Top 10 Garden Books for 2013

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Here, The Garden Interior’s list of the top ten garden books for 2013

1. Flowers, by Carolyne Roehm

What, I sometimes ask myself, is holding me back as a gardener? Well, a few very important impediments. First, I have a family that includes two teenagers and anyone who has ever raised one or two of these interesting creatures will know how complicated and very time-intensive that can be. Second, money is so annoyingly finite, and I am required by forces regrettably beyond my control to limit my acquisition of plant material largely to what I can get my hands on by dividing my existing plants or what I am able to grow from seed. Third, I have a tricky day job for “the world’s biggest media company” and have to say how shockingly a full-time job can interfere with one’s gardening plans. None of these difficulties afflicts Carolyne Roehm, however. She also has abundant energy, tremendous taste in and skill with plants and derives endless enjoyment from them. In this gorgeous book, Roehm brings together her designer’s eye, vast passion for flowers and considerable photography skills to create a sumptuous feast of color and texture.

2. A Garden Makes a House a Home, by Elvin McDonald

Most gardeners like to look at good gardening books, especially at this time of year when the garden is dormant. This is a fantastic book for that purpose, put together by one of America’s most respected garden writers and editors. The photo shoots and accompanying essays cover everything from eye-popping grand gardens to simple, modest, well-appointed designs and everything in between. It provides a sumptuously photographed tour of 25 outstanding American gardens. McDonald is a master garden writer at the height of his power and skill; he writes lucidly but absolutely without pretension. To me, this is an irresistible combination.

3. More Scenes from the Rural Life, by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

What you get from Klinkenborg are two estimable things: superb writing and devout ethics of gardening and farming. His prose is incredibly spare and pure. In fact, he has so stripped it of adjectives that, when he allows himself to use one, it gleams with distinction like an ornament on a Christmas tree: an “oaken autumn”, a “wooden light”.  He has deep convictions about the farmer/gardener’s role as ethicist, and he challenges each reader to examine himself for shortcomings.  Following the sequence of the seasons, the book is built around eleven years of observation. If you are serious about what you do in the garden, you should read this book.

4. Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener, by Barbara Paul Robinson.

This is a charming biography of one of the 20th century’s great gardeners, and it is told in Robinson’s engagingly simple, straight-forward prose. Verey only became a serious gardener in her 50s and 60s, and one of the most remarkable and likeable things about her is how a self-taught, passionate amateur could rise to become a world authority on garden design and planting style. She wrote 17 books and influenced generations of British and American gardeners, working with such famous clients as Prince Charles, Elton John, King Hussein, and many others.  She was relentlessly self-promoting, brilliantly opinionated, tremendously well read, very high-spirited and an arrestingly charismatic speaker.  At a time when garden design seemed moribund, she revived it with a breath of fresh air.  “Rosemary brought beauty and joy back to gardening,” Robinson states.  She was driven by her passions and she drove her friends before her relentlessly, sometimes even cruelly.  Her famous exhortation to tentative gardeners echoes down the years: “Just get on with it!”

5. Writing the Garden, by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.

No less an authority that the mighty Cicero opined: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”  And how true that is, especially if that library contains at least a few really good gardening books.  In the past it has been hard to know where to begin, but now it is much easier. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers has produced this volume, subtitled “A Literary Conversation across Two Centuries”, which has rightly won the prestigious American Horticultural Society Book Award.  It fluently but never frivolously discusses the garden writing of more than three dozen great writers, sampling their work and presenting it in a superbly enlightening context.  The book is divided into twelve sections beginning with “Women in the Garden” and “Warriors in the garden” and going on through ten other categories, including “Rhapsodists”, “Humorists” and “Philosophers”.  On the whole, this is a balanced and very well curated collection of some of the world’s finest garden writing.

6. The Gardens of Marrakesh, by Angelica Gray.

The traditions of modern European gardening are deeply rooted in the concept of the Islamic garden and nowhere on earth is that concept more delightfully alive today than in Marrakesh.  This lively and beautiful book by Angelica Gray (with lovely photography by the Italian photographer Alessio Mei) opens to us mere mortals the gates of twenty fantastic Marrakesh gardens. Why is Marrakesh one of the world’s great garden cities? Well, you can start with nearly a millennium of intense and devoted gardening, a culture that reveres and delights in the garden, and a felicitous combination of topography, elevation, sunlight and water from the nearby Atlas Mountains that tower over Marrakesh in their brilliant red majesty.  The gardens are presented in three groups: the Medina, the historic city center; the New Town radiating out from the Medina; and the Palmery, the great green crescent of palm trees and gardens in the northeast part of the city.  The garden tour begins with a garden nearly 900 years old, the so-called “Islamic Versailles” and ends with a lovely new garden made for a country home-style hotel.  In between are many others, including the fantastic Mamounia Hotel and of course the famous Yves St. Laurent garden of La Majorelle.

