Gardening books that stand the test of time

Over the past decade or so, a fair number of new publications of New Zealand gardening books have come across my desk for review. Precious few remain on the bookshelf. After being critical of the recent offerings for the Christmas market, I wondered at the manner in which NZ publishers are reacting in the face of competition from the internet. With all the information in the world available on one’s computer screen with a click of the mouse, I would have thought that the future of the reference book was as a highly credible, accurate, reliable, expert presentation of related information in one place. After all, one has to wade through a vast amount of dross on the internet and weed out unreliable information. It is often easier and a great deal more convenient to reach for the traditional book, but only if you trust its contents.

Reference books often used to be peer reviewed before publication to iron out errors and to identify problem areas. Wide ranging topics often had multiple authors, each working in their own area of expertise. Authors had solid credentials and there was a general expectation that information be accurate. Books were produced on the assumption that they could last for years, maybe even decades, and good ones would be reprinted. It took time to produce a new book.

Not anymore. The NZ gardening book today is more akin to the glossy magazine. Here today and gone tomorrow but looks good in the short time it is in demand. Who cares about the rest of it as long as the customer is seduced into buying it right now?

In both NZ books and magazines, the advice being dispensed so freely in visually appealing ways is too often coming from commercial interests which want to sell product to the consumer. And it is not always accurate advice, let alone best practice. Bring back independent, non aligned advice and information, I say. You know – the sort of information we used to get from books. I like to think that readers are neither dumb nor gullible. Would that NZ publishers thought the same way. Alas, they have redefined readers as consumers.

This train of thought led me to look at the books which we reach for regularly. We own a lot of gardening books. The dross goes to charity. Many of the specialist ones are particular to our interests but there are a few more general ones that we use regularly and which have stood the test of time and I am happy to recommend for any gardener’s bookshelf. Some will only be available second hand – try Touchwood Books who offer a mail order service.

1) Bulbs for New Zealand Gardeners and Collectors by Terry Hatch and Jack Hobbs. First published by Godwit in 1995, it may look a little dated and it is not the most comprehensive bulb book available. But it is accurate, written for NZ conditions and covers the bulb material available here. We trust it.
2) The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (Redwood Press). The version we have has no pictures but is still the best comprehensive listing of trees and shrubs we know. There are good reasons why it has had multiple reprints and editions.

3) Grow It Yourself Vegetables by Andrew Steens (Batemans, 2010). It is not the smartest looking of the latest crop of vegetable books and the sow/harvest diagrams are an unreliable afterthought, but the text is practical, helpful and reliable. According to Mark, the real gem if you can find it, is Vegetable Growing in New Zealand by J A McPherson and F J E Jolie. It was published by Whitcomb and Tombs and we have the sixth edition with no date but it retailed for three shillings and sixpence.
4) Koanga Garden Guide by Kay Baxter (Body and Soul, 2007). Simply the best and most comprehensive guide to organic and sustainable fruit and veg gardening that we have found. It is self published and a little rough around the edges (the edition we have lacks an index which makes it harder to use), but serious gardeners will read it cover to cover and take heed. What is more, they will keep going back to it which is a measure of a good book.
5) Like a shining beacon of hope, came New Zealand’s Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas from Craig Potton Publishers this year. A comprehensive, high quality and credible publication which is likely to remain on the bookshelf as a key reference for decades to come. We never did get the definitive two volume edition of Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand (latest version is 2007 from Te Papa Press) – equally credible and enduring but more expensive.

6) We still use the 1993 Perennial Gardening in New Zealand by Christine Dann (Bridget Williams Books), particularly for identification.
7) The old (and I mean really old) Department of Agriculture publications on fruit trees – the bulletins and their 1973 book “The Home Orchard”. Treasure these, if you find them. Technically they are still very good on basic fruits though they are way out of date now with modern options and new cultivars. Use them for information on planting, pruning and general care but with the proviso that the excessive and toxic spray regimes can be totally ignored. They have their origins in the Chemical Ali times and we have since moved on.

I cannot think that many of the New Zealand gardening books published in recent times will still be on the bookshelves in decades years to come. Even fewer will be a resource of first choice. What happened to professional pride?

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

1 thought on “Gardening books that stand the test of time

  1. Helen Irvine

    So glad you mentioned the Department of Agriculture bulletins.They also put one out “The Home Vegetable Garden” I have them all,Fruit & Vegetable & though dated as to varies etc the basic advice is still good.Just ignore a lot of the chemical advice,go for the practice. Even shows folk how to dry onions.I gave a talk to the Hort Society down here & took these books.One man had had them & pitched them out because they were not organic. They were on paper!! & it is the advice you are going for,don’t worry about the chemicals.Ralph Ballinger also wrote a couple of good books & then there are the Harrison guides.You can still get these on Trade Me. I have got them for my kids as they cannot have mine yet. I am not dead.

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