Fishing, Gardening

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” How true, also in gardening. Not to mention the emotional and intellectual gratification, the “companionship with gently growing things . . . [and] exercise which soothes the spirit and develops the deltoid muscles” (C. D. Warner, 1870).

Let’s take teaching the man — or woman — to fish one step further, gardenwise. Lot’s of people wow others with the expertise they have allegedly accrued as evidenced from the mere fact that they’ve spent a number of years, perhaps decades, with their hands in the dirt. I roll my eyes. Flowering plants originated at least 130 million years ago, which is plenty of time to let the trial and error of evolution teach them to grow. Tuck a seed into the ground and it will probably grow.

Better gardening comes from having some understanding of what’s going on beneath the ground and up in the plant. This comes from growing and observing a variety of plants growing in a variety of soils and climates — which is more than is possible in a lifetime.Gardening books

There’s a shortcut: books, a nice adjunct to getting your hands in the dirt. All of which is a roundabout way of my offering recommendations for books about gardening. The right book is also a great gift idea.

Read more


The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Supporting Artists?!

I’ve been thumbing through my latest book, Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. Most of the book is illustrations of many kinds and varieties of fruits painted by 20 artists over the years from 1892 to 1946. Most obvious is the beauty of the paintings. Less obvious is what they tell of fruit growing and marketing in this country.Book cover

For instance, why were the watercolors commissioned — by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no less? To answer that question let’s first backtrack to before the middle of the 19th century. Up until then,  fruit trees were planted mostly for cider, brandy, or to feed pigs. Fermented beverages were a more healthful drink than water at the time. (Just imagine all the tipsy kids wandering around!) 

Read more


Fishing, Gardening

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” How true, also in gardening. Not to mention the emotional and intellectual gratification, the “companionship with gently growing things . . . [and] exercise which soothes the spirit and develops the deltoid muscles” (C. D. Warner, 1870).

Let’s take teaching the man — or woman — to fish one step further, gardenwise. Lot’s of people wow others with the expertise they have allegedly accrued as evidenced from the mere fact that they’ve spent a number of years, perhaps decades, with their hands in the dirt. I roll my eyes. Flowering plants originated at least 130 million years ago, which is plenty of time to let the trial and error of evolution teach them to grow. Tuck a seed into the ground and it will probably grow.

Better gardening comes from having some understanding of what’s going on beneath the ground and up in the plant. This comes from growing and observing a variety of plants growing in a variety of soils and climates — which is more than is possible in a lifetime.Gardening books

There’s a shortcut: books, a nice adjunct to getting your hands in the dirt. All of which is a roundabout way of my offering recommendations for books about gardening. The right book is also a great gift idea.

Read more


Great Gift Ideas! Gardening books, of course. All available from the usual sources as well as, signed, right from me, here.

Weedless GardeningNot only weedlessness; also lots of information on drip irrigation, making or buying compost, cover crops, timing and details for individual vegetables, tree planting, fertilization, and soil testing. Weedless Gardening, coverI’ve used this weed-less system for over 25 years! $10.95


Growing Figs in Cold ClimatesFive methods for growing figs in cold climates, pruning techniques, best varieties, harvesting, and Fig book coverways to hasten ripening. $24.99


The Pruning Book: Reasons to prune, tools of the trade, how plants respond to being pruned, and details on just pruning just about every plant you can imagine,The Pruning Book from ornamental trees and bushes, to fruit and nut trees, to houseplants and perennials. A final section delves into specialized techniques such as topiary, bonsai, and espalier. $29.95

Landscaping with Fruit: How to choose what to grow depending on your region and particular pest or climate problems, and details for individual plants Landscaping With Fruit(the ornamental value, how easy they are to grow, what they taste like, varieties). Also a chapter on landscape design basics. $19.95

A Northeast Gardener’s Year
: Month by month, chapter by chapter, in the garden. Each chapter begins with a snippet of borrowed poetry to set the tone, followed by a A Northeast Gardener's Year covershort description of what is going on plantwise. From there we are left to the whims and vagaries of the weather and the weeds, the unfolding of blossoms and ripening of fruits, perhaps the cry of a plant begging to be repotted — any and all topics gardenwise. $17.00

