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Reading antiquated gardening books can feel like finding buried treasure. They tell of times when tools and garden plants were simpler and planting designs classic. Many deliver loads of useful, old-timey tips and techniques, making them that much more fun to read. And they tend to be beautifully illustrated—all the more reason to seek them out.
There is a distinction between old and new garden books: Older tomes are often broader in scope and informationally richer. In many cases, authors were writing about now-common garden plants, then new to horticulture, so every ounce of information was provided, from origins to collection histories and cultural details.
The first garden book mass-printed in English was titled A Most Briefe and Pleasant Treatyse, Teachings Howe to Dress, Sowe, and Set a Garden (1563), and was produced in England by Thomas Hyll. It was a small, simple book directed toward the average gardener at a time when reading and books were largely reserved for the elite. Everyday garden books appeared with more frequency in the 17th and 18th centuries—English author William Lawson wrote prolifically on horticultural subjects for women in The Country House-Wives Garden (1648), while landscape designer and author Humphry Repton brought the concept of design theory to the average gardener in Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795).
In America, where farmer’s almanacs were the chief source of growing information, garden writing didn’t reach mass audiences until the early 19th century. The first two notable tomes were The American Gardener’s Calendar (1806) by Philadelphia-based Irish immigrant Bernard M’Mahon (whose popularity was helped by Thomas Jefferson’s patronage of his Philadelphia nursery), and The American Gardener (1804), written by Washingtonians John Gardiner and David Hepburn. Both books followed the traditional English formula of providing a seasonal, monthly guide for everything from planting to soil preparation, propagation, pruning, and plant selection.
During the Victorian era, as American and European explorers scoured the world for undiscovered floral marvels, plant-collecting and gardening became all the rage. Garden books highlighted the latest in new and wonderful garden plants, from the now-familiar (like petunias, coleus, and flowering verbena) to a few less common favorites (like painted tongue and the chimney bellflower) just waiting to be rediscovered.
New collectors of old gardening books should start with the basics. Classic references, such as the amazingly thorough four-volume set Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (1900-02) by the great Liberty Hyde Bailey, never outgrow their utility. Another book that’s informative, easy to find, and includes lots of retro-chic garden designs and stonework plans is America’s Garden Book (1939), by husband-and-wife team Louise and James Bush-Brown. She was a horticulturist and he a landscape architect, so their book has the perfect balance of both themes. It is also one of the first to include USDA Hardiness Zone information, which first became available in 1936.
Specialty garden books tend to offer the most colorful content and illustrations. Of the many flower garden books, the helpful The Flower Garden: A Manual for the Amateur Gardener by Ida D. Bennett (1910) delivers lots of sage advice, along with loads of practical period photographs and line drawings. Bennett’s thoughts on garden design reveal that the Victorian tendency toward asymmetry wasn’t limited to architecture: “The scheme of a permanent garden must be decided by the size and shape of the plot of ground at command, an irregular plot sometimes lending itself to more graceful arrangement than a symmetrical one.”
The equally informative and colorful Flowers and Their Histories (1956) by Alice Coats is infused with a surprising amount of humor and anecdotal stories: frightening floral concoctions thought to be medicinal, strange recipes for fertilizers, and the popularity of certain flowers throughout the ages. Old-house garden designers can certainly learn a thing or two from Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden (1908; reprinted in 1983) by the mother of garden design, Gertrude Jekyll. Not only does Jekyll address harmonious floral color groupings (for instance, a September flower border of scarlet dahlias, tall flaming kniphofias, and brilliant orange African marigolds, among others), but she presents seasonal displays of still-common flowers that will keep complementary color in the garden year-round.
For heirloom vegetable lovers, there’s the classic Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865) by Fearing Burr Jr., which is filled with lovely line drawings of more than 1,100 vegetables and herbs—some, like the oyster plant and sponge cucumber, rare in today’s gardens. And for timeless vegetable gardening advice, The Principles of Vegetable-Gardening (1913) by Liberty Hyde Bailey is a treasure trove. With skillful detail, he plots out the growing parameters for all things edible, providing advice for favorites like tomatoes. “Tomatoes give early and better results when vines are trained [and pruned],” he advises, going on to say that “when frost threatens, the largest green tomatoes can be picked and allowed to ripen in drawers or other closed, dry places.”
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Adjusting to present times is necessary when considering pest and disease management. Gardening back in the day wasn’t always so rosy: Dangerous pesticides like DDT, arsenic, and nicotine were commonly used. Take, for example, the government-issued Food Gardens for Defense (1942) by M.G. Kanes, which advised growers to use arsenic to get rid of bugs, and to spray vegetables, grapes, and berries with highly toxic lead arsenate powder, as well as nicotine sulfate—an illegal act these days.
Amusing tips and eloquent writing abound—and are just as relevant today as they were a century or more ago. Some of the best are in Ida Bennett’s The Flower Garden, where she commits an entire chapter to garden don’ts: “Don’t raise more plants than you have room for, or strength and time to cultivate” or, “The outside window-box is a thing of beauty if well cared for, a disfigurement if neglected.” In an equally timeless vein, Liberty Hyde Bailey dismissed romantic Victorian notions of gardening in his Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, saying, “From 1830 to 1860 there appeared many of those superficial and fashionable books, which deal with the language of flowers, and which assume that the proper way to popularize botany is by means of manufactured sentiment.”
Any old-house gardener would be remiss not to delve into at least a few of these classic gems of garden writing. Even if you don’t plan to convert your yard into a pristine historic green, these books will deepen your gardening know-how and open doors to times gone by.
Where to Find Antique Garden Books
Hunting in used bookstores, antique shops, and online auctions will turn up a fair share of gems, but there are several other reliable sources for quality old gardening books. Of these, Woodburn Books consistently provides some of the most wonderful, high-quality old tomes, but expect to pay a premium. Horizon Books is another, more specialized source for old gardening books. Abe Books and Alibris are also good sources with many titles to choose from. And don’t forget to look for reprints: Several of the 17th-century English gardening books by William Lawson, for example, have been reprinted by Prospect Books.