Right now I'm missing my garden. At the moment it is a bare scene, the color sucked out of it, the dry reeds of last year's fennel rattling in the wind. I came across a photograph I took last April, when I first planted up my little space. The greenness of it all so many sprouts, such happy little boxwoods. It was like finding a baby picture when your child is a teenager when was this ever real? As winter grinds to its end, the solace of seed and plant catalogs is great. But when I see a catalog photo of an impossibly bloomy shrub rose, I wonder a) did they glue extra blossoms on there? and b) how could I ever get such a thing to grow like that in my own garden? This is why I prefer books as my preseason warm-up: at least these folks aren't trying to sell me something. Seen in a book, that same bloomy shrub rose becomes not a tarty come-on but a noble goal, a specimen that any patient and well-intentioned gardener can nurture to its rightful destiny.

A number of exciting new books are full of noble goals for the patient gardener. And there's a good one for the impatient gardener, too.

Inspiration If you don't know who P. Allen Smith is, you haven't been watching enough TV. This soft-voiced Southern gardener is a gentle antidote to Martha Stewart, and his syndicated show and frequent spots on the Weather Channel and CBS reveal a guy who seems, above all, unpretentious and friendly. Probably grows tomatoes at home, you think when you see him. But when you see his new book, you realize it's like someone saying he likes eggs, and you glance up to see a dozen FabergŽs on the mantelpiece. Smith is downhome, but he is thinking big, too.

It is a treat to read P. Allen Smith's Garden Home: Creating a Garden for Everyday Living (Clarkson Potter, $29.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0609609327). Read this book for the author's overarching principle: to think of the space outside your home as an extension of the home, not as a swath of lawn to mow. Use that space to create areas that blur the distinction between inside and out, and create outdoor spaces for the things you love to do: cook, relax, play with children, entertain. This notion of garden "rooms" is quite English and quite ancient, so Smith provides photographs of long-established gardens both English and American that make his case in a lovely way. His own gardens provide the core of the illustrations, and they are amazing. There is much here for those of us without giant landscaping budgets or huge yards: practical advice on choosing plants, a wealth of ideas for adding privacy and an overall message that we should think about our yards in a new way. All is delivered in a sophisticated, elegant book design.

Another new book to get you thinking fresh is Garden Color (Better Homes and Gardens, $19.95, 192 pages, ISBN 0696215349). Just about every gardener has a place, by a front door or a porch, where the main goal is vibrant color. This book takes you through the color wheel, exploring color theory in the garden and showing in dozens of photographs plant combinations that will make color explode in your garden. In that sturdy Better Homes and Gardens way, the focus is on plants that are widely available and easy to grow. Every plant ever grown Well, not quite. But something very special for gardeners is going on in American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants ∧ Flowers, Christopher Brickell and Trevor Cole, editors-in-chief (DK, $60, 720 pages, ISBN 0789489937). There are a number of comprehensive plant encyclopedias out there (Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening has been my favorite), but they tend to be arranged alphabetically. The AHS Encyclopedia arranges plants by color, size and type. This Plant Selector system is a godsend for the gardener trying to fill a gap in a garden ("I need a small yellow perennial blooming early spring") or someone who forgot the name of the plant she saw at the garden center ("It was a white climber"). But that's not all. In addition to the full-color Plant Selector, the Plant Dictionary covers 8,000 plants, which is a help when you return from the garden center chanting "lamium, lamium" and can't remember what it is.

There is a reason some books cost $60. (The proofreading bill alone on this thing had to be wicked.) But the results are worth it: a rich resource for the gardener who is ready to move beyond flats of pansies and start thinking about the enormous world of plants. I will be using this book often this spring.

Practicality And then there's the real world, where those flats of pansies sit for a while on the back porch, reproachful every time I pass them. Not a noble sight at all. It is impossible to do everything I'd like to do in my garden, but I would be miserable without it. Joanna Smith understands this dilemma, and she is full of ideas in The One-Hour Garden: How You Can Have a No-Fuss, No-Work Garden. The title, of course, is a tease the only no-work garden is a paved garden. What's helpful about this book is the notion of time management. Smith spends most of the book evaluating the time and trouble required for various garden elements and plants, which is not how many gardeners approach their garden planning. She's anti-lawn, anti-weeding and pro-gravel, and she encourages careful thought about soil conditions, light and moisture. This book will take more than an hour to read, which will put you a week behind on your garden. But Smith shoehorns a ton of information into this colorful volume, with lots of quick lists, short how-tos and hints. This book will save time for every gardener, even the ones who like a high-fuss, tons-of-work garden. Small pleasures Finally, there is good news for anyone who doesn't have access to a yard. Rosemary McCreary is a prolific garden book author, and her newest volume brings the idea of landscaping inside. Tabletop Gardens (Storey, $27.50, 160 pages, ISBN 1580174663) is not your average houseplant book. A single plant placed with care becomes a sculpture. A glass globe becomes a child's fairy-tale garden. Flowering bulbs and forsythia branches turn into a centerpiece garden. McCreary isn't one to plop a ficus in a corner and be done; the lovely color photographs prove that a tabletop garden can be a fascinating indoor environment. Cactus, grasses, climbing vines and bromeliads are all on her list of unusual ways to decorate with living plants, and her plant lists and care information make it all seem quite simple. Even if you do have an acre of perennials and a topiary garden, Tabletop Gardens is an inspiration. Sometimes, thinking small can be the most noble goal of all. Ann Shayne is a former editor of BookPage.

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