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Lessons from the Great Gardeners

Forty Gardening Icons and What They Teach Us

Like heirloom seeds and grafts from trees, advice from great gardeners handed down through the centuries has shaped the science and art of gardens across the globe. Spanning gardeners from fifteenth-century Japan to the contemporary United States, Lessons from the Great Gardeners profiles forty groundbreaking botanists, nurserymen, and tillers of earth, men and women whose passion, innovation, and green thumbs endure in the formal landscapes and vegetable patches of today.

Entries for each gardening great highlight their iconic plants and garden designs, revealing both the gardeners’ own influences and the seeds—sometimes literal—that they sowed for gardens yet to sprout. From André Le Nôtre in seventeenth-century France, who drew on his training as an architect and hydraulic engineer to bring the topiary form to Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, to the work of High Line and Lurie Garden designer Piet Oudolf, and Thomas Jefferson’s advice on creating protected garden microclimates for help growing early crops and tender fruit like figs (with peas, a Jefferson favorite), Lessons from the Great Gardeners is a resource as rich as the soil from which it springs.

Featuring lush illustrations harvested from the archives of the Royal Horticultural Society, as well as sections on a dozen international gardens that showcase the lessons of the greats, this homage to the love of good, clean dirt is sure to inspire readers to get out in the sun and dig.

224 pages | 200 color plates | 7 x 9 | © 2016

Biography and Letters

Biological Sciences: Botany, Ecology



“In the United Kingdom, where there is a voracious appetite for great gardening books, Lessons from the Great Gardeners . . . was hugely popular when it was published last year. Gardeners, especially those who like to read about their passion, have been anxiously awaiting its translation from English to American. I am happy to say the University of Chicago Press has published the book stateside. . . . The book’s quirky capsule histories of forty great gardeners from the past centuries—from Vita Sackville-West to Claude Monet to Somai—convey amusing facts and practical tips."


“From the author of the encyclopedic The Complete Book of Vegetables comes an informal, primarily Western history of gardening through profiles of forty ‘iconic’ gardeners. There’s André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), who brought topiary and sculpture, not to mention a sense of scale, to the gardens at Versailles; Briton William Robinson (1838–1935), who loosened the ‘barren geometry’ of gardening and encouraged naturalistic planting and the use of gardens to feed his nation’s poor; and American railroad tycoon Henry Huntington (1850–1927), whose astonishing desert garden near LA is still enjoyed by visitors today. . . . Each profile features a biography of the gardener, a page of ‘lessons’ that define that gardener’s philosophy, and a generous selection of color illustrations of the gardens, and specific plants, they cultivated. . . . Useful and entertaining.”


“Biggs offers brief bios of each gardener or designer, their most important projects, and some of their secrets to success. For example, Piet Oudolf recommends planting schemes composed of clump-forming perennials because they don't seed around or root aggressively and therefore keep their form as distinct blocks, such as heleniums, molinias, sanguisorbas. Roberto Burle Marx is quoted as saying: ‘There are no straight lines in nature.’ Need we say more? And Madame Ganna Walska of Lotusland in California created ‘mood boards’ before designing and planting. From China's Wang Xianchen (b. 1500's) to Thomas Jefferson, PIerre S. Dupont, Beatrix Farrand, Beth Chatto, and many others, the designers in this book, as the author puts it, are ‘talented, artistic, unconventional, freethinking, sometimes eccentric, and have revolutionary ideas that are ahead of their time.’ Lovely photos and illustrations accompany each entry, and it's a fascinating read for any designer today.”

Jane Berger | Garden Design Online

“However their dreams were realized, author Biggs writes about the forty icons covered in his book, their aim was the same: to perfect the art of the garden. What special innovation in technique, exceptional plants, or flair with color or design did each of those forty hand down to the rest of us? Biggs’s book is loaded with their garden wisdoms, and also with the charming tale of each luminary and how they got to the garden in the first place.”

Margaret Roach | A Way to Garden

“On my wish list. I love reference books but I also like a book I can cuddle up with and read cover to cover during the long winter days. I also crave information from other gardeners and this certainly sounds like it fits the bill.”

Impatient Gardener

“There are . . . lessons on pruning, arrangement, and more in Lessons from the Great Gardeners, making this a suitable companion for . . . landscape or flower lovers everywhere. Good reading. . . . Four stars.”

Petoskey News-Review

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