A varied and elegant crop

Michael Leapman finds gardening books to cater for most tastes. But why, he asks, are there so few videos?
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AS IN gardening itself, fashions in gardening books come and go, and this year's crop has a strong flavour of nostalgia. The enthusiast's Christmas stocking will be stuffed with reminiscences of old gardens and gardeners, quaint cuttings from magazine archives and reprints of horticultural classics, all looking back to a gold-en era of endless summers with tea on moss-free lawns, borders perpetually in flower and full-flavoured vegetables swelling with ripeness.

The most surprising memoir is Sir Peter Smithers' Adventures of a Gardener (Harvill Press, pounds 30). A distinguished diplomat, now over 80, Sir Peter blends his gardening tales with sprightly snatches of autobiography and reveals impressive talents as a photographer: his pictures were, he discloses shyly, once described by an American lady as "floral pornography".

After he acquired a "love of green and growing things" from skilled head gardeners in the potting sheds of family estates in Yorkshire and Hampshire, his career took him to many continents and allowed him an international view of horticulture. As a Second World War intelligence officer, he relished his posting to Central America not for the espionage potential but because it "would oblige me to pass through some of the world's richest flora".

Sir Peter is a passionate and opinionated gardener - "cotoneasters are not my favourite plant... pumpkin pie seems to me barely edible" - and also something of a poet: "Lilies win your love with their beauty and grace and a certain indefinable allure: and then they break your heart in the end. It is a very old story." And a delightful one.

Rosemary Verey's Making of a Garden (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) is for the connoisseur. It tells of the 35-year evolution of the celebrated garden at her family home, Barnsley House in Gloucestershire. Mrs Verey takes readers on a guided tour, culminating in her influential potager, or ornamental vegetable patch. On the way, she explains the principles behind each part of the garden and pays tribute to the designers who have influenced her.

Thus Sir Roy Strong has "a clever way with hedges", and "I learned from Russell Page that a driveway up which you pass quickly should have long sweeps of interest". Mrs Verey's advice is comprehensive and practical, if of limited value to those of us who do not have four acres of grounds and a sweeping driveway. Tony Lord's atmospheric pictures add to the appeal.

From his Gardening at Sissinghurst (Fran-ces Lincoln, pounds 25), we discover that Mr Lord is not just a fine photographer but a writer as well. Here he directs his camera and pen at one of England's most visited gardens, the creation of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. He displays an impressive depth of knowledge and puts it over elegantly, although sometimes his prose style spills over the top.

Sissinghurst, he says, is "a product of creative tension between the Apollonian order and control of Harold's formal design and the Dionys- ian exuberance of Vita's planting". Then, in a complex discussion of horticultural snobbery, he vigorously contests the view that "good gardening is solely the province of the armigerous classes" - the word means aristocratic. But he is not always so pompous and there are touches of wit ("It is as much a cottage garden as Marie Antoinette was a milkmaid").

Creative tension is also to the fore in Margery Fish's We Made a Garden (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 14.99), first published in 1956 and reprinted in the new Classic Garden Writers series. She relates how she and her husband, Walter, a former editor of the Daily Mail, developed their Somerset cottage garden but seldom agreed on anything, even her core philosophy: "I cannot stress too much the importance of well-cut grass, good paths and well- trimmed hedges." The whole book is imbued with this headmistressy tone and, with Walter displaying an editor's unchallengeable confidence in his own opinions, the garden became a battlefield. I should love to have been a greenfly on the wall.

The other reprint in the series is Gertrude Jekyll's Colour in the Flower Garden (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 14.99). Miss Jekyll, a leading advocate of the "armigerous" theory of garden-making, wrote this book in 1908 but it is hard to imagine that many aspired even then to the size of garden she takes as normal. ("Ten acres is but a small area for a bit of woodland.") Her celebrated planting principles, the dramatic drifts and blocks of colour, are set out with characteristic certainty.

The ubiquitous Miss Jekyll crops up again in The Country House Garden (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 40), a selection of superb black-and-white photographs of very grand gardens indeed, taken from Country Life between 1897 and 1939 and illuminated by a knowledgeable commentary from Brent Elliott, archivist of the Royal Horticultural Society. He groups the gardens in design styles: Lutyens and Jekyll, Arts and Crafts, Interwar Baroque, Landscape Revival, etc. The book will be treasured by landowners, professional designers or simple escapists.

A Photographic Garden History by Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy (Macmillan, pounds 25), though a handsome volume for the price, promises more than it delivers. The authors' ambitious aim is to trace the history of gardening in Europe and the Far East, mainly through Mr Phillips's own photographs. This results in a haphazard selection of gardens, heavily skewed towards Europe.

