The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)
I bought this book on impulse.
There was that charming cover with earthen bowls nestling beans and seeds and vegetables, with labels handwritten in pencil. It was April and the urge to put seeds in the ground had become overwhelming, even in the face of a sure spring blizzard and plummeting temperatures. The ground was not warm enough yet on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, so I decided to read about seeds rather than put them out too early.
It was an easy choice, as I admired the author, Janisse Ray. Her memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, published in 1999, opened my eyes to the dying ecosystems of longleaf pine forests that used to cover the Southeastern United States. Ray was able to merge personal narrative and environmental investigation into a tantalizing brew and rightly received plenty of critical attention for that first book. The New York Times declared: “The forests of the Southeast find their Rachel Carson.”
And I loved Janisse Ray’s coming-home memoir, Wild Card Quilt, in which the author returns to her grandmother Beulah’s farm and her childhood hometown to make a life with her young son after many years living far away from home. Ray’s eye for destruction and despair is as unflinching as her determination to preserve a fading culture from extinction.
So reading her newest book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, seemed just the thing to do as I waited for another early spring week to pass before the Front Range growing season began. She had me at the first sentence: “I am standing under the saddest oak tree that ever was.” Ray prefaces the book with a young man’s memorial service, the son of a friend who fell off a balcony to his death while partying with his buddies. As the funeral guests stand there sharing stories in the Florida Panhandle, an offshore rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing millions of gallons of oil into the surrounding waters.
Ray drives home listening to bluegrass music on the radio and hears the lyric: What will you be building when you are called away? What she is building on her southeastern Georgia farm is what she calls “a quiet life of resistance,” the life of “a radical peasant” growing as much of her own food as possible from seeds that have not yet been obliterated or supplanted by the genetically modified varieties that drive the corporate machinery of industrial agriculture in North America.
I have been reading about this stuff for years, ever since Monsanto started suing farmers for patent infringement when their GMO seed was transported by wind and germinated in unsuspecting, neighboring fields. When the heirloom tomato craze emerged a few years back, I grew some purple ones, barely understanding the concept of seed stock or how heirloom varieties were preserved over time. I have followed the growth of organics over the last decade and have watched with interest as people I know turned to saving and trading seeds.
But those people and those things have always seemed, somehow, beyond the reach of an urban gardener with a tiny backyard plot. I couldn’t see what difference it really made if I grabbed any old packet of seed off the rack at Home Depot for my piddling plot of green beans, squash and tomatoes. If I wanted heirlooms or exotic varieties, I would rely on politically correct farmers in the Arkansas Valley to grow them and buy their vegetables at farmers market.
The beauty of The Seed Underground, recently tapped as a winner of the American Horticultural Society’s 2013 Book Award, is that it takes all those conversations about big agriculture and the pioneers of the seed-saving movement and locally grown food and biodiversity, and it makes them as clear and simple as pushing a bean into freshly turned soil. “Seeds may be a small part of life,” says Ray. “But they represent everything else. All our relations.”
Ray makes it clear that we are losing our seeds fast in this country as well as our native plant wisdom. But she also offers clear information on how a home grower can take the first step toward “relearn[ing] the ancient wisdom of the wild garden” and “developing the heirlooms of the future” by saving and trading seeds. Or simply by buying seeds from companies that grow them with an intention of preserving biodiversity.
I learned more reading this book than I have in 25 years of backyard gardening. Now, it’s time to get my hands dirty and get some seed in the ground.
Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantasic Yard Totally Tailored by You by Amanda Thomsen (Storey Publishing, 2012)
The title alone should clue you in pretty quickly that this is not your typical book about gardening and landscaping. Indeed, Amanda Thomsen’s, Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored by You, is a novel approach to Landscaping 101. Most of the information is not necessarily new, but the presentation is quite unique, making it appealing for those who are looking for a book about gardening that is different, fun, and also informative.
Kiss My Aster is a graphic novel as well as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Each page features illustrations by Am I Collective that accompany her writing, and at the end of each section, the reader is presented with the option to skip ahead or back in the book depending on what they would like to learn. A common option is to skip to the section entitled, “Hire a Guy,” for readers who may be feeling overwhelmed at any point in the process.
The scope of this book is broad, briefly covering all aspects of designing, constructing, and maintaining a landscape. The titles of each section are as amusing as the title of the book, including “Not Your Stepping Stone” which is about creating a stone pathway in your garden, “Drip It Good” concerning drip irrigation, “To B&B or Not to B&B” discussing the various ways that trees can be purchased (balled and burlapped, or not), and “Soil, Yourself” which explains the inorganic components of soil. Games like Bingo, Word Find, and Mad Libs appear throughout the book in order to keep the wandering minds of readers entertained.
While the artwork is fun and the information is useful, the humor can be a bit distracting and over the top at times. Still, this book is meant to be useful while simultaneously entertaining, and it accomplishes both well. After all, where else are you going to find illustrations of pink unicorns and tips for warding off vampires while also learning about how to keep your lawn green without the use of synthetic chemicals?
The Haunted Garden: Death and Transfiguration in the Folklore of Plants by Sheryl Humphrey (Sheryl Humphrey, 2012
“Now I shall tell of things that change, new being out of old…” –Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Invocation [Horace Gregory translation]
Some of us are drawn to the mysterious in horticulture—maybe it’s carnivorous plants or sea-creature-like succulents that bring a thrill, or strange fruits and vegetables with surprising colors and unexpected tastes that surprise and delight. Some even enjoy a darker side of plant fascination. Perhaps they visit the saddest of gardens, cemeteries, and see the evergreens and willows, the antique roses, and lichen-covered statuary not as forlorn, but as bewitching and thought-provoking.
If this is you, and if you’re a lover of mythology and legends to boot (we know who we are) this is a book you've been waiting for.
Sheryl Humphrey (a painter who beautifully incorporates the botanical and mysterious into her artwork) explores some of the plant world’s most mesmerizing stories in The Haunted Garden. This self-published book is small (approx. 4” x 7”) but brimming with tales of gods, goddesses, doomed lovers, twists of fate, creation, destruction, and resurrection. Apollo and Daphne, Echo and Narcissus and others are there, joined by Hindu legends, Native American and Scottish folklore, stories from The Bible, and more.
Through tales of transformation, you will learn that plants and humans have been seen throughout the history of humanity as deeply connected, if not one, something we should keep in mind these days.
I also loved that Humphrey brought the book into the present, touching upon modern ecology-minded “green” burials and the dangers of GMOs.
Educational and enchanting, this is the perfect book for an autumn night, preferably with a fire blazing and the full moon shining.
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013)
May I blame Amy Stewart for the slight drinking problem I enjoyed last year?
You see, I had never seriously pondered horticulture as it relates to the magic of alcoholic beverages. That is, until I started reading some of Stewart’s articles about her book-in-the-making, The Drunken Botanist. In her blog GardenRant she shared some articles she’d written for the North Coast Journal. One was a mouth-watering tease about apples in alcoholic beverages (snappy hard ciders, tempting brandies, lip-smacking whiskies). Then there was the tasty post on her “Farmer’s Market” drink, concocted with vodka, fresh tomatoes, celery, cucumber, peppers, cilantro or basil, and tonic water (muddle then steep while you finish garden chores), I also loved her glamorous piece on “literary” summer punches, a trio of recipes in homage to Annie Proulx, Jean Rhys, and Colette. I learned about exotic ingredients such as Lillet (a brand of French aperitif wine, 85% Bordeaux, blended with citrus liqueurs), Velvet Falernum (a liqueur with flavors of lime, almond, vanilla, ginger, and clove), and The King’s Ginger (a ginger liqueur). How romantic it all was!
I became . . . curious (and curious for me often equals obsessed). It didn’t help that a delightful new friend, writer Rebekah Shardy, happened to be a cocktail expert. At our first meeting, she wowed me with a beautiful and aromatic jasmine martini (vanilla vodka, jasmine extract, candied violet for garnish) and last fall she introduced me to a double espresso martini made with Kahlúa and Van Gogh brand (from Holland) double espresso vodka.
I, too, experimented. Last summer I tried a concoction of organic cucumber vodka, ginger beer, and St. Germain liqueur (made with elderflowers) that was divine. In March of this year I got to try a few beverages in Ireland —Bunratty mead (better than mead I’ve tried in the U.S.), Guinness (On tap! It’s true what they say!) and “scrumpy” (a hard apple cider of which the farm-made version is infamous in Britain). With all this experimentation, I grew bigger while my pocketbook grew slimmer.
Then, Stewart’s book came out. The book’s design alone is cause for high praise (fonts, color scheme, gorgeous layouts and illustrations—Rebekah and I, meeting over nonalcoholic coffee one day, went ga ga over it) but its contents are what counts.
While there are plenty of recipes, The Drunken Botanist is mostly about botany, and is it comprehensive! You will be fascinated studying the processes of fermentation and distillation, and learning about the history of the grains, fruit, herbs, spices, flowers, trees, nuts and seeds that have undergone tipsy transformations. Stewart includes with some plants “Grow your Own” pages that explain how to do just that in your own garden.
The expansion of your cultural-horticultural knowledge alone is worth the price of admission. For example, were you aware that the plant that turns up most in alcoholic drinks worldwide is not barley, not grapes, but sorghum? Or how about the tidbit that sugar beets comprise 55% of the sugar produced in the United States? And since all commercial alcohol starts with a mix of cane and beet molasses to raise yeast, all commercial alcohol, therefore, starts, in part, with sugar beets? While Stewart is certainly a connoisseur, and always suggests the finest (often organic) ingredients, I wish she would have mentioned that the vast majority of sugar beets grown in the U.S. are GMOs; something that was eye-opening to me.
In Part Three of The Drunken Botanist, Stewart writes that “A thousand cocktails can be mixed from a kitchen garden.” After reading Parts One and Two of this 380-plus page book, you will not doubt this. Part Three is the gardening section and there are ample “Growing Notes” on the plants that you can produce to create your own drinks, or drink embellishments.
