MOST gardening books tend, by nature, to be picture books. This burgeoning publishing genre is a prime example of the old adage: One picture is worth a thousand words. Brilliant color photographs are the usual medium. Even the most serious studies of gardens, garden history, and gardening practice now require superb full-color plates and splendid design.
Visually, today's top breed of garden book puts into the shade the garden books of the not-so-distant past. The writing isn't necessarily all that different. The images are. And there are some supremely talented photographers who specialize in the recording and presentation of trees, plants, gardens, and landscape architecture. Rightly, they are often given equal billing with authors.
Take The Gardens of Russell Page by Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 255 pp., 250 illustrations, $50). Schinz's photographs, of consistently superb quality and informative as well, are more than equal partner to van Zuylen's sympathetic and thorough text.
Russell Page was a 20th-century, English-born garden designer who had a preference for French order and structure, and an international range of wealthy clients (including van Zuylen) from France and Italy to New York and Fort Worth, Texas. At the close of his long career, he deeply regretted the loss of many of the gardens he had designed. But then he did practice one of the most ephemeral of art forms.
This book, however, managed to capture for perpetuity more than a little of the grand sweep of his vision and his attention to detail - both formal and free. Page was not just a devotee of the parterre and the clipped hedge, the step and the path, but a real lover of abundant plant life, too. He relished trees. He used water imaginatively. He was by no means a drawing-board designer. He worked on site and was quite capable of digging and planting as well as issuing orders. This book makes the quality of his achievements available to a much wider range of people.
What a pity photography of this caliber wasn't available to record some of Gertrude Jekyll's gardens. The gardens planned by this English garden designer (1843 to 1932) - more than 350 of them - have largely vanished. (Some were not carried out.) Russell Page wrote in 1962 that Jekyll's teaching had influenced virtually all English gardens "made in the last fifty years." The "almost habitual association of certain plants," and progressions of color in flower borders, were among her legacies, according to
Extant black-and-white photographs of her gardens are frustratingly limited; her surviving plans are often incomplete. Visualizing how her gardens actually looked is more than difficult. In Lost Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Macmillan, 144 pp., more than 65 illustrations, $24.95) author/illustrator Fenja Gunn attempts an evocation of 20 Jekyll gardens by means of watercolors, diagrams, and text. A pleasant idea. But painstaking though her pictures are, they demand powers of interpretation that gardeners an d readers spoiled by modern color photographs may not readily summon. Her palette seems surprisingly inadequate to give much indication of the presumed subtleties of a Jekyll planting - to differentiate between, say, pink roses and pink monardas or to distinguish masses of purple aubrieta from campanula. Jekyll's writings, however, still carry her message most powerfully.
Crosscurrents between painting and garden design are encountered often enough. Jekyll was a painter. Page went to art school. And some great artists also found inspiration and subject matter in gardens: Van Gogh, Emil Nolde, and - especially - Claude Monet. Auguste Renoir, however, does not spring to mind in this respect. He had a garden, it's true. But to make it the theme of an entire book - as photographer/writer Derek Fell does in Renoir's Garden (Simon & Schuster, 120 pp., more than 100 illustration s, $30) - is something of a nonstarter. It's quite a pretty volume, but it fails to bring to life either the Renoir garden or any real meaning the painter may have found in it for his art. This Mediterranean "paradise" was no Giverny. Fell's photographs look rather average in the face of modern competition. Perhaps his subject is partly to blame.
Felice Frankel's photographs in Modern Landscape Architecture: Redefining the Garden (Abbeville Press, 240 pp., 200 illustrations, $49.95) are very fine. They are not just records, but a real attempt to capture honestly the atmosphere as well as the form and scale of landscaping projects ranging from the Bloedel Reserve in Seattle, Wash., to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
Her pictures do not have the lushness of some garden-book plates, but then this book has a larger brief than the mere delight of flower gardening. It presents case histories of highly ambitious landscaping projects (including one by Russell Page) throughout the United States over the last half century. One strand of inquiry concerns the ability of landscape architects to exercise their art appropriately in modern conditions (and not just as an escape to a pastoral ideal) - in the face of modernist archit ecture, highways, parking lots, swimming pools, demanding clients, corporate imagery.
"... All these landscapes," gushes the jacket blurb, "have in common a level of artistry that approaches pure genius." It only takes a moment to discover, though, that this is not author Jory Johnson's approach: In his crisp, articulate (if a little too architect-speak) commentaries, he can be critical as well as laudatory. He is particularly interesting on the confusion of motives that occur sometimes as certain landscaping solutions are arrived at. His aim is "assessment" of a subject about which littl e has been written, not just "celebration a word rather too frequently used to describe garden books. This is a book for professionals as much as for the garden-loving public, though perfectly accessible to both.
The pictures adorning the exhaustive, small-print text of The Golden Age of American Gardens: Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940, written by Mac Griswold and with photo selection by Eleanor Weller (Abrams, 408 pp., 313 illustrations, $75), are delicious period images. Black-and-white or hazily tinted color (some reproduced from lantern slides in a suitably faded kind of way), these images flavor the book and make studying it as a historical reference a distinct pleasure.
But for downright lusciousness, the color photography of Flower Gardens by Penelope Hobhouse (Little, Brown, 215 pp., 229 illustrations, $45) is difficult to surpass. It truly does "celebrate" the profligate paradise of the plantsman's flower garden. Here are page after page of stunning photographs, but because they are the work of many different photographers (duly acknowledged at the back), this is billed as Hobhouse's book. She is, indeed, one of those redoubtable British gardener-writers (a latter-da y Gertrude Jekyll or William Robinson) whose books are direct extensions of their intimate working knowledge: a love of plants that includes a feel for roots and earth.
She also has an international range: Hobhouse is aware of conditions in southern California as well as in Somerset, England. A particular kind of beauty is the aim of her designs; but the value of her writing for other gardeners is that she doesn't just deal in armchair dreams.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the luscious photos do push idealism close to the brink of the unattainable! Photos can lie a little. But if so, the author brings us down to earth. A superb photograph of a flower-filled meadow, for example, carries with it advice about the kinds of planning, plowing, controlling, and replanting such seemingly "easy" effects entail. Sometimes even the most wonderful photographs need tempering with realism.