Monday, October 13, 2014

Booksale Fever! New & Old Garden Books for Winter Reading

My stack of 21 garden books that I found at the booksale. Good winter reading!

Last Thursday afternoon my husband and I drove to the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines (the largest and capital city of Iowa), to attend the Planned Parenthood Booksale, a twice-annual sale of used and donated books that is one of the largest used booksales in the United States. I have been attending this sale since my parents took me as a child (over 30 years of attending now), and I love buying used books, so it's one of my longtime, favorite traditions.

Waiting in line for the sale to begin, the rush inside when the doors open, then seeing the books all arranged on tables just waiting for you to peruse them: heaven! The sale has over 400,000 items (!!) and this year it had an even larger selection of garden books than usual. I always rush to the garden book tables first, and it takes me almost a hour to look through just that subject (even when I'm trying to hurry, lest someone else snag the best books). I put the ones I think I might want into a handy shopping cart that they provide for those of us whose desire for books is stronger than our arm muscles.

Since we were there from 3pm to 8pm (when my husband begged to go home), to prevent ourselves from becoming weak with hunger while book shopping we visited the concession area that purveys delicious "State Fair food" (hot dogs, walking tacos, chili, nachos, and my favorite: fresh, all-natural, squeezed-while-you-watch lemonade). Mmmm!

A photo of only a small section of the sale (from

I ended up with three large boxes of books this year; over 70 books in total (my husband claims I have a book-buying "problem," but he doesn't know what he's talking about...). Most of my acquisitions were children's history and science books, found for $1-$2 apiece, that I use for homeschooling my two children, but I also found 21 garden books, for less than $5 each on average (some of the older books were only $2, and a few of the newest ones in nice condition were $7 or $8).

All 70 or so books that I found. Most are children's history and science books, but garden books were also well-represented in the haul.

I already have a large collection of garden books (at least 500), but I can always use more to stave off the winter blues, increase my gardening knowledge and help me plan and improve my gardens. (Plus, I just love looking at beautiful photographs of glorious gardens!)

My garden book collection is divided into a number of sub-subjects: Garden Design, Garden History, Books About Specific Flowers/Plants, Books Portraying Specific Gardens, English Gardening, and miscellaneous other garden subjects. I was able to find quite a few very interesting books in most of these subjects on Thursday:

Garden History Books

My latest acquisitions in garden history books and historically significant garden books.
I have a great interest in garden history (and I'm currently thinking about writing a book about Iowa garden history), so I'm always on the lookout for interesting and beautiful books about that subject. Ten of the 21 books I found at the sale are either books about the history of gardening or classic gardening books that are now a part of garden history in themselves:

  • A Brief History of Gardening is a world overview of significant advances and trends in gardening, from Ancient Mesopotamia until the end of the 20th century.
  • Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll was written by the great Arts & Crafts English gardener and published in 1908. Each winter I try to read one or two classic garden books, and I think this will be one that I read this winter. 
  • Garden People is a fascinating book of photos of English gardeners taken by Valerie Finnis from the 1950s through the 1970s.
  • The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman describes the career and designs of noted landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), including her well known designs for Stan Hywet, Longue Vue, and Duke University's Sarah P. Duke Gardens
  • The American Lawn is a collection of essays about the history and meaning of lawns in the United States - an important topic in the history of gardens.
  • Garden Shrubs and their Histories was first published in 1963 and tells the stories of the discovery and cultivation of numerous garden plants and shrubs. This edition is updated by the addition of more than a hundred beautiful full-color botanical illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Outside the Bungalow describes the types of planting that are historically appropriate for Arts & Crafts and 1920s-era bungalow houses, and is filled with lovely photos of well-maintained historical houses and their gardens.
  • Gardens are for People was originally published in 1955 by noted American landscape architect Thomas Church and is a well-known classic text that describes the then-revolutionary idea that yards should be designed specifically for the use of the people living in a house. Filled with photos of midcentury garden designs, it is required reading for most landscape students.
  • America's Gardens was published in 1964 by Better Homes and Gardens, and is filled with vintage color photos of some of the most well-known garden in the US.  

The most interesting garden history book I found was the oldest: "Continuous Bloom in America" by Louise Shelton (the link will take you to an epub you can read entirely, because the book is out of copyright). First published in 1915, my copy is a reprint from 1926, and is in very good shape (the pages are still uncut, so it has never been read). Not bad for $3.

The frontispiece photo, showing "Cherrycroft" in Morristown, NJ.
I absolutely love old garden photos!

Books About Specific Plants

The books I found about growing specific plants or types of plants.