The Ever Curious Gardener
: Using a Little Natural Science for a Lot Better Garden:
An irreverent romp through the natural science of plants and soil, ideal for The Ever Curious Gardenereveryone from newbies to experienced gardeners whose curiosity at the wonders of cultivation grows deeper and stronger with each season. How to maximize flavor and nutrition; how to help plants outwit drought; making the best sse of compost; etc, etc. $18.99

Grow Fruit Naturally
: How to successfully grow fruits that are delicious and nutritious without toxic chemicals. Covers planning, propagation, pruning,Grow Fruit Naturally pest control, storing your bounty, and growing fruit plants in containers. Details on over 30 fruits and how to reap their bounty. $24.95


Compressed Gardening Experience

People are so ready to sit at the feet of any long-time gardener to glean words of wisdom. I roll my eyes. Someone who has gardened for ten, twenty, even more years might make the same mistakes every year for that number of years. I, for instance, swung a scythe wrong for 20 years; I may have it right now. Even a wizened gardener who has evaluated and corrected their mistakes has garnered experience only on their own plot of land; these experience may not apply to the differing soils, climates, and resources of other sites.
Lineup of my books
When I began gardening, my agricultural knowledge and experience was nil, zip, niets, rien, nada. But — and this is important — I had easy access to a whole university library devoted solely to agriculture. Hungry to learn, I read a lot. (I also was taking classes in agriculture.) In one year I was able to garner years of, if not actual experience, much of the knowledge that comes with that experience. And my garden showed it.

I’ve now gardened many decades and still gobble up the written word.

All of which is to say that reading reputable sources about gardening can make anyone a much better gardener and do so quicker than by gardening alone. “Reputable” is a key word in the previous sentence. So here’s the, to use the phrase of Magliozzi brothers on the radio show Cartalk, Shameless Commerce Division of this blog: a plug for my books. I stand firmly by anything I’ve written and am open to criticism.

Here’s the book list, all available from the usual sources or, signed, from me through this website (good gift idea, also):

A Northeast Gardener’s Year: A month by month romp through all things garden-wise, what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
The Pruning Book: Plant responses, pruning tools, how to prune just about every plant (indoor, outdoor), and final sections on specialized pruning techniques, such as scything and espalier.
Weedless Gardening: A four-part system, emulating Mother Nature and based on current agricultural research, that makes for less weeds and healthier plants, along with other benefits such as more efficient use of water and conservation of humus.
Landscaping with Fruit: Following introductory chapters about designing your landscape is a listing of the best fruits to use for “luscious landscaping” in various regions and how to grow each of these fruiting trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers.
Grow Fruit Naturally: Describes multi-faceted approaches to growing fruits without resorting to toxic sprays, starting with selecting kinds of fruits and varieties and moving on to encouraging natural predators, beefing up the soil, and more.
The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden: Knowing some of the science behind what’s going on in the garden can make you an even better gardener; here’s how.

Vegetable Finale

And now, on to some gardening . . .

I’ve said it before and Yogi Berra said it before me, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Last night’s temperature plummeting to 18°F was still not enough to put the brakes on the vegetable garden. Beneath their covered “tunnels,” arugula, mustard, endive, and napa Chinese cabbage still thrive. Along with mâche and kale, which aren’t under cover, all these greens are looking as perky as ever and, most important, taste better than ever.

Interestingly, temperatures I’ve measured within the tunnels are not that different — actually, not different at all — from temperatures I’ve measured outdoors. But something’s different. The increased humidity under the tunnels is probably at least partially responsible for the fresh tastes and appearances.
Endive in tunnel
It’s a wonder that these tender, succulent leaves tolerate such temperatures. You’d think the liquid in their cells would freeze and burst the contents to smithereens. That would have been the case if the 18°F had come on suddenly, without any precedents. 

Plants aren’t passive players in the garden. Increasingly cold weather and shortening days acclimated these plants to cold. (A month ago, temperatures dropped one night to 16°F.) Plants move water in and out of their cells, as needed, to avoid freezing injury. And increasing concentrations of dissolved minerals and sugars in the cells make the water freeze at lower temperatures. Perhaps that’s one reason why these vegetables taste so good. The tunnels also slow down swings in temperature, giving plants time to move water in and out of their cells and whatever else they do preparing for and recovering from cold.

