Any gardener knows that creating an earthly paradise takes planning, muscle and a little help from Mother Nature. But for Nan and George Freemont, who became celebrated winners of a gardening contest in Norman Draper's laugh-out-loud debut novel, "Backyard," it takes money, merlot and managing some very eccentric neighbors. Now, in "Front Yard," the Freemonts need all of this and more as they transform the rest of their property into a horticultural showpiece.

As the Freemonts work garden magic, the beauty of their landscape stirs mixed — and ultimately out-of-control — feelings in gardening rival Dr. Phyllis Sproot. Draper is at his best when he gives Sproot depth by showing her able to appreciate beauty before her profound envy takes over, with wild results.

The plot thickens when local historian Miss Price uses subterfuge and even tunneling to try to get her hands on a "priceless" treasure rumored to be buried on the Freemont property. Also keen to unearth it are two dishonest artifact hunters and a professor who hopes the find will crown his academic career. Meanwhile, garden fairies seem to manifest themselves in the form of blue light, and spells cast on the garden appear to produce a plague of ravenous slugs and destructive frogs and toads.

Occasionally Draper's imagination seems overfertile as he piles on the antics. But he uses humor like vermiculite to lighten the plot, a mystery element to deepen it and plant descriptions to enrich it. The result is a fast-paced farce that's bound to keep green thumbs turning the pages.

Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic, garden columnist and the author of "Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery."