Escapism is what gardeners want in the short, dark days of winter and Paradise of Exiles by Katie Campbell (Frances Lincoln £35) offers the perfect getaway. The paradise Campbell writes about is Florence, where, by 1900, one sixth of the population were either English or American. Why were they there? Not, primarily, to make gardens, though garden-making is the thread that ties the subjects of this book together: the industrious Janet Ross distilling her famous vermouth at Poggio Gherardo, Walburga Paget posing at Bellosguardo in her home-made Gothic gowns, Arthur Acton trading antiquities at La Pietra. "They say, my dear, you can buy anything in his villa if you want it," reported the beady-eyed Mabel Luhan, chatelaine of Villa Curonia. She came to Florence to play a permanent game of dressing up.
Dressing-up provides an entertaining sub-theme of this book, which is superbly and generously illustrated. Mabel Luhan favoured a bizarre kind of Renaissance gown and tasselled turban. The Actons went completely over the top with beads, sashes, slippers and headdresses for a Persian soirée at the Earl of Crawford's Villa Palmieri. Make-believe was important to this eclectic group of exiles, "fleeing social strictures at home to settle in an ancient dwelling, create a garden and indulge in the fantasy of Renaissance life".
The book, developed from the author's PhD thesis, focuses on the anglophone community of the late 19th and early 20th century. It starts with Sir John Temple Leader at Villa Maiano and finishes with Iris Origo and the hauntingly beautiful garden she made at La Foce. There is some delicious gossip; leisured lives left plenty of time for letters and journals. "Miss Paget came to lunch," wrote Mary Berenson in her diary. "She and BB outdid themselves in glittering lies of a general nature."
Katie Campbell is relatively kind about BB (the art historian and dealer Bernard Berenson), whom Isaiah Berlin described as "the toughest human being I have ever met". He sits at the centre of her Florentine web, having arrived in the city in 1888 with a lucrative commission to buy paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. In Florence, he was free to reinvent himself, as many of the expatriates did, and his long life there (he died at his villa I Tatti in 1959) brought him into contact with many of the other exiles of whom Campbell writes.
She handles her complex cast of characters well, noting the stand-offs as well as the interactions, the snobbery (particularly rife among the English), but above all, the different ways in which they interpreted their dreams of Italy. For most, it was important to have a villa with a history, preferably one that connected them with the Medici. If it wasn't there, they invented it. But history did not stop them smothering walls with roses and filling parterres with bedding plants, neither "correct" in an Italian context.
Charles Quest-Ritson introduced many of the same cast of characters in his brilliant book The English Garden Abroad (1992). So did May Brawley Hill in her account of American gardeners abroad, On Foreign Soil (2005). By concentrating on one particular community in one particular place Katie Campbell is able to be more generous with detail. Scholarly as well as wonderfully entertaining, this is an unmissable book.
Quest-Ritson returns to Italy for his most recent book, Ninfa (Frances Lincoln £25). Subtitled "The Most Romantic Garden in the World" – an excellent come-on for escapists – the book explores the recent history of this garden, laid out in the ruins of a medieval town near Rome by various generations of the Caetani family.
Work started after the First World War when Prince Gelasio Caetani, the 14th Duke of Sermoneta, laid out the formal bones of the garden and planted masses of trees: his walnut, Atlantic cedars and his big Magnolia grandiflora are still there. Caetani had an English wife, mad on roses, which she flung around the walls of the ruins in a very un-Italian way. And that is how Ninfa continued to develop: the strict Italian formality of its layout smudged and overlaid with billows of plants.
After the Duke's death in 1934, his brother who had married an American heiress, Marguerite Chapin, took over at Ninfa and the extravagantly wonderful planting continued. In just one month (it happened to be the month – June 1940 – that Italy entered the Second World War) Marguerite ordered 1,000 Russell lupins and 550 pinks (including Dianthus barbatus) to fill in between the flowering cherries and crab apples that she planted in almost equal quantities.
In the hands of Marguerite's daughter, Lelia, who married an Englishman, Hubert Howard, the garden reached its spectacular zenith. "Lelia set out to cultivate the image of a garden on the verge of collapse," writes Quest-Ritson, "of Nature just about to gain the upper hand – even though these appearances of naturalism were a carefully constructed illusion." As all gardeners know, this is the most difficult of all tricks to play in a garden; the pictures accompanying Quest-Ritson's superb text show how brilliantly Lelia Caetani succeeded.
The mark of a good anthology is that wherever you happen to open it, something catches your interest. This is certainly true of Ursula Buchan's new book, Back to the Garden (Frances Lincoln £16.99). This is the third collection of columns she has published (many come from The Spectator), but the standard remains as high as ever. "The future for the potato seems brighter this month than last, since the opening of the film Sex Lives of the Potato Men," she writes as her opener to a piece about the relative merits of the spuds 'Charlotte' and 'Winston'. On hearing that 10 minutes' gardening can reduce stress levels, she recommends a refinement – 10-second gardening. "If you keep knife and string in a bucket, you can tie in the clematis by the back door as you wait for your husband to find his car keys. Try it." Try the book too. It's a delight.
So is Philippa Lewis's anthology, Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening (Frances Lincoln £16.99). This gives a delicious overview of eccentric behaviour – such as enthusiasts for outdoor eating (usually in the rain). The quotations and illustrations range over a staggering amount of material, from Henry James to Punch magazine via a 1950s ad for fireworks.
It's Time for Trees is half book, half catalogue, for it's published by Barcham (£25 hardback, £15 paperback), a nursery specialising in large, containerised trees. It's a handsomely produced A-Z guide to some reliable varieties to plant in British gardens. Get it direct from Barcham Trees, Eye Hill Drove, Ely, Cambs CB7 5XF, 01353 720748, barcham.co.uk.