Those Picture-Perfect Gardening Books Can be Practical Too

There are two kinds of people who purchase gardening books: those who decorate their coffee tables and those who actually consult the books to plan and nurture their own gardens.

Fortunately for both, there has never been a better time to buy books on gardening.

Visually, today's selection is nothing short of marvelous. The photographs are always stunningly vivid. The advice on design and maintenance is usually practical. And, yes, even the writing can be captivating, albeit often with the usual ethereal airiness.

I confess only one gripe with today's crop of garden books: They paint too pretty a picture. My garden - and most of the gardens in my horticulturally deprived neighborhood - will never approach the grand vistas illustrated in most of these books. Oh, well, at least my coffee table will bloom gloriously.

Whether you use it as a decorator prop, or seek its copious advice, John Brooks's Natural Landscapes (DK Publishing, $29.95) is worth more than a peek.

Brooks gardening philosophy is simple: Those demanding, high-maintenance borders and manicured lawns should give way to more natural plantings and decorative treatments.

By refuting traditional approaches of sharply designed borders and orderly framed landscapes, Brooks is attempting to incite a quiet revolution.

"It arises from a wish to do something practical about maintaining our disappearing habitats," he says. "We can start by using local materials for garden structures. We can introduce native plants, ideally grouped together as they would be in nature. Local materials and native and naturalized plants complement each other, and give us garden-makers a new sense of what is beautiful - a garden that is 'organic,' whole, and harmonious."

Experienced gardeners will appreciate the sophisticated design advice in "Natural Landscapes," which ranges from ideas for woodland and tropical climates, to urban and Mediterranean terrains, to dry land and aquatic gardens.

The book is also suitable for beginners who are looking for creative ideas for low-maintenance gardens that are in total sympathy with their surroundings.

Making Gardens (Timber Press, $29.95), by Patrick Taylor, discusses ways for brown thumbs to take hold of their gardens by applying what Taylor calls "essential principles of garden design."

The first step is planning, a concept unknown to most weekend gardeners. Before you start sticking assorted plants into the ground, devise a plan, Taylor advises.

The only problem I had with much of the landscape advice in this book was the lack of spontaneity that Taylor allows individual gardeners. Many of Taylor's concepts are too tailored, too structured. A successful garden should ooze with its owner's distinct personality.

The most helpful part of "Making Gardens" is the 42- page plant directory. Latin and common names of plant species are given, as well as a brief description of the various soil and climate conditions these plants thrive in. This type of index should be standard in garden books; it's a must for beginners.

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