Three Pivotal Books

We’ve all got ‘em – those books that have changed or framed our lives.  In this case I’m sticking to the horticultural, or those that have fed into that part of my life

These aren’t necessarily my favourite garden books.  They’re the ones that have been the most influential over the direction that my gardening life has taken, and one isn’t a garden book at all.

Adventures in Understanding – David Grayson.

Gotta start with this.  It’s to blame for nearly everything that I’ve pursued since it literally fell into my hands while I was precariously balancing a box of old books, while simultaneously rummaging through it, in my Mum’s garage about thirty years back.  It grabbed me from the first word – intensely first person, intensely personal.

I spent years (pre-internet, of course) collecting every book written by David Grayson.  I loved his sensitivity to what was going on around him on his farm, and his discovery that writing about it amplified his pleasure.  He had pleasure in the experience, pleasure in the writing about it (for himself, initially), and pleasure in the later reading what he’d written.

It has framed my outlook on gardening, and just about everything else, since.  There was a slight hiccup when, after the arrival of the internet, I was able to find out what the writer’s own father never did – that David Grayson was the fictitious creation of journalist Ray Stannard Baker.

In the early days of my infatuation when I didn’t know how to find out what other books David Grayson had written, I stumbled on a quote from Adventure in Understanding in an article about that largely unsung hero of Australian garden writing, Jean Galbraith.  There was a seat in the Galbraith garden (‘Dunedin’, in Tyers, Victoria) inscribed with this German quote, which translated to ‘If you were quiet, so would help come’.  I wrote to her, asking if the quote had come from David Grayson.  She replied (can’t describe how excited I was – a real writer, writing to me!) that it had come from Adventures in Understanding, and that DG was a household name for her family back in the 20’s, and gave me all the other titles.  As it turns out, Adventure in Understanding is probably the least relevant of DG’s titles to my subsequent life-style coices, being mostly about his experiences in the city.  Adventures in Contentment and The Countryman’s Year have a lot more to say about the quiet joys of gardening and farming, but A in U was the first I saw, so it counts as the most influential.  That process of tracking down David Grayson lead me to reading Jean Galbraith’s

Garden in a Valley – Jean Galbraith

A really lovely read, from the late 30’s.  Miss Galbraith (as she insisted I call her) wrote from the 30’s through until the 90’s.  Incredible.  I assume that many readers would find much of this book too sentimental, but I’ve never had great sentimentality receptors.  I don’t know that I’ve ever really nailed the meaning of the term.

The last chapter is one of the richest bits of garden writing I know, resonating so deeply with all the reasons why I garden.

The copy I had (the 1985 hard-cover reprint) – was given me (along with a chair, a Manet print and a first edition Edna Walling – all of which I still have) by an absurdly generous next-door neighbor when I was renting in town during my apprenticeship.  I’ve since tracked down a first edition Garden in a Valley, in it’s floppy 1939 cover.

But the book itself wasn’t as pivotal to me as the fact that I started to correspond with Miss Galbraith at a time when I was ready to give the whole professional gardening thing away.  I didn’t have any enthusiastic friends, and there was little enthusiasm amongst the professionals I knew.

Jean Galbraith put me in contact with some of her correspondents in Melbourne, whom I visited, and that managed to just keep me going.  I’m still not sure whether to blame her or thank her.  Mostly I choose the latter.

But the biggest influence – the thing that totally re-engaged me – was the discovery of

The Adventurous Gardener – Christopher Lloyd.

A colleague (who was volunteering in the garden where I was doing my apprenticeship – and was as enthusiastic as you imagine you’d have to be to volunteer) handed me a couple of books, thinking I might be interested.  I kept them for a polite length of time, then the night before handing them back, thought I’d better take a brief look at them so I could make a knowing remark upon their return and distract from the fact that I hadn’t read them.

I wasn’t ready for the effect.  Within a para or two of the intro my heart was pumping – this, THIS, was how I wanted to garden!  This was how I wanted to THINK about gardening.

I’d found my guru.  Over the next few years I read everything of CL’s that I could get my hands on.  Eventually I met him.  What a moment!  Then I fell into correspondence with him.  And then, after a year or so, got to live and garden with him over an English summer – a privilege beyond my deserving, and beyond my craziest dreams.

So what are the most influential books in your horticultural walk?


  1. Thanks Michael. Looks like I’ll be book hunting/reading and not gardening this weekend, now.

    1. The weather’s looking like crap anyway..

  2. Australian Garden Design by Andrew Pfeiffer; Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck. And, quite recently, The Gardenist (by some guy or other).

