March 2008

Fresh spring plantings to spruce up your garden

By Marianne Lipanovich
By Stafford Cliff
By Barbara Pleasant
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Learn to Garden: A Practical Introduction to Gardening opens with a pair of chapters titled "The Garden You Want" and "The Garden You've Got," and can equip the new gardener with the skills needed to transform the one into the other. There are answers to questions a novice might be terribly curious about but afraid to ask: Why in the world is she tipping that nursery plant upside down to look at what's inside the pot? Why did he pick this plant instead of that one? How do I plant this tree now that I've brought it home? The book's how-to photo spreads are particularly welcome. Pruning, for example, is often a daunting business even for gardeners with experience. I like the way a series about thinning an overgrown shrub shows a newly vigorous plant in the final "after" shot; it's reassuring to see that it all can come out well in the end. Although revised for North America, Learn to Garden retains its native British accent. Think of it as putting a U.K.-trained expert at the reader's disposal.

Sunset's Big Book of Garden Designs by Marianne Lipanovich offers a fine mix of show and tell. Photographs, watercolor-style illustrations and color-coded planting maps work together with compact commentaries on the designs and annotations to the garden plans. Those notes include plot measurements, plant names and the number of each variety required – all the information you'd need to recreate a design just as the book presents it. But you don't have to stop there. The designs are also well suited to be a springboard for your own reinterpretations of them. That adaptability makes the Big Book of Garden Designs useful for both the newcomer in search of straightforward guidance and the experienced plantsman or plantswoman able to ring the changes on a design.

There are few quicker ways to make garden writers cranky than to heap praises on the lovely illustrations that accompany a piece they've written, especially if they didn't even have a hand in composing the captions. With Stafford Cliff's 1000 Garden Ideas: The Best of Everything in a Visual Sourcebook, though, we probably needn't worry about upsetting the author and book designer by privileging the pictures. The hundreds of photographs here, which depict multiple versions of almost any garden element you could imagine, were taken in gardens around the world, nearly all of them by the designer's own camera. That gives the project a remarkable coherence; in spite of its size, this collection couldn't be farther from the jumble of images you might find searching online for ideas for your garden. It's a visual education merely to think through one of Cliff's layouts – added value to a fabulous wish book. I dare you to look a page and not point and say, "That one, please."

If you think compost is what happens in that pile around the back, Barbara Pleasant and Deborah Martin would like you to reconsider. They're out to encourage you to blend "gardening" and "composting" so thoroughly that the distinction between the two vanishes. The Complete Compost Gardening Guide glories in the details – where to get good sawdust and coffee grounds, the pluses and minuses of a whole range of animal manures, what plants grow best in what sorts of compost – as it provides countless tips for making and using compost in dozens of different ways. Even if you don't sign up for the whole composting lifestyle, there's enough good information here for any gardener to extract a crop of wisdom.

Kelly Seaman will soon be searching for signs of spring in her New Hampshire garden.

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