Gardening books: This year's crop aren't worth getting your hands dirty for

The Christmas gardening book is a reliable sight at this time of year, with shelves at Waterstone's groaning from the weight of the harvest. They may be pretty to look at, but beware. Many of the most instantly attractive items won't outlast the festive season. The blandest tastes often come inside the prettiest outer foliage, and what looks like a good present on Christmas Day will often lie unread after New Year. Pretty covers and hefty pricetags are no indication of worth.

There's a noticeable trend in this winter's selection: fewer how-to books about gardening, lots about gardeners, from the rich and landowning to the horny-handed men of toil. Firmly in the former category goes the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, author of A Gardener's Life (Frances Lincoln 35). The cover photo her Ladyship carrying a trug of cut roses implies that wielding the secateurs is about the nearest she ever gets to the sharp end of gardening. Inside photos attest that Lady Salisbury has an enviable collection of straw hats. The accompanying text confirms the feeling that her Ladyship belongs to a different and more deferential age: "I joined the Wild Flower Society and was put into a group," she tells us. "My group had a lovely man who ran it called the Reverend Salmon. I never met him, but I know he was a lovely man from the letters he wrote me."

From the old aristocracy to the new: TV celebrity. Lovable oirish plantsman Diarmuid Gavin has teamed up with Terence Conran to produce Outdoors (Conran Octopus 40), a tome whose sheer size takes the notion of "coffee-table book" to a new level. It's bigger than my coffee-table. As you'd expect from the Conran stable, the layout is crisp and the photos sumptuous. Diarmuid's contribution appears to be fairly minimal: a transcribed chat with Sir Terry and an introduction which begins with vacuous pomposity ("I design gardens because I have to") and finishes with a flourished signature. There's nothing particularly wrong with Outdoors, apart from the inflated price tag. There's just nothing worthwhile about it either. And once you've got a vast book like this in your house, you're stuck with it on permanent view: it will never fit in your bookcase.

The pricing of many of these gardening books is a disgrace. Take The Faber Book of Gardens. It's OK: a mildly interesting selection of poetry, Roman and Chinese gardening tips and quotations from D H Lawrence and William Cobbett. My copy always seems to fall open at "Mary Mary Quite Contrary" which smacks of space-filler, but my real objection to the book is that it costs 20. That, to my mind, is a shocking sum. Clearly the folk at Amazon think so too: they are flogging the book for a tenner, and obviously hope to turn a profit through sheer volume of sales. Which is fine for them, but a disaster for independent bookshops like the new one in Halstead, Essex, my local town, which can never hope to sell more than about three copies at full price.

Back to the gardeners. James Raimes grew up in York before emigrating to the US and New York, where he established An Englishman's Garden in America (Frances Lincoln 14.99). This book is the antithesis of the garden porn we've discussed above. There isn't a single photo of James's nine acres. It's an audacious stunt, and one I've only seen done once before by my dad, as it happens (George Courtauld: An Axe, a Spade and Ten Acres. Constable; out of print ages ago). Only the writer's felicity with words can convey the product of the slog and sweat which James and his wife, Ann, put in.

For the most part, Raimes pulls it off. Only rarely did I wish that I could actually see rather than merely visualise James's garden, Ginger. (A terrible name for a garden, I agree. It's what you call cat, not a plot.)

What I like most about Raimes's book is that, unlike so many "perfect" garden books, it is realistic and honest about the failure and misery of so much that we do in our outside spaces: the heartbreak of plants dying, the unrewarding backache of digging clay, the disappointment of ill-chosen location.

Like The Faber Book of Gardens, Raimes is pretty liberal with his quotes from Andrew Marvell and Dylan Thomas. But here they have a purpose, a context, rather than just being plonked in to fill space. Raimes's chapter about Nature's favourite colour, green, is a riot of delicate shades.

For my money, the best of this year's offerings about the people behind the gardens is The Head Gardeners (Aurum 18.99), Toby Musgrave's delightful book about the single-minded and often tyrannical horticulturalistic pioneers of the English country garden from the Tradescants to the First War. I know that it's wrong to judge a book by its cover, but I must say that this one has a cracking back jacket: a list of the fines payable by underlings at Bicton Park in the 1840s, from 3d for a dirty shirt to 4d for smoking a pipe during work hours. So fearsome were some head gardeners to their bosses as well as their juniors that, through sheer force of character, they came to rule the roost. One such, Samuel Braker of Clumber Park, faked tax returns, wrote outraged letters to his employer when she dared eat "his" prized grapes and was caught cheating at the RHS show. Now that's what I call gardening.

Another point in the book's favour is that albeit in an appendix it actually has some rather useful tips for growing vegetables. Among all this highfalutin poetry and prose, I rather miss the useful stuff on how to get your hands dirty and force the rhubarb. *

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam