In search of a little hoe hoe hoe

Gardening books crammed full of designer photography are moving over for a more text-heavy breed, says Michael Leapman. These books, he claims, are ideal for stocking fillers for any enthusiast this Christmas

Any book that bucks a trend starts off with an advantage. In gardening books the trend in the Nineties, fed by advances in colour printing, has been towards ever more beautiful pictures with ever less substantial text.

Many such glossy works will be stacked at the bottom of this year's Christmas trees and will no doubt give pleasure. Some gardeners, though, might appreciate a book that nourishes the mind as well as the eye.

Hugh Johnson's Gardening companion (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 25) is an elegant and subtle work by a writer who specialises in life's sybaritic pleasures: his other field of expertise is wine. In reworking his classic Principles of Gardening, first published in 1979, he has chosen to reduce the visual content, precisely because "illustrated garden books are commonplace today", and to give prominence to the words.

His virtues as a writer are a clear, attractive style and an original mind that takes nothing for granted. He examines the principles of the gardener's craft and sees how these translate into what we choose to do with our individual plots.

Gardeners of a more practical bent might prefer to wake up on Christmas morning alongside the bulky form of The Royal Horticultural Society A- Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 50). It lists 15,000 plants in meticulous detail, with clear descriptions and instructions - and although this is 14,900 more than most of us will ever grow, there is no point in an encyclopedia unless it is comprehensive. The 6,000 colour pictures illustrate the subjects' salient features.

Most gardening books do not attempt to cover everything, but usually zoom in on particular enthusiasms. Of these, the most ambitious this year is Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30), described as "the definitive new guide to wild flowers, plants and trees".

Mabey, a veteran environmental campaigner, has written an engrossing social history of wild plants, their place in our culture, art landscape and folklore.

He has been collecting material for the last five years, asking people to send details of local traditions that centre on wild flowers. The result is a heady mixture of scholarship and anecdote with plenty of entertaining passages. The alarming story of Japanese knotweed - introduced as a decorative garden plant by the Victorians but now our most invasive weed - is told with relish: in parts of Wales it is regarded as a delicacy.

Many wild flowers have bawdy associations. Anything with a long spadix poking out from the leaves is in danger of being endowed with a rude name. Mabey tells us that the lords-and-ladies, Arum maculatum, is known, in various parts of the country, as priest's pilly, willy lily, dog's cock and cuckoo-pint - pint being short for pintle or penis.

If you like that kind of thing, there is more of it, though on a less ambitious scale, in The Folklore of Plants (Shire Publications, pounds 4.99). Here, Margaret Baker takes the cuckoo-pint story a stage further by revealing that if a young man slips the relevant bit of the plant's anatomy into his shoe before a dance, he will have his pick of partners.

Back within the garden walls, there are several new works, part practical manual and part coffee-table decor, that deal with specific areas of gardening. David Austin's English Roses (Conran Octopus, pounds 20) has been among the best of the many rose books on the market since it was first published two years ago. Now, to keep up with this rapidly developing field, it is out in a revised edition, with 18 new varieties of rose added.

The Cutting Garden (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) is aimed at flower arrangers: in the first part Sarah Raven tells you how to grow flowers for the vase and, in the second, how to display them. Ethne Clarke's Leaf, Bark and Berry (David and Charles, pounds 20) is the exact opposite, an elegant paean to trees and foliage for those gardeners who have come to feel that flowers are a bit ... well, a bit showy.

Among that number can be counted the 27 international designers whose work is celebrated in Paradise Transformed (Monacelli Press, pounds 35), by Guy Cooper and Gordon Taylor. Subtitled "The Private Garden for the 21st Century", this is a detailed examination of 27 gardens in the modern idiom, stiff with structures and hard landscaping but with scarcely a flower to be seen. In the courtyard of Shodo Suzuki's Japanese garden, for instance, the only plant is ivy.

Ken Druse's The Collector's Garden (Thames and Hudson, pounds 24.95) is for the other kind of garden sophisticates - those who have gone beyond the beginner stage and are into specialised plants. Druse is an American garden writer and, despite the publisher's claim of "universal relevance", his book will be of more value to American plant fanciers than to British. His introduction on what motivates such fanatics is observant and droll, but his list of recommended reading does not even mention the indispensable Plant Finder.

