This is the time every year when gardeners – forced inside by ice, snow and cold temperatures – turn their attention to books, both for their own enjoyment and as potential gifts to other gardeners.

This year, with many indoor activities canceled or curtailed, books will be more important than ever. Reading in a comfortable chair while occasionally looking out at a frozen and, I hope, snow-covered landscape will be a prime source of gardeners’ offseason entertainment. Here are a number of books that have come out this year.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

One book that will provide several days of enjoyment is “The Story of Gardening” by Penelope Hobhouse with Ambra Edwards, an update of Hobhouse’s 2002 book. I’d never read the original so the update was all new to me. I am convinced, however, that it covers enough new information to interest even those who read the original.

The Garden of Eden gets a mention, but the book truly begins with actual gardens that existed starting some 5,000 years ago so in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. Going in roughly chronological order, Hobhouse and Edwards describe the creation of gardens in the past and note how they have affected gardens that are being created today. The final chapter, written by Edwards, looks at current trends and discusses how gardening is likely to change as a result of factors like climate change.

“The Story of Gardening,” by Penelope Hobhouse with Ambra Edwards. Princeton Architectural Press, 512 oversized pages, 336 beautiful colored images, $60.



Cover courtesy of Other Press

Much smaller but just as enjoyable is “The Incredible Journey of Plants” by Stefano Mancuso. It’s a science book but so well written that it will bring many smiles. The book describes how plants move from one place to another. Mancuso argues that plant invasions aren’t bad – an argument those battling invasive plants are not likely to accept.

Plants do move – by water, wind, animals and other methods – often as seeds catching a ride with humans. He opens the book with a section on the island of Surtsey, which was created by a volcano off Iceland in 1963 and immediately declared a nature preserve so scientists could study the arrival of plants. And come they did, starting in less than a year, by wind and sea and, among other methods, fish eggs.

This history of the avocado, as related by Mancuso, is also fascinating, its seed too large to be spread by wind or water. Originally, mastodons swallowed avocados whole and spread the seeds around. When mastodons went extinct, avocados were spread by jaguars, who ate avocados without damaging the seed. But when humans killed the jaguars, avocados almost went extinct. Then the Spanish arrived in the Americas. They loved the fruit, started growing it in gardens, and saved the plant.

I enjoyed this book so much, I am going to seek out Mancuso’s earlier “The Revolutionary Genius of Plants.”

“The Incredible Journey of Plants,” by Stefano Mancuso, with illustrations by Grisha Fischer, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Other Press, 158 pages, $25.99.



Cover courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

“Gardening for Geeks,” subtitled “All the Science You Need for Successful Organic Gardening,” is a how-to-garden book for beginners who enjoy a dose of humor with their education. The gardening information is sound, and the reading – aimed at science nerds – is fun.

Take, for example, the section on adding nitrogen to the soil. The book explains the generic way – buying a granular fertilizer and adding it to the soil; the organic way – adding manure; and the permaculture way, growing nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes, which take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil through a plant’s roots.

“A third, unpredictable way to fix nitrogen into the soil as fertilizer,” Christy Wilhelmi writes, “was to hope for lightning. Lightning deposits hundreds of thousands of pounds of nitrogen into soil every year. It happens when the energy of lightning breaks the bonds of nitrogen in the air. The particles mix with vapor and rain, fall to earth and are absorbed into plants and soil.”

Speaking personally, I’d rather not depend on lightning for more crops, nor be outside when the lightening struck.

“Gardening for Geeks,” by Christy Wilhelmi. Fox Chapel Publishing, 248 pages, color illustrations, $19.99.



Here are some other gardening books from 2020 worth considering.

“The Little Gardener,” by Julie A. Cerney, illustrated by Ysemay Dercon. Princeton Architectural Press, 224 pages, hardcover, $24.95. A basic book for parents, educators and others who want to foster children’s connections to the natural world, “The Little Gardener” has separate sections for the Big Gardener, on how to teach gardening, and for the Little Gardener, on doing the tasks. The book draws information from Maine’s Eliot Coleman and other gardening gurus.

“Fruit Trees for Every Garden,” by Orin Martin and Manjula Martin. Ten Speed Press, 280 pages, $24.99. The book offers solid information, but probably in more detail than by a person who just wants a few trees in a suburban yard would need.

“The Little Book of Bonsai,” by Jonas Dupuich. Penguin Random House, 112 pages, $14.99. Find concise, clear information in these pages, beginning with which plants to start with. If you’re looking for a new hobby during the pandemic, this could be your guide.

Attracting Birds and Butterflies,” by Barbara Ellis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 266 pages, $18.99. Part of a “Home Grown Gardening” series, “Attracting Birds and Butterflies” contains good, specific information about which plants attract which birds and butterflies. Lots of good pictures, too.

“Container and Fragrant Gardens,” by Peter Loewer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 212 pages, $18.99. Also part of the “Home Grown Gardening” series, the book gives basic information, with pictures, on a host of reliable plants.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: