Now I do not wish to put you off buying new gardening books (especially as I have several in print) but there is a problem with them. They are all rather too well finished, rather too well polished, all the anecdotes and unique observations and asides have usually been edited out. I should know; trying to get a book's script past a jobs-worth sub-editor without it being butchered is near impossible. Sub-editors seem to believe their role is to 'make-it-over' not merely to remove inconsistencies and erratum's or translating into the house' style. That is one reason why I find old gardening books so fascinating; they have not been 'politically corrected'/ sanitised/ Bowdlerised/ censored.
Although old books are usually amazingly well written, translated and edited (with better spelling and grammar than those of today) they retain many little jots of ancillary information, speculation, prejudice and complete irrelevancy. This alone makes them more interesting to read. Along with and sometimes within these 'digressions' there is displayed the evolution of our modern horticultural knowledge. It is fascinating to read these early 'explanations' with the benefit of our modern understanding and see how one idea led to another.
The first books with any 'gardening knowledge' were written descriptively as the ancients catalogued and recorded the world about them, so they were basically natural history. Originally some were written as travellers tales, others from personal observation and many as instructions to landlords and rentiers on more profitable enterprises. Those of the Greeks and Romans are widely available in translation and contain much of general interest but only a few offer any specific utility to a modern gardener. This is because we garden rather than farm and because we live in a different climate to those ancient authors who inhabited a hotter Mediterranean world. None the less, one in particular, Columella, is really well worth reading as his works are packed full of good solid practical advice and not very much dross.
The Dark and Middle ages were not very productive of books about horticulture or related subjects other than rehashes of earlier works. Then the discovery of the New World with the arrival of many new crops caused a sudden interest in the plant world -mostly driven by the search for profit rather than by 'pure science'. This with the printing press led to an explosion of books. Initially these were translations of the classics and botanical compendiums but soon agricultural improvers, botanists and gardeners, and many charlatans were all writing away.
The major audience was clearly the land owning class who wanted to improve their knowledge in order to extract more from their tenants by introducing the latter to better methods. The same audience, in another hat, were the owners of large houses and gardens with a team of gardeners to grow whatever was desired. Thus works from 1700 on can be roughly divided into farming improvement, botanical 'stamp collection' or 'instruction manuals for head gardeners'.
Head gardeners wrote manuals for other head gardeners and the translation into English of foreign works was fuelled by the increasing technical improvements and the culture of more and more exotic crops. I'm staggered as I read about the various modes of growing almost everything we now consider rare or unusual in books such as Vilmorin-Andrieux's The Vegetable Garden.
As horticulture progressed in practice the books of each period recycled the theories of the day to make sense of what they were doing -and a few armchair philosophers tried the opposite. There are sadly many examples of appalling arrogance where allegedly practical but actually naive 'experts' wrote telling dupes how to make a living growing this and that by such and such means.
Initially 'independent/home' gardeners were not catered for at all -save by fairground almanacs and astrological leaflets. As the keener amongst them clubbed together to improve their area of say florists flowers or gooseberries many of the various societies we know today were founded and began their own publications. Along with the reports of show winners there are little jots such as new introductions, the year's weather, harvests and so on. Plus there are more or less vitriolic discussions between differing experts -nothing new there!
By the end of Victoria's reign horticultural books had become far more detailed; whole treatises devoted to single rarefied topics. Darwin wrote a book solely about earthworms with a title nearly as long- "The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms with observations on their habits". Works from abroad were published including many translations -especially of French methods of pruning vines, pears et al. J. H. Fabre wrote more than an entire shelf of books each detailing the most minute observations about one particular insect or other small creature. These are the ones to read for a great depth of knowledge- know thy foe.
Victoria's reign ushered in many gardening magazines and periodicals and some of these contain the most diverse snippets from all areas of horticulture. I find the letters from readers, and the terse editorial remarks appended, to be the most remunerative in terms of 'tips' or leads. The descriptions of new varieties are enlightening and the 'current to do' lists impressive -they started off everything earlier and looked after it more intensively than we can imagine. It is worth noting that in the question and answer sections the same old problems keep recurring. There are some big differences though -far more orchids were grown and almost everyone apparently had difficulty running their hotbed, furnace or boiler -give praises for electric fan heaters and soil warming cables!
