Glorious results in the summer flower garden, like achievements in other fields, usually come about through a combination of inspiration and perspiration. As garden centers beckon with flower seedlings and the perennial promise of summer splendor, the best of the current crop of garden books offers fresh inspiration and ground-level know-how.
D. H. Lawrence, Henry James and Elizabeth and Robert Browning are among those who have sung the praises of the gardens of Florence, an Italian city better known for its art and architecture. Mary Jane Pool and Alessandro Albrizzi's "The Gardens of Florence" (Rizzoli, $45) showcases nearly three dozen of the region's most spectacular and historical spots, from carefully manicured ancient formal treasures with cascading waterfalls to rooftop terraces and romantically overgrown grounds with ivy-covered follies. Most of the color photos are full-page; some stretch across both pages.
Claude Monet's garden at Giverny is justly famous, but Monet wasn't the only painter to be captivated by the French countryside. Derek Fell's photo-filled "Renoir's Garden" (Simon & Schuster, $30) celebrates the beauty of Les Collettes, the 9-acre estate French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir acquired in 1907.
Renoir spent the last 12 years of his life here painting outdoor scenes, doing studio still lifes of flowers and fruit from the gardens and orchards, and drawing inspiration for flesh tints from the delicate hues of rose petals. "Anything involving the garden needed his approval," writes Mr. Fell. "He liked the grass to grow long so that it formed decorative seed-heads and created special effects with the light; when one of the gardeners asked permission to weed a path, Renoir responded tersely, 'What weeds?' "
The glories of more than 90 public and private theme gardens around the world are showcased in Harry Haralambou and Theodore James Jr.'s "Specialty Gardens" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45).
For the beginning gardener, veteran garden writer Jack Kramer's "The New Gardener's Handbook and Dictionary" (Wiley, $28.50) offers brief descriptions of thousands of popular flowers, trees and shrubs along with basic garden design suggestions and information on choosing, planting and caring for plants. The book also includes information on hardiness zones, plants for shady spots and lists of plant societies.
Most garden books include at least a chapter or two on plants for shady areas, but Ken Druse's beautifully illustrated "The Natural Shade Garden" (Potter, $40) is devoted to shade-tolerant or shade-loving flowers, vines, grasses and ground covers. Among the suggestions: begonias, impatiens, hostas and a variety of wildflowers.
For wildflower enthusiasts or environmentally conscious gardeners curious about native plants, Jim Wilson's "Landscaping with Wildflowers" (Houghton Mifflin, $35) covers the turf on a region-by-region basis in down-to-earth style. Mr. Wilson, genial longtime host of PBS' "The Victory Garden," also shares his experiences with wildflowers on his farm in South Carolina and admits he has made mistakes along the way.
"The most important thing I learned is that trying to design a wildflower garden to look good the first year, especially one that is started late, is a waste of time," Mr. Wilson says.
So get started early and be patient.