The best books on the English love of gardening

Who am I?

My husband sums up my biography as “I am, therefore I dig.” I live, garden, read and write in Chatham, New Jersey, and have had a long, open love affair with the gardening style “across the pond.” At the New York Botanical Garden I teach English garden history, and I’m a regular contributor to the British gardening journal, Hortus. In my writing, I follow the relationship between the pen and the trowel, that is authors and their gardens. I’ve written books about children’s authors Beatrix Potter and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and, as you might imagine, the research trips to the UK were a special bonus.

I wrote...

Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett

By Marta McDowell,

Book cover of Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett

What is my book about?

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children's classic The Secret Garden.

In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.

The books I picked & why

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A Little History of British Gardening

By Jenny Uglow,

Book cover of A Little History of British Gardening

Why this book?

To understand the British love of gardening, I put Jenny Uglow’s chatty book top of the list. Reading her prose is like listening to a favorite teacher, one who tells a good story while slipping in the pertinent facts.  "If I were a crow, flying across Britain in the 10th century,” she writes, “I would see forest and fields, iron forges and salt pans, small towns and settlements - occasionally I could circle over a deep park, or swoop down and feed on an orchard of ripe fruit, or pull worms from the newly turned earth in a small allotment."  She takes us from Roman villas and monastery herbers to palace gardens, Sissinghurst’s herbaceous borders, and the futuristic Eden Project.  She loves her subject, and so will you.

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tasha Tudor (illustrator),

Book cover of The Secret Garden

Why this book?

Can a book be a horticultural trigger? A sort of gateway drug for gardeners? If so, then surely The Secret Garden is a contender. The book, first published in serial form in 1910, has inspired artists, filmmakers, musicians, and dramatists. There have been illustrated editions, Broadway and West End musicals, movies, and a statue in New York’s Central Park. For over a century, gardeners have been drawn into the story of Mary, Dickon, Colin, and the garden inside the locked door at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. It is a gardening book you will never forget, the first book that sparked my interest in making a garden. My garden. And in one of those strange quirks, Frances Hodgson Burnett and I share a birthday, November 24, though 108 years apart.

Derek Jarman's Garden

By Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley (photographer),

Book cover of Derek Jarman's Garden

Why this book?

Derek Jarmon was a British avant-garde filmmaker, theater designer, and life-long gardener. In the last decade of his life, he built a new garden at a tiny house by the sea in Kent. Prospect Cottage sits on the shingle expanse overlooking the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station and the English Channel. It was an accidental garden, this arrangement of rocks and driftwood, flowers, and found objects. The book sings. Jarmon’s musings and poems wind through a small volume of 140 pages; there are 150 photographs. It is a book about why we garden, how to live, and how to die.

A Rage for Rock Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer & Plant Collector

By Nicola Shulman,

Book cover of A Rage for Rock Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer & Plant Collector

Why this book?

In 2007 I worked in two gardens in the UK: Rosemoor, a Royal Horticultural Society garden in Devon, and London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. I was smitten by the miniature rock plants, displayed in pots in the gravel bed of Rosemoor’s Alpine House, and set into the odd, antique Pond Rockery at the Physic Garden. Shulman’s glib, tiny book reminds me of those jewel-like plantings. It focuses on the founding father of British alpine gardening, Reginald Farrer, a plant collector, writer, and swashbuckling adventurer. His method for seeding his cliffside garden in the Yorkshire Dales was my favorite episode; he loaded his gun with seeds he had collected in the Himalayas, took aim at the cliff, and pulled the trigger. Note: I haven’t tried this at home.

A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed

By James Fenton,

Book cover of A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed

Why this book?

If you love flowers and love to garden, do not miss this book by British poet James Fenton.  Grab your seed catalogs and make a list of the hundred flowers you would grow, then compare your choices to James Fenton’s. I found it the perfect book to read during those gray days of winter, his bright prose radiating like an injection of sunshine. Fenton romps through the world of flower color: the orange of nasturtiums and Mexican sunflower, the lemon yellow evening primroses, and California bluebells “the colour of blue poster paint.” He captures his century of blooms with a poet’s pen. I didn’t want it to end.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in gardening, gardens, and England?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about gardening, gardens, and England.

Gardening Explore 65 books about gardening
Gardens Explore 27 books about gardens
England Explore 637 books about England

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer for Every Season, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and And Then It's Spring if you like this list.