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Perfect plants forperfect places

Mary Cruickshank looks at the latestcrop of books for garden lovers. Gardening is one of our most popular leisure pursuits: who doesn't have their dream garden or spend part of the holiday trying to reach it? Hester Mallin achieved hers on the 23rd floor of an east London tower block. Helicopter pilots would hover in amazement above her tiny garden, which had a bit of everything - even small trees and shrubs.

Mallin's account of her country garden in the sky is one of the fascinating extracts in The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (Virago Pounds 7.99) edited by Deborah Kellaway. Here she joins Mrs Ewing on bedding ("All is fine that is fit") Gertrude Jekyll on colour, Vita Sackville-West on Sissinghurst, Margery Fish on ground cover ("When in doubt plant Geranium endressii"), Beth Chatto on August and a host of other "poets and pedagogues" from the 18th century to the present day. These often tantalizingly brief extracts lead to the library as well as back into the garden.

For dream gardens on a grand scale, Stephen Lacey's Gardens of the National Trust (National Trust Pounds 29.99) is an irresistible tour of 136 historic gardens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own Trust). They span the great ages of garden design: the 17th-century Dutch-style parterres at Ham House and Westbury Court, the classical theme parks of Stowe and Stourhead, Victorian exoticism at Biddulph Grange, and the 20th-century plantsmen's gardens at Hidcote and Sissinghurst.

The photographs are impressive: huge vistas of Blickling Hall and Charlecote Park as well as delicious details of roses at Nymans and peonies at Killerton. They are also eerily uninhabited and there's little evidence of gardening as a continuing activity. These magnificent landscapes are frozen in the past (literally in the case of the icy beauty of Studley Royal), detached from the people who made them and untouched by the 8.5 million visitors who pass through them every year.

Rose-grower Peter Beales visits 33 rose gardens in glorious full bloom and describes them with reverence in Visions of Roses (Little, Brown Pounds 25). Vivian Russell's sensuous photographs almost leap off the page and at each garden Beales profiles two classic roses: 'Gloire de Dijon' and 'Cerise Bouquet' at Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, for example, 'Vanity' and 'Cramoisi Superieur' at Ninfa near Rome.

The Norfolk nursery, Blooms of Bressingham, specialists in conifers, heathers and the island bed, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and the founder, Alan Bloom's 90th birthday. His son, Adrian Bloom's new book, Summer Garden Glory (HarperCollins Pounds 16.99) takes what he calls a "selective trundle" through the summer months in his six-acre garden at Foggy Bottom, finishing with useful notes on year-round colour, drought resistance, planting schemes and a directory.

In Graham Rice's practical The Gardener's Guide to Perennials (Mitchell Beazley Pounds 19.99) technique comes first: planting, feeding, propagating, pest control and so on, making this an excellent book for beginners. The basics are followed by a feast of herbacious borders for large and small gardens and a range of sites and soils. Rice selects more than 750 plants for the Guide's well-illustrated directory; in his Planting Planner (Macmillan Pounds 9. 99) there are hundreds more to choose from. These extensive lists for every garden situation (north facing walls, wind breaks, noise filters etc) and preference should leave no one short of ideas.

No l Kingsbury's The New Perennial Garden (Frances Lincoln Pounds 20) advocates a way of using perennials inspired by William Robinson's The Wild Garden, first published in 1870. The "new" perennial garden is environmentally friendly, labour saving, and requires a lot of space. It is also wonderful to look at: romantic drifts of ox-eye daisies and salvias; shady woodlands with foxgloves and columbines; and aromatic Mediterranean gardens of lavender, myrtle and sage. Planting is in informal groups with no hard borders and the lawn ("that hallmark of suburban civilisation") is replaced by tall grasses and mown pathways.

The New Perennial Garden may leave you dreaming, but Andrew Lawson's The Gardener's Book of Colour (Frances Lincoln Pounds 25) is both inspirational and accessible. Taking colour as the gardener's "most potent weapon", Lawson's beautiful photographs, lucid captions and undogmatic text, demonstrate a multitude of ways in which it can be used. There are ideas for every type of garden or patio: a radiant laburnum arch underplanted with yellow and white wallflowers or a terracotta pot overflowing with burgundy petunias and purple- leaved basil. There are subtle harmonies of soothing pastels as well as dramatic colour shocks like magenta and orange - "the equivalent of a clash of cymbals in a symphony," writes Lawson.

Plants are helpfully listed by colour and season of flowering, and if you're tempted to recreate those sumptuous borders at Ascott or Sissinghurst, or even a small part of them, the planting schemes are here to tell you exactly what you'll need.

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