I recommend this comprehensive work highly, for yourself or a mixologist friend, as The Drunken Botanist will be a useful and entertaining treasure for years to come.
Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm by Debra Prinzing (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013)
The author and co-creator of The 50 Mile Bouquet (reviewed last year) returns with the results of an experiment: after writing about locally-grown flowers, Debra Prinzing wondered if it would be possible to create a local bouquet-a-week for her home. She put this to the test, using sources that included her own and friends’ gardens, the wild, and flower farms.
Prinzing admits that at first she wasn’t sure if she could meet the challenge—after all, she was a journalist, not a floral designer. However, she reasoned, she did have a journalist’s passion for soaking up others’ experiences. (I would add she also possesses an artist’s eye, excellent local sources, a healthy budget for bloom buying, and, most importantly, the American can-do attitude.) This book is the inspiring result of those 52 weeks, chronicled with Prinzing’s well-wrought prose and her photography.
The arrangements are gorgeous, from the red and yellow tulips embellished with curly willow and budding Camellia japonica (the camellia from Prinzing’s garden), to the flowering kale and tricolored sage of an understated autumn bouquet. While the majority of the blossoms, berries, branches, and even sedum were grown by professionals, we see arrangements made from the author’s daffodils and summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum), mock orange, bachelor’s buttons, Artemesia absinthium, lady’s mantle, peonies, and more. She also uses her own vases and containers, many of which are vintage American pottery (she writes a bit about that too). The book is sprinkled with excellent tips on caring for and arranging cut ornamentals, with a separate section titled “Earth-Friendly Floral Techniques.”
I had a great time admiring these seasonal bouquets and learning how they were put together, but it would be difficult for the average gardener to get the same results shown in this book. Prinzing has been a gardener for decades (and has, I’m guessing, a mature garden). Her home, in Seattle, is blessed with a mild climate and fertile soil, and locally-grown flowers are now popular and abundant there. And let’s not forget that flower budget. It would be more challenging for the rest of us to duplicate Prinzing’s experiment, but that’s not the point. The point is about possibility—and the author, on that note, delivers a beautiful, fragrant, useful, and inspiring message.
Building Soils Naturally: Innovative Methods for Organic Gardeners by Phil Nauta (Acres USA, 2012)
I was excited to get to read this book. Finally an entire book devoted to organic soil practices and principles. My mother used to say, “There are many ways to make spaghetti sauce but they all start with good tasting tomatoes.” It is somewhat similar with soil. There are some simple principles that are universal. Nauta touches on most of them in this comprehensive study.
However, as I was reading, Nauta made some claims that to me seemed outrageous. The traditional scientific body of knowledge and the known laws of physics are not in agreement with such things as biological transmutation (the plant’s ability to change one element, like potassium into calcium) or “Light is guided down to the root zone along the roots.” In my opinion, he also could have left out the comments on how plants know a storm is coming and “they know how you feel about them.” This soft science, if you can call it that, takes away from what could be a landmark book.
Since there is a good deal of both practical and statistical information it makes it difficult to know how well researched his facts are! I do agree that you need a comprehensive soil nutrient test to determine a practical course of remediation for your farm or backyard garden. That being said, very few gardeners will go down that road (farmers maybe). To Nauta’s credit, the information on organic matter, composting, and microbial inoculants are all important aspects that we should all follow.
I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that you read, compare and contrast it with other organic gardening books, articles, and scientific research.
Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher by Gwen Olson (iUniverse, 2009)
We probably all know someone who is undergoing a drug treatment for a psychiatric disorder; whether it is antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication or stimulants for disorders like ADHD. And while Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher is not directly about gardening or the environment, this book is something that everyone who is concerned with living a natural and healthful life should read.
The author spent fifteen years as a sales represenative in the pharmaceutical industry so she knows whereof she speaks. According to her website she has worked for health care giants Johnson & Johnson, Syntex Labs, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbott Laboratories, and Forest Laboratories.
The memoir begins with an account of the tragic death of Olson’s niece Megan. It was terrible to read about her suicide and the emotional impact of this story was almost debilitating enough to keep me from reading further. However, the cautionary message must be spread; mind-altering drugs can profoundly impact a person’s mental state, and this effect is not always the intended treatment. It was both interesting and frightening to learn that using antidepressants, as well as trying to cease using them, can not only increase suicide risks but can facilitate violent behavior in some individuals.
Gwen Olsen points out that it is easy to trust the pharmaceutical experts in matters of physical and mental health. That is what they are getting paid for, right? It is vital to know the exact kinds of ethical problems pervading the drug industry today. Olsen points out several, including: giving incentives (like extravagant lunches) to doctors who are willing to listen to representatives; seeking out high volume prescribers, or as the big pharmaceutical companies call them, “HVPs;” and being unconcerned with the elimination of disease and disorder, but concerned with constant revenue generated with symptoms, maybe even those that arise from taking the drugs being used to treat another ailment. I also learned from this memoir that in many cases drugs are prescribed to groups that were not represented in clinical trials. For example, drugs being prescribed to children, when the trials conducted on approval for the medications were on adults over eighteen years old.
