The Garden Community for Garden Lovers

Spare yourself a disaster! And a word on gardening books generally.


It’s a sad fact that most plant labels aren’t up to much beyond the accuracy of the name. I mean, if it was left to plant labels we could hardly plant anything in less than ‘well drained soil’ and with gardeners everywhere being increasingly keen to discover that ‘unusual plant’ the potential risk of disappointment has never been greater.

So pop an old plant reference book in the car boot (or trunk) and leave it there for when you spot something unusual. I’ve often disappeared back to the car to check my list of unknown plants that I’ve made up wandering around a nursery.

Or next time you’re in town visit a bookshop and buy a cheap second-hand plant reference. You can get an old book for surprisingly little money and delphiniums want the same requirements now as they did in 1937 or whatever!

Indeed, if you haven’t already done so, you should buy an old gardening book just for the fun of reading what your grand-parents/parents were expected to do in their garden! In one of my old books published for the new suburban householder during the 1930’s the ‘typical herbaceous’ border was 200ft long!! But the best one I’ve got takes 12 pages to explain how to double dig! They are priceless books for a wet afternoon.

But seriously, they DO contain far more useful cultivation information in comparison with the glossy options available today.

I reckon the gardening book shelves in our stores have never been so full. Yet the need for information on gardening in general and plant cultivation in particular has never been more apparent. Why is there such a difference?

In my opinion, far too many modern gardening books fall way too short of offering practical gardening information. Too many come from a design perspective, use commercial photo libraries and regurgitate the same old tired descriptions and cultivation mistakes. (After all, seeking more help is one of the reasons you’re here or visiting my own gardening advice forums).

But it does appear to me at least, that many of these gardening books are written by people whose plant cultivation skills appear to be drawn from their experience of living in ‘a flat with a window box and have clean fingernails’. Such people can obviously convince a publishing house but they simply don’t have sufficient growing experience with all the varieties they profess to advise upon!

To this end I am writing a series of ebooks available for instant download through my highly informative gardening web site. The first, entitled ‘Garden Design and Build’ is now available. The next books will be on greenhouse gardening and Fuchias.

And just for the record, my own garden, which I designed and built myself without any outside help, contains over 3,000 different plant varieties and at one time I grew 243 different Fuchsia varieties.

More blog posts by Muddywellies

Previous post: The National Trust illuminating their 'efficiency'

Next post: Winter Care for your plants



This sounds very interesting. Will your book about Greenhouse Gardening and Fuchsias include showing Fuchsias at flower shows?
At present i show Begonias only, but i love Fuchsias too, and would like to start showing them, perhaps alongside the Begonias.

13 Aug, 2008


It depends what type of garden book your are looking for--- the garden 'design' books are in a totally different genre to the plant reference books, so they cater for different needs. Without the commercial plant photographic libraries of today we would not have a permanent record of plant species from all over the world and they are expanding all the time as a world- wide reference.They are also helping with issues of conservation. After all, the explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries did exactly the same, but they often commissioned water colourists to make a record of the plants they had seen or collected, or if they were skilled at painting they made paintings themselves. Without these paintings some of the rare or extinct plants would not be seen today.As well as plant reference books today we have the internet and there are some excellent plant reference sites available.

We all have different tastes with regards to the plants we choose for our gardens or even our window boxes if we live in a flat or appartment that doesnt have a garden.....

A plant label at a garden centre or nursery can only contain a limited amount of information otherwise they would end up being bigger then the plant but they contain some basic information and its usually reasonably accurate. Of couse there will always be the odd exception....

We still need to have books written for folks who have window boxes to give them ideas as well!

13 Aug, 2008


Perhaps I didn't make my main point clearly enough on the subject of general gardening books when I wrote

"far too many modern gardening books fall way too short of offering practical gardening information. Too many come from a design perspective, use commercial photo libraries and regurgitate the same old tired descriptions and cultivation mistakes."

In my experience and that of many of my garden visitors, we do find that most general gardening books simply 'skim' the subject of plant cultivation and by doing so tend to offer well-used descriptions instead of what a plant actually requires based upon the author's growing experience.

The main thrust of the second half of my blog had nothing to do with photo sources and plant conservation and everything to do with the quality of information which the average gardener is given in order to cultivate their chosen plant in the majority of modern gardening texts. A fact which my blog was endeavouring to highlight and one which I feel is fully supported by the number and type of cultivation enquiries amongst GOY members.

"The garden flat, window box and clean finger nails" description was simply an illustrative analogy.

