Books about gardens and gardening range from instructional manuals to narrative works spotlighting our emotional connections with plants and planting. While there is definitely a place for how-to garden books, these are not the volumes I reach for when I’m looking for inspiration or want to think more deeply about why and how we grow.
Gardens can be places of liberation, queer expression and political defiance as well as of simple beauty and peace. When I was writing Grounding I turned to writers whose work explored these aspects of gardening and our relationship with the natural world. Their books illuminate our colonial past, unpick ideas of belonging and home and describe the ways the small act of nurturing a plant or patch of land can change the world for the better.
In my book I explore the connections between artists and writers and their gardens, and some of the books I’ve chosen here also reflect this interest in creativity and the human impulse to cultivate beauty. Gardening and writing have been the mainstays of my life over a period of great uncertainty. I hope you find similar solace in some of these books.
1 Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
This semi-autobiographical novel is an account of the protagonist Elizabeth’s efforts to create a garden from wilderness at her country estate. Wittily drawn and with feminist overtones unusual for its time (it was published in 1898), the book shows how the garden provides Elizabeth a place of escape from her husband (known as “the Man of Wrath”) and her children. Originally published anonymously to avoid her husband feeling he was being publicly ridiculed, Arnim reveals the garden as a refuge from stifling domesticity and the demands of others. This is a utopian vision of feminine retreat, experimentation, freedom and creativity in a society where there were few places of self-determination for women.
2 Modern Nature by Derek Jarman
A poetic, powerful and wide-ranging account of Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness on the Kent coast. Creating beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power station on a shingle desert, Modern Nature shows Jarman’s deep love and knowledge of plants, his huge creative force and his belief in gardening as a radical act. As he becomes ill with Aids we see the garden replenish him and provide a stake in the future, as well as sending him back to the gardens of his childhood.
3 Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer is a renowned botanist, professor in environmental biology and member of the Potawatomi Nation. This book helps us to better understand our reciprocal relationship with the world, encouraging compassion and wonder as ways to repair the damage we’ve done to the planet. Although it is not specifically about gardens, Kimmerer’s knowledge and perspective will change the way you see and connect to your garden.
4 The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith
Psychotherapist and psychiatrist Stuart-Smith investigates the ways gardens improve our state of mind and wellbeing. Using a bewitching blend of stories and science, this book shows just how powerfully we are affected by our surroundings, and the potential for healing we find in the natural world. It’s a life-affirming read that helps explain why a few minutes with your hands in the soil makes you feel so much better.
5 The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd
Forthright, funny and hugely knowledgable, Lloyd’s writing on gardens always lifts my spirits. His glorious garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex is beloved by gardeners around the world, and throughout his life he was generous with advice and hospitality. This book is full of practical insights and wisdom on all aspects of gardening, peppered with anecdotes and wry asides. Keep it close to hand.
6 The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift
This beautiful, evocative book tells the story of a National Trust garden in Shropshire using the structure of a medieval book of hours. Swift excavates the history of this plot of land and the people who have lived there, as well as her personal travails creating a garden in a temporary home. The story spans centuries but also zooms in close, revealing the beauty in a flower along with the echoes of the past.
7 The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann
A practical, comprehensive guide to using plants medicinally that will help any gardener grow plants to heal themselves, their family and their community. There’s something immensely appealing about the autonomy we gain from growing our own medicine. This book shows you what and when to gather and grow, and how to prepare and apply different treatments.
8 The Edible Garden by Alys Fowler
Fowler’s polyculture garden mixes edibles with annual and perennial planting to create a gorgeously wild abundance. She sees foraging and growing our own food as a way to counteract capitalism’s inherent inequalities and structural oppression. Every book she writes is brilliant, but this is the one I return to over and over.
9 The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
A book of poems covering a year in the garden, this book portrays the creative interplay between words and plants, the page and the natural world. Glück deftly conveys the strange elasticity of time in a garden – the longevity and simultaneous transience. Plants speak poems, perspectives shift, material and spiritual worlds collide. She explores the cycles of nature, death and rebirth in precise, sharp language in this intimate exploration of loss, longing and beauty.
10 My Garden by Jamaica Kincaid
A passionate, poetic collection of New Yorker column essays exploring Kincaid’s relationship with her garden and the plants she grows (or fails to grow). She weaves botanical and colonial history with personal stories of the intuitive way she grew her garden in Vermont. Kincaid is interested in ownership, displacement and the history of botanical classification, asking us to examine imperial history and ancestral memory within the context of the garden.