    1. Really? I wasn’t fishing for that, but by golly! you’ve made my day

  3. Mine are: Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck, The American Man’s Garden by Rosemary Verey and Succession Planting for Year-round Pleasure by Christopher Lloyd.

    1. So am I the only one who doesn’t know this Joe Eck book? With recommendations from both you and Catherine, I’ve already been on-line and ordered it.

  4. Thanks for pointing David Grayson out to me 10 years ago. And the author that i have most liked to emulate; HL Gee

    1. Must get online and see if H.L.Gee was as fictional an author as David Grayson. Not that it matters, I guess. It was all very idealised – no doubt driven by the hunger for optimism in the face of, and between, the wars.

  5. A couple of stand out titles for me are Stephen Lacey’s ‘The startling jungle’ and the Ogden’s ‘Plant-driven design, creating gardens that honour plants, place and spirit’. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sharing Monty Don’s gardening highs and lows, and I agree, the’Gardenist’ is up there with them.

  6. without doubt ;” A Gentle Plea for Chaos” by Mirabel Osler. This book has allowed me to live and garden by the greatest premise that allows nature has the final say. It made me a very non interventionist gardener.

    1. Do you think it implanted an idea, or did it validate an idea already implanted, Cathy?

    2. Maybe Mirabel articulated a philosophy I had instinctively cultivated…no pun intended. The rough and tumble of an 80’s cottage garden in the city was far more charming if it was overgrown and left very much alone. Now, working in gardens of some acreage, I cannot ever hope to have any semblance of control . I chase my tail and am constantly surprised by natures command.

  7. Gardening the Mediterranean Way by Heidi Gildemeister; a revelation early in the drought years. Designing with Plants by Piet Oudolf spurred thoughts of seasonal and form inspiration. A Garden Lover’s Journal by Jean Galbraith; first ‘literary’ gardening book… Thank you so much for The Gardenist; a treasured addition to the precious stash of gardening books.

    1. It’s years since I saw that ‘Gardening the Mediterranean Way’. Wonder if it still holds the impact, after what feels like decades of Mediterranean stuff since? It’s so often those first images we see of some new style, model or form that have the biggest impact. I’ll never forget those images of great sweeps of miscanthus introduced to us by James Van Sweden at the 1989 Garden Design Conference – the first we Aussies had ever seen. There were virtual gasps from the crowd.

  8. I’m sure it’s terribly unsophisticated of me, but I’m a big fan of Monty Don’s writing.

    Monty’s 2009 published ‘Ivington Diaries’ is a wonderful expression of one man’s relationship with that most personal of possessions – his garden.

    1. There’s nothing low-brow about Monty Don. I love the way he thinks on his feet, whether on camera or with the pen. It’s like you can hear the whirring of his brain – the search for the perfect word – the attempt to grasp and frame the concept

  9. Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi. Her autobiography More Was Lost is amazing too -read both to see how her writing developed and matured.

    1. I’m loving this – accumulating a figurative pile of new books beside the bed.

  10. The Garden at Bronte by Leo Schofield. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book! Plus ‘The Garden Within’ by Joan Laws-Smith is another that I keep re-reading. I have plenty that I refer to just for the images but it’s the writing in these two that inspire me to garden. 🙂

    1. Must read Leo’s book again. That garden had layers of magic that very few gardens do. I can’t think of it without longing to be back there.
      As for Joan Law-Smith’s book – I can’t imagine where you’d find one now – but again, about a very special garden.

  11. Thanks Michael,this made me go hunting for a book written by Gordon Ford,”the natural Australian garden”which I found along with several thousand books I want to reread! I Havnt read it for a long time but loved it,especially I remember the “lose the boundaries”,which my mother banged on about,and as we live in a smallish surburban block in the sub tropics,sometimes we tend to disappear and loose more than fences . Loved my first “The Well Tempered Garden”,CL,though plant wise not much help now,and the Madderlake books from New York , and “Colour in the Winter Garden”,Graham Stuart-Thomas,but it was so long ago,long lost,but very inspirational at the time for me,he was one of our lecturers,the book was more inspirational! Thankyou for making me look at old books,hope it rains one weekend soon!

