Garden of reading

  • Updated: February 2, 2010 - 6:09 PM

A bookworm of a horticulturist shares his all-time favorite books about gardening and gardeners.

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I read just about anything: science fiction, fantasy, politics, economics, even mathematics and physics. But my favorite subject is -- yeah, you guessed it -- horticulture. Over the years, I've developed a list of my favorite books. Some of them are easy reads, some a bit more technical, but all of them stand out because they offer information or ideas that I have found nowhere else, including the Internet. Best bug book

If you need to find out what's eating your petunias, Whitney Cranshaw's "Garden Insects of North America" is one of most complete guides out there. With its excellent, accurate photographs, this book will help you identify just about any insect you might encounter in your garden. It also includes chapters on which insects are likeliest to feed on which plants, and how to manage them.

Best new book

OK, it's not brand new. "The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession" came out last year. But it's one of the most interesting horticultural books I've read in a long time. For this tale about American and European plant explorers of the 18th century, author Andrea Wulf did an amazing amount of research. That allowed her to write with authority not only about the plants they discovered, but also about the explorers themselves. Anyone with a passing interest in plants should find this book engaging.

Best old book

I'm really into the history of horticulture, particularly plant exploration. (See "Best new book," above.) One of my favorite books on the topic was written in the 1930s. "The World Was My Garden" may not be on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but you can find a copy if you're willing to search. Written by David Fairchild, a famous plant explorer of the early 20th century, this classic describes his travels around the world as he searched for new plants for America's gardens. You may be surprised to discover that you'll recognize many of the plants he describes as staples in our landscapes today.

Best plant guides

There are plenty of plant guides, some good, some not so good. One of the best, in my humble opinion, is by Michael Dirr, who happens to be one of the best horticulturists of our time. Dirr's "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" isn't a book about plant identification. Instead, it's a guide that describes the traits of woody plants so you can determine whether a particular plant will grow well in your garden.

If you're interested in perennials, then Allan Armitage's "Herbaceous Perennial Plants," which had a new edition printed in 2008, is the book for you.

Most entertaining

Amy Stewart's "Wicked Plants" takes you on an entertaining tour of the dangerous plants in and around our homes and gardens as well as worldwide. The writing is fresh and snappy, and many of the plants she covers could be growing in your own back yard. There is a downside to her book, though: By the time you finish it, you may be too afraid to even run your hand through your shrubs.

Honorable mentions

My list of favorites wouldn't be complete without these: Tracy DiSabato-Aust's "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden," an excellent manual on caring for perennials; Douglas Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home," which may make you reconsider what you're growing in your garden, and Brian Capon's "Botany for Gardeners," an essential reference guide for those interested in how plants grow but who don't have a background in science.

Where to shop

For serious gardeners, Terrace Horticultural Books (www.terracehorticultural books.com) at 503 St. Clair Av. in St. Paul is the place to go. While it has a reasonably good selection of newer texts, the collection of older and classic volumes is unmatched. Another place to check out is the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. This reading-and-reference library has the best selection of modern horticulture books in the Twin Cities.

Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He's also the author of three books, "How Trees Die," "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening."

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