After this year, I will have received my psychology degree, and while I do know more than the average person about the effects of psychiatric medications, I have never read something that has urged against their use so strongly.
In essence, the memoir breaks down the addictive and debilitating properties of psychoactive drugs, antidepressants in particular.
Gwen Olsen’s book is a painfully honest account of her experiences with mental illness in her family, and her career as a pharmaceutical representative. At times, this account is so honest, that I found myself cringing, but I am touched by her sincere and noble divulgence to the reader.
Since psychiatric drugs have crept into the everyday lives of many Americans, it is important that everyone educate themselves on this subject. While not an enjoyable reading experience, this book is profoundly impactful and leaves the reader with a broader and deeper insight into one of America’s most corrupt industries.
Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening by Willi Galloway, with photographs by Jim Henkens (Sasquatch Books, 2012)
All cookbooks and gardening guides should aspire to be like Grow Cook Eat, a marvelous hybrid by Master Gardener Willi Galloway. As the title reveals, she begins with food early in its life cycle, at the garden-planning stage, and takes the reader along through production, the kitchen, and to the table.
Chapters include “Gardening Fundamentals,” “Greens,” “The Cabbage Family,” and “Warm-season Vegetables,” with extensive information on planting, growing, harvesting, storing, cooking ideas, and delicious varieties. Tips and recipes are interspersed throughout and perfectly complemented by Jim Henkens’ mouth-watering photos, some taken in Galloway’s own garden.
Galloway lives in Oregon, but not to worry; this book should easily translate to Colorado’s climate and altitude. She has lived and loved her subject matter and is down-to-earth about it, acknowledging that most readers will not have the time to make grand gestures with their gardening and cooking:
“Growing a big mix of greens means that putting a healthy meal on the table is never more than 30 minutes away. Bring the basket of a salad spinner—one of the world’s best inventions—right out into the garden and fill it with whatever strikes your fancy . . . if cooking just isn’t in the cards one evening, add a veneer of wholesomeness to a frozen pizza by tossing big handfuls of arugula on top of it just before it comes out of the oven.”
Whether you’re a rookie gardener or a callus-handed veteran, you’ll probably learn something new about the art and science of gardening, such as storing leftover seeds, benignly controlling pests, or turning your guests “loose in the garden to harvest and create their own custom blend” of herbal tea. If you don’t have a garden, you’ll at least learn to respect where food comes from.
She even scatters in a bit of history, as when she mentions Dutch gardeners who introduced orange carrots in the 1600s (a few sentences later, she also mentions Bugs Bunny), and turns tour guide with visits to the gardens and markets of Mexico and Cuba.
She knows how important visual pleasure is in the garden and on the table, and she recommends the best combinations of textures and colors, as in this passage about dill: “This versatile herb looks cheerful when planted behind zinnias, short orange cosmos, and annual coreopsis. The flowers disguise the herb’s lanky stems and, along with the dill’s blossoms, attract parasitic wasps and other pollinators to the garden.”
I must admit, Galloway may have cured me of my lifelong distaste for most root vegetables, which she calls “miraculous.” I can’t wait to try her recipes for oven-roasted beets and cider-glazed baby turnips.
“Most root crops produce tasty tops, flower buds, and even seedpods, in addition to their roots. Learning how to harvest these extra edibles and use them in the kitchen is an easy way to increase the productivity of your garden and extend the harvest season.”
Feast on this book and you’ll never garden or cook the same way. You’ll certainly never eat the same way again.
The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening Edited by Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, 2011)
The culture of sustainability and environmental responsibility has been gaining steam for several years now. More and more people from all walks of life have been re-evaluating their lifestyles, leading them to change their thinking and actions concerning the way they treat the planet and what they want the future to look like. It’s a true groundswell that is arcing towards a real sea change. Good evidence of this shift is the recent emergence of the book, The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening.
Edited by Thomas Christopher, this book compiles eleven essays by professionals, academics, and experts in the field of sustainable gardening and landscaping. The purpose of the book seems to be to document and promote an emerging movement that has people transforming their yards and landscapes into more eco-responsible and resource-friendly spaces.
In these pages you will read about converting conventional lawns from resource-depleting monocultures into lush meadow gardens and healthy natural lawns. John Greenlee, a long-time advocate of meadow gardening, describes how to make this transformation and explains the benefits of doing so.
There is also a discussion by Rick Darke about replacing exotic plants with native plants, including when to consider exotics and why they are not always the wrong choice: “Perhaps our thinking will evolve away from worrying about whether plants are native or not, and toward a valuation of how they function in today’s ecology.”
Eric Toensmeiser suggests ways to make our edible gardens more sustainable and introduces a concept known as mycoscaping, which includes growing edible mushrooms in the compost and mulch right below and alongside plants in the garden. David W. Wolfe addresses the challenges of gardening in a changing climate and offers ways in which we can change our approach to gardening in order to deal with these challenges. Waterwise gardens, green roofs, wildlife-friendly landscaping, and healthy soil management are also discussed in these pages. While this book is not a comprehensive source for these concepts (some of which are long-standing and others just emerging), the introductions are extremely helpful and stimulating and the suggested resources found throughout the book are invaluable.
