Summer reading for gardeners

With Austin on track for our hottest summer on record, I’ve sworn off any real gardening for the pleasures of garden book reading—inside, preferably under a ceiling fan with a cold Diet Dr. Pepper in my hand. Recent trips to Barnes & Noble and Half Price Books have netted me about 10 lbs. of eye-candy-filled garden books. Want to know what I’m reading?


I’ve already devoured Sunset’s Big Ideas for Small Gardens by Emily Young and Dave Egbert (2007). This book is chock-full of inspiring ideas for those, like me, gardening on small lots. City gardeners with tight urban spaces and even the large-space gardener who wants to create a feeling of intimacy with defined garden rooms will find much to pore over. This being a Sunset book, the plants and designs seem best suited to gardens of the southwest, California, and the Pacific northwest—a refreshing change from the northeastern focus of so many garden books and magazines.


Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home by Julie Moir Messervy and Sarah Susanka, photographs by Grey Crawford (2006). I’ve already finished this one too. I enjoyed architect Susanka’s Not So Big House series, so when I saw that she’d co-authored a book with nationally known landscape designer Messervy, I had to read it. Not exactly a garden book, it’s about integrating home and landscape to make them live as one—even from inside the home with the use of view corridors leading the gaze through hallways, doorways, and windows out to a focal point in the garden. This is a book to savor. Rather than the pithy text of a typical garden book, Outside offers a long exploration of each house/garden and the elements used to connect the two. As the Not So Big title implies, the concept of house-garden connection is particularly important for small spaces, to make each live larger.


The World of Garden Design: Inspiring Ideas from Around the Globe to Your Backyard by Susan Dooley and the editors of Garden Design magazine (2000). I’m about halfway through this big hardback, which describes the history and characteristics of gardening styles around the world, from Italian to Japanese, French to Tropical (inexplicably linked with desert gardening), and of course the beloved English garden. Nothing too in-depth, but lovely photographs illustrate each section, and because it’s written for American gardeners, it also shows how elements of each particular style can be adapted to average-sized gardens on this side of the pond.


Garden Retreats: Creating an Outdoor Sanctuary by Barbara Blossom Ashmun, photographs by Allan Mandell (2000). I haven’t read this one yet, but from the looks of the lush, rain-wet, Asian-style gardens inside, full of chartreuse and bronze foliage, the images were shot in the lovely Pacific northwest, where both author and photographer hail from. Perusing these images should be the perfect antidote to a brutal Austin summer.


Sharp Gardening by British designer Christopher Holliday, with photographs by Jerry Harpur (2005), takes its inspiration from an entirely different region and palette of plants. As the title indicates, this book celebrates the dramatic, spiky plants of the American southwest, Mexico, Australia, Mediterranean regions, and the tropics (there’s that desert-tropical connection again; dramatic foliage is the connection). It’s about gardens designed around foliage, not flowers, and using plants suited to the conditions, particularly in arid climates. With my current fascination with agaves, I expect to find much to inspire me here.


Creating Small Formal Gardens by Roy Strong (1989). Strong is a “Sir” and, according to the book jacket, “one of Britain’s leading garden historians and designers.” While there’s something off-putting about the lordly title “Sir” to this American’s ears, I bought his book to learn more about classic style for small spaces.


Small Space Gardens by David Stevens (2003). Continuing with the theme of small gardens and British authors/designers, this book showcases the theatrical minimalism of contemporary design. I see a lot of sharp gardening going on in the accompanying photographs.


People with Dirty Hands by Robin Chotzinoff (1996). Carol at May Dreams Gardens has selected Robin’s collection of portraits for the June-July Garden Bloggers Book Club. Since Robin is a fellow Austin gardener and blogger, and a very nice person whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Spring Fling hour hour in April, I’m eagerly reading her book and look forward to seeing what others have to say about it.


Spanish Dagger by Susan Wittig Albert (2007). Susan is another central Texas blogger I met at the Spring Fling (what a lot of great connections were made there), and she autographed this herbal-theme mystery for me that day. I’ve yet to delve into her China Bayles mystery series, but after hearing other Spring Flingers rave about them I’m saving this one for my summer vacation.

Do you have a summer reading list of garden books too, and if so, what’s on it?

