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I’ve Been Gardening for 25 Years. These Are the Books I Tell Every Beginner to Buy

Photo: Sonya Patel Ellis

I’ve been gardening various indoor and outdoor patches for over 25 years now. I started on the smallest, shadiest windowsills of early London rentals, then moved to the sunny balcony of my first flat, and currently curate a current leafy front and back garden plot in Forest Gate from where I’ve written several plant-inspired books, including Collins Botanical Bible, The Heritage Herbal, and Collins Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible.

I’ve now got a pretty good idea of how my land lies and what grows best when and where. This is partly down to trial and error — all part of the fun of growing things — but I’ve also sought out lots of help along the way, courtesy of a myriad of publications (my dual passion alongside plants), starting with classic RHS guides such as RHS Gardening Through the Year through to introductory books on niche topics such as propagating houseplants (see Caro Langton and Rose Ray’s Root, Nurture, Grow, which got me through the most housebound parts of lockdown), planting up containers (just try and resist Arthur Parkinson’s wonderfully colourful The Flower Yard) or growing flowers to cut and dry (I love Cut & Dry by Carolyn Dunster).

Thanks to a publishing boom in gardening and nature books over the past decade, some of which I’ve also helped to commission, edit, and produce as well as write, the shelves of my garden room are now heaving with well-thumbed expert guides. Not only does this wide variety of plant-inspired books help me plot, pot up, and plant things along the way, I now run a veritable lending library for friends or family who wander down my garden path looking for new garden or border advice — the fresher their plots are the better, so I can furnish them with all my favourite beginner recommendations (see below). Having worked on countless publications, I also know you don’t need the word “beginner” on a book for it to be the right one for you, even if you’re just starting out — in fact, some of these can be quite dry. Instead, think about what kind of plants or gardening you’re interested in, be it growing and cooking edibles or fantasising about borders full of cut flowers, and go from there.

This was one of the first gardening books I ever owned, albeit a former edition circa 2009 picked up in a secondhand outdoor bookshop down the road. It helped eliminate any feelings of beginner’s overwhelm when I finally got my hands on an outdoor plot by gently guiding me, task by task, through the seasons. I’ve used it religiously ever since, as a reminder of what to do when and for how-to advice on jobs I might not have attempted yet. This month I’ve used it as a reminder of the best way to transplant a shrub having been given a beautiful new rose, train a climber up a pergola as I plot a wisteria waterfall and for researching “Star Plants” for March before I pop to the garden centre at the weekend.

Monty Don first crossed my radar in 2003, the year I tentatively planted up my first window box and Britain’s most influential gardener began presenting Gardener’s World (a weekly must-watch for seasonal planting know-how and inspiration). I recognised him from the cover of one of my mum’s books, Fork to Fork (1999), which was one of the first publications to combine gardening and recipes, something that’s relatively commonplace now as more people grow their own and explore plant-based cooking. He was self-taught, which was hugely encouraging for a newbie; that meant I had the potential to grow things too. Twenty years on, this aspirational guide to being the complete gardener — from beginner to expert — via a narrated wander down the garden path of his wonderful space Longmeadow (now Gardener’s World HQ) is a shining example of what gardening from the heart can achieve, even if you’ve only got a few pots or containers to fill.

I first visited the herbal holy grail that is Jekka’s Herb Farm in 2016, a relative novice to the world of herbs. I had designs on growing herbs for a botanical pressing commission for The Marksman Pub and I was thinking about pitching an herb-inspired book to a publisher including recipes, remedies, flowers, and scent — which eventually culminated in The Heritage Herbal (2020). I got exactly what I needed from this simple yet expertly written classic by Queen of Herbs Jekka McVicar that I picked up in the shop along with armfuls of plants and seeds following a tour of her Herbetum. I then worked my way through the fascinating A-Z directory of herbs to create a series of dream herb gardens in my borders, outdoor containers, and indoor pots. I really listened to her advice on giving herbs the right soil conditions, position and hours of daily light to survive and thrive and it worked — a lesson I now apply to all my gardening plans.

The first gardening I ever did was growing daffodils in a little patch of my mum and dad’s garden, age 6. I vividly remember the high from that first pop of spring colour emerging from a handful of curious, onion-like bulbs. This beautifully illustrated and humorously written how-to — one I’ve now gifted to numerous friends — amplifies that joy via a starter guide to growing tubs full of similarly flamboyant flowers such as tulips and dahlias by small space gardening sensation Arthur Parkinson. Swot up on how to make a bulb lasagne (my new obsession) from the get-go and you’ll have pots full of flowers for seasons to come.

I struggle a bit with growing fruit and veg but have massively improved thanks to Anna Greenland’s online videos. Her beautiful but also brilliantly practical book is now my go to for growing all things edible including illustrated how-to instruction on useful tasks such as building a raised bed, choosing containers, picking out and potting on, feeding plants, creating bean poles, rotating crops and making a seasonal plan. I’m now a dab hand at growing at least a few of my favourite edibles well such as lettuce and kale. Celebrate your first harvest with a cup of iced lemon verbena tea, one of a few supplementary recipes.

There are so many wonderful plants and flowers it can feel overwhelming to start that patch or even border from scratch. Which is where gardening with a focus comes in: Grow what you love and you’re more likely to persist and succeed. I’m personally drawn to the ephemerality of plants — their evolving beauty through the seasons — so this is one of my favourite books, illustrating how to grow the best plants for cutting and drying via simple captions and flat-lay photography. For beginners, the section on growing your own flowers, grasses and seedpods is all you need to garden your way to the simple projects at the end.

Over the past few years, I seem to have entertained a queue of friends in my book-laden garden shed who have recently acquired a garden (they’re new to the area and just bought their first home), want to start again (often including building raised beds) or are keen to transform a dingy corner into a slice of paradise but are short of time (we usually talk about containers and pots). They often have lofty planting plans thanks to enticing images via seed catalogues, social media, magazines, or TV but the cost of a garden designer is way over their budget. Or they’ve been to the garden centre and spent a small fortune on unsuitable plants that are now struggling to thrive or survive. I’m always happy to give planting advice starting with golden rules such as “keep things simple,” “plant for your plot,” and “be patient” followed by lists of all my favourite tried and tested plants, but I also recommend some useful books. I bought this one a few years ago by Adam Frost to help with our redesign, and it’s been a brilliant help with tasks such as measuring soil pH (so important) and laying paths (something I want to do myself, not wait for my partner to do) as well as providing super helpful planting plans for different garden types or light. Adam’s expert Q&As also answer a lot of common questions.

I also refer to the larger format RHS How to Plant a Garden by Matt James — similarly straight-talking but with the focus more on planting ideas.

I’ve got loads of inspiring books on houseplants from A–Z directories such as the RHS Practical House Plant Book by Zia Allaway, Fran Bailey and Christopher Young and jungle-scaping (Hilton Carter’s Wild at Home) to simple and inspiring growing guides (How to Grow Stuff by Alice Vincent) or conversely How Not to Kill Your Plants by Nik Southern. This simply-written beauty on propagating your own, by Caro Langton and Rose Ray of botanical installation studio RoCo is by far my most green-thumbed. Although I always try and propagate broken stems, I wanted to do it properly so that I could increase my plant gang on a budget and share cuttings with loved ones. I can now propagate from stems, leaves, division and runners, am always showing people how to make their genius root chutes (homemade air-dry clay root trainers), and avidly share Studio Roco’s tips whenever I can.

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