our classic formative garden books, with ken druse

DO YOU REMEMBER your very earliest gardening books—the ones that transported you into the world of plants, whether that was last year or years ago? Or other books that have earned a permanent spot on your bookshelf as old trusted friends along the way? Ken Druse and I got to talking on the phone about our favorite formative volumes the other day, and decided we’d let you in on the conversation, too.

My regular alter ego, Ken Druse, needs no introduction, but he is of course the author of not a small number of gardening books himself, 20 at last count, including some I know changed the way I look at plants. He’s back today to take a stroll through our mutual garden bookshelves.

Plus: We’ll have a giveaway of a couple of favorites; enter to win in the comments box at the bottom of the page. Note that we checked that all of these books are available–often used–with a little Google searching for those that are out of print. With the ones I’ve given Amazon links for, there are used copies in all prices and conditions available, so dig deep.

Read along as you listen to the March 15, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

our formative classic garden books, with ken druse



Margaret: Hi, Ken, how are you?

Ken: Hi, I’m Margaret. I’m your alter ego?

Margaret: Yes, I think so. I’ve decided. Some days I’m you [laughter].

Ken: I thought that I was like Clark Kent and you’re Superperson or vice versa [laughter].

Margaret: Well maybe we should get a couple’s therapist and see what they have to say about that.

Ken: What’s your take on capes? No, books. Books.

Margaret: Books. So I think what we should do is have a giveaway of one of the books, but I don’t think we know yet until we chat, which one it’s going to be. So we’ll tell that with the transcript, but there will be a book giveaway of one of these goodies.

So, do you remember your first sort of gateway books into this world, where you and I have spent more decades than we may care to admit [laughter]?

Ken: I’ve been asked this question many times-

Margaret: Oh.

Ken: … and the first book that comes to mind is, I know, it’s probably the first book that comes to mind for you, too, because it’s seminal, and it’s “The Principles of Gardening,” by Hugh Johnson.

Margaret: Oh, yes, yes, yes. It’s a very unusual book.

Ken: Well, he mostly known as a wine author, writer, and blogger now, too, he’s still doing it. But this book contains mostly two-page color spreads on all sorts of aspects of gardening with short text, big captions and photos. The Dorling Kindersley books, kind of… this was the progenitor in some ways. But there’s photos and drawings and paintings from history of gardening to greenhouses, to wind and rain, to gardens around the world, to landscape history, to plant families and names, to alpines and hedges.

It’s just everything—perennials, trees, color design, and they’re all in these bites that are two to four pages, and it’s a turn-on, but it’s also… Well, he has history on landscape architecture and William Kent. You just learn so much, but it’s so easy to digest, and someone like me who likes non-fiction and doesn’t read so well, it’s perfect.

Margaret: The book is so different from the table of contents of a first gardening book that you would expect. So it doesn’t have like perennials. I mean, it does have perennials, but it doesn’t have… or chapters like spring, fall, summer, winter, it’s not traditional in its organization. But you’re just transported into all of these different, as you said, these different ways of looking at and connecting really to the garden—through the weather. And so it’s not like sections like spinach—how to grow spinach, or how to grow tomatoes. Do you know what I mean?

And it’s like historical examples of different cultures in history, how they’ve related to the garden. And I mean, it’s really, it’s a must. I think it first came out in ’79 and then was revised in ’96 or ’97, so there’s old copies out there, but it’s a must. It goes on both our lists, right?

Ken: Well, I don’t know about your list, but definitely. It probably does.

Margaret: So that was one of your early, early books that you-

Ken: Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think quite a different kind of book, in a more traditional structure and so forth, that would be right around the same time, maybe a couple of years earlier, was James Underwood Crockett’s “Crockett’s Victory Garden.” And we’ve talked about that probably in the past. I mentioned it a lot, because it was my first how-to book. But it’s outdated because things are different now, chemicals that he used and so forth, we wouldn’t do a lot of those things. But the idea of looking at the garden through all the seasons is still very important. And so, it was sort of the companion to the PBS series that he did and so forth. Yeah.