Too many people, even gardeners(!), consider endive as nothing more than a bitter, green leaf best used as garnish. Reconsider. Given close spacing so that inner leaves of each head blanche from low light along with cool and cold temperatures, and endive takes on a wonderful, rich flavor. Blanched interior of endiveOnly the slightest hint of bitterness remains, enough to make the taste more lively — delicious in salads, soups, and sandwiches.

Fruit Finale

The last fruits of the season, Szukis American persimmon, were harvested last week after over a month of eating them. Definitely the easiest fruit I grow. No pruning, no pest control. And definitely one of the tastiest: imagine a dried apricot soaked in water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice.
Persimmons on tree in December
Fruits were very mushy for the final harvests — perfect for a jam. Squeezing a bunch of the fruits in a mesh bag (such as used for women’s “delicates” in a washing machine) pushed out Making persimmon jamthe pulp without seeds. No sweetener needed. Just jar it up and refrigerate (keeps about 2 weeks) or freeze. Delicious.



Compost, of Course, and More

Very soon I plan to drive a truckload of compost to my sister Peggy’s house. Like many people, she’s caught the gardening bug, and this compost, along with a wheelbarrow I fished out of my town’s metal recycling, is a gift. It includes my help spreading it.
Compost in garden cart
What else would be a good gift for any beginning gardener? (Okay, Peggy has been dipping her toes in the gardening waters for years, but only recently got more serious about growing vegetables.)

For starters, indispensable, would be a trowel or a hori-hori knife, the latter being something of a hybrid of a garden knife and a trowel, not as good as either parent but great for all-around use. No need to labor over the worth of a high-end, stainless steel, oak-handled trowel; either will work well and last long if stored out of the elements.

A pair of hand shears would come in handy for clipping tomato suckers or cutting down pepper or eggplant plants at season’s end. They’e admittedly not indispensable for vegetable gardening but very useful if any shrubs or trees are also in the picture. ARS pruning shearsFor a hand shears, quality counts. Blades of the best hand shears, as in their name, shear past each other like those of scissors. They’re called “bypass pruners.” My favorite is the ARS hand shears. Shears with anvil blades — “anvil pruners” — sport a sharp blade that comes down on a narrow, flat surface; the flat surface limits how close you can make a cut and the shear works poorly if any nick or waviness develops on the sharp blade.

For anyone venturing into growing their own seedlings, which greatly widens the choices of varieties to grow, I recommend one of the many “self watering seed starters.” Cells housing plants sit on a capillary mat that dips into a water reservoir just below. Seed propagatorSoil in the cells sucks up moisture from below through capillary action to remain consistently moist, and the reservoir requires replenishment infrequently.

And finally, gloves, although these are very personal and it’s hard to pick out a pair suited to anyone else besides yourself. How about money for gloves? And some people like to get their hands in the dirt. As a professional pianist and piano teacher, probably not Peggy (check her out at

Reading Can Substitute for Years of Gardening

Okay, moving on to a most important “tool” for beginning, even intermediate and advanced, gardeners alike: books and the web. That is, if the information offered is sound — not always the case. One way to get solid information off the web is to follow any search term(s) with “site:edu” or “site:gov”, which brings you to university or government sites, respectively.

Not that those are the only reputable sites, but then judge whether other sites are reputable based on the author(s), possible agendas for financial gain, and comparing other information on the site with that you know for sure is either correct or false. 

As an example, someone recently told me that black walnut plants are high in iodine, as evidenced by the brown stain from the hulls and the first of many hits if you enter “iodine” and “black walnut” into a search engine. This didn’t ring true to me so I looked up analyses of iodine concentrations in black walnut on a number of reputable sites. No, black walnut plants do not contain iodine, despite all the sites touting the myth that they do.

(Everything you read on my site is, of course, reputable. Ha, ha.)

