A potpourri of garden books

THE terrain of the south of France is wind-swept and rugged, subject to intense sunlight and summer drought. Yet, over the centuries, the gardeners of Provence and the Riviera have more than coped with these less-than-ideal conditions. They have created vast terraces out of the hillsides and shielded their lands with wind-breaking groves of olive and pine.

Within these protective walls, the gardeners have laid out immense botanic and pleasure gardens, in which shade and water are often prominent features.

The Gardens of Provence and the French Riviera, by Michel Racine, Ernest J.P. Boursier-Mougenot, and Fran,coise Binet (MIT Press, Cambridge, $50, 317 pp.), traces the development of these gardens from the 17th century and shows 54 of them as they are now.

The first part of the book deals exclusively with the rise of the bastide - the country home of the nobility and the well-to-do middle class - and its pleasure gardens in Provence. It is a thoroughly researched and well-written history of these gardens, which range from simple, neatly plotted kitchen gardens to elaborately planned parks, complete with reflecting pools, grottoes, statuary, and formal parterres.

The second section is devoted to the gardens of the Riviera - a relatively unknown and unpopular area until it was ``discovered'' by the English in the 18th century as an ideal wintering spot. Again, the authors present a well-written and well-researched account of the gardens, the influences on them, and the changes wrought by the coming of the railroad, the automobile, and various foreign plant species such as the palm and the cactus.

The final and largest segment of the book is intended to be a written walking tour, but this proves a disappointment. Although garden plans are provided, the gardens are described in such general terms as to be indistinguishable.

One comes away with images of endless box parterres, pergolas, fountains, and reflecting pools under brilliantly sunny skies, but with little sense of the individual character of any of the gardens.

The book's major weakness lies in its photographs, and the lack of photo credits underscores this. Rather than capturing the essence of each garden, the photos appear as random snapshots. They reveal little of the gardens' uniqueness and nothing of the surrounding landscape.

This is compounded by the book's design: To accommodate a design that valued geometric shapes on a page, many photos were reduced to 1 by 2 inches, which effectively obliterates all detail.

Also, the reader may be confused at points because some of the gardens mentioned are in ruins. An early reference to the French Revolution in 1789 and World War II - during which both the bastides and their gardens were pillaged - would have explained this.

``The Gardens of Provence and the French Riviera'' looks like a coffeetable picture book and a gardener's delight. Too bad looks are deceptive.

Year-round beauty with low maintenance is the platform of The New American Garden (Macmillan, New York, $24.95, 140 pp.). It is neither new nor conclusively American - but little more than a 140-page harangue, in which Carole Ottesen champions her manifesto, advocating the use of plants that are at home in one's geosphere.

The Mail Order Gardener, by Hal Morgan (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, 287 pp.), is a treasure-trove for the gardener whose horticultural ambitions have outgrown the offerings of his local nursery. Author Morgan has put together an exhaustive collection of those nurseries, both in the United States and abroad, that provide direct mail service. Under headings that range from ``General Flowers and Vegetables'' through ``Bromeliads'' on to ``Topiary Frames,'' he lists the firms, their addresses, and the cost (if any) of their catalogs. He also provides one-paragraph descriptions of each firm and their offerings, which are both accurate and entertaining.

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