In praise of older garden books

Jodi DeLong

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Well-used — and loved — vintage gardening books. (Photo by Jodi DeLong)
Well-used — and loved — vintage gardening books. (Photo by Jodi DeLong)
Well-used — and loved — vintage gardening books. (Photo by Jodi DeLong)

Like most gardening addicts, I have a deep and abiding love — some might call it an obsession — for garden and plant books. I have so many bookcases full of books in my home, my décor style could be called Garden Book Eclectic. True, there are other books on some shelves — Canadian literature and science fiction, for example — but mostly there are books on everything from amaryllis to zucchini. Can one ever have too many books? I don’t think so.

Two of the first books on plants that I can remember purchasing still hang out in my library: Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and A Field Guide in Colour to Wild Flowers, by Dietmar Aichele with illustrations by Marianne Golte-Bechtie. I still turn to Aichele’s book because the illustrations are fabulous, although normally when keying out a wild plant from here in my province I use The Flora of Nova Scotia, by A.E. Robison and E.C. Smith, or the updated version, Roland’s Flora, edited by Marian Zinck.

Have I read all the hundreds of gardening and plant books in my library from cover to cover? No. But there are a good number that I have read and reread, and turn to time and again for inspiration and information. These include books by specific authors — Christopher Lloyd, Sarah Raven, Nancy Ondra, Allan Armitage, to name a few. Others are reference books that I pull selected information from, such as Michael Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, or Marjorie Harris’s Botanica North America, as well as the above-mentioned native flora books.

In the course of my work as a garden communicator, I do request some books from publishers for review, and am automatically sent the occasional volume as well. I don’t keep all of the books I’ve received this way; I donate some to garden clubs where I give presentations, and they can either raffle the books off or keep them in their library.

Although I’m always excited to see new books being published, some of my favourite and most cherished volumes are my old gardening books. I have a 1932 copy of Louise Beebe Wilder’s My Garden, with the name “Myrna Jones, Chevy Chase, Maryland” inscribed in the frontispiece. I have several books by the noted (and some would say notorious for his political leanings) Canadian garden writer, Roscoe A. Fillmore, who lived and ran a garden centre here in the Annapolis Valley for many years.

Two treasured editions of Wildflowers of Canada with colour plates. (Photo by Jodi DeLong)
Two treasured editions of Wildflowers of Canada with colour plates. (Photo by Jodi DeLong)

Perhaps the most cherished book in my library is one that’s falling apart and worthless in the eyes of book collectors, but is priceless to me. Years ago, I picked up Algrove Publishing’s (a division of Lee Valley) classic reprint of The Wildflowers of Canada, which is a series of colour plates of wildflowers that had run in the Montreal Star over several months somewhere around 1895. A few years ago, I was out in my garden when a car pulled in and an elderly couple got out. They had purchased my grandmother’s home in Berwick, N.S., in the late 1960s, and I had visited them and the house in the late 1990s. The day of their visit, knowing I was a gardener and writer, they brought me a book they had found in the attic of the house — an original hardbound copy of The Wildflowers of Canada. Its cover was broken away from the rest of the book and held together with tape, but otherwise it appeared to have all its pages. The couple wanted me to have the book.

Like I said, perhaps worthless to serious book collectors. But priceless to me.

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1 thought on “In praise of older garden books”

  1. Oh my! My name is also Jody, and I am also addicted to old gardening books! Just looking at your photo makes me smile. I remember reading an old book, written by the author describing the making of a garden…Not sure if it was Mrs. Whaley & her Charleston Garden..written in the 1940’s, or Down the Garden Path, by Beverley Nichols in 1932…(Or the Garden Letters or Tottering in My Garden)….anyway the point being the author kept describing her “bible” for gardening, a book called “The Complete Book of Garden Magic”, by Roy E. Biles, and how she got her advice and knowledge from it. So naturally I couldn’t rest until I found that book…every old bookstore I went in I searched the gardening section. A few years ago I scored it in Huntsville, Ontario. Oh my it was a dream come true! It was published in Chicago in 1935 and 40, so that is why I think the origninal book was Mrs. Whaley…..So…there really is some interesting old reading to be done! I too have a few bookcases dedicated just to old gardening books! I was scanning to see if I had any matches to yours. I love the old artwork and lithos…and the covers! I have mine in a bookcase, and they are surrounded by pixie and fairy figurines I collect as well. Happy collecting! Thanks for the article! Jody


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