My favorite books on a gardening life

Why am I passionate about this?

William Alexander’s best-selling gardening memoir, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden has been praised for its fresh, humorous, and honest take on home gardening. The books he’s selected similarly break the mould for garden books, featuring rabid rose gardeners, an obsessive breeder, and a Czech playwright.


I wrote...

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden

By William Alexander,

Book cover of The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden

What is my book about?

Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that had to be planned around the harvest, the near electrocution of the tree man, the limitations of his own middle-aged body, and the pity of his wife and kids. When Alexander runs (just for fun!) a cost-benefit analysis, adding up everything from the live animal trap to the Velcro tomato wraps and then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it comes as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes. But as any gardener will tell you, you can't put a price on the unparalleled pleasures of providing fresh food for your family.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Gardener's Year

William Alexander Why did I love this book?

The Czech playwright and polymath (who invented the word “robot”) proves that the lot of the gardener has not improved since this gem was published in 1929. Čapek sets the tone for this charming, often comic view of gardening from the opening sentence: “There are several different ways in which to lay out a garden; the best way is to get a gardener.” He wonders whether “three-year-old cow dung” means dung aged for three years, or from a three-year-old cow; finds reason to question the memories of old-timers; and is convinced that if a gardener entered the Garden of Eden, “he would sniff excitedly and say: ‘Good Lord, what humus!’ ”

By Karel Capek, Josef Capek,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Gardener's Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This very entertaining volume with its delightfully humorous pictures should be read by all gardeners." — Nature
"Mr. Čapek writes with sympathy, understanding, and humor." — The New York Times
"Has a mellowness and a charm that give it a high place in the humorous literature of gardening … will delight the amateur gardener, and indeed everyone else." — Saturday Review
The creator of this book is best known internationally as the author of R.U.R., the science-fiction play that introduced the term "robot" to the world. Karel Čapek's satiric gifts take a different turn in this impishly comic book, which…


Book cover of The Orchard: A Memoir

William Alexander Why did I love this book?

Chancing upon this book, a posthumous memoir of a single woman trying to save her family’s New England apple orchard during the Depression, was like tripping across a new, totally unexpected variety of apple. After her father dies, Robertson, a young Radcliff graduate who doesn’t know which end of the apple is up, returns home to find a badly neglected farm, ancient farming equipment, and some of the worst weather in a generation. With the support of her Great Dane and some remarkable strangers, she sets out to save the orchard (and herself) from ruin. Discovered by the author’s daughter years after Robertson’s death, The Orchard has enough technical information to satisfy (or frighten) home gardeners and orchardists, and enough human interest and great story-telling to thrill everyone else.

By Adele Crockett Robertson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Orchard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Orchard is an exquisitely beautiful and poignant memoir of a young woman's single-handed struggle to save her New England farm in the depths of the Great Depression. Recently discovered by the author's daughter, it tells the story of Adele "Kitty" Robertson, young and energetic, but unprepared by her Radcliffe education for the rigors of apple farming in those bitter times. Alone at the end of a country road, with only a Great Dane for company, plagued by debts, broken machinery, and killing frosts, Kitty revives the old orchard after years of neglect. Every day is a struggle, but every…


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

William Alexander Why did I love this book?

Gardening, whether in a backyard or a hundred-acre orchard, is an audacious attempt to improve on nature, and Smith’s fascinating hybrid of biography, history, and botany brings to life the most audacious of them all. The only biography on my list, I’ve included it because, in an age where we might be forgiven for thinking it takes millions of corporate dollars and genetic engineers to produce a new plant, The Garden of Invention reminds us how one man’s singular determination, patience, and brilliance can change the world. And produce the perfect potato for McDonald’s French fries.

By Jane S. Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The wide-ranging and delightful history of celebrated plant breeder Luther Burbank and the business of farm and garden in early twentieth- century America

At no other time in history has there been more curiosity or concern about the food we eat-and genetically modified foods, in particular, have become both pervasive and suspect. A century ago, however, Luther Burbank's blight-resistant potatoes, white blackberries, and plumcots-a plum-apricot hybrid-were celebrated as triumphs in the best tradition of American ingenuity and perseverance. In his experimental grounds in Santa Rosa, California, Burbank bred and cross-bred edible and ornamental plants-for both home gardens and commercial farms-until…


Book cover of Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening

William Alexander Why did I love this book?

Q-tips, cotton balls, and hazmat suits: welcome to the world of competitive rose gardening. Scott’s engaging journey into the underbelly of rose exhibitions will leave you wondering, Are these hobbyists bloomin’ nuts, or simply having more fun than the rest of us? My dark-horse pick, maybe because it reassured me that my own gardening exploits (installing a 10,000-volt electric fence that deters people but not groundhogs, for instance) weren’t so wacky, after all.

By Aurelia C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Otherwise Normal People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Twice a year America's rose lovers cut the prettiest blossoms off their best plants and travel to the national rose show, where they lovingly groom their precious blooms for hours in a frigid hall in order to contend for the highest honor: the Queen of Show. Doctors. Teachers. Sheet metal mechanics. Lawyers. Truck drivers. Men and women. These are type A gardeners, and for them this is a blood sport. They grow tender roses in the frigid North and disease prone roses in the humid South simply for the challenge. They decorate otherwise lovely yards with paper bags and panty…


Book cover of Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

William Alexander Why did I love this book?

In this, Michael Pollan’s first book, he plants the seeds (sorry) for his later, more journalistic and socially-oriented books in his own garden. His prose can leap off the page, as with his vivid description of slugs as “naked bullets of flesh--evicted snails--that hide from the light of day, emerging at sunset to cruise the garden along their own avenues of slime.” Oh, and he also has issues with groundhogs.

By Michael Pollan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Second Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An account of one man's experience in his garden.


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The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

Book cover of The Truth About Unringing Phones

Lara Lillibridge

New book alert!

What is my book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket.

Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father. The Truth About Unringing Phones is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.

The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

What is this book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket. Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father.




The Truth About Unringing Phones: Essays on Yearning is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.


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