Christmas Shopping: Deckchair gardening

The latest crop of glossy and expensive books has appeared on the festive market. But are they any use, or just digging the seasonal gold? Michael Leapman leafs through them

LIKE COOKBOOKS, gardening books are aspirational. They parade before us the alluring and the desirable, but most of us know in our hearts that we will never be able to create anything at home that remotely resembles those seductive colour pictures. We buy the books - or like to be given them - because they say something about the spaces we would create if only we had the time, the money and the bright ideas.

Fashions in gardening books always run a few years behind those in the larger cookbook market. While Delia Smith has decided that we need to go back to basics - and learn, for instance, how to boil an egg - few of the glossy horticultural volumes I've come across this autumn actually explain how to dig a hole or pot up seedlings. Instead, they are in the manner of Great Dishes from Master Chefs, recommending improbable (but generally photogenic) combinations of ingredients and flavours.

Thus the title page of David Stuart's Classic Plant Combinations (Conran Octopus, pounds 20) carries a picture of a double row of sturdy onions, with a mass of marigolds behind them - classic maybe, surprising certainly. Later in the book, marigolds are teamed with cabbages to equally novel effect.

The book's basic idea is sound. Stuart, a garden designer, has put together 75 plant pairings for various garden situations, ranging from tulips and wallflowers in cottage borders to squash and sweetcorn in the kitchen garden (a combination which is said to have been inspired by Native Americans' vegetable cultivation). Each section contains a "designer profile" of a gardener specialising in a particular kind of planting - Claude Monet's water lilies, Gertrude Jekyll's climbers, Rosemary Verey's potager, Christopher Lloyd's wildflower meadow and the like.

Lloyd and Verey crop up again in a rather similar new volume, Classic Planting by George Plumptre (Ward Lock, pounds 25). The back cover carries a quote from another pillar of the green-fingered aristocracy, Beth Chatto: "The way you group plants is the whole essence of gardening." That may seem obvious, but to do it properly involves not just aesthetics, but precise knowledge of a plant's growth habits, season of flowering and environmental needs.

Both Stuart and Plumptre address these aspects thoroughly enough, but Plumptre prefers to do it through the mouths of the contemporary gardeners he features. They are all themselves writers who've made these same points in their own books, so this is a digest of their advice and opinions, but no less useful for that.

There is no escaping Christopher Lloyd this year - and nor would you want to, for he is a superb gardener and a wonderfully acerbic writer about the craft. His illuminating exchange of letters with Beth Chatto, Dear Friend and Gardener (Frances Lincoln, pounds 14.99) was published a few months ago; it is this book, I suspect, that many gardeners would most like to find at the ends of their beds when they wake up on Christmas morning.

The writers make it clear that, although they are friends of long standing, this was a contrived correspondence over two years, undertaken at the suggestion of the publisher. The original idea was that they should restrict themselves largely to matters horticultural, but the pair (rightly) resisted that.

The result is a wonderful blend of practical gardening talk and pointed social observation. Between them, they achieve a perfect balance: the ruminative Chatto setting off the waspish Lloyd. He has a wicked pen and is an assiduous name-dropper: John Mortimer, Nigel Nicolson and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch make appearances, as does Germaine Greer, in a hilarious confrontation at Glyndebourne where she introduces him as "the greatest gardener in the world after Beth Chatto". Though affecting not to mind, he is clearly deeply wounded, wondering why people "regard life as a sort of competition".

He does not mind taking an unfashionable view. Upon the death of the virtually canonised Geoff Hamilton, he remarks: "He meant nothing to me. In all his years with the BBC he never once suggested that I should take part in a programme." Lloyd also makes use of garden chemicals and resents being lectured about their possible drawbacks: "It is a pity that organic gardeners cannot state their case without needing to vent blanket disapproval on all those who are not converts."

As if to prove his point, along comes Bob Flowerdew's Organic Bible (Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99). The messianic Flowerdew, with his long plaited hair, is known on television and radio as a militant organic gardener, as well as for his tips on the imaginative use of waste materials - old tyres, yoghurt pots, carpets and tights.

The unconverted will find him overly pious (in keeping with the title) and didactic to the point of obsession. "Stop using all soluble fertilisers, all herbicides, most fungicides and most insecticides ... Stop using peat from important wildlife sites [how are we to tell?] ... Use materials from renewable sources ... Avoid plastic if there are natural alternatives available."

