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Kitchen Gardening

A Gardening Library for the Ages

If you like vegetable gardening, and you appreciate history, you’ll enjoy getting lost in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

"The History of the Propagation & Improvement of Vegetables" was written in 1660, but it still offers insights for today's vegetable gardeners.
Photo/Illustration: The Biodiversity Heritage Library


Every year a new crop of gardening books hits the shelves. Many of the titles promise new gardening information, but how much is really new?

There’s an interesting way to find the answer. Simply peruse the digitized collection of antique vegetable gardening resources provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The BHL is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries with the lofty mission to “work collaboratively to make biodiversity literature openly available to the world as part of a global diversity community.”

For gardeners like me who appreciate old books, the online library is a treasure trove of books, articles, images and so much more. The BHL has digitized millions of pages, representing tens of thousands of titles and over 100,000 volumes.

Just let that sink in for a moment. 

Available to any gardener with Internet access is a wealth of knowledge about our natural world.

Search for the term “vegetable gardening” and links to 100 old books and journals appear. Each of these books can be viewed online in its entirety. Many of the older volumes are no longer under copyright and can be downloaded to add to your personal library.

These gardening books, many from the early 1900s, are beautifully illustrated with line drawings and old images. They may be written in stiff antiquated language, but they provide a vivid picture of how much gardening has changed-and how much has remained the same-over the years.

In 1917 when W.M. Teal wrote “Back Yard and City Lot Gardening: A Practical Book by a Practical Man,” he was amazed that a gardener could grow 573 pounds of vegetables, $32 worth, on his small property.

“Around the Year in the Garden,” by Frederick Frye Rockwell, was also written in 1917. Rockwell’s book was “designed for the busy man or woman whose spare time available is limited, and who, consequently, is interested in utilizing every hour to the best purpose.”

His book is a week-by-week schedule of garden tasks. For the third week in December, he advised how to take care of gift plants after Christmas and recommended picking shrubs for winter beauty. Next week: starting plants for next year’s summer garden.

The oldest vegetable gardening book on the list appears to be “The History of Propagation & Improvement of Vegetables,” written in 1660. This one is especially interesting because the author includes propagating by seed; by off-sets; by stems, cutting and slips; by laying; grafting; and “whether any vegetables may be set so as to grow in the air.”

Now that cold weather is upon us, getting lost among the stacks of the Biodiversity Heritage Library is a perfect way to spend a winter’s day connecting with gardeners from the past.

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