Q. What book(s) would you suggest to a new gardener who would like to get started in organic gardening? I've dabbled in it for the past two years, but find I really do not know what I am doing. And I am a bit overwhelmed by the number of books. ~ Leslie Hawk, Seattle, Washington
A. I have almost an entire bookshelf devoted to garden books, but I definitely find myself turning time and time again to these essential references:
The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch
A new edition of this classic gardening reference book was released last year. This book is big and it's broad, covering ornamentals (including chapters devoted to annuals, perennials, bulbs, roses, trees, and wildflowers) and edible plants (herbs, fruit and vegetables). Damrosch knows her stuff—but her writing style is never stuffy and her advice is always accessible. The first chapter of the book, What Plants Need, offers an exceptional overview of how plants grow, the factors that influence their health, and what you can do to foster their growth.
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
This book will change the way you garden and how you think about soil and the "soil food web"—the complex world of microorganisms that live in the soil. The first part of the book is devoted to building an understanding of what lives in the soil, including bacterial, fungi, and protozoa, and how these organisms interact with and affect your plants. The second part of the book deals with how to care for the soil food web and includes chapters on compost, mulch, and compost tea, as well as a really helpful soil maintenance calendar.
The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Deborah L. Martin
Whenever a pest, disease or physiological problem turns up in my organic garden, I turn to this book for answers. It offers excellent, easy-to-follow advice for dealing with common problems without resorting to the use of toxic chemicals. It is organized by plant and helpfully lists symptoms first, which makes it simple to narrow in on what might be causing a problem in your garden.
If you only buy one book on ornamental gardening this is the book to get. It is full of inspiration with tons of photos of gardens, an encyclopedia of plant combinations, and planting plans. Most importantly, it also gets into the nitty gritty details of designing ornamental beds that are interesting throughout the year. DiSabato-Aust discusses all the fundamentals of design including site evaluation, color, texture, and form. Perhaps most helpful are the appendixes, including listings of plants by scientific and common names, plant characteristics, and maintenance requirements. I would also check out DiSabato-Aust's book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, because it explains how to care for tons of perennial plants.
Perennials for Every Purpose by Larry Hodgson
This encyclopedia of perennials has great advice for beginners interested in learning more about choosing good perennial plants, which are non-woody plants that live for more than two years. A significant chunk of the book is devoted to growing guides for individual perennials. These growing guides are helpfully sorted into categories, such as drought-resistant perennials, perennials that bloom in the shade, and perennials for birds and butterflies, which makes it easy to find plants that are well-suited to a specific site or design need.
Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook by Jennifer R. Bartley
One of the hardest parts of vegetable gardening is designing a garden that is beautiful and productive. In this photo and illustration-filled book, Bartley explains the history of the potager—a formal French vegetable garden—and then roots her advice within the context of contemporary gardens. The book has design plans for kitchen gardens and garden structures, and suggestions for creating beautiful edible plant combinations. Even though the gardens pictured in the book are more elaborate and larger than your average garden, Bartley's advice for creating a attractive kitchen garden translates to smaller spaces.
The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith
The first half of this book is devoted to Smith's W-O-R-D strategy, which stands for wide rows, organic gardening, raised beds, and deep soil. Even if you don't follow his W-O-R-D advice to the letter, this book is worth its space on the shelf for Smith's growing guides of vegetables and herbs. The guides are easy-to-follow and but be aware that his advice is based on gardens with a lot of room—I often plant vegetables slightly closer than he recommends.
The idea that fruit needs to be segregated into an orchard is outdated and frankly just not really feasible in smaller urban and suburban gardens. In this beautiful book, fruit expert Reich explains the basic design principles of integrating fruit, including blueberries, gooseberries, and more unusual fruits like elderberry, into an ornamental landscape. The individual plant guides detail the best region for each fruit, its growth habit, seasons of visual interest, good varieties, as well as advice on growing, harvesting, storaging and using the fruit. There are also five planting plans that serve as a great jumping off point for adding more fruit in your landscape.
If you are interested in permaculture, Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway is a wonderful guide for implementing this gardening philosophy in urban and suburban gardens. If you are a balcony or rooftop gardener check out The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey. It is the definitive handbook to growing almost any kind of edible in a container. Sunflower Houses: Inspiration from the Garden, A Book for Children and their Grownups by Sharon Lovejoy has tons of fun garden projects for kids.
Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012