Time to wake up and start growing

Books On Gardening

February 03, 2002|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

Some years ago when I was a reporter for The Sun, I helped cover the Whitbread race through Maryland. A cool, slightly overcast day didn't diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd on the Coast Guard cutter that was the command vessel. Dignitaries, politicians, journalists, we all eagerly leaned over the ship's rail to see the tall, bright sails of the racing boats.

All but one of us. Across the deck stood a lone woman, her back to the boats and her eyes fixed on the land mass of Annapolis. Curious, I walked over and asked her what she was looking at so intently. "My garden is right over there," she said. "I could be gardening today and it's a perfect day for it. But my husband wanted to come to this!"

Anyone who ever put shovel to soil and dreamed of spring has felt such passion, at one time or another, to be at home in the garden. It's also discernible in the pages of the gardening books reviewed below, chosen for their usefulness and charm.

Plants are classified as a matter of course, so it seems fair to categorize books about them, too. There are essentially three types: How to grow your garden; how someone else (usually famous) grew theirs; and how a garden nourishes the gardener.

The how-to books are reference volumes, either general or focused on a particular kind of plant. In the general category, the Better Homes and Gardens Perennial Gardens (Meredith Corporation, 144 pages, $16.95) is an excellent and basic source for a novice or somewhat experienced gardener. It's arranged by garden type and plant type, with specific directions on how to make a garden and fill it with plants. This is a solid guide with illustrations and photographs that are easy to follow.

The Firefly Books gardening series offers a narrow, vertical wealth of information that is useful for any skill level. Bulbs For All Seasons by Pierre Gingras (Firefly Books Ltd., 282 pages, $19.95) arranges bulbs by blooming season. A section on each plant lists them alphabetically by common name (useful if you don't know the Latin for daffodil) and describes the plant, where and how to grow it and its history. There is also a comprehensive list of specific varieties for each flower, many with photographs.

Four other Firefly books are even more narrowly focused. Rhodendrons and Azaleas by Geeff Bryant, Hydrangeas by Glyn Church, Irises by Pamela McGeorge and Alison Nicoll, and Hibiscus by Jacqueline Walker (all four published by Firefly Books Ltd., each 96 pages and $16.95) are built around a simple, usable formula and layout. A history of the title plant is followed by chapters on specific varieties and how to plant, grow and maintain them. These are complete reference books written by experts, with lots of photographs and a full index. They're useful for any gardener.

Not least among these books' several charms is how they occasionally spice up the science with a fact that stuns. Here's one: Hibiscus is part of the Malvaceae family -- and so is okra, which is properly known as Hibiscus esculentus. Who except a real botanist could know that such a lovely floral lady has a hairy, gooey vegetable for a cousin?

The category of "other people's gardens" is filled with books to dream by. But that's all you're ever going to do with them, unless you have millions of dollars to pay thousands of people to tend your luxe baronial patch.

Still, it's worth indulging in one or two. Maybe there's an idea to copy on a smaller scale. Or an observation to nourish your soul (and help you recover from the reality that you didn't inherit the perfectly planted estate you deserve!).

No garden library is complete without something in it about the work of Vita Sackville-West, and Gardening at Sissinghurst by Tony Lord (Macmillan, 168 pages, $40) will do nicely. The introduction provides a short history of how Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, transformed a run-down ancestral property into one of the world's most famous English gardens. This beautiful book charts a visionary aristocrat's life work: garden "rooms" with long, sweeping vistas, winding stone walks edged by stately trees, weathered statues floating in a sea of soft blooms. Sketches illustrate how the Nicolsons began their task in the 1930s, and lush photographs show the results.

Monastic Gardens by Mick Hales (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 160 pages, $35) is the religious version of the estate-fantasy book. Each chapter looks at a particular kind of garden -- cloister garth, a sacristan's cutting garden, herb and vegetable plots -- in monasteries, friaries and abbeys in America, Britain and France. The photographs are exquisite and the text is graceful, much of it a beatific conversation with the monks and nuns who tend these beautiful places. The result is a calming and restful book.

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