On to books . . . if I may be so bold as to begin by recommending my own. Weedless Gardening Weedless Gardening, covertells how to prepare and manage the soil, when to sow and transplant vegetables, what to use for mulch, how to make compost, the ins and outs of drip irrigation, and more. A Northeast Gardener’s Year A Northeast Gardener's Year covertakes you on a timely jog through the year with all things gardening: soil, flowers, houseplants, naming plants, etc., depending on what needs doing gardenwise indoors and out. I’ve written more books (all are listed on this site), but these two are more essential.

Plenty of other reputable gardening books are around if you seek them out. For an all around gardening book, check out Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. Specifically, for vegetables, there’s E. C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible or some oldies, or, if you can get them, A. C. Burrage’s Burrage on Vegetables or Gardening: The Complete Guide to Growing America’s Favorite Fruits & Vegetables from the National Gardening Association.

Quality Compost?

Back to that truckload of compost for Peggy. A truckload of compost is more than I can spare of my own black gold, so I’m purchasing it in bulk.

I picked up the phone, dialed some numbers, and asked some prospective compost merchants about their products to make sure the compost would be of good quality. What went into the compost, for instance? A greater the variety of raw materials results in a better variety of nutrients in the end product as long as those raw materials don’t include industrial wastes that might contain heavy metals, or, in dry regions, feedlot manures, because of excess salts.

What about the acidity or pH? Ideally the pH lies between 6 and 7. 

How rocky or stony is the compost? No need to pay for rocks rather than compost. Similarly, is the material pure compost (desired), or compost diluted with a large portion of soil?

How about weeds or weed seeds? Time, temperature, and pile turning all have bearing on the number of viable weed seeds in a finished compost. A carefully built compost pile easily reaches a high enough temperatures to kill most weed seeds. But even when weed-free initially, composts that sit around too long (especially if uncovered) will pick up weed seeds carried in by wind and animals.

Good gardening, and especially organic gardening, involves moving bulky organic materials such as hay, straw, wood chips, wood shavings, leaf mold, and compost. These organic materials are what feed the friendly soil microbes which, in turn, feed the plants, as well as beef up the soil ecosystem in many biological and physical ways.

So two other items that come to mind, after the trowel, pruning shears, seed starting flats, and books, are a wheelbarrow or garden cart, and pitchfork or shovel. As I wrote, I’ll leave the wheelbarrow with her and can also leave of the many pitchforks I’ve accumulated over the years. Have I forgotten to mention any other gardening essentials?Garden cart


Why Now?

For the past week or so I’ve been getting parts of the garden ready for next year. Too soon, you say? No, says I.

Pole beans

Pole beans

A bed of corn and a bed of bush beans are finished for the season. Not that that’s the end of either vegetable. I planted four beds of corn, each two weeks after the previous, and the two remaining beds will be providing ears of fresh Golden Bantam — a hundred year old variety with rich, corny flavor — well into September.

The bed of bush beans will be superseded by a bed of pole beans, planted at the same time. Bush beans start bearing early but peter out after a couple of harvests. Pole beans are slower to get going, but once they do, they keep up a quickening pace until slowed, then stopped, by cold weather.

Why, you may ask, ready those beds now for eight months hence? One reason is that the garden is always such a flurry of activity in spring that I welcome one less thing that needs doing then. Also, part of garden preparation is thorough weeding (which I also keep up with, though less thoroughly, all season long). Any weeds checked now means less weed seed to spread around the garden and, in the case of perennial weeds, less opportunity to gain a foothold.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

And later in the season…

Planted bed, endive, lettuce

And, later in the season

And beds prepared now need not sit idle till spring. Right after getting the old bean bed ready for spring, I’ll plant it with vegetables that thrive in the cool weather of fall, vegetables such as lettuce, endive, turnips, Chinese cabbage, and winter radishes. The bed will be ready as soon as fall vegetables are harvested and out of the way.

And How? Simple.

No magic potions or secret techniques ready my beds now for next year. What’s needed, besides weeding and fertilizing, is to maintain or increase levels of soil organic matter. Organic matter is integral to good fertility, maintaining a diverse population of beneficial soil microbes, and improving soil aeration and moisture retention. It’s what put the “organic” into organic gardening.

The way I provide all this can be summed up in one word: compost.

