GARDENING / Beautiful, useful and overblown: The Christmas crop of books for gardeners ranges from the sublimely attractive to the ridiculously florid, says Michael Leapman

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The Independent Culture
TO BE AN irresistible gardening writer you need infinite expertise expressed in a lucid style accessible to people who know far less than you. A sense of humour and some firmly held prejudices help, as does ownership of a garden so admired that enthusiasts cross oceans to see it.

Readers of Country Life, and visitors to his garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex, will recognise that Christopher Lloyd fits this job description. He has been writing for Country Life for 30 years and a selection of his columns, In My Garden (Bloomsbury pounds 16.99), has just been published. Any dedicated gardener who does not get a copy for Christmas will be entitled to feel aggrieved.

Aside from his expertise, Christopher Lloyd's qualities are his catholic taste in plants and his refusal to subscribe to whatever the current tenets of horticultural correctness are. 'The great thing,' he writes, 'is always to keep an open mind; never to shut ourselves deliberately away from any given class of plants, of colour, size or whatever.'

That is an extract from an article called 'Hurrah for vulgarity' and he is never happier than when teasing sensitive souls who shy away from bright colours in favour of subtler pinks and mauves. In another article he praises showy yellow daisies:

'I find them immensely vitalising and cheerful, myself, though you hear many voices raised in protest. We are told that they are brash; 'all that yellow' is said in a tone of superior disapproval as you might protest against 'all that starch' in a potato-rich diet.'

Christopher Lloyd is critical of the use people make of plants. 'There's nothing wrong with heathers that moorland and wide open spaces can't put right. There's nothing wrong with hybrid tea roses once they've been severed from the hideous bushes they grow on and brought into the artificial setting - a hospital ward or mayoral reception, let us say - to which they belong.'

Lloyd's reservations about roses caused a mild sensation last April when he disclosed in Country Life magazine that he had dug up the Lutyens rose garden at Great Dixter. He had been working up to it for years: the quote in the last paragraph came from a 1977 article, where he made it quite clear that his scorn is not reserved for hybrid teas, but extends to the more fashionable old roses, 'a week of glory followed by a diseased mess for 11 months'.

Rose gardens may be suffering from an image problem just now - Sir Simon Hornby, president-elect of the Royal Horticultural Society, has also spoken out against them - but our national flower is not about to fade into the sunset. Two handsome new books celebrate it, both splendidly illustrated. David Austin's English Roses (Conran Octopus pounds 18.99) contains the story of how Austin introduced this new type of rose in 1969, in response to the kind of objections Lloyd raises.

His English roses combine the best features of the old varieties - chiefly their shape and scent - with the repeat flowering, disease resistance and colour range of modern hybrids. He warns against planting them alongside other types of rose and says they look better among herbaceous plants than they do among shrubs, but he does offer a plan for a garden planted entirely with English roses.

The Quest for the Rose (BBC Books pounds 18.99) is the companion book to Roger Phillips's and Martyn Rix's series due to start on BBC 2 next month, in which the authors travel to a raft of places beloved of television producers - California, Egypt, the Himalayas . . . to search for the origins of roses. The book covers these journeys but is more useful for its illustrated check list of more than a thousand varieties.

BBC Books produce their 'books of the series' at a rapidly increasing rate and they vary in quality. Gay Search's Front Gardens ( pounds 13.99) is as brisk and down-to-earth as the programmes it derived from and would be an invaluable gift for someone planning to redesign the space in front of their house. Two Gardeners' World handbooks, Plants for Small Gardens by Sue Fisher and Vegetables for Small Gardens by Lynda Brown (both pounds 8.99) are filled with sound advice, but fall into the trap of patronising us with the blindingly obvious: 'Unlimited choice can sometimes be a mixed blessing when space is at a premium' (Fisher) and 'only grow what you want and what you need' (Brown).

