Reading round the borders

GARDENING; Sharon Amos chooses new books for armchair and outdoor gardeners

Gardening, the great British hobby, spawns more books than a dandelion sets seeds, ranging from anything from the bewilderingly inconsequential to the absolutely essential. A root among the latest offerings uncovers books obsessively specific to one plant; others aimed unashamedly at the gift market; DIY manuals in disguise; and works of reference for the serious specialist only. Those devoted to plant diseases can make you feel like a hypochondriac furtively reading a medical dictionary and several are just plain badly written and badly designed. This, then, is our pick of the crop.

GAY SEARCH'S GARDENING WITHOUT A GARDEN

(Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99)

The conundrum of gardening without a garden is easily solved. It's all about growing things in pots - something all gardeners do, even those with half an acre of herbaceous borders. But closet gardeners with only a window ledge or a balcony will appreciate Gay Search's imaginative plantings. Walls, stairs and entrances, window-sills and any other small spaces are all unexploited areas ripe for cultivation, and each one is covered. Try a "fiery red trellis" of geraniums - guaranteed to transform the most unpromising wall.

Absolute beginners will consult this book at every step: there are sections on repotting and trimming and notes on buying healthy plants. Experienced gardeners will find new ideas for colour schemes and containers, ranging from the ubiquitous galvanised florists' buck-ets to a curious step-spanning box for turning a fire-escape in to a flight of fancy - without fear of knocking a loose pot on to your neighbour's head.

BEST WINTER PLANTS

by Stefan Buczacki (Hamlyn pounds 5.99)

The latest in the Hamlyn "Best" series is published just in time for you to improve the appearance of your garden in winter. But this is not the usual exhortation to plant more winter-flowering shrubs or evergreens. Stefan Buczacki has chosen a combination of plant attributes, be they seedheads, fruits, young shoots or colourful bare stems to brighten the borders, so you are just as likely to come across a photo of a frosted agapanthus head or a swathe of fluffy clematis seed as the more commonly expected daphnes and winter sweet. The pages, each laid out as a practical guide, are enlivened by Buczacki's frank and funny comments on each plant. One or two he felt under pressure to mention because of their popularity, but he makes it quite clear you won't find them in his own garden.

OLD GARDEN TOOLS by Kay N Sanecki (Shire Album 41 pounds 2.50)

Battered watering cans, traditional garden tools: if Old Garden Tools is to be believed, these are the stylish implements to leave lying artfully around your plot. This is a modest but erudite little book with delightful line drawings of such covetables as slashers, mattocks, forcing pots, and even a "bedstead, furnished with tester and Curtaines of Greene ... to draw over and preserve the Choysest flowers ... from the parching beames of the Sunn" taken from John Evelyn's Elysium Britannicum of 1659. It is brimming with information. Did you know that in the 18th century three skilled workers could scythe an acre of grass in a day? Try shouting that above the din of the contemporary Strimmer.

PANORAMAS OF ENGLISH GARDENS by David Wheeler and Nick Meers (Phoenix Illustrated pounds 9.99)

This affordable new paperback edition lets you visit 20 gardens without leaving home. You can admire the intense carmines and purples of the Michaelmas daisies massed in the borders of Old Court Nurseries in Worcestershire; or the jumble of topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria. Some of these gardens are never open to the public - you are not so much peeping over the garden wall as being offered the privilege of entering a very private sanctuary.

Photographer Nick Meers spent many hours with his head beneath the traditional Victorian black cloth, grappling with the technique of composing his pictures both back to front and upside down. His amazing panoramic camera gives a very wide angle without distorting the picture: this is the first time that the printed page has been able to reproduce a true image of a garden viewed as a whole.

But this is more than a coffee-table tome for display purposes only. David Wheeler's light and informed text is also well worth reading. His most devious advice is to study the picture of the maze at Hever Castle in Kent before visiting, then impress family and friends when you stride confidently ahead to what - you hope - is the way out.

READER'S DIGEST NEW ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF GARDEN PLANTS AND FLOWERS (pounds 29.95)

A weighty book that has to be the main contender for a gardener's choice of book on Desert Island Discs - though given the island's implicit aridity, the advice on cacti is likely to be most useful. More than 8,000 plants are listed from Abelia to Zinnia - trees, shrubs, bulbs, annuals, houseplants, vegetables and anything else you can grow or dream of growing.

More than a cursory revision of the existing volume, this is a completely new work of reference with fresh photos, rewritten text and none of the puzzling omissions of past editions. Line drawings show the final shapes of mature trees; there are sections on pests, diseases and propagation; and a plant finder to help identify unknown species. With just this one book to hand, you could take up every aspect of cultivation, from alpines to orchids, and never need another advice manual.