Okay, there is more to it. My vegetable garden is laid out in beds that are 3 feet wide with 18 inch wide paths between them (and a 5 foot wide path up the middle of the garden for rolling in cartfuls of compost). Soil in the beds has not been tilled or otherwise unduly disturbed for decades, which has many benefits that I delve into in my book Weedless Gardening.

First step in getting the garden ready for next year is to remove all existing plants, be they corn, bean, or weed plants. I excise most plants, including weeds, by grabbing each near its base and giving it a slight twist to sever it from its fine roots, which are left in place. Coaxing with my Hori-Hori knife is sometimes needed. Corn plants definitely need coaxing, which I do by digging straight down around the base of each plant and then giving it a yank. After all this, I smooth out the ground, if necessary, with the tines of a rake or pitchfork.

A one inch depth of finished compost should provide all that intensively grown vegetables require for a whole season. That one inch of compost is laid down like a rich icing right on top of the bed. Finished!
Composted garden bed
Okay, there’s sometimes a little more to it. I noticed weak growth in one of the later corn beds, possibly due to nitrogen deficiency, although untimely, temporary malfunction of my drip irrigation system at a critical growth stage for the corn is another possibility. Just too make sure, I will sprinkle some organic nitrogen fertilizer (soybean meal) in that bed when I prepare it.

(I could test the soil for some other nutrient deficiency, but after years of using compost made from diverse feedstuffs, some other nutrient deficiency is doubtful. There’s no good test for nitrogen because of its evanescence in the soil.)

Okay, there’s sometimes even a little more to my soil prep. If a bed is finished for the season and I have enough cleared beds for all the cool season vegetables, I could just prepare the bed, as above, and that would be the end of the story. But I don’t like to look at bare ground, so beds cleared and prepared early enough in the season, which is about the end of September here in Zone 5, get planted with a cover crop. Cover crops protect soil from wind and water erosion, latch onto nutrients that would otherwise leach down and out of the ground, and crumble the soil to a fine tilth with their roots. And going into winter, I’d rather look at a lush, green cover crop than bare ground.

Cover crop in autumn

Cover crop in autumn

My usual cover crop of choice is oats or barley. Both thrive in autumn’s cool, moist weather. They mesh well with no-till because they winterkill here in Zone 5.

This year, especially for my beds of corn, which is a nitrogen-hungry plant, I’ll mix crimson clover in with the oats or barley. As a legume, the clover will enrich the ground with extra nitrogen that it extracts from the air. And the vivid crimson flower heads, sitting atop stalks like lolliopops, will look nice.
Crimson clover


How Cold? How Humid?

Do you want to send a really good gift to a really good gardener? (Perhaps that gardener is you.) Problem is that most really good gardeners have pretty much everything they need except for expendables like string, seeds, or potting soil (unless they make their own. Don’t despair; I’ve come up with a few items many really good gardeners with (just about) everything they need might find useful.

At the top of my list is a nifty, little device with the odd name of Sensorpush. It’s not much bigger than an inch square pillbox, less than 3/4 inch thick, that you place wherever you want to monitor temperature and humidity — from your smartphone, via bluetooth.

Sensorpush, graph of the week's outdoor conditions

Sensorpush, graph of the week’s outdoor conditions

Sensorpush, screen shot of current readings

Sensorpush, screen shot of current readings

Couple it with the WiFi Gateway and temperature and humidity can be monitored from anywhere on your smartphones. I periodically checked on my greenhouse and the outdoor temperatures here in New York when I was recently thousands of miles away in Israel.

SensorPush in greenhouse

SensorPush in greenhouse

My original use for the Sensorpush was for the greenhouse, to alert me, which it can do, if  temperatures drop to a minimum that I set at 37°F. I now have another, outdoors, which alerted me to the one late frost (28°F) last spring which wiped out the crop on my peach tree. I may also put ones in my freezer and walk-in cooler. 

All past information is available graphically and can be downloaded to a computer.

