Top 10: Books in Bloom

It’s the vernal equinox, and we’re celebrating (appropriately) with 10 books about gardening and growing things. Let these memoirs, essays, novels, and poetry collections take root in your mind.

A graphic displaying the text "Top 10 Reads: Books in Bloom. Gardening Books for the vernal equinox." The background is a photograph of purple crocuses.


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Top ten.
Garden Inventories.

10. Essays for seeing the similarities between plants and people

Writer Mariam Pirbhai came to gardening late in life, when she put down roots in Waterloo, Ontario. As her interactions with the natural world grew, both in her garden and the surrounding parks in her community, she began to notice the similarities between plants and people, through their fickle or easy adaptation, their ability to be uprooted and re-homed, and their at-times aggressive, colonizing natures. Pirbhai has chronicled her discoveries in Garden Inventories: Reflections on Land, Place, and Belonging (Wolsak & Wynn), a collection of humorous, insightful essays.

The Philosophy of Gardening.

9. An anthology for the pensive gardener

Why garden? It’s a question the writers, designers, and master gardeners attempt to answer in The Philosophy of Gardening (Invisible Publishing), an anthology edited by Blanka Stolz and translated from its original German by Karen Caruana. The resulting personal essays span garden aesthetics to tiny balcony gardening, foraging or living off the grid. Says Atlantic Books Today in their review: “Their insights into how and why we garden are universal and a delight to read… This is a book to read in the garden.”

Shepherd's Sight.

8. A memoir gently examining work and aging, through a shepherd’s eyes

Barbara McLean has cared for a flock of sheep for 50 years. In her new memoir Shepherd’s Sight: A Farming Life (ECW Press), she recounts a year in her farming life, meditating on the true joy she gets from the work – physically taxing though it is – and how aging might mean ending her shepherding for good. This book gets into the day-to-day of a shepherd’s life, including shearing wool and rearing and delivering lambs, as well as taking a longer view of agriculture, climate change, and environmental stewardship.


7. Essays and photographs about farming and foraging New Brunswick’s North Country

When it was first published as Seeds of Another Summer, Beth Powning’s Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life (Goose Lane Editions) became a seminal work of memoir. Powning’s essays traversing between the land of her 1800s New Brunswick farmstead and the untamed wilds of the surrounding woods are accompanied by her stunning photographs of the area. There is a uniqueness to the territory that she captures so well – the fickleness of Maritime weather, its ancient, surrounding trees. This 20-year revisiting of her work includes a new introduction to the text.

The Cat Looked Back

6. A mystery set in a lovely country garden

If the primary characters in Louise Carson’s Maples Mystery series are Gerry Coneybear and her housekeeper, Prudence Crick, and the secondary characters are the twenty cats that call Coneybear’s property home; the tertiary – but no less important – character is the property of The Maples itself. In the series’ sixth instalment The Cat Looked Back (Signature Editions), Gerry Coneybear is away on honeymoon and Prudence is caring for the garden (and the cats). The peaceful garden is a refuge against the latest crime afoot in their small community – two suspicious housefires that herald the coming of a greedy land developer.

The Future

5. A novel that highlights gardening as community-building

The winner of this year’s CBC Canada Reads debates, Catherine Leroux’s The Future (Biblioasis) describes a dystopian Detroit, imagined as if the originally-French city had never been ceded to the English, and then the US. The inhabitants of Leroux’s Fort Détroit grapple with failing rule of law, daily violence, weakening infrastructure, and their missing children. As main character Gloria grieves the loss of her daughter and seeks information on her missing grandchildren’s whereabouts, she joins a small community that also happens to be a dedicated collection of gardeners. The fresh food they grow and share is a much better alternative to the limp, tasteless produce available at the grocery store, and the gossip and stories they trade with each other provides a community, and underlying it, hope.


4. A novel emphasizing gardening as survival

Like The Future, Lauren Carter’s debut novel Swarm (Touchwood Editions) finds its protagonist Sandy in dystopian times – a hard-scrabble existence brought on by mass unemployment and power outages. But unlike The Future, Sandy lives in near-isolation with her partner and friend on an island, farming and beekeeping to stay alive. Their tiny community comes under threat when evidence of a thieving child is found, and protecting their hard-won safety becomes paramount in this speculative thriller.

One Good Thing

3. A book that collides memoir, humour, and the natural world

The 64 pieces in M.A.C. Farrant’s One Good Thing: A Living Memoir (Talonbooks) take on the epistolary form of letters to a gardening advice columnist, specifically, gardening columnist extraordinaire Helen Chesnut of Victoria’s Times Colonist. The letters frequently start with gardening questions but divert into meditations on creativity, writing, and family, all delivered with Farrant’s signature sense of humour.


2. A poetry collection that examines humanity’s love for nature and our abuse of it

Both a trained ecologist and nutritionist, Rhona McAdam lends a scientific eye to her gorgeous collection of poems Larder (Caitlin Press). These poems both observe and embody creatures in the natural world, from pollinators to gardeners, and relish its gifts – the foods we eat. The book also admonishes us for being too greedy in our celebration of all the natural world has to offer: our inability to practice sustainability. It too, then, becomes a call to action, so that future generations can indulge, as we have.

A Victory Garden for Trying Times

1. A poignant memoir on grief and gardening

Debi Goodwin grew up cultivating plants – she spent her childhood helping out on her family’s farm in the Niagara region. When she moved away, her own garden became a place of solitude and reflection. As she details in her memoir A Victory Garden for Trying Times (Dundurn Press), it was too far into winter for her to retreat among the plants when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Instead, she learned about Victory Gardens, a home-front effort in World War I, and soon started planning her own. The life-and-death cycles of Goodwin’s victory garden came to mirror her husband’s own journey with illness, and gave her the solace and perspective she sorely needed.