Turn over a new leaf: Anna Pavord's Gardening books of the year

Anna has sifted through the season's publications to find the finest gardening books for Christmas presents. First up, a must-have for tree fans

Anna Pavord
Saturday 08 December 2012 01:00

If you are looking for presents this Christmas, you won't find a better 20 quid's worth than The Beauty of Trees (Quercus Editions). It's astonishing that a book so beautiful can cost so little. Essentially, it's the creation of a brilliant picture researcher (un-named) who has pulled together gorgeous images of 100 trees from all over the world. The text is by Michael Jordan (mushrooms and tight white trousers – remember?); Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, acted as consultant.

Trees are not easy to photograph. They are too big to fit easily into a single frame. But this book captures the ancient, impassive nature of a tree such as a pollarded hornbeam in Transylvania as movingly as it does the more transient effect of a small-leaved lime, standing alone in a snowy Bavarian landscape, each twig frozen white in ice.

All continents are represented here, from the mad baobabs of Madagascar, all promise and no finish, vast fat trunks ending in a weak spray of twiglets, to the enigmatic swamp cypress of North America, rising on hunched buttresses from the waters of Bluff Lake, Mississippi. Some of the swamp cypresses are reckoned to be more than 1,500 years old.

That's one reason we are in awe of trees, of course. Many of them have a lifespan far longer than our own. Jordan reminds us that the familiar ash, now engaged in a life and death struggle against the fungus Chalaria fraxinea, was the Tree of the World – Yggdrasil – to Norseman, its roots stretching deep into the underworld and its great grey branches touching the world of the gods above.

The most difficult trees to capture on a page are the tallest: the rimu of New Zealand (50m/164ft), the European larch (55m/180ft), the Patagonian cypress (70m/230ft), the noble fir (90m/295ft) and the coast redwood (115m/377ft) of North America. Only one picture in this book includes our tribe, Homo sapiens, a man leaning against the trunk of one of the ancient champions of the Redwood National Park, California. That image puts us in our place all right – rather low down on the scale of all that's most important on Earth.

Diversity is the great wonder of the plantworld, and there could scarcely be plants more different than the monster redwood and the tiny snowdrop, the subject of a new book, Snowdrops, by Gunter Waldorf (Frances Lincoln, £14.99). Serious galanthophiles will still need Aaron Davies's monograph, The Genus Galanthus, but Waldorf's book, a pretty little thing published in a square format, presents a useful gallery of more than 300 snowdrops, arranged in alphabetical order.

So you want to know the difference between 'Joy Cozens' ("often described as having an orange tinge. This slight hint of colour at the centre does not develop until the plant has been established for at least a year") and 'Ketton' ("a very robust snowdrop with large flowers. It has two small green marks on the lower part of the inner perianth segments. These markings can vary")? In the world of snowdrops you soon learn to decode key phrases such as "slight hint" and "can vary". The truth is that they are all still mostly white with green bits here and there.

But it's a harmless mania, this present passion for naming new varieties, different in only the most infinitesimal way from old ones. I'm all for it. All snowdrops earn their keep, though the stakes were raised earlier this year when a single bulb of Galanthus woronowii 'Elizabeth Harrison' sold on eBay for £725. Like most snowdrops, G. woronowii is usually white and green, but in this find, from a garden in Perthshire, the green bits are yellowish. The species is naturalised in our garden. This spring, I must look at them more closely…

The Best Gardens in Italy by Kirsty McLeod (Frances Lincoln, £30) is subtitled A Traveller's Guide, but it would be a hefty thing to lug round in your suitcase. It's perfect though for planning a trip, since it's arranged round the places where you might stay: Lake Como in Lombardy for the Villa d'Este and the Villa Carlotta, Viterbo in the Lazio district for one of my favourite Italian gardens, the Villa Lante, but also for the famous Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, Siena for Iris Origo's garden La Foce and the Villa di Geggiano, which I remember not for its garden, but for the impeccably tailored tweed jacket of the villa's owner, Count Andrea Bandinelli. The truffle-infused delicacies we had for lunch when I was last there were equally unforgettable.

For English (and American) visitors, Florence remains the centre for gardening, as it was in the Edwardian era when one in six of the people living there spoke English as their first language, rather than Italian. We always stay at the Villa Bellosguardo, set high on a hill to the south of the Arno. The villa, now owned by the Franchetti family, was once home to Walburga, Lady Paget, wife of the British ambassador, who in a very un-Italian way, smothered the place in roses, lilies and honeysuckle. She worked hard in her garden and expected her many guests to do the same. "Wallace is excellent," she said of Lord Lamington, Governor of Queensland. "He weeded a great many baskets of groundsel."

More than 100 gardens are described and beautifully photographed in McLeod's fine book, which includes places to visit in Sicily, as well as mainland Italy. At the back is an appendix which gives opening times as well as full addresses, telephone numbers and websites for all the gardens featured.

Finally, A River Cottage Handbook, Herbs by Nikki Duffy (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Like its predecessors (Mushrooms, Veg Patch, Fruit) this tells you everything you need to know in a concise, economical format. In each case, 'In the Kitchen' comes before 'How to Grow' which is sensible, because if you don't think you are going to use a particular herb, there's no point in giving it space in the garden.

But the book also suggests new departures. I've never cooked with hyssop, but Duffy suggests using it, finely chopped, on seared slices of halloumi, or as a substitute for sage in a stuffing. At the back of the book is a collection of fully forged recipes, such as baked fish with a hyssop and orange crust.

The 'How to Grow' sections are clear, practical and pragmatic. You'll learn which herbs can cope with shade, which will grow on a windowsill and which are the best to grow from seed. If you know a new and nervous gardener, this is the book to give them.

Weekend work

What to do

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not tender, but the white flowers are easily spoilt by rain splashing mud on to the petals. Either cut the flowers and bring them inside to open or cover with a cloche.

Tender herbaceous perennials can be protected from frost with humps of chicken wire stuffed with dry leaves, straw or bracken.

Continue to prune bush and standard roses. Standards should not be pruned too severely or else the bush will produce over-vigorous shoots which will spoil the shape of the head. Remove dead or diseased wood first, then cut back the growth as much as is necessary to maintain a well-balanced head.

December is an excellent month to plant trees, as long as you don't choose a day when the ground is frozen hard. In town gardens, you need to think about the eventual spread of a tree's branches. The ornamental pear, Pyrus calleryana 'Chanticleer' can get tall (15m) but has a narrow outline (it's rarely more than 4m across).

What to buy

For more Christmas gift ideas visit the website of Little Toller Books, a private press based at Toller Fratrum in Dorset (littletoller.co.uk). Although they commission new work, some of their loveliest books are classics such as engraver Clare Leighton's, Four Hedges, which they have published with a new introduction by Carol Klein (£10)

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