The worst Christmas present I ever had was a pair of insoles for my wellington boots: practical, without a doubt, necessary even, given the fact that blood regularly forgets to visit the distant lands below my knees. But how dreary that present was. And, unfortunately, the person who gave it to me was around when I was unwrapping it. "Gosh," I said, forcing my mouth into a more than usually hideous rictus of a smile. "How very useful." The donor looked pleased.
But what he didn't realise was that usefulness comes very low on my list of priorities. Presents are treats. They don't come round very often and I like them to be deeply un-useful things that I would never think of buying for myself. That's why books make such good presents. The element of treat is there, but there is the added relish of matching book to person.
Top of my Christmas present list (if I didn't already have it) would be the beautifully printed collection of Flower Drawings (Cambridge University Press, pounds 11.95) put together and annotated by David Scrase, keeper of paintings, drawings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The Fitzwilliam has an astonishing hoard of flower paintings and drawings. More than 100 oil paintings (including work by Brueghel and Jan van Huysum) and 900- plus drawings were bequeathed to them in 1973 after the death of Major Henry Broughton, of Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, who had spent a lifetime amassing these treasures.
Many of the drawings are bound in albums and are rarely on view at the museum. So this book gives us a chance to see images that are not only luscious, but also unfamiliar. It's touching, too, in days when the garden presents nothing more riveting to the eye than banks of soggy leaves, to gaze at an image as ravishing as Pieter Withoos's foxglove, painted in the second half of the 17th century.
Although the foxglove must then have been as familiar a wild flower as it is today, you rarely see them in flower studies. Perhaps the reason this was carefully recorded on vellum, the watercolour highlighted with touches of gum arabic, is that it is not an ordinary, purple kind of foxglove, but a soft, enchanting pink. It is exactly the colour of the strain we now know as `Apricot'. Was this perhaps the first time a foxglove of such a colour had been seen? Was this why Withoos painted it with such care that 300 years on, you can still feel the velvety softness of the spotted gloves climbing up the stem?
Like all the best experts, David Scrase wears his learning with deceptive lightness. His introduction to the book sets in place the great names of flower painting in Europe, such as Ehret and Redoute, but the treats come from his intimate knowledge of lesser-known painters such as the Dietzsch sisters, who worked in Nuremberg at the end of the 18th century. Nuremberg and London were the two most important centres of botanical art at that time, German artists benefiting particularly from the patronage of the rich physician, Christoph Jakob Trew. Barbara Dietzsch's pale iris, glowing luminously against a dark background, is a triumph.
The book is arranged chronologically, starting with images from medieval manuscripts and a Dutch Book of Hours, where pimpernels and heartsease are scattered in the margins of the manuscript. It finishes with the imposing flowers of Magnolia campbellii, grown at Kew and painted by the Australian artist Margaret Stones in 1989. I was glad to see that Nicolas Robert (1614-1681), whose fabulous watercolours on vellum I first saw at the Fitzwilliam Museum, is well represented in this collection. Now I can look at his outrageous red-and-white-striped tulips every day.
Feeding the soul is the great luxury of being alive, but you need to look after the stomach, too. For that, I'd choose Christopher Lloyd's Gardener Cook (Frances Lincoln, pounds 20). He never writes about anything of which he has not first-hand experience, and is as uncompromising about excellence in the kitchen as he is in his garden at Great Dixter, Sussex. He does his own cooking, in case there's any one out there about to say, "Oh, well it's all very well for him ..."
That means the recipes can be borrowed by anyone who has an equal love of good, fresh food, but also has 100 other things to do in a day as well as cook. I like them, too, because Mr Lloyd, having flourished all his life on lashings of cream and butter, sees no reason, in his seventies, to give them up. We all have to die, and, like him, I am happier to die from a surfeit of fresh Jersey cream than (which is more likely) in a car crash on the M3. So plenty of double cream in the leek tart (p130), double helpings of double cream with marinated figs (p47), and liberal quantities of the stuff in duck stewed with green peas (p152).
The text, accompanied by Howard Sooley's succulent photographs, covers the growing of fruit and vegetables as well as their treatment in the kitchen. Again, you know you are in the presence of a man who has done all he is writing about. On parsnips: "Sow in quiet weather (otherwise the winged seeds take off)." On quince: "Pick the mature, fresh fruit as late as you dare, but watch out for the depredations of brown rot fungal patches." On fennel: "Late-maturing crops have been among my most successful, as there is less urge for the plants to run up to flower." My copy is already spattered with mud and melted butter. That is a potent sign of its worth.
I first came across The Essential Earthman through an American friend, who sent me a copy from the States. It's a collection of pieces by the late Henry Mitchell, who for more than 20 years was gardening correspondent of the Washington Post. Now the book has been reprinted by Bloomsbury (pounds 12.99) as one of the latest in their admirable series of gardening classics.
Like Mr Lloyd, Mr Mitchell has decided views and a trenchant way of putting them over. "Marigolds gain enormously in impact when used as sparingly as ultimatums," he writes. And "compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence." The "generally agreed" is typical. It's a phrase he often uses to preface some outrageous piece of special pleading.
Collections such as this, which you can drop in and out of, make ideal bedtime books. Mr Mitchell restores sense where there has been much gardening silliness. A huge fuss, for instance, has been made over the last couple of years about plants that are potentially harmful. The outcome will be that soon we shall be banned from growing them. Here is Mitchell on colchicums: "Some people get upset by poisonous plants, yet those of us who are not forever gnawing on flowers need not be deterred. It is startling that people accept that war, automobiles and power mowers are ordinary hazards, but begin to fidget if there is a colchicum somewhere, as if it might attack or poison one when dozing." Hurray!
David Stuart's interest is in the background and history of the plants we use in our gardens and his most recent book, Gardening with Antique Plants, has been gorgeously produced by Conran Octopus, pounds 25. Pinks, poppies, peonies, marigolds, musk roses - all the must-have plants are here. Having previously run his own nursery, Dr Stuart is as good on the practical aspects of growing these plants as he is on their history.
The history of gardens and plants is still the most undervalued aspect of our past. Catch up with Mavis Batey's Regency Gardens (Shire Publications, pounds 5.99), which is at the same time scholarly and concise. Then drool over Vivien Russell's pictures, in Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25).
Finally, persuade someone to give you a copy of The Good Gardens Guide 1998, edited by Peter King (Ebury Press, pounds 14.99). It's an invaluable reference to a thousand gardens, most of them in Britain, with a scatter for Channel- hoppers in France, Belgium and The Netherlands. With this in hand, in the dog days after Christmas, you can plan the gallivanting to come.Reuse content