Visions of beauty: Gardening books of 2006

Anna Pavord reviews the year's most stunning new gardening books, and uncovers a bumper crop of stocking fillers
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The Independent Culture

Garden photography, as Penelope Hobhouse writes in the foreword to her new book In Search of Paradise (Frances Lincoln £25), "has reached a level at which it measures up to the work of the great painters of landscape". Consequently, the job of the garden writer has changed. There's no longer any need to describe a scene; the picture does it better. So the writer is free to draw out themes - the use of water in gardens, the influence of the East, the effect of trade, the impact of new materials on garden design - and stitch together the evolving story of garden history and design.

The scope can be world-wide, as it is in Mrs Hobhouse's book, or more closely focused, as in Kathryn Bradley-Hole's Villa Gardens of the Mediterranean (Aurum £40), which mixes black and white pictures from the Country Life archive, with glossy, modern images of the same iconic gardens. Either way, you get page after page of pictures so lush and real, you want to splash in the fountains at the Villa d'Este and plunge your nose into the winter-flowering mimosa at Lou Sueil on the Riviera, where Consuelo Vanderbilt held picnics in Paradise.

The Hobhouse book, subtitled Great Gardens of the World, is based on two exhibitions that Mrs Hobhouse curated recently at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The first half of the book mirrors the earlier exhibition - an ambitious overview of garden history that takes in the gardens of the East as well as those of Europe. In this section, places and images are familiar: the Taj Mahal, the wonderful moss garden at Saiho-ji, Kyoto, Het Loo in the Netherlands, Stourhead in Wiltshire. The larger and more challenging second half focuses on modern gardens. The grouping here is not by country, as in the first part of the book, but according to style: f tropical, desert or ecological gardens such as gorgeous Wigandia at Noorat, Victoria, designed by its Australian owner, William Martin, a rampage of melianthus under dragon trees, baby monkey puzzle trees matching their spikes with neighbouring agaves. The annual rainfall is rarely more than 30 inches - a good lesson in matching the right plant to the right place.

Surprisingly, only two of the modern gardens in Mrs Hobhouse's book appear also in Katie Campbell's Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design (Frances Lincoln £30). That might be due to clever footwork on the part of the publisher, who is responsible for both books. But it's also because the two authors are approaching gardens from a different perspective. Mrs Hobhouse is a writer and garden designer. Although her book includes public spaces such as the new Millennium Park in Chicago and the Music Garden in Toronto, her focus is more on private gardens.

Katie Campbell says she specifically explored designs that "pushed the boundaries, offering new approaches, incorporating new materials, reflecting new philosophies and basically challenging assumptions about the form, use and meaning of landscape". She's looking at the subject from the point of view of a landscape architect. The Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx is there of course, with the swooping, mellifluous curvy roof garden he made for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro in 1936. So is Richard Haag, who with his Gas Works Park in Seattle, showed that on an industrial site you don't have to get rid of all traces of the past and start with a clean slate. The gasworks themselves become pieces of sculpture in his flowing, curling, sculpted grassland.

The English Garden by Ursula Buchan, with ravishing photographs by Andrew Lawson (Frances Lincoln £25), is the fattest of all four books, a perfect Christmas present for anyone who has ever spent a Sunday afternoon poking around one of the 3,500 gardens that open under the National Gardens Scheme. And perfect as a source of ideas too; the strange, suspended calendar of the Christmas holiday encourages this kind of horticultural scavenging. Perhaps spires of verbascum among clipped box topiary as at Herterton House in Northumberland? Perhaps a mix of wild carrot, lychnis and Californian poppies, a kind of meadow on speed, as designed by Keith Wiley at The Garden House, Buckland Monachorum?

I'm typical perhaps in picking out plant combinations before anything else. As a gardener, a weakness for plants can be one's downfall. The right lines need to be drawn first and the quite staggering gallery of images in The English Garden reinforces the quality of the best English gardens: tight corsets, with exuberant plants spilling out all round.

The skill of making books like The English Garden lies in the way the material is organised and Buchan has done a brilliant job in boxing and coaxing the vast sweep of English garden history into an engaging narrative. She nods to chronology, but doesn't let it tether her too numbingly. Instead, she describes the defining features of English gardens, starting with the formal bones that underly gardens as widely separated in time as 17th-century Westbury Court in Gloucestershire and designer David Hicks's work at The Grove, Oxfordshire. "Floral exuberance", the title of another chapter, takes in scenes as varied as the summer bedding in Regent's Park (a Victorian throwback of red begonias and striped spider plants) to Piet Oudulf's ultra-modern plantings at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire - purplish Allium spaerocephalon spearing through the flattish flowerheads of the achillea 'Terracotta'.

Water is a theme, as it is in Penelope Hobhouse's book, and there are gorgeous images of the new fountain at Stanway in Gloucestershire, installed by the present owner, Lord Neidpath. It's the tallest gravity-fed fountain in the world, shooting 100 metres into the sky. Andrew Lawson has caught it with a rainbow prism arching out from the spray. How long did he have to wait for that? You need very particular circumstances, though, to be able to bring off that gravity-fed trick. A more attainable model is Michael Balston's ultra-cool, ultra-sophisticated lily pool at Rofford Manor in Oxfordshire, the pool raised above ground (so much easier than excavating) with walls disguised by a close collar of clipped box. Stunning.