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The Virago Book of Women Gardeners

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Reading is a way to expand your mind, and try on new ideas for a little while. It is invaluable to growing your view on horticulture, and even the world! We have compiled a group of book reviews on all topics relating to Women in Horticulture to help you find the perfect book.


If you have read a great book lately on any topic included under the umbrella of "Women in Horticulture" send us your book review on it! We'll publish your name with the review, so you get all the credit for your suggestion. 

Community Reviews

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education By Michael Pollan

Review by Alexis Bacon

If you have ever wondered about the ethics and history behind common gardening practices such as mowing a lawn, planting a tree, making compost, or whether we should tolerate weeds in our garden beds, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education is a fascinating read. Hillarious, honest, sincere, and philosophical, this book is framed by the story of Michael Pollan's failures and triumphs in his own garden. However, Pollan's writing is much more expansive than to only include his personal experiences; he often seeks the advice of our great nature writers, gardeners, and landscape designers to arrive at his own ethical code for gardening. Pollan's opinions on gardening are enlightening, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Several of his practices (like planting a Norway maple in his yard) are questionable, but this may be more a result of the time the book was written than his level of expertise. Michael Pollan's masterful story-telling makes for an engrossing read from cover to cover, and I highly recommend this book to any gardener!

Fern Grower's Manual

By Barbara Joe Hoshizaki & Robbin C. Morrin

Review By Anna Bower

For anyone interested in ferns, I recommend the Fern Grower’s Manual by Barbara Joe Hoshizaki and Robbin C. Moran. The authors cover a wide range of fern topics, from propagation, to cultural needs, and botanical structures. The bulk of the book consists of black and white illustrations of over 700 fern taxa commonly found in cultivation. This is my go-to book when I am trying to identify ferns because the diagrams are easy to read and highlight relevant characteristics. Whether you are a professional or amateur, this book is an excellent resource for learning more about ferns and fern allies.

Coming Home to Eat

By Gary Paul Nabhan

Review By Kathy Salisbury

Described as one of the first books in the local food movement, Gary Paul Nabhan writes about what many of us from the east coast may think of as impossible – growing vegetable in the desert. Documenting his effort to eat only foods “grown, finished, or gathered within 220 miles of his Arizona home.”  The important message in this book is to think about what we consider food differently.


With this experiment Nabhan explores what food can be. With our global consumer culture we are able to get green peppers, bananas, blueberries and nearly anything else any time of the year. We want it – we can go to the grocery store and get it. What Nabhan explores is regional foods, local foraging and gathering traditions and the impact of their loss in our culture, and redefining food as we think of it now. He finds lost foods, examines local food traditions, makes his own pasta while visiting and learning from all types of people involved in the burgeoning local food movement of the time.

American Chestnut

By Susan Freinkel

Review By Dianne Walker

The American Chestnut was one of America's most common, valued, and beloved trees—a "perfect tree" that ruled the East coast forests from Maine to Georgia.  In 1904 the unthinkable happened.  The American Chestnut tree fell victim to a virulent pathogen that came to be known as the “Chestnut Blight”. On its Asian home turf it was harmless but imported here,  it spread like wildfire.  It was one of the worst environmental and ecological blows to North America since the Ice Age—and one most experts considered beyond repair.


In American Chestnut, Susan Freinkel beautifully tells the dramatic story filled with a cast of characters and the “persistent optimists who refused to let this cultural icon go.”   

In a compelling passage through history, science, and collective sweat equity, she maps out the journey to save the American Chestnut through “methods that range from classical plant breeding to cutting-edge gene technology”,  that feverishly continues today. 


These dedicated scientist worked tirelessly with little funding but were undeterred by setbacks or skeptics, and fueled by their dreams of restored forests.


“ Still in the challenging ground of daily practice, that a seed of faith blossoms and grows— from the isolated efforts of a handful of scientists to a movement several thousand strong: from belief that it is possible to right one human-inflicted ecological wrong to the conviction that future wrongs must be prevented. In the case of the chestnut, faith in a seed has summoned a grace that is far-reaching.” 

Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White.
Edited with an introduction by E.B. White.