The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food By HRH The Prince of Wales Forward by Wendell Berry; Afterword by Will Allen and Eric Schlosser (Rodale, 2012)
At the Future of Food Conference (Georgetown University, May 4, 2011) Prince Charles gave a keynote speech that is now available for all to read. It’s no secret that over the years he has championed organic gardening and sustainable food practices. What is refreshing is that the rest of the planet is hearing about it. Of course he is not the only voice, but when royalty speaks we do tend to listen.
As Prince Charles points out, our planet will reach a population of nine billion in just a few decades. The problem is how to feed everyone in a way that is not damaging to our soils, air, and water supplies. The author’s passion for all the concerns should be taken very seriously. As food supplies dwindle, political unrest is a certainty. He also points out that the industrial food methods used today may not serve us well in alleviating any such unrest.
This important short pamphlet is a call to action for all of us. Developed nations throw away over 40% of the food that is purchased while developing nations lose 40% of their food between farm and market (due to lack of proper storage and transport). Topsoil is being depleted at an alarming rate and chemical fertilizers are slowly degrading our water systems. We can make a difference by demanding more ecologically sound practices in our food system. His straight talk is sure to inspire many.
I recommend this read for all those that believe that we can feed the world and heal our planet at the same time.
Note: The Prince has his share of detractors. Some are displeased with the lavish way in which he lives. Perhaps it sets a double standard about how everyone but royalty should modify their lifestyles to help save the planet.
Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet by Catherine Friend (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2011)
The best books gently lead the reader to a place that gives them a different vantage point on life. The day I finished reading Sheepish was cool and damp, so I wound a scarf around my neck to keep warm while I sipped tea and turned pages. Then, it occurred to me—was this scarf made of wool? Yes, it was, and I appreciate my bedraggled yet still beautiful accessory more after reading this book.
Catherine Friend, whose books include Hit by a Farm, The Compassionate Carnivore, and several children’s books, has written a funny, informative, sometimes sad book about her conversion from skeptical city girl to “fiber freak.” Friend and her longtime partner, Melissa, follow the latter’s dream to raise livestock on a Minnesota farm, but the self-described “Backup Farmer” figures out a way to find and follow her own dream.
This is a woman who jumps on the bandwagon with both feet, surprising herself by kissing lambs’ heads, exploring the mystery of what makes wool “virgin,” and surviving the frustrations of learning to knit: “knit one, purl two, scream three.”
With charming, self-deprecating humor, Friend relates her suspicions that farming has taken her away from the life she was meant to lead. “I imagine that other people are having considerably more fun in their lives than I’m having in mine. They’re dressing better, earning more, and are just more together than I am. They’re going to more parties, attending more plays and movies, taking interesting classes. Their smart phones lead more interesting lives than I do.”
So, of course, she turns to the virtual flora and fauna in “FarmVille” to escape the real ones outside her front door. Fortunately, that addiction doesn’t last long.
Friend assures the reader that yes, life on a farm can be messy and scary, but it also can be joyful and wonderful. “Small farms like ours represent tiny pockets of enchantment, places where you can marvel at the perfect, warm eggs chickens lay. You can watch a newborn lamb stagger over to the udder and discover it for the first time. You can watch adolescent steers kick up their heels in excitement because you’ve come to visit them.”
She’s learned life lessons from the sheep, llamas, dogs, chickens, even the grapevines and alfalfa, and passes them along.”A sheep can’t chew her cud and run. She can’t chew her cud and talk. She can’t chew her cud and Twitter or e-mail or drive or exercise or really do anything but lie there and chew. I’ve forgotten how to do only one thing at a time, so I’m going to try harder to find a few minutes in my day when I’m not eating, talking, reading, writing, mowing, phoning, cooking, cleaning, doing chores, or stacking wood . . . to sit there not doing anything but thinking. I might feel lazy and and unproductive, but the sheep’s self-esteem has remained intact, so mine should, too.”
It seems unlikely that many of us would embrace a book titled The World History of Wool. But in Friend’s skilled hands, we gladly learn that sheep’s output has played pivotal roles in our culture, from the colonists’ big break-up with Britain to keeping today’s soldiers safe in battle. Wool and its by-products can be found in cosmetics, pianos, baseballs, crayons, ice cream, dish soap, and countless other items. Plus, it makes darn fine underwear.
So grab this book, wrap yourself in some sort of wool and enjoy the adventure. You’ll be the better for it.
—Rhonda Van Pelt
Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West by Jane Shellenberger (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012)
Jane Shellenberger, the publisher and editor of the much-beloved magazine Colorado Gardener (which she founded 15 years ago), lives and gardens on a five-acre farmette on the plains between Boulder and Longmont. Shellenberger learned about plants from her botanist mother and has been vegetable gardening in Colorado since the 1970s, after moving to Boulder as a 20 year old from Philadelphia.
Organic Gardener’s Companion reads like a love letter to western gardening from a woman with 40 years of experience. Underneath the sound advice and practical steps Shellenberger weaves a strong environmental message. To her credit, she does it without preaching and yet without shying away from discussing the disastrous path we’ve taken during the last half-century.