THE SENSUOUS GARDEN by Monty Don (Conran Octopus pounds 20)

Author Monty Don would be the first to point out it is essential to know as much about the gardener as the garden. He firmly believes gardens are primarily about people - not plants. His book is a celebration of the physical effect of the garden on the five senses - six if you include intuition, which he does. It's a kaleidoscope of all the attendant pleasures of gardening, such as the song of the robin and the rich musky scent of tobacco plants at dusk, and some of the more prosaic, too. Don manages to find merit in the throb of nettle stings and dirt between the toes.

The photography is a series of delicious close-ups: textural bamboo stems, ferns unfurling, rose stems bristling with prickles, and the velvety brown petals of Iris "Wild Ginger". And his prose, despite a tendency to blossom as purple as a buddleia bush, is studded with lovely imagery, too. Seed pods of poppies tap against each other in the breeze "like skulls on poles"; willows "rustle like a grass skirt."

This one is well worth dipping into, but don't devour it at one sitting, or you risk being over powered.

BLOOM by Bill Chudziak, Jo Readman and Anne Swithinbank (Collins & Brown pounds 20)

It's rare to find a hybrid such as this, a coffee-table book and practical guide combined. The result is an assemblage of breathtaking photography and some hard facts. The presenters of Channel 4's eponymous gardening programme concentrate on flowers, grouped here under six broad families: daisies, but-tercups, mints, peas, lilies and poppies. Each section begins with botanical facts and features a useful chart of each species' horticultural requirements. Interviews with enthusiasts in their gardens yield such gems as how to get lupin seed to germinate (rub seeds together between sand paper to wear down the hard seed coat).

Once you get into plantsman Bill Chudziak's choice for each flower family, it would be wise to have a companion volume to hand - The RHS Plant Finder 1997-98 (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99), maybe, which lists 70,000 plants and where to buy them. His elegant prose, seductive and ironic by turns, will have you tracking down all sorts of plants that suddenly sound indispensable. Of Helleborus orientalis he writes: "Many are veined, freckled or stippled with chestnut brown or claret; others are suffused with a contrasting pigment ... that stains the flower with translucent tints." To alert us to the smell of Salvia turkestanica, at odds with its papery lilac flowers, he reminds us of its Edwardian name, Hot Housemaid. Writing about the spectacular giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, he recalls an anecdote from Lady Rosse who, showing a fastidious plantsman round the gardens at Nymans, was puzzled by his lack of attention to a show of them. "Won't you admire our giganteum lilies?" "No", he replied, "I cannot bear to look at them. They are like very beautiful women, utterly ruined by thick ankles."

THE ROYAL HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY GUIDES: BULBS (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99)

Bulbs don't just spring up in spring. This practical guide describes bulbs, corms and tubers for a display of flowers right through the year. With more than 500 enticing photographs, there is all the excitement of leafing through a commercial catalogue - in fact, the main bulk of the book is quite sensibly called a catalogue - but without the distracting superlatives of the grower. Seek out unusual varieties like hoop-petticoat daffodil, the almost black Fritillaria camschateensis and Galanthus nivalis Sandersii, a snowdrop with a striking yellow base to the flowers. There are suggestions for bulbs that naturalise well in grass and those that are best grown in a cool greenhouse or as a houseplant.

If you have the patience, follow the instructions for multiplying bulbs by chipping - a method suitable for snowdrops, daffodils and indoor amaryllis (Ilippeastrum). It takes some nerve to slice up an expensive amaryllis, but the potential of 16 new plants flowering within four years is enough to overcome any reluctance to wield a sharp knife ...

GREEN GROWS THE CITY: THE STORY OF A LONDON GARDEN by Beverley Nichols (Antique Collectors' Club pounds 14.95)

One of the funniest accounts of how to make a garden against the odds has now been reprinted. Green Grows the City was first published in 1939, and tells the story of Beverley Nichols' struggle to turn an unpromising city plot into a pleasant place, without creating a parody of his beloved country garden (wittily and poetically evoked in his Down the Garden Path, now also in print again from Antique Collectors' Club after many decades).

Nichols initial hatred of the unpromising shape of his city garden leads him into skirmishes with a monstrous neighbour, flirtations with ferns and close encounters with cacti as he labours to disguise the triangular nature of the site. Deeply ironic and as arch as a raised eyebrow, his account lets in the reader as a privileged confidant.

Even in his tiny plot, Nichols signed off with the anticipation of finding room for a vinery, and plans to enlarge the pond. He understood an evergreen fact: no garden is ever finished. !

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