How to Paint a Growing Picture With Plants

THE ART OF PLANTING. By Rosemary Verey, Little, Brown, 168 pp., $40

ARE you what Rosemary Verey - one of Britain's most respected gardeners and garden-writers - calls a ``snowdrop snob?'' In her book ``The Art of Planting'' (published in Britain by Francis Lincoln under the title ``Good Planting'') she writes: ``You may become a snowdrop snob, turning up their faces and dropping the names of all the species - elwesii, atkinsii, fosteri. But another way to enjoy them is in an extravaganza, in great white sheets, multitudes of singles, doubles, short and tall, growing round tree trunks and framing the rigid stems of Daphne laureola....'' And then over the page is a stunning photograph by Andrew Lawson of just such a light woodland carpeted in endless abandon with millions of naturalized snowdrops in the garden at Painswick, Gloucestershire.

That's what this book is like. On the one hand it is full of Mrs. Verey's experienced and enthusiastic relish of plants grown in the right settings, and with the right plants as neighbors, most likely to bring out their special qualities. On the other hand it is a book of superb color photographs by a photographer who is himself a fine gardener and who chooses to expand visually on the general points Verey makes quite as much as to illustrate them.

At times the slight disjunction between main text and pictures can be a little frustrating: In the ``Bulbs'' chapter, Verey describes the white, multiheaded Narcissus ``Thalia'' as her undoubted spring favorite; yet it is in none of the photographs. The same with Rhamnus alaternus ``Argenteovariegata'' in the ``Mixed Borders'' chapter. This buckthorn Verey considers a ``star plant.'' Naturally the reader would like to see it. I couldn't even find it in the magnificent tome ``The Royal Horticultural Society Gardeners' Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers,'' which contains 4,000 photographs. Nevertheless, to get the most out of the Verey book - since a great deal of its hard information consists of names of plants - this encyclopedia does prove invaluable.

``The Art of Planting'' may well enthuse new gardeners, but in fact it is specialist enough to appeal to readers with a fair amount of gardening already under their belts. It comes directly out of the author's own long-time practice and observation. (Her Gloucestershire garden is one of the most heartwarming and enjoyably inventive examples of good plantsmanship in Britain.)

For external inspiration Verey looks to other British gardens (many shown in photographs) and a couple in the United States (not shown), as well as to artists Monet and Renoir. She quotes appreciatively from that Edwardian mother-of-gardeners Gertrude Jekyll and also Vita Sackville-West, as progenitors.

But it is her own ideas, one or two resulting from ``fortunate accidents,'' that engage the reader. She is for ``subtle gardening'' rather than ``a wanton use of color.'' She has a keen penchant for certain combinations of blue and yellow. She is a great entwiner and mingler of plants - loves clematis mixed with philadelphus, bulbs pushing up through ground-cover plants, and lower plants flourishing under roses. She thinks of her way of planting as, above all, ``planting in layers.''

She preaches a greater awareness of how a garden changes as the year advances, and how to avoid dull gaps at any season. Some of the photographs illustrate this effectively by showing the same part of a well-planned garden in different months. The transformation is remarkable.

What finally sticks in the mind, though, are ideas that you might yourself put into practice (vast woods full of snowdrops not being within everyone's reach, nor, for that matter, the amiable Gloucestershire climate). One beautiful photograph of a detail of garden steps belonging to a ``Mrs. Tonge'' shows how even the neglected sliver of ground between one step and the next can be fully planted with a range of fascinating plants. I also liked the idea of growing Garrya elliptica, an evergreen decorating itself with long dangling catkins in winter, as a wall climber rather than (traditionally) as a bush. And I took note of a couple of striking Verey-isms (she's got her opinions all right!): ``Never neglect the spurge family....'' and ``You can never have too many aquilegias.''

Who would argue?

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