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Before You Dig It, Design It

Two recent books may help make your garden a showpiece

When Candide retired after experiencing the horrors of his world, he turned to cultivating his garden.

That's all Voltaire tells us about his famous fictional hero. No explanation of how Candide acquired his garden. Or who designed it.

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There's more than a bit of Candide in many of us gardeners. We grab a few plants that happen to look good at the moment at the local nursery, or in some color-enhanced catalogue photo. And then we cultivate.

Beware of that approach.

Design first. Get the bones right - the paths, steps, terraces, retaining walls, and hedges. Notice where, and how long the sun falls on an area. Plant screens to fend off winds.

Then and only then start to research what plants belong where in this scheme. Start with hardiness, soil preference, moisture need; then height, width, branch shape; leaf color, shape, and texture. Move on to juxtapositions of blossom colors, sometimes subtle, sometimes a jolt to the retina.

"But if I take all those steps in order," I hear you complain, "I'll never get to cultivating, let alone appreciating my garden."

Fair point. That's where already-packaged-for-selection design ideas come in. If you can afford it, the one-stop solution is to hire a landscape architect.

Next step down the cost ladder: Buy or borrow books showing the work of a noted designer. That could be someone as grand as Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of some of the most spacious natural gardens in America. Or it could be any one of dozens of smaller garden designers such as Penelope Hobhouse.

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There is, though, still another way. It lies halfway between: Obtain a good, general source of landscape principles and ideas, and put together from it a package that fits your site, house style, and personal tastes.

Two big media companies have produced the latest of such general collections of ideas. Both are excellent compendia. For the price of a potted bush or two you can buy the advice in either of these works and avoid costly mistakes.

I slightly prefer the basic organization and architectural design savvy of "Ideas for Your Garden" (Reader's Digest, 335 pp., $30), but feel the photographic examples in "The Big Book of Flower Gardening" (Time Life Books, 384 pp., $24.95) show more aesthetic sophistication.

Unlike some books assembled by publishing staffs rather than single authors, both of these lavishly illustrated instruction manuals are clearly written, with a single authoritative voice. In short, they know what they are doing.

If you're starting from scratch to landscape or re-landscape a house, you may find "Ideas for Your Garden" more useful because it tends to integrate the "bones" - both masonry and trees and bushes - into the planning from the beginning.

"The Big Book of Flower Gardening," true to its title, spares only one short sample of its many helpful plant selection charts for trees and bushes. The rest are for annuals, perennials, bulbs, roses - the cosmetics, not the bones - of a comprehensive garden plan.

When it comes to nitty-gritty advice - how to select the right plant, how to divide perennials, how to plant bulbs among major tree roots, selecting companion plants that look good together and share the same sun/soil/moisture needs - both works abound in practical ideas.

They also contain quite sophisticated plant lists, passing what I call the prunus mume (flowering apricot) and arisaema sikokianum (Japanese jack-in-the-pulpit) test for gems.

Both groups of editors sprinkle brief, useful shortcuts throughout their texts. The Time Life crew ends with an encyclopedia of selected plants. The Reader's Digest crew serves up short sidebars on such subjects as the architectural shape of specific trees, and patterns in stone and brick. If you can squeeze the budget you may want both. If not, go for the "Ideas" book.

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