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posted: 1/12/2010 12:01 AM

Winter a great time for garden 'how-to' books

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By Cathy Maloney

"Anything is possible now in our gardens," says Rita Hassert, a Morton Arboretum librarian. "There are no weeds and no pests."

Hassert is referring to the utopian gardens in our imagination and literature that bloom profusely in January. With winter, every gardener becomes a bibliophile, trading plant beds and borders for books. If you can't weed 'em, read 'em.

A 23-year veteran at the Sterling Morton Library, Hassert notes that at this time of year, "we typically see a real upswing in our circulation. The library's warm and dry, and you can let your mind wander and dream."

Hassert has her favorites lined up for this year, but notes that browsing is equally fun.

"Serendipity is really powerful," she says, having observed patrons who come in "just to look" and emerge an hour later with a pile of books.

Arboretum staff horticulturists take some down time in winter to peruse back issues of the library's garden magazines. Nursery and seed catalogs also provide inspiration for gardeners. There's something for everyone.

Trends in garden reading emerge over the years. Currently, Hassert has noted an increase in books on children's gardens, family gardening and multigenerational gardens. Ornamental grasses have taken center stage in recent plant literature, as have books about native plants.

"Not trying to garden against our climate is a common theme," Hassert says.

Garden "how-to" books that incorporate ideas of sustainability, global warming and gardening in tough conditions are popular.

Joining a book club is another way to enjoy garden reading. The arboretum's book club, Leafing Through the Pages, now in its eighth season, focuses mainly on gardening and natural history.

"People flow in and out," Hassert says. "It tends to be a very organic group."

Club members voted on twelve titles for 2010 ranging from Pearl Buck's 1931 classic "The Good Earth" to the 2009 "Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities" by Amy Stewart.

Book clubs give you a personal community, Hassert says.

"How many times do you read something and want to share it?" she said.

She suggests the key to successful book clubs is flexibility. There's no quiz, and members should feel free to read as much or little of the current selection as they choose. Leafing Through the Pages self-regulates so that no one dominates the conversation.

"It's very graceful and gentle," Hassert says of the group's internal dynamics.

Despite her love of books, Hassert is no Luddite.

"I see the value of paper and books, but don't take my laptop from me," she says. "There are wonderful gardening resources and blogs on the Internet."

As a blogger herself on the arboretum's Web site, Hassert asks, "Isn't it lovely that we can have a global discussion about gardening and plants?"

At the same time, Hassert values the depth of the Sterling Morton Library's collection, which includes a large body of works published before 1700.

"I love how gardening transcends time and place," she says. "People are still interested in the same things. Why doesn't my rutabaga grow? What's the best plant for this space?"

Grab a book and find out!

The arboretum's Web site,, offers information on books and the Leafing Through the Pages group. Select the "Visit" menu from the main page, then choose "Sterling Morton Library."

• Cathy Maloney is a writer for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Her column appears monthly in Neighbor.

Recommended reading

Morton Arboretum librarian Rita Hassert recommends some of her favorite books for this winter:

Recent Releases

• "The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession," Andrea Wulf (Knopf: 2009): A look at two early gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic, and famous garden discoveries and discoverers.

• "Our Life in Gardens," Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2009): Entertaining essays about a small garden in Vermont.

• "The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants," Jane S. Smith (Penguin Press: 2009)

• "Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime," Kenneth Helphand (Trinity University Press: 2006)


• "Onward and Upward in the Garden," Katherine White

• Beverley Nichols books such as "Rhapsody in Green," "Down the Garden Path" and "Green Grows the City"