The best books on a gardening life

The Books I Picked & Why

The Gardener's Year

By Karel Capek, Josef Capek

The Gardener's Year

Why 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!’ ”


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The Orchard: A Memoir

By Adele Crockett Robertson

The Orchard: A Memoir

Why 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.


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

By Jane S. Smith

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

Why 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.


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

By Aurelia C. Scott

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

Why 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.


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Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

By Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

Why 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.


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