Review by Patrice Todisco

In 1958 The New Yorker published the groundbreaking article “Onward and Upward in the Garden” by Katharine S. White. An editor of the magazine since its founding, White was
nearing retirement. A passionate, and opinionated, gardener, she would pen fourteen pieces on the topic over a twelve-year period. In this her first, published under the heading BOOKS, White wrote a critical review of garden catalogues, elevating them to the sphere of
contemporary literature. To say people were surprised would be an understatement.

Most surprised of all was her husband, children’s book author and essayist, E.B. White. So much so that in 1977, two years following her death, he edited and wrote the introduction for Onward and Upward in the Garden, a book containing her garden pieces. Reissued as a New York Review Books Classic in 2015, it is the second garden book to be so honored. The first, should you wonder, is British gardener Russell Page’s Education of a Gardener in 2007.


I return to Onward and Upward in the Garden frequently. Each piece can be read and savored on its own merit. As E.B. White notes in his concluding essay, there are few American books that deal with horticulture and plants as a true branch of literature. White’s pieces for The New Yorker achieved both.


A traditionalist, for White the garden was a world where the practical intersected with the intellectual. The catalogues of seedsmen and nurserymen (described as her favorite reading
matter) were as worthy of consideration as those of historians and botanists. She wrote
extensively about new trends in gardening. In 1962 she reviewed Her Garden Was Her Delight: Famous Women Gardeners, a collection of twenty essays by famous women gardeners, writing that “women gardeners, botanists, botanical artists, plant collectors and garden writers have played a part in the horticultural history of our country.” Indeed. How far we have come.


The title, Onward and Upward in the Garden, is borrowed from a Unitarian phrase and underscores both White’s pragmatism and New England sensibility. Described in the book’s introduction as owning no gardening clothes and more likely to visit her garden in a pair of Ferragamo shoes than work boots, she is a study in contrasts. Sensible and stylish. Once a year, in what is described by her husband as a ceremony, she donned a shabby Brooks Brothers raincoat and oversaw, with military precision, the laying out of the spring bulb garden described as “a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft.”


Witchcraft or not, E.B. White notes that his beloved Katharine aspired to author a garden book, wishing to write one more piece – a reminiscence of the gardens of her childhood. While this final piece, unachievable due to ill health was never realized, Onward and Upward in the Garden serves as her legacy to the canon of American garden literature.

Patrice Todisco writes about parks and gardens at the award-winning blog, Landscape Notes.    

Nature's Temple

By Joan Maloof

Review by Eva Monheim

Joan Maloof writes an amazing book on the importance of old growth forests. She talks about the enormous affect these woodlands have on the environment and on diversity.  Side by side, she compares old growth forests with one-hundred year old forests and new forests (about forty years old) and there is a vast difference in the understory between these three types of woodlands.  She has begun the Old-Growth Forest Network to identify and save remaining old growth forests. Maloof's book is a must read for all who care about the environment.


By Lisa Halliday

Review by Barbara Stremple

Asymmetry is the first publication by writer Lisa Halliday and I can only hope she is working on her next. This interesting story about a young woman, embarking on a relationship with a famous writer who is four decades her elder, is written so well that I just wished it had lasted longer. The book consists of three separate parts and initially I did not see how they were related - the realization of the connection was part of the fun of reading this masterfully written book.

Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn

By Hannah Homes

Review By Kathy Salisbury

​Any book by an author Mary Roach describes as a “freewheeling, goofball Rachel Carson” is one for my bookshelf. If you are a person who watches all of the nature in your backyard closely, with curiosity, without repulsion you have found a companion in Hannah Holmes.


She spent a year exploring the nature in hers. Bringing in regional experts to help her understand what she is seeing under her field microscope and befriending a chipmunk, Hannah describes the everyday drama of her yard. Detailing the interactions of plants, insects and mammals her writing is funny, accurate and accessible.


While this is a book I recommend to the casual home gardener and amateur naturalist if only to show them they are not alone, rest assured even the most knowledgeable can learn something new and enjoy a good laugh within the pages.

Lab Girl

By Hope Jahren

Review By Alix Coombs

“I look at an awful lot of leaves. I look at them and ask questions. I start by looking at the color: Exactly what shade of green? Top different from bottom?...How big is the leaf?...Now you ask a question about your leaf. Guess what? You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong…So let me tell you some stories, one scientist to another (Prologue, p. 3).”

This is how Hope Jahren starts her book.


The book is primarily an auto-biography depicting her experiences as a plant scientist. It is separated into three sections; Roots and Leaves, Wood and Knots and Flowers and Fruit.

