As you might imagine, after 25 years in this industry my bookshelf is jammed full of horticulture books. I can’t begin to list them but skip a little further down this article and you’ll find my Top 4 picks for this season. Yes, of all the books on my shelf, my 40th Anniversary copy of “Sunset’s Western Garden Book” continues to be a fabulous reference guide even as I peel apart the stuck together pages and read between the circles left behind by my coffee cup.
But, when we are talking about books specifically for organic and sustainable gardeners, 4 books rise to the top and continue to pull me back in and offer new ways of seeing things that I may not have noticed before. Maybe these books keep drawing me in because I continue to push the envelope on organic and sustainable practices or maybe they are the books of our future. Whatever the draw, I find them fascinating almost to the point that my daughter finds Harry Potter books fascinating… Now that’s big!
But before we begin with the Top 4, the 1 book that changed my entire way of thinking about the Earth as a living organism and is required reading for all my employees is, the “Soil Biology Primer,” by Elaine Ingham. A short book of only 48 pages it was first published in 2000 and clearly describes all the characters found in the soil and their role in creating healthy soil structures. I don’t read it myself anymore maybe because I have the book memorized but probably more so because the next book on the list (#1) is a much more in depth look at these 48 pages. BUT, if you want a summary of what is happening in our soils, something that won’t overburden you, read this book.
Book #1: We begin the list with my #1 pick of books to read in 2014, “Teaming with Microbes,” the 2010 book by Jeff Lowenfels. OMG… Talk about taking a ride into the living world under our feet! This book is sick. It’s a bomb. Or as my un-hip-dad-self would say, it is awesome! It takes the 48 pages of “The Soil Biology Primer,” adds 10 years of additional field and laboratory experience, and explains why life on earth really depends on the life in the soil. Once you have read this book you will never look at a hand full of soil the same way again.
Book #2: Yes, Jeff Lowenfels stays at the top, this time with a 2013 release, “Teaming with Nutrients.” Playing off “Teaming with Microbes,” this book goes into the complex and ultra-fascinating world of biology, chemistry and botany explaining how nutrients get to the plants, get into the plants, and what they do once they are in there. Yes, there are illustrations of cells and photos of proteins and such but this is an easily digested book where you do not need a college-level degree in science to understand it. For the first time I actually understand Cation Exchange Capacity. Sure I’ve known the principle for years but now it is real. Yes, this book is not for your average gardener but then again, maybe it could be.
Book #3: We need to step way back to 1993 with a book by Sara Stein, “Noah’s Garden.” Quite the change from the previous 2 books this one talks about restoring the ecology of our own backyards. In some ways, it may have been a motivating book to the more recent writers like Ingham and Lowenfels. This book came to me only recently from a landscape designer where it was required reading in her horticulture school. It is as relevant today as it was in 1993. In some ways, it may be more important today because we are finally talking about what some people like Sara Stein envisioned back in the early 1990’s.
I won’t use this space to reprint parts of her book but pick up a copy and flip to page 43 and read why ecosystem services like waste disposal, water purification, pest suppression and plant pollination depend on biodiversity and all human attempts to substitute large-scale inorganic solutions have failed (hello neonicotinoids and GMOs). This would be a good book to read in your quiet time.
Book #4: “Gaia’s Garden,” by Toby Hemenway. It is a book about permaculture – a closed-loop system where theoretically nothing comes into the system and nothing leaves. I’ve just started to scratch the surface of this book and find it quite challenging. If your goal is to create a permaculture garden, this is a step-by-step guide that will get you there. But if your goal, like mine, is to install and maintain organic and sustainable landscapes then the principles and practices presented here will force you to reevaluate your current way of doing things. A real head scratcher and one I could see debating with passionate friends.
But isn’t that the joy of gardening? To continue to look more deeply into Nature and see how she does things? Nature is own self-sustaining system and the more we align with that system the more we understand about the true origin of things and the more rewarding our life becomes… Well, at least for me.
While that concludes my Top 4 books, I would be remiss to not mention Michael Pollan and any number of books that he has written. In particular I really liked “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education.” Pollan is amazing in his ability to discern the issues we face and most of his work revolves around our natural environment making it relevant to the gardening we do every day. While I could find argument with some of his observations it is hard to find a more insightful writer today. If there was one person I would enjoy spending the day meandering around the garden and having conversation it would be Michael Pollan.
And finally, the one book I am really looking forward to receiving is written by Jessi Bloom and David Boehnlein, “Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth,” due out this spring and available for pre-order on Amazon. Jessi is another passionate organic and sustainable landscape professional in the Pacific Northwest who practices what she preaches.
If you have a hard-to-buy-for gardener on your list, consider one of these books and you can’t go wrong. And while you are at it, get one for yourself… Happy reading!