The best books on the history of the gardening industry

Why am I passionate about this?

I love visiting other people’s gardens, great and small. There are many thousands throughout England but, as I surveyed the beauty of the lakes and rolling lawns of one of them, I was struck by a question: how much did it cost? I found that none of the huge number of books on gardening and garden history gave an answer, so (drawing on my experience as an economic historian) I had to try for myself. Fifteen years later, after delving in archives, puzzling out the intricacies of lakes and dams, exploring ruined greenhouses, peering into the bothies in which gardening apprentices lived, England’s Magnificent Gardens is my answer.


I wrote...

England's Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today

By Roderick Floud,

Book cover of England's Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today

What is my book about?

England’s Magnificent Gardens (An Economic History of the English Garden in the UKis about the huge cost of making and maintaining the gardens of England since 1660, the men and women who paid for them and those who did the work. It delves into King George III’s Christmas dinner, the complexities of waterworks in the artificial lakes, the “old corruption” which channelled public money to aristocrats to create great gardens, the role of greenhouses in the invention of central heating, and much, much more. Gardening is not only a great hobby but it has been, for centuries, a major industry in countries throughout the world; this book celebrates “the glory of the garden” in all its facets.

“A new kind of garden history, filled with fascinating and often surprising details.” - The Guardian 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown's Gift of Landscape

Roderick Floud Why did I love this book?

Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his fellow garden designers transformed the English landscape in the middle of the 1700s. They swept away the formal gardens of an earlier age and replaced them with lakes and long vistas of tree-studded landscapes. Steffie Shields describes the mechanics of the work of hundreds of gardeners but also, with the aid of lavish pictures, describes the beauty which they created—once described as “England’s greatest contribution to European culture.”

By Steffie Shields,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moving Heaven and Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This beautifully illustrated book, with the vast majority of illustrations photographed by the author, makes a fitting tribute to the world-famous 18th century landscape architect Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-1783) in his Tercentenary year.


Book cover of Mr Hamilton's Elysium: The Gardens of Painshill

Roderick Floud Why did I love this book?

The story of the creation, and re-creation, of one of England’s most beautiful—but least known—gardens. Painshill, on the southwestern outskirts of London, was built in the mid-1700s by Charles Hamilton, a minor aristocrat, with money garnered from government sinecures and his wealthy friends. Later admired by Thomas Jefferson, the garden has a large artificial lake, temples, a pagoda, a hermit’s hut, and a fabulous crystal-studded, entirely manmade, grotto which cost the equivalent of £14 million today to build. After falling into decay, the garden has been restored by a dedicated band of men and women, including the author of this sumptuous book.

By Michael Symes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mr Hamilton's Elysium as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Hon. Charles Hamilton was one of those extraordinary eighteenth-century gentlemen who, like Lord Cobham at Stowe and Henry Hoare at Stourhead, turned their gardens into works of art.



Inspired by his time in Italy, Hamilton set out to transform the 'accursed hill' at Painshill in Surrey into a pictorial landscape complete with serpentine lake and water wheel, Turkish Tent, 'Chinese Bridge', Ruined Abbey, Grotto and Hermitage. The garden soon ranked with the best in the land but it later lay forgotten until rediscovered in the 1970s. The restoration over the last thirty years or so has been as careful…


Book cover of The Sun King's Garden: Louis XIV, Andre le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles

Roderick Floud Why did I love this book?

Louis XIV of France was, like many other European kings and their queens and families, a mad-keen gardener. He had all the resources of his powerful nation, including its army, to help him and the result was the garden of Versailles, probably the most expensive and lavish ever made. It was watered by hundreds of fountains, powered by a set of pumps in the River Seine which was probably the largest machine constructed before the Industrial Revolution. Versailles became the model which kings and aristocrats across Europe aspired to emulate. Ian Thompson tells its history, in detail but in engaging prose. 

By Ian Thompson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

War-monger, womanizer and autocrat, Louis XIV, Frances's self-styled 'Sun-King', was also history's most fanatical gardener. At Versailles, twelve miles outside Paris he created not only Europe's most lavish palace but the most extensive gardens the Western world has ever seen. The Domaine Nationale de Versailles now covers 2,100 acres (about two and a half times the size of New York's Central Park) but in it's heyday under Louis, the grand parc covered an astounding 16,343 acres. Assisting Louis in all this was a lowly-born gardener, Andre Le Notre, whose character and temperament were as different from those of his sovereign…


Book cover of The Gardens of the British Working Class

Roderick Floud Why did I love this book?

Garden history is largely written about the gardens of the rich and famous, kings, queens, and aristocrats, But most of the population, in many countries, have small gardens, balconies, and window-boxes and tend them as lovingly as do the paid gardeners of the rich. Margaret Willes uncovers their history in Britain over five centuries; it is a difficult task because most working-class gardeners left few or no documentary records, but she succeeds triumphantly. Gardening societies, at which they showed off their prize fruit and vegetables, allotments, the garden cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all have their place, together with the archetypal cottage garden with roses around the door.  

By Margaret Willes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Gardens of the British Working Class as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This magnificently illustrated people's history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the laboring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes's research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers' cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious, sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for…


Book cover of The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obession

Roderick Floud Why did I love this book?

Gardening is indeed an obsession, which can drive men and women to madness and penury. It is fuelled by competition, the desire to have the latest, most exotic specimen. Andrea Wulf captures beautifully the mania for American plants which swept across English gardens in the 1700s, as the plant-hunter John Bartram of Virginia teamed up with the London merchant, Peter Collinson, to import boxes of plants and seeds into the UK. If they survived the long sea voyage, they were then nurtured by English aristocrats and their head gardeners, at vast expense, before becoming so common that few gardeners in Europe today know where they came from.

By Andrea Wulf,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of The Invention of Nature, a fascinating look at the men who made Britain the center of the botanical world.

“Wulf’s flair for storytelling is combined with scholarship, brio, and a charmingly airy style. ... A delightful book—and you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy it.”—The New York Times Book Review

Bringing to life the science and adventure of eighteenth-century plant collecting, The Brother Gardeners is the story of how six men created the modern garden and changed the horticultural world in the process. It is a story of a garden revolution that began…


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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


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