Books about the nuts and bolts of gardening--how to prepare the soil, what to plant, what pest is that--must, of necessity, be written by local authors.
Our alkaline soils are unlike anything in the East or South or even the Northwest. What we grow can't be grown in most of the country. Even our bugs tend to be specific to this climate.
"Landscape Plants for Western Regions" by Bob Perry (Land Design Publishing, Claremont: $50) is the kind of book we need, full of plants we can actually grow, from acacias to yuccas--over 650 trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials and vines.
Perry is a Claremont landscape architect, the designer of the handsome drought-tolerant garden around the Lummis House and a professor at Cal Poly Pomona.
In his designs, he practices what he preaches, so this book has much practical knowledge. And, it is profusely illustrated, with well over 1,000 color photographs of plants, which are listed in an encyclopedic fashion.
The plants he chooses are all on the cutting edge of California design, part of a new wave that seeks to use plants that are "appropriate." That is, they are at home, aesthetically and culturally, in our special climate, though not necessarily native to it.
The introductory chapters deal with this climate and how plants fit into our unique environment. He looks at contemporary issues such as water-saving, green waste and wildlife benefit, and there are a number of useful checklists that compare water use and other characteristics.
Like several other books mentioned here, you will have a hard time finding this at an ordinary bookstore, but it is available directly from the publisher. Write to Land Design Publishing at 409 Harvard Ave., Claremont, Calif. 91711.
The most exciting thing happening in gardens right now is the inclusion of ornamental grasses and by far the best reference for all these new plants is "The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" by Pomona nurseryman John Greenlee (Rodale Press: $29.95).
Every serious gardener should have this book, which lists and illustrates over 250 graceful grasses. If you stumble onto Sesleria autumnalis , or autumn moor grass, at the local nursery, this is just about the only book that will tell you how to grow it, or use it.
You'll discover that this new grass will tolerate our alkaline soils (it's native to northern Italy), that it stays green year-round and even stands some shade--just the thing for a spare little meadow in the speckled sunlight under an Aleppo pine.
Greenlee probably has more experience growing grasses (his nursery specializes in them) than anyone around, certainly in California.
If you want to find out where his nursery is, look for "Taylor's Guide to Specialty Nurseries" by Barbara Barton (Houghton Mifflen: $16.95). Greenlee Nursery will be found in the chapter called "Grasses: Ornamental." There you'll find a description, address and phone number, plus information on their catalogue and how to visit.
Barton provides similar information on some 300 other specialty nurseries that sell "the plants you can't find anywhere else" through the mail. Find your favorites, order catalogues now, and you will be able to get plants in time for the fall planting season just ahead.
Be aware that this book lists nurseries from all over the country and that a lot of the plants mentioned won't grow here.
If you're wondering what's eating your petunias or tomatoes, by all means look at "Insects of the Los Angeles Basin" by the late Charles L. Hogue (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: $27.95, paper), former curator of entomology at the Museum of Natural History. You might find this at local bookstores, but it is also available at the museum bookstore, or at the Page or Burbank Museum.
This book is also full of color illustrations and, browsing though it, you are sure to find many familiar friends and a few enemies.
And if you don't know friend from foe in the garden, Hogue helps out by describing just what an insect does around the house or in the garden, whether it eats plants or things in the pantry, or other insects.
I discovered that what I thought was a threatening inch-long, black wasp was in fact a harmless, but fascinating Window Fly. One finally held still long enough for me to find him on Page 251.
On Page 299, I found a picture of a beetle with bright orange body parts that I've always wondered about (so do entomologists, it turns out); on Pages 295-297, you'll see that there are indeed more than one kind of ladybug (six are shown); and on Page 362 you'll discover what those daddy long-legs do (they eat pill bugs, among other things; classify them as "friends").
The book includes 430 species of "common or conspicuous insects," plus 70 species of spiders, ticks, mites and other non-insects. Only a handful of these could actually be considered pests. You will not find controls in this book, because this is more of a field guide than a book on garden pests, but the first step is always identifying a potential pest, because often they aren't.
For instance, if you've been growing the handsome bronze anise that nurseries have been selling this year, you may have spotted the larva or chrysalis of the anise swallowtail, a gorgeous butterfly whose larva can eat all the anise they want in my garden.