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Peas and Peonies Can Make Perfect Bedfellows

The world is divided into two types of people, said satirist Max Beerbohm: hosts and guests.

All right for an urban dandy to say. But he missed a more earthy split: between neatnik landscape gardeners and messy vegetable gardeners.

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You're shocked. Surely your vegetable garden isn't messy, you say. Look how neatly the lettuce and beets march down their rows. How uniformly rise the mounds around the leeks. How well caged the wandering tomatoes. How erect the pole beans and straight the kiwi arbor.

If so, you already have a miniature Versailles potager (royal kitchen garden), and you're dismissed from further reading of this column or these books.

For the rest of you - and this reviewer - there remains a problem to be solved: How to have a pleasure garden (an aesthetically pleasing slice of tamed nature that enhances your house), but also the taste benefit of home-raised peas and corn picked just nine minutes before cooking.

Just as farming long ago civilized the hunter-gatherer, Joy Larkcom and Mary Tonetti Dorra propose to civilize the urban and suburban backyard farm.

Look at the spectacular photos in their books and you can see that beauty and home food production are not inevitably contradictory.

Though the two books' aims are the same, their approaches differ. Joy Larkcom's Creative Vegetable Gardening: Accenting Your Vegetables With Flowers (Abbeville Press, 208 pp., $23), while showing a sophisticated design eye, is loaded with how-to practicality.

Mary Dorra's Beautiful American Vegetable Gardens (Clarkson Potter, 192 pp., $40) veers more in the direction of ideas for people who have a gardener. It shows her roots as a writer for House Beautiful, HG, and Gourmet magazines by producing a glamour tour of 24 American gardens.

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Ms. Larkcom includes detailed garden bed plans, with corresponding photos to show how a marriage of vegetables, bushes, and perennials turns out in real life. She adds brisk instructions on how to construct soft and hard paths, how to use dwarf hedging for beds; how to construct arches, when to use raised beds; how to pleasingly mix vegetables in flower beds and bulbs in vegetable beds. Plus mini-lessons on espaliered fruit trees, edible flowers, green manures, mulching, composting, and even practical tips on curbing land-gobbling squash and melons.

For anyone who has ever said, "My garden looks like my six-year-old's missing teeth because I'm pulling carrots and cutting lettuce every day," there's a welcome treatise on how to manage a cut-and-come-again seedling bed.

Included also is an excellent A -to-Z list of superior vegetable and fruit selections. It's not as exhaustive as a comb-the-world seed catalogue. But most gardeners will appreciate the selectivity.

Three other matters need to be mentioned.

1. Joy Larkcom is British. Usually that raises concern among the North American dirty knee crowd that plant selection and horticulture techniques will not match the extreme vagaries of continental climate. Fear not. Ms. Larkcom has toured US and Canadian gardens in many climate zones and adapted her advice accordingly.

2. Mary Dorra's forte is showing us how some noted gardeners (and the gardeners' gardeners) do it. But she does include practical tips from each garden's owners.

3.Neither book delves as much as it ought into some genuinely aesthetic edible landscaping touches. For example, use of such evergreen ground covers as lingonberries, mountain cranberries, certain huckleberries, and (deciduous) lowbush blueberries to underplant rhododendrons and laurels. Or the landscape/culinary virtues of glossy-leaved American and Asian persimmon trees; edible bamboos; black currants for hedges; daylily leaves as greens, as well as buds for stir frying; and fiddlehead ferns for woodsy underplanting and spring greens.

A recommendation: Cross reference Joy Larkcom's knowledgeable book with Rosalind Creasy's classic "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping," (Sierra Club).

* Earl Foell is the Monitor's chief editorial writer.

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