Gifts to help sow the seeds of inspiration

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The act of gardening is one of life's sweeter journeys; gardening books are journeys, too, sojourns in which the author leads and we follow.

In this electronic age, I can think of no more generous gift than a book, a handheld device that signals its reader's desire to be left alone in a quiet place.

I have found four recently published garden books, diverse in tone and character, to be especially appealing, and any one of them would make a welcome gift this holiday season for the gardener in your life.

"A Clearing in the Woods: Creating Contemporary Gardens," by Roger Foley (Monacelli Press, $50). Foley is an Arlington-based landscape photographer whose work has appeared over the years in books, magazines and newspapers including this one. He has spent many hours in some pretty impressive gardens, and this book is a handsome distillation of 26 of them. Most are on the East Coast, and many in the mid-Atlantic, and the images demonstrate what artfully designed gardens can be achieved in our climate.

It's telling that some of the best-looking gardens have the fewest flowers; they're given form through a strong framework of walls, paths, steps, trees and other structural bones. I have seen Foley at work: He is a quiet presence in the garden, usually early in the morning or in late afternoon, looking for the photographer's most important and elusive ingredient, the right light. But he doesn't just observe; he perceives, and the resulting images capture the singular spirit of his subjects.

"Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth and Beauty," by Catherine Herbert Howell (National Geographic Books, $35). The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the scope of the book is huge: It seeks to lay out our relationship with plants over the past, er, 2 million years. Coming from the folks at National Geographic, this is done with a graphic gusto that makes it all quite digestible. The book is replete with botanical art, timelines, sidebars and the like that inform without being didactic. I didn't know, for example, that in 1893 the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato, botanically a fruit, was a vegetable so imported tomatoes could be taxed. Clever that. Or that iced tea made its debut at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

The book contains reproductions of rare botanical prints that continue to hold their charm. My favorite is of the peanut plant, showing so well how the golden flowers are held aloft for pollination, then drawn underground to protect the developing nut from airborne predators. The author and editors give the reader profiles of 27 plants that shaped human history, including tea, cotton and the potato. Slick. Nice.

"Hidcote: The Making of a Garden," by Ethne Clarke (Norton, $45). This is a revised version of a book published 20 years ago. In the interim, Hidcote itself has been revised for the (even) better, with the restoration of its original garden entrance and construction of a period greenhouse. Nestled in the English Cotswolds, Hidcote was the creation of an expatriate American army officer named Lawrence Johnston. It has been considered an Arts and Crafts masterpiece and one of the jewels of British horticulture since the 1930s. Today, more than 100,000 visitors annually pass through its famous Red Border, its hedge-framed Long Walk and its antique rose garden, Rose Walk.

Johnston was diffident and left little archival material for a garden historian to explore, but Clarke gives us the story of how Hidcote came to be made and, more precariously, came to be saved. The garden covers 10 acres but seems much larger through the artful subdivision of space into outdoor rooms and long views framed by what I call hedge architecture. The beds are planted with a great deal of horticultural knowledge and skill, then and now, and the fact that Johnston didn't take up gardening until he was 36 makes the achievement all the more remarkable. I haven't been to Hidcote in 16 years, and this book makes me want to go back, badly.

"What's Wrong With My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)," by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth (Timber Press, $24.95). This is one of the best books I've seen for guiding the gardener, especially the novice, through the maze of the many maladies that can visit garden plants.

The key to fixing a problem is identifying it, which is often much easier said than done. Yellowing leaves might mean an iron deficiency, a lack of nitrogen or overzealous watering. The authors use illustrated flow charts to allow reasonably observant gardeners to figure out the cause. The second part offers organic remedies for pests, diseases and bad gardening practices. The third section is a photo gallery of common ailments. This book is a valuable tool and long overdue.

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