Books for gardeners: Part 2

This post lists the best reference books for gardeners. Yesterday’s post described books about the philosophy of ecological gardening.

I turn first to field guides for choosing plants and deciding what plants to put together in hedgerows and perennial borders. Pick your favorite series; I prefer Peterson, because I think it’s easier to identify plants in the field from drawings than from photos of specific individuals, and because nonnative plants are marked as alien. I use the guides to eastern butterflies, eastern wildflowers, shrubs and trees, and fungi almost daily. A particularly useful volume is the guide to eastern forests, which covers forest succession and types of forests. For grasses, Lauren Brown’s Grasses: An Identification Guide is extremely useful. And when I am helping local environmental groups identify the plants growing on their sites, I carry Weeds of the Northeast by Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso in addition to my field guides.

The indispensable guide to vegetable gardening is the aptly named Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, by Edward C. Smith. Whether you’re new to vegetable gardening and don’t know a brussels sprout from a raised bed or have been tilling and harvesting all your life, this book will give you great information. Smith concentrates on healthy soil and organic methods, the key to any kind of gardening.

For perennials gardens, a great general reference work is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. It includes detailed growing techniques and an encyclopedia of plants (not concentrating on natives). For woody plants, the best reference work (also not concentrating on natives) is Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. This book is huge and pricy, but I couldn’t do my work without it.

Finally, for pruning techniques, the textbook we used at NYBG is An Illustrated Guide to Pruning by Edward F. Gilman. It’s probably more detailed than most hobbyist gardeners need, but its instructions and illustrations are clear and easy to follow.


Pruned hazelnut shrub, showing detail of stems cut with a handsaw, the cuts made close to the ground and at an angle. I pruned this large plant last winter and will need to prune it again this year.


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