A look at some garden books that might prove helpful

Bookstores are full of garden books, and when people ask me to recommend a good basic garden manual, my answer is: There are scads of them out there.

Find something that is in your price range, as most of them cover the basics pretty well. It's when you get past the novice stage of gardening and into diverse interests, as all passionate gardeners do, that book-buying can become pricey and tricky. Fortunately, there are a few garden authors who can be depended upon to deliver bang for the buck.

Michael Dirr is one of them. Holding a Ph.D. in horticulture, the plantsman is the author of several previous garden classics such as "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs," "Hydrangeas for American Gardens" and "Viburnums," all published by Timber Press. His new offering, the magnificent and seriously heavy (7 pounds!) "Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs" (Timber Press, $79.95), is just that.

In his introduction, the plantsman writes: "The garden and nursery worlds have changed dramatically (in the past 10-15 years). Independent garden centers have waned, while Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart and other mega-chains command greater percentages of sales. Be advised that mass merchandisers are actively pursuing new plants to entice customers. ... Testing and trialing for many woody plants are minimal, and marketing supersedes the reality of performance.

"In this tome, I provide the best assessment possible based on testing data, research reports, performance in nurseries and gardens, and evaluations at our breeding company" in Watkinsville, Ga.

It's advice from the master.

And here are two interesting pruning books to consider:

-- "The Art of Creative Pruning: Inventive Ideas for Training and Shaping Trees and Shrubs," by Jake Hobson, (Timber Press, $34.95) is first up.

Don't think topiary, please! Hobson has spent years in the landscaping field, as well as two years working at a traditional nursery in the countryside outside Osaka, Japan, studying Japanese pruning techniques.

He notes that the pruning styles of the East, and Japan in particular, are different from European methods. He hopes that becoming "alert to new possibilities" will give gardeners the gumption to push the envelope on their own properties. The book is lovely as well as thought-provoking.

-- "Pruning & Training: The Definitive Guide to Pruning Trees, Shrubs and Climbers" by Christopher Brickell & David Joyce (Dorling Kindersley, $22.95).

Put out by the American Horticultural Society, this paperback is a great place to find information on how to prune and when to prune, which is not always "when you have the clippers in your hand," as one of my instructors was fond of saying. With photographs and descriptive illustrations, this is a great book at a great price that is sure to be well used.

"The Book of Little Hostas: 200 Small, Very Small and Mini Varieties" by Kathy Guest Shadrack and Michael Shadrack with consultant editor Diana Grenfell (Timber Press, $27.95).

With the advent of diminutive varieties such as "Blue Mouse Ears," the mini-hosta craze was on. Now there are lots of varieties for gardeners to choose from, so many they can be re-categorized as small, very small and mini. The Shadracks, who garden in Western New York and are, of course, "hosta enthusiasts," provide a great introduction to these hardy little gems, which can be used both in beds and in containers.

If you garden, you know that dry shade is a tricky spot to plant successfully. "Planting the Dry Shade Garden: The Best Plants for the Toughest Spot in Your Garden" by Graham Rice (Timber Press, $24.95) is a paperback that can be very helpful when dealing with this dilemma.

Rice holds a degree in horticulture from the Royal Botanic Gardens and also has gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, giving him extra insight.

The plants he lists here include shrubs, climbers, perennials, ground covers, bulbs and annuals.

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