A Varied List of Garden Books to Read This Year

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The Last Garden in England

by Julia Kelly

This title isn’t a “gardening book,” but it is sure to delight gardeners who enjoy reading fiction. In The Last Garden in England, novelist Julia Kelly tells the stories of women separated by time but connected by one estate garden in England. The present-day character, Emma, is restoring the garden that was designed by the 1907 character, Venetia Smith, and experienced by 1944 character Beth Pedley and her friends. The story of the garden’s creation and decline slowly unfold through chapters that bounce through each character’s point of view and time period.

Although the plot and its tensions revolve around the personal lives of these characters, the garden remains a crucial element throughout the book, and Kelly gives it good attention in her writing. She includes detailed descriptions—including plant names—that garden-loving readers can use to picture the beds and borders. The author’s enthusiasm for gardens and landscape-design history shows, especially in Venetia’s character, whose work calls to mind Vita Sackville-West and the “garden rooms” design approach she developed at Sissinghurst Castle.

A Family Guide to Terrariums for Kids

by Patricia Buzo

Having three kids at home—ages 5, 8 and 11—I put this book to the test. Part science lesson, part craft project, making a terrarium is indeed a wonderful activity for children to do with just a little adult assistance. Patricia Buzo’s Family Guide provides all the information needed for success in designing, building and tending the terrarium.

The book walks readers through all of the choices in materials for a terrarium, from the soil to the vessel to the plants and possible decorative items, be they pebbles or mini dinosaur figures. But Buzo goes beyond aesthetics to explain the water cycle and to make the case for including beneficial insects like springtails in the terrarium. The book includes beautiful photographs by Tracy Walsh, and Buzo writes in an engaging, accessible way that drew my older children right in. In fact, they grabbed the book as soon as they spotted it and read it in cover to cover.

The latter section presents 15 themed terrarium recipes with step-by-step instructions. These are quite varied and run from simple to more complex and unexpected, including one that houses a praying mantis. We ended up creating three very distinct terrariums—one open bowl of living stones (Lithops), a candy jar with mini tropicals and a glass lantern with carnivorous plants. The varied plant palettes offered more learning opportunities, and what we learned in the first part of the book allowed the kids to tweak the recipes and indulge their creativity. Several months in, our terrariums are thriving and we plan to try other designs this winter.

Garden Portraits

by Larry Lederman

Larry Lederman repeatedly visited 16 gardens in New York and Connecticut for this photography-driven book, walking them in all kinds of weather and in every season. As a result, his photos capture exquisite moments from perfect vantage points. Brief text by Thomas Christopher describes the history, layout and key plants of each garden, all of which are or were once private homes.

These gardens are vast, and they’ve matured to blend beautifully with the surrounding Northeast woods and fields. Lederman’s photos capture this naturalistic quality of every garden, as well as the spots where the work of a gardener’s hand is more obvious. The images combine for a complete portrait of each garden, one that tells of patience and commitment on the part of the garden makers, and from Lederman, too. Although the size and scope of these gardens may differ greatly from the reader’s own property, their creators’ commitment, patience and devotion will resonate as a common ground to which to aspire.

Herbarium

by Barbara M. Thiers

Herbaria are collections of pressed, dried plant specimens, preserved to show their detailed characteristics. The earliest collections date to the 1500s, when Luca Ghini invented the herbarium as a way to teach his medical students about useful plants during the winter months. From those earliest days, the art and science of the herbaria grew to contribute to the rise of botany as its own field.

Today, institutions around the world hold herbaria, and while at first glance this seems an antiquated practice, preserving plant specimens continues to prove important in perhaps unforeseen ways. For instance, herbarium samples can be studied to show changes: because specimens are labeled with dates and locations of collection, they provide information about climate change and the movement of species.

Barbara Thiers is director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. In this elegant book she details the lives and journeys of the often-eccentric men and women who created herbaria; their stories also provide insight on the development of ornamental horticulture in general. Theirs’s text is engaging and the book’s plentiful photographs depict specimens, their collectors and noteworthy places. Gardeners with an interest in history will delight in Herbarium

Adventures in Eden

by Carolyn Mullet

The year 2020 took even local travel off the table for many of us. Adventures in Eden offers a way to get a glimpse of far-off garden perfection from the comfort and safety of home.

As a designer, Carolyn Mullet knows what makes a garden exceptional. She is also the leader of CarexTours, a US-based travel company specializing in group visits to gardens across the pond. Her expert understanding of how gardens are made and her travel connections combine in Adventures in Eden to the great benefit of the reader.

This hefty book explores 50 private gardens across Europe. Each is presented with large photographs and descriptive text that reflects conversations in which the gardeners explained to Mullet their motivations and their strategies for meeting varied site challenges and opportunities. Readers will find much inspiration in both the words and images, as well as plenty of planting and design ideas to adapt at home.