13 Aug, 2008


They are intended to be two separate texts not one. As for the Fuchsias, the main thrust of my text would be their cultivation, winter care and growing them both in the garden and in baskets. If I recall correctly, there are GOY photos of part of my 80-basket collection above my hosta photos. (I grow over 60 hosta varieties)

13 Aug, 2008


I think I have to take a middle road here. Because I enjoy both of the types of books you mentioned. I love perusing the pages of big glossy "photo album" style books and get some ideas from them as well as an idea of what the different varieties of plants will look like. However, when I need information I go to the reference style books and I agree that the older ones are the most helpful. I use a lot of books that were published in the 60's, because they seem to take a more "natural" approach. Some of these books are being reissued with the trend back to being "green".
All this aside, I think my problem is that I just like BOOKS and have way too many as it is!

13 Aug, 2008


I totally agree with Wohibulis comment . I love reading all sorts of gardening books and can a choose from a wide and diverse range whether they are ancient or modern.

I have a large and varied collection both old and new. They all cover different aspects of gardening whether it's design, styling, propogation or cultivation. They are all valuable in their own way, and I try not to dismiss one particular style. It depends what type of information I am looking for.

It's interesting to note as well that there are a lot of questions on this site about cultivation and propogation, and they are equally balanced with enquiries about garden design and styling.

With my background in education and design this is the reason why I am trying to defend and support the need for good visual design garden books! Also a lot of modern books are based on up to date thinking, and are also based on sound research from the past as well, so they are just as valid as the older books in their own way.

I love to see illustrations in books as I can rapidly assimilate information as well as text (The old saying that a picture paints a thousand words) .

Finally, in defense of my garden designer friends who have also contributed to books and publications.... I don't know of any garden designers/writers who have clean finger nails- all the ones I know, and they are top people in their area of expertise, are very practical people who regularly get their hands dirty, and have a sound knowledge of plants- otherwise they would not survive in their jobs.

Muddywellies- Probably, you and I both come from opposite sides of the gardening spectrum with regards to our philosophies, but hopefully my reply shows that there is room for both ! Your blog opened an interesting debate!

13 Aug, 2008


I have an extensive library of gardening books, both reference and design and lots of other areas. But the one I use the most is the RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants. Not exactly pocket size, but very comprehensive on growing condioins required and eventual size (both height and spread). I refer to it as my 'bible'

13 Aug, 2008


For sure Grenville, there is plenty of room for both and a lot more besides. It's good and healthy to have a 'fiesty' debate on both sides. Gardening is a highly enjoyable experience and pastime that we all love which not only provides tremendous enjoyment but which is recognised as a great healer for so many.

Andrewr. The book you mention is the 'old copy' which I have in my own boot, which I was thinking of. The spine has long gone and it's held together with tape - but it still 'works'!

13 Aug, 2008


That's the one (two really!) that I use most of all. Before I bought it, my old 'Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia of Plants' was the book I used most - it's nearly falling apart! I have only recently bought any Garden Design books, and they were vital as reference books to enable me to write the essays for my Horticultural Course. I do agree that sometimes plant labelling is not as helpful as it could be. I saw an unfamiliar plant this afternoon and was disappointed that there was nothing about its hardiness, or aspect or soil needed. They lost a sale there as it was an attractive plant! Due to the pouring rain, the assistants were all indoors, so I couldn't even enquire about it!

13 Aug, 2008


I think some modern gardening books don't go into much detail because they are aimed towards encouraging new would be gardners who want to have a go and don't want to be bamboozled with too much information. There are plenty of more informative specailist books available for the avid enthusiast.
I must admit I love the large glossy pictures and design ideas from modern books and find they old ones, although informative , a bit dry and uninspiring. Whilst I agree on the idea of keeping a reference book in your boot is a good idea I must stick up for the wealth of fabulous gardening books that have come out recently (what having purchased a fair few myself)
As far as plant labelling it often depends where you are purchasing your plants from , some places are far better than others.

14 Aug, 2008


I look forward to seeing your e-books, Muddywellies. I also refer often to the RHS Encyclopedia, Andrew. My favourite old gardening book dates back to the Edwardian era. I got it some 25 years ago for 10p in a Glasgow antiquarian bookshop. It makes fascinating reading, the greenhouses/glasshouses are amazing (as are the heating systems), and lovely illustrations of garden tools. Great fun to peruse, and very informative - best 10p I ever spent.

14 Aug, 2008


I would enjoy reading some quotes from very old gardening books.

If anyone such as David, Andrewr or Muddywellies has any really ancient gardening books, please give us some interesting examples of what was written back then. If you are all too busy at this time of year, please remember my request during the winter months when you might have more time to delve into old volumes. Thanks.

I'm quite new to this forum, but I'm finding it fun and full of useful information.

16 Aug, 2008

Add a comment

Recent posts by Muddywellies