Well-worn Volumes Tell Gardening Histories


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Whether you’re trying to determine the history of your own backyard garden or working on a historic planting for a museum or living history farm, you need facts.

Old and new books can be a big help in finding the answers. Some do their jobs so well they become worn from use, while others just sit on the shelf.

Part of the fascination people feel for historic gardening is in tracing the stories of gardens and plants, and the people who tended them in olden times. No single book tells the whole story, but following are a few reliable standbys that can be of service and are easily purchased or accessed through public libraries or the Internet.

Not mentioned here are many books on plant hunters, garden designers, gardening styles and individual flowers, but these books do exist. Many are traced easily in the card catalog of a good public library or through the flower societies, which have standard references they recommend to members and other inquirers.


Ann Leighton’s trilogy is the best for a nicely detailed overview of garden history of the United States. She begins in colonial times and works her way through the 19th century. The three volumes, in chronological order, are Early American Gardens, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century and American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century. Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, they’re available in paperback for about $20 each.


Some early horticultural works already have been reprinted, and more are coming out all the time, so watch for them in your local bookstores as well as in gardening periodicals and on the Internet.

Among my favorites are The Flower Garden by Joseph Breck, first published in 1851 by J.P. Jewett and reprinted in 1988 by Opus Publications, and Field and Garden Vegetables of America by Fearing Burr, first published in 1863 and republished in 1994 by the American Botanist Booksellers.

Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden, first published in 1894 and reprinted in 1995 by Houghton Mifflin, couches flower gardening in the prettiest prose you’ll ever read. And Louise Beebe Wilder’s books, especially The Fragrant Path, can’t be beat for wise direction on the loveliest and most scented old-time garden plants.

More recently Vita Sackville-West’s volumes of chatty newspaper columns have been reprinted in a lovely set that even includes her long poems The Garden and The Land. This is an English effort by Oxenwood Press, and the main books are In Your Garden, In Your Garden Again and Even More for Your Garden.

Among the English herbals, Maude Grieve’s indispensable two-volume A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931, is widely available from Dover Books.


Lastly, the ephemera of our own communities and regions. Plant lists, catalogs, letters, diaries and garden or farm magazines are mostly what turn up, especially west of what was colonial America. Look for these in your local museums and libraries, and any time you’re in an antique store, anywhere. Finding them is not only useful, it’s a lot of fun.

Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens at her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.