One key to a successful garden often goes uncredited: a bookshelf stocked with dependable references. They are where you go for a reminder on how much wood ash it is safe to scatter on the vegetable beds, or to make sure it's not too late to sow those expensive pansy or geranium seeds. The best gardening encyclopedias also offer some fine reading after the day's chores are done.
Surprisingly these books are rarely among the first gardeners obtain. They are often expensive, and many are short on color photos. But that is changing. Many major gardening encyclopedias have recently been updated, both in looks and information.
Compared to the dictionaries of plants used by botanists and horticulturists, gardening encyclopedias are written for gardeners. They not only name and describe plants, but tell how to grow them. They also encompass a wide range of gardening topics, not just plants.
Preparing for this article, I reviewed all the gardening encyclopedias available in America today. I didn't include one of my favorites, Thomas H. Everett's The New York Botanical Garden Encyclopedia of Horticulture (Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1981) because the complete ten volume set now costs more than $1,100. Wonderful as it is, I felt it was beyond (both in scope and cost) what most gardeners need. Here are seven books that cover most gardening subjects and cost less than $65.
Are any of the volumes here the only gardening book you'll ever need? -- almost surely not. In fact, almost by definition, a gardening encyclopedia that does its job well will lure you back for more, first to more gardening, and inevitably to more books. Happy hunting!
Four Classic Gardening Encyclopedias
These are books produced under the auspices of an institution, such as the New York Botanical Garden, and their chief editors are topflight horticulturists. They are all big books.
Most of them arrange entries by gardening topic, rather than alphabetically, as in a traditional encyclopedia. Separate chapters cover the major aspects of gardening (design, landscaping, tools, and so on) and plants (such as annuals, vegetables, roses, and shrubs). Read chapters and get a minicourse on a larger topic, or get a quick answer to a question by looking in the index.
- American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening, edited by Christopher Brickell (Dorling-Kindersley, 1993; 648 pages, $60).
This superb gardening encyclopedia is notable both for its depth and accuracy, and for the high quality photos and drawings. Most photos and illustrations, though small, are helpful not just decorative. There are generally four to six per page. Brickell, is the director of Britain's Royal Horticultural Society and many of the contributors come from the society's famous demonstration garden at Wisley. These are some of the world's most knowledgeable and skillful gardeners, and it shows. The book has been lightly Americanized under the auspices of the American Horticultural Society.
One of the most appealing things about this very modern work is that the frequent step-by-step photographs are so good you can spend hours studying them. For American audiences, the main weakness is the scant awareness of drought (again, drip irrigation is mentioned in only one sentence) or of the problems of extreme heat and cold. There is so much that is good here, however, that these topics are hardly missed. A companion encyclopedia on plants has the same format and price. But in this country (thanks to a quirk in publishing politics), it is sold by Macmillan, not Dorling-Kindersley, which produced both books.
- America's Garden Book, by Louise and James Bush-Brown, edited by Howard Irwin (Macmillan, 1996; 1,152 pages, $60).
Since its publication in 1939 this book has been hugely popular. It was written largely by Louise Bush-Brown, of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture, and her husband, a landscape architect, then completely revised and updated in by Howard S. Irwin of the New York Botanical Garden. Irwin has also overseen the latest edition. Despite the book's very different look (larger format, more modern page layout, and 1,000 color photos), new readers as well as those familiar with earlier editions will find this one easy to use. Plant varieties and product information have been updated, but most of the text and the organization are essentially unchanged. The copious tables and plant lists that made the book so popular are still there. It is a thorough and readable introduction to the entire field of gardening. The only thing I couldn't find was help on drip irrigation and related equipment.
- Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening, edited by Frances Tenenbaum (Houghton Mifflin, 1994; 612 pages, $60).
Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening, edited by Norman Taylor (botanist and curator at the New York Botanical Garden and later the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), was first published in 1936. The book became hugely popular, and Taylor updated it several times through 1961. This new book borrows some inspiration but contains 100 percent new material.
The strength of the Master Guide is the information on plants in the center of the book. It includes an extensive photo gallery (100 pages, four to six photos per page) with useful captions, followed by a 200-plus page encyclopedia of garden plants that is mostly text. These two sections cover a wide range of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, bulbs, and annuals, with good, up-to-date variety recommendations. The essays on garden styles and landscaping that open the book, however, are of uneven quality. Locked into a two- or four-page format, many lack the depth available in other encyclopedias. The entries on garden technique in the back of the book--a mere 50 pages--also lack depth. Several major gaps cause the book to fall short of its dust jacket promise, "The Complete One Volume Reference." There is scarcely a word in this entire book on houseplants, vegetables, or fruits, and very little on roses. The pocketbook Taylor Guides on those topics, however, are excellent, so these omissions are puzzling.
Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia by Donald Wyman (Macmillan, 1986; 1,221 pages, $65).
Donald Wyman was chief horticulturist at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum from 1936 until 1970, which put him at the heart of plant evaluation and introduction in this country. In 1971 he published his encyclopedia, which he updated twice, most recently 10 years ago. Of all the books listed here, his describes the most plants: more than 9,500 species. About 60 major essays treat various aspects of gardening. Though the essays are listed in a table of contents, the book has chapters. All entries are in alphabetical order; the cross-referencing is good, so an index isn't needed. A book like this is fun to browse: you look up a specific plant or technique but end up reading unexpected and interesting entries around it.
The book has an old-fashioned look compared to the others reviewed here. Its few photos and illustrations are all black and white, but the book is an excellent quick reference. The essays are thorough and accurate, almost always very good reading. It is probably time for a revision, however, to bring botanical names up to date and introduce some of the newest information on subjects such as tree pruning, biological controls, and new products like row covers.
Big Books From Major Magazines
Several general interest magazines have produced their own introductions to gardening. These books are attractive, useful, and relatively inexpensive. Although they cover the same general territory as the full-blown encyclopedias reviewed above, they are, of course, less comprehensive.
- Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Gardening(The Meredith Corporation, 1979; 551 pages, $30).
This book is organized into chapters on landscaping, trees, shrubs, vines, and so on. It provides a very helpful introduction to almost all aspects of gardening, with plenty of color pictures and good illustrations. The selection of plants is limited to only the most popular varieties. The major weakness is in garden techniques, which are given very brief treatment.
- Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening (Reader's Digest, 1978; 672 pages, $25).
Like the much larger American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening, this guide was originally produced in England and emphasizes garden techniques. Though a bit dated today, the book has aged well. The illustrations, almost always drawings, are attractive, accurate, and thorough. A reader will see clearly how to plant, pinch, pick, prune, or propagate all the most popular trees, roses, vegetables, and flowers. The plant lists are very good, too. The major weakness is the same one most Americanized British books share: little attention is paid to gardening conditions, such as drought or extremes of heat and cold, that are common here but rare in Britain. Most of the information focuses on plants; with little on working the soil or garden construction. These cautions aside, this book is an excellent introduction to gardening.
- Sunset Western Garden Book, by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset magazine, (Sunset Publishing, 1995; 624 pages, $30).
This newest edition of a book first published in 1954 and regularly revised is an up-to-date guide on the best plants and cultivated varieties. Though written for gardeners in the western U.S. and Canada, it is nevertheless useful for gardeners anywhere, especially those in USDA Hardiness Zones 8, 9, and 10, regions that get scant attention elsewhere. The book's strength is its detailed description of the myriad gardening zones in the West. This reference is something no Western gardener should be without. Coverage of gardening techniques, however, receives less space in the latest edition. This information is now confined to a "Practical Dictionary of Gardening" at the end. While significantly condensed, the brief entries are good and to the point.