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Bound to Delight Gardeners : These encyclopedias and bibles of the soil set contain lots of essential information and will be put to good use by anyone who has a green thumb.

November 26, 1993|JUDITH SIMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Judith Sims holds a certificate in horticulture from UCLA Extension

These are not books to languish on a coffee table, although they wouldn't be out of place there. I own and use every book on this list, so I can testify that each one would make an excellent gift for the serious or semi-serious gardener. No dilettantes allowed.

1. It's difficult to believe, but there are a few gardeners in Southern California who don't own the Sunset "Western Garden Book." Landscape architects, nursery owners, designers, construction folks all refer to this as the bible, and they are not being fanciful. If you garden west of the Rockies, you need this book.

I learned the hard way; when I first moved here many years ago, I carefully pored over all those East Coast tomes by Norman Taylor, Thalassa Cruso, the Victory Garden people. I followed instructions--and failed. Our soil is not their soil; many of our plants are not theirs, and our water supply is another subject entirely.

Sunset's "Western Garden Book" (Sunset Publishing Corp., $19.99 softcover, $25.95 hardcover) was most recently updated in 1988. Since Sunset has no plans to update again in the next few years, buy now. Don't wait for the movie.

The book is mostly an encyclopedia, which is already a bit outdated (hundreds of plants are introduced each year, so this is no slight on the Sunset folks). But if you need to know how to tend the Rhaphiolepis indica in your parking strip or foil the aphids on your roses, this is the place to look.

If you have a bare wall under a tree and need to know what vines will flourish in shade, you can look that up too, because in addition to the essential encyclopedia, the book offers many invaluable lists: of plants that don't need much water, that thrive in shade, that smell good; of vines, ground covers, fall-foliage plants, around-the-swimming-pool plants. And perhaps best of all, a breakdown of the 24 climate zones of the West. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is limited to a paltry 11 zones, so you know that Sunset's map is more specific and more helpful.

2. Ornamental grasses are the bull market of the gardening world. Virtually ignored a few years ago, they now appear in almost every new garden design in our area--thanks in large part to John Greenlee, a Pomona nurseryman and landscape designer. But the plants' popularity outran our knowledge about them. They were so new (even though most of them have been around forever, they weren't used in landscapes) that we didn't know how to water, or when exactly to prune, or just which ones preferred full sun or partial shade. Perhaps even more important, we didn't know how to use them in the garden, didn't yet know how to exploit their unique characteristics.

Luckily, we now have "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" by the same John Greenlee (Rodale, $29.95), which introduces us to hundreds of these wonderful plants. The now-familiar Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' or purple fountain grass, is here; so are its pennisetum relatives, as are the stipas and miscanthus family, joined by some sedges and rushes. Greenlee's information is extensive and useful, and Derek Fell's photographs are gorgeous.

Another plus: Greenlee is a good writer, especially when he's waxing eloquent over conservation and environmental awareness.

3. "Gardener's Guide to California Wildflowers" by Kevin Connelly (Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, $12.95) is a small book, light enough to tuck into a purse or pocket for waiting-around reading. Its focus is native plants and how these sometimes difficult-under-cultivation beauties can be used to best advantage in the urban landscape. Although there are some nice color pictures, this is not a seductive glossy. But Connelly is a fine writer, his prose spare and choice. Like Greenlee, he's a true believer, conveying his passion with a light, beguiling touch.

4 . For years, Bob Perry's landmark "Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes" has been the major--and for some time, only--book devoted to drought-tolerant plants for our area.

Brand-new is Perry's "Landscape Plants for Western Regions," a five-pound, $50 beauty that gives new meaning to the word comprehensive.

It, too, is an encyclopedia. Fond of artemisias? Perry lists five, with photographs. Ceanothus? Fourteen, including a lengthy introduction, with 35 color photographs.

He lists everything from ground covers to fruit trees and natives.

Since his major focus is drought-tolerant plants, Perry, a professor of landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, spends many pages on water, its use, its conservation.

He lists estimated water needs for plants, arranged by type (trees, vines, palms, etc.) and further broken down by area, from Northern Coastal to High Deserts.

Perry also lists groups of plants--trees, shrubs and vines, ground covers, perennials and accents--with the same basic requirements, so you can design a drought-tolerant garden and know that all of the plants will thrive in the same spot.

He calls these groupings "associations"--the Eucalyptus camaldulensis association, which does well in the San Fernando Valley, includes Phormium tenax , oleander and several more eucalyptuses.

Perry's self-published book is sold at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia and at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, but ordinary bookstores don't carry it. You can order it by sending a check for $59 (made out to Land Design Publishing), which includes tax and shipping, to Land Design Publishing, 409 Harvard Ave., Claremont CA 91711.

The Books:

Sunset's "Western Garden Book" (Sunset Publishing Corp., $19.99 softcover, $25.95 hardcover.)

"The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses," by John Greenlee. (Rodale, $29.95.)

"Gardener's Guide to California Wildflowers" by Kevin Connelly. (Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, $12.95.)

"Landscape Plants for Western Regions," by Bob Perry. (Land Design Publishing, $59 by mail.)

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