Of course this last century has produced vast numbers of gardening titles. Those published between the world wars have the most to say to a modern kitchen gardener as quality was then still an aim and by then labour was already necessarily much reduced. But it is the earlier books I find the more riveting. Probably the best of all reads is "Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World" which is about as comprehensive as you can get.
A visit to a second-hand book shop could give you more interesting reading than you can carry. And cheap at the price; many really old works are not expensive in modern translation and even Victorian leather-bound books are not a lot if they're in poor condition. If they are in good condition then they can be pricey -but as such books have increased immensely over the last few years you might even look on them as an investment!
Here are just a few to look for- the best ancient writers-
Theophrastus (Tyrtamus) BC 370-287 a Greek from Lesbos, his enquiry into plants runs to several volumes and is the most useful source of early botanical information
Cato (M. Porcius Cato) BC 234-149 a Latin who wrote about everything, his agricultural works include garden crops, recipes for cooking and preserving foods, medical 'cures' and details of rural life
Varro (M. Terentius) BC 116-27 wrote over seventy volumes, only a few survive pertinent to us particularly his works on agriculture and rural affairs which deal more with farming and farm animals rather than plants but are especially of interest to the us with sections on bees, poultry and 'rare' breeds.
Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) AD 23-79 uncle to the more well known Pliny the letter writer. He died rescuing friends from Vesuvius but during his short life wrote many books now lost though his 37 volumes of Natural History survived. These are full of interesting 'facts'-not just botanical and agricultural but medical, physiological and zoological,
Columella (Lucius Iunius Moderatus) AD 170- ?) is without doubt the ancient author of most interest to a modern gardener. His collected works are full of sensible advice aimed at the Roman villa owner/ farmer/ smallholder and are on the whole remarkably free of error. His experience is again rather Mediterranean but covered the breadth of the Roman Empire and much is relevant to us kitchen gardeners today. In particular his sections on growing vines, on keeping poultry and bees and recipes for preservation and storage are fascinating. The sections on orchard management and grafting etc. illustrate how little progress has been made until recently! -and the sections on man management are exemplary. This is an absolute gem and the most interesting book I have ever read!
Slightly more recent gardening books
Vegetable Staticks by Stephen Hales 1727 a wide ranging collection of the first scientific experiments on plants involving all sorts of ingenuity.
A treatise on the culture and management of Fruit Trees by William Forsyth 1803. Forsyth was a brilliant gardener and this work is essential reading, he was given the task of restoring the King's orchards and did so way beyond expectation. His pruning compound made of burnt bone, wood ashes, urine and cow dung was claimed to have amazing effects, I have tried it and find it as good as any modern alternative -if smellier and more difficult to apply.
The Theory of Horticulture by John Lindley 1840 is excellent and although dated is full of sound reasoning and explanation and shows how the early gardeners 'understood' their plants.
Treatise on Gardening/English Gardener by William Cobbett circa 1830, like his Cottage Economy (extolling the value of beer and bread) this is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, very opinionated but shrewd and full of good advice for us.
Manual of injurious insects and methods of prevention by E. A. Ormerod 1881. This is the best collected manual of pests and methods ever written, stupendous and still of great current value.
Three magazines, usually in bound volumes, to look out for from Victorian England;
The Gardener's Magazine by J. C. Loudon for several years from circa 1828 to my mind makes some of the best reading for modern gardeners.
The Horticultural Register a.k.a Harrison's Horticultural Register from circa 1832 edited by Joseph Paxton is another full of interesting articles etc.
The Gardener circa 1860-80 edited by William Thomson and Richard Dean, again this is a good read full of this and that-especially the extremely heated interchanges with the RHS of the day.
04/05/06/87/88 Forsyths compound for treating tree wounds