These are both paperbacks for beginners, pushed into a higher price bracket by the addition of colour pictures, so falling into the no-man's- land between books for instruction and pleasure. For hard information, Stefan Buczacki's The Budget Gardening Year ( pounds 4.99) is better value. Based on contributions to the BBC television programme Bazaar, it is characterised by the lightly worn wisdom he displays on Gardeners' Question Time on Radio 4.

Of more specialised appeal are David Bellamy's Blooming Bellamy ( pounds 15.99), based on his recent series on herbs and herbal healing and wonderfully illustrated by Derek Hall; and The Wartime Kitchen and Garden ( pounds 14.99) by Jennifer Davies, more to do with Forties nostalgia than practical gardening.

Dr David Hessayon claims that his 'expert' series are the world's best-selling gardening books, with nearly 35 million copies of the 11 titles sold. The twelfth, The Rock and Water Garden Expert (PBI Publications pounds 4.50) sticks to his successful formula of concise comprehensive information, well laid-out and illustrated. He writes not just about the plants but also the fish, with horror pictures of alarming ailments that can befall both. For those with do-it-yourself skills, there is a step- by-step guide to building a pond, with a page illustrating various styles of water jet.

Another new book on the same subject could scarcely be a greater contrast. George Plumptre's The Water Garden (Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95) is a lavish account of the history of water gardening, packed with old drawings and contemporary photographs by Hugh Palmer. Here we are not discussing domestic ponds but lakes, canals, waterfalls and even rivers used as decorative features in grand formal gardens.

The history of landscape gardening continues to be popular, to judge from the number of books. The most ambitious of this year's crop is The World Heritage of Gardens by Dusan Ogrin (Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95), whose 400 pages trace the garden's development country by country, from ancient Egypt to modern America, with fine colour photographs. More localised is The Planters of the English Landscape Garden by Douglas D C Chambers (Yale University Press pounds 35), which looks at the development of English garden design between 1650 and 1750 through the eyes of gardeners, botanists and nurserymen.

Absorbing though this may be, it is of little help to anyone seeking to design and furnish their own garden. Step forward, then, my colleague Mary Keen, with her Decorate Your Garden (Conran Octopus pounds 17.99). This handsome and useful volume is filled with ideas of how to use garden furniture, containers and numerous other artefacts, along with imaginative planting schemes, to produce a coherent design.

'Between urns and gnomes lies uncharted territory,' she writes. 'It is this area that the book explores.' It does so with elegance and authority, supported by Marijke Heuff's wonderfully original photography.

Two new general reference books will be welcomed by gardeners who are no longer beginners. Patrick Taylor's The 500 Best Garden Plants (Pavilion pounds 10.99) is a judicious personal selection of user-friendly varieties. In The Propagation of Hardy Perennials (Batsford pounds 19.99), Richard Bird provides a lucid guide for enthusiasts ready to create new plants from their own or their friends' borders. Those who prefer to garden indoors will appreciate the authoritative manual, The New Indoor Plant Book (Kyle Cathie pounds 18.99) by John Evans, a nurseryman who supplies Marks & Spencer. He covers 172 species, with detailed advice on their care.

Finally, a group of books for gardeners interested in particular species. Pavilion has four attractive 64-page manuals on commonly grown flowers - roses, orchids, irises and tulips - which, at pounds 6.99 each, make delightful small gifts.

Batsford publishes more learned tomes. John Richards's Primula ( pounds 30), contains more than you thought there was to know about these essentially modest flowers. The Peony ( pounds 20) is a compilation of two classic books on the genus written by the American grower Alice Harding in the first quarter of this century, updated by Roy G Klehm, whose prose style exceeds the showiest of the species. 'The phrase 'high contentment',' he writes, 'so aptly describes the internal feeling one experiences when marvellous discoveries of nature's flowers are eased upon our life's sojourn.' Once you have struggled through the verbal overgrowth, though, there are useful tips on cultivation and a comprehensive list of varieties.

If anyone is looking for a Christmas gift for Mr Klehm, how about a course of lessons in pungent writing from Christopher Lloyd?-

(Photograph omitted)