Water is Important

Much, much more low-tech is my new favorite watering can. It’s not any old blue watering can, it’s the French Blue Watering Can. It has everything I would look for in a watering can: hold lots of water, in this case 3 gallons; good balance when being carried and in use; and water exiting in a stream that’s gentle but not too slow. For optimum balance, get two, one for each arm.
Watering can, French blue
Although the French Blue Watering Can now beats out my previously favorite Haw’s 2 gallon, zinc plated cans, which are, admittedly, more visually elegant, Haw’s is still in the running with their beautiful, copper-enameled, 2 quart watering can that I use mostly indoors. For indoors, it’s a good volume, and the long spout can reach in among plants for more pinpoint watering once its rose is removed.
Watering can, green Haws

Books, of Course

I can’t help but mention books. Those that I mentioned last week were general categories; the really good gardener has, of course, some very specific interests and expertises. And there are books for these (I’ll stay away from my special interests to avoid having to mention, once again, any of the books that I have authored). 

So, for instance, if you’re interest is in unusual vegetables, you could start with A. C. Herklots’ 1972 publication Vegetables of Southeast Asia. The book is especially rich in “greens,” including shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), garland chrysanthemum (now Glebionis coronaria), and honewort (Cryptotaenia japonica). Also a slew of “Asiatic cabbages.” For something even less contemporary, there have been various printings of The Vegetable Garden by Vilmorin-Andrieux,scion of the famous French seed company. In addition to many common vegetables, of which many interesting varieties are mentioned, ferret around in the book and you’ll also find some unusuals: olluco (Ullucus tuberosus), rampion (Campanula Rapunculus), and seakale (Crambe mariitima).
Books, unusual vegetables
Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables offers a much more contemporary take on unusual vegetables. Most of the vegetables mentioned are not really perennial in cold climates but they surely are unusual. The last I heard, very few people were growing nashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), Chinese artichoke (Stachys offinis), chufa (Cyperus esculentus var. sativa), or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonobolus).

Tools and Plants

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to the five advertisers on my blog posts (to your right). These are not just any old companies that choose to advertise. They represent businesses whose products and, in some cases, owners I know and trust (by experience) to offer the highest quality products.

Let’s start with the two nurseries. Looking for a place to buy high quality plants of pawpaw, persimmon, quince, medlar, or even more common fruits. Raintree Nursery is the one. I’ve even sent them stems from some of my more unique plants to propagate. Cummins Nursery is the go to nursery for a very wide selection of varieties of apple, pear, peach, and other familiar tree fruits on a variety of rootstocks. The rootstock helps determine such tree characters as size, adaptability to various environments as well as how soon and how much fruit you’ll pick.

(Incidentally, a nursery tree grown hundreds of miles away can be just as adapted to your site as one grown around the corner. Genetics is important, so an Ashmead’s Kernel apple grown in Washington is genetically identical to one grown in New York, or anywhere else.)

With all those new plants, some tools will be needed to help care for them. For everything from high quality soil sampling tubes to grafting supplies to hoes to tripod ladders (very stable, I own two different sizes), look to Orchard Equipment Supply Company (OESCO).

If you’re looking very specifically for cutting tools — pruning shears, pruning saws, loppers, pole saws, and the like — look no further than ARS. You can’t go wrong purchasing an ARS tool. After writing a book about pruning, I was sent many samples of pruning equipment; among the shears, ARS — specifically the VSX Series Signature Heavy Duty Pruner — is my favorite, with good weight, good steel, replaceable parts, and easy opening with just a firm squeeze of the handles. They slightly edged out my Felco and Pica shears.

Scythe Supply sells just one thing: scythes. But they offer the best of the best, as well as sharpening services and instruction. Don’t expect one of those picturesque, old scythes often turning up at garage sales, more useful for decorating a barn wall than cutting tall grass. Scythe Supply scythes are super light and well balanced with blades hammered razor sharp like those of Samurai swords. One-time Congressional candidate, homesteader, and swinger of a scythe into his nineties, Scott Nearing had this to say about scything: “It is a first-class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows.” So true. I use my mowings for compost and mulch.



I’ve heard wizened gardeners boast at how many years they’ve been gardening, impressing newbies with their unspoken knowledge. I’ve never been much impressed by anyone’s years gardening as an indicator of horticultural prowess.

