Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Gardening

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The Independent Culture

Ahh... Christmas. The time for receiving. Unfortunately you have to do a bit of giving, too. And while it may be dead easy to find gifts for your nearest and dearest, there remain a few Aunty Queenies for whom you need to source something other than yet another pack of Radox.

That's where gardening books come into their own. I used to give my Auntie Queenie a green-fingered tome for Christmas every year. So, to fill that gap in the border, every winter sees a new crop sprouting.

If, like me, you are a truly appalling gardener, your first glances might head towards the garden porn available for the coffee table. Sumptuous, lovingly shot colour snaps of the view out of the kitchen window in those houses we will never have. In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World (Penelope Hobhouse; Chicago Botanic Garden £25) is typical of the genre. Beautiful pictures, attractive layout, supplemented by minimal text. This is perfect fodder for the loo, but if you find yourself straying into actually reading it on Boxing Day, I can only conclude that you must have bunged up your innards with too much bread sauce.

Many more words in Villa Gardens of the Mediterranean (Kathryn Bradley-Hole; Aurum Press £40) which is a really rather fascinating tour of some of the houses of the super-rich on the Med, using Country Life magazine's archive of Hello-style photos from the 1950s. The unctuous text and the exorbitant price both point to the book's target audience: the millionaire homeowners themselves. I can't see many Auntie Queenies unwrapping this one on Christmas Day. Forty quid is far too much for an Auntie.

Slightly - but not much - more affordable is the £30 offering Icons of Twentieth-Century Landscape Design (Katie Campbell; Frances Lincoln) Just as it says on the tin, this is a tour of some of the more spectacular gardens of the past 100 years. From Gaudi to Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright to Derek Jarman, it showcases just what an inventive mind, time, money and patience can deliver. Those of us bestowed with none of these assets can only grind our teeth in envy at the glorious outcomes.

But if you really want to get into Auntie Queenie's good books - perhaps hoping for an endless supply of that damson jam she made in October - your gift of choice must be RHS Encyclopedia of Perennials (Dorling Kindersley £25). This really is the definitive guide to that most useful of plant and flower varieties: the ones which come back year after year with minimal work. Replete with those impressive Latin names, clear descriptions and easy-to-follow photos, this book deserves a place on every serious gardener's shelf. Buy it for her.

Enough of the coffee table stuff. What of the more serious Christmas offerings? First off - and I must say the most disappointing of the crop - is How To Read an English Garden (Eburne and Taylor; Ebury £25) The disappointment comes not because the book is awful; it isn't. Rather, for those of us who enjoyed Richard Taylor's superb How To Read a Church, this one just isn't nearly so good as we might have expected. The authors make great play in the introduction of how they were at Oxford together. But reading the text, you might have thought they were alumni of the University of the Bleeding Obvious instead. Thus we learn that "Trees are almost invariably the first things we encounter in an historic garden, with hedges perhaps a close second." Or that "The Hop Garden is not strictly speaking a garden at all, but a crop field." Not all of the book is such unsurprising twaddle, but it does give the impression of a rush job to hit the festive season.

For purest tripe, we need look no further than The Curious Gardener's Almanac (Niall Edworthy; Eden Project Books £10), which jumps on the Ben Schott bandwagon without bothering to check if any of the unrelenting barrage of "little-known gems" are, in fact, even slightly interesting - or are just the first 10,000 hits from a Google search for "dreary garden facts". In an unintentionally revelatory introduction, the book begins with the words: "If this book were to lie down on a couch and open up to reveal everything that was going on deep inside, the psychiatrist would probably get up and walk out of the room, pulling at his hair and kicking over the wastepaper basket in exasperation as he left." Quite. If I had made the foolish error of giving this book to Auntie Queenie for Christmas, it would have been on the compost heap by New Year.

But all is not lost, present-seekers. The Anxious Gardener (Rozsika Parker; Frances Lincoln £12.99) is a rather fabulous (if a bit twee) collection of dialogues between the anxious gardener of the title and her gardening mentor, whose no-nonsense advice reminds us all of what we so easily forget: gardening is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore - and that if our feeble flowerbeds don't match up to Monty Don's ginormous blooms, then at least they are ours.

I'm aware that so far, I've only reviewed books which you might want to give to the Auntie Queenies in your life. Just room for a mention of a rather good offering to go down, rather than up, the generations. Young Gardener (Stefan and Beverley Buczacki; Frances Lincoln £12.99) is squarely aimed at the enthusiastic youngster. With clear explanations and illustrations of how to plant, how to tend and how to make cheap presents on Mothers' Day, this is a book I wish I'd had, back when I was sprightly. Even at a rather steep £12.99, I expect that Santa will be putting it in my eight-year-old's stocking. Even if she doesn't read it, I will.

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