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Books: Gardening: Books for Christmas

Pictures or puddings? Crystals or curses? Operas or orangeries? Bathrooms or boxing? Whatever subject rings your festive bell, Independent contributors offer their selection of the best titles to give - and to receive - this season
In the past few years, we have come to expect gardening books to look marvellous, with hundreds of artistic colour photographs, printed to the highest standard on first-class paper. Judging a book by its cover, or at least by the quality of its illustrations, has its drawbacks, however, for there is always the risk of missing out on something rather fine.

Rejuvenating a Garden by Stephen Anderton (Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99) is a case in point. I should hate anyone to pass by such a fascinating and readable book, just because the pictures are more practical than aspirational, consisting, as they do, of chaps in orange helmets and goggles, gripping chain saws, of dead tree trunks lying prone on the ground, and cut-to- the-bone yew hedges.

If you own, or have bought, a neglected or overmature garden (and what gardening book-buyer does not fall into those categories, sooner or later?) there is much good sense here. The author begins with an exhortation to assess your garden honestly, and goes on to tell how to improve matters. A large section is concerned with the renovative pruning of a wide range of hardy plants, not surprisingly, but he also deals with every other practical thing from eradicating weeds to laying paving.

The process of enlightenment is a lot of fun, because Stephen Anderton has an easy, lively and direct style. It is plain that his experience is broad and, most important, first hand. Before turning to full-time garden writing, he managed, for 20 years, large private and public gardens. As he has probably renovated as many ancient hedges as eaten hot dinners, what he writes merits close consideration. Moreover, much of what he says is also applicable to small gardens.

Speaking of hot dinners, I was quite taken by a stylishly designed (and entitled) book called Cool Green Leaves and Red Hot Peppers: growing and cooking for taste. Co-authored by Christine McFadden (cook) and Michael Michaud (gardener), with photography by James Merrell, this exceptionally attractive book is published by Frances Lincoln at pounds 25. The text consists in part of cultural information about a wide range of vegetables, with recipes and tips on cooking them. The prose is sufficiently forthright and absorbing for you to read it with pleasure while waiting for your patatas bravas to cook or "grilled tiger prawns with sizzled Thai basil" to marinade. You may find that some vegetables described, such as tomitillos, require a search. However, a good list of seedsmen takes some of the sting out of that. This book is inspirational with a capital I; there is, for example, no mention of slugs or caterpillars in the section on growing cabbages, but what the heck? It all looks so lovely and worth a try.

For solid, copper-bottomed horticultural information, you will not do much better than Stefan Buczacki's Gardening Dictionary (Hamlyn, pounds 25). The title does not do the book justice: this is not a dictionary, or certainly not an alphabetical one; it is more a personal tour d'horizon of gardening techniques, types of plant, and garden situations. It is ideal for beginners but makes refreshing reading for old hands too.

Natural Style for Gardens by Francesca Greenoak (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 22.50) exploits the current commendable desire by gardeners to work more with Nature than against her. In particular, it explores ways of using plants which accord most happily with their given soil, situation and aspect, to promote healthy and harmonious plantings and limited maintenance. This is a knowledgeable, readable and clear-eyed guide to such modern preoccupations as wild-flower and prairie meadows, drought-resistant gardens, natural ponds and turf seats. Do not be put off by the rather dreary dustjacket; there are plenty of inspirational and instructional illustrations inside.

Natural-style gardens are more likely, though not exclusively, to appeal to country dwellers. Urban Jungle: the simple way to tame your town garden by Monty Don (Headline, pounds 19.99) is plainly aimed at twentysomething tyros in towns and cities. So, if you have just bought your first garden in Brixton, I recommend this book as undaunting and unpatronising, yet clever and imaginative. Don's view is that gardening is easy, but that everyone needs a helping hand to avoid wasting time.

Urban Jungle is, as you would expect, hot on containers and windowboxes. If you want to know rather more about the plants to put in them, I suggest an excellent little paperback called Plants for Pots and Patios (Pan, pounds 4.99). Written and photographed by the authoritative Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, it represents excellent value for anyone who wants to know the range available, but is quite happy to do their own plant arrangements, thank you.

Finally, if you are looking to buy a subscription to a gardening periodical for a friend or relative, I recommend Hortus, the most literate and literary of them all. A subscription costs pounds 30 from Bryan's Ground, Stapleton, Herefordshire LD8 2LP (Tel: 01544 260001; Fax: 260015).