GARDENING : The Real Dirt

Smaus is The Times' garden editor.

To give a book as a gift to a gardener, it is best to first find out what kind of gardener he or she is. They are not all alike.

If you are a gardener, you already know this and will instantly recognize the various types, and I hope you will forgive the caricatures that follow.

There are, of course, casual gardeners with no particular penchant for anything and no distinguishing marks. They grow marigolds next to roses and don't mind at all the clash of colors and culture.

Mostly they come out in the spring and then aren't seen again at the nursery until the following year. Their yearly purchase: a sack of fertilizer for the lawn, that flat of marigolds, plus some bug spray for the roses. They water everything with thumb clamped over the end of the hose.

These gardeners are frugal sorts (some even mow their own lawns) and for the most part they limit their book purchases to Sunset or Ortho how-to books with price tags of $9.95 or less, so they would be thrilled to receive The Gardens of Southern California, with photographs by Melba Levick and text by Helaine Kaplan Prentice (Chronicle Books: $35).

The gardens referred to all are public ones, so they can visit in person after looking at the lovely photographs (there are no fewer than 25 public gardens to visit between Santa Barbara and San Diego). At the end of the book there are maps that roughly locate the gardens, plus the necessary addresses and phone numbers, visiting days and hours. The text is quite well done and often amusing. Another large group of gardeners is composed of transplants from other climates. They formerly grew peonies and lilacs back home in the East or Midwest and are in need of direction in California's very different climate.

They often read the wrong books, and go further astray. The book they need most is the standard New Sunset Western Garden Book, which describes Western climates, cultural practices and the plants we grow here, in no-nonsense text. But for gift-giving, consider one of these:

The Pacific Horticulture Book of Western Gardening, edited by George Waters and Nora Harlow (David R. Godine: $50), is perhaps the most exiting book of the season, even though all of the material is from past issues of the magazine Pacific Horticulture. This is cutting-edge material, though, since this epicurean magazine is generally far in advance of current gardening trends.

In particular, this book makes the point that we are a Mediterranean climate--not desert, not tropical, not temperate. Actually, every avid West Coast gardener, not just transplants, should have this book; it will elevate anyone to the level of sophisticated horticulturist.

The most surprising book of the season is called The Mediterranean Gardener by Hugo Latymer (Barrons's: $35). This is the first book I have seen that tells how people garden around the Mediterranean sea, and what they grow. It is not specifically about California, but about a sister--and namesake--climate, and as such is very interesting and inspirational. It is fun to see native California plants, such as the ceanothus, called "outstanding" when they are so seldom grown in their own native land.

Gardeners who like nothing better than to get their hands dirty will enjoy Masters of the Victory Garden by Jim Wilson (Little, Brown: $19.95, paper) because it is about really good gardeners and how they grow plants. The transplants among us should ignore the sections on rhododendrons, hostas and peonies, which don't grow here or are darned difficult, but the daylilies, roses, lilies, peppers and other plants mentioned in this book do fine.

A growing group of gardeners sees the yard as part of the overall environment. They are interested in native plants and wildflowers, and would be thrilled to receive Butterfly Gardening, by the Xerces Society (Sierra Club Books: $18.95). This is about butterflies and the plants they use for food, and how to set up a garden that is as attractive to butterflies as Westwood is to teen-agers.

Collectors are quite another group of gardeners and more common than you might think. You probably know one or two of them. To ferret them out, casually ask these simple questions when the opportunity arises: What is your favorite plant? What is your second-favorite plant? If the answer both times is African violets, or cactus, or bromeliads, or orchids, you have uncovered a collector. As a rule, they like one group of plants and have absolutely no interest in any other. They are very difficult to buy books for because they probably already own every one of interest. If you happen to know an orchid collector, however, you might beat him to the bookstore for the brand-new edition of Home Orchid Growing by Rebecca Tyson Northern (Prentice Hall Press: $45), one of the more understandable of orchid books. Here is everything about orchids, from Acallis to Zygostates .

Everybody loves roses, so books on roses have an almost universal appeal. Although there are certainly rose zealots who grow nothing else, they were clearly not the intended audience for The Glory of Roses, with photographs by Christopher Baker (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $50). Author Allen Lacy provides an interesting and amusing text and takes a stab at identifying the various roses in the gorgeous photographs by Baker. But be forewarned: They often go unnamed, which on occasion is quite frustrating if you are looking at a rose you desperately want for your own garden. Never mind; in this case the pictures alone may be worth the price.

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