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

Good Gifts for Gardeners

What would be a good gift for a gardener at this gift-giving time of year? Every gardener has his or her special inclinations, gardenwise, so each of us warrants a special set of gift possibilities.
Still, certain expendable items are sure to please any and every gardener. Tops on my list would be a big ball of twine. Twine is useful for everything from lashing blue spires of delphinium and floppy tomato vines to stakes to tying pea vines to a trellis or grape vines to support wires. Not just any twine will do; best is twine made of natural fibre, such as hemp or sisal, so that it can be gathered up to be composted along with the plants it supported at season’s end.
Gloves are another expendable item great for gifts. Gloves made from leather and some synthetics last for years. Among my favorite gloves for everything from detail work like transplanting small seedlings to grabbing a pitchfork to pitch manure onto the compost pile are knit gloves with nitrile or latex coated palms and fingers. With rough use, the gloves only last a couple of seasons, if that, but they’re worth it for their grippiness, comfort, and hand protection. I save my leather gloves for colder weather or for rougher work such as pruning thorny rose and gooseberry bushes and grabbing firewood.
Organic gardening (a good idea and the essence of good gardening in general) conjures up its own special gifts. Straw, manure, hay, leaves, wood chips, and other organic (that is, living or once-living) materials are what put the “organic” into organic gardening. A pitchfork is the perfect tool for moving organic materials to the compost pile or on top of the soil. But choosing a pitchfork is not all that straightforward. I am the proud owner and frequent user of 4-, 5-, 6-, and 10-tine pitchforks. Each has its special use but if I were to own just one pitchfork, it would be the  6-tine fork.
If you’re going to use a pitchfork, you’re probably going to need something with which to move around all those bulky organic materials. A garden cart. Stoked full, a sturdy cart with high wooden sides and two large-diameter tires can move over 10 cubic feet or 1/3 cubic yard of material, up to about 400 pounds of weight. Please don’t buy me one; I own three.
A few other essential, welcome tools are a trowel, which any but a beginning gardener is sure to have, and hand pruning shears (my favorite is ARS although Felco and Pica are also very, very good). A rain gauge is also essential to know whether what sounded like an earth-drenching downpour really contributed to the one inch per week needed for best plant growth. Good sources for tools are Gemplers, A. M. Leonard, Charleys Greenhouse, Orchard Equipment Supply Co., and Gardener’s Supply Co.
Beginning gardeners will appreciate packets of basic seeds such as Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuce, Bush Blue Lake and Romano beans, French Breakfast radishes, and Green Arrow peas. More advanced gardeners start their own transplants so might appreciate especially good, but hard to find as transplants, varieties of tomatoes, such as Blue Beech, Belgian Giant, San Marzano, and Black Krim. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Totally Tomatoes are among my favorite seed companies. For growing transplants, I recommend Gardener’s Supply APS, which waters seedlings automatically and gives each seedling its own home so they hardly realize when they’ve been transplanted. I already own about a dozen of them so don’t buy one for me, thanks. 
How about a gift of some of the above catalogues? How about including some good nursery catalogues also? Some of my favorite nurseries are Hartmann’s, Raintree, One Green World, Cummins, Burnt Ridge, and Nourse. 
The best gift for the beginning gardener or for the seasoned gardener who wants to grow better is, in my opinion, a good book. Among my favorites are any of Elliot Coleman’s books about vegetable gardening, any of Michael Dirr’s books about trees and shrubs, Steven Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Plants, Hartmann & Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, my bible on plant propagation, and, for general gardening, Roy Biles’ The Complete Book of Garden Magic and Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. For entertaining and informative essays, there’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi and The Principles of Gardening: A Guide to the Art, History, Science, and Practice of Gardening by Hugh Johnson.
Oh, and did I mention my books?: A Northeast Gardener’s Year (the what, when, and how for a wide range of gardening topics arranged, as appropriate, through the year), Weedless Gardening (especially good for vegetable gardening), Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Landscaping with Fruit, and Grow Fruit Naturally.