Books to Fuel a Planter's Passions

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 6, 2007

I am pondering cycles and timing, and I don't mean the Tour de France. In the garden, the leaves are raked, the spring bulbs safely in their winter beds; now you can put your feet up, right?

Yes. But think of December as the start of the gardening year, rather than the end of it. We have 12 to 15 weekends between now and spring -- precious few when you think about it -- so use the period to give the body a rest and the mind an exhilarating workout.

Even in the depths of this year's drought, there was always the promise of the dry pattern's breaking and the prospect of reviving the garden in 2008. As plants recover by drinking and going to sleep, how does the gardener heal the psyche?

To me -- and many others, I suspect -- nothing is more calming and indulgent than spending a quiet and unhurried hour with a good book about gardens and gardening. Half of my choices this year as holiday gift books hail directly from Britain, they span a century of gardenmaking and yet all are linked in curious ways. One of these threads is the idea that a passion for plants, and not design alone, is essential in making landscapes that touch the heart.

One of the most admired designers of the early 20th century was Norah Lindsay. She had a way of composing breathtaking flower gardens, herbaceous borders at the finest country houses that were the stuff of Merchant Ivory films.

She was most active between the wars, and died in 1948, yet her reputation lingers. However, it wasn't until I read Norah Lindsay: The Life and Art of a Garden Designer, by Allyson Hayward (Frances Lincoln, $65), that I discovered she had been forced down this path. Lindsay had created a delightful garden at her own country house, Sutton Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, but when her marriage fell apart she found herself broke and scrambling to find a source of income. The crisis has a contemporary ring to it, but for a woman of 51 in 1924, the future must have looked bleak indeed.

She was always well connected socially and turned her hand to designing gardens, or key parts of large estates, first for a few friends and later, as her reputation grew, for a wider circle of bigwigs. Her patrons and friends included George Bernard Shaw, Edith Wharton, the Duke of Windsor and Vita Sackville-West. One of her best friends was Philip Sassoon, a fabulously wealthy and stylish Rothschild, who called on her to help create his wonderful villa garden at Port Lympne on the south coast of England. I remember seeing Lindsay's double border there when it was restored about 15 years ago -- large, sloping, colorful and magnificent.

The book is lavishly illustrated, but the contemporary pictures of restored gardens give a clearer idea of Lindsay's skills than the blurred and often ill-tinted images from the 1920s and 1930s. There are moments when Lindsay's descriptions of her work actually are more helpful than the photos. In choosing color combinations, she strove for harmonious gradations of hue rather than jarring contrasts. And the "architecture of the border is as important as the painting of it," she wrote. "There must be a constant variety in design, one group of plants showing off and enhancing the next, and a cunning juxtaposition of contrasts, achieved by planting in patches."

Hayward spent 10 years on the trail of her subject, and the book is a keeper. I wish she had included specific planting schemes as well as a list of Lindsay gardens that have been restored and where the public might see them.

In A Gardener's Life by the same publisher ($65), the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury recounts 20 gardens she designed for herself and for clients during her long life. A self-described amateur, she has assembled gardens that are considered some of the best in England. One long chapter in this delightful book (with photographs by Derry Moore) is devoted to the 31 years she spent living at Hatfield House, an Elizabethan palace just north of London.

Here, she restored a 30-acre landscape that evokes the formal style of the early 17th century, but on a grand scale, and energized it through effusive planting schemes that are lush and colorful without losing control. One reference book described her designs as "bursting with vigor."

This is no doubt linked to the fact that Lady Salisbury, now in her 80s, was one of the early practitioners of organic gardening and influenced its widespread acceptance today. One of her early followers was Prince Charles, and she designed one of the first gardens he built at his estate, Highgrove, in the 1980s, though he has since reworked her original design.

One of my favorite images from "A Gardener's Life" is at her first house, Cranborne Manor, where an avenue of gnarled, espaliered apple trees is under-planted, dramatically, with masses of white flowering dianthus. In bloom, they offer long, frothy lines, but the blue-gray foliage would look good year-round.

And speaking of Prince Charles, his new book, The Elements of Organic Gardening, is not his first about Highgrove's gardens, but it shows the garden in a new state of maturity and dwells heavily on the organic techniques that are central to the owner's worldview. It also features, for the first time, the prince's gardens at Clarence House in London and Birkhall in the Scottish Highlands. Here, the Duchess of Cornwall has developed a large cutting garden. The book costs $39.95 and is published by Kales Press. It is co-written by Stephanie Donaldson, with photos by Andrew Lawson.

At Highgrove, we see a garden that has obviously had a great deal of money spent on it, but it remains for all its scale a very personal garden, as idiosyncratic as its maker and yet highly accessible. I like this book, and I like the fact that someone in public life is championing the cause of gardening.

Another champion was Donald Culross Peattie, a botanist and writer whose treasured two-volume opus on trees from the 1950s has been reissued as a single hardcover, A Natural History of North American Trees (Houghton Mifflin, $40).

The work features a lot of familiar trees, but Peattie describes them with such invention that they become revelations. His account of the common sweet gum tree takes us to far-off and exotic places and times as he explains the uses of its resin and its timber. The profiles are accompanied by contemporary illustrations by Paul Landacre, which are wonderfully dark and moody and resemble woodcuts.

There are too few books to help the fruit and vegetable gardener, but Rodale's Vegetable Garden Problem Solver, by Fern Marshall Bradley (Rodale, $19.95 paperback) is like having an experienced friend in the garden. The softbound version feels cheap, and there are no photos, just illustrations, but the text is informed and will be of real help to novice and experienced food gardeners who want to garden without nasty pesticides.

Clematis are underused, and people who do try them are put off by the fact that the large flowering hybrids tend to get a distressing wilt disease. There are so many others to try, and grow old with, because they can live a long time. In his new book, Clematis for Small Spaces (Timber Press, $34.95), grower and expert Raymond Evison features some of the more diminutive varieties suited to the tighter quarters of the modern garden. Evison has in recent years developed varieties that will grow in pots with bamboo tepees, and he features the work of other breeders.

For his own use, Evison selects varieties based on their flowering season and finds a host plant or a support that would benefit from a free-flowering clematis. After ogling the color pictures of hundreds of varieties in this book, it's hard to think of one that won't. An even more challenging task might be in sourcing them. Even for bibliophiles like me, the Internet has its place.

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