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Gardening : Indoor Gardener Looks at Books

August 01, 1993|JOEL RAPP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rapp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer , the gardening editor of Redbook magazine and is heard Sunday mornings on KGIL radio.

For lovers of houseplants, browsing through a book on indoor gardening can conjure up the same warm and wonderful feelings that food lovers get when they read cookbooks.

They experience the excitement of discovery (a new hybrid of a familiar plant), verifications of old care-taking ideas (African violets do best when watered from the bottom), or a project they can try for themselves (making an ivy-covered topiary heart).

Or, if the book has color photographs, the reader can simply revel in the visual beauty of dazzling flowering and foliage plants.

Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a really good book on indoor gardening. He wanted a book that had lots of color photographs, accurate care instructions for lots and lots of plants, written for the beginning houseplant grower as opposed to a botanist, and perhaps some decorating tips and propagating information.

Having collected a rather extensive library on the subject, I suggested a few of my favorites that I knew to be still in print and available on Southern California shelves--a small but honest "Indoor Gardener's Library."

My first choice is Reader's Digest's "Success With House Plants," (480 pages, retail price $26) first published in 1979 and currently in its 18th printing.

Although the price may sound a bit steep, when one browses through this hardcover book with its abundance of color photographs and drawings and tons of easy-to-read, accurate and useful information, the price becomes a bargain. It's easy to see why the book has, over the years, been translated into nine languages and sold millions of copies in 15 countries.

The book is divided into sections including "Appreciating Houseplants," "Using Plants Indoors" (grouping plants, using large areas, climbing and trailing plants, bottle gardens, etc.).

"The A-Z Guide to Houseplants" and "Caring for Houseplants" sections contain all the information you'll ever need on watering, light, temperature, feeding, transplanting and propagation of over 600 plants.

And, most important, it meets my friend's No. 1 criterion: The information is accurate.

Reader's Digest also publishes a smaller, less-expensive softcover book under its RD Home Handbooks imprint titled "House Plants" by contributing editor John Brookes (240 pages, retail price $14.95.)

This book contains over 500 photographs and illustrations, most in color, and gives lots of detailed information on feeding, watering, potting, propagating and treating common houseplant problems. It also includes ideas for decorating with plants, plus special projects such as indoor gardens, cactus displays, terrariums, forcing spring bulbs, training bonsai and growing water plants (hydroponics).

Although not as complete as "Success With Houseplants," it's a book that would satisfy the needs of most indoor gardeners.

Another accurate, interesting and easy-to-read volume is "Crockett's Indoor Garden" by James Underwood Crockett, first published in 1978 by Little, Brown and still going strong.

This large paperback book (325 pages, retail price $19.95) features more than 130 of the late author's personal favorites with color photographs of many and excellent line drawings of the rest.

Although it would not be the book to buy if all you could buy is one, it's actually a more "fun" read than my top choice and, frankly, I'd suggest you buy them both.

Obviously a labor of love, "Crockett's Indoor Garden" is written in a warm, first-person anecdotal style. This book will imbue you with lots of "green thumb" confidence, since Crockett personally grew all the plants he writes about. If he tells you "Piggyback plants take very little effort . . ." or "I would mislead you if I told you fittonias were easy to grow," you can take that information to the bank.

At the top of the low-cost ladder is Sunset's "Houseplants--A to Z," one of many gardening books in the Sunset line published by Lane Publishing Co.

Subtitled "How to Choose, Grow and Display," Sunset's "Houseplants" is 112 pages long and retails for $8.99. It contains numerous color photographs, short but accurate basic care instructions for close to 400 varieties of plants, and a special section of creative display ideas. Although not nearly as complete as my top choices, with over 4 million copies sold it's a solid book for the budding beginner.

Other Sunset books of interest to indoor gardeners, all well worth their bargain-basement prices, are "Orchids," "African Violets" and "Herbs."

When it comes to those kinds of one-subject, specialty books, however, the best ones are the much more expensive, coffee-table tomes. Pricey as they are ($40 and up), they make great gifts for your orchid- or violet- or cactus-loving friends.

A final note, speaking of pricey: In the unlikely event that money is no object, by far the best book available on the subject of houseplant care, at least the one I refer to most often, is "Exotica," by Alfred Byrd Graf. Although this book costs about $200, I would be remiss in not bringing it to your attention, because for the truly dedicated indoor gardener it's a treasure worth making a sacrifice to own.

Almost 2,000 pages long (not only can you not put it down, you can barely pick it up.), Exotica (subtitled "Pictorial Cyclopedia of Exotic Plants") contains 12,000 illustrations, a fabulous guide to care of plants indoors, and endless other fabulous features. Next time you hit the lottery, order a copy from Roehrs Publishers, P.O. Box 125, East Rutherford, NJ 07073.

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