He even wants to poke his ponytail into our kitchens: "Avoid processed and altered foods, especially hydrogenated oils and trans-fats, preservatives, ersatz meats and genetically modified ingredients ... Stop using aluminium or non-stick surfaces." If you can take the hectoring tone, the book contains a lot of sound advice and is sure to be popular with Flowerdew's many admirers. There is one sentence in his introduction, though, that I simply do not believe: "I have found it possible to make any plot into a paradise within a short time without much hard work."

Stephen Anderton, another familiar face from TV, takes a more level-headed approach. In Rejuvenating a Garden (Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99), he warns us that neglected gardens are hard to handle and often need emergency injections of time, energy and money. For anyone about to undertake a reclamation or restoration project of their own, this book is a must-have. As you would expect from a former National Gardens Manager for English Heritage, Anderton dispenses sound advice backed up by revealing pictures, especially when he tackles the perennial mysteries of pruning. If anyone can claim to be the Delia Smith of gardening, it is he.

Publishers love to commission books about small gardens, reasoning that these are what most of us possess and that there will a correspondingly wide market. Sue Fisher's Essential Plants for Small Gardens (Ward Lock, pounds 19.99), although a thorough and methodical work, differs little from scores of others on this subject.

Herbs are another popular topic - most gardeners grow a few - and Barbara Segall's Ultimate Herb Gardener (Ward Lock, pounds 20) is one of the most comprehensive accounts of how, where and why to cultivate them, with a little history tossed in for some added flavour. The author stresses that herbs are not simply for the kitchen, but provide a multi-sensory experience: "There are visual pleasures, as well as edible, tactile and aromatic ones."

Much of the book is taken up with designs for different types of herb gardens, devised and drawn by Gisela Mirwis. There are sections on edible flowers, on pot pourri, on growing herbs in the (currently fashionable) Mediterranean-style and on wildflower gardens. I was alarmed, though, by a note at the start: "The author and publishers can accept no responsibility for any harm, illness or damage arising from the use of the plants described in this book."

Claude Monet and William Morris were not known primarily as gardeners, but plants and gardens were vital components of their art. Monet's Water Lilies by Vivian Russell (Frances Lincoln, pounds 14.99) and The Gardens of William Morris by Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, Penny Hart and John Simmons (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) fall into a category midway between gardening and art books. "Painting and gardening were conduits for Monet's passion for beauty, which flowed through him like an electric current," writes Russell, with characteristic hyperbole. She has certainly done her homework on the horticultural aspects of Monet's life, and her excellent photographs greatly enhance this slim volume.

As the authors of the William Morris book point out - somewhat defensively - Morris never wrote a treatise on gardening, nor was he a professional garden designer. They have therefore drawn on his writings and lectures, which "stress the importance of gardens, inveighing against pollution and the urbanisation of the countryside".

They claim that his principles went on to influence a generation of garden designers, although those principles they quote - neat fences, garden "rooms" and simple planting - seem rather broad-brush. Visually, the part of the book that works best is where pictures of Morris's fabric and wallpaper designs are juxtaposed with photographs of the plants depicted in them, with descriptions and cultural hints.

The story of the intrepid plant hunters, who made long and dangerous voyages to remote parts of the globe in search of new garden delights, is one of the most romantic in the annals of horticulture. It has often been told but it never loses its ability to stir the soul. In The Plant Hunters (Ward Lock, pounds 20), Toby and Will Musgrave and Chris Gardner recount the careers of 10 of them, from Sir Joseph Banks in the late 18th century to Frank Kingdon Ward, who made his last trip to Sri Lanka in 1957, at the age of 72.

The authors are more interested in the adventure than in the horticulture. They assert, for instance, that "nothing has transformed the look of the garden more than exotic foreign plants", but do not examine their long-term influence in any detail. The book would make a suitable gift for someone who is interested in gardening and its history but doesn't want to get bogged down in technicalities.

Those gardeners who are also garden visitors eagerly await the annual appearance of Peter King's Good Gardens Guide (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99), a comprehensive and critical appraisal of more than 1,000 gardens open to the public in Britain, Ireland and northern France. The 1999 edition marks the 10th anniversary of this meticulously researched publication. If Stephen Anderton is the Delia Smith of the garden, Peter King is the Egon Ronay.

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