Books Every Gardener Should Have

Books Every Gardener Should Have

  • By Fern Campbell
  • /
  • December 2020-Vol.6 No. 12
  • /

Yes, it’s that time of year, when normally thoughts turn to presents, and your to-do list no longer fits on a small sticky note.  Never fear, books are here!  This year in particular, when we will not be able to do our usual entertaining and holiday parties because of COVID-19, you actually have even more reason to “gift” books. We may all have more time to read. 

As gardeners, we have favorite “go to” books that provide gardening wisdom and inspiration, some old, some new.  I think of a great book as a mentor.  It is impossible to write about all of them, but here are my top dozen picks.  

For the vegetable gardener in Central Virginia, I highly recommend The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, by Ira Wallace of Southern Seed Exchange in Louisa.  Ira has much to say about the various geographic areas in the southeastern U.S. with regard to growing season profiles, weather, and the timing of seasonal changes in plants (known as phenology) due to climate change and erratic weather. 

The Gardening 101 and Garden Planning sections include many helpful tips on site location, planting systems, soil tests, compost, mulching, what to direct sow or transplant, the importance of rotating crops, and the use of cover crops.  Ira notes that “gardening is a year-round activity in our region” and provides a month-by-month section listing the possibilities and to-do tasks.  There is also a Skill Set panel for each month that goes beyond the basics, covering topics such as how to conduct a home seed germination test, how to build a low tunnel for frost protection, how to make compost, and how to save seeds.

The third section has planting and harvesting charts for the upper vs. lower South, followed by an A-to-Z list of edibles, covering 38 different vegetables.  Each crop has one page of information, divided into growing, harvesting, varieties, and seed saving details. 

The book concludes with a great list of Resources, including seed and plant suppliers, community resources, weather and climate, tools and supplies, as well as more good books.  The glossary demystifies any terms that you may not understand.  This book is a must-have for both the new and experienced gardener and is particularly helpful for those folks new to the Southeast.   As mentioned above, Ira Wallace is a worker/owner with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and their website, www.southernexposure.comoffers lots of great information, including photos of vegetable crops in action. 

In this year of COVID-19, many households are interested in growing more of their own food.  Another good read for beginning gardeners who care about the climate is Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Victory Gardening by Acadia Tucker (Stone Pier Press, 2019).The author encourages us to grow our own climate victory garden, to do our part to mitigate climate change, and to help the land absorb more carbon dioxide — “all while growing nutritious food.”  Using climate science, Tucker focuses on building carbon-rich soil and provides a wealth of guidance on “regenerative” gardening and growing your own organic food. Along the way she offers practical advice on starting a garden, preparing the soil, making compost, mulching, and much more. She invites us all to think of gardening as a civic action; she maintains that  if more of us are committed to growing our own food and doing it in a way that is good for the environment, then we are all helping to address some of the effects of climate change and to promote food resilience.  Tucker has a new book that will be available in early 2021: Tiny Victory Gardens:  Growing Good Food Without A Yard.  This book will profile 21 crops that are easy to grow in containers and describes some of her practices for growing and managing crops in very small spaces (square inches rather than square feet).


Today, perhaps more than ever, societal concerns and ecological considerations about pesticide use have become increasingly important in shaping pest control practices and management decisions. To learn more, check out this article in The Garden Shed on Integrated Pest ManagementEvery gardener and landscaper needs to have a good IPM resource guide. I recommend the following guides that I use regularly:

This is a great resource for quickly researching and identifying more than 145 insect and mite pests on woody plants. This introduction to the Integrated Pest Management principles guides you with recommendations for developing your own program. Learning to identify the various stages of an insect and their life cycle is key. This book includes a pest monitoring timetable, their preferred host plants, an explanation of biological control, and tips for selecting pesticides compatible with integrated pest management practices.   

This guide is designed to help vegetable growers manage insect pests based on sound integrated pest management principles. It was developed to help gardeners identify, monitor, and control insects found on vegetables.  One section is devoted to “Vegetable Crop Families and Their Common Pests.”  Another section has A-to-Z pest fact sheets that provides helpful information on the preferred host crop for each pest, damage potential, signs and symptoms, identification, life cycle, monitoring and management strategies, thresholds and control options.  This guide is loaded with color photos, which will help you develop your pest-identifying skills.   Also included are fact sheets on the common beneficial insects which help control destructive insects. The last section of this guide includes a control timing calendar to highlight the best window of time for controlling a particular pest. 

As a gardener trying to utilize a good IPM program by regularly observing and quickly identifying insects, I use it as my starter “field guide.” This small portable book has laminated card stock, so if I get it dirty in the garden, it washes off easily.  With color photographs covering 24 destructive pests and 14 powerful beneficial insects, it provides quick access to methods to control the pests and promote the predators with only organic products. It gives information on live biological controls and preventive actions. It certainly is not as comprehensive as the other two guides listed above but is certainly a great teaching tool for the beginner or a curious youngster. 

These books will surely convince you to develop a scouting program and become familiar with the IPM practices needed to preserve beneficial insects and promote a more balanced ecosystem. Another great resource is our Virginia Cooperative Extension’s online Pest Management Guide, which is updated every year. 

When reading about IPM and cultural practices, you learn that weeds can serve as alternate hosts for insects and mite pests, as well as for plant-disease-causing organisms.  This reminds me of another favorite and regularly used book, Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso (Cornell University Press).  This user-friendly book identifies 299 common weeds important to the region from southeast Canada to Virginia and west to Wisconsin. Illustrations show vegetative rather than floral characteristics, allowing identification of the weed before it flowers. Sharp color photos show each plant in seed, seedling and mature stages. Each page gives the common and scientific names, general description, propagation/phenology, roots and underground structures, flower and fruit, habitat, distribution, and notes species that look similar. Thorough and well-designed, it is a great reference guide and deserves a place in your library.  If I find a new weed, I bring it into the house in a paper towel, and later in the evening, I grab this book (and my glass of wine) and try to identify it so I know how best to manage it. 

