The best books that totally change the way you think about plants and gardens, from giant trees to fragile flowers

Jane S. Smith Author Of The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants
By Jane S. Smith

Who am I?

All my writing starts with the question, How did we get here? As the granddaughter of a grocer and the daughter of a food editor, I grew up wondering about the quest for new and better foods—especially when other people began saying “new” and “better” were contradictions. Which is better, native or imported? Heirloom or hybrid? Our roses today are patented, and our food supplies are dominated by multi-national seed companies, but not very long ago, the new sciences of evolution and genetics promised an end to scarcity and monotony. If we explore the sources of our gardens, we can understand our world. That‘s what I tried to do in The Garden of Invention, and that’s why I recommend these books.  

I wrote...

Book cover of The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

What is my book about?

A century ago, Luther Burbank was the most famous gardener on the planet, idolized as a great inventor on a par with his friends Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. From his earliest discovery, the Burbank potato (still the world’s most widely grown variety), to astonishing novelties like the white blackberry, Burbank was regarded as a plant wizard who could transform ordinary plants until they were tastier, hardier, more beautiful, more bountiful, or simply stranger than ever before. The Garden of Invention revisits the years when the public clamored for new farm and garden varieties, a time when Burbank’s experimental acres transformed the business of agriculture and helped make California into the cornucopia of the world.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Why did I love this book?

I love the way Michael Pollen makes us take the plant’s point of view, reminding us of how often we are coaxed to grow, eat, admire, and revere things that we “think” we discovered ourselves.  

I also love that Johnny Appleseed and Luther Burbank grew up as near neighbors, just a few years apart. Inland Massachusetts as an agricultural hotbed—who knew?

By Michael Pollan,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Botany of Desire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them? In blending history, memoir and…

Book cover of The Urban Garden: How One Community Turned Idle Land into a Garden City and How You Can, Too

Why did I love this book?

This gorgeous and touching book shows the many ways community gardens are more than a name—they build community. In a time when it’s so easy to feel helpless, here are ordinary people taking small steps with a big impact. I particularly loved the use of community garden time as alternative sentencing for teen offenders, and how the kids turned around and used their skills to help homebound seniors. 

By Jeremy N. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Urban Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fifteen people plus a class of first graders tell how local food, farms, and gardens changed their lives and their community . . . and how they can change yours, too.
Urban Farming Handbook includes:
Fifteen first-person stories of personal and civic transformation from a range of individuals, including farmers and community garden members, a low-income senior and a troubled teen, a foodie, a food bank officer, and many more
Seven in-depth "How It Works" sections on student farms, community gardens, community-supported agriculture (CSA), community education, farm work therapy, community outreach, and more
Detailed information on dozens of additional resources…

Book cover of The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer

Why did I love this book?

David Fairchild was one of the early leaders of the US Department of Agriculture, traveling the world like a botanical Indiana Jones to gather cuttings and learn about local methods of cultivation and pest control.  He introduced thousands of new crops to the United States, from mangos to soybeans. Wouldn’t you love to list “plant explorer” as your job description?

By David Fairchild,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Was My Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Fairchild wrote this book to describe his extensive world travels and his work introducing new plant species to the United States. In addition to sharing his legendary tropical botanical expertise, Fairchild provided graphic accounts of native cultures he was able to see before their modernization. He was an accomplished photographer and illustrated the book himself.

This is his personal story of his experiences, traveling endlessly, absorbing information about plant life and sending back cuttings to experiment with, investigating plant disease, and so on. His training and experiences in European laboratories and his travels brought him into contact with most…

The Orchid Thief

By Susan Orlean,

Book cover of The Orchid Thief

Why did I love this book?

Like all of Orlean’s work, The Orchid Thief is beautifully written, a surprising and often funny portrait of a man obsessed with the dream of finding, cloning, and selling a rare and protected orchid. Orlean takes us into the secret world of bio-piracy and reminds us that flowers are not just emblems of luxury and beauty. They are also big business.

By Susan Orlean,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Orchid Thief as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of orchid thief and obsessive, John Laroche, and the bizarre world of the orchid fanciers of Florida. The world of the orchid hunters, breeders and showmen, their rivalries, vendettas and crimes, smuggling, thefts and worse provide the backdrop to an exploration of one of the byways of human nature, the obsessive world of the collector.

Book cover of Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California

Why did I love this book?

This fascinating book answers questions you never thought to ask. What would Southern California be without citrus groves or palm trees? Why does the Australian eucalyptus cover so much of this western state, and who were the elite conservatives who saw their own survival in the battle to save the redwoods? Find out here!

By Jared Farmer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trees in Paradise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the intersection of plants and politics, Trees in Paradise is an examination of ecological mythmaking and conquest. The first Americans who looked out over California saw arid grasslands and chaparral, and over the course of generations, they remade those landscapes according to the aesthetic values and economic interests of settlers, urban planners, and boosters. In the San Fernando Valley, entrepreneurs amassed fortunes from vast citrus groves; in the Bay Area, gum trees planted to beautify neighborhoods fed wildfires; and across the state, the palm came to stand for the ease and luxury of the rapidly expanding suburbs. Meanwhile, thousands…

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Interested in gardens, plants, and California?

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