Ken: When gardening was actually on television.

Margaret: Yes. Remember, remember? So what else was early for you in the formative, Ken Druse’s formative-

Ken: I think in the earliest days I was into indoor gardening when that was… and it’s back, and now people are doing that again. But yeah, I started indoors, in an apartment. And I think one of the earliest books, the first books, was “Garden in Your House,” by Ernesta Drinker Ballard. It’s a black-and-white book with photos by her husband, Fred, and it’s arranged in exposures. So, there’s plants for north-, east-, west-, and south-facing windows.

Margaret: Oh.

Ken: And I really… I just read it, and re-read it, and re-read it. And that reminds me of kind of a plant porn book, “Exotic Plant Manual” by Alfred Byrd Graf, which is a reference book. Do you know that book?

Margaret: I have seen the book. I don’t own the book. I don’t own either of those book two books actually. Huh.

Ken: I would spend hours with the black and white “Exotic Plant Manual.” I don’t know, it weighs about 4 pounds. And I just would look at the plants and look at the plants. The plants for greenhouses, windows, and warm climates outdoors, and how to grow them, and some description of what they’re like. And then a small version came out of that. And then a big version came out called “Exotica,” and then a big version in color came out called “Tropica.” But “The Exotic Plant Manual” is… I don’t know how I could do it. I would look at that for, really, actually, hours over and over, and learning so much.

Margaret: Interesting because the “Exotica” and “Tropica,” the later sort of iterations, I have both of those, but I don’t think I have the original. Yeah. And it is, it’s really… Well, and I think those titles… I think, actually, the title “Exotica” really describes that sort of genre of book. It’s perfect for those books right, because it is… It’s like you’re saying, you’re like transported and you couldn’t close the original one.

It’s like you said, you just kept looking and looking at all these exotic creatures and wanting to learn more about them and where they came from and so on and so forth.

Early on, I got some house houseplant books, too, and I still have it on my shelves, especially Thalassa Cruso. She was British-born, but lived in the U.S. and I think she… didn’t she make that… yeah, it was a public TV show for WGBH in Boston. She had a show, “Making Things Grow,” and don’t… wasn’t she on like Johnny Carson or something? Did I make that up?

Ken: She was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. I didn’t see those originally, and I’ll bet you can still find them on YouTube. I wouldn’t be surprised, because they were kind of funny. And it was like the cooking things where she would try to do something and he’d be making faces in the background, but she was a very good sport. And that book… She would have sort of projects, so it would be indoor plants, but it would be: how to make an indoor plant tower.

Margaret: Right, right, right, right. Aspirational [laughter]. Yeah. That was… I bet hers was one of my first… Crockett had an indoor garden, I think it was just called like “Crockett’s Indoor Garden” or something like that book too. But Thalassa Cruso’s would have been one of my others, and early-earlies.

My earliest books, when I started thinking about making a garden outdoors, not just having houseplants, were kind of like hippie dreams and back-to-the-land focused, and they weren’t horticulture exactly. And I still have my copies of these, which were vintage even at the time, what was it called—”Five Acres and Independence,” which was a 1940 book by someone named M.G. Kain. And it was, again, a back-to-the-land Bible, and then Helen and Scott Nearing’s in the 1950s-

Ken: Oh, wow.

Margaret: ... they wrote “Living the Good Life.” They were in Vermont and then eventually to Maine, and they were an inspiration for so many people that I’ve met over the years, including Eliot Coleman, the great organic farmer and inspiration to an entire generation, since they inspired him. So the Good Life series of books, especially “Living the Good Life,” I don’t know. I just, I wanted to learn to can and put up my food and grow my own, and it just, again, it was like aspirational in a way.

And I guess that’s why… that’s what led me not to have a garden in the city where I grew up. or even on Long Island at the beach front or whatever, but to come to a rural place. I think it was really those books that directed me north into the Hudson Valley/Berkshires area—you know what I mean?—into a rural setting were books like those. And then, of course, Ruth Stout. Did you ever read any Ruth Stout books? Speaking of the 1950s?

