Gardening Books

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras gardening became an attractive, alternative profession to working in the factories of the new industrialised society. With the wealth the factories provided, the new rich could afford larger houses and with those houses came land that was developed into gardens.

One of the most influential horticultural figures, whose career spanned both Victorian and Edwardian eras, was William Robinson (1838-1935). Robinson left Ireland in 1861 to take up a job at the Botanical Gardens in Regents Park in London before working for the leading horticultural firm of Veitch. He became the gardening correspondent for the Times and wrote many books, but the one for which he is best remembered is ‘The English Flower Garden’ (1883) which he continually revised and to which his lifelong friend, Gertrude Jekyll, contributed.

It is possible that more words have been written about Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) than she herself wrote, as she is held in such high regard.  She trained at the School of Art at South Kensington and became a successful artist and craftswoman, but when deteriorating eyesight cut short her painting and photographic career, she diversified into horticulture.  Her planting schemes were carefully planned and one of her most innovative and influential ideas was the use of large swathes of plants to create clouds of colour.  Her books include ‘Wood and Garden’ (1899) and ‘Home and Garden’ (1900).

Some gardeners wrote specifically about their own patch of English countryside and one such book is ‘In a Gloucestershire Garden’ (1885) by Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822-1916).  Somewhat topically, he mentions that in May 1893, ‘The garden was burnt up, and everything was thrown out of its proper season.’

Adam and Charles Black, whose company was founded in 1807, published ornately bound and beautifully illustrated gardening and topographical books.  ‘Gardens of England’ (1908), with paintings by Beatrice Parsons and descriptions by E T Cook, presents a somewhat romantic view of an England which existed more in the minds of the writers than in reality.

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), daugher of the 3rd Baron Sackville, was a prolific poet and novelist but she is best known, with her husband Harold Nicholson, for having created one of England’s finest gardens, Sissinghurst, in the Weald of Kent.  For many years she wrote a garden column for The Observer and ‘In your Garden’ (1951) is a collection of those articles.

Beverley Nichols (1898-1983), columnist, author, playwright, actor and composer, wrote more than 60 books, but he is perhaps best remembered for his gardening trilogy ‘Merry Hall’ (1951), ‘Laughter on the Stairs’ (1953 and ‘Sunlight on the Lawn’ (1956).  Nichol’s books are also collected for their illustrations by Rex Whistler and William McLaren.

Christopher Lloyd’s (1921-2006) name will be forever linked to Great Dixter, the house restored and the gardens designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.  For 42 years Lloyd wrote a weekly feature for Country Life magazine.  He also wrote 20 books, columns for The Guardian and articles for many other publications.  His books include ‘The Well-Tempered Garden’ (1970), ‘The Adventurous Gardener’ (1983), and ‘The Well-Chosen Garden’ (1984).

Rosemary Verey (1918-2001) from 1939 until her death lived at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire, where she wrote many books, including ‘Classic Garden Design’ (1984 and ‘The Garden in Winter’ (1988).  She was instrumental in popularizing the ornamental kitchen garden, the potager, encouraging gardeners to make a feature out of their vegetable plots.  ‘A Countrywoman’s Notes’ (1989) is a collection of her monthly column in Country Life magazine, published between 1979 and 1987, and illustrated with fine wood engravings, the work of 11 contemporary engravers.

Sir Roy Strong, together with his wife Dr Julia Trevelyan Oman, transformed a four-acre field around their home, The Laskett, in Herefordshire, into one of the largest private formal gardens in the UK since 1945.  His books include ‘The Renaissance Garden in England’ (1979) and ‘Royal Gardens’ (1992) as well as ‘Garden Pary’ (2000), a collection of essays first published in the Sunday Telegraph.

Prices for gardening books vary greatly.  Have a look in good antiquarian/second hand bookshops to get a feel for the prices being charged for the books you would like to collect.  You do not need to spend a fortune – a clean, illustrated copy of Canon Henry N Ellacombe’s ‘In a Gloucestershire Garden’ can be had between £10-£20, so long as you don’t want a first edition.  Avoid Book Club editons if you can, always try to buy the original published version.

There are many excellent websites for second-hand and antiquarian gardening books, such as abebooks.  Try to check out the reputable dealers in your area and visiting antiquarian books fairs is a good source. 

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