I was researching for another article when I came across an amazing find.
Amazing to me, anyway. Some of you may have known about this for years. Googlebooks has a collection of old garden books which have been scanned in, so you can see the original layout, font, and often very beautiful illustrations.
(We often believe that color photography is the apex of illustration – and sometimes it is. But a skilled artist can show us more about the textures and colors and personality of a plant than a photographer, who must work at least partly in the realm of the literal.)
More importantly, for historial garden book addicts such as myself, you can read all of anything that no longer has a copyright.
For instance, you can check out Robert Hogg’s 1879 Florist and pomologist (which looks like either a bound magazine or an encyclopedia of sorts) and read how to have new potatoes at Christmas, primula culture, the preservative qualities of seawater, and a number of other things about the fruits and flowers that were popular in 1879. (In those days, a florist was a person who grew flowers, not a person who sold them.) In the case of potatoes, “pomology” is used poetically, since a potato is a tuberous rhizome. The rhizome, in turn, is a modified stem (the eyes on a potato are the same type of bud you would see on a branch of a tree).
Or you can move up a generation or so, and read The School Garden Book, which has the most thorough, clear instructions on forcing bulbs I’ve found in many a day – and which encourages you to tell the story of your plant as you saw it grow. It’s long been my habit to read a children’s book if I want clear, non-jargony instruction. This one may be from 1911, but the writing is clear and easy to follow. I also like all the little science suggestions, such as cutting the bulb in half and drawing a picture of the proto-flower inside (someday it’s my aim to cannibalize a bulb to such purpose. So far I haven’t been able to make myself do it).
The section for August includes an essay on “Useful Flower Jars” :
“In few things could the average American home be so greatly benefited by a little careful attention as in the choice of receptacles for displaying cut flowers,” it starts, and goes on to lay out some very simple, cheap arrangements very suited to modern gardeners who don’t want to spend a lot of money and time.
My old friend Peter Henderson is back with his classic 1904 Handbook of plants and general horticulture (they didn’t necessarily capitalize every important word in a title, then; initial caps were more of an art). Since Henderson started writing in the mid 1800s, this would have been a summing-up of his considerable output and knowledge. Henderson was one of the first serious U.S. garden and farm writers, and he did phenomenal amounts of research. Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1906 Cyclopedia of American horticulture is also available. Bailey wrote the first Hortus, whose later editions are still standard references, so the information in this compendium is bound to be thorough. Bailey, who started the Cornell School of Agriculture and wrote some of his classic works there, retired to spend his time campaigning for the environment, natural studies classes in schools, and to travel the world researching plants, becoming an expert in both carex and palms. He also kept writing books into his hardy old age.
Googlebooks also has garden books from other countries and in other languages. Even a cursory review shows that this is a meaty collection you can find a lot of good stuff in.
Online books aren’t substitutes for books on paper: I love the smell of old books, the indented letterpress print, the way they open out (the art of bookbinding was well understood in those days); I love the idea that I’m holding something some gardener held in 1841 or 1880 or 1904. But while it’s more informative, in many ways, to travel to a library where you can have access to historical books (for one thing, you learn a lot from the books next to the ones you think you want), not all of us can do that. Googlebooks opens the attic door to treasure chests of old garden lore. A great spot for a gardener to spend a winter day.