The year's best garden books

The chilly days of winter are a perfect time to curl up with a book about roses, herbs, flowers, or trees - and dream of warm weather to come.

In the same way that gardeners typically take advantage of the onset of cold weather to look back and evaluate the past season's successes and failures, we assess this year's harvest of new garden books. Which ones should be picked and shared with green-thumbed friends and relatives (or even kept for our own enjoyment)? And which are more likely destined to enrich the compost pile?

The ones below are the cream of the crop.

Ellen Spector Platt's Lemon Herbs (Stackpole Books, $19.95) proves the old adage, "less is more." The attractive guide covers only 18 lemon-scented plants, but does so in a comprehensive way that's never boring. Readers learn how to grow the plants (indoors and out) as well as use them in decorations and craft projects. You may want to read it only after a meal, though: It's easy to grow hungry reading the tasty-sounding recipes in the last chapter.

Containers aren't just for marigolds and cherry tomatoes anymore. Instead, think peach trees and a "winter salad bowl." Creativity is the hallmark of The Bountiful Container, by Rose Marie Nichols McGhee and Maggie Stuckey (Workman, $16.95). But the authors don't overlook the practical details, from temperature considerations to planting tricks and techniques.

In Flowers of the Bible and How to Grow Them (Citadel Press, $12.95), Allan A. Swenson discusses plantsmentioned in the Bible and how to grow them in variousregions of the US. He also explains basic landscaping and gardening techniques, lists biblical gardens that are open to visitors, and provides readers with invaluable resources to learn more.

Landscape design

Anyone undertaking a landscaping project will appreciate Trees and Shrubs for Flowers, Trees and Shrubs for Fragrance, and Trees and Shrubs for Foliage, by Glyn Church (Firefly Books, each $24.95). Although originally published in New Zealand, they have been nicely Americanized for US gardeners. The information is accurate, and the writer's enthusiasm for shrubs and trees - the backbone of the garden - is contagious.

Whether you have an acre, or garden on a plot not much larger than a postage stamp, Ornament in the Small Garden, by Roy Strong (Firefly Books, $24.95) will start you dreaming. The Brits are so much better at using ornamental features in the garden than we Americans, so sit back and learn from a true master.

Too many gardeners plant roses alone, without trying to make them an integral part of the yard. Landscape With Roses, by Jeff Cox (Taunton Press, $27.95), shows how to use roses along paths, with other flowers in the garden, and climbing up structures. It nicely balances practical details with inspiration.

Shady places

Gardeners living east of the Mississippi will never again consider a shady yard "a problem" after reading The American Woodland Garden (Timber Press, $49.95). Combining philosophy, how-to, and hundreds of drop-dead-gorgeous photographs, writer/photographer Rick Darke captures "the spirit of the deciduous forest" and explains ecologic-ally responsible gardening in a woodland setting.

Need a reference book on perennial flowers that requirelittle or no sun? Look no further than An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials, by W. George Schmid (Timber Press, $49.95). Anyone with a wooded lot will find it well worth its hefty price tag. Mr. Schmid's knowledge is truly encyclopedic - and based on 30 years' experience - but his common-sense attitude will win him friends, too. When asked which plants will grow in shade and which won't, he replies: Successful gardeners spend a lot of time listening to what their plants tell them.

Regional guides

When choosing how-to gardening books, you'll generally find that a quality regional guide is more accurate than one that's aimed at a national audience. For instance, Sunset and Southern Living magazines have excellent books for gardeners in the West and South. Cool Springs Press offers gardening guides for individual states.

Two recommended books from New England authors are Notes From the Garden, by Henry Homeyer (University Press of New England, $24.95) and The Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening, by Ron Krupp (Whetstone Books, $15.95). Both contain interesting interviews and observations by committed organic gardeners.

Floral design

I'm not sure who's buying books on flower arranging, but the category is definitely blooming, if three new books are any indication. Maybe it's because of the gorgeous color photos, which, even in the middle of winter, make you itch to find your metal frog or that chunk of Oasis (floral foam, to the uninitiated) and head to the nearest florist for some alstromeria or branches covered with holly berries.

A Master Guide to the Art of Floral Design, by Alisa A. deJong-Stout with Hannah Sigur (Timber Press, $39.95), devotes about half of its pages to explaining the basics of flower arranging without becoming too simplistic. Then comes a photo gallery of beautiful arrangements, which gives examples of how the principles can be applied. My favorite: a very simple wreath of violets. What an appealing use of a plant that many gardeners consider a weed.

As you might expect, Flowers the White House Way, by Dottie Temple and Stan Fiengold (Simon & Schuster, $40), is as well-populated with former first families as with roses and tulips. But it's fun to see how 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been decorated in various seasons.

In Ikebana (Rizzoli, $40), Diane Norman and Michelle Cornell introduce readers to the ancient art of Japanese flower arranging and illustrate how its sophisticated sense of simplicity complements practically any style of home.

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