from the employee owners at Gardener's Supply Co.

Best Garden Books

My shelves are full of gardening-related titles that get used rarely. But there are a select few that are always within arm’s reach.

Michael Dirr

Michael Dirr, author of the most widely used books on trees and shrubs, speaks with students at Middlebury College in Vermont during a 2009 visit to the campus.

I’ve collected hundreds of garden-related books over the past few decades. My bookcase shelves are organized by topic: vegetables, fruits, trees and shrubs, perennials, herbs, travel and field guides, landscaping, water gardening, small-space gardens, xeriscaping, flower bulbs, pests and diseases, companion plants and weeds, lawns and more. All have been useful at one time or another, but most of them just insulate a wall of my office and collect dust.

A handful of them, however, stay at arm’s reach, ready to answer questions, give advice, or provide inspiration on a weekly or even daily basis. In my professional life as a garden center nursery supervisor, I use Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants every day as I help customers make buying and planting decisions. I’m willing to bet that nearly every garden center in the U.S. that sells trees and shrubs has a reference copy of Dirr’s manual, too.

I used the first edition of the manual as an undergraduate horticulture student back in the 1970s. After five revisions, this bible of woody ornamentals remains fresh and invaluable. The current edition, released in July 2009, tops out at 1,325 pages. It’s organized alphabetically by plant genus and species. To assist readers who haven’t memorized hundreds of scientific names, the book has two indexes: one by botanic name and one by common name.

“The manual”

The book’s clear organization and depth — plus Dirr’s opinionated and often humorous writing and expert recommendations — make this book truly valuable and accessible. He covers each species in depth, including most commercially known cultivars. Each species includes 19 topics, including leaf, bark, fruit and flower descriptions, major insects and diseases, growth rate, mature size and habit, hardiness, culture, propagation, native habitat, landscape value, and cultivars. Most species include pen-and-ink illustrations of the leaves and twigs for identification purposes.

Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs also makes my short list of most-used books. This one is filled with color photos of the author’s most recommended woody plants. Most are shown in landscape settings, making it easy to imagine how they might look in your own situation. One of the book’s finest features, though, is the section at the back in which Dirr includes nearly 40 lists of trees, shrubs, and vines categorized by specific uses. Looking for shrubs that tolerate dry soil, have fragrant flowers, or make good hedges? Need a tall, narrow tree or one that has great fall color? When I’m working with customers who have specific landscape challenges and requirements, this is the first book we consult.

Average gardeners may not need or want to own these books, but I think it’s important to know that they exist and that they’re readily available references at most garden centers. When you shop for trees and shrubs and want more information than appears on the tag, ask a salesperson to pull out their copy of Dirr’s book. Chances are they’ll have a tattered copy of the manual somewhere within reach.

I’ll be writing about more of my favorite gardening books and authors in future blogs. What books do you turn to year after year?

—Ann Whitman

Green Goods Supervisor, Gardener’s Supply

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    January 26, 2010    

    The New Seed Starter’s Handbook by
    Nancy Bubel is my Springtime seed starting bible. I highly recomend it to all gardeners from beginners to professionals.

  2. January 27, 2010    

    Most of the people really like gardening.I am sure they will really like this post because they will learn a lot by reading this article.

  3. Anonymous
    February 3, 2010    

    It depends on where you live. we are in southern California and, in addition to the essential Sunset Western Gardening Guide, we have found Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Designing With Succulents, to be a wonderful guide to waterwise yet stunning landscapes.

  4. October 20, 2010    

    Fair enough,
    I suppose I will have to go out
    and buy the book now :)
    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention

    Aanee xxx
    Flowers Letterkenny

  5. January 1, 2011    

    My garden goal for the past year was over-simple: get things to grow. And they did.

    I am at the stage with my gardens, which are all new, where the design and plant selection are good, but everything needs to fill in before I can figure out what to do next.

    landscape gardening company

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We are an employee-owned company of avid gardeners, located in Burlington, VT.