The sun is out (hopefully) and gardeners (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) have put away their winter reading and picked up a shovel. A bookshelf filled with gardening books is almost an essential requirement for anyone serious about petunias or potatoes, and gardeners have a wealth of literature to choose from.
Modern garden design dates to the 18th century, when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (designer of Kew Gardens) and his early 19th century successor, Humphry Repton, introduced a more relaxed and natural style to the formal English garden. In the United States, Frederick Law Olmsted was the greatest influence with his design for New York City’s Central Park.
After the American Civil War, many landscape architects turned their interest to smaller scale gardens around homes and more modest estates. Dan Dwyer of Johnnycake Books, who specializes in landscape architecture books, said: “There’s a real intersection between residential architecture and landscape design,” and books with plans for grounds are much sought-after, as are the original plans themselves. The growing emphasis on private—rather than public—spaces brought with it a flowering of garden writers, many of them women.
According to Kent Petterson, of Terrace Horticultural Books, “the best garden writing is in the 20th century.” Petterson credits Reginald Farrer, a gardener and plant hunter, with changing the way gardening books were written, by adding flourishes of language to what had been a very workmanlike genre. Explorers like Farrer, Frank Kingdon-Ward, and others, traveled the globe and brought back many popular garden plants. A century later, many of these “exotics” are now considered invasive plants.
Among the literary garden writers, Vita Sackville-West, a member of the Bloomsbury circle, is probably the most famous. Late in her life, she began writing a newspaper column and her collected essays are still very popular. Across the Atlantic, Katherine White wrote a number of essays for the New Yorker, which were collected as Onward and Upward in the Garden. Elizabeth Lawrence is another writer whose best work began as newspaper columns, in her case for the Charlotte, North Carolina, Observer. When Martha Stewart visited Kent Petterson, she was particularly interested in Lawrence’s books, which are all quite scarce as first editions. Petterson suggests that beginning collectors look to contemporary columnists, like Allen Lacy and Sydney Eddison, as potentially collectible authors in the future.