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Just in Time: Books for Every Green Thumb


Because I work out of a home office, review copies of garden books must wait in my editor's office until I make my weekly trip downtown. And lately they've been piling up like phone books on the front porch--never have I seen so many books on gardening as were published this year.

Unfortunately, most are pretty useless, even misleading, for Californians, but there are a few glorious exceptions, and a few more good or thorough enough that a gardener would relish one as a gift. In the spirit of the coming season, here are a few garden books worth giving that are also new enough not to be in a gardener's library.

My favorite is "California Gardens," by Winifred Starr Dobyns (Allen A. Knoll, (800) 777-7623; $55), originally published in 1931. In refreshing black and white, it shows gardens from the Golden Age of California estates that will send many landscape architects back to the drawing board and bring on hopeless fantasies in gardeners like me with our 50-by-150-foot lots.

"The Country House Garden," by Brent Elliot (Mitchell Beazley; $60), is an equally elegant book filled with large black-and-white photos of old English estates, from the archives of Country Life magazine.

"The Gardens of Versailles," by Pierre-Andre Lablaude (Zwemmer Books; $39.95), examines, in text and illustrations, this most famous of all landscapes.

Also pictorial and historical are two excellent books on local public gardens: "The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington" (Abrams, New York; $35), with a fascinating text by Walter Houk, and "Lotusland" (Allen A. Knoll, Santa Barbara; $59.50), which tells as much about the garden's creator, Madam Ganna Walska, as it does about this paradisiacal garden.

If you like things old, "The Victorian Garden," by Allison Kyle Leopold (Clarkson Potter; $40), is a fun look into gardens past, and "Garden Tools" (Abbeyville Press; 29.95) is a handsome book packed with pictures of antique European garden implements. Completely practical and equally readable is "Down to Earth" by Ron Sissons (Arboretum Press, 813 Creekwood Way, Chula Vista, CA 91913, (619) 482-9648; $30), published and spiral-bound by the author. It's a veritable textbook on gardening in Southern California. There's even a quiz at the end (but don't worry, it's multiple choice). Pay particular attention to all the ways he's found to use newspapers in the garden.

I've been generally unimpressed by series of books that attempt to be encyclopedic, but one series, "The American Garden Guides," has some excellent individual volumes. One is "Tropical Gardening," by the staff of the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami, Fla. (Pantheon Books; $25). There's not much written on tropical and subtropical plants--those with the big leaves or bright flowers--but they are again getting attention from gardeners so this book should be welcome.

Another in the series, "Dry Climate Gardening With Succulents," is by the people at the Huntington and is excellent, and "Water Gardening," by the Denver Botanic Garden, is equally authoritative.

It's been a good year for books on cactuses and succulents, with the most interesting being "Cacti and Succulents in Habitat," by Ken Preston-Mafham (Cassell/Sterling; $19.95, paper). Though an English book, it shows the wild locations where succulents grow, largely in the Americas. The photos of Bolivian cactuses are particularly fascinating.

"Growing Bougainvilleas," by Australian expert Jan Iredell (Cassell/Sterling; $9.95), is from another English series, but this volume must be the only book devoted to bougies.


For the very serious gardener, Timber Press keeps publishing authoritative, no-nonsense books and the latest are "Euphorbias: A Gardeners' Guide," by Roger Turner (Timber Press; $29.95), "Hydrangeas: A Gardeners Guide," by Toni Lawson-Hall and Brian Rothera (Timber Press; $34.95), and "Fuchsias: The Complete Guide," by Edwin Goulding (Timber Press; $34.95). You're not likely to find these at the typical bookstore, but they're available by calling (800) 327-5680.

Those who are trying to grow things naturally will appreciate a few new books on organic gardening. "Good Bugs for Your Garden," by Allison Mia Starcher (Algonquin Books; $10.95), is a little illustrated book perfect as a stocking stuffer. Written and drawn by a Southern Californian, you'll learn about the insects that wear the white hats, like those little bee-like flies that hover near flowers--their larva eat one aphid a minute.

"Dead Snails Leave No Trails," by Loren Nancarrow and Janet Hogan Taylor (Ten Speed Press; $11.95), also Californians, is full of advice for the natural control of pests, including the four-legged kind. One suggestion to discourage gophers, for instance, is to empty used kitty litter down their holes.

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