Ken: Yeah. When you’re saying that, I always think of the bales of hay, when you say-

Margaret: [Laughter.] I know. I know. What she would call “mulch gardening,” meaning throw it all down on the ground, like piling… I mean, I think they ended up calling that recently, like lasagna gardening, and in farming, they call it sheet mulching sometimes. But she just would pile stuff up to suppress the weeds and tease it back, and plant in between it. And yeah, I mean…

And the thing about that and about the sort of hippier books, is they hold up because, again, the chemical thing, they never used chemicals. It was sort of organic gardening before we’ve talked about it exactly that way. And so, whereas some of, as I said before, the Crocket stuff and so forth, it feels a little wrong, because it’s a lot of times about a chemical intervention.

So these more natural, sustainable, etc. books kind of hold up technically, even though they’re funky and funny, and obviously, from another period. Again, they were even vintage when I read them or you read them. But, yeah, Ruth Stout, definitely had… Her books were like “How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back,” I think that was one title and “Gardening without Work.” And she gardened in Connecticut, and anyway, she was born in Kansas, she gardened in Connecticut. But she’s definitely was a pioneer of… I don’t know, I just loved her. I love her. So I could still read those books.

Ken: Well, those books, which are kind of general advice, the thing about these old books that bugs me is that the plant names have all changed so much.

Margaret: I know.

Ken: It’s frustrating. Not that we can’t figure it out, but that’s one thing about old books. Right?

Margaret: Right. Right. Right. And I next dipped into a British phase, because I think when you and I were really starting to garden keenly and became garden writers around that time, we Americans all looked to the British for our inspiration. It was… Do you know what I mean? They were/are, I mean, they were those that you look to for inspiration, leave it at that.

Ken: Well, they just had been doing it a whole lot longer.

Margaret: Right, right.

Ken: And there were a whole lot more, and they have so much more forgiving weather, and great soil, and the temperature’s just wonderful, and long hours of daylight in the summer. So it’s not really fair, but just like everything, when you say a house is old here, it’s like 1840. And when you say a house is old there, it’s like 1610 or something [laughter]. They’ve just been doing all that stuff so much longer.

Margaret: Right. So we mentioned Hugh Johnson, we mentioned his “Principles of Gardening” already. Yeah.

Ken: Oh yeah. I don’t even think of that in that same group, but yes.

Margaret: No, no. I know, but I’m just saying, I was just going to bring up the idea of British… books from people from the U.K. And in preparing to talk to you today, I found that at 81, he’s still blogging. He has Trad’s Diary dot com, derived from Tradescant, or like Tradescantia the plant. And so he’s definitely one, but many others. I mean, obviously early on, I read vintage books by Gertrude Jekyll and so on and so forth. William Robinson, who’s Irish, not English, but William Robinson. Yes?

Ken: William Robinson, well, he did a book that was very popular called “The English Flower Garden,” I believe, but I had a book called “The Wild Garden”-

Margaret: Yes.

Ken Druse: … by him before that. And when we hear the word wild, we think native, but wild, in this case, is naturalistic, and he encouraged naturalizing plants. But he would show fields of daffodils and there is one native daffodil to Great Britain, so it’s different. But that book was… Just that whole style, just think how that influenced American gardening, even to this minute.

Margaret: Yes. And “The Wild Garden,” it’s credited with leading to the popularizing of the style of cottage gardening, looser, not the formal within parterres of boxwood, putting your flowering plants inside the rigid… it was like getting away from that. And he was a big critic of that formality, really.

Ken: Yeah, it’s a backlash.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. And so by loosening it up, then the cottage garden style, I believe, became more popular.

Ken: People don’t even know what bedding is now. You say bedding out-

Margaret: Bedding schemes.

Ken: … or carpet bedding, people don’t… Americans don’t know what that is.

Margaret: Right. So that sort of formal stretches of color within usually sort of geometric-shaped, again, like boxwood and so forth parterres and yeah, yeah.

