Gardening

Along with the seed catalogue, the book lies at the heart of the winter garden. Through its pages the gardener, who has worked more or less in isolation all summer, steps out into the wider gardening world, renewing his acquaintance with other gardeners and returning with a rich store of information—the printed kind, of course, but also, assuming he’s been inspired to order a new plant or two, the genetic kind. Undertaken in a comfortable chair or even in bed, this paper gardening might seem idle compared with the work of weeding and mulching, but arguably it is as crucial to the success of next year’s garden as any of the more sweaty seasonal pursuits. For without the fresh ideas and novel genes proposed by winter’s books and catalogues, next spring’s garden would offer nothing new. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I absolutely must have this new book about shrubs that, at $59.95, costs more than any existing shrub in my garden.

Why is it that the biggest and most lavish garden books always seem to get published in the spring—at precisely the season when reading is the last thing a gardener has time for, and legitimate gift-receiving occasions are so few? Whatever the reason, the more quirky or scholarly garden books that would be lost in the spring flood of garden porn—all those tempting volumes of sumptuous but not entirely real (and certainly unattainable) gardens—stand a much better chance of catching our eye this time of year. Here are seven that caught mine.

PARADISE TRANSFORMED: The Private Garden for the Twenty-first Century (Monacelli, $60) is fully as gorgeous as any work of garden porn I’ve ever thumbed, yet it’s a whole lot more provocative. Guy Cooper and Gordon Taylor, partners in a London landscape design firm, have produced an eye-popping international survey of contemporary landscape architecture, from the coolly elegant modernist compositions of Dan Kiley to the occasionally wacky post-modern gardens of Martha Schwartz. The accent here is on design rather than horticulture—most of these gardens are decidedly post-plant. “Gardens should be freed from the boxwood of history,” declares one of these paradise transformers, and the work of the 30-odd designers featured here is nothing if not original, eloquently refuting the common view that nothing much has happened in landscape architecture since Roberto Burle Marx and Luis Barragan. Don’t miss Ms. Schwartz’s dadaist “bagel garden” in Boston, where a front lawn has been transformed into a tidy parterre of clipped box, purple aquarium gravel and, yes, a double row of lacquered plain bagels.

If “Paradise Transformed” makes a case for the vitality of contemporary landscape design, SO FINE A PROSPECT: Historic New England Gardens (University Press of New England, $45) brings proof that an earlier group of American paradise transformers—the makers of great private gardens in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries—accomplished a lot more than they’ve usually got credit for. Bringing together the insights of the social historian, the biographer and the gardener, Alan Emmet has added a significant new dimension to our understanding of American garden history, once treated as little more than a shallow tributary of English garden fashion. A wilder landscape and climate, combined with a powerful moral imperative inherited from the Puritans, gave New England gardens their own special character, even when their designers had one eye on changing European fashions (the hemline of horticultural fashion being a garden’s relative formality). Ms. Emmet skillfully demonstrates how gardens as diverse as Hollis Hunnewell’s Italianate extravaganza in Wellesley, Mass., and Celia Thaxter’s florid Impressionist gem on Appledore Island, Me., were both the distinct American reflections of an individual, a landscape and a time. “So Fine a Prospect” deserves a place on the short shelf of recent histories—alongside May Brawley Hill’s “Grandmother’s Garden” and Mac Griswold’s “Golden Age of American Gardens”—that have helped us recover a largely forgotten gardening heritage.

There’s often an inverse relationship between the beauty and the usefulness of a gardening book; not so in the case of Bunny Guinness’s CREATING A FAMILY GARDEN (Abbeville, $29.95), a book that somehow manages to marry romance and practicality—precisely the challenge facing every gardener with young children. How, in other words, does one make peace between the play equipment and the perennials? Ms. Guinness, a young British designer who won a gold medal for her “Wind in the Willows” garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1994, has demonstrated how a well-designed sandbox can actually add something to a garden; she does the same favor for the tree house, the swing set and the kiddie pool, all of which she manages to fold into winning grown-up gardens from which every last molecule of blue and yellow plastic has been exiled. Seductive photographs trade off with clever do-it-yourself plans and a text that evinces a real empathy for children; there’s even a list of plants that kids love, and a menu of desiderata that includes such essentials as “areas of long grass for stalking games.” (I guess Lyme disease hasn’t come to England yet.)

