Why I think we all should make an effort to buy old gardening books.
I’ve been a professional gardener for over 30 years. When I started my career I couldn’t always afford expensive new gardening books so I often searched through charity shops, jumble sales and car boot sales for old books. Nowadays its much easier with the likes of Ebay and Facebook Marketplace for example.
As a result I have bookcases all over my home with hundreds of old gardening books. Most of them I’ve paid a few pence for or a couple of quid. A lot do not have dust jackets, just plain exteriors and most were published after the Second World War. I usually ignore the section on chemicals used for pest and disease control although there are some old fashioned home remedies that are still safe and legal to use!
I always recommend Percy Thrower’s ‘How to Grow Vegetables and Fruit‘ to new kitchen gardeners but I can’t include a photograph of the book here because someone has borrowed it! I’ve lost count of the numbers of copies of the book I’ve bought over the years and given away. I was very fond of Percy Thrower. I remember watching him gardening in the Blue Peter Garden on TV. I used to always pick up copies I saw but its getting harder to get hold of. There are some brilliant new fruit and vegetable varieties that aren’t mentioned in this book but many of the old tried and tested stalwarts are included. He writes in a way that is easy to understand, it doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or experienced. He encourages you have a go and offers solutions as to why things may have gone wrong.
When buying secondhand gardening books always find out who the author was. For example a favourite book I refer to frequently is ‘The Pruning of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers’ by George E Brown. My copy was published in 1995 and wasn’t cheap when I bought it. The original version was published in 1972 and my version is updated and the flush cut techniques found in the first edition had been replaced by more modern theories. George Brown worked for decades as an assistant curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where he was in charge of the extensive arboretum. His knowledge was incredible and he wrote in an way that I understand and can visualise what I am trying to achieve.
Choosing a couple of random books from the shelves:
‘Popular Orchids‘ written by Brian and Wilma Rittershausen cost me 40p because the price is still inside the cover. The photos are black and white but the authors were the second generation to run the family orchid business so their knowledge is learned first-hand and not gleaned from information found on the internet which is sometimes what I have found in later published books that contain glossy colour photos but incorrect information. That’s not just true about orchid books but many other more recent gardening books.
‘Dahlias‘ by Philip Damp cost me 99p in 2015: it was published in 1987 and contains many colour photographs! I was amazed to learn how many varieties of dahlia that I thought were relatively new were in fact well- established when the book was written. Philip Damp was an international dahlia specialist and a long standing member of the National Dahlia Society. He wrote several other books about dahlias and received several honours from dahlia societies around the world.
Having read this blog I hope you will consider buying more second-hand gardening books and stop them disappearing into landfill or being recycled. They may be plainer than modern books, often missing a glossy cover and with no colour photographs inside, but the wealth of information we can learn from people who were in horticulture for decades and really knew their stuff still impresses me today with each new purchase: and my overloaded bookshelves are the proof of this!