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A HARVEST OF GARDENING BOOKS FOR THE GREEN THUMB

Change just one word in a line from the favorite Christmas poem of all time -- " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" -- and the answer is there as to what to give a gardener for Christmas.

"And visions of GARDENS danced through their heads."

Those visions and many, many more are there for beginner or longtime gardeners to see in the virtual flood of gardening books now available in the book stores.

Many are tantalizing, with breathtaking colored photographs of gardens that many readers may never create in their back yards, but look closely and almost always, there may be one element that fits into the less than exotic and professionally landscaped garden.

There are also books that are simply wonderful to read and look at even if you don't garden . . . much as people who don't cook enjoy reading cookbooks.

And with winter closing in and gardens put to bed, there isn't a gardener alive who isn't thinking about next spring and will thoroughly enjoy receiving a gardening book to curl up with in front of the fireplace.

Best of all, there is a stack of books out there dealing with every aspect of gardening, from how to grow plants to how to build a shed to how to decorate your garden with that rusted, antique pot holder or weathervane purchased at a yard sale.

A few suggestions:

Taylor's Guide to Growing North America's Favorite Plants by Barbara Ellis, Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116, $35, hardcover, 342 pages.

This is a must for the new or less experienced gardener and a great reference book for the experienced gardener who has questions also.

The focus is on ornamental plants -- perennials, annuals, flower trees, shrubs and vines -- where they will grow, how they grow, how to care for them and photos of what they should look like.

Unlike many gardening how-to books, this one truly will "guide" the gardener from the time the plant is put into the ground to caring for it through the summer, how to divide it in the fall, what pests or bugs it is vulnerable to and how to protect it from the winter cold.

Ellis gives a quick snapshot of each ornamental flower, so right off the gardener will know whether that pretty flower in the picture will actually have a chance of being duplicated in his or her garden. She even helps you pronounce its proper name.

Example: How many times have you heard someone stumble over astilbe?

Ellis spells out -- uh-STILL-bee. "Late spring to summer bloom. Shade to sun. Zones 4 to 8." and then launches into a detailed explanation of everything needed to be known about this wonderful favorite with its feathery plumes of many colors that can reach upward to 3 feet and more.

The Gardener's Atlas by Dr. John Grimshaw, Firefly Books Ltd., 4 Daybreak Lane, Westport, Ct. 06880, $29.95, hardcover, 224 pages.

A perfect gift for the armchair gardener as well as the active gardener, it's a "documentary" of the origins, discovery and cultivation of the world's most popular garden plants.

It includes 300 full color maps, botanical color prints and full-cover photographs and illustrations.

It is not a gardening manual but rather the fascinating tale of how plants evolved.

The lucky gardener who receives this book can impress friends with the history of the rose, describing how people have been trying to cultivate the perfect rose for almost 4,000 years when it was started in the eastern Mediterranean or the Near East.

The roses were brought to northern Europe by Crusaders from the gardens of Damascus. In England, a civil war was named after them -- the War of the Roses. The rival factions chose roses as their emblems: white for the House of York and red for the House of Lancaster.

Who knew that delphinium means "little dolphin," from the curved spur on the flowers of wild species which resembles a leaping dolphin? Sadly, that interesting little feature has been hybridized out of most of today's delphinium cultivars.

This book is not only informative, it is just plain fun.

Decorating Your Garden by Pat Ross, Time Life Books, 2000 Duke St., Alexandria, VA., $34.95, hardcover, 237 pages.

Pat Ross, who has appeared on many television shows, first earned her stripes writing and talking about lifestyles, designs and entertaining and now, she is bringing her indoor talents outdoors.

"After all," she writes, "garden spaces are simply rooms without walls."

Just recently, another gardening book came across the desk including a novel idea -- the use of mirrors in the garden.

Ross uses mirrors in some of the garden rooms she has designed.

"Mirrors are magical," she writes. "They magnify a scattering of lilies or allow a reflective view of a hidden statue.

Her outdoor "art galleries" include objects obviously expensive to something as inexpensive -- if you happen to run across it at a country flea market -- as a rusty wagon wheel frame.

Ross suggests you "become a patron of the arts" and then adds: "Signed and dated pieces can complement a garden just as they would a home. Make sure the piece is discreetly chained or very heavy."

Shaker Medicinal Herbs by Amy Bess Miller, Storey Books, Schoolhouse Road, Pownal, VT. 05261, $35, hardcover, 215 pages.

The Shakers were the first people in the United States to produce herbs on a scale large enough to supply the pharmaceutical market. After coming to the New World and encountering new and unfamiliar herbs in the fields and meadows around their communities, they drew upon the plant knowledge of the Native Americans.

This book travels back to those early days with detailed explanations of what herbs they gathered and what ailments they relieved, how they processed the herbs, their almanacs and their catalogs.

The book ends with 60 pages of an alphabetized herbal compendium of more than 300 plants, shrubs and trees the Shakers used medicinally.

Something new and different

A great stocking stuffer mixes gardening with mystery. "Death of a Political Plant" with the subtitle of "Political Dirt Can Bury You."

It's a Bantam Books paperback by Ann Ripley and costs $5.99.

An old flame of heroine, Louise Eldridge -- a TV gardening celebrity from Washington's suburban Sylvan Valley -- turns up in her neighbor's ornamental fish pond. Louise decides to find out what her old flame, who is an investigative journalist, is up to. Soon Louise is digging up enough dirt to uproot some of Washington's top players.

Along with her digging, she dishes out a lot of gardening tips.

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