She educates logically—first you learn about climate and soil. Then you educate yourself on the nutritional requirements of plants, learn about pollinators and other beneficial insects, and how to deal with “undesirables” (weeds, wildlife and unwanted insects). Being grounded in the basics is best before you actually start planting.
OGC reminded me of the heft of a Master Gardener course told as a relaxed conversation with a dear friend. The last section of the book goes into “What to Grow” describing a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits to try in the West. Shellenberger shares her personal experiences, preferences, and favorite edibles as well as friends’. Tidbits include what bush beans are delicious raw (Royalty Purple) and what strawberries are so divine that gardening friends rip their others out (Mara des Bois). I especially liked Shellenberger’s ability to admit there are gaps in even her many years of experience. If there is an area where she hasn’t experienced something firsthand, she says so. OGC is a wonderful combination of know-how and heart and the perfect primer for Western U.S. gardeners who are getting their hands dirty for the first time.
Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs by Tammi Hartung; Photography by Saxon Holt (Storey Publishing, 2011)
Tammi Hartung’s Homegrown Herbs is also the work of a wise Colorado plantswoman sharing a lifetime of experience in an excellent, in-depth book. Hartung, well-known around the country for her herb lectures, has been growing herbs (over 500 varieties) with her husband in southern Colorado for over 30 years on their organic farm.
I loved how this book also covered the soil issue early (“Secrets to Great Soil”) showing, as in Shellenberger’s book, that this basic building block has finally been given its place at the forefront of gardening wisdom. All the nuts and bolts of herb gardening basics are covered including maintenance and pest and disease control.
This generous tome, oversized and at 255 pages is big on content. It features Saxon Holt’s amazing photos of hundreds of herbs, individually and in the garden. But while it’s comprehensive, it’s not overwhelming. It is beautifully laid out and easy to read. I liked the yellow charts especially. They list herbs alphabetically and their specifics in regard to subjects such as Planning a Theme Garden, Herb Propagation, and Harvesting Guidelines.
An added bonus is a chapter on herbal medicines and personal care products, with recipes. Tinctures, liniments, syrups and elixirs, bath and foot soaks, insect repellents, sleep pillows, and more are explored and favorite formulas are shared. There are plenty of great sidebars like: “Liniments to Live By” which lists six herbs and where we learn “Lemon Balm will help heal cold sores,” “Peppermint is soothing to sore muscles,” and” Yucca will relieve joint pain.”
Another chapter on cooking includes Hartung’s choice seasoning blends, beverages such as Mint- and Fruit-Infused Water, Hearty Vegetable Slow-Cooker Soup, Home-Baked Rosemary Bread, Licorice and Banana Oatmeal (using licorice as a sweetener—kids love it) and Early Spring Dandelion Salad.
Nearly a third of the book is devoted to “Herb Personalities.” Dozens of plants and their uses, growing requirements, and even companion plantings are described with Holt’s lush photos. I was surprised to find lesser-known herbs such as agastache, coyote mint, marsh mallow and motherwort featured, not to mention hollyhock, which I did not know had both medicinal uses and edible flowers!
If I could have only one book on herbs in my library it would be Homegrown Herbs.
Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking From Eva’s Farm By Didi Emmons (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011)
As a chef and a gardener, I was immediately attracted to Wild Flavors. This beautifully designed and printed (using at least 10% postconsumer recycled paper, processed chlorine free) cookbook/garden manual celebrates organic gardening, cooking, and eating seasonally.
The collaboration between Boston chef Didi Emmons and organic farmer Eva Sommaripa, from Eva’s Farm in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, results in a well-researched and unique cookbook that not only inspires but also visually satisfies with well-placed plant photography, recipes and the community that embraces Eva’s Farm.
Written in a conversational tone with journal entries, personal stories, anecdotes, recipes, and plant profiles, Emmons gives the reader a broad view of what it means to connect fully with your garden, nature, and your community. 150 recipes range from a simple but refreshing sounding Basil Lemonade to slightly more complicated recipes including: Currant Scones with Anise Hyssop and Wild Grape Sorbet with Calaminth. Emmons relays the wisdom she received from Eva Sommaripa, farmhands, and members of her community through funny stories and life lessons on thrift, conservation, bartering and sustainability.
Starting with Winter-Salvaging and working through Spring-Community, Summer-Bartering, and ending with Fall-Preserving the reader can glean real life examples of what it means to forage, garden and cook through the seasons. Plant profiles for 46 plants include some uncommon ones: cardoon, chickweed, and autumn olive next to some garden favorites: basil, dill, and thyme. Emmons in-depth plant profiles not only give the reader information about varieties but also include culinary uses, health virtues, growing, foraging, buying, storing and prepping. As a gardener I am encouraged to add some of the more uncommon plants to my herb garden and as a chef to use what I’m currently growing to add another dimension to my seasonal recipes.