7. The Best Gardens in Italy, By Kirsty McLeod.

After the Islamic tradition, the modern western garden as a source of beauty and pleasure is largely an Italian matter. The great gardens of Italy began for the most part as ostentatious statements of wealth, power and taste, and their Italian bones are classical ones: a design of closed perspectives, formally clipped box and laurel and topiary, spraying fountains, statuary and hardscape everywhere, sweeping symmetrical staircases, elaborate parterres and mazes, etc.  This fascinating patrimony is all explored here, cascading down the centuries like the water cascading down the shell-basins of ancient Italian water-gardens. This gorgeous book begins with the stupendous garden villas of the northern Italian lakes, such as Castel Trautmansdorff, often called Italy’s most beautiful garden.  It then moves through the three most important Italian provinces: the wealth of the Veneto (Venice), the beauty of Tuscany (Florence) and the majesty and power of Lazio (Rome). McLeod’s informative and lively prose never disappoints and the book is beautifully graced by more than 450 photographs by Primrose Bell. All in all, more than 150 gardens are featured in over 260 lovely pages.

8. The Cutting Garden: Growing and Arranging Garden Flowers, by Sarah Raven.

This is a perfectly lovely book, and it solves two problems that plague many gardeners. Many of us long to cut flowers for the house with a generous spirit, but are at the same time loath to deprive the garden of them just when they are at the height of their beauty.  And the second problem is, what to do with the flowers when we do get them indoors so that they look beautiful and inspired and are not just a big colorful mess? Raven solves the first problem by suggesting a cutting garden that is purpose-grown to yield its floral beauty to the house, while still providing structured and varied interest in the garden. She shows, in practical and inspired prose and with beautiful pictures, how to design a space as small as ten by 15 feet for that purpose, and then how to plant it for different seasons and for dramatically different looks, and how I long to try it!  And as for the second problem, what to do with the flowers and foliage when you get them inside, Raven takes you through the basics of flower arranging in a way that is very simple and direct. It’s not exactly flower arranging for dummies, but the art is demystified thoroughly. The book is wonderfully illustrated by hundreds of color photographs by Pia Tryde.

9. The New English Garden, by Tim Richardson and Andrew Lawson.

This is an intimate tour of 25 visually spectacular English gardens, all of which were either made or re-designed in the last ten years, and each garden is covered in ten to fifteen sumptuous pages.  English gardening is, at the present moment, at a very interesting inflection point, poised between traditional planting style and the “Dutch Wave” that is more naturalistic.  So this book fascinatingly explores this very vital moment of design flux, which is so very rich in inspiration and possibility. Thoughtful and amazing plant combinations are beautifully presented and detailed.  There are some very famous gardens featured here, such as Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter and the Prince of Wales’ amazing garden at Highgrove, but it also presents the brand new massed plantings of the Olympic Park in London from 2012, as well as the sublime Gresgarth (by Arabella Lennox-Boyd) and Bury Court (by Piet Oudolf).  It is one of those great gifts that are so much fun to give and even more fun to receive.

10. The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto, by Jenny Condie and Alex Ramsay.

The reason Venice exercises such a hold on the mind of Europe and the world is the encrustation of beauty, the accretion of beautiful things, that went on there so robustly, so brilliantly and for so long.  And one of the most lovely expressions of these centuries of wealth and beauty has been the gardens of Venice and the Veneto.  This ravishing new book explores 21 of them – four in Venice proper and the rest on the mainland of the Veneto.  The gardens in Venice itself are charming and gorgeous, but not until we move inland to the Veneto do we find the space for garden design to really expand and flourish. A word about Jenny Condie’s writing style: it is always erudite but still light and informative and not overly didactic.  It is always interesting without being self-conscious.  And Alex Ramsay’s photographs, well, they are just superb, intoxicating.  Take this amazing book in small doses; too much and you are likely to be overwhelmed.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.