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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. *