A Bushel of Books for Green-Thumbers

GARDENING BY MAIL: A SOURCE BOOK by Barbara J. Barton, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 250 pp., $16.95 GARDENING AMERICA: REGIONAL AND HISTORICAL INFLUENCES IN THE CONTEMPORARY GARDEN by Ogden Tanner, New York: Viking Studio Books, 255 pp., $40

LANDSCAPING WITH CONTAINER PLANTS by Jim Wilson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 212 pp., $35

A GENTLE PLEA FOR CHAOS: THE ENCHANTMENT OF GARDENING by Mirabel Osler, New York: Simon & Schuster, 176 pp., $22.95

A WORLD OF PLANTS: THE MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN Essays by Charlene Bry, Marshall R. Crosby, and Peter Loewer, Photographs by Kiku Obata, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 191 pp., $39.95

FOR both the experienced gardener and the novice, Gardening by Mail, a Source Book is one truly useful compilation. In it, Barbara J. Barton lists hundreds of garden suppliers, whose offerings range from antique apple trees to irrigation systems, from mosses to New Zealand wildflowers, and almost everything in between. Each listing includes a brief summary of what each firm carries, as well as the cost of its catalog, hours of business, even the months in which its nurseries and gardens are open to the public. The firms are also cross-referenced by geographical location and plant offerings.

The book also lists horticultural societies worldwide - the focus of each, their dues, publications, and privileges - as well as horticultural publications and bookstores that specialize in the botanical. This treasure-trove is guaranteed to keep readers armchair-browsing for hours. The postman, delivering the armloads of catalogs the reader has ordered after studying Barton's comprehensive sourcebook, may not, however, share the enthusiasm.

Setting out to cover the history of American gardeners and garden style from the 17th century to the present and from region to region is Gardening America: Regional and Historical Influences in the Contemporary Garden, by Ogden Tanner. Unfortunately, Tanner's work turns out to be short on substance. His text is often no more than an adjective-laden list of plants found in a given region; it's vague and repetitive.

In his zeal to promote the new American gardening vision, Turner inaccurately attributes such things as ``people parks'' or shared gardens, forgetting places like Hyde Park in London, the Englisher Gardens in Munich, and other vast public gardens in Europe.

But the main complaint against Tanner's book must be the lack of depth: America's history is chock-full of gardeners whose contribution and vision have altered the face of gardening, both in the United States and abroad. But, with few exceptions, Tanner skims over the work of these innovative men and women.

Everyone who watches PBS's ``Victory Garden'' is familiar with Jim Wilson, a man whose entire being emanates ``gardening know-how and wisdom.'' Wilson's new book, Landscaping With Container Plants, is just what one would expect from him: a thorough, utterly practical guide to container gardening, from A to Z - or rather from asparagus to zinnias. He covers every aspect of the subject, from choosing a container through the new soilless potting mixtures. And he examines a wide range of plants that adapt well to containers. But Wilson isn't one to just toss out ideas. Instead, he covers all the practical steps necessary, whether he is discussing how to avoid transplant shock, how to judge pot-size for a plant, or how to ``age'' concrete planters. With its beautiful photographs, Wilson's essential practicality, and colorful humor, this book is both a joy to read and a pleasure to use.

Although full of photographs of her garden, A Gentle Plea for Chaos is Mirabel Osler's musings on her garden and the nature of gardening and gardeners: ``Reading books about gardens is a potent pastime; books nourish a gardener's mind in the same way as manure nourishes plants. ... They tantalize you with their good sense and encouragement. Their rousing words conjure up a fragrant and floral sequence unraveling through the years.'' She couldn't be more right.

Her book requires time - time to read, to savor, to relish the witty and irreverent comments about gardens and gardening life and to appreciate the author's philosophical practicality and practical philosophy. Her plea for chaos is a needed reminder to allow the natural back into our gardens, a plea for the sanity of nature.

Covering 79 acres in the heart of the Midwest is the cherished bequest of a 19th-century English emigrant, philanthropist, and self-made millionaire, Henry Shaw: the Missouri Botanical Garden. A World of Plants is a thorough and lavishly illustrated guide to this famous American garden, the second largest botanical garden in the world.

The book begins with a scholarly chapter on the classification and nomenclature of plants. But if understanding the development of botanical Latin doesn't interest you, don't be put off - the bulk of the book is devoted to the Missouri Botanical Garden itself. With sumptuous photographs and a marvelously detailed text, each of the various gardens within the garden is pictured and described. Thus, we are shown through the Climatron - a building based on Buckminster Fuller's plans for a geodesic dome that houses a sample tropical rain forest - and over the numerous bridges in the Japanese garden. The combination of photographs and text provides a splendid walking tour for the mind.

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