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The Most Essential Books for Beginning Gardeners

Q: Dear Mike: I'm a librarian with the Nashville Public Library, where we're about to begin the second year of our community seed library. I'm looking for suggestions for a list of essential books for beginning backyard gardeners, including your excellent books of course!


A: What a great request! We posted it on the show's Facebook page and got some very nice responses, most of which echoed the short list I initially came up with. So here we go, sticking to Crystal's 'essential' and 'beginning gardener' part. (There are dozens of great books out there, and having strict criteria is the only way to avoid driving completely off the road with this topic.)

One of the books has to be Mel Bartholomew's "Square Foot Gardening", the original version of which is said to be the best-selling gardening book of all time. But classic though it is, I recommend that people instead get the revised edition that Mel produced in 2006 called "All New Square Foot Gardening"; it has even more information than the original, in a more condensed, readable and approachable form. (Although many people fixate on Mel's system of growing inside geometric grids, the real benefit of his technique is rooted in his emphasis on building raised beds and excavating your rotten local soil and replacing it with "Mel's mix"—essentially a combination of a light soil free mix and high-quality compost.)

Regular listeners (and in this format at the Gardens Alive website, readers) know how much I rely on the pruning and fruit growing advice of my longtime friend Lee Reich—and so he's the only person to make the list twice.

You have to include his classic "The Pruning Book", as I find pruning to be one of the biggest holes in a beginning gardener's knowledge base—especially when it comes to things like apples, peaches and grape vines, which absolutely require correct pruning. (Not to mention roses and flowering shrubs, which people always seem to prune incorrectly, especially Spring blooming shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons.)

And I'll choose "Grow Fruit Naturally" for the other. Lee's newest of many excellent books on backyard fruit growing, I think it's the most readable and best organized. And it covers almost every fruit you could be enticed to cultivate—from apples to strawberries—with a lot of detail on essential techniques like planting, pruning and controlling pests naturally.

Next up: "The Southern Living Garden Book". Although I technically have the ability, I don't look anything up on the computer when I'm answering listeners' phone call questions in the studio, but I do have a handful of books I'll turn to. When I get stuck or feel unsure about a specific plant—especially one that isn't typically grown where I've personally gardened—I'll flip to the entry in this one. It's been very helpful—and I've never read anything I really disagree with, which is rare. Besides—a library in Tennessee should have a book with a Southern orientation! (Although I also highly recommend this book to gardeners in the North.)

And we recently received a copy of their updated version, "The New Southern Living Garden Book", earlier this year. I haven't had a lot of chances to use it, as it just came out (2015), but it looks to be even better than the original, ala Mel Bartholomew.

And that's a good point to make in general—always go for the new or revised edition if there is one. I can attest from personal authoring experience that it's great to be able to have a book out in the world for a couple of years and then have a chance to revisit and update it—like I was recently able to do with my book on tomatoes, which is now called "The You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes".

Fox Chapel, the publisher who picked up the rights for the third edition of my take on every gardener's favorite summertime crop, decided to dramatically change the format to include full color photos of some of my favorite varieties of these fabulous fruits and invited me to make any editorial changes I wanted. This allowed me to add a big section on growing tomatoes in containers (which I foolishly did not cover in the first two editions) and to update some of the basic growing information to better reflect the gradual changes and adaptions I've personally made in the ten years since the first edition was published.

(That's right—I'm always changing things around. Gardening is a work in progress, and I try to do something new or different in my garden every season—what my old boss (President of the Rodale Press magazine division during my time at ORGANIC GARDENING), John Griffin called "the ethic of constant improvement".)

Next we come to the dynamic duo of Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman, but independently even though they're a real-life couple. Barbara for "The Garden Primer", a classic book covering all the essentials a gardener is likely to encounter. First published back in 1988, she was able to revisit, revise and update it in 2008; another example of an excellent author being able to fine tune a work that was already a very valuable resource.

Many of you may recognize the name Eliot Coleman as the grower behind the "Four Season Farm". An early master of season-extension techniques and devices, he—and Barbara—produce edibles for market twelve months a year in Maine without actually heating their greenhouses. Eliot is a madman of the best possible type; he routinely achieves the seemingly impossible without appearing to break a sweat. The hardest part here is choosing which book of his to recommend, but I'm going with "Four Season Harvest"; it's a classic.

…As is a book that I daresay inspired Barbara, Eliot and me: John Jeavon's "How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine." First published by his group "Ecology Action" in 1974—and now in its 8th edition—it firmly established raised beds and healthy soil as the way to go.

As my TEDx Talk on composting approaches 300,000 views on YouTube (push us over the top at, we have to mention my oh-so-subtly titled "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (which also contains a lot of organic lawn care information). Making lots of compost and knowing which kinds of compost to purchase when you can't make enough (which is somewhere between frequent and always) is, to me, THE single most important aspect of gardening. And maybe raised beds. And being organic. And…

While I'm being shameless, I'll add my big coffee-table book "Kitchen Garden A to Z", a guide to growing almost every backyard crop, with a lot of information on 'the basics', like raised bed building, weeding, feeding and organic pest control. (Crystal did say she wanted my books, and I always follow librarian's orders!) Sadly, A to Z, a beautifully photographed work published by the artistically-oriented Abrams in 2004, is out of print. But you can find good used copies online.

And since this is supposed to be a resource for their seed library, I'm going to add my "Kitchen Garden Box" from Philadelphia's own Quirk Publishing. It's a box designed to look like an old recipe holder with a hinged lid and my growing and storage information printed on "recipe cards" inside. My 'book in a box'.

Some of the cards contain concise information on growing favorite crops like tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot!), squash, cukes, etc.; and there are also a good number of recipe cards that detail actual recipes—like my special ways of making tomato sauce and hot pepper concoctions. But a large number of the cards cover the basics (and occasional intricacies) of seed saving, an essential skill if the idea is to eventually get the patrons to contribute viable seeds from their own gardens back to the library.


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