A bevy of beauty tips for your yard

A new crop of gardening books blends sound advice with earthy glamour.

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To create a beautiful - or productive - garden, you need two things: inspiration and practical knowledge. So garden books tend to be divided between the gorgeous (those that brim with lush photographs and spectacular ideas for readers to sigh over) and the pragmatic (those that take you step by step into the how-to realm).

But the cream of the latest crop combine both elements.

Since the beginning of PBS's venerable "Victory Garden" TV show, each new host has written a book. Those penned by original host Jim Crockett about three decades ago have remained the best - until now.

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Michael Weishan's The Victory Garden Companion (written with Laurie Donnelly) presents a potpourri of landscape-planning and design tips. He calls the contents "a selective sampler of good gardening advice." He stresses fundamentals - from choosing and planting the best shrubs or trees for your yard to how to lay a brick patio. Weishan's recommendations are practical and straightforward; he anticipates readers' questions - and potential problems - and answers them in a friendly, useful manner. It's like being guided by a congenial expert who happens to live next door.

Each of the nine chapters ends with a look at what's called an "inspired garden." These range from the historic - Colonial Williamsburg and Edith Wharton's The Mount - to excellent examples of specialty public gardens (the Redland Fruit and Spice Park in Florida). Just as on the TV show, Weishan shows us what we can learn from the best of the best.

Outside the Not So Big House emphasizes that a landscape doesn't exist solely on its own. Neither does even the most impressive house. The two should be linked and complement each other. Homeowners need to think in terms of "the transitions and connections between the inside of a house and the outside," says architect Sarah Susanka.

This beautiful book combines the best qualities of coffee-table attractiveness and excellent advice. It pairs Susanka - author of previous "Not So Big House" books, which emphasize the trend toward smaller homes - and noted landscape and garden designer Julie Moir Messervy. They label their landscaping concept "opening up the relationship of indoors and out," and encourage readers to make the most of each.

The duo explain and illustrate their ideas through visits to 20 homes around the country - among them an 80-year-old house on a wooded lot near Boston, an adobe house in Santa Fe that matches its ecosystem, and a tiny structure perched on a hill in San Francisco. Each spread explores the parallels between outside and inside at that particular property. Because many are owned by architects and landscape architects, useful ideas abound, just waiting to be borrowed and put to use in readers' yards.

As its name suggests, The Encyclopedia of Garden Design & Structure takes a less-personal and more encompassing view of the landscaping process. Well-known garden photographer and writer Derek Fell breaks down the various aspects of planning or renovating a landscape into projects. Then he provides, through more than 800 gorgeous photos as well as brief descriptions, ideas to expand your thinking about outdoor living.

The 100 or so categories covered include the big and the small: arbors and arches, benches, boathouses, bog gardens, courtyards and patios, gates, paths, fountains, stepping stones, and water gardens. By the time you reach the end, the only question will be: Which part of the landscape to tackle first?

Books on landscaping can provide the building blocks of a yard. But those wonderful plans will never live up to their potential without rock-solid information about plants. Fortunately, University of Georgia horticulture professor Allan M. Armitage knows practically everything there is to know about plants, especially flowers - and he's always willing to share his knowledge.

His latest volume, which focuses on wildflowers, is a reference par excellence. Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens takes an encyclopedic approach with alphabetical entries. But don't imagine that means the writing is as dry as the proverbial dust. Armitage puts his personal experience - and plenty of personality - into every page. Discussing the umbrella plant, for instance, he warns that it's not for every climate: "If it is happy, it will skip along with unbounded joy; if it is not, it will sit there, pouting, then disappear." And of white spurge, he says flatly, "Some people really love this plant, and I have seen it look good on occasion, but the occasions have been few and far between." You'll frequently find yourself smiling while you soak up this master horticulturist's vast knowledge.

At first glance, Tempting Tropicals may appear to be another book about the current drive toward filling US gardens with plants native to the tropics. Instead, Ellen Zachos suggests a different approach to these intriguing and exotic plants: Grow them indoors as houseplants.

Among the 175 on which she chooses to focus, many bloom or have colorful foliage, and the majority will be unfamiliar to most gardeners. This trio of attributes will add to their appeal. Why stop with Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus, for example, when you can add spring-blooming Easter cactus to your windowsill? Or why settle for English ivy when you can grow something called purple waffle plant or lobster claw?

It's also interesting to consider plants that you may have imagined grew only outdoors - Carolina Jessamine, Clerodendrum, Datura, kumquat, passionflower - as indoor residents. The only drawback to all this tropical temptation is that many of the plants require full sun. But Zachos allows gardeners to daydream of sultry climates during those cold, colorless days of winter.

By providing inspiration and information, will these books guarantee success in the garden? Well, the truth is, you'll also need to do some hard work - or have the money to hire someone to do it for you. Books can't help you there. But they'll certainly start you down the right path.

Judy Lowe is the Monitor's Home Forum editor.

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