Managing weeds can be a full-time job, which brings me to another one of my favorite books:  How To Eradicate Invasive Plants, by Teri Dunn Chace (Timber Press).  This book will help you identify over 200 invasive plants of all kinds that can “out-compete” our native plants and threaten our biodiversity.  The first two chapters give a broad introduction to invasive plants and general information on controls. The remaining part of the book is divided into sections according to plant type: vines, trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. Each section is organized alphabetically, using the plants’ scientific and common names, including good photos.  I love that each “fact” page describes the origin of the plant, reproduction, specific problems and noninvasive alternatives.  The author offers chemical as well as less toxic controls.  It is an easy-to-use resource that gardeners will find helpful in identifying your invasive plants. 

After reading about invasive plants, which choke out our native plants, you’ll be inspired to read more about the role of native plants.  I’d suggest some fairly new books that are great resources to help turn our home landscapes into healthy habitats for pollinators and wildlife while preserving our local ecosystems and promoting biodiversity. Doug Tallamy’s latest book, Natures Best Hope:  A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), is essential for anyone interested in increasing biodiversity in our landscapes.  Tallamy addresses the issue of habitat fragmentation and decline in wildlife species.  This is a fascinating read on the ecological interaction between plants, wildlife, and the food web. The author provides a compelling argument for the use of native plants in gardens and landscapes as a means to build ecologically-enriched landscapes and to sustain local biodiversity. He explains why exotic plants can hinder and confuse native creatures.  The concept Tallamy calls the “Homegrown National Park” is one that can be created by each of us in our own backyards.  He calls for us to shrink our lawns and plant more “keystone” plants — those which form the backbone of local ecosystems by producing food that feeds insects.  Examples include oak, cherry, willow, birch, cottonwood, and elm trees, along with goldenrods, asters, and sunflowers. This is an inspirational and motivating book that everyone should read and gift to friends!  

A great read and resource on native plants for our area is The Southeast Native Plant Primer:  225 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross (Timber Press). These authors provide lots of general information on how to select and use native plants which will help provide the basic habitat needs for a variety of species if we plant the right plant in the right place.  This book is divided into seven chapters: grasses, wildflowers, vines, sun-loving perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Each chapter introduces a plant group followed by individual native plant profiles, including the typical habitat, season of interest, and size at maturity.  At a glance, I can quickly see that the sensitive fern is not going to be happy in dry shade as it likes moisture. The book is filled with beautiful photos.  This is a must-have book and makes a great useful gift!


The Pollinator Victory Garden by Kim Eierman (Quarto Books) is an excellent resource to help turn your landscape into a pollinator-friendly habitat.  We know pollinators are critical to our food supply and are in decline.  Victory Gardens from WWII were planted to save money and help feed the country; this book urges folks to plant gardens to help save the pollinators. It will help you to create a pollinator haven by establishing habitat that includes food, larval hosts, and places for laying eggs, nesting and sheltering overwinter. You will also find ideas for pollinator islands, enriched landscape edges, revamped foundation planting, meadowscapes and more. There are lots of lists of what to plant and which pollinators benefit, plus great color photos.  This book teaches us how every yard, patio, porch, rooftop, community garden, commercial site, and municipal landscape can help reverse pollinator decline by selecting plants for our geographical region that bloom throughout the year. It is all about the process and importance of eco-friendly gardening for pollinators!


The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting and Pruning Techniques by Tracy DiSabato-Aust 2017 (Timber Press) is another information-packed and inspiring book. This classic has has updated and expanded the 1998 original edition with 50 new plant entries.  The first third of this book addresses plants and garden design from a maintenance perspective.  What is the care and pruning need of these plants? Which cultivars are the best?  We all desire to grow dynamic, yet low-maintenance plants that are deer resistant and drought tolerant!  The author reviews these concerns and provides many sound horticulture practices, including pest and disease prevention.  The last two-thirds of this book is an encyclopedia of perennials with a brief description for each plant followed by pruning and other maintenance information.  At the end, there are numerous lists that can serve as a quick reference on many of the maintenance requirements. For example, which plants need to be divided every year or every 10 years?  You’ll easily find answers to this and other questions here.. 

 As a gardener and plant lover, I also want to make the case for houseplants.  Studies indicate that houseplants make us happier, purify the air, lift our moods, and can reduce our stress levels. We have every reason to fill our homes with wonderful, happiness-inducing plants of every shape, size, and color. Houseplants can be a part of your interior design and create a more pleasing atmosphere within your home. It is helpful to have a good resource book. 

The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual by Barbara Pleasant (Storey Publishing) provides, as its subtitle indicates,  “Essential Know-how for Keeping (Not Killing!) More Than 160 Indoor Plants”. The book meets the needs of both newbies and experienced houseplant growers.  The book is divided into three main parts – a directory for foliage houseplants, another for blooming houseplants, and a section on houseplant care.  Within each directory, groups of closely-related plants are discussed together, along with the whys and hows of caring for these plants. Part three of the book covers general information on houseplant care and will help you acquire the practical knowledge of how plants grow to change your brown thumb into a green one. 


I hope you will find this list of gardening books helpful for yourself and for “gifting” to your family and friends. These books can teach you everything you need to know to understand and master multiple gardening principles and techniques. You will enjoy growing all kinds of beautiful plants in both outdoor and indoor spaces.  Growing by trial and error is all well and good, but with these reference books, you can devote your time to creating a thriving, Earth-friendly garden instead. Enjoy!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.