Ray Desmond's scholarly Kew: the History of the Royal Botanic Garden (Harvill, pounds 25) is, by contrast, a serious work of reference. The author used to be chief librarian at Kew and combines his wealth of knowledge with a formidable quantity of research on the 200-year history of Britain's foremost centre of botany. It is clearly a labour of love for Mr Desmond, who reports the personal rivalries and recurring disputes over the garden's function in meticulous detail, lightened by an array of historic photographs and prints.

Christopher Lloyd is the most acute and stylish of contemporary garden writers. In his columns in Country Life and elsewhere, he customarily tells us about his own garden at Great Dixter in Sussex, but in Other People's Gardens (Viking, pounds 22.50), he ranges farther. His blurb-writer, though, has done him a disservice in suggesting that because he is playing away from home "the acerbic comment has to be kept to a minimum". The master of the caustic put-down shows himself in fine fettle in the very first essay, where aspects of the Ventnor Botanic Garden are described as "rather awful" and "really tawdry".

At Coldham in Kent, "you do see good plant combinations but they are probably accidental", while the rose beds "look a fright". And when he ventures abroad he sometimes wishes he hadn't: "Fall colour is famed in Vermont, but why anyone should actually choose to live year round in these parts is a little puzzling." Yet I do not want to give the impression that he is a perpetual grouch. Most of his comments are positive, sensible, illuminating, even inspiring, and as always he is a joy to read.

Two volumes that combine sensible text with excellent pictures and self- explanatory titles are Great Planting by Lucy Gent (Ward Lock, pounds 20) and Thomasina Tarling's Truly Tiny Gardens (Conran Octopus, pounds 10.99).

As usual, vegetable growers get short shrift, but Colin Spencer's Vegetable Book (Conran Octopus, pounds 20) is a colourful basic guide to growing and cooking more than 100 varieties, with their potted histories. Andi Clevely's The Kitchen Garden (Conran Octopus, pounds 15.99), part of the RHS Collection of instructional books, sticks to the garden rather than the kitchen and is consequently more detailed.

The latest of the prolific David Hessayon's down-to-earth and good-value "Expert" manuals is The Bulb Expert (Expert Books, pounds 4.99). For enthusiasts of particular flowers, Batsford have published two more of their specialised volumes, Fuchsias and Hydrangeas (Batsford, pounds 25 each). The Garden Design Sourcebook sets out the latest ideas of the leading designer David Stevens (Conran Octopus, pounds 20).

I have left until last Joe Davies's Creating Bonsai (Batsford, pounds 14.99) because many doubt whether this form of plant abuse can be counted as gardening at all. How long before animal rights' activists move on from hunting and fishing to target people who wreak unspeakable deformities on tiny and defenceless trees? If you must do it then Mr Davies, in leaden prose, tells you how. !

A QUESTION for our multi-media generation: why are shops packed with gardening books but thin on gardening videos? The craft is essentially visual and the popularity of green-fingered TV suggests many people like to watch experts showing them how to care for plants.

Yet the retail chain WH Smith says: "Hobby videos tend not to sell all that well - and gardening ones are definitely bottom of the popularity poll." According to their figures, gardening video sales amount to only one per cent in value of the gardening books market. That is why they stock only eight video titles, and these only in their larger stores.

The BBC, though seldom slow to exploit the video possibilities of its TV programmes, agrees with WH Smith. "We put First Time Garden out on video a year or two ago and it didn't do particularly well," a BBC spokesman said. "But we're trying again and next year we'll be doing Geoff Hamilton's Cottage Gardens. We need a sale of at least 20,000 to make it worthwhile."

The Royal Horticultural Society believes that gardeners' resistance to videos may be weakening. As a sign of its confidence it has just launched six new, hour-long Practical Guides. Shot at its show garden at Wisley, Surrey, they cover container growing, soft fruit, larger fruit, vegetables, small gardens and greenhouses. The series was launched in October and the RHS reports that 2000 copies were sold in the first 10 days. The one I saw, on container gardening, was full of useful tips and good ideas. Next year another six titles will be introduced, filmed at the RHS garden in Rosemoor, Devon.

A rival set of six instructional videos comes from Phostrogen, makers of garden chemicals. The series, called Practical Gardening Tech-niques, is marketed through garden centres and covers container growing, African violets, clematis, fuchsias, geraniums and roses.

The RHS's most successful series to date is Wisley through the Seasons. About 45,000 copies of the four videos (spring, summer, autumn, winter) have been sold. For the last two years the RHS has also done quite well with a video about that year's Chelsea Flower Show.

Gardeners traditionally take time to adjust to innovation, which may explain why the video market has been sluggish so far. But if the RHS cannot spot a growing trend, who can?

To order RHS videos, tel: 01752 345424. For Phostrogen video stockists, tel: 01244 280800