A reader asked recently what books I recommend for people who are new to gardening. My answer: it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. I have read MANY gardening books over the years—some are reviewed here—and there have definitely been some that are better than others. But the timing of her question is great: we’re just entering the gardening off-season!
The most important recommendation I have for northern gardeners is to check books out of the library before you buy them. I don’t usually impulsively buy gardening books because I’ve been burned so many times by books that are mostly written for warmer climates. My process: Hear about book. Borrow it from the library. Buy it if I feel like I can’t live without it. (“I can’t live without it” is pretty subjective and I own a fair number of gardening books. And novels.)
Here are some of my favorite gardening books, roughly in order of how much I love and use them. Linked titles point to my review of each book, if I’ve reviewed it. Otherwise I’ve linked to Amazon.
Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway. I can’t believe I’ve never written a full review of this book. I cannot overstate the influence it’s had on me—if I could only recommend one book it would be this one. The title of this blog and the book that I am writing, the way I think about landscape design and even how I organize my home life indoors—Gaia’s Garden is where it all started. I had never even heard of permaculture before reading this book.
If you’re even remotely concerned about reducing your carbon footprint and own a home with even a tiny bit of land, this is a fantastic resource. Hemenway doesn’t offer easy solutions to the climate crisis, but helps the reader view their own lives and properties through a different lens. And what I love about this book (and permaculture) is that it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t say “you must do this thing, in this way.” Instead, permaculture encourages us to find unique solutions—using a framework of sustainable design—to our unique problems. By taking the time to observe our land, and learn from it, we start to realize slow, sustainable solutions to one problem at a time. We start to see every mistake as a learning opportunity.
I’m currently re-reading this book and will do a full review of later this winter, but for now, here’s an example about garden strategy and planting in zones, directly inspired by this book.
Common Backyard Weeds of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone. This a great pocket-sized book for gardeners of any age who want to know what the heck IS this plant taking over this area of my yard? I always have it with me when I answer questions at the Master Gardener booth at the farmers market. The book is very helpful for identification, but Marrone also goes a step further and asks you to consider, for example, whether milkweed is actually a weed. She distinguishes between native “weeds” and invasives. Edible weeds are noted, along with what they taste like and their nutritional value. Thanks to Marrone, I have eaten a wood sorrel salad from my yard and it was delicious!
Bringing Nature Home: How you can sustain wildlife with native plants, by Doug Tallamy. If you, like me, find yourself wondering what one person can possibly do to make a difference in our current ecological crises, this book is a great place to start. Tallamy explains in excruciating detail how birds in North America are getting shortchanged, and what we can do about it. Short version: putting out bird seed is fine in the winter, but during the spring and summer birds depend on insects to feed their babies. Native plants attract insects to your yard, providing that food source. By restoring the predator/prey relationships yard by yard, we can truly make a difference. Tallamy even provides lists of plants, shrubs, and trees that are highly beneficial, so you know just where to start. This book sealed the deal for me on whether I was ready to commit to natives. Reader, I was. And I did.
Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, by Lynn Steiner. After you finish Tallamy’s book, pick up this one by Lynn Steiner. Tallamy gives you the WHY, and a list of ideas for plants that you might choose, now Steiner can tell you where to site them in your landscape, and help with the design part by including specifics about soil and light conditions, as well as final plant height and width. This book has become something of a bible for me every time I consider adding a new-to-me plant, shrub, or tree to my landscape. It’s a great resource to have on hand; I loan it out all the time and inevitably ask for it back before the person is done using it, because I need it again. If you’re in Wisconsin and northern Iowa, these plants will work fine there. Other places—do a google search for your state. Chances are someone has written a very similar book for where you live.
Year-round Indoor Salad Gardening, by Peter Burke. Low startup cost? Check. Low carbon footprint? Check. Delicious? YES. This book outlines a method (that Burke basically invented) to grow what he calls soil sprouts indoors during the winter. They’re like the sprouts we’ve all had, but slightly bigger and (in my opinion) easier to grow. Call them super sprouts. I call them delicious.
Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz. These books changed how I look at food and how I eat. If you want to preserve your harvest or your farmers market find, there is no better way than by culturing or fermenting it—you actually increase the nutritional value of many of your veggies by preserving this way. You definitely can’t say that about canning. Katz led the fermentation renaissance that we are all now enjoying—he was making kombucha WAY before it was cool. He demystifies the process and inspires you to try fermenting your own, whether you want to try sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, or yogurt. And that’s just the beginning, truly.
Four Season Harvest, by Elliot Coleman. This book is a must for northern vegetable gardeners. It’s not necessarily for beginners, but if you’ve got even just a couple years of vegetable gardening under your belt, and are wondering how you could extend your season a bit, then check this out. Maybe you’ll never get to the point where you’re harvesting in January, but even with just trying a few of his techniques I’ve extended my season from April to roughly mid-November. He also has great practical advice for important topics such as how to manage your compost pile. Also great: Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook, which is more targeted to small farmers than home gardeners.
Honorable mention books, for enthusiasts
Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders. This is a delightful bedtime read if you, like me, are prone to anxiety. It tells some of the funny and strange histories of many American wildflowers—native and introduced—that even the most casual of hikers will recognize.
How to Move Like a Gardener, by Deb Soule. Soule is an herbalist and founder of Avena Botanicals. This book outlines her gardening philosophy, including an introduction to biodynamic farming, as well as profiles of many common medicinal herbs, flowers, and fruits, including what they’re indicated for. It’s a fantastic read, and a call to live more simply with our land. It also inspired me to purchase a bitter digestive tincture from Avena, which we all enjoyed very much.
That’s a decent list for now, yes? Do you have any books to add to this list?