I also found a number of books that cover how to grow specific plants or categories of plants. Last spring, when I was designing my island shrub beds, I checked Adrian Bloom's "Gardening with Conifers" out of my local public library, so I already know that it's one of the best books on the subject and one that has received much public praise, and I was happy to snag a nice copy for $5. I'm also looking forward to learning more about growing coleus, scented indoor plants, early bulbs (so nice to see after winter!) and irises. And Tracy Disabato-Aust's book, 50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants, is one I plan to study carefully over the winter. Lastly, who doesn't love Old-Fashioned Flowers?

Miscellaneous Garden Subjects

A few miscellaneous books in different subjects.

The last four books I found the other evening were miscellaneous in their sub-subjects:

  • Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening is not actually about gardening but instead is an amusing historical look at how people have used their gardens. I can't describe it any better than this review at  "Richly illustrated and packed with extracts from letters, diaries and novels, EYCDITGWAG looks at gardens as places for escape and inspiration, fresh air and exercise, fire and water, sun and shade, eating, drinking and smoking, love, children, games, parties, birds and beasts - such as the bizarre menagerie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti maintained in his back garden, which included two wombats, a marmot and an armadillo. And if that's not more interesting than when to plant your onions, I don't know what is."
  • The Royal Mile is a small book describing a mile-long garden made for the Garden and Landscape Architecture Triennial in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, which took place in 2008.
  • Williamsburg's Glorious Gardens (you can actually see all the glory at this link) is what I like to refer to as pure eye candy for the gardener. Looking at these beautiful colorful photos, heavy on spring and early summer blooms, will sustain my spirits in February and March, when I'm yearning for signs of spring.
  • Colorful Gardens is an addition to my collection of books about different flower colors (shown below), which I became interested in when I was designing my Rainbow Border

My bookshelf of garden books about different colored flowers. Some are entire books about one color of flowers, but others cover all the colors by chapter.

I do want to note an interesting point about the books that I bought at the booksale: eight of them were discards from the Des Moines Botanical Center's library. The Botanical Center has been retrenching over the past year after serious financial difficulties and has recently reopened to much fanfare, with new horticultural staff and new gardens in process. I have yet to visit, but I'll make a point of doing so next year. I wish them much luck with their exciting changes, and I'm glad they will not be closing (my husband and I were married there in 1998, so the place has special meaning to me). I understand that they probably needed to let go of things that occupy space (like their library) that will be needed for new purposes, and I'm happy that I was able to buy some of the books they donated to the sale.

I hope you too find many good garden books to tide yourselves over for the winter. Thanks for reading! -Beth


  1. Hi Beth, You got some great books! Good for you. This will give you inspiration plus something fun to do over the winter. I've been to the new and improved Greater DM Botanical Garden, and it has indeed improved. The outside changes are still in process. Next year should be a good time to visit. :)

    1. Thanks, Beth! I'll definitely be sure to visit the DM Botanical Center next year -- I'm glad you think it's improving. Thanks for reading! -Beth

  2. So nice to read this book post, because I am addicted to garden books too and have hundreds of them. Exactly the same as you, always searching for books on sales and second hand book shops. You found a nice collection, some of them I also have for instance Gertrud Jekyll´s Colour schemes for the flower garden. A real gem is the old book Continuous bloom in America, these old books I love most because they have such a marvellous pictures.

    1. Janneke, I'm glad to hear that you're a fellow collector! Garden books are incredibly addicting, but I always tell my husband to be glad that I'm not addicted to something worse than collecting used books. :-) The old books are indeed the coolest too. Thanks for reading! -Beth

  3. I enjoyed this post It is lovely to meet someone with the same addiction as me. I would love to have been at the sale. What fun. . I have several Gertrude Jekyll books. I love gardening books from this period. I have hundreds of books too, but like you I always want more.

    1. Thanks, Chloris -- I'm glad to know that I'm among good company in my garden book addiction, and I'm happy that you enjoyed this post about my latest indulgence of that addiction. Thanks for reading! -Beth

  4. You put so many interesting facts in this posting, Beth. I'm so glad I didn't miss it. I have an extensive gardening library, too, but not as big as yours, because I tend to buy new books. I think I need to change my mindset as I am definitely missing out. You really MUST write a book! You have all the research at your fingertips, and you have an engaging writing style. P. x

    1. How very kind of you to say so, Pam! I'm glad to meet another garden book collector, and used books are really the way to go about it, in my opinion. I've started doing some research about Iowa gardens since I wrote this post, and it's proving to be a fascinating topic, so perhaps I will indeed try to write a book about it. Thanks so much for reading, Pam. Regards, -Beth

  5. I have a horticulturalist friend who moved to a tropical island and got rid of all his books. I ended up with a pile of almost 200! I kept 60 and friends took many more but I still have about 50 to find homes for. Many titles are quite old. I haven't read any of them yet but will have time this winter. Nice to meet another book lover. :o) Happy reading!

    1. Lucky you! The only thing better than used books at a good price is FREE books! I'm sure they will provide you with many hours of informative reading and beautiful photos this winter. Thanks for reading! -Beth