Books for Christmas: Gardening - Rules of thumb in the garden

Gardening books provide ideas and inspiration, as well as a chance to wallow in other people's horticultural fantasies
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The Independent Culture
As we approach the big M, there is much discussion about the direction garden design will take in the next century. Is it to be more of the same high-maintenance traditionalism, or will modernism win our hearts and minds? I expect that the garden designer Stephen Woodhams would strongly prefer the latter, for his Portfolio of Contemporary Gardens (Quadrille, pounds 25) - a well-produced book with beguiling photographs, if a rather wearisome typeface - is concerned with progressive, what he calls "cutting-edge", gardens, some of which are of his design. They are occasionally exasperating, sometimes exhilarating, and always imaginative. Mr Woodhams says he is influenced by the past, but he is certainly not enslaved by it; he has, for example, wholeheartedly embraced industrial materials in the garden. This book will, I suspect, appeal most to those making a garden in an urban or strongly architectural situation.

The book is in three parts: "fusion" (where he sets out his vision for gardens); "realisation", how he sets about designing a garden in the contemporary style, with examples and plans; and a directory of "hard" and "soft" features, including a list of 100 key plants, the latter rather spoilt by too-small pictures.

In the course of the book, he examines a number of different contemporary approaches to garden design, in particular "minimalism", which is, of course, influenced by traditional Japanese gardens, but is also an appropriate response to the terrible complexities of our lives. Portfolio of Contemporary Gardens shows what may be done if we rid ourselves of preoccupations rooted in Edwardian times, and instead try to make gardens that suit the way we live now.

One of the more important pieces of advice Mr Woodhams gives is that the garden should ally itself, rather than fight, with the surrounding landscape; by so saying he places himself in a line of descent from the poet Alexander Pope. "Consult the Genius of the Place in all" and "In all let Nature never be forgot" are words that have resonated down the years since the early 18th century. Lionised in his lifetime and acknowledged as one of the champions of landscape gardening, Pope rates scarcely a passing thought from garden-lovers now. This is not surprising, since we no longer speak the lingo of classical myth and literature, think Arcadia might be a pop group and would rather our theories on garden design were not served up in an elaborate dish of literary and philosophical allusion.

Nevertheless, if we are fully to understand early-18th-century gardens, such as Stowe, Rousham, Chiswick and Claremont, and the influences working on Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, in particular, we need to know something of Pope. And who better to describe his life and explore his influence than Mavis Batey, president of the Garden History Society and author of a number of books, including the delightful Jane Austen and the English Landscape? In Alexander Pope, the Poet and the Landscape (Barn Elms, pounds 25), she explains how his "sensibility to landscape and pastoral poetry" affected his contemporaries and set the cultural tone. This is for every reader, perhaps, as it is peppered with footnotes and quotations, but it is an important addition to garden-history scholarship.

I wonder what Pope, with his Grotto at Twickenham, would have made of some of the gardens illustrated in Gardens of Obsession, subtitled "Eccentric and Extravagant Visions", by Gordon Taylor and Guy Cooper (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25). Of the 150 gardens described, from all over the world, some are wonderful, some weird, some disastrous, but all are fascinating. I enjoyed the Deaf School Topiary Park in Columbus, Ohio, with its topiary version of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and the relief map of Bermuda in a garden pond on that island. The text is not particularly discerning; it is the first-rate pictures that do the talking. I confess that some of these gardens made me feel a little queasy, especially when too many disparate elements jostled together. But they will please someone, somewhere, no doubt.

Likely to please a great many people, for he has a faithful following despite his occasional mischievous urge to epater le bourgeois, is Christopher Lloyd. His latest book, Christopher's Lloyd's Gardening Year (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) is concerned with the garden at Great Dixter, in East Sussex, where he was born and has always lived. The book has a chapter for each month. If that format rings a bell with Christophiles, the similarly titled The Year at Great Dixter (1987), is organised in the same way, but the only duplication is the first part of the introduction, when he recounts his life history. Much has happened at Dixter since then, most famously the uprooting of the Rose Garden in favour of tender plants, a great deal of experimentation with bold colours, and the employment of an inspired head gardener, Fergus Garrett. All these happenings find a place in the book. At 78, Christopher Lloyd is still observing plants minutely and writing freshly about them.The photographs by Jonathan Buckley are beautiful, apposite and well reproduced.

Photographs are the main feature of the latest in the Garden Plant Series, by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix. Annuals and Biennials (Macmillan, pounds 19.99) joins a lengthening shelf of 10 titles in this series. The format is deceptively simple: more than 1,000 plants have been photographed in the studio, the garden or the wild, and each is accompanied by a short, part-botanical, part-horticultural description. There is a surprising amount of authoritative information, especially about provenance and habitat, in these short texts, and the clarity of the pictures, especially those taken in the studio, makes identification easy.

If you are after something more literary and expansive, I suggest Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall's handsome tome, Peonies: the Imperial flower (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 30). Known particularly as a garden designer and expert on roses, Mrs Fearnley-Whittingstall has chosen plants that 18th-century Western travellers to China described as "roses without thorns". This is a non-technical book aimed at an international readership of curious gardeners. There is exemplary and illuminating information on plant associations, cultivation, sources of plants, and good peony gardens around the world.

The least successful parts for me are the descriptions of the many peonies, both species and garden cultivars, which are available somewhere on the globe; I could often happily have done with more information about height, spread, and size of flower. There are a sprinkling of colour photographs and some fascinating illustrations, of which I particularly enjoyed a colour drawing entitled "Harvesting peonies in Communist China", portraying smiling female workers on a tractor with a foreground of peonies.

"My Grandmother and Her Peonies" by Michael Fox is one of the most memorable and charming of the short essays in Jamaica Kincaid's anthology, My Favourite Plant (Vintage, pounds 7.99). The authors chosen include well-known, literary garden writers from both sides of the Pond: Michael Pollan, Mary Keen and Graham Stuart Thomas, as well as poets such as DH Lawrence, William Carlos Williams and Henri Cole; and plant-hunters such as EH Wilson and Frank Kingdon Ward. The anthology's transatlantic nature means that every reader should discover with pleasure writers hitherto unknown to them. The terrain may be strange, but the experiences are universal.