Books Offer Fresh Eye on Gardening Authors Delve into Philosophy, Artistry, History

Article excerpt

In the dead of winter, I had time to shovel through the new garden books piled up under my desk, and here are the ones I couldn't put down.

"The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning" by Julie Moir Messervy (Little, Brown, 1995, $35), looks at garden design with an Eastern-trained eye. Messervy, who has a degree in architecture, went to Japan more than 20 years ago to sign on as the first woman apprentice in a traditional landscape design firm in Kyoto.

She sees the world as a garden, be it the vista from a hike in the mountains or the ripples made by a stone skipping across a quiet pond. She talks about the archetypes of gardens and invites gardeners to plumb their memories for the most affecting moments and places, and then to create a garden that elicits those feelings.

She tells of one shy client who walked around his yard until he found a corner with the kind of canopy and view and light that reminded him somehow of the nooks and crannies he had sought out as a child. There he built a terrace for daydreaming and rest. For someone else, it might be a little magic glade or the trickling sound of water.

"Elements of Garden Design," by Joe Eck (Henry Holt, 1996, $22.50), is a collection of short, pithy essays that contemplate the essence of what makes a good garden. Eck, who gardens in southern Vermont, devotes solid, intense attention to singular things.

In his essay on shape, for instance, he points out the profoundly simple truth: "Plants make their most forceful contribution to a garden not through their flowers, or even through their foliage, but through their shapes." Some plants, like roses, he goes on, have decidedly unpleasing shapes, which are tolerated for their blooms. But then he considers Fothergilla gardenii, "whose many stems, whimsically crooked, never seem congested."

He's also right about lilacs, which are lovely to smell, of course, but their best feature is their wood: "gaunt, stern and sinuous, mottled with patches of white and crusted with lichens."

The eye longs for shape, he says, be it as simple as a wild dark green juniper rising out of a sea of heather. And when your eye is pleased, stop and ask yourself, "What makes this work?" It'll be the shape, Eck wagers. And draw it, even if you can't draw. You'll learn something.

"Garden Artistry: Secrets of Designing and Planting a Small Garden," by Helen Dillon (Macmillan/Horticulture, 1995, $35), is one of those rare books in which the gorgeous photographs really tell you something. Dillon, who has gardened for 25 years on less than an acre, a half-hour's walk from downtown Dublin, is an incorrigible plant collector with an artist's eye.

She is also a recordkeeper and can name all 23 alliums she tried to grow, most of which died of root rot. She advises that the best hope for the plant fanatic is a garden with strong lines, so that all those plants can billow and blow against something. …