In the first section, Hope describes her upbringing in rural Minnesota, especially her time in her father’s lab at a community college. It was in her father’s lab that she felt most at home and this fostered a life-long passion for scientific research. The remainder of the first section details her path to becoming a plant scientist; starting out working in a hospital making intravenous bags to eventually getting her PhD from University of California Berkeley and teaching at a university. Along the way you meet the eccentric Bill, who becomes Hope’s research partner in crime and best friend.


The second section finds Hope and Bill traveling from California to Atlanta, Georgia and setting up Hope’s first research lab. They have several adventures and misadventures along the way. They have numerous struggles both financial, professional and emotional. Section two is a great example of Hope’s writing style. She alternates chapters between deep thoughts about plants and their role in the world and dialog about Bill and herself. The plant chapters are always brilliantly connected to the next point in her story. The dialog chapters a little tongue-in-cheek yet pithy. The chapter documenting a class field trip to Monkey Jungle is particularly entertaining.

Hope makes many quotable statements throughout the book. Two of my favorites are as follows; “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited (p.31).” And “ Because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along” (p.277).


The section ends with Hope and Bill leaving Atlanta and securing jobs at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. From there, in section three, they do research in Alaska and Norway. Hope gets married and has a son. She shares her challenges of being a working mother and wife. The book ends with Hope and Bill working in Hawaii. They agree that she should write a book about their adventures.


In March of 2018, Hope was invited to be the center speaker at a panel discussion at Longwood Gardens. Lab Girl had been chosen as the community read for this year. The theme of the discussion was “Celebrating Women in Science and Horticulture”.  There were two other panelists; a Scientific Investigator at GlaxoSmithKline and president of the Women in Science Philadelphia Chapter and a local Food Safety and Water Quality Extension Educator. Hope chose to speak last. The first two panelists thoroughly explained their background and why they are both passionate about their careers. One passionate about making science careers accessible to women, the other about assessing the food safety needs of the Latino community. Hope simply chose to share some readings from her book. Her selections accomplished a similar goal, they documented her deep-seated passion for research that started in her father’s lab.

After each panelist had finished introducing themselves, the floor was opened up for participant questions. I wish I could remember more of the specific questions that were asked, but in general, they ranged from the future of women in science and horticulture to questions about a specific panelist’s background.

One thing that Hope said still resonates with me. She was asked about the importance of starting clubs in at her University where women are encouraged to pursue careers in science. Her response was that she didn’t agree with having gender specific clubs. After all, she pointed out, men are still having trouble gaining respect as nurses.


At the end of the session, participants were allowed to talk to the panelists in a more informal meet and greet. We could also get our Lab Girl book autographed by Hope. I waited in the long line to get my book signed. It took a while because she talked to each of us at length. When it was my turn, I nervously told her how my mother, a paleontologist, had used her research on Celtis (Hackberry) to examine the forage habits of the prehistoric mammal she studies. Hope obligingly signed my book with the following inscription “To Alix, who has Celtis fans in her family”. 

In closing, Lab Girl is a fascinating read for both scientist and non-scientist. Hope makes her research and her life both relatable and raw, which is no easy task when you’re using words like mass spectrophotometer and soil profile. I should caution that some of the language used might be upsetting to some readers. There is liberal use of certain swear words. Fellow plant nerds like myself will find the plant focused chapters particularly engrossing. Non-plant nerds might even discover that plants are actually pretty cool. The book appeals to the scientist hidden in all of us.

We learned about this book through Martha Keen's class "Heroines in Horticulture". Excellent pick, Martha! This is a great introduction to historic women in horticulture.


Love, Life, and Elephants

By Daphne Sheldrick

Dame Daphne Sheldrick's dedication to conservation is inspiring across all fields. Her memoir is an honest and stunning love story of nature and her homeland, Kenya.


The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Emma Maris challenges our ideas of what "wild" and "natural" actually mean in our modern world. Her thought process is provocative, but still hopeful! A joy to read.

