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Five books for the restless gardener

Adrian Higgins
The Washington Post

This year’s holiday season offers a festive distraction from the workaday woes of life in a recession, but for gardeners December brings its own, happy diversion. Ten days hence, the solstice will start the slow conquest of light over dark. The depths of winter lie ahead, but the lengthening days point to the spring and rebirth in the garden.

January is the month to procure seeds, make cold frames and work the soil, if you can. But the next few weeks offer the only real downtime for green-blooded gardeners, along with a moment to broaden our knowledge and draw inspiration. That’s why books ” tactile, navigable, portable ” remain welcomed gifts in this multimedia age. Dozens of titles cross my desk each fall, but here are five that would keep me going contentedly till the snowdrops stir.

“William Robinson: The Wild Gardener,” by Richard Bisgrove (Frances Lincoln, $60). Robinson is not a household name, but he is one of the most influential gardeners in history. More than 70 years after he died, his ideas of gardening resonate in domestic landscapes in temperate zones around the world. He championed the ideas of border plantings of hardy perennials, and of informal gardens that sought to harmonize with nature, not compete with it. These notions have come to define how we garden today.

No movement has momentum without targets, and Robinson famously railed against the prevailing Victorian mania for bedding annuals and the sterility of formal, architectural gardens.

Robinson was an opinionated and irascible visionary ” in short, a great subject for a book ” and Bisgrove finds lots of entertaining material in voluminous writings in a career that spanned decades.

Robinson (1838-1935) set forth his principles in two key books. “The Wild Garden,” which espoused the transformation of weedy edges of the garden into meadows, woodland, etc., was first published in 1870 and still in print in 1928. The second, “The English Flower Garden,” advised the relaxed form of planting throughout one’s garden and was in print from 1883 to 1956.

In “Plant-Driven Design,” by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden (Timber Press, $34.95), the authors argue that too many gardens today are designed by professionals lacking an understanding of the plant world.

As veteran horticulturists and designers, the Ogdens make an argument that is compelling. “You can’t have a garden without gardening,” they write. “And you aren’t likely to do very well designing one without getting your hands dirty. This is because gardens change over time. The gardenmaker becomes both author and editor, entering a relationship of observation, enjoyment and thoughtful intervention.”

This book is full of inspiring pictures of garden plant communities: plants for containers, perennials that still look good after the flowers fade, the orchard floored with daffodils, herbaceous foundation plantings. The authors also offer sophisticated plant lists that will have even seasoned gardeners Googling away.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has published a handsome book on the quaint annuals, vines, herbs and perennials that brought cheer ” and healing ” to Colonial settlers. It is called “Flowers and Herbs of Early America,” by Lawrence D. Griffith (co-published with Yale University Press, $50).

Basically cottage garden plants from the New and Old worlds, they all have a humble honesty about them, drawn out in the lovely photographic portraits by Barbara Temple Lombardi. I can’t wait to get seed of some of them to try myself. The ragged robin is a lychnis with delicate and highly dissected pink flowers. Its cousin, the Maltese cross, grows up to four feet and is topped with scarlet blooms.

“Listening to Stone,” by Dan Snow (Artisan, $23.95). Snow, from Vermont, is a master with stones. His work at times rises to the level of land art you associate with British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

I love well-crafted stone walls, especially in an appropriately rural setting. When they are assembled well, the walls take on an organic quality. They certainly speak to Snow, who has spent many hours meditating on the meaning of stone as he goes about his work. “A dry stone wall,” he writes, “is both a human work framed by nature, and a work of nature touched by humanity.”

Readers will have their own favorite projects featured in the book. One of his earlier works remains to me the most special, a simple stone pen used as a vegetable garden. This rectangle of stone, 100 yards long in total, took him three months to build. As with his favorite projects, he harvested the stone from the remnants of old field walls on the property.

My last book choice is achingly practical, thick and spiral-bound. It’s the new and updated manual that the University of Maryland extension service uses to teach master gardeners. The Master Gardener Handbook is not cheap, at $69. But it is a comprehensive and well-illustrated manual that covers just about everything you need to know about growing turf, ornamentals, fruits and vegetables, etc., and diagnosing the pests and diseases that visit us from time to time. To order, click on http://www.mastergardener.umd.edu/Handbook.cfm.