Ken: Mostly annuals, too.

Margaret: Yes. Lots and lots of color.

Ken: That’s a really long story, because Great Britain colonized all these places that had annuals, and then they could make greenhouses inexpensively for the middle class. It’s a big, long story, and then William Robinson said, “To heck with this.”

Margaret: Right. Loosen it up, baby.

Ken: I want to see the woods, right?

Margaret: Loosen it up. Right. Right. And he was very influential in garden writing, garden journalism, not just his own writing, but he started “The Garden” magazine and “Gardening Illustrated” and other… He founded a couple of gardening magazines, etc., so he was… I mean, I highly recommend “The Wild Garden” as a book to read.

And when he… With his success, he ended up buying Gravetye Manor, which was another English home of note, and so forth. So lots to learn, I think, even now from his books. I think that The Wild Garden, I think it was written in like 1870 when he was in his 30s or something, so it’s an oldie.

What about Margery Fish? Did you read any of her books?

Ken: Well, I was going to just say that Gertrude Jekyll was his disciple.

Margaret: Oh, was Robinson’s, right.

Ken: She wrote for his magazines and her books, like “Wood and Garden,” her books were enormously popular and she was, still incredibly popular. But anyway, she worshiped at his feet until they probably had a fight over some sentence or two [laughter]. Sorry. Now, where were you going?

Margaret: I was just going to say, did you ever read any books by Margery Fish, a bit more contemporary?

Ken: Yes. And I think I had her “Gardening in the Shade” book. I remember… Reading her was… they say these things like having a friend in the garden?

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: It’s really like having a friend in the garden.

Margaret: Yes. Yes. She, Margery Fish—so the book of hers that I love and recommend, and I think it was reissued maybe 2002 or something, I think as recently as that. It’s this tiny little book and it’s called, “We Made a Garden.” And apparently her working title, which I love this, was “Gardening with Walter,” Walter being her husband. And basically it’s like, between the plantsmanship and the inspiration that you get from reading it, but also the, “You’re not putting that over here.” “Yes, I am.” “No, you’re not.”

Ken: [Laughter.]

Margaret: You know what I mean? But her publisher said, “I’m sorry, nobody will buy a book called ‘Gardening with Walter.’” So they called it “We Made a Garden.”

Ken: Oh, I think that’s a better title, actually. Not as funny.

Margaret: I know, but anyway. But Margery Fish, I love her. And maybe that’s one of the ones we should give away, because it is, again, it’s been reissued, and it’s out and so forth. Any others you want to share?

Ken: You’re mentioning a husband-and-wife team, and that makes me think of, when I lived in Rhode Island. But I had a book that was, everybody had this book, “America’s Garden Book: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Plan, Design, and Grow your Garden,” by Louise and James Bush-Brown, people call it Bush-Brown.

Margaret: They call it Bush-Brown. Yes.

Ken: And that was a general book on just about everything, in black and white, my copy was black and white; I don’t know if it’s been reissued with color. But it had hedges, paths, things like that in a very digestible way and very thorough. But they were from Providence. But I used to walk by where they used to live.

Margaret: Huh? I bet you read “Green Thoughts” by Eleanor Perenyi.

Ken: It’s funny. I’ve just was talking to someone about that book, and I can’t remember who it was, but we both agreed that it was the right book at that time [laughter].

Margaret: I think it was like ’80-ish or ’81, or is that right? Something around there.

Ken: Is it really that long ago. Huh?

Margaret: Yeah, I think so. I think it was ’81. And it’s just 72 little essays, some of them are half a page, some of them are two pages long, strung together alphabetically, you know what I mean? So it could be, T is for trowel and P is for petunia, whatever. It’s just… Those are not necessarily two of them, but it’s idiosyncratic, it’s not linear.

Ken: I’m sure P was for peony [laughter].

Margaret: Maybe. Yeah, it was called “Green Thoughts” from Eleanor Perenyi. That’s another one that’s been reissued repeatedly. But the cultural stuff doesn’t hold up, for me, because again, the recommended ways of feeding plants and dealing with pests and so forth, seems so out of date, or they are so out of date.