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

29 Responses

  1. Hi Pam,

    I just came in from outside. How nice it was to peruse your garden reading list. I’m reading People with Dirty Hands for the second time, and because of your info., I ordered Garden Retreats. I’m looking forward to it. As to others, I don’t have any so this will be nice.

    Been reading Agatha Christie again for fun.~~Dee

    Hi, Dee. Agatha Christie does sound like fun. If you get to Garden Retreats before I do, be sure to let me know what you think of it. Happy reading. —Pam

  2. How right you are – it is now reading season (laying on the sofa and reading season) – thanks for the recommendations – I should be finishing my current read when Spanish Daggers and People with Dirty Hands arrive.

    I moan and groan about not being able to stand the heat in the garden at this time of year, but I actually quite enjoy the time to just sit and dream with a bunch of garden books. Don’t you? —Pam

  3. Pam, it’s kind of funny that we’re miles and miles apart, and garden in such different areas, and yet we seem to gravitate toward many of the same garden books. The first two books on your list, the “Sunset” and the “Not So Big” books, are two that I almost have memorized from time spent at Barnes & Noble and Borders. (They, along with Nan Ondra’s “Ornamental Grasses” and “Fallscaping” are on my “to buy” list next time I get a good coupon from either book chain.)

    I do have to say, though, that while I like the “Sharp Gardening” book idea, I didn’t find the book very useful for some reason when I flipped through it a few times at the bookstore. I kind of think of it like I do Christo’s “Exotic Gardening” book, that it could have been much more if only it had a little more time to be worked over. I will be interested in getting your take once you are done reading it in depth, though.

    Hi, Kim. Thanks for your take on Sharp Gardening. I’ll let you know whether I find it to be the same. I was at least hoping for good eye candy, even if the text proves a bit shallow. It is interesting that we like the same gardening books, and I’m glad to know that you like the Sunset book too. It’s my favorite so far. —Pam

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Ooooh, this makes me want to run to the nearest B&N for a book fix. Since one would be an hour
    drive from my house I will just have to go to the bookcase and pull out one of my old faithfuls.
    Nice reviews. I will try to see if the library has any of these. Good summer reading no doubt.

    An hour is a long drive for a book fix, Lisa. I bet I’d end up relying on Amazon even more than I do now. :-) Still, old faithfuls are a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon. What are your favorites? —Pam

  5. Pam, here are 2 of my favorite books: The Potting Shed by Linda Joan Smith, and Potting Places by Teri Dunn. The pictures in both are really pretty, and I love reading about different ways to create a place to work on potting plants.
    I have been a Susan Albert fan for many years. I have read all of her books except the english mysteries she and her husband have written. (only read 2 of them so far) Susan is a fantastic author–you can just look at Lifescapes (her blog) and know that. She can transport you to the fictitious town of Pecan Springs and you will feel like you are a part of China’s world within reading a few pages. I learn about herbs, I get new recipes and I get to help solve a murder mystery—and all in Texas! As you can tell–I, along with your Spring Fling buddies, highly recommend all of Susan books. You will love them!

    Thanks for the rave about Susan’s books, Linda. Now I really can’t wait to read Spanish Dagger and the others. I’m also glad for your recommendation for the potting shed books. I’m going to go look them up on Amazon.com. —Pam

  6. I love having a summer reading program, like when I was a kid and the library had one. I’d finish the required number of books in record time and keep reading and reading and reading. I’ll have to check out some of these you’ve listed. Right now, I’ve got my dirty gardening hands on “People with Dirty Hands” and am enjoying it.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens (where it is beautiful, sunny, high 70’s perfect for reading outside)

    I’m picturing you reading in a hammock on your perfect summer day, Carol, and living vicariously. In my imagination, May Dreams Gardens still has scented lilacs and nodding peonies, and your tomatoes and lettuces are untouched by bunnies. Hey, let me enjoy the fantasy! —Pam

  7. deb says:

    The heat here in Texas had brought me inside also. Your book list looks great. There are always great finds at Half Priced Books.

