BBooks on gardens and gardening range from instruction manuals to narrative works that highlight our emotional connections to plants and plants. While there’s definitely a place for how-to gardening books, these aren’t the volumes I reach for when I’m looking for inspiration or want to think deeper about why and how we grow.
Gardens can be places of liberation, queer expression and political resistance, as well as of simple beauty and peace. In writing Grounding, I turned to writers whose work explored these aspects of gardening and our relationship with nature. Her books shed light on our colonial past, take out notions of belonging and home, and describe how the small act of tending a plant or piece 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 have selected here also reflect this interest in creativity and the human impulse to cultivate beauty. Gardening and writing have been the pillars of my life during a time of great uncertainty. I hope you find similar comfort in some of these books.
1 Elizabeth and Your German Garden from Elizabeth of Arno
This semi-autobiographical novel follows the protagonist Elizabeth’s efforts to create a garden out of the wild on her country estate. Whimsically drawn and with feminist overtones unusual for its time (it was published in 1898), the book shows how the garden provided Elizabeth with a place of escape from her husband (known as “the man of wrath”) and their children. Originally published anonymously to avoid her husband feeling publicly ridiculed, Arnim reveals the garden as a refuge from suffocating domesticity and the demands of others. This is a utopian vision of female 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 comprehensive account of Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness on the Kent coast. Creating beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power plant in a gravel desert, Modern Nature reveals Jarman’s deep love and knowledge of plants, his enormous creative power and his belief in gardening as a radical act. When he falls ill with AIDS, we see the garden bring him back and offers a share in the future, sending him back to the gardens of his childhood.
3 Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer is a renowned botanist, professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. This book helps us better understand our interrelated relationship with the world, encouraging compassion and wonder to undo the damage we have done to the planet. While not specifically about gardens, Kimmerer’s knowledge and perspective will transform the way you see and connect with your garden.
4 The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart Smith
Psychotherapist and psychiatrist Stuart-Smith studies how gardens improve our state of mind and well-being. With an enchanting blend of story and science, this book shows how greatly we are influenced by our surroundings and the healing potential we find in the natural world. It’s life-affirming read that explains why a few minutes with your hands in the ground makes you feel so much better.
5 The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd
Open, funny and extremely knowledgeable – Lloyd’s writings on gardens always lift my spirits. His glorious garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex is loved by gardeners the world over and throughout his life he has been generous with advice and hospitality. This book is packed with practical insights and wisdom on all aspects of gardening, peppered with anecdotes and tongue-in-cheek asides. Keep it handy.
6 The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift
This beautiful, impressive book tells the story of a National Trust garden in Shropshire, using the structure of a medieval book of hours. Swift unearths the history of this property and the people who lived there, as well as their personal struggles to create a garden in a temporary home. The story spans centuries but also zooms in close, revealing the beauty of a flower along with echoes of the past.
7 The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
A practical, comprehensive guide to the medicinal uses of plants to help any gardener grow plants to heal themselves, their family, and their community. There is something immensely appealing about the autonomy we gain from growing our own medicine. This book will show you what and when to collect and grow, and how to prepare and apply various treatments.
8th The Edible Garden by Alys Fowler
Fowler’s polyculture garden mixes edibles with annuals and perennials to create a delightfully wild abundance. She sees foraging and growing our own food as a way to counter capitalism’s inherent inequalities and structural oppression. Every book she writes is brilliant, but this one is one I keep coming back to.
9 The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
As a book of poems about a year in the garden, this book shows the creative interplay between words and plants, paper and nature. Happiness skillfully conveys the strange elasticity of time in a garden – the longevity and at the same time transience. Plants speak poems, perspectives shift, material and spiritual worlds collide. In this intimate exploration of loss, longing and beauty, she explores the cycles of nature, death and rebirth in precise, sharp language.
10 My Garden by Jamaica Kincaid
A passionate, poetic collection of New York columnar essays exploring Kincaid’s relationship with her garden and the plants she grows (or doesn’t grow). She weaves botanical and colonial history with personal stories about the intuitive way she created her garden in Vermont. Interested in property, displacement, and the history of botanical classification, Kincaid invites us to examine imperial history and ancestral memory in the context of the garden.