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Gardening book worms ... Five titles for the holiday gift list

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "Great Gardens of Brittain," a swirling landscape in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in southern Scotland, which is open to the public just one day a year
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "American Grown," Michelle Obama shows off a sweet potato to students from the Bancroft School in Washington, D.C., who have been working on the White House garden.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "Williamsburg Vegetables," seedling melons are protected in a hoop house.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens," the waterfall in the Giles Rhodedendron Garden
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "Coastal Maine "Botanical Gardens," children sniff the herbs in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>From the book "The Unexpected House Plant," sempervivums (succulents) grow in a stone planter.

A book about gardening is a fabulous holiday gift for any serious or novice gardener.

Over the years I have amassed a huge library of garden books, some of them review copies, some self-indulgent purchases, but most of them gifts from family and friends. Last year I started to divest part of my library and this year I vowed I wouldn’t purchase any new books.

Somehow, however, I managed to add to my overflowing bookshelves. And I love finding new books at the Jones Library, its Munson branch, or via the wonderful invention of interlibrary loan. Here are five I recommend as holiday gifts.

∎ “American Grown: A Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America” (National Park Service, Crown Publishers) by first lady Michelle Obama isn’t a “how to garden” book. It’s a “why to garden” book. Obama became enthusiastic about vegetable gardening when her pediatrician warned her she needed to improve her children’s diet. When they moved into the White House in 2009, the first lady was determined to start a kitchen garden, not only to feed her family but also to act as an inspiration for families across the country. Chicago-born Obama was hardly an expert on growing vegetables but she was able to call upon true experts to help design and construct a large vegetable garden.

From the beginning she involved local schoolchildren, many of whom had no idea where tomatoes, collards or broccoli originated except at the grocery store.

Obama learned alongside the children. This beautiful book should be an inspiration to all families to grow a pot of tomatoes on the balcony, dig up the backyard for a full-scale vegetable garden, rent a community-garden plot or help establish a food garden at their children’s school.

The book includes stories from community and school gardens around the country as well as a thumbnail history of other gardens at the White House. There is plenty of practical information and a dozen inviting recipes at the back as well as a good resource list and bibliography.

Michelle Obama deserves credit for raising the visibility of vegetable gardens and the importance of good, fresh food and exercise for children and adults of all ages.

∎ Perhaps a more practical guide to vegetable gardening, however, is “Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners” (Rodale) by Wesley Greene.

When Williamsburg was founded, the settlers had to grow their own vegetables and fruits — or starve. They generally used European methods and European seeds but they also learned from Native Americans how to grow “new” vegetables like squash, beans, corn and tomatoes. Long-ago methods such as tomato tables and using wax and lime to deter squash borer are fascinating examples of Williamsburg gardening. Each chapter includes a list of 18th-century varieties along with modern organic seeds.

The section called “The Williamsburg Gardener’s Assistant” outlines how to grow specific vegetables. If your menus have been limited to tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas and lettuce you will learn about formerly popular vegetables like skirret and salsify. This attractive and informative book should inspire you to try something new as well as something old.

∎ Come January all gardeners will be pining for a touch of green. Traditional houseplants include ever-blooming African violets and cast-iron Boston ferns.

Tovah Martin prefers more unconventional specimens. She got her start at Logee’s Greenhouse, the famous tropical houseplant nursery in Connecticut, and has gone on to a fantastic career as a garden writer and lecturer. Her new book, “The Unexpected Houseplant: 220 Extraordinary Choices for Every Spot in Your Home” (Timber Press), provides an incredible array of unusual plants for growing indoors. Take conifers, for instance. When Martin failed to find time to get an end-of-season bargain ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypress into the ground, she simply brought it inside for the winter. She wrote, “It changed my world.

That started a whole spate of experimentation with conifers.” Since they need good light indoors, she raises their large pots to windowsill level on stools or other unconventional risers and keeps them inside until spring in an east window.

Not only does Martin use unusual plants indoors, she scrounges up unique containers, each one absolutely perfect for the plant. Terra cotta pots with flared rims, eared handles or wine-glass stems mix with colorful crackleglaze ceramics and tin French florist vases.

In an innovative chapter titled “Garden Preview,” she explains how to grow spring-blooming plants like columbine, drumstick primrose (not the supermarket type), bleeding heart and tiarella indoors in late winter to jump-start the season. Martin’s book makes one look very differently at the whole houseplant phenomenon. It isn’t so much a practical guide about potting soils, fertilizer and careful watering as a challenge to think outside the box when trying to bring the outside inside for the dreary winter months.

∎ Another way to escape winter is to travel. You can simply drive a short distance to one of the local academic greenhouses or you can plan a spring, summer or fall getaway to Maine or England.

As readers of this column will recall I fell in love with the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay this past summer. Its new guidebook, “Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: A People’s Garden,” by William Cullina, Dorothy Freeman and Barbara Hill Freeman (Down East), wasn’t yet available in late June but I knew I wanted it. A friend who was visiting the botanical garden later in the summer kindly picked up a copy for me. I’ve been lending it to friends ever since.

The photography is gorgeous and the writing is excellent. Unless you live near Boothbay or are willing to drive 10 hours round-trip once a month you will never see the gardens in all seasons as they are shown in this wonderful guide. The book is available by mail from the garden or the publisher and at selected bookstores. If you are planning a pilgrimage there I highly recommend getting the guidebook ahead of time so you can plan your visit wisely. Even in four hours in June I only saw half of the gardens and had no time to stroll on the woodland trails. This is a true garden gem with a guidebook worthy of its beauty.

∎ English gardens have always been a mecca for me and I own far too many books about them. So I vowed only to borrow such books from the library. “Great Gardens of Britain” (Frances Lincoln Ltd.) by Helena Attlee made me break my vow.

After borrowing it twice from the Jones Library, I made it my souvenir from a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens this fall. The book includes the “usual suspects”: Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Stourhead and Hidcote. But it introduced me to some intriguing new places. Most prominent is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in southern Scotland where Charles Jencks and the late Maggie Keswick carved an incredible landscape using heavy-duty earth-moving equipment. The whole garden is a fantastic sculpture dotted with stunning statuary, stonework and graceful lakes.

Among the metal sculptures is a double helix. This garden isn’t about flowers. It’s about shapes and scientific ideas. Attlee writes, “... this is one of the most exciting, intellectually demanding and aesthetically challenging gardens of our time.”

Other beckoning gardens described in the book include Beth Chatto’s nursery and display gardens in Essex and the Alnwick Garden, designed for the Duchess of Northumberland by a Belgian team, which is now the third most-visited garden in England, after Kew and Wisley. It is more of a holiday place appealing to children who are allowed to run through the fountains and picnic on the lawns. On a massive scale, it may take years to mature completely (it was started in 1996), but it is a prime attraction in northern England — and it has flowers. The photographs in this book are stunning and the author makes you want to jump on a plane (perhaps not in December) and visit every one of the 20 marvelous gardens she describes from Cornwall to Ireland to Scotland.

Years ago a friend who was an excellent gardener scoffed at the idea of purchasing new books on gardening. She felt everything had been written that needed to be written. I’m sorry; she was wrong. Every year there are dozens of excellent garden books available to appeal to every kind of gardener. Browse at your local bookstore and something will jump off the shelves as the perfect gift.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

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