Older gardening books are valuable because they chronicle varieties long
gone and methods long fallen into disuse.
This weekend I picked up the 1973 Sunset Western Garden Book (Library of
Congress No. 67-15736, SBN Title No. 388) and the 1980 Ortho/Chevron All
About Vegetables (ISBN 0-917102-90-8). Flipping through them, I was
impressed by several things. For one, their relative dearth of scientific
naming schemes (the latest editions of the Sunset book are botanically
more accurate). For another, a de-emphasis of organic fertilizing and
pest management, and an overemphasis on chemicals (but hey, look at who
sponsored the second book). And last but not least, the plethora of older
varieties of plants and seeds which have since fallen out of the seed
catalogs and out of fashion. Good, I've confirmed that "Gardener's
Delight" and "Sugar Lump" are, per the Ortho book, two separate varieties
of cherry tomato (and not one and the same, as some people today assert).
And here is the "Streamliner" strawberry that I ordered from Gurney's (the
original Gurney's in Yankton, South Dakota) -- where could I find this
strawberry today? Or the "Baron Solemacher" or "Alexandria" alpine
strawberries once sold by Burpee (many alpine strawberries sold in
nurseries today carry only a generic label)?
Every year I pick up a seed catalog and more old favorites are gone,
seemingly for good. Thank God for the heirloom seed enthusiasts; without
them, we'd be subjected to more and more colorful nonsense hybrid this or
that every spring.
However, there was one thing I missed about these old books, other than
the old varieties of seeds and plants. That was the wonderful prose. They
are so much more _readable_
than equivalent later editions. It's hard for
me to put my finger on why. Maybe its the wealth of complete sentences,
or the flashes of humor here and there, or an overall sense of relaxation
and no need to prove anything. It's gardening as enjoyment, not as
Oh, one more old book on my "to buy" list for later: "The Vegetable
Garden" by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux (Ten Speed Press, ISBN 0-89815-041-8,
1995????). It's a facsimile reprint of an 1885 book. Vilmorin-Andrieux's
family had been in the seed business for some time and I believe the book
is a wonderful array of varieties grown and sold at that time by their
business. Some of them are names we'd still recognize.
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