you are lucky enough to be someone’s houseguest, consider arriving with a bouquet of either one of the LITTLE BOOK OF FLOWERS (Sasquatch Books, 140 pp. each, $14.95 each), written by Tara Austen Weaver and illustrated by Emily Poole. So far this delightful series includes “Peonies” and “Dahlias” — snobbery notwithstanding, clearly a lot of people are still in love with their flamboyance. (A volume on tulips is in the works.) Each book includes snappy discussions of the origins of the species, cultivation techniques and suggestions for display. The charm lies in Poole’s art. Garden shoppers often find what they need online, scrolling through endless chip shots; there’s a distinctly retro appeal to the watercolors here, which slow you down to linger over crinkled petals and bombshell flower heads. These books don’t pretend to be encyclopedic; rather, Weaver is discerning in her choices.
A book I’ll keep on my bedside table this year is A TREE A DAY: 365 of the World’s Most Majestic Trees (Chronicle, 368 pp., $24.95), by the biologist and writer Amy-Jane Beer. Start the morning of March 27 with a sweet meditation on “The Loan Tree of Wanaka” in New Zealand; on June 17, visit the Bicycle Tree in Scotland, a sycamore “that grew up amidst a pile of scrap discarded by the village blacksmith”; spend a July morning in England’s gnarly Wistman’s Wood. You get the idea, but there are plenty of surprises in store. Like a child, I turned straight to my birthday page, and was thrilled to find I will celebrate it by rereading one of my favorite stories in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: Philemon and Baucis, an old couple who welcome visiting gods, disguised, of course, into their humble home. Grateful for the couple’s hospitality, the gods grant them their wish never to be parted, and turn them into intertwining trees upon their deaths. You never know who will come through your garden gate.
I am reveling in the peals of joy from the houseplant crowd online. That is the sound of new gardeners being born. Houseplants are a gateway obsession (when they’re not literally a gateway drug). I can attest to this, having spent my high school years fussing over dozens of plants in my bedroom; when I left for college, my indulgent father hauled them into my dorm room. A snappy new book by Alessia Resta, PLANTS ARE MY FAVORITE PEOPLE: A Relationship Guide for Plants and Their Parents (Clarkson Potter, 192 pp., $19.99), includes a handy quiz; I see that I was an off-the-charts helicopter parent with major separation anxiety. (Good to get it out of your system, human children being more intractable than potted gardenias.)
Resta parents in New York City, and her plot can be found at @apartmentbotanist on Instagram; she offers helpful advice for choosing plants suitable to your style, including “The Instagram-able Plants.” She makes a terrific case for plant care as self-care. She advises checking mail-order deliveries carefully, having spotted a lizard crawling out of a pot shipped from Florida. Online scams, especially on eBay and Facebook, are a serious problem, bad karma I wish I had understood a year ago, in the depths of the pandemic, when I ordered a peony — from Poland.
Raffaele Di Lallo became a plant parent out of disgust with his own parent’s two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, figuring he’d clean the air. After getting a B.S. in chemical engineering, he stuffed his house with moisture-loving monsters and started a blog, Ohio Tropics, to share his plant-care knowledge. He’s a master problem solver. His new book, HOUSEPLANT WARRIOR: 7 Keys to Unlocking the Mysteries of Houseplant Care (Countryman Press, 207 pp., $25), offers valuable health-care tips for hapless plant parents. There’s an excellent section on propagation because, well, we are parents, aren’t we?
Christopher Griffin plant-parents in Brooklyn, with a collection of over 200 “green gurls” — and a vibrant, rollicking Instagram account, @plantkween. “As a Black queer nonbinary femme,” they explain in YOU GROW, GURL: Plant Kween’s Lush Guide to Growing Your Garden (Harper Design, 222 pp., $23.99) that the goal is to “serve lush lewks and new growth realness.” They deliver. Phoebe Cheong’s appealing photographs complement text that is warm, enthusiastic and straightforward; you cannot go wrong following Griffin’s advice. They have some very fab opinions about parental style, too. No pajama days here. Griffin’s resplendent wardrobe brings joy to us all. I’m sure the green gurls cannot wait to get their tiny tendrils into those silver stilettos. “You Grow, Gurl” is full of information, full of inspiration, full of fun — and full of love.
Even as they ask us to linger, gardens invite us to think about the speed with which life passes, its transience — and our attachments. The Age of Discovery in the 16th century ushered in exchanges of plants across the world. Much degradation ensued. We can only hope that the 21st century will one day be seen as the Age of Recovery. Generations of gardeners, and gardeners of all generations, bear a simple message. Yes, gardens — even those growing in tiny apartments — provide refuge and solace. But they do more: They restore to us the strength we need to go back out into the world beyond the gates and turn our hearts and minds to making things better, saner and more sustainable for those green gurls we so cherish. Planting anything at all is a gesture of hope.
Dominique Browning is a vice president at Environmental Defense Fund and a co-founder and director of Moms Clean Air Force.