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Plant Life Valerie Easton

The Fall Crop

Good reads on everything from rain gardens to rediscovered reliables

For gardeners, if no one else,a great joy of autumn is the return of the rains. But if this fall and winter are anything like last, we'll have more water pounding down than our parched gardens are able to soak up. And perhaps more time to read. Some good choices:

"Rain Gardens: Managing Water Sustainably in the Garden and Designed Landscape" by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden (Timber Press, $34.95) is more readable than the somewhat clunky title suggests. It's also the first comprehensive guide to water management for home gardeners. Here are practical solutions to rainwater runoff, from green-roofed garden sheds to swales and ponds. Many are as simple as rain chains and catch basins, most are refreshingly non-technical. The authors are Brits, so many of the photos are from Europe, where they seem to be ahead of us on this concept. Dramatically planted bogs, solar sculptures powering water pumps, and sidewalk storm water planters convince us that managing water can be attractive as well as environmentally sound.

"How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table" (Houghton Mifflin, $27). Written by Los Angeles Times food columnist Russ Parsons, this is one of my favorite books of the year. Now, when farmers markets are overflowing with harvest bounty, is an ideal time to read this engaging manifesto on eating locally and seasonally. Learn tips for cooking perfect risotto, how to shell fava beans, and what fruits and vegetables are best refrigerated and which aren't.

Dozens of mouth-watering recipes — including heirloom-tomato tart and cherry-almond cobbler — keep you reading about how vegetables and fruit are grown, harvested and transported. Parsons writes, "Persimmons may be perplexing, but figs are downright kinky," before going on to demystify both, along with a recipe for fig-honey gelato. If this book doesn't turn you into a more conscious gardener and eater, nothing will.

"Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers" by Nancy J. Ondra (Storey Publishing, $24.95) is hands down the most beautiful of this book group. Through page after gorgeous page of photos so richly textural you can't help but touch the paper, Ondra explores the glories and possibilities of foliage plants. The subtitle says it all for a book that may actually change our gardening lives by turning us into foliage worshippers. At the very least, I bet you'll plant an agave, sedums and a few more heucheras after absorbing Ondra's lessons on combining showy foliages.

"Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season" (Timber Press, $39.95). When you pick up Michael Dirr's book you'll wonder why there aren't more books on these most garden-worthy shrubs. At least if there's just a single book devoted to viburnums, it's brand new and written by a renowned plantsman. Dirr may well stir up a resurgence of viburnums, from the dependable old V. davidii with glistening blue berries to the highly fragrant, winter-blooming Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn.' Too often we think of viburnums only as gangly snowball bushes (V. plicatum), when in fact that shrub has a host of far more handsome relatives, all described in Dirr's book. What's missing is a chart showing the best viburnums for winter flower, autumn color, screening, small gardens, etc. Maybe in the second edition?

"Complete Hydrangeas" by Glyn Church (Firefly Books, $24.95). Ever since I admired a Hydrangea paniculata drooping its creamy flower cones down the sides of a tall urn, I've been collecting various ways to use hydrangeas in the garden, and this pretty book offers plenty. More than 200 species and hybrids fill the pages, from newer dwarf kinds like H. macrophylla 'Hobella' to unusual climbing hydrangeas vigorous enough to scale tall trees. Church is a New Zealand nurseryman who specializes in hydrangeas, and generously shares his knowledge on companion plantings, pruning, drying and turning blossoms blue. My favorite chapter is "Hydrangeas In and Around the House" which is, after all, the great pleasure of these newly fashionable, old-fashioned shrubs.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is