The year's best garden books

A new crop of gardening guides combines beauty and usefulness

This time of year, it's not "visions of sugarplums" that are dancing about in gardeners' heads. For people whose passion is growing things, December dreams are more likely to focus on plants (heuchera, hosta, hibiscus), tools (geared loppers, a new pair of thorn-proof gloves), and, of course, gardening books.

Whether they're how-to primers filled with practical advice, coffee-table tomes brimming with beautiful color photos, or simply over-the-back-fence "conversations" in print, these volumes are essential cold-weather survival equipment for gardeners. They help us get through the long winter ahead. They fill us with ideas for transforming our yards. Most of all, they provide a delightful sense of expectation that next year's garden will be the best one yet.

If you want to make a gardener happy, one of these top-notch books should do it.

Common to This Country, Botanical Discoveries of Lewis & Clark, by Susan Munger (Artisan, 128 pp., $22.95), takes a timely look at an often-overlooked aspect of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Few remember that one of the charges of Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis was to observe and bring back unknown plants from the West. He did - more than 200 specimens in all, some of which, amazingly, still survive at the Lewis and Clark Herbarium in Philadelphia. Thanks to the lovely watercolor illustrations of the "new" plants and the journal entries detailing the botanic explorations, the reader feels as though he or she is along on the journey. I'd vote for this as garden book of the year.

Why do we love roses? Let us count the ways - their brilliant red (or romantic pastel) blooms, their heady scent, their long and interesting history, or even fond memories of roses we recall from childhood. All of these attributes - and many more - are evoked by the 33 well-known garden writers whose essays on their favorite flowers appear in Roses, a Celebration, edited by Wayne Winterrowd (North Point Press, 261 pp., $30). As aficionados such as Allen Lacy, Christopher Lloyd, and David Austin sing the praises of 'Great Maiden's Blush,' 'Harison's Yellow,' 'Roseraie de l'Hay' - making each sounding more appealing than the last - it's hard not to fall under the spell of these eloquent rose lovers and decide you want to plant every variety they mention. The evocative descriptions are beautifully enhanced by Pamela Stagg's watercolor illustrations; together they make an appealing package for anyone who is enamored of the "queen of flowers."

Elisabeth Sheldon sounds as though she's a gardener you'd like to meet. In Time and the Gardener: Writings on a Lifetime Passion (Beacon Press, 276 pp., $25), she compares the red flowers and mahogany leaves of the 'Bishop of Llandaff' dahlia to "the sumptuous quality of an Oriental rug." She admits to having to recant her dislike of purple-leaved plants, and heartily regrets having ever planted Houttuynia 'Chameleon,' which she refers to as a "beautiful vandal whose conquering hordes don't know the meaning of defeat." By turns Mrs. Sheldon is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and opinionated - but always vastly entertaining.

Many gardeners are in their element when growing things, but don't feel as confident of their landscape-design ability. In The Well-Designed Mixed Garden (Timber Press, 460 pp., $39.95), Tracy DiSabato-Aust takes the reader by the hand to make the planting of beds and borders (those that include shrubs and trees, as well as flowers) so foolproof that anyone can do it. She walks readers through each step of the design process, then shows how to achieve whatever look is desired. She also lists plants by their design characteristics (from flower color and time of bloom to form and texture). Best of all, the advice is all from DiSabato-Aust's own vast experience. You'll find that her tips work as well in your yard as in hers. Owning a copy of this book is like having 24-hour daily access to a talented landscape designer.

It's often discouraging to see photographs of gorgeous gardens in books and magazines and not receive any information on how they got that way (and how you can create something similar). In Water Features for Small Gardens: From Concept to Construction (Timber Press, 174 pp., $29.95), Keith Davitt perfectly balances the art of designing a water garden with the practical aspects of how to achieve what he has shown is possible. Davitt introduces us to all kinds of water features - waterfalls, natural pools, formal pools, tub gardens, fountains, streams, wall fountains, and bogs among them. Once we've fallen under the spell of the beautiful photographs, then he explains (and, when necessary, shows in a diagram) how to build them in your yard.

I would trust and buy any garden book simply on the strength of Frances Tenenbaum's name on the cover. This legendary editor knows her stuff when it comes to horticulture, and she knows how to package the information in the way that's most useful for readers.

Taylor's Guides Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Houghton Mifflin, 447 pp., $45) is no exception. It's the reference guide that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who grows anything.

Written for and by North Americans (no warmed-over British advice), it's packed with plant descriptions, how-to-grow directions, and plenty of photos that will help you identify a plant you already own or discover one that isn't in your yard, but ought to be.

If you're looking for a stocking stuffer for a gardening enthusiast, consider two little books. For those who enjoy pithy sayings and Mary Engelbreit's colorful drawings, there's Words for Gardeners to Live By (Andrews McMeel, 96 pp., $12.95).

The Little Book of Slugs, edited by Allan Shepherd and Suzanne Galant (Centre for Alternative Technology, 115 pages, $7.95), is filled with British gardeners' advice on ridding the yard of the slimy creatures. It's funny as well as practical, but a word of advice: Don't dip into it before you sit down to lunch.

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