A good read for the green-fin­gered

An avid reader of all things lit­er­ary and hor­ti­cul­tural, Bryan Ko­zlowski chooses his clas­sic book list for en­joy­able arm­chair gar­den­ing

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IT’S that time of year when snug­gling up in­doors and think­ing about gar­den­ing is, for most of us, far more ap­peal­ing than ac­tu­ally do­ing it—time for win­ter’s dor­mancy to make the gar­den of your imag­i­na­tion come to life. Be­fore you reach for an­other seed cat­a­logue, there are other, more cel­e­brated, ways to in­spire your men­tal green thumb. So pre­pare a cuppa and cozy up with th­ese clas­sic lit­er­ary reads that have kept gen­er­a­tions of gar­den­ers’ hearts warm and fer­tile in the frosty weeks.

Old Herba­ceous (1950) Regi­nald Arkell

A ten­der, rem­i­nisc­ing chron­i­cle of the gar­den­ing life of Mr Pin­negar (aka ‘Old Herba­ceous’)—lit­er­a­ture’s quin­tes­sen­tial coun­try-house gar­dener. Crotch­ety, gen­tle and griz­zled with un­in­tended hu­mour, Mr Pin­negar’s nat­u­ral knowl­edge and earthy re­flec­tions have charmed count­less read­ers into agree­ing with Old Herba­ceous him­self that a well­tended gar­den ‘brings out all that is best in a man’.

Down the Gar­den Path (1932) Bev­er­ley Ni­chols (be­low)

If you’ve ever wanted to spend a year fix­ing up a di­lap­i­dated cot­tage gar­den, Ni­chols did it nearly a cen­tury ago with un­matched style, de­scrib­ing it all in some of the most de­light­ful gar­den­ing lan­guage ever penned. It’s gig­gle-out-loud com­i­cal and charm­ingly smart—the per­fect bed­time read, send­ing you off with sweet dreams of cre­at­ing a cozy cot­tage gar­den of your own.

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Gar­den (1981) Eleanor Perenyi

Read­ing Perenyi’s clas­sic col­lec­tion of gar­den­ing es­says feels a bit like get­ting hor­ti­cul­tural ad­vice from your (slightly spiky) neigh­bour over the gar­den hedge. Read­ers ei­ther love or hate her ‘opin­ion­ated’ style; those who ap­pre­ci­ate it find her love for the gar­den, its lore and lit­er­ary con­nec­tions, unique and ut­terly en­chant­ing.

El­iz­a­beth and Her Ger­man Gar­den (1898) El­iz­a­beth Von Arnim (right)

From the au­thor of the flower-filled novel The En­chanted April comes this de­light­fully dis­jointed diary of one aris­to­cratic woman’s ‘hor­ti­cul­tural in­dul­gences’. Read­ing like a 19th­cen­tury blog, El­iz­a­beth shares sim­ple, semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ries of one year on a coun­try es­tate in north­ern Ger­many—a place in which the de­mands of a Gilded Age wife, mother and host­ess are sup­ported by fre­quent es­capes into her soul-re­fresh­ing gar­den, her ‘world of dan­de­lions and de­lights’.

The Gar­dener’s Year (1929) Karel Capek

apek may be bet­ter known as a sci­ence-fic­tion writer, but his lov­able ac­count of gar­den­ing his na­tive Cze­choslo­vakian soil is a must-read mas­ter­piece. Slim, yet chock full of witty, monthly re­flec­tions on the gar­dener’s glo­ries and sor­rows, Capek’s catch­ing en­thu­si­asm for gar­den­ing is fre­quently dis­tilled in in­sight­ful apho­risms wor­thy of pin­ning up in your pot­ting shed: ‘A real gar­dener is not a man who cultivates flow­ers; he is a man who cultivates the soil.’

An Is­land Gar­den (1894) (above) Celia Thax­ter

It’s dif­fi­cult to find a gar­den­ing jour­nal more full of love and long­ing than Celia Thax­ter’s. Her en­dear­ing ac­count of tend­ing a ‘lit­tle flower patch’ off the coast of New Eng­land re­mains un­sur­passed in its heart­felt sim­plic­ity.

Fol­low Celia as she rises early, pulls weeds with po­etic flair and gath­ers arm­fuls of blooms for her sea­side cot­tage, all self-de­scrip­tively summed-up ‘with one word “Love”’.

An Episode of Spar­rows (1955) Rumer God­den

If you’ve read (or cried over) this novel as a teenager, it’s time for an­other look. Of­ten de­scribed as The Se­cret Gar­den’s ur­ban cousin, An Episode of Spar­rows fol­lows two trou­bled chil­dren in post-blitz Lon­don as they at­tempt to make beauty (lit­er­ally) grow from the ashes.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished for adults, the tale has an age­less ap­peal and poignancy for any­one in sim­i­lar search of ‘good gar­den earth’ just be­low the ru­ins of life.

The Coun­try Diary of an Ed­war­dian Lady (1906) Edith Holden

A beau­ti­ful book to take in slowly, as Edith Holden took in the nat­u­ral world of her na­tive War­wick­shire. A hum­ble art teacher, Holden exquisitely cap­tured the essence of British coun­try beauty, pep­per­ing her diary with na­ture-in­spired po­etry and homey wa­ter­colours. Un­known un­til the 1970s, The Coun­try Diary has all the charm of a se­cret, per­sonal trea­sure never meant to be pub­lished, al­though we’re cer­tainly glad it was.

We Made a Gar­den (1956) (top right) Margery Fish

Is it pos­si­ble to cre­ate a har­mo­nious gar­den by two peo­ple with vastly dif­fer­ent tastes? Margery Fish wryly finds out in her clas­sic mem­oir about main­tain­ing a mar­riage on rocky gar­den ground. In one cor­ner, Wal­ter (her bossy-boots hus­band) in­sists on pri­mand-trim neat­ness for their manor­house gar­den in Som­er­set. Margery con­trar­ily longs for an in­for­mal, cot­tagey style of mixed bor­ders and dense flowerbeds. Who wins? (Spoiler alert) Margery does, mak­ing gar­den­ing his­tory in the process.

The Se­cret Gar­den (1910) (be­low) Frances Hodgson Bur­nett

We end, of course, with the one book that be­gan so many of us on the gar­den path—mary Len­nox’s mag­i­cal search for a lit­tle ‘bit of earth’. What she finds be­hind that fa­mous ivy-cov­ered door has in­spired gen­er­a­tions of read­ers to dis­cover the mys­ter­ies and en­chant­ment of th­ese earthly es­capes where ‘every­thing is made out of magic’—the sort of magic that leaves us all won­der­ing ‘do I tend the gar­den or does the gar­den tend me’?

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