Country & Garden: No need to dig for dusty old tomes

If you can't find a favourite antiquarian gardening book, don't worry because diligent searching can often unearth copies in facsimile form. And the hunt will be well worth it.
I SHOULD like to say that I am a collector of antiquarian gardening books, but I am not. Or certainly not a devoted one who makes a hobby of it, setting aside a sum of money each year for buying them, and never passing up a specialist catalogue, or walking past a second-hand bookshop window, without diving in. Moreover, I am slightly foxed, as the book catalogues put it, by the notion of buying a book more for its rarity value, or the quality of the binding and paper, than for what it contains.

Although I have several shelves of second-hand gardening books, I find I am often as happy to buy a reprint or facsimile edition as an original. Gardening classics are books which, however long ago they were published, still speak to us elegantly and forcefully, illuminating some aspect of the business of gardening and gardens, to which we can still respond. The fact that much of the practical or botanical information has long since lost its meaning or relevance, and may even be downright misleading, is neither here nor there.

The problem is that the true classics of earlier times are often hard to find, even in late editions. There are more than enough bibliophiles and collectors to ensure that. Often, the most affordable and available are the ephemera of an earlier age, most of which should have died with it. For every prized set of EA Bowles's trilogy about his garden at Myddelton House, there will be several copies of Alfred Austin's The Garden that I Love or Mrs Cran's The Garden of Experience (earlier women garden writers were much given to discursive chat about the benefits of public school, or how to deal with Cook, so count yourself lucky).

Fortunately, some years ago a number of specialist publishers cottoned on to this, so that there are reprints and facsimiles of the best classics to be found, either new or in second-hand bookshops and catalogues. Thanks to Timber Press, for example, it is possible to buy Bowle's My Garden in Spring and My Garden in Summer in facsimile form, and the last of the three, My Garden in Autumn and Winter, will be published next year. The cover price is pounds 17.99, which puts it within range of all who do not flinch at buying a hardback book.

Facsmiles (published by the Antique Collectors' Club) also exist for the vast majority of Gertrude Jekyll's works, which deserve to be read not just for the elegance and lightly ironic tone of the prose, but for the enormous influence that she has had on 20th-century gardening. The major work of her contemporary, William Robinson's The English Flower Garden went through so many editions, that it is still relatively easy to find, particularly in the version edited by Roy Hay in the 1950s.

Some wonderful literature has been produced (and still is), as a result of the pains and pleasures of plant-hunting and collecting, of which the best known examples in this century are the many books by Frank Kingdon- Ward and Reginald Farrer. Farrer is probably most famous for his The English Rock Garden in two volumes, unfortunately not available in facsimile and often to be encountered in book catalogues. His prose is not for the verbally squeamish, nevertheless no one has ever described better the excitement of finding a new plant in the wild.

Other well known names to look out for on dusty spines are John Claudius Loudon, his wife Jane, S Reynolds Hole (Dean of Rochester), Mrs C W Earle, Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish. Sometimes it is fun to go down the byways of earlier literature, with the help of lesser-known authors, such as AT Johnson, EB Anderson, Sir Edward Salisbury, Jason Hill, Alice Coats, and the aptly-named Sir Arthur Hort. HE Bates's gardening books, such as A Love of Flowers, are a delight, as you would expect.

As for modern classics, I hesitate to name names, for that would be invidious, but I am willing to bet that there are at least half-a-dozen contemporary gardening authors, whose books will be read for pleasure, for both what they say, and the elegance with which they say it, by the bibliophiles of the 22nd century. It is pleasant to think that our garden-minded descendants will have the same fun as we have had.