Because of Emmons background, the cookbook is full of cooking tips, equipment suggestions and advice designed to help readers “transform the flavors in our food.” For example, in the plant profile on the herb lovage, both Emmons and Sommaripa explain how throughout the growing season lovage takes on different flavor profiles. In the spring, “tasting of celery crossed with parsley,” and in the summer lovage loses most of the sweetness. Maybe because of these differences, Emmons implores readers to use her recipes as starting points and encourages creative detours. For gardeners, cookbook enthusiasts or anyone who wants to use more locally sourced or foraged ingredients in their cooking, Wild Flavors will most likely change the way they think about herbs, greens and edible “weeds.”
Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Greener Living By Nigel Dunnett, Dusty Gedge, John Little, and Edmund C. Snodgrass (Timber Press, 2011)
Green roofs have been in use for many centuries as both an aesthetic and functional addition to buildings. The development of modern day green roofs took place primarily in Germany in the mid-to-late twentieth century, and has since become popular in cities around the world, mainly due to the environmental and economic benefits that they offer. Traditionally, these green roofs have been installed on large, flat-roofed buildings, but as the interest in green roofs has grown, green roof professionals and enthusiasts have been exploring ways to install them on virtually any type of roof whether large or small, flat or sloped. Four such individuals profile this new movement in Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Greener Living.
The first part of the book offers an overview of green roofs, including their purposes and myriad benefits. Also included are green roof construction basics and a very informative planting primer which covers plant selection, planting methods, maintenance considerations, and designing for wildlife. Obviously, most of this information is focused on small green roofs, and the information included was not meant to be comprehensive. For anyone seriously considering installing a green roof on their house or other buildings on their property, it is advised that they consult other sources, particularly professionals, because a poorly constructed green roof could result in major damage both to property and pocket book.
The majority of this book is filled with the profiles of 42 green roof projects broken up into 5 sections: sheds, garden offices, and studios; garages and other structures; houses; bicycle sheds and other small structures; and community projects. Each includes information on the design and planning stage, the installation process, and projects’ success, along with a note by one of the authors and pictures of each project. These profiles are meant to inspire and encourage people to consider a green roof of their own and to offer ideas about how to go about it. Whether you are interested in putting a green roof on a rabbit hutch, a garden shed, or the roof of your house, this book is a great introduction to the fascinating world of green roof technology.
The 50 Mile bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers By Debra Prinzing; Photography by David E. Perry (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012)
I am a fresh-cut flower lover but had read enough about the floral import industry these last few years to be seriously turned off. Today’s markets offer mostly imported blooms, and pesticide-drenched to boot! What’s a local- and organically-grown minded girl to do?
Prinzing and Perry’s book shows innovators who are answering just that question in The 50 Mile Bouquet. This lush offering is a compilation of real-life stories—people growing and selling sustainably- and locally-grown flowers, with growing success (pun intended), right here in the U.S.A. Perry’s drool-worthy flori-porn (itself worth the price of admission) and Prinzing’s prose make for a joyful combination of “We can do it!” (We’re planting veggie gardens, raising backyard chickens, and now, hey, let’s get slow flowers on our tables too!)
I especially liked the mentions of finding bouquet booty in your backyard, roadsides, and on public land through forest service permits—recognizing that we have an abundance right here is key. There’s also a chapter about a gorgeous wedding put together with a focus on deeper meaning through hands-on participation (meaning actual work) by the bride and bridesmaids. They’re out gathering fresh cut dahlias at a local farm just two days before the ceremony, and making the bouquets and aisle decorations the day of. It reminded me of my own wedding, where my mom gathered buckets of lilacs from the neighborhood. I see a better world developing here, an alternative to over-the-top expensive weddings that put the couple (or parents) into debt and seem more about keeping-up-with-the-Joneses than about love. D.I.Y., reveling in our own attainable riches and simple pleasures--oh, it does a heart good!
If there were any flaws in this gem I’d say the book is a bit narrow in scope as it deals mostly with the western United States and I wished there was a little more on backyard growers and what they can do. Those are small considerations, and books on growing your own cutting garden are not hard to find. This book inspires, and I highly recommend it to flower lovers who want to try their hand at growing or purchasing cut flowers that matter.
In Praise of Chickens: A Compendium of Wisdom Fair and Foul By Jane S. Smith (Lyons Press, 2012)
If you’re fascinated by chickens, Jane S. Smith, the award-winning author of several books (including one of my all-time favorites, The Garden of Invention—about Luther Burbank) has written a charming little book that will appeal to you. The book is stocking stuffer sized (around 5” x 7”) and chock-full of attractive vintage and antique illustrations. The wisdom comes largely from quotes, the wise and wry observations of both the unknown and well-known, including Aristotle, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, and others. Subject matter spans the obvious—from good designs for a hen house to a good ratio of rooster to hens (the answer to the second varies according to what nationality you ask!), to delicious oddities that will make you say, “Hmmm.” To illustrate, I was surprised to learn that capons (castrated roosters) could be made into surrogate mothers for chicks through a strange (and rather mean) practice involving plucking their chest feathers and applying stinging nettles. It was also interesting to read about a method used a hundred years ago to preserve eggs (between 3” layers of salted butter, from the Irish).
