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Tulips, Great Gardeners & Definitive Designs; Books That Any Plant Lover Will Treasure

Books given as holiday gifts should have two things in common; they should be wonderful to look at and helpful to read. Here are three that were remarkably easy for me to choose.

Let's begin with "Lessons from the Great Gardeners" by Matthew Biggs (University of Chicago Press; 2016; cover price: $30.) I love books that are divided into lots of tidy sections so that you can pick them up, read a complete section in ten minutes and then get back to things like imploring your rosemary plants to stay alive over the winter.

The book is filled with the wisdom of gardening pioneers, including Thomas Jefferson, who advocated succession planting, the value of curved pathways ("they slow progress, encouraging visitors to slow down and look at what is growing around them") and the value of native plants, which, he explained, "are more suited to the environment, less prone to pests and disease and generally more robust."

We now move the bound-in book ribbon (a perfect touch for a gift book) to the section on Claude Monet, who, although better known for his impressions of ornamental plants, was rightly proud of the vegetable garden he built to feed his family. "My salon was the barn", he wrote, and he is said to have dug potatoes with Renoir. (Lord, would I have liked to see that super-hero Team-Up!) Included in his valuable advice was to plant densely to prevent weeds; to have something in flower at all times; and to visit flower shows for inspiration.

Of course, we also have the great Gertrude Jekyll, who many consider to the best garden designer of all time. "There is no spot of ground, however bare or ugly", she wrote, "that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight".

My favorite piece, however, may be on Jacques Majorelle, who created both a famous shade of blue and a paradise of a garden in Marrakech, wisely built on an oasis. Although the frogs sometimes drove him to distraction, he wrote, "Never underestimate the importance of sound in the garden--frogs croaking, [birds singing], the rustle of leaves, the hum of insects and the trickle of water all add another dimension [that] soothes the senses."

We move on to "The Tulip", a massive (400 pg) landmark work by the wonderful Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury/St. Martin's Press 1999; cover price: $40). With the sub-title "The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad", this one will never leave my personal library. Highlighted by beautiful period prints (one of which, from 1590, shows a yellow tulip with the curious companions of larkspur, a scorpion and an earwig), Anna reveals how the trade in tulips began in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds and how a tulip colorfully 'adorned' by a virus became so popular it inspired "Tulipmania", where single specimens traded hands for the price of a house.

Trade in tulips was so frenzied, she explains, that it inspired the modern stock market, including the first crash, when people realized that maybe a house was a better investment than a diseased flower.

In the book, we follow the first bulbs along the route of the spice trade from rugged mountains in Russia and Afghanistan to Europe, and eventually to America. Anna was a guest on my radio show two decades ago; the words of wisdom she shared with me then included the great advice not to plant annual flowers over top of a tulip bed because 'watering and feeding of the flowers will rot the bulbs below.' (Is that why you can't get your tulips to reliably return?) Anna's personal answer was to dig her bulbs up after the leaves had lost their green and store them inside for replanting in the Fall.

Side note just for GA readers: I adore Anna Pavord, as will you if you read any of her books. Wikipedia tells me that The Tulip was re-released a few years ago, and their story of her life reminds me of just how much of an inspiration she has been for me. Read it here:

Finally, we have "The Essential Garden Design Notebook" by Rosemary Alexander (Timber Press 2004; cover price $14.95). Another oldie but goodie, this book answers all the questions I generally dodge, like how to make a site survey of your land before you install a garden; designing useful patterns and grids; understanding the space you will work with; how to have a realistic idea of how much light the space gets; horizontal elements; vertical elements; and the Periodic Table of Elements (okay--that one's not in the book).

There are literally hundreds of pages on garden design here, from rough sketches and ideas to the final install. Perplexing ideas are explained, like "mood boards" and "Axonometric projections" (spellcheck knew that word; that makes one of us!).

All seriousness aside, this book consists of what many of you tell me you want an "ap" for. Think of this book as an 'ap' that's on paper, because it covers every topic AP-propriately.


One of the most frequent questions I receive is "how do I accurately measure the amount of sun my space gets?" Don't ask me because I don't know--but Rosemary does and tells you exactly how to measure both the amount of summer and winter sun; and how to gauge the amount of wind your plants will have to deal with--and how to modify it if it's too much.

There must be over a thousand brilliant ideas about garden design here, from the overall layout to structures and beyond. I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

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