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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Little History of British Gardening

Why did I love 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.

By Jenny Uglow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Little History of British Gardening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Did the Romans have rakes? Did the monks get muddy? Did the potato seem really, really weird when it arrived on our shores?

This lively 'potted' history of gardening in Britain takes us on a garden tour from the thorn hedges around prehistoric settlements to the rage for decking and ornamental grasses today. It tracks down the ordinary folk who worked the earth - the apprentice boys and weeding women, the florists and nursery gardeners - as well as aristocrats and grand designers and famous plant-hunters. Coloured by Jenny Uglow's own love for plants, and brought to life in the…

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tasha Tudor (illustrator),

Book cover of The Secret Garden

Why did I love 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.

By Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tasha Tudor (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Secret Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a magical novel for adults and children alike

'I've stolen a garden,' she said very fast. 'It isn't mine. It isn't anybody's. Nobody wants it, nobody cares for it, nobody ever goes into it. Perhaps everything is dead in it already; I don't know.'

After losing her parents, young Mary Lennox is sent from India to live in her uncle's gloomy mansion on the wild English moors. She is lonely and has no one to play with, but one day she learns of a secret garden somewhere in the grounds that no…

Derek Jarman's Garden

By Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley (photographer),

Book cover of Derek Jarman's Garden

Why did I love 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.

By Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley (photographer),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Derek Jarman's Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Paradise haunts gardens', writes Derek Jarman, 'and it haunts mine.' Jarman's public image is that of a film-maker of genius, whose work, dwelling on themes of sexuality and violence, became a byword for controversy. But the private man was the creator of his own garden-paradise in an environment that many might think was more of a hell than a heaven - in the flat, bleak, often desolate expanse of shingle that faces the Dungeness nuclear power station. Jarman, a passionate gardener from childhood, combined his painter's eye, his horticultural expertise and his ecological convictions to produce a landscape which combined…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Nicola Shulman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Rage for Rock Gardening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new edition of Nicola Shulman's miniature masterpiece about the life of gardener Reginald Farrer A hundred years ago, there was a revolution in British gardening, as the garden changed from being a diversion of dukes to the hobby of millions. Few figures were more prominent in this renaissance than Reginald Farrer, whose passion for alpines, the most demanding of plants, would inspire generations with a love of flowers. He was the man who put a rockery in every back garden. Tormented by physical and emotional misfortune, Farrer was one of those 'born to endless night'. Yet in the realm…

Book cover of A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed

Why did I love 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.

By James Fenton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"An engaging mix of the serious and the playful, and Fenton writes with a lightness of touch perfectly suited to the subject." --Alexander Urquhart, The Times Literary Supplement

Forget structure. Forget trees, shrubs, and perennials. As James Fenton writes, "This is not a book about huge projects. It is about thinking your way toward the essential flower garden, by the most traditional of routes: planting some seeds and seeing how they grow."

In this light hearted, instructive, original "game of lists," Fenton selects one hundred plants he would choose to grow from seed. Flowers for color, size, and exotic interest;…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in gardening, gardens, and London?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about gardening, gardens, and London.

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