August always is a slow planting season, but this year it's even more so. We need to wait until we know with some certainty that soil moisture and cool temperatures have returned. So, what can you do? I say it's a good time to catch up on some reading. Here are my picks of some of the best recently released landscape and gardening books. Read now, and you'll be ready for the milder, wetter weather.

"Garden Retreats" by David and Jeanie Stiles (Storey Books, $19.95) is, in part, an idea book. There are well-drawn renderings of 22 wooden garden structures. But it's also a build-it-yourself guide to landscape amenities that will enhance your garden for recreation and relaxation, and they can all be installed by you.

After an introductory chapter on working with wood and tools, the 156-page book offers very easy-to-understand guidelines and drawings that will take you through each step of the building process.

You might get your children to help, especially if you choose to build the Child's Secret Garden Retreat project. The Stileses also offer plans for fences, gates, lattice screens, as well as plans for a swing, covered seat, bridge, shade pavilion, garden shower and summer house, among other wooden elements.

Want to know what you can plant to grow on a garden structure? Check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden 21st-Century Gardening Series handbook, "Flowering Vines" ($9.95). Edited by Karan Davis Cutler, the 111-page paperback is packed with information.

"Flowering Vines" is the latest in the well-known Brooklyn Botanic Garden series of self-help books. It has everything you need to know about vines and ramblers, including the types, their growth habits, soil and light requirements, container hardiness, training and much more.

Houses are being built on smaller lots, so space for landscape design is at a premium. Many newer detached houses, as well as town houses, aren't even a stone's throw from the neighbor's. Therefore, screening on a very narrow plane is a must if homeowners are to have any privacy. Your choices are fences, narrowly pruned plants or vines. The most aesthetically pleasing solution from a landscape design standpoint is often vines, and this book will give you what you need to know about them.

A wonderful book that illustrates how to bring your house and garden together is Home Magazine's "Outdoor Living With Style" by Ellen M. Plante (Michael Friedman/Fairfax, $25). Written from the perspective of people spaces, it suggests places where you can sit and enjoy the garden, whether you recline, socialize or dine. The pictures in this book usually incorporate a patio, balcony, deck, gazebo or other outdoor sitting area. After looking at the color photos of one fully designed sitting area after another, you'll find the perfect spaces for you.

A beautifully laid-out hardcover, "Hydrangeas" by Daria Price Bowman (Michael Friedman/Fairfax, $22.50), will help you finally comprehend these old-fashioned shrubs. The 224-page collection of information describes their wide variety and their cultural requirements, and includes great photos.

Bowman discusses the North American native called wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), the hardiest of the group, as well as the lacecap; the big-leaf, also called florist; the oakleaf; and others. She reinforces how easy it is to care for these plants and gives their installation and maintenance requirements in short, easy-to-understand write-ups.

A gardening series from IDG Books Worldwide concludes the list. It's an innovative collection of books. You probably know the company better as the publishers of the "For Dummies" books.

There are four gardening books: Landscaping, Gardening, Vegetable Gardening and Flowering Bulbs, all with the suffix of "For Dummies" in their titles. The title's cute, but it's a misnomer. These are serious works that thoroughly cover their respective subjects.

I closely reviewed "Landscaping for Dummies" (IDG; all are $16.99) because it's my primary field of endeavor. The contributing authors for this selection did a superlative job covering the numerous landscape disciplines. It is exceptionally complete.

This 349-page volume was written by Philip Giroux, Bob Beckstrom, Lance Walheim and the editors of the National Gardening Association. The broad range of subject matter, from landscape design to deck building, is evidenced by an eight-page table of contents in front and a 24-page index in back. It's a reference that will make both dummies and seasoned landscape practitioners much better at what they do.

Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is