The Language of Flowers

By Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Review by Rachel Hutchins

A New York Times Bestseller, The Language of Flowers is a interwoven story of love, loss, motherhood, and redemption. Raised in the foster care system, Victoria Jones is a mistrustful young woman who makes sense of the world through flowers. She learns the secret meanings Victorians used to convey in their floral arrangements from her foster care mother, Elizabeth, who deeply shapes the story's narrative. As Victoria leaves the foster care system and strives to live on her own, she's given the opportunity to overcome the hurt in her past to embrace the life of love and acceptance she's always wanted. I highly recommend this beautiful and poignant story to anyone with a love for flowers and an interest in deep relationships!

The Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader

By Joan Dye Gussow

Review By Kathy Salisbury

After I lent this book to my neighbor she was transformed and inspired. She now cans and stocks her basement shelves and freezer with sauces and soups made from the local harvest, whenever it is ready. She thinks a lot about her family’s food and where it comes from. Her young daughters now do too.


Joan makes you want to think more thoughtfully about your food, inspiring you to want to grow your own, despite the honest descriptions of set-backs and challenges in her own small garden. The book is dotted with recipes highlighting the bounty of each season between garden instruction. Joan also acknowledges the challenges presented by the climate and conditions of the northeast and offers her solutions to balancing her want to eat as locally and organically as possible and needing to eat healthy and diverse meals even in the winter months.

Eating Dirt

Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with Tree-Planting Tribe

By Charlotte Gill

Review By Kathy Salisbury

Eating Dirt is the most perfect title for this book. Charlotte Gill’s description of her nomadic life following behind timber and utility companies planting tiny tree seedlings replacing the giants conglomerates took down leaves you feeling like you need to floss soil from your smile.  Reading this I felt gritty and sandblasted. I felt her aches – muscle and heart.


Who knew there were teams of men and women, mostly men, going around being paid by the seedling to replace what has been removed. Moving from location to location with alternating stunning views of the pacific northwest and decimation of forests, Gill invited you into this little-known world of transient tree-planters. Old growth forest decimation, the soldier-like stands of second growth forest, the stumps of recent harvests and the tiny root masses of new trees are their own characters described in such detail you think maybe your boots are dirty because you were out there with her.

Beth Chatto: A Life with Plants by Catherine Horwood 

Review by Patrice Todisco

One of the most influential plantswomen of the past hundred years, Beth Chatto’s motto “Right place, right plant” resonates across the gardening world.  While today the practice of 
providing garden plants with an environment closely resembling their natural habitats is widely accepted, it was Chatto, winner of ten gold medals at London’s Chelsea Flower Show, who first championed the concept.    

Biographer Catherine Horwood worked closely with Chatto to write Beth Chatto: A Life with Plants. Accessing Chatto's extensive personal archives of daily diaries, travel notebooks, and correspondence, Horwood provides a complete and intimate portrait of Chatto, from her childhood in a small Essex village to her career as a horticulturist, author, international lecturer, and garden designer.   

"I had no idea where or how I would go but I somehow felt I was driven or had the energy to discover a wider world," Chatto wrote of her childhood.  Determined, intellectually curious, and keenly attuned to nature, she had little formal horticultural training. Her earliest successes were as a self-taught floral designer whose naturalistic creations were as likely to feature plants foraged from local hedgerows as from the garden. 

Chatto nurtured many close friendships which influenced the direction of her career.  Painter Sir Cedric Morris’s garden of rare and unusual perennials provided artistic inspiration. Dear Friend and Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening, co-authored with Great Dixter’s Sir Christopher Lloyd, is a chronicle of their lengthy experiences as both good (and highly opinionated) friends and gardeners.   

Chatto first exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show in 1976. Her display, featuring plants in naturalistic settings, was in dramatic contrast to other formal exhibits. She so impressed journalist Graham Rose of The Sunday Times that he visited her garden and nursery during what was one of Great Britain's hottest summers. His subsequent article, 'Blooming Arid,' detailed recommendations of "unusual plants" suited to drought as well as plans for planting an arid garden and was a turning point in Chatto’s career. In 1978, her first book, The Dry Garden, was published, firmly establishing her garden and nursery. 

Chatto wrote more than eight books (not counting those that have been republished).  Beth Chatto's Plants and Gardens remains a destination for people who are passionate about plants and gardens. In 2015 the Beth Chatto Education Trust was founded to enhance enjoyment, understanding, and interest in plants, gardens, and the environment using ecological approaches to planting design.  Chatto passed away at age 94 in 2018. 

Patrice Todisco writes about parks and gardens at the award-winning blog, Landscape Notes.    

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