Five Books That a Gardener Might Welcome as a Gift

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 11, 2008

This year's holiday season offers a festive distraction from the workaday woes of life in a recession, but for gardeners December brings its own, happy diversion. Ten days hence, the solstice will start the slow conquest of light over dark. The depths of winter lie ahead, but the lengthening days point to the spring and rebirth in the garden.

January is the month to procure seeds, make cold frames and work the soil, if you can. But the next few weeks offer the only real downtime for green-blooded gardeners, along with a moment to broaden our knowledge and draw inspiration. That's why books -- tactile, navigable, portable -- remain welcomed gifts in this multimedia age. Dozens of titles cross my desk each fall, but here are five that would keep me going contentedly till the snowdrops stir.

"William Robinson: The Wild Gardener," by Richard Bisgrove (Frances Lincoln, $60). Robinson is not a household name, but he is one of the most influential gardeners in history. More than 70 years after he died, his ideas of gardening resonate in domestic landscapes in temperate zones around the world. He championed the ideas of border plantings of hardy perennials, and of informal gardens that sought to harmonize with nature, not compete with it. These notions have come to define how we garden today.

No movement has momentum without targets, and Robinson famously railed against the prevailing Victorian mania for bedding annuals and the sterility of formal, architectural gardens.

Robinson was an opinionated and irascible visionary -- in short, a great subject for a book -- and Bisgrove finds lots of entertaining material in voluminous writings in a career that spanned decades.

Robinson (1838-1935) set forth his principles in two key books. "The Wild Garden," which espoused the transformation of weedy edges of the garden into meadows, woodland, etc., was first published in 1870 and still in print in 1928. The second, "The English Flower Garden," advised the relaxed form of planting throughout one's garden and was in print from 1883 to 1956.

Bisgrove argues that Robinson was not so much the inventor of the modern garden as its most effective promoter. In addition to his books, he founded several popular gardening magazines in London, and his visions of gardening also had great sway in the United States.

Robinson's implicit message was that gardens were about plants, which may sound obvious, but the history of gardening is marked by a debate between those who think gardens have become too wild and those who think they are too structured.

In "Plant-Driven Design," by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden (Timber Press, $34.95), the authors argue that too many gardens today are designed by professionals lacking an understanding of the plant world.

As veteran horticulturists and designers, the Ogdens make an argument that is compelling. "You can't have a garden without gardening," they write. "And you aren't likely to do very well designing one without getting your hands dirty. This is because gardens change over time. The gardenmaker becomes both author and editor, entering a relationship of observation, enjoyment and thoughtful intervention."

If we are in danger of leaving plants out of the garden, we do so, ironically, when there has never been a greater abundance of plants at our fingertips. Beyond the rich offerings in garden centers, the Internet has connected specialty nurseries with the plant geeks among us.

This book is full of inspiring pictures of garden plant communities: plants for containers, perennials that still look good after the flowers fade, the orchard floored with daffodils, herbaceous foundation plantings. The authors also offer sophisticated plant lists that will have even seasoned gardeners Googling away.

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