Ken: Yeah. Well, you’re right. [Laughter.]

Margaret: So any others in the last few minutes that you want to share, that you are keeping on the shelf?

Ken: Keeping on the shelf. Why do I have “Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia”?

Margaret: Me, too, honey. I have it, too. And it’s a one-volume… It looks like a thick dictionary, kind of a book, and that’s what it is like it’s alphabetical, isn’t it? You can look up each entry, pruning or whatever, or a Latin name of a plant.

Ken: And I have “Hortus Third,” which I haven’t touched for years, and probably all the names are wrong in that, but we used to go to that for plant names.

Margaret: Right. And now you go to… I go to theplantlist.org, which is the multiple botanical institutions around the world, collaborating on the latest Latin taxonomic correctness. And what’s named what, and what’s a synonym of what. So, now I do it online. I don’t even have a book for it.

Ken: You were talking about the Thalassa Cruso, and I was thinking she was like the Julia Child of indoor gardening [laughter].

Margaret: That’s well-put. Yes, yes, yes.

Ken:  Later I would say on my reference list would be Michael Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Plants,” which is an enormously popular book. [More recent from Dirr: “Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.”]

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: Lucky him, right?

Margaret: Yes. And it’s been updated and so on and so forth, and yeah. Yeah. But that’s a… it’s a reference book. It’s not a read from page one to page whatever, it’s a reference book; I use it as a reference book.

Ken: Although you could read it from page to page, and it has so much in it. And it seems to be every student, even kids who go to school for landscaping, they get that book.

Margaret: Yeah. So do you have one more that you want to tell us before we bid adieu?

Ken: Well, I guess in a way, I might say “Noah’s Garden” by Sarah Stein, which is-

Margaret: Oh, wow, yes.

Ken: … also many years later, but that really changed a lot of things.

Margaret: Speaking of loosening us up and making us look differently at… yeah, so speaking of wilder [laughter].

Ken: Right. Well, she wrote a book called “My Weeds,” I think. And then she got religion and she realized that, wait a minute, I don’t want to just let everything grow that wants to grow. I want to make it local and indigenous and native, and she did. And that got… That was revolutionary. That’s when the habitat garden [Ken’s book “The Natural Habitat Garden” that he and Margaret worked on together] came out.

Margaret: Correct. Yeah.

Ken: And we were promoting native plants-

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: … and now that’s not even outrageous.

Margaret: No, no. Well, Ken Druse, we’ve used up another segment. It’s good—I’m going to go dig through my book bookcase and put some on the bedside table. So thank you for reminding me of some of these, because some of them like Margery Fish are going to get another read. So thank you. And I’ll talk to you soon. O.K.?

Ken: O.K., great. Thank you.

enter to win ‘we made a garden’ or ‘green thoughts’

I’LL BUY COPIES of Margery Fish’s “We Made a Garden” and Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts” for two lucky winners. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:

What book influenced you early on in your gardening (whenever that was, long ago or recently)?

No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Good luck to all!

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 15, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNERS ARE: Jodi Denbrok and Elle. Thank you all for your enthusiasm, and all the book suggestions for everyone to enjoy.

  2. Laura Mogg says:

    My recent go-to gardening book is “the new organic garden” by Eliot Coleman. I grow food for two, and I love the varieties of vegetables he suggests, and have tried the “soil block” method of plant starts after reading about it in this book. Terrific! Really improved my success as a gardener. Thanks for your show and book suggestions. Laura Mogg.

  3. Mary Whitehead says:

    My first gardening book was about a splendid, erratic but controlled, garden in Maine, and the book was a reprint of an old book. (I am painting my living room right now, so all of my books, gardening and otherwise, are stored in boxes, so I cannot give the name and author) There was such a symbiotic relationship between the earth, the plants and the sky, and it took my breath away. <My reaction was, "WOW! This is really the garden of my dreams !!"

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