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Old Garden Books – Online


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.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Nell Jean December 15, 2009, 7:37 pm

    Isn’t Googlebooks wonderful? I have so many garden books in my ‘library’ there. Thank you for reminding us about this great resource. Fads may change, but basic culture remains the same.

  • Frances December 16, 2009, 3:34 am

    Thanks, Pomona. I love old books, well all books too, and didn’t know about this. I love the word usage and that thing about caps being illustrated set my brain to working on trying that myself. Thanks!!!

  • Helen December 16, 2009, 4:21 am

    Thanks for the tip – didnt know about googlebooks off to discover it now

  • Steve December 18, 2009, 8:24 am

    Indeed, what a cool resource – I had no idea, Pomona. You really are a detective gal. Thanks a ton!

  • catmint December 20, 2009, 3:41 am

    thanks Pomona, for reminding us about this great resource. I love old gardening books, they say so much about past lifestyles. And while online books aren’t a substitute for paper, at least they won’t eaten by moths and silverfish like many of the books in my house. And btw I love the brown leafy photo you use to illustrate this important topic. cheers, catmint

  • lostlandscape(James) December 22, 2009, 9:15 pm

    Glad you ran across these books in Google Books, Pomona. My library is one of those contributing books, though most of the old garden books you’re finding are probably from Harvard’s library. Now that’s a collection I’d love to visit in person!

    One terrific feature that’s an improvement on the paper is that the books are searchable, so that you can go straight to a topic or species. And there are even selections from books and articles that are under copyright. Gosh, even one of my own garden articles from a few years ago is available via Google Books. Hopefully they get all the legal stuff figured out soon–the issue of copyrighted works is still in court. But someday maybe vast amounts more will be be online.

  • Jennifer January 30, 2010, 8:58 am

    Thank you for the Google Books info. Have you seen the Curtis Botanical Magazine illustrations offered online through the National Agricultural Library? These digital images are gems and public domain.

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