Unless you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by knowledgeable gardeners—whether they are parents, friends, or neighbors—you can often find yourself with your very first garden and very little idea of how to care for it (let alone how to design it, replant it, or start entirely from scratch).
A really great book can help; think of it as a mentor. While it’s impossible to write the definitive list of must-read books for gardeners (we could have easily doubled or tripled this list), we’ve rounded up the books we return to for gardening wisdom and inspiration. Some of these books are many decades old, but their advice still holds true.
Here are 10 books every gardener should read (and own, so you can dog-ear them):
Photography by Clare Coulson, except where noted.
1. The Well-Tempered GardenIf you read one gardening book, then this should probably be it. Christopher Lloyd is best known as the creator of the mesmerizing gardens at Great Dixter,where he was born in 1921, but he was a prolific writer too. Originally published in 1970, The Well-Tempered Garden draws together his incredible depth of knowledge and experience. There is all the nitty gritty of gardening you could wish for here, but it’s thoroughly entertaining too. Lloyd’s characterful writing style laces intricate details with his famously dry asides. Dip in and out of it; it’s a great bedside book.
2. The Dry GardenLloyd’s great friend Beth Chatto, whose expansive gardens in Essex are based around the principle of “right plant, right place,” has produced many volumes that focus on particular climates and planting situations. The Dry Garden reflects Chatto’s mastery of these conditions, most famously in her gravel garden where plants are chosen for their ability to survive without any additional irrigation in one of the driest landscapes in England. Don’t expect beautiful images—in their place are far more useful plans and illustrations. Although this book was published in 1978, almost 40 years on, in the midst of climate change, the subject seems more relevant than ever.
3. Planting: A New PerspectiveDutch plantsman and landscape designer Oudolf has produced several really useful, meticulously written and beautifully illustrated books, starting with his first Designing with Plants, but this more recent title is perhaps the best one-stop shop in which to immerse yourself in his magical, massively influential approach to planting. Here you will find lots of beautiful planting schemes from his world-renowned landscapes, to absorb and an incredibly useful and concise insight into how Oudolf designs.
4. We Made a GardenBooks that chart the creation of a garden are invaluable for anyone embarking on similar endeavors (Tom Stuart Smith’s Barn Garden would be in this list were it not almost impossible to get hold of a copy) and Margery Fish, who along with her husband, a London newspaper editor, bought a dilapidated cottage and gardens in Somerset in 1937, wrote one of the best examples. This is her very readable, blow-by-blow account of creating a country garden from scratch, and the battle of gardening alongside a husband with very different garden goals. It’s a slim volume that almost can be read in one sitting.
5. Down the Garden PathA Jazz Age playwright and author, Beverley Nichols was another novice gardener creating a cottage garden in England just before the Second World War. This book isn’t about expert advice but it is very much about the agony and ecstasy of gardening, and mostly told via camp, often very funny anecdotes. Nichols revels in his failures as much as his triumphs, which is what makes this book so endearing, even if he is rather grand. The first line reads: “I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbucktoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.” You get the idea.
6. Home Ground: Sanctuary in the CityDesigner Dan Pearson’s writing on gardens and growing always reveals a very deeply rooted passion for plants, for earth and landscapes. This sumptuous book tells the story of his urban garden in Peckham, south London and the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and failures in transforming an overgrown, unprepossessing site into a verdant, richly layered oasis.
7. A Garden from a Hundred Packets of SeedsJames Fenton is a poet and his lyrical approach to horticulture makes this book an absolute delight. If ever there was a clarion call to grow something from seed, this is it. As the title suggests, Fenton takes us through his favorite plants, detailing why each deserves a place in the garden.
8. Vita Sackville-West’s SissinghurstThere are plenty of books about this world famous garden and house, but this one weaves together the history of the house with the amazing story of how Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson created a magical home and spectacular gardens that have never lost their luster. The book by Sarah Raven is laced with Sackville-West’s own words from her Observer columns, which are witty, wise, and as relevant today as they were in the middle of the 20th century.
9. A Gentle Plea for ChaosThis is another book that traces the story of a garden, this time in Shropshire, England, where Mirabel Osler and her husband began with “one and a half acres of undulating land, a winding stream, stone buildings and old orchard trees” and created a classic cottage garden which appears in all its rambling, romantic gorgeousness throughout the book. Osler includes endless paeans to everything from the many hundreds of trees she has planted to the bounteous roses she has bought, but most of all she defines what makes gardeners tick in a beautifully poetic way.
10. The Education of a GardenerSage gardening advice never gets old and this book from one of the last century’s most prolific and successful garden designers proves it. This book was published in 1962 but it remains a classic; it combines plenty of pragmatic pointers on how to approach designing a garden with Page’s encyclopedic horticultural knowledge.
Ready to read more? Browse all our Required Reading posts or skip straight to Alexa’s Library: 9 Favorite Classic Garden Books.
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