Roots and Shoots: Gifts for the Gardener

By Pamela Doan

Although not all gardeners are big readers, everyone usually makes an exception when it comes to reading about gardening. The offseason, which for most of us is roughly November to March, provides time to think and dream and conspire.

I find a lot of inspiration in books and that spans from how-to guides with practical ideas to reading about nature, environmental issues, conservation and garden histories and diaries. So here, in my fourth annual gift guide, are suggestions for gardener gifts.

I best knew Vita Sackville West as the basis for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando until I found a used copy of her garden writing at Binnacle Books in Beacon. West created extensive gardens at Sissinghurst Castle and wrote a gardening column for the London Observer. Her columns are collected in Garden Book and grouped by season. The writing is lively and opinionated and made me think about design choices in a different light. Why not make an entire garden monochromatic?

To follow the thread of English castle gardens, accompany this gift with Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden by Sarah Raven. It’s full of color photos and Raven lived at Sissinghurst for a while and researched the family history.

Trees: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Structure, by Roland Ennos, is on my wish list. I’ve never thought about the evolution of trees and now that I have, I want to know more. Trees are under threat from climate change and deforestation, and understanding their biology might make us view them with a different lens. Reviews call the book “accessible,” meaning folks who aren’t graduate students will understand it.

Another book that will allow your favorite gardener to impress his or her friends with cool knowledge is the revised edition of the Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants by Lewis Nelson, Richard Shih and Michael Balick. Although it’s nearly 400 pages, this is considered a portable field guide so you can carry it on hikes and warn your children before they pop a highly toxic but delicious-looking berry into their mouths. You’ll never look at your landscape the same way again, I guarantee. It’s available at the New York Botanical Garden website (, and proceeds benefit its work.

An old favorite is the Essays of E.B. White. I’ve given this as a gift many times and reread it often, usually in winter or spring when the transition of seasons affects me the most. It isn’t a high summer read. White observes closely the world around him and his characters are the geese on his farm and the raccoon family in a tree outside the bedroom window. He sees it all, though, the way each thing interacts with the other and what they need and what they get. These are essays of a person recognizing the rhythm of life and his role in it.

Let’s face it; the election has many people wondering the effect of a new administration on the environment. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening may provide comfort. Bonsall, who is director of the Scatterseed Project, which is dedicated to preserving crop diversity, has been doing subsistence farming in Maine and comes to it from an ecological perspective.

For the gardener who takes inspiration from history, pick up a copy of Anna B. Warner — America’s Gardening Pioneer, by Barbara Hobens. The book chronicles Warner’s gardening adventures on Constitution Island in the 19th century. She was a passionate gardener and writer who published more than 30 books and the Constitution Island Association has replicated some of her landscaping on the island. It’s a model for a lovely native plant garden and was covered in pollinators when I saw it last summer.

Finally, here’s a recommendation for a planting guide for the gardener who wants a serious game changer for next summer’s harvest. Craig LeHoullier, a tomato expert who advises the Seed Savers Exchange on varieties and is the co-host of Tomatopalooza in North Carolina, condensed his knowledge and experience into Epic Tomatoes. As a bonus, the gardener who receives this gift from you might share the results of what they learn.

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