Garden Variety
Top books on horticulture.
Saturday, May 13, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. "The Well-Designed Mixed Garden" by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (Timber Press, 2003).
Tracy DiSabato-Aust, a daring master gardener, weds an intimate knowledge of horticulture to a brilliant design sense in this treatise on "building beds and borders with trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs." The ideal, she says, is to achieve "a more natural feel" that approximates nature and to get away from the traditional approach that deploys, say, annual salvias "marching like bright red soldiers." The book is richly illustrated with photos and how-to design diagrams, and it brims with useful information, including a plant-hardiness-zone map and the author's exhaustive advice on the lifetime care of plants. But most fascinating is her analysis of plant combinations and how they can go from "gas station banal" to something extraordinary.
2. "Pioneers of American Landscape Design" by Charles A. Birnbaum and Robin Karson (McGraw-Hill, 2000).
In its profiles of more than 160 of the country's most influential garden artists, this remarkable book combines horticulture, history, commerce, aesthetics and engineering. The profiles provide cogent analyses of the work that these men and women did for public gardens, cemeteries, botanic gardens and other sites. And there are memorable details at every turn--as when we learn that Stanley Abbott, who shaped the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains, aspired to create what he called a "museum of managed American countryside." From Thomas Jefferson--a devoted horticulturist--to Florence Yoch, who designed many of the magnificent gardens for the elite of old Hollywood, these portraits in creativity make an irresistible, very American story.
3. "The Passion for Gardening" by Ken Druse (Clarkson Potter, 2003).
[/BK-5ID]Anyone who has ever drooled over spring gardening catalogs is likely to appreciate Ken Druse's heartfelt response to the 10 superb gardens he writes about in "The Passion for Gardening." He has an easy manner as he walks us through a Japanese-inspired garden on the West Coast, the 35-acre Chanticleer public garden in Philadelphia ("a paradise in progress") and other little Edens. But don't be deceived: Mr. Druse is on a serious mission. He is an advocate for better stewardship of the land and for the nurturing influence that working with soil and plants can have on our lives beyond the garden walls.
4. "Wildflowers in the Field and Forest" by Steven Clemants and Carol Gracie (Oxford, 2006).
In addition to being the most comprehensive field guide for the northeastern U.S. and Canada, this is an eminently practical book of advice on the cultivation of native plants, both for gardens and for the benefit of wildlife. Discussing nearly 1,500 species of native and naturalized wildflowers, the book offers photos, maps and text conveniently positioned on facing pages, along with brief, easy-to-follow plant descriptions. The authors, both scientists, bring a thoroughgoing expertise to their love of native habitats, providing a perspective that dedicated gardeners should relish.
5. "The Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan (Random House, 2001)
With wit and charm, Michael Pollan posits a revolutionary way of looking at man's relationship to the world of nature and plants. Arguing compellingly, he proposes that plants domesticated humans in much the way we think we've domesticated them--i.e., in a mutually beneficial arrangement. He makes his case by considering four plants--the apple, tulip, cannabis and potato--selected, Mr. Pollan explains, because they represent four "important classifications of domesticated plants" that satisfy some of our most basic desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. A talented raconteur as well as a learned authority on this subject, Mr. Pollan has written a book that exerts an intoxication all its own.
Ms. Lavin, a garden writer and landscape designer, is the director of public affairs for Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York.

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