I speak from experience: I’ve swung a scythe for many decades, which may lead others to believe me to be a long time expert scyther. Not so. A few years ago, after 25 years of scything, I learned I was using it incorrectly. (Unfortunately, earlier on I had the hubris or ignorance to describe it and its use for a magazine article which included a sepia-toned photograph of me swinging it — wrong, I subsequently learned).
Lee scything
On the other hand, as a newbie gardener I had access to one of the best agricultural libraries in the country (I was in graduate school in agriculture at the time), and voraciously devoured its holdings. After only a couple of years of gardening and reading, I had — in all modestly — a vegetable garden to vie those of much more seasoned gardeners.
Lee, 1974, in garden
Most gardeners pretty much do what they’ve done year after year. Even if new techniques, tools, and plants were tried annually, it would take a long time to make sense out of all of it. Enter books, a streamlined way to garner “experience.” Not firsthand, of course, but a way to learn from the successes and failures of others who chronicled their horticultural ups and downs. Also a way to learn more generally about what makes gardens tick, the soil types, the insects, the climates, the many plants that you or I may never grow — nor, perhaps, want to after learning about them. It all makes for a better and more resilient gardener.


Over the years I have both purchased and been sent review copies of many, many gardening books. As I look over my bookshelves I see a number of them — some old, some new — that, in my opinion, would be must-reads for gardeners, beginning or otherwise. Interestingly, none of the titles have the word “organic” in them. Not to worry; any good gardening is organic.

The following books can’t help but represent my biases for writing styles and interests. Still, I’ve forced myself to leave out some favorites because they’re neither foundational nor perhaps would be generally of interest.

Good gardens start from the ground up, so let’s start with some books about soil. For the basics, see Robert Pavlis’ Soil Science for Gardeners: Working with Nature to Build Soil Health. For more intimate knowledge and understanding, turn to Fundamentals of Soil Science by Henry D. Foth and Lloyd M. Turk, or, much more deeply intimate, The Nature and Properties of Soils by Ray R. Weil and Nyle C. Brady. And then Lazy-Ass Gardening: Maximize Your Soil, Minimize Your Toil by Robert Kourik and — I almost forgot to mention! — Weedless Gardening by yours truly.
Books about soil
With the ground covered, vegetable can be planted. For oodles of very useful, basic information in the form of tables, there’s Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. It’s mostly for farmers, but also very useful for gardeners, as is The Market Gardener by J. M. Fortin. Also, again, my book Weedless Gardening.
Vegetable books
Even here in New York’s Hudson Valley, where winter lows commonly plummet to minus 20°F, fresh, home-grown vegetables are possible. Elliot Coleman has explored and innovated many of the ways in Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. My greenhouse is currently packed with living, fresh greenery, growing slowly and ready for harvest now and over the next few months. If I had read Lindsey Schiller and Marc Plinke’s The Year Round Solar Greenhouse before building mine, I would have made it even more efficient as far as heat production and retention.
Vegetable 4 season books
One can’t live on bread alone. For sprucing up appearances, good books include The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee and, indoors, Well-Clad Windowsills by Tovah Martin. For solid, good information on trees, shrubs, and vines, I turn to my dog-eared copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. For flowers, The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski.
Flower and tree books
Of course, no need to choose between living on bread alone or prettiness. You can often have both — on the same plant. That was the theme of Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping, which covered all kinds of plants from asparagus to wheat, as well as my more focused in its scope Landscaping with Fruit, going from alpine strawberries to wintergreen. Integrating edible plants in the landscape is an important component of permaculture; for a fun and short but thorough overview of the too often too seriously presented theory and practice of permaculture, I’d turn to Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist by Michael Judd.
landscape books


Many of the books on my shelves are of a more general nature. Early on in my gardening life, I frequently dipped into them; not so much these days. Still, my keeping them on the shelves is evidence of their value to me. 
General garden books
One of the best for a broad overview of everything from garden history, design, botany (and much more) is Hugh Johnson’s Principles of Gardening. Also painting a broad stroke but more on the nitty gritty of what to so when, and how to do it in the garden, through the year is my A Northeast Gardener’s Year (my first book, back in 199!) and Roy Biles The Complete Book of Garden Magic. The latter was published in 1951, so take some of the recommendations, especially those for pesticides with a grain of salt. But you’ll know to do that that after poring through all the other books I mentioned.
north vegetable garden from the south