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Books for the Dog Days of September

September 21, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

In my garden, it takes a while before it gets too hot to work. July is often breezy and August is passable, with plenty of hot days but also days cool enough for a little work.

It is the dog days of September that make me put away the trowel and spade and retreat indoors, or into a hammock in deep shade, with time to read the new books on gardening that have been accumulating on my shelves.

That's in a typical year. This year, it got hot early and stayed that way even on the Westside, so I was glad there were more than a few new books to help pass the time.

I was especially eager to look through "A Book of Salvias" by Betsy Clebsch (Timber Press, $29.95). I could hardly wait to open the book because my garden is rapidly filling with salvias that are too new to be in other books, even the authoritative and weighty Hortus Third. I hadn't a clue how to grow them.

I'm partial to books written by Californians because I figure they know about our distinctly different climate, so unlike that of East Coast or England, where most garden books originate.

Clebsch, who lives in the Santa Cruz area, seems to have grown almost all the salvias. More than 100 are described (and many illustrated), including such newcomers as the towering Salvia confertiflora with its oddly squat burnt orange flowers. Sprays can light up a bouquet.

So can the crisp S. semiatrata, which makes a neat, small shrub with blue flowers that emerge from a violet-magenta calyx so the effect is that of a two-toned, almost iridescent flower spike.

Both are growing in my garden, but this is the first time I could even check the spelling on the nursery labels. She gives a lot more information, of course, including history, habitat, culture--even suggesting other plants to grow with each--for, you see, she has actually grown these plants in California.

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The publisher, Timber Press, has been publishing one fascinating and authoritative book after another. You might not find them in bookstores, so jot down this toll-free number--(800) 327-5680--and request a catalog or order directly.

This year, Timber Press also published "Euphorbias: A Gardeners' Guide" by Roger Turner ($29.95), which fills another void, though not as tightly because the information comes from England. Several euphorbias, especially those with green flowers and leaves, are becoming important parts of a stately state-of-the-craft California border.

"Vireyas" (Timber Press, $19.95) is the first book on these luscious tropical rhododendrons, which may show up at nurseries one of these days because they will grow here. It's by New Zealand authors John Kenyon and Jacqueline Walker. "The Succulent Garden" (Timber Press, $19.95) is by another Australian, Yvonne Cave. Timber Press, in Portland, Ore., also published books on irises, cyclamen and ivies this year.

Californian Carole Saville's "Exotic Herbs" (Henry Holt, $35) fills yet another, ever-widening gap in the literature. Saville has a large herb garden off Mulholland Highway where she's been growing, for use in her kitchen, all the new herbs that are appearing on nursery benches.

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Here I found the first mention (actually 2 1/2 pages' worth) of the Cuban oregano that suddenly appeared at my local Armstrong nursery one weekend. Mexican oregano also gets covered, in two parts, because there are two kinds. I found information on the "African Blue" basil, a hybrid that she says actually came from Athens--Ohio, that is.

In my garden, this basil's a winner, making a neat year-round bush that I occasionally prune back. The prunings can be used in the kitchen, and the flowers are enjoyed by all as they have truly lovely spikes that rate them a spot in the frontyard amid roses and perennials.

The basil's blooming next to Orthosipon labiatus, another fragrant new plant that I still can't find in any book. Right now, at the very end of summer, it is covered with stunning spires of light lavender flowers, and the whole plant is vaguely mint-like.

"Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden" by Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman (Little, Brown, $29.95) departs from my norm. It isn't quite as useful, being English, but it is informative--fascinating even--and fun for those who have read the 20 mystery novels about this fictitious medieval herbalist monk and detective.

Heirloom tomatoes have been hot news this summer, with many available for the first time as plants at nurseries, but there are many other old-time vegetables available as seed. William Woys Weaver, who maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection in Pennsylvania and who lists vintage seeds in the Seed Savers Exchange, has written the first helpful book on the subject, "Heirloom Vegetable Gardening" (Henry Holt, $45). You'll have to do some translating to make all his wisdom work in California, but there's information on several hundred kinds.

Smith & Hawkin, garden purveyors, have launched a series of books on gardening called "The Hands-On Gardener," and several are by Californians.

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