Read This: 3 garden design books for your holiday giving (or getting)

I read a lot of gardening books, especially those about design. Three books stand out for me this year as particularly worthy of being on your favorite gardener’s wish list — or your own. Aside from their focus on garden design, they couldn’t be more different, covering topics as diverse as modern designs from around the world, how other arts can influence a garden’s design, and the symbolism of Zen temple gardens in Japan. Two were published this year, the other appeared in 2011, and all are available in hardback for that hefty, impressive presentation when the wrapping paper is ripped off.

Gardens in Detail

Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs (2014) by Emma Reuss. At more than 400 pages and 3.5 pounds, this tome gives you your money’s worth and then some. Despite its size, however, it never bogs down in technical language or esoteric discussion as it dissects the design elements of 100 contemporary gardens. Mainly from the U.K. and the U.S. but also, refreshingly, countries as disparate as Iran, Australia, Japan, Brazil, India, France, and China, each garden is showcased across four pages and a half-dozen photographs. An insightful overview covering the designer’s approach and site challenges is followed by concise descriptions of 4 or 5 design techniques used in each garden. The gardens are organized in 10 chapters with broad headings like Art, Composition, Lifestyle, Colour, and Atmosphere. The 4-page-per-garden format makes it an easy book to pick up and put down, especially as you’ll want to digest what you’ve learned about each garden before turning the page to read about the next.

Author and garden designer Emma Reuss lives in London, and her book has a definite English slant. But I love that she includes gardens from all over the world and writes about them with confidence and an accessibility that makes design less of a mystery. Gardens in Detail is smart without being dense, with just enough detail to give you a sense of each garden and help you understand what makes it captivating.

The Artful Garden

The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design (2011) by James van Sweden, with Tom Christopher. A pioneer of the New American Garden style, which popularized mass plantings of grasses and perennials in naturalistic, meadow-inspired designs and rejected the stiff regularity of lawns and foundation shrubs, landscape architect James van Sweden, who died last year at age 78, was a proselytizer who often spoke publicly and authored several books about design.

Published in 2011, The Artful Garden, co-authored with Tom Christopher, is his final book. Just as his design style embraced plants and ecology over mere architecture, so too does his book speak to gardeners, to fellow plant lovers. Here, in his cheerful, accessible prose, he urges gardeners to explore and embrace other art forms — music, dance, painting — as sources of inspiration for garden design. “Few of us,” he writes, “whether professional or amateur, would, if asked, deny that garden design is a fine art. Yet, with rare exceptions, we do not treat it as such. We take our inspiration from nursery catalogs or gardens that we have visited. Maybe we think it would be pretentious to compare what we do to what we might find on the wall of a gallery or on a pedestal in the Louvre. The truth is, though, by failing to make this connection, we rob ourselves of what should be the designer’s most powerful tool and guide.”

For gardeners interested in design, this book will broaden your ideas of what a garden can be. Using examples of gardens designed by his firm, Van Sweden urges us to both expand our sources of inspiration and use what touches us to make deeply personal and artistic gardens.

Japanese Zen Gardens

Japanese Zen Gardens (2014) by Yoko Kawaguchi. For a long time, Japanese gardens puzzled me. The tranquility of koi-filled ponds, expanses of moss, and artfully pruned Japanese maples were often overshadowed, to my eye, by a certain rigidity of style, expressed in tightly shorn shrubs, extreme restraint in plant choices, and, most perplexing of all, courtyards of raked gravel and boulders with no plants at all. Were these rock-and-gravel spaces even gardens, I wondered? I knew I was missing something crucial, but what?

Japanese Zen Gardens, a new book by Yoko Kawaguchi, explains the symbolism and philosophy behind the Japanese dry garden, what Westerners call a Zen garden, giving me a better appreciation of this enigmatic style. Each carefully placed stone represents a larger natural feature — an island, mountain, or waterfall — as well as, perhaps, an allegorical figure from the Buddhist tradition. In the first half of the book, Kawaguchi features a dozen or so Zen temple gardens, delving deeply into the founding of each garden and the political climate at the time — timelines that, for many of these ancient gardens, span hundreds of years, with the result that the text sometimes bogs down in historical minutiae. In the second half, she helpfully explores the motifs and symbols incorporated into the design. Throughout this oversized volume, you’re treated to breathtaking photographs of the gardens in every season, by photographer Alex Ramsay. This is a gorgeous coffee table book, perfect for the garden-loving traveler or anyone who wants to understand these spiritual, highly symbolic gardens a little better.

Disclosure: The Monacelli Press sent me a copy of Gardens in Detail and Aurum Publishing Group sent me Japanese Zen Gardens for review. I purchased The Artful Garden myself. I reviewed all three at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

12 Responses

  1. TexasDeb says:

    An embarrassment of riches… Whether indulging in a personal treat or out hunting down that perfect tome for aspiring or armchair gardeners, there is a match to be found in one (or all) of these recent releases.

    May I go one step further and suggest that folks in use a local bookseller when purchasing any of these? I took the liberty of checking my personal Austin favorite, Book People, and while Gardens in Detail was in stock at the time of this writing, both Japanese Zen Gardens and The Artful Garden would require a special order (a service provided at no additional charge). The only thing more gratifying than gifting a lovely book is knowing that you benefitted your local economy by doing so.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Great point, Deb. Book People is an awesome independent bookstore, and folks might try The Natural Gardener too, which is one of the few nurseries in town that stocks a good book selection. One more place with a lot of gardening books is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and it just so happens that I’ll be doing a book-signing of Lawn Gone! there this Sunday, Dec. 7, from 1 to 3 pm! —Pam

  2. I’ve read No. 2 but I will have to look for Nos. 1 and 3. I’ve rarely seen a book on Japanese gardens that Mark and I did not like!!

  3. Kris P says:

    Thanks for the reviews, Pam. I always like to add a book (or 2) to my Christmas wish list. This year, I think I’ll ask for “The Artful Garden” but I may give it as a gift as well.

  4. The books look beautiful. My favorite this year is The Living Landscape by Richard Dark and Doug Tallamy. Thanks as always for your lovely blog.

  5. Indie says:

    So nice to see some recommendations! I usually read whatever our library happens to have, but our library is small. It has a large lending program with other libraries, though, so I’ll have to look for these. The first one, in particular, sounds really interesting.

  6. I’m having to stack my garden books two deep on the shelves these days but somehow I’ll find room for Gardens In Detail! That Japanese Zen Gardens looks intriguing as well.