Two garden books to cultivate - or weed

With garden books, "one size fits all" doesn't apply.

A nongardener with a huge carpet of grass surrounding his home may be looking for a guide to controlling weeds in his lawn. Someone with more experience may need lists of flowers beyond petunias, or directions for building a water garden.

On the other hand, "plant nuts" (sometimes we call ourselves "serious gardeners") are forever on the prowl for details about unusual plants - always referred to by their Latin names - that few others have heard of or grown. The fact that they're hard to find is part of the pleasure.

"A Book of Blue Flowers," by Robert Geneve, and "Dream Plants for the Natural Garden," by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf (both published by Timber Press at $34.95) feed right into that enthusiasm for out-of-the-ordinary plants. They serve up several hundred pages of information about thousands of plants - most of which won't be found on the shelves of the local nursery. And they include page after page of color photographs to swoon over.

Blue is the least-common hue in the plant kingdom, says Geneve, professor of horticulture at the University of Kentucky.

Making them doubly desirable to experienced gardeners, blue blossoms blend well with pink, yellow, white, gray, and red flowers. Ah, but will those blooms really be blue? How disappointing to plant a "blue" flower that turns out to be pinkish or purplish.

That's why Geneve's book makes a great reference. If I'd had it years ago, I never would've planted Stokesia next to a blue hydrangea. Also valuable are his lists of blue plants that are ideal for various situations (shade, fall-blooming, cut flowers, ponds, and trellises).

Piet Oudolf, a Dutch nurseryman and garden designer, is currently riding high in the horticultural world. His dramatic, naturalistic designs and previous book, "Designing With Plants," have been widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic.

To Oudolf and Gerritsen, "natural" doesn't necessarily mean a garden of native plants. They promote landscapes that are filled with birds and insects, that use no pesticides or artificial fertilizers, and that require "no army of gardeners to keep the plants alive."

While plant nuts will find much in Oudolf and Gerritsen's book to fuel their daydreams, it's ultimately a practical guide only for those who live in the Pacific Northwest. Plants that are successes - or failures - in the Netherlands' mild climate and sandy soil don't necessarily perform the same in the more varied conditions that prevail in the US.

For instance, the book classifies two of the most popular perennials in this country - yarrow and purple coneflower - as "unreliable." It calls Boltonia asteroides "demanding," bleeding heart "troublesome," and Aster x frikartii "capricious."

Knowing that's rarely true in the US, the serious gardener will instead focus on where to find hogweed, hound's tongue, and Jeffersonia.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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