Books to fertilize the gardening mind


    “Reading books about gardens is a potent pastime; books nourish a gardener’s mind in the same way as manure nourishes plants.”

    — Mirabel Osler, “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” 1989

    Mirabel Osler (1925-2016) was an English gardener and designer who published her first book when she was 64. “A Gentle Plea for Chaos: The Enchantment of Gardening” has been called an “anti-gardening” book because in it Osler advocates for letting go of the compulsion to dominate the garden, and allow nature to lead the way.

    Reminiscent of Gertrude Jekyll’s 1899 classic, “Wood and Garden,” Osler’s book is part gardening history and part reflection on how her gardening practices evolved. Osler’s recommendation to design a garden in tune with its natural surroundings is echoed in several more recent publications, such as “Garden Revolution” (2016), “Planting in a Post-Wild World” (2016), “The Living Landscape” (2014) and “Planting: A New Perspective” (2013).

    “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” is on my winter reading list because Osler reassures me that while I’m seeking out new things to try in my garden, it’s not necessary for me to have everything planned out. I don’t want to forget to find pleasure in nature’s surprises or delight in the invisible processes that aren’t on my to-do list but, nonetheless, make my garden healthy and productive.

    Osler notes that winter is the perfect time to “spread out, limp and receptive, and let garden thoughts rise to the surface.” I agree, so I lugged home a stack of garden books from Powell’s after my visit to Portland a few weeks ago. Some are new, others have been around for decades.

    The stack includes a few how-tos, essays, novels, a seed catalog, and a book that promises gardeners a “hodgepodge of information and instruction.” The 12 books listed here in alphabetical order by the authors’ last name are all quite different, but the inspiring ideas springing from their pages are a testament to Osler’s observation that “gardening in the head can fill our winter tranquility with unrest.”

    Abbot, Bonnie T. (2005), "Radical Prunings: A Novel of Officious Advice from the Contessa of Compost." Written as a collection of garden advice columns by Abbot’s witty garden guru, Mertensia Corydalis, this is a very entertaining read with lots of good gardening information woven throughout.

    Albert, Susan W. (2011), "The Darling Dahlias and the Naked Ladies." This is the second book in Albert’s cozy mystery series about a garden club in Alabama during the Depression. I love how the author weaves historical details and garden information into the mystery story.

    Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (2019), "The Whole Seed Catalog." Vibrant color photographs, well-written descriptions and articles, and a diverse selection of heirloom seeds make this my favorite seed catalogue to peruse, although I admit I look for the same heirlooms grown locally when it comes to purchasing seeds for my garden.

    Barnette, Martha (1992), "A Garden of Words." I am fascinated by the origins of plant names, and this book explores the historical roots of 22 flowers from amaryllis to zinnia. The author also intersperses folklore and botanical facts about each plant.

    Coleman, Eliot (1999), "Four-Season Harvest." Coleman is the author of The New Organic Grower (1989), which eventually became the basis for the National Organic Program in the U.S. In this book, he shows gardeners how he grows organic vegetables in his garden in Maine year ‘round. Although our winters in Southern Oregon are not as cold, the author offers valuable advice in a readable style.

    Forkner, Lorene E. & Plato L. (2007), "Hortus Miscellaneous." From the scientific name for the tobacco mosaic virus (the longest name in the English language) to an explanation of the term “organic,” this book is packed with interesting garden-related information. You will amaze your gardening friends with your newfound knowledge!

    Holzman, Frank (2018), "Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming." Although not the most reader-friendly layout, Holzman’s book has the answers to my questions about how to apply biodynamic principles in my vegetable and flower gardens. The author offers interesting insights about developing a spiritual relationship with our land.

    Jekyll, Gertrude (1908), "Children and Gardens." The grand dame of gardening reflects on her own childhood gardens as she provides information about how to introduce children to gardens and gardening that is still relevant a century after her book was first published. A bonus is the author’s own illustrations and photographs that appear on practically every page.

    Kerr, Jessica (1969), "Shakespeare’s Flowers." I was delighted to find this old book to add to my growing collection. Kerr offers historical background about 25 plants mentioned by the bard, and she touches on why he might have used these flowers to highlight people and customs in the Elizabethan era. The text is accompanied by related excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and beautiful plant illustrations by Anne Dowden.

    Logsdon, Gene (2010), "Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind." I have two horses, so I am eager to read Logsdon’s recommendations about what to do with all their poop. If I can save mankind at the same time, all the better!

    Orlean, Susan (1998), "The Orchid Thief." This nonfiction account of an actual event in Florida reads like a novel. It’s about the Sunshine State’s wild and endangered ghost orchid, and the determination of an obsessed plant dealer to clone the plant for profit.

    Warner, Charles D. (2002), "My Summer in a Garden." This is a reprint of Charles Dudley Warner’s book first published in 1870. Each chapter describes a week of the American essayist’s gardening experiences. Although it was written 150 years ago, the text is reader-friendly and entertaining.

    I’m interested to know what other gardeners are reading this winter. Please share on my blog at

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at

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