    Half Price Books is wonderful, isn’t it? I found all but three of these books there. —Pam

  8. Wow Pam. You really had a big spend. So now I find out something else about garden bloggers-they like to buy garden books. I am shortly about to post my garden book finds in England.
    My purchase for the month was The Unlikely Lavender Queen by Jeannie Ralston. I read about it in the paper and as this is also a local book I though it might make good summer reading. Lavender- that’s one I would love to have success with.
    Jenny

    I saw that article in the paper, Jenny. Do let me know what you think after you finish it. I would love to grow lavender too, but I’ve heard how fussy it is in our humidity and haven’t even tried it. —Pam

  9. Wow – Love those low round garden containers on the Small Space Gardens cover.

    Aren’t they cool? Some of these books are worth having for the eye candy alone. —Pam

  10. Michelle says:

    I am going to go out and snag myself that Sunset book. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I am familiar with the Sunset books and I love them! I have the Sunset book ‘Gardening in the Southwest’ and I really love it. I don’t particularly like the books that only feature plants and gardening styles that work only for the Eastern part of the US. Of course you can always substitute plants, but I would still rather read a book that is more geared toward the climate I am currently a denizen of.

    I agree that it’s satisfying to read a gardening book geared to one’s own region and climate. Although great design ideas can always be reinterpreted for a different climate, there are certain vernaculars of place that affect design, and so it’s helpful to see those represented in books and magazine articles too. —Pam

  11. Robin says:

    Pam, I just spent a few hours at Barnes and Noble looking through stacks of gardening books, and didn’t find anything I liked. And here you have just given me some excellent choices, none of which I saw when I was there. I’m glad I didn’t purchase anything, because now I know what to get. I have also enjoyed the China Bayles series for years (being an herbalist by profession, and a mystery reader by passion, it was a natural fit), and I’ll toast my own ice cold Dr. Pepper to you as we enjoy our air-conditioned reading.
    Robin at Getting Grounded

    Hi, Robin. I hope you can find some of these titles locally, but if not, there’s always Amazon. I found the majority at Half Price Books, and as you probably know, shopping there is like going on a treasure hunt—you never know what, if anything, you’ll find. Happy reading! —Pam

  12. Diana Kirby says:

    Staying inside and reading is definitely the order of the day! But, only after 30-45 minutes of handwatering pots and window boxes and special needs plants. Ugh. Remind me NOT to do all that next year!!!

    Ooh, hand watering is not my favorite chore at this time of year either! I hope you found time for a little lazy reading, Diana. —Pam

  13. vertie says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. Reading inside and planning for the fall seems the best option right now. We are thinking of adding some hardscaping and maybe a screened porch to our small house so I will look for the Outside the Not So Big House for some ideas. I just picked up a couple books from the library: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Just started Kingsolver’s, which I’ve heard evokes strong feelings. I’ve never made it through any of her novels so we’ll see if I finish this nonfiction work.

    Hi, Vertie. Summer is a good time for hardscaping, when adding plants is out of the question but getting ready for fall planting is ideal. I have mixed feelings about Kingsolver’s fiction too, usually finding it didactic. I’m interested in the Tallamy book you mentioned. —Pam

  14. Layanee says:

    Lots of great suggestions on that list. I have been reading ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Wells. Not gardening but great! ‘The Truth about Organics’, Jeff Gilman and that is just one of many! I need to pick up some of those beautiful books!

    Thanks for your reading list, Layanee. I’ve read several positive reviews of the Gilman book. I’ll have to look into the Wells book too. —Pam

  15. Gail says:

    Garden books…another delight! Can’t wait to read some of these Pam…I just finished…Planted Junk (Adam Caplin) those Brits have the best junk to plant! Even though some of us have larger lots, the small garden ideas still work, so I am going to check these books out!

    Thanks for the heads-up about Planted Junk, Gail. Yep, those small-garden ideas definitely work in bigger gardens. Happy reading. —Pam

  16. Susannah says:

    I am on the same wavelength– I just bought some garden books to enjoy in the shade too! It’s waaaay too hot out there.

    We’ll just settle inside and read to our hearts’ content then, won’t we? Enjoy your books, Susannah. —Pam

  17. kate says:

    You have an interesting collection of garden books to read followed by a good mystery.

    It’s hard to decide which to start on next! —Pam

  18. Your ability to tap into the ether and know what we’re up to never ceases to amaze, Pam! And why are we not surprised that you bought a book called “The Sharp Garden”?

    Philo and I were also at a bookstore yesterday – went for something we didn’t find but came home with several books, including Susan Wittig Albert’s ‘Lavender Lies’ from the China Bayles series… I’ve caught up with the newer China books, but missed a few earlier entries.

