BY Brenda Bolton, Mobile County Master Gardener / MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
Q: What are some recommendations for garden books I can suggest for my book club?
A: 2021 promises to be a good year to garden and to stay safer at home, reading a good gardening book. There is no dearth of data about gardening, from TV shows to blog posts to YouTube videos, and sometimes the overload is enough to make you want to just pour a glass of wine and let the garden have its way with you.
But if your book club insists a book with practical information is needed, buy extra wine, and remember rule one: A practical guide should be, well, practical. That means to avoid those gorgeous, full color, hefty editions packed with details about how to grow a beautiful garden … in Maine. Avoid any publication predating your favorite recliner. Unlike your recliner, science and trends change. Remember the now-invasive Bradford pear? And kudzu and cogon were once recommended for erosion.
Turn your club’s Zoom meeting into a gardening experience swap and look up what you did wrong in one of these good how-to guides: “Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” by Wallace; “Easy Gardens for the South” by Cotten, Crawford and Pleasant; “Alabama Gardener’s Guide” by Greer; “The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists” by Chaplin; “Gardening in the Humid South” by O’Rourke and Standifer; “Perennial Garden Color” by Welch; “Southern Plants for Landscape Design, 4th Edition” by Odenwald and Turner; “The Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Book” by Rushing and Reeves; “Alabama & Mississippi Gardener’s Guide” by Rushing and Greer; “The Grumpy Gardener A to Z Guide” by Bender; “Heirloom Gardening in the South” by Welch and Grant; and “The NEW Southern Living Garden Book.”
In the food-for-thought category, include the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist and Alabamian E.O. Wilson, whose 2016 book, “Half Earth,” written at age 86, is a treatise on the health of the natural world and what he thinks could save it. Wilson proposes that conditions are dire enough to call for a radical solution, and his book explains why and how.
Two books any book club would enjoy are “Second Nature” by Michael Pollan and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Both are year-in-the-life-of-a-gardener narratives that invite us to accompany the authors as they explore and model living a gardening life. Pollan is a gently humorous, honest and self-effacing gardener. Kingsolver does things with language that makes it soar while she teaches and inspires us. Both share their successes and failures as they return to the earth to produce food, find beauty and discover meaning.
One of my favorites is a well-researched book about the roots of horticulture and gardening in England and, more interestingly, the role 18th-century America played in those gardens. In “Brother Gardeners,” British writer Andrea Wulf traces a correspondence friendship between English merchant Peter Collinson and American Quaker and farmer John Bartram. We learn how Bartram shared the great plants of the New World with Collinson, leading to a national gardening obsession in England and democratizing the British garden. Enter the English Cottage Garden. Who knew most of those lovely plants I’ve admired on travels immigrated there from my own lush and beautiful Eden — America?
The last recommendation is a book reflecting a range of contemporary sustainability topics: food sovereignty and diversity, corporate seed ownership, air and water health and sovereignty, local food production and seed preservation. “The Seed Underground, A Growing Revolution to Save Food” by Janisse Ray, is a winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award. It is a collection of personal and authentic vignettes of Ray’s journey in the seed-saving revolution, and the seed savers’ stories she has come to know. Ray avoids polemic and writes, often lyrically and sometimes poetically, of the sacred role of the seed and what corporate seed control could mean about the food we eat.
Of a biodiversity crisis, she says: “Three crops account for 87 percent of all grain production and 43 percent of all food eaten anywhere — wheat, corn and rice.” And she then quotes E. O. Wilson: “The world’s food supply hangs by a slender thread of biodiversity.” Amid the stories of people and seeds, Ray manages to instruct us about plant propagation, seed saving, selective breeding and the corporate threat to our open-pollinated seeds. True to the spirit of her life, Ray ends with an optimistic “to-do” list.
I’ll leave that for your book club to digest.
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