Readers may already be familiar with my colleague Mary Keen's Creating a Garden (Conran Octopus, pounds 25), from the extract that appeared here in the summer. It is an inspiring and beautifully photographed account of how, in only three years, she has developed a remarkably mature-looking garden around her old rectory in the Cotswolds.

Vegetables traditionally get short shrift from gardening publishers, presumably because, except in potagers, they do not photograph well and are still seen as something of a downmarket enthusiasm (allotments, string round the trousers and all that). Susan Campbell's Charleston Kedding: A History of Kitchen Gardening (Ebury Press, pounds 30) gets round the first obstacle by sticking to line drawings.

The author tells her story by inventing a country house, an amalgam, she says, of two or three real ones - and naming it from an anagram of "old kitchen gardens". This semi-fictional device is meant to lighten what is essentially a serious and illuminating work of research. Where else would you discover that in the early 19th century Deptford was famous for onions, Durham for mustard and Battersea for cabbages?

In the 18th century, Campbell tells us, the distinction was first made between vegetables and herbs "a multitude of plants that are life-enhancing (and on occasion deadly) without being nourishing in any way". Herbs have never been as unfashionable as vegetables and the literature reflects just that. This year's main offering is Gardening with Herbs (Collins and Brown, pounds 18.99) by John Stevens, a rather colourful and practical book that lays emphasis on incorporating herbs into garden designs.

Nowadays, there is a special category of gardening book published to accompany television series, exploiting readymade promotion to millions of viewers. The current three are Rosemary Verey's The English Country Garden (BBC Books, pounds 18.99); Stefan Buczacki's Gardening Britain (BBC Books, pounds l4.99); and Channel 4's rival Friday offering Garden Doctors (Boxtree/Channel 4, pounds l8.99), by Dan Pearson and Steve Bradley.

The books reflect the character of the programmes and their authors/ presenters: Verey, tasteful but patrician; Buczacki, wearing his knowledge lightly; Pearson and Bradley, energetic and resourceful. Yet none of them amounts to the authors' best work.

Garden visiting grows more popular and The Good Gardens Guide 1997 (Ebury Press, pounds 14.99) remains the essential directory to those open to the public regularly or only occasionally. The Guide's co-founder Graham Rose died last year but his partner, Peter King, maintains the discerning standard. Stephen Lacey's Gardens of the National Trust (National Trust, pounds 29.99) is more elaborate, with fine colour pictures and descriptions of some of the most spectacular gardens in the land.

Humour and gardening are dangerous bedfellows. We of the dirty fingernailed brigade are desperately serious about our hobby and do not take kindly to ribbing, especially from outsiders. James Bartholomew, a journalist, has produced Yew and Non-Yew (Century, pounds 9.99), a journey down that much- hoed row of deciding what is and what is not in horticultural fashion.

There are some bursts of original wit but a great deal more that is familiar and predictable. Bartholomew admits that "much of my research consisted of delving into the most unbearably snobbish parts of my own mind". If you know any unbearably snobbish gardeners, this will do for them.

It is hard to know who might appreciate The Quintessential Garden, or Pondering the Giant Spinach Weevil (Windrush Press, pounds 12.99). It is written by Jocelyn Wild, a children's illustrator, and although the jokes are mostly juvenile, children would not understand the gardening references. Bristling with terrible puns ("Is loam friable? Yes, in a little butter") its style derives from 1066 and All That, and makes you realise how much our sense of humour has developed since then.

In the end, the safest bet to fill out the foot of a gardener's Christmas stocking may be The Penguin Book of Garden Writing (Viking, pounds 20), an anthology of verse and prose (mainly prose) celebrating the history of British gardening and gardeners. It is a lot more fun than the funnies.

Here are three tasters; E.A. Bowles, writing in 1914 on the subject of symmetrically planted flowerbeds: "Why not paint the ground in stripes, and have the effect all year round?" In 1664, the diarist John Evelyn penned this imperishable aphorism: "Men seldom plant trees until they are wise." And Mr Beaton, gardener to Sir William Middleton in 1841, showed that he matched Jane Austen in the recognition of universal truths: "One of the most teasing things that a lady can meet with in the cultivation of her plants is a badly made watering pot." !

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