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Theory and Practice For Seekers Of a Garden Refuge

THE INWARD GARDEN: CREATING A PLACE OF BEAUTY AND MEANING By Julie Moir Messervy. Photographs by Sam Abell; Little, Brown & Co., 256 pp., $35. THE GARDEN MAKERS: THE GREAT TRADITION OF GARDEN DESIGN FROM 1600 TO THE PRESENT DAY By George Plumptre; Random House, 240 pp., $30. BEATRIX: THE GARDENING LIFE OF BEATRIX JONES FARRAND 1872-1959 By Jane Brown; Viking, 252 pp., $50. BEST BORDERS By Tony Lord; Viking, 144 pp., $30. THE GARDENER'S COMPANION By Christopher Brickell; Crown, 240 pp., $30.

ONE would think, judging from the current batch of gardening books, that no horticulture expert in England is left to cultivate gardens - they're all out writing books.

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Authors George Plumptre, Jane Brown, Christopher Brickell, and Tony Lord form the gardening equivalent of a British invasion. This quartet, with the addition of American Julie Moir Messervy, provides a two-pronged exploration of gardens: the philosophical approach and the hands-on one.

Much has been written about the late-20th-century search for solace and private space. But today more than ever, gardens are seen as extensions of their owners' personalities and their desires to create a haven. Each of these books addresses this desire and the impulse to design an outdoor space as carefully as one furnishes the interior of a home.

The most touchy-feely example is Messervy's The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning. I was skeptical of the New Age-ish lingo into which she drifts, such as ``Deep within each one of us lies a garden. An intensely personal place, this landscape grows from a rich blend of ingredients - imagination, memory, character, and dreams - that combine in wonderful ways in our innermost selves.'' But after I got over wondering why her editor let her get away with such phrases, Messervy's ideas began to win me over. Nowhere else have I read as good an explanation of why people are attracted by, and return to, certain archetypal landscapes throughout their lives.

The author studied traditional Japanese landscape techniques near Kyoto and absorbed the culture and influence of Zen Buddhism, so her approach to nature is from the inner mental landscape to the outer physical one, as she herself writes in the book.

Messervy points out that people gravitate toward sites that speak to their inner needs, whether these include the sea (submersion), caves and harbors (enclosure and safety), islands (solitude), or open sky (transcendence). I discovered that I am a combination of ``mountain'' and ``promontory'' person - the landscapes that draw me nearly always include a high perch or lookout.

These attractions can influence everything from the choice of a house to a preferred vacation spot. Of course, it is possible

to take this too seriously. But Messervy, who's now a landscape designer in Massachusetts, is convinced that, by knowing the environments in which her clients feel most at home, she can create a garden that means more than a mere accumulation of plants and trees.

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The varying personal approaches of 70 landscape designers are sketched out in a superb history, The Garden Makers: The Great Tradition of Garden Design From 1600 to the Present Day. Author George Plumptre, who admits to a strong prejudice in favor of English designers, presents a subjective view of 400 years of gardening. Legendary horticulturalists and designers from John Tradescant to Gertrude Jekyll are represented, but the Americans get short shrift, with the exception of statesmen-farmers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and professional designers Frederic Law Olmsted and Beatrix Farrand.

The photos of American projects are remarkably few: Where, for example, are pictures of Olmsted's amazing commission for New York's Central Park or Boston's Emerald Necklace chain of parks? Still the book is a handy reference, a Who's Who of British and American garden designers.

To satisfy a deeper curiosity about American designers, one needs Beatrix: The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1872-1959, by Jane Brown. It's a thorough look at the woman who created Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, the Rockefeller garden at Seal Harbor, Maine, and designs for the campuses of Yale and Princeton Universities.

Farrand came from a wealthy old New York family (her aunt was Edith Wharton), and her influential acquaintances included Henry James and John Singer Sargent. Brown's book is a reminder of the grand literary tradition behind garden writing: Wharton's book ``Italian Villas and Gardens'' was partly responsible for the American interest in Italian gardens.

Farrand comes across as a gifted and persistent designer, succeeding in a field that included few women. Her plans, reproduced here, are marvels of draftsmanship, imagination, and authority.

For the practical gardener, two titles stand out for more earthbound advice, and both have sterling English pedigrees: Best Borders and The Gardener's Companion.

The border book is an English garden lover's dream. In it, the author looks at specific border plantings of famous gardens and explains concepts, color schemes, and cultivation. Accompanying the text are photographs so lavish that they are almost exhausting to look at: flower beds in raging bloom, cottages hidden behind an artful tangle of vines, and topiary clipped within an inch of its life. Some readers might find the gardens a bit overdone, not to mention labor-intensive, but ``Best Borders'' typifies the style that made England's reputation.

``The Gardener's Companion'' concerns itself with individual plants and their characteristics, a relief after the overabundance of ``Best Borders.'' The descriptions and accompanying photographs come together in a pleasant, well-organized catalog of botanicals, with emphasis on shrubs and plants that provide more than one season of good looks.

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