10 DECEMBER 1988, Page 36

Gardening Books

Finest of the three main species

Victoria Glendinning

Every season throws up new varieties and cultivars of the three main species of popular gardening book. The most showy species is Very Grand Gardens; the photo- graphs are generally the point here, often affording the extra bonus of Very Grand Houses. Since the same famous gardens get endlessly recycled, varieties of this have to go down-market towards Only Fairly Grand Gardens, with subdivisions such as this season's The English Vicarage Garden (introduced by 'Miss Read', no named author, Michael Joseph/Pilot, £12.95, pp.160) and Diana Saville's Gar- dens For Small Country Houses (Viking, £14.95, pp.195). Some characteristics of Grand Gardens books can be grafted on to the second category, which is How To Do It, and this sometimes overlaps with the third, which is How I Did It.

How I Did It books often verge on the self-indulgent — not hardy, and deciduous. But it's a How I Did It book that is this year's overall winner. Beth Chatto's Gar- den Notebook (Dent, £14.95, pp.304) is the one all gardeners want this Christmas, and it will be an evergreen. This is a book not to look at (though it has pleasant line drawings) but to read; it is Beth Chatto's diary of one year's work at her Unusual Plants nursery in Essex. It's a real diary, in that she does not only write about plants but about her family, holidays, foreign students, friends, clothes and food. She worries in print about a grandson in hospital, and about finding the best formu- lae for potting-composts. She is frank about her opinions — she does not share, for example, the craze for more and more named varieties of hosta, many of which look much the same `even when the differences have been pointed out to you'.

Mrs Chatto is clearly a gifted cook; she includes recipes and menus of meals made from her own fruit and vegetables, which seem if anything closer to her heart than her ornamental plants. The book is full of variegated information, such as how to get juice off a white tablecloth, how long you can keep different kinds of seeds before they lose their power to germinate, how to tell whether a young foxglove plant will have white or purple flowers, and why you shouldn't pinch the tips off cuttings. Her year is dominated by the anxious excitement of preparing for the Chelsea Flower Show, which comes, inconvenient- ly, at the very busiest time. It is disturbing for her and disturbing for the plants who go with her. The way she minimises their trauma is to disturb their roots gratuitously at intervals in the preceding weeks, so that the shock of moving them up to London on the day is not so unexpected. (I wonder if that would work with people.) She shares her back-stage nerves and back-stage gos- sip, which will make her readers look at the exhibits next year with new and sympathe- tic eyes. One unexpected hazard is that thrushes and blackbirds get into the tent and pick moss from the stands to make nests in the exhibitors' shrubs. `By the end of the show, eggs are laid.'

Another major annual labour is the collecting up and packaging of thousands of plants for postal customers. 'Our motto is: do not pack anything you would not be pleased to unpack yourself.' Her customers will know how carefully it is done, and it's just as well, since the Post Office is capable of separating two consignments posted simultaneously to the same address (mine), and delivering one ten days after the other.

The Grand Gardens book of the season is Penelope Hobhouse's Garden Style (Windward/Frances Lincoln, £16.95, pp.216), which also has an autobiographic- al dimension in that the author is describ- ing gardens which she has known well over the years, in some of which — Hadspen, Tintinhull — her own genius has become the presiding one. There is a strong West of England bias, since that is her own territory, but there are also gardens epito- mising characteristic styles from Califor- nia, France and Italy. This book, lushly illustrated by many different photo- graphers, is mostly about spacious gardens designed and developed in traditional styles by dedicated experts who have de- veloped a 'handwriting'. This kind of thing, for the rest of us, can bring either inspira- tion or discouragement, depending on temperament.

The best How To Do It book, The Conran Beginner's Guide to Gardening by Stefan Buczacki (Conran Octopus, £12.95, pp.192) is sheer inspiration. It's designed, as the title indicates, for the first-time gardener, but the artwork is so clear and the writing so sensible, tolerant and en- couraging that the book would be a shot in the arm for the weariest veteran. Buczacki acknowledges that looking at well- established and successful gardens can make the beginner feel 'downhearted'; he therefore makes everything seem irresist- ibly interesting and even easy (if you do what he says). He suggests you envisage the mixed border as a chessboard — with king, queen and castles in their places, to be shifted with greater or lesser difficulty, and pawns (annual plants) jumping about wherever necessary. His ideas for what you can do with climbing and whippy plants on posts-and-wires are uniquely imaginative.

Reading Buczacki in an armchair is a tense business, as his commitment and urgency — 'No sooner do you turn over the spadeful of soil than things begin to hap- pen' — communicates itself to the muscles. It's hard to stay put. This book is mainly about processes, though there is a short list of recommended plants. To complement it, also from Conran Octopus, consult Anne Scott-James's personal choice of The Best Plants for Your Garden (£14.95, pp.160) which is predictably reliable, well- bred and attractive. But remember Buc- zacki's assertion that any combination of plants is possible, not only those with the gardening gurus' seal of approval; and the possibilities are 'limitless'.