Book Reviews

A Bevy of Books

December 23, 2016


For me this past season has been one of the most challenging yet in the garden. Record heat and drought forced daily decisions about what merited watering (trees and shrubs) and what to let wither (perennials and annuals). An unusually voracious attack by voles consumed whatever was left in the vegetable garden (including the beloved San Marzano tomatoes) while what I believe to be deer loped off the heads of all the sunflowers carefully nurtured and replanted into pots to rescue them from the rabbits. Like all gardening optimists I am using the winter season to look to the future inspired by books about gardens, gardening and the natural world. Here’s a few to brighten the New Year.

Deemed the “Shakespeare of Gardening” Capability Brown transformed the English style of landscape gardening into a new art using the medium of the country estate. In the lavishly photographed and compelling written homage to Brown’s life and work, CAPABILITY BROWN: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli, 2016) author John Phibbs travels with the reader to fifteen of the landscapes transformed by Brown’s genius providing insight into his enduring influence on landscape design. Published in the year in which the tercentenary of Brown’s birth is being internationally celebrated, CAPABILITY BROWN: Designing the English Landscape is the penultimate guide to the life and work of the artist who created many of Britain’s iconic landscapes.

If a lack of primary source material has hindered a thorough analysis of Brown’s work, not so for the English garden designer Arne Maynard who has generously shared an intimate narrative of his design process in the The Gardens of Arne Maynard (Merrill Publishers, 2015) the first book devoted exclusively to the highly regarded contemporary garden designer. Within its pages twelve gardens are profiled accompanied by Maynard’s description of how each design was conceived and realized. The designer of large country gardens in Great Britain, Europe and the United States Arne is both a passionate and experiential gardener, with a love for horticulture and craftsmanship reminiscent of Russell Page.

And speaking of influential gardeners, in Stephen Anderton’s Lives of the Great Gardeners (Thames and Hudson, 2016) the creative process and vision of forty “great gardeners” is profiled, spanning five hundred years of gardening history. Anderton posits that despite their diverse backgrounds, great gardeners have the ability to originate and realize visionary concepts at pivotal moments in history providing the inspiration through which some of the most exciting gardens in the world have been created.

For a peek at fifty of America’s finest private gardens consider Outstanding American Gardens: A Celebration: 25 Years of the Garden Conservancy (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2015). Published as a celebration of the achievements of the Garden Conservancy during its first 25 years, the book is elegantly designed with luminous photography by Marion Brenner. The gardens profiled within are diverse, original and creative representing every region of the country. A chapter profiles gardens that have been preserved by the Garden Conservancy for the enjoyment and education of the public, a reminder of their important mission and need for support.

Should you, like many of us, garden on an intimate scale, New Small Garden: Contemporary principles, planting and practice (Frances Lincoln Limited, 2016) by Noel Kingsbury and Maayke de Ridder is a practical guide designed to advise and inspire the urban home gardener. Influenced by gardens in the Netherlands, the authors focus on making the most of small spaces with an emphasis on plants and eco-friendly principles. A compact book about compact gardening each and every page is balanced with clear and informative text, charts and images while six case studies highlight real gardens and design strategies.

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape (Viking, 2016) by Jill Jonnes builds upon Kingsbury’s design agenda by reminding us that today four-fifths of Americans live in or near urban areas yet are oblivious to the specific natural history and civic virtues of the trees that surround them. More than ever trees make our cities livable, providing critical green infrastructure necessary to manage the impacts of climate change while supporting both public and individual well-being. Noting that the modern American City, while fundamentally unnatural has more varieties of trees than any natural forest, Jonnes chronicles both the great city trees and visionary individuals whose “arboreal passions have shaped and ornamented the nation’s municipalities” beginning with Thomas Jefferson and continuing through the present day.

My concluding recommendation isn’t a book but a magazine, The Garden (RHS Media, Peterborough) published monthly by the Royal Horticultural Society. A benefit of membership (along with advance ticketing for horticultural events including the Chelsea Flower Show) the magazine includes tips on gardening, interviews, and visits to gardens. It’s a great bargain and as a gift one that extends throughout the year. Available at

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, December 2016

Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved



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