Garden Library Profile #2: Amy Stewart

Amystewartredsm It gives me giddy pleasure to present the next installment in my garden library series: highlights from the shelves of one of my favorite garden writers, Amy Stewart. Back when I was taking my first stabs at planting, Amy's witty and informative memoir of making her first garden, From the Ground Up, gave me the courage to launch a full-frontyard assault on my own lawn. I've since devoured her inquiries into the secret lives of earthworms and the ills of the cut-flower industry, and I’m already making room next to my bed for this spring’s Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities, which promises an abundance of evilly fascinating plantfacts (see creepy trailer here). Along with her blog, Dirt, she’s a driving force behind GardenRant, an award-winning blog whose manifesto never fails to make me want to pump my muddy fist in solidarity.

Amy and her husband also own an antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, California, so I knew her garden library would be well worth perusing. Enjoy. -- Mari Malcolm How would you describe your garden library?

Amy Stewart: Overgrown—like my garden. I have six shelves of garden books right next to my desk, and a long and completely overstuffed shelf of coffee table-sized books as well. Oh wait—that doesn’t include the books that I buy as reference materials for each of the books I’ve written, so there’s also a shelf of poisonous plant books, a shelf of earthworm books, and a shelf of books on the cut flower industry. Oh, and then there are the garden books that, for some reason, get shelved with general fiction and nonfiction, which is a whole other section of the house. It is really, really out of hand. And my husband and I own a used bookstore, so there’s no excuse for me not to get rid of some of them. Except that I can’t. What was your first garden book?

Sunset-cover Amy Stewart: I didn’t start gardening until I was an adult, so there’s no childhood book about gardening in my past, unless you count The Secret Garden, which I read many times as a kid. The Sunset Western Garden Book was the first actual garden book I bought for information. Someone who worked at a garden center actually made fun of me for not owning it, so I was shamed into buying it. But it really is the first reference book anybody on the West Coast should buy, and each edition gets better. Who’s your favorite garden writer?

Amy Stewart: I was very inspired by Carl Klaus's lovely book My Vegetable Love and his subsequent Weathering Winter, both written in a highly literary diary style. He’s a wonderfully thoughtful writer, and we’ve gotten to be friends over the years.

 Also, anything by Sue Hubbell. Book-beesI especially love A Country Year and A Book of Bees. I read her book on bees and thought, Oh. If she can make bees that interesting, maybe I can make worms interesting.

 And of course, Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden and anything by her husband, E.B. White. I especially recommend One Man’s Meat, an amazing collection of essays about country life written in the years leading up to WWII. We know what’s going to happen and he doesn’t, which makes the essays unexpectedly dramatic.

I also really love good fiction that revolves around a garden, but not in a way that feels formulaic. Carrie Brown’s Rose's Garden is a great example, as is Bailey White’s Quite a Year for Plums and Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries. They each have a character or two who garden, but it comes so naturally that it never feels forced. Design-plants What book has most influenced your gardening style?

Amy Stewart: Anything by Piet Oudolf. I love the Lurie Garden in Chicago, which he designed. He favors plants that are very vigorous, almost aggressive, and plants that look good when they’re dead. What a concept—a garden that is interesting to look at year-round! Which book in your collection has the most inspiring images?

Grasses-cover Amy Stewart: I love Grasses by Nancy Ondra, with photos by Saxon Holt. I was completely not into ornamental grasses until I saw that book, and it changed my mind. I have replanted my front yard garden because of that book. Really, any book that Saxon photographed is worth checking out. What’s your most essential reference book?

Amy Stewart: That would still be Sunset’s Western Garden Book. California has so many odd little microclimates that you really need very region-specific advice on what grows here. But now that I live in Eureka, I also really like a new book called The Timber Press Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest. What’s so great about it is that it doesn’t try to cover every single plant one might theoretically grow out here—it focuses on what works. Which volume in your collection has the most sentimental value?

Amy Stewart: My husband has given me a few rare old botanical books over the years. I’m afraid to own anything too valuable—I’m sure I’ll spill coffee on it or ruin it somehow—but he gave me an early edition of Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany with color plates that’s really wonderful. The hand coloring is as bright as if it was done yesterday. What’s your favorite recent addition?

Stylish-sheds Amy Stewart: I really like Jeff Gillman’s books The Truth About Organic Gardening and The Truth About Garden Remedies. He’s not afraid to question long-cherished beliefs about what works in the garden, and he’s a very funny person. Go see him speak if you ever get the chance.

Oh, and Debra Prinzing wrote a book called Stylish Sheds that is so fun and inspiring. She visited the novelist Amy Bloom, whose work I love. She has an amazing writer’s cottage—I want one! What’s on your wish list?

Poisonous-plants Amy Stewart: Timber Press always has something I want. They have a new book coming out called Tall Perennials that looks great—I am really into tall plants that make you feel completely surrounded. And I think they have a couple of new poisonous plant books. Even though my new book, Wicked Plants, is done, I still want these to complete my collection. They are: The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms and Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World.

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Comments (8)

Great series. I especially enjoyed reading about the literary preferences of one of my favorite garden writers, Amy Stewart! It's interesting to see what she is digesting and the subjects she is drawn to. Very telling!

Looking forward to more interviews.
Shirley Bovshow "EdenMaker"

Posted by: Shirley Bovshow "EdenMaker" | Monday January 26, 2009 at 7:09 PM


I'm so glad you found it, and that you're a fellow Amy Stewart fan! It is totally fascinating to see the niche interests people gravitate to within the wider world of plants and ecosystems, and how books can lead you down weird and wonderful rabbit holes.

As someone who's totally obsessed by gardens and books, I'm really excited about all the amazing people who are interested in contributing. I've always wanted to rummage around the shelves of my gardening idols, and a getting guided tour is even more fun.

Stay tuned (and keep an eye out for my request for your *own* library profile....).

Posted by: Mari Malcolm | Tuesday January 27, 2009 at 8:21 PM

Helen Humphreys' book The Lost Garden is a beautiful book set in WWII England for anyone who loves gardens.

Posted by: Claudia Cayne | Wednesday January 28, 2009 at 6:52 AM

I really enjoyed "The Lost Garden," too, Claudia--thanks for mentioning it. Helen Humphreys' new novel, "Coventry," has nothing to do with gardens, but delivers some very haunting scenes from the night the Germans leveled Coventry. It's also slim--you could read it all in one long evening.

Posted by: Mari Malcolm | Wednesday January 28, 2009 at 8:19 AM

Books and gardening are two of my passions, so I naturally think gardening books are the greatest things going, especially in the middle of winter. This is a great series; I'm already adding books to my "to read" shelf on GoodReads. Thanks for running this.

Posted by: Mr. McGregor's Daughter | Thursday January 29, 2009 at 7:10 AM

Books and gardening are two of my passions, so I naturally think gardening books are the greatest things going, especially in the middle of winter. This is a great series; I'm already adding books to my "to read" shelf on GoodReads. Thanks for running this.

Posted by: Mr. McGregor's Daughter | Thursday January 29, 2009 at 7:12 AM

I really enjoyed this charming interview with Amy. However, I now added three more gardening books to my ever-growing list. Yikes! Where will I put anymore?~~Dee

Posted by: Dee/reddirtramblings | Saturday January 31, 2009 at 5:54 AM

Thanks to Amy and the bloggers at Garden Rant for directing us to this site. This seems like the place to go to discuss gardening books. I enjoyed reading about what writers like Amy have in their library and would like to have. Looking forward to more interviews!

Posted by: Carol, May Dreams Gardens | Saturday January 31, 2009 at 8:34 AM

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