Can't do it? Read about it

Books: These volumes will keep the gardener's mind from going dormant

In The Garden


Gardeners need help getting through the confining months of winter. If you can't be working in the garden, the next best thing is to be reading about the garden. There are new books out that celebrate the gentle whimsy of growing things. Others take readers back in time to the American Revolution, as the new field of garden history continues to blossom. And, as always, there are paeans to plants, plants and more plants.


"My Garden (Book)," by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23). Kincaid's collection of essays doesn't tell you much about plants, but instead dives into the feelings gardening evokes in her (and many of the rest of us) -- especially the obsession, envy and discontent that mark this as a passion, not a hobby.

Kincaid's fierce writing style challenges the conventions of garden literature. With undercurrents of rage and revolt, Kincaid, a descendant of Antiguan slaves, lobs hand grenades at a genre modeled on the wit and understatement of ruling-class snobbery.

Of one trip to a famous English garden, Kincaid writes: "When I saw Gravetye, it was an Eden I loved so much, one from which I could not wait to escape. Gravetye is now an ideal luxurious inn; I had a delicious lunch in the dining room, and while eating I was struck with the desire to behead all of my fellow diners." Kincaid's a major writer, and her appearance in the garden book section adds an astonishing voice to the genre.


"Designing With Plants," by Piet Oudolf (Timber Press, $35). This visionary Dutch nurseryman is a founder of the "New Wave" planting style for perennials that has inspired a school of northern European designers. Whereas the English perennial border that Gertrude Jekyll pioneered almost a century ago is based largely on color, Oudolf's revolutionary perennial plantings focus instead on the structure of plants, whether in or out of bloom.

The result is gardens of architectural foliage and seedheads, well illustrated here, that create moods rather than images, and that change with the seasons. This important book could be a revelation to serious perennial aficionados.

"Irish Gardens," by Olda FitzGerald (Hearst Books, $40). This beautifully photographed tour of 20 Irish gardens, conducted by one of the owners, wife of the knight of Glin, introduces the oxymoron of the wild estate garden. These once formal landscapes started out on the English model. But thanks to a climate that encourages more rampant growth, generally more limited funds, and an embrace of passionate disorder as a form of beauty, they evolved into something quite different. This is a book to whet the appetite for travel.

"The Art of the Kitchen Garden," by Jan and Michael Gertley (Taunton Books, $30). Ornamental vegetable gardens are in vogue these days, and for perfectionists who adore Martha Stewart, this book offers the last word in garden craft projects. The patterns in this book range from intricate rosettes to stars, all rendered in cabbages, beets, parsley and other edibles springing from the earth. Each "potager" can be adjusted to any size plot, but you must have a vantage point such as a deck or terrace that will allow you and your very impressed friends to look down on the garden.

Garden history

"The New Traditional Garden: A Practical Guide to Creating and Restoring Authentic American Gardens for Homes of All Ages," by Michael Weishan (Ballantine Books, $35). They've lovingly restored every doorknob in their old house. Now bringing the land around their antique home back into period is only common sense -- and the year's hottest gardening trend. Editor of the successful newsletter Traditional Gardener, Weishan will continue to win converts with this book. He's an opinionated pragmatist who shares hints on how to add an appropriate old-time flavor to a yard without being a slave to period accuracy.

"Washington's Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man," by Mac Griswold, photographed by Roger Foley (Houghton Mifflin/Francis Tennenbaum, $40). This is a double portrait of Mount Vernon and the man who created it. The gardens are, of course, beautifully preserved, but more intriguing is the bold way historian Griswold uses them and historical sources to examine the real George Washington behind the icon, through his unguarded devotion to his land.

During the Revolution we find a general who is cheered by planning future garden improvements to Mount Vernon when news from the battlefield is grim. And in the end we have met a man who never quit until he reached his goals and who left at Mount Vernon a completed vision. This is American garden history at its best.


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