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
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.
A GOOD OVERVIEW
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
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
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
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.