How many gardening references do you really need? How much money can you sink into your garden and nature library and still have enough to spend on seeds or binoculars? I think those are two good questions. At least, those are two questions I ask myself almost every time I step into any "Giganto" chain bookstore and have dozens of beautiful volumes clutching at me. I certainly have more to learn about gardening and the wild world, but I have to find more economical ways to satisfy my reading needs.

spine Taylors Guide ShrubsI'm not saying you can never buy a garden book. Rank amateurs need questions answered, preferably now, and seasoned growers can't possibly remember everything. Garden-themed books abound, covering the whole range of expertise and a wide field of topics. When I was a beginning gardener and college freshman, my first big book was my Introduction to Horticulture class text, America's Garden Book by James and Louise Bush-Brown. (Can I claim to have saved money on that, since my parents paid for it? Thanks Mom and Dad!) Although at times the book dates itself, (could one really have a garden pool lined in lead or copper?) the writers thoroughly cover traditional American garden topics and specimens. You have to admit that the authors seem to know what they're talking about when they describe classes of narcissus, or tell you how to prune a shrub or propagate a begonia.

By the time I finished my degree, I was a more environmentally oriented plantperson, with a paying job. I subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine and bought a copy of Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. I still refer to this book often and not just for vegetable gardening; ornamental specimens can benefit from organic practices too.

With two good all-around gardening references on my shelf, I refuse to buy another at retail price. But I have bought a book--at a good bargain price--at my local used-book store. My references were chock full of information but devoid of photographs, and I wanted a book with lots of pictures to leaf through. For a pittance, I picked up a practically-new Encyclopedia of Annuals and Perennials by C. Colston Burrell, full of color pictures. When Wildflowers of America book spinea chill wind blows, I snuggle down inside and look through page after page of gorgeous flowers. My used book store typically sells books for less than half of the cover price. To be fair, the "Giganto" bookstores have a perennial display of bargain books. The beauty (pun intended) of a visual encyclopedia-type book, whether it focuses (another pun intended) on trees, or tropicals, is the greater extent of species and cultivar information you'll get. General references can't go in depth on one topic the way a specialty book can.

Buying used nature and garden books makes me feel somewhat virtuous, like when I recycle. Yard sales and rummage sales may yield the occasional treasure, such as my dad's recently snatched up, twenty-year-old but still entirely accurate, National Geographic Society Field Guide to Birds of North America. A used bookstore maintains a supply of such books, great for browsing when the weather prohibits yard work or a stroll in the park. At the Book Nook in Glen Burnie, Maryland, I picked up a 1968 Wild Flowers of America by H. W. Rickett. The bulk of this book is reproductions of full page paintings by Mary Vaux Walcott originally published by The Smithsonian Institution. ( I figure they know quality nature art when they see it.) Because of the bargain price, and because I already own an excellent and much more portable wildflower field guide (The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern), I actually thought I might remove pages from Wild Flowers of America and frame them for display. So far I haven't brought myself to cutting the book--it's taken me years of therapy just to be able to make pencil notes in books that'll have to be pried from my cold dead fingers. (Oddly, I discovered that one entire section of that book was inserted upside-down. That's a unique feature you won't find in a new volume at the "Giganto" stores!) Shopping for used books can sure be hit-or-miss, though. I find lots of books left over from the big herb craze of the 1970s. I see choices from the Ortho book series, which I find to be full of informative tables. Boy, I wish I had bought that Ortho Lawns guide for $4 instead of borrowing one from the library. The library copy fell victim to an unfortunate confluence of book, coffee mug and German shepard, and had to be replaced at cover price.

Ah, the library! That almost holy place of my youth, where I could gather an armful of books and take them home for FREE! Though I haven't seen it for 30-plus years, I can still picture the shelf that held my beloved My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George) and her series of biographical wild animal tales. Now I see the library rightly as an incredible Rodale book sprineresource of free (as long as you don't abuse it) material. My county has an excellent library system, and with internet access, I can search and reserve books from other branches and pick them up at my nearest facility. I've used this feature more lately, when verifying those few (sarcasm intended) article details that I'm not quite sure about. Along with the wisdom of my aging HORT 101 textbook, I sometimes need newer information, like recently introduced cultivars or the latest research on non-native species. My snazzy barcode-powered library card gives me short term priviledges to expensive volumes such as Michael Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, excellent series like Taylor's Guides, or the enjoyable New England Wildflower Society Native Trees and Shrubs and Vines, ... all are well worth the few twenty-cents-a-day overdue fines I might rack up.

It was the library that introduced me to a great field guide, The Illustrated Book of Wildflowers and Shrubs of Eastern North America by William Carey Grimm. Even though I already owned a good photographic field guide, this book uses line drawings for illustration and contains more extensive listings. Surprisingly, I felt I could more easily recognize an unknown plant when the scanning was reduce to the use of keys and simple illustrations showing more of the entire plant, than when I only had color flower closeups to look at. Rather plain-looking, this book wasn't stocked at my "Giganto" store. But with the Internet, my husband easily found several discounted and new copies a click away. When you have a particular, not quite mainstream, book in mind, internet shopping is the way to go.

Ah the Internet! When you can use the Internet, you don't even have to purchase or even check out a book to have loads of information at your fingertips. Our library has many computer terminals and they're well used. It's no wonder patrons spend hours on the computer, when they can use a great site like Dave's Garden with its extensive PlantFiles, BugFiles, Botanary and daily articles. Take it from me, you could read about plants all day in Dave's and never reach the end. University websites too are overflowing with good information. Most plant and seed vendors make some effort to educate the consumer; it makes good business sense to help ensure the customers' success. Since I'm trying to discuss books, I have to point out the Garden Bookworm listings, in which you'll find user comments on many of the books I've cited here. You might use the Bookworm to familiarize yourself with popular authors or publishers before visiting your used book store, so you'll know an incredible find when you see it.

Getting back to my point, if I have one... My point is, you can judiciously indulge in garden and nature books and publications while reserving some of your cash for other accessories to your hobby, like:

nursery plants, birdfeeders, seeds,

gloves, hiking boots, a camera,

a Dave's Garden subscription, row cover,

tulip bulbs, binoculars, pruning shears,

bulbs, kelp meal, loppers, cow pots,

wheelbarrow, wind chimes,

soil testing, chicken wire, potting soil,

black strap molasses, suet cakes, ...

Theme Week Alert! This article is one of a group focusing on a Garden and Nature Book Theme Week. Look for other articles March 17 to 23.

References and credits

Thumbnail photo taken by and property of the author and embellished by Marna Townes for Theme Week- Thanks, Marna!! All books cited are real books, but no references were used. I'm banking on the value of my personal opinions here.(at least as good as Wall Street lately).