As Promised: Great Gardening Books


Stone_diaries The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.  This is the novel that made me want to write a gardening column in the first place.  It’s the story of Daisy Stone Goodwill, who drifts rather aimlessly through life, but seems to find her way for a while after her husband dies.  She steps into his role as the local gardening columnist, changing the by-line from “Mr. Green Thumb” to “Mrs. Green Thumb.”  The letters she gets from readers just knocked my socks off.  I was particularly inspired by one that began, “Dear Mrs. Green Thumb, I agree absolutely that peonies are beautiful but stupid,” and I loved a letter about tulips that concluded, “Frankly, I often found the ex-gardens writer, Mr. Green Thumb, uncommitted on the subject of broken varieties.  A bit namby-pamby on fertilizers, too.” Ah, who doesn’t love an opinionated gardener?

Roses_garden Rose’s Garden by Carrie Brown. This is a gorgeous, sweet, sad, and spiritual book about a man whose wife dies, leaving him to care for her garden.  The garden draws him in and connects him to her, and her way of life, in a way that he hadn’t experienced while she was alive.  “A man could lose himself here,” Brown wrote.  “He could enter the overgrown bowers of his garden and never appear again, hemmed in by thorns and vines, impeded by an army of flowers, an ocean of green.”  Lovely.

Lost_garden The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys.  This is a compelling and mysterious novel about an English woman named Gwen who, in 1941, joins the Women’s Land Army and oversees the growing of crops during the war.  She is stationed at a long-neglected estate, and as she brings the garden back to life, she changes, too. Now, I know that you don’t have to reach far for a metaphor like that, but Humphreys manages to make this story fresh and interesting.  Take, for instance, this moment when Gwen first puts her hands in the dirt at this estate.  “I rub the dirt between my fingers.  The red earth of Devon is thick and full of texture.  I put a little on the tip of my tongue and taste the wormy, metallic tang of soil choked with nutrients.  It will be fine.”

Quite_a_year_for_plums Quite a Year For Plums, by Bailey White.  A hilarious southern novel in which the characters simply garden as an incidental part of their lives. Among them is a tomato plant pathologist who gets everyone thinking about soil-borne plant diseases; I love the passing reference to a woman’s kitchen that is filled with “the humusy smell of the soil baking in the oven—350 degrees for one hour to kill the soil pathogens.” And here I’d always thought that baking cookies produced the coziest scent a kitchen could have.

Prodigal_summer Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver:  This is the intertwined story of a farmer’s wife, a forest ranger, an organic farmer, and an entomologist. It’s a big, sweeping novel about the struggles we engage in with, and within, the natural world.   I was just reading through it and found this passage, so appropriate for the season:  “If she’d known how much work there would be in August, she would have considered July a vacation.  The garden was like a baby bird in reverse, calling to her relentlessly, opening its maw and giving, giving…She had put up thirty pints of kosher dills and still had so many cucumbers that she was having desperate thoughts.”


  1. The 1993 movie adaptation of the children’s book “The Secret Garden” is a beautiful film that makes you believe in the restorative power of gardening.

    No sweaty, stained gardeners though, so perhaps it’s not all that realistic. But delightful nonetheless.

    Weren’t there some token gardening scenes in “The Constant Gardener”? Even better, how about French film “Jean de Florette” and its sequel, “Manon of the Spring”? There’s definitely some sweaty, back-breaking gardening going on in both of those great movies.

  2. Amy,
    Nothing by the wonderful English garden writer Beverley Nichols???? Oh, the shame!!! Especially “Merry Hall” – great read in the winter by the fireplace with a glass of Brandy! and his cat books are great too! – but we’re kitty lovers also, so a might bit prejudiced 😉

    You can get them on

  3. For watching, how about “Rosemary and Thyme”, which is on PBS in the U.S. It is about two gardeners who work on refurbishing gardens in England (and Europe) and everywhere they go, someone gets murdered and they help solve the mystery. Interwoven into the story about the murder, they are “somewhat” gardening, and the ending and wrap up generally take place in whatever garden they’ve re-done. It is somewhat of the same genre as “Murder, She Wrote”. No gore, just a mystery to solve. After a while, you do wonder why someone is always murdered when they show up to work on a garden! It’s not a movie, but it does have a gardening theme woven through each scene.

  4. For recent (year 2000 and after) movies with good garden scenes to check out:
    – The Constant Gardener (only brief scenes, but exquisite ones)
    – Calendar Girls (more crying, than gardening – but still lovely scenery)
    – Greenfingers (not the horror film, the one with prisoners entering the Chelsea Garden Show)
    – Ladies in Lavender (too die for gardens)
    – Harrison’s Flowers (this movie is brilliant, but overlooked – see it – and not just for the garden/flowetr scenes)

  5. Wow, I have a gardening friend who died last year. I’m definitely going to check out Rose’s Garden and see if I think it might be nice to send to her husband (who better be taking care of her garden or I’m quite sure she’ll haunt him).

  6. Mike Leigh’s incredible 1980 movie Grown-Ups uses gardening in a very interesting way. A pair of middle-class, middle-aged teachers are scandalized by the young working class couple who move into the council house next door–in part, because the young morons do nothing with their greenhouse.

    The great moment in the movie arrives when the middle-class woman suddenly realizes what she’s been missing. Gardening has been a substitute for love, sex, and children.

  7. I forgot – Minority Report! This is supposed to be just outside DC (my stomping grounds :-), but the shots of the the private garden of ‘Dr. Iris Hineman’ were done on location at Descanso Gardens near Pasadena, CA. The real garden’s vines unfortunatet do not really come attack intruders – still awaiting THAT particular genetic advance. 😉

  8. I don’t have any novels or films to contribute, but I get equally annoyed finding unrealistic depictions of gardens in children’s books. Not only the iconic yet unrealistic daisy shape, but realistically rendered flowers that couldn’t possibly be growing at the same time–tulips and asters, for example. At a time in history when our children spend less time than ever before immersed in the outdoors, we don’t need pretend flowers in illustrations that are otherwise attempting to be realistic.

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