Fill Your Bookshelves with Great Garden Designs

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Texas gardeners experienced a revolution over the course of the past two decades and much of the change can be credited to a pioneering group of writers. We used to rant and rave about gardening books for and by Yankees, but during the nineteen-eighties, Neil Sperry, Jill Nokes, Sally Wasowski, and William Welch provided the sound advice and plant know how that Texans craved. In recent years, Scott Ogden has added his eloquent voice and Howard Garrett has led the organic charge. Still, when I peruse most gardeners' bookshelves I find something lacking- books about garden design.

Most gardeners come to the question of design backwards. That is, we fall in love with plants and treat our yards as if they were Noah's Ark, only to discover that after the deluge, comes the mess. I'm as guilty as anyone else, I crammed so many plants into my first "garden" that you needed a machete just to step outside the door. Fortunately, good books about garden design are easy to find now, so you need not repeat my mistakes. Spend a little time with any of these wonderful books, and you will be glad that you planted with a plan.

Penelope Hobhouse is the Grande Dame of garden design writers. Anglophobes may have a hard time getting past her name and the fact that she counts the royal family among her clients, but this deceptively down to earth English woman writes with style and grace and her books are all beautifully illustrated. Her design aesthetic is grounded in the classical school, but that does not translate to elitist or snobby. Good design is a universal language, it can be spoken with either a British or Texas accent. Hobhouse may design gardens for the absolutely fabulous, but her ideas can inspire even the most laid back Austin gardener.

I have many of Hobhouse's books on my shelf. My favorites include: Penelope Hobhouse's Garden Designs, which features a breath taking Austin garden; Garden Style, with its outstanding section on garden structure; and for those more inclined to the native and natural, Penelope Hobhouse's Natural Planting. These books are all readily available in local bookstores and on the internet.

A recent addition to my library is Peter McHoy's, The Complete Garden Planner. This affordable little book is billed as a "practical handbook" and it delivers. McHoy covers all of the design bases, from classical to the oriental, and he does so with style. I especially appreciate the way that the text, photographs, and plans are coordinated throughout the book. If you are on a limited budget, and need help getting started, The Complete Garden Planner is an ideal choice. While I did not see the book on a recent trip to my favorite bookstore, I know that you can order it on-line.

Inside Out, Relating Garden to House, by Page Dickey is another recent addition to my collection. This book emphasizes the connection between interior and outdoor spaces. Two Austin gardens are featured in this very handsome book, which should be reason enough to pique your curiosity. Regardless of location, however, all of the gardens highlighted by Dickey offer important lessons on design. In fact, I stole an idea from one of the local gardens in this book when it came time to design my own garden. Published just last year, Inside Out is widely available.

One of the first design books that I purchased, Beds and Borders, Traditional and Original Garden Designs, by Wendy Murphy, made a profound impact on my design sensibilities. This book helped me make the transition from plant collector to gardener. Its emphasis on structure and its rich photographs of formal gardens guided me towards a new understanding of what I wanted from my own garden. When purchased as a paperback this is a relatively inexpensive book. I'd recommend searching for Beds and Borders on the web.

My favorite design book is The Inward Garden- Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, by Julie Moir Messervy. A journey down this garden path will result not only in a "place of beauty," but also, in heightened self-awareness. I have likened Messervy's approach to Jungian gardening, she advocates developing your own personal aesthetic, one drawn from the deep well of your memories and dreams. This book steers us towards what I call "The Soul of the Garden." I recommend it to anyone who views gardening as a spiritual exercise. I have seen the book at several stores recently and know that it is available on-line.

Nearly twenty years ago, Texas gardeners made the great leap forward waving the little green books of our homegrown writers. The revolution won't be complete, however, until we wed our newfound knowledge about which plants work for Texas with great designs. The books listed here may not be homegrown, but their ideas are strong enough to take root in even the toughest Texas soils.

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