I have troubling news for gardeners who love flowers, foliage and botanical names: Geeky plant lust is officially outre, and urban homesteads of produce and poultry are the name of the game. Fortunately, both camps share a passion for the Earth, as do the passionate writers on my list for the year's best gardening books.
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter, hardcover, 288 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95
My hands-down favorite of 2009 is Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. It's the cheekiest manifesto on homesteading you're ever likely to read. Carpenter farms in Oakland, Calif. — "on a dead-end street in the ghetto," as she puts it. Her field of dreams is the vacant lot next door. Her "heritage as hell" turkeys stroll streets of "drug dealers, sex workers and homeless men," while blocks away in her edible Eden, "strawberry runners snake underneath raspberry canes." Carpenter's is a gutsy life storied with chubby bees, humping rabbits and the trials of slaughtering fowl ("It was a solemn moment.") Her addictive prose is wickedly irreverent and unabashedly big-hearted.
The American Meadow Garden
The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn, by John Greenlee, hardcover, 280 pages, Timber Press, list price: $34.95
I get lawn. I see its point. It's great for kids and canines, a canvas to rest the eye. But as a de facto choice, why settle for tedium? Enter John Greenlee's The American Meadow Garden, a paean to grassy, no-mow landscapes that shiver, shimmer and wave. Greenlee has spent decades in revolt against what he calls "the madness of lawn culture", with its abuse of resources and chemicals. His book is an invitation to experiment with region-specific grasses in colors from chartreuse, purple and ocher to metallic blue. Admittedly, the seductive photographs by Saxon Holt feature many landscapes beyond the weekend mower, but Greenlee's easy prose welcomes all comers to aim higher than slabs of pool-table green.
Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener , edited by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara Ellis and Ellen Phillips, paperback, 720 pages, Rodale Books, list price: $24.99
Two mega reference books hit the market this year: The New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques from the American Horticultural Society (AHS) and Rodale's revised and updated classic, Organic Gardening. Though its scope is far more limited, with just a smattering of DIY (read: how-to), I vote for Rodale's and its political point of view. Consider each book's take on ordinary ivy, a smothering ground cover guilty of mayhem in the wild. The AHS book says nary a word about avoiding its use, while Rodale's spells out its danger to woodlands, wildflowers and trees. It then follows up with smart advice for using this murderous outlaw wisely, avoiding sanctimony while remaining passionate about living green.
Bulb, by Anna Pavord, hardcover, 544 pages, Mitchell Beazley, list price: $39.99
Weighing in at a fat 4 pounds, Bulb is the ultimate eye candy, just as the author intended. "Wherever the pages fell open," writes Anna Pavord, "I wanted the bulbs to sing out: 'You've got to have me. You can't live without me.' " No kidding. This is sophisticated plant porn at its bigger-than-life finest; witness the centerfold "Katherine Hodgkin," an exquisitely painted pale blue iris that will literally bring you to your knees. (It's also the only way to see her. She's mere inches tall.) Pavord, however, is no tease. Author of The Tulip (Bloomsbury, 2001), she's one of Britain's finest garden writers and a serious plants woman: "I spend more on bulbs than clothes." There are no sweeter words to a gardener.
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, written by Amy Stewart and illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, hardcover, 223 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $18.95
"Consider yourself warned," writes Amy Stewart. "Within the plant kingdom lurk unfathomable evils." Bram Stoker meets Agatha Christie in this sophisticated little brew of botanical bogeymen. Fatal fungus, suicide trees and deadly nightshades are the characters in Stewart's cleverly designed overview of poisonous plants. A dead serious writer enchanted by "the plant kingdom's criminal element," Stewart's wonderfully illustrated book is less a warning than a history of plants that have, for millennia, insinuated their perilous tendrils into our unsuspecting lives.