by Ann M. Colford

August is the month when gardeners get to enjoy the benefits of all that hard work earlier in the season. Vegetables produce like mad and the midsummer flowers bloom wildly. Given the recent heat and lack of rain, watering remains a constant concern, and it's a time when the weeds flourish as well as their more desirable brethren. But overall, the height of summer lets gardeners ease up a bit and take some time to savor the beauty and bounty all around.

So what does a gardener do to relax? How about reading a good book - about gardening? Storey Books in tiny North Adams, Massachusetts, just released The Flower Gardener's Bible, a book that's sure to become a standard reference on many a gardener's book shelf. While this book would be the perfect acquisition for someone just delving into the wonderful world of plants, there's enough information inside to keep the most obsessive gardeners happy. Gorgeous full-color photos accompany the tips and facts, making the book a visual joy as well. It would make a wonderful gift for the gardener in your life, but it would also make a great book to read while swinging in the hammock amid the blossoms.

Authors Lewis and Nancy Hill hail from Greensboro, Vermont, where they own and operate a small fruit farm called Berryhill. Between them, they have 75 years of gardening experience and 15 books on topics from daylilies to plant propagation. Their conversational tone keeps the book highly readable for beginners and casual gardeners, while the sheer volume of information will keep people coming back for more details.

The book is structured in three sections, almost like three distinct reference books. Part One covers the basics of flower gardening, from definitions of the various types of flowering plants to designing for color balance. Along the way, the authors demonstrate hands-on techniques for many skills with step-by-step photos. Sidebars and single-page tutorials fill in details like "Latin for gardeners," and "Just what is a bulb?"

The Hills discuss chemical versus organic pest controls and the principles of soil fertility with a straightforward, common-sense style that keeps one's eyes from glazing over. They round out the book's first section with a seasonal checklist of typical garden tasks. On the list for late summer are lots of deadheading and continued weeding, but they recommend you discontinue fertilizing at this time to discourage tender late-season growth.

The middle section of the book, "A Gallery of Gardens," features photos, watercolor illustrations and planting guides for 23 themed garden spaces. Here's where all the basics from Part One are applied. Many of the examples are designed for small spaces or challenging garden spots like hillsides and shady areas. Other chapters show how to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden through plant choices and how to create a tranquil refuge with easy-care plants. This is the section to browse when some inspiration is called for.

Part Three contains entries for dozens of flowering plants listed alphabetically by their botanical names. If you can't remember the Latin name for the Madagascar periwinkle - Catharanthus roseus - just look it up in the exhaustively cross-referenced index at the back. Each entry lists the plant type (bulb, annual, perennial, shrub), the bloom time, the plant's preferred location (full sun, partial shade, moist soil, etc.), propagation techniques and its USDA zone hardiness, along with diseases and pests to which it may be susceptible. The authors have also provided a convenient pronunciation guide for each Latin name, saving neophytes the embarrassment of placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable.

Although the authors live in Vermont, the tips and references are general enough to work for gardeners in just about any climate zone. However, the real wisdom of this book lies in the stories that come out of the authors' years of experience working the soil and caring for plants. They know gardens, but they also know gardeners and their perfectionist tendencies well. On gardening chores, they write, "We've come to recognize that it's important to occasionally stop clipping and weeding and take time to appreciate our handiwork. Happy gardeners notice the flowers as well as the weeds and see the butterflies as well as the slugs."

The Hills' enthusiasm for all things horticultural informs their prose, and if you're new to the world of flower gardens, they'll make wonderful armchair mentors. "A true gardener is always planning, studying, and waiting for the chance to start once again," they write. "Like life itself, gardening's perfect moments come and go, but the constant changes make it unendingly interesting."

Publication date: 08/14/03

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