A book I can imagine having an equally dramatic effect on my garden next spring (not to mention my wallet) is the second volume of the Garden Club of America’s PLANTS THAT MERIT ATTENTION. Volume 2: Shrubs (Timber Press, $59.95). (Volume 1 was “Trees.”) Drawing on the expertise of hundreds of American horticulturists and gardeners, Janet Meakin Poor and Nancy Peterson Brewster have compiled a magisterial reference that should finally break the stranglehold of that small handful of hackneyed shrubs currently choking our yards and nurseries. Here are literally hundreds of gardenworthy alternatives to the usual yews, rhodos and forsythias, each given a good photograph and a brief but authoritative textlet setting forth its landscape uses and culture. The shrubs are presented alphabetically, but at the back of the book you’ll find a truly awesome set of appendixes breaking down the cultivars by hardiness zone, shade tolerance, pest and disease resistance, fragrance, floriferousness, soil preference, environmental stress resistance—everything but deer-withstanding ability. A model of just how good a plant reference can be, “Shrubs” also directs readers to the public gardens where each of the featured shrubs is on display, and then on to the nurseries that offer it for sale. This is the sort of book that could quietly revolutionize a garden, even a landscape.

A somewhat less sophisticated, but no less ambitious, new reference work is THE BOOK OF OUTDOOR GARDENING (Workman, cloth, $28.95; paper, $18.95), by the editors of Smith & Hawken, a book that aspires to become the pre-eminent one-volume primer for beginning American gardeners. Comprehensive, lively, accessible and even inspiring, this is precisely the sort of book to give someone who’s recently fallen headlong into the dirt. Some experienced gardeners will bridle at this book’s occasionally annoying blend of trendiness and environmental rectitude (if the Smith & Hawken catalogue sets your teeth on edge, this will too), but the scope, handsomeness and convenience of this primer should earn it many devoted readers.

Another impressive feat of editorial enterprise is on display in A PHOTOGRAPHIC GARDEN HISTORY (Random House, $55), by Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy, though this one is a good deal more eccentric. This inviting visual history of world gardening, consisting of several hundred photographs and long captions, simultaneously unfolds along two completely different conceptual paths, sort of like a CD-ROM between hard covers. The first path is chronological and cultural (the pageant of Western gardening from ancient Rome to the present, followed by sections on Chinese and Japanese gardening), while the second is thematic and cross-cultural. What this means for the reader, or viewer, is that our stately march from “Dutch Baroque” to “Romantic/Picturesque” will be suddenly interrupted by a two- or three-page visual digression on the theme of, say, “Borrowed Landscape,” in which we are invited to contrast the long prospects at Stourhead with those at Bi Shu Zhan Zhuang. Taken together, these often brilliant little photographic essays, which touch on everything from grottoes to water staircases, follies to parterres, are the best parts of this odd volume, underscoring the power of a few simple landscape ideas to endure across time and culture.

All the books mentioned thus far have more to offer the eye than the ear; every one of them is copiously illustrated and fat enough to commandeer a coffee table. Nothing wrong with that, except that it seems to me the winter bookshelf should also have at least one small and personal volume on it, a one-byline book propelled farther by its passion than its authority, and written in the sort of voice that is the literary equivalent of a chat over the back fence. As it happens, Margery Fish’s WE MADE A GARDEN (Sagapress/Timber Press, $19.95), one of my all-time favorite first-person gardening books, has just been published in this country for the first time, some 40 years after it appeared in England. Cause to cheer—and to wonder how American publishers could ever have let this one fall through the cracks for so long.

The “we” of the title is Margery Fish and her somewhat cranky late husband, Walter, a former editor of The Daily Mail; and the garden they made was in Somerset, where they bought a wreck of a house and two acres of limey clay in 1937, when “my husband decided there was a likelihood of war.” Margery Fish is the most congenial of garden writers, possessed of a modest and deceptively simple voice that manages to delicately layer memoir with horticultural how-to. The book was first published in 1956, and Margery Fish comes across as every inch the 50′s wife, patiently enduring Walter’s interminable lectures on the importance of structure in the garden—walls, lawns, paths—and the relative inconsequentiality of her own cherished flowers. But lurking just beneath the surface of Margery’s submissiveness is a subversive streak—imagine Gracie Allen wielding a pair of secateurs. Even the garden paths required negotiations: “I should have preferred to fill our cracks with a mixture of sand and fine soil so that tiny green plants would creep along all the stones but this was one thing Walter would not have at any price,” she confides. “Time has improved things and a lot of the Somerset cement has become loosened, some of it helped, I admit, by a crowbar, and now I have little plants creeping and crawling in and out of nearly every crevice. Between the lines of this captivating little book one can make out the story of a marriage (Walter dies before the garden is completed) and the distant war that spirits off one “garden boy” after another, leaving Margery to roll the gravel on Walter’s beloved paths alone. Much more than a period piece, “We Made a Garden” is a gentle reminder that plants are only a small part of what a garden is. The good ones are autobiographies written in green.