    Right now I’m also rereading Eric Grissell’s “Journal in Thyme” and dipping in and out of a Halfprice Books purchase edited by Bonnie Maranca – an anthology of American Garden Writing.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Your reading list sounds interesting, Annie. Thanks for sharing it. There’s nothing like a broiling, lazy summer for getting books read, is there? —Pam

  19. Aiyana says:

    One of my favorite pastimes in the summer is going to Barnes and Noble, gathering up gardening books and magazines, and sit there and read for hours. I don’t get distracted there like at home, and can actually concentrate on the reading. I’ve never seen the book ‘Sharp Gardening’ which sounds like something I’d like to read. So many of the books have ideas that can’t be adapted to our climate, and I find it frustrating. I’m going to look for some of the others you’ve mentioned, however, I think I’ve read (or bought) everything in the gardening section and I haven’t seen any of them.
    Aiyana

    I see lots of folks at the bookstore reading in cozy armchairs, just as if it were a library. I haven’t tried it because I have my kids with me in the summer, but it looks relaxing—and it’s a good way to see if you really want a book before you buy it. If you don’t find the ones you want on the bookstore shelves, though, there’s always Amazon. —Pam

  20. You NEED to read Susan Wittig Albert’s series – especially since you’re a Texan. I love those books! I’ve heard her speak at a book signing and she’s just a neat person – has so many interests in addition to writing and gardening.

    I’m sure Spanish Dagger won’t be the only one I’ll end up reading. I look forward to getting to know China Bayles. —Pam

  21. Lori says:

    I need to get that Sunset book. I’ve been trying to figure out how to divide my yard up into little rooms, and just the cover picture gave me an idea.

    Annie let me borrow her copy of People With Dirty Hands at Spring Fling, and I loved it. I was impressed by how Robin managed to convey entire personalities with only a few well-chosen words, and it was laugh-out-loud funny to boot. :)

    Thanks for the book recommendations!

    Robin’s book IS funny. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it too. Happy reading, Lori. —Pam

  22. I’m a library fan, so I’m waiting for “People w/ Dirty Hands” to arrive by interlibrary loan. I also didn’t like “Sharp Gardens.” My reason is I don’t like painful plants, as I am always touching mine. For fiction, I’ve been reading Michale Kurland’s Professor Moriarity books, a fun turn around on Sherlock Holmes. Stay cool!

    It seems that lots of garden bloggers are into mysteries. Thanks for sharing your reading list, MMD. I will endeavor to stay cool! —Pam

  23. I’ll be checking some of these out, as I’m definitely in the small garden category. Thanks for all the good tips!
    –Kate

    You’re welcome, Kate. Of course, I haven’t read most of these yet, but they did look good to me too. Happy reading! —Pam

  24. Randy says:

    I suppose it is time to start admitting defeat when it comes to the heat. The garden looks so pretty in the morning, but looks really haggard in the evening. Reading a good gardening book is an excellent way to prepare for the cooler fall days.

    “Haggard” is a good word to describe the gardener too during a summer heat wave and drought, Randy. Reading indoors is a great way to dream the summer away. Enjoy! —Pam

  25. eliz says:

    These are great suggestions and most are perfect for my small urban garden. Not that I always read stuff that fits what I actually have! Susanka came and spoke here a couple years back. Small is good!

    Yes, I’m particularly grateful for small at this time of year. Enjoy your wonderful summer season in the garden, Elizabeth. —Pam

  26. Oh, there’s good eye candy… I think that the lack of in-depth “how to” type information is the reason why I was not excited. I was expecting to learn a few things, be they design ideas or whatnot. But I’ll shut up now until after you’ve read it! :)

    Yes, meaty info is what makes a really good garden book. Eye candy is only half of it. —Pam

  27. Tracey says:

    LOVE the book list, Pam. Especially intrigued by the small garden design ones . . . I need so much help with garden design . . . :)

    There’s always much to learn from a fine essay on design and accompanying images. No matter what plants you can grow, good design is universal. —Pam

  28. Kylee says:

    Read? In summer? As much as I LOVE to read, I just haven’t had the time yet. Loved your list of reading material though. *filing away the list for future reference*

    Well, Kylee, save your list up for winter and have fun! —Pam

  29. […] I posted about my summer garden-book reading list, and Sharp Gardening was one I’d picked up. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m […]

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