    1. I must try and drag out my copy of GST’s ‘Colour in the Winter Garden’. Fascinated that he was one of your lecturers – and that you clearly didn’t find him as captivating in person as he is on paper. He contributed so much to the literature. I’ve got some old mags from the 30’s with bits and pieces by him, and you can hear his youth in his written voice, back then. All his books come from an older, wiser place.
      And despite my mention of ‘The Adventurous Gardener’, ‘The Well-Tempered Garden’ is widely considered CL’s greatest offering. It made it to the top of many well-known gardeners ‘desert-island garden books list’ – the one they’d most like to have with them on a desert island. Always worth another look..

  12. And Leo Scholfields great book about Brontee

  13. I come late to this conversation but now have a terrific book list to investigate. Thank you all! My own contribution – ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim. She was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield, married a Pomeranian count, was a lover of HG Wells, and had EM Forster tutor her children. She also became a novelist – ‘Enchanted April’ is probably her best known. I didn’t learn much about gardening from the book, but my! the writing is a revelation – witty, warm, engaged and deceptively simple. The first line of the book? ‘I love my garden.’ Great start.

    1. Which all highlights, to me, the difference between a garden book and a book about life in and around a garden. Two of my three are the latter (I now realise), as is the several-times-mentioned The Garden at Bronte. Being a devotee of CL’s, The Adventurous Gardener was first mentioned because it was the first I encountered, The Well-Tempered Garden because it’s considered his greatest work, but one of the most satisfying and re-readable is The Year at Great Dixter, which often links the inside life of the house with the outside life of the garden.

      Sounds like ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ is my kind of book

  14. Hello Michael, I am currently enjoying reading the Gardenist. My steep hilly site & subtropical climate is different but I am interested in the ideas & options for held spaces within long vistas. This is my need as I reshape my 40 plus years of gardening this plot that has become increasingly more urban. I have been collecting ideas from a variety of sources.

    Recently I read Louisa Jones book Meditteranean Landscape Design: Vernacular Contemporary. This looks at gardens in a much broader cultural context. There are a number of properties featured but the one that spoke to me most was that of Heidi Gildermeister which is both hilly, rocky and she has worked with it for many decades. The photography is luscious.

    Both the book in general, and her garden in particular, are worth a look.

    1. Must look this up. No doubt it’ll be on sale when Louisa Jones speaks in Melbourne next month. Heidi Gildermeister wrote her own v influential book on Mediterranean gardens. Someone mentioned it in the other comments pertaining to this post.

  15. Many years ago I stumbled across “Green Grows the City” by Beverley Nichols. .At the time I lived in a city apartment, and the thought of making a garden seemed an unlikely prospect. . . but something about Nichols’ enthusiasm and imagination kept me reading, and I worked my way through all of his gardening books.

    A few years later, I acquired a typical suburban garden. At first I did little except keep the grass cut and the weeds (more or less) under control. Then I was given a few plants, and, as I watched them develop I remembered the fun and excitement of developing a garden which Mr Nichols had shared with his readers, so I decided to restructure part of my back garden – remove the ubiquitous Hills hoist. . . plant a few shrubs here. ..some perennials there. . . Forty years later the garden has been redesigned and reworked several times, saplings have grown into large trees. . .and still find myself wandering around nurseries and ‘garden centres’ thinking. . “now if I just moved the foxgloves, I could fit in some of those new sages.. .and maybe a few of those spectacular new petunias would do well in the tubs on the terrace. . .” which just goes to show that, even books which now appear impossibly twee and dated(I bought all of them when they were reprinted a few years ago) can inspire long lasting passion for gardens !!

  16. Thank you very much for sharing this with us, Michael.
    When I came to Australia, the southern parts of Australia suffered through an extensive drought. Coming from Europe and being used to cooling summer rains, I found myself dreaming of rain and lush green beech forests! The reality was a parched garden with wilting plants in 40 Degrees heat. Then I came across a book by Jackie French called “The Wilderness Garden” and it completely transformed my gardening style and may I even say my life. No longer do I try to garden “European style” with constant disappointments, but I embraced her ideas of creating a food forest in my front garden, transforming a previously hot and dry front lawn into a place of bliss and bounty. A Pomegranate, Mulberry and Quince providing shade, fruit and interest leaving the remaining lawn much greener and a previous struggling Kikuyu nature strip sporting now indigenous plants providing habitat in a neighbourhood cherishing the idea of the “American lawn”, but never succeeding. So, I am very grateful to Jackie providing me with a much better understanding of the Australian Climate and soil and the different parameters required to garden successfully without depleting our most precious resource: water.
    Happy Gardening!

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