It’s all good barnyard fun, and for the chicken fancier Smith’s foray into the richness of chicken lore is a great addition to the library.
How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables By Rebecca Rupp (Storey Publishing, 2011)
Rebecca Rupp’s collection of tales in How Carrots Won the Trojan War delivers an entertaining and authoritative history on mankind’s relationship to garden edibles from asparagus to zucchini. The book covers the science and history of nutrition—the roles of war, globalization and political influence on vegetables and grains—and it delves into the more romantic side of food through culture, folklore and fairy tales.
As Rupp takes us on a flavorful journey through Rapunzel’s fairy tale (which begins with a pregnant woman’s craving for radishes) we find new meaning both in the lore and the radish. We learn about the beginning of farming when reading, “Lentils, along with barley and einkorn wheat, were among the first plants domesticated some 10,000 years ago in western Asia’s lush Fertile Crescent,” and we are introduced to historical figures such as the ancient Greek Pythagoras, the “Father of Vegetarianism,” Leo Tolstoy (also a vegetarian), and Mark Twain, who famously said that broccoli is “nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” We are amused to learn that Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations was based on an old folk song, Kraut and Ruben.
Rupp’s sense of humor brings us laugh-out-loud quotes such as this one from Laurie Coleman, in More Home Cooking (1995), “They (lima beans) are pillowy, velvety, and delicious, and people should stop saying mean things about them.” Rupp’s stories make vegetables seem more like people as we investigate their struggles and heritage; carrots are glorified (did you know there is a world Carrot Museum?) and George Washington’s favorite, asparagus (or sparrowgrass), is immortalized.
But there’s more in this jam-packed, 349-page book. Culinary culture is explored through ancient recipes; we see what a dinner party was like in 1663 and learn that Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for dining on vegetables was very much against the norm in early America. In the science department, we learn how spinach got a bad rap by a misplaced decimal point, that L-dopa was discovered through the fava bean, and that the fabulous watermelon has 40 percent more lycopene than tomatoes ( or “love apples”). Facts like “Scotchgard was born from cabbage” and “sour kraut was used to fight scurvy,” keep you turning pages.
If you are looking for inspiration to plant a garden, you will find it here. It’s also a perfect pocket-book; flip it open at any page to find an interesting read. It would make a perfect gift for any gardener or vegetable lover.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben (Times Books, 2010)
In 1989 McKibben published The End of Nature, regarded as the first book about climate change written for a general audience. At that time, even with all the empirical evidence supporting climate change, it appeared that with proper action, the unsavory effects resulting from a warming planet could be avoided and that climate change might be reversed. Now, just a little over two decades later, faced with the reality that the global average temperature has risen about 1°C and climate change’s effects are now commonplace and well-documented, McKibben’s message has changed. We no longer live on the same planet anymore, and our only alternative at this point is to get used to it.
Eaarth (with two a’s) is the moniker that McKibben gives our new planet. Certainly we can call it whatever we want, but we must come to grips with the fact that this is not the same planet that it once was. The tundra is thawing, glaciers are disappearing, deserts and tropical zones are expanding, oceans are acidifying, warming, and rising, weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, and drinking water is becoming salinated and depleted. “Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality,” and it’s largely because “we didn’t take our foot off the gas when we had the chance.”
McKibben shares this news soberly and yet as light-heartedly as possible. Like anyone else who studies the effects of climate change, he’d rather be wrong, but the evidence is stacked against us. We are now faced with a grave set of options: choose now to readjust our societies to fit our new reality, or continue on as we have been and watch as our new reality makes the readjustment for us. McKibben makes the case in Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet that backing off is the better option, that a growth-based economy is no longer plausible, that ambitious, centralized, national and global projects are moot at this point. According to McKibben our best chance for survival is to go local, get small, and stay connected.
While the first half of Eaarth is spent laying out the trouble we’re in—making certain that we comprehend the gravity of our situation, the second half is meant to offer us hope, something to cling to as we stumble toward the precipice. The challenge is to make these arguments convincingly. From my perspective, McKibben does so famously; however, with all the uncertainty inherent in our predicament and the fact that Eaarth is inhabited by seven billion individuals, all members of various societies and cultures, distinct and diverse in their myriad approaches and objectives, outlining a single good way to address our problems and getting everyone on board is beyond improbable. This is something that anyone endeavoring to tell people how to live must first understand. There is no silver bullet.
With that said, anyone entrenched in the current environmental movement, will find McKibben’s suggestions familiar and obvious. Smaller farms and local, organic food production. Considerable reductions in energy consumption and decentralized, renewable production of energy. Local economies/communities and mindful consumption of material goods. The one item that might be a bit surprising is McKibben’s love-affair with the Internet, but considering all the potential that the world wide web has for spreading information, providing entertainment, and fending off prejudice while cultivating tolerance, doing whatever we can to keep the Internet around seems like a pretty swell idea. Eaarth is not meant to be yet another doom-and-gloom book. True, it does address our doom, and it will make you feel gloomy, but that’s unavoidable with a topic like this. For someone like McKibben, who has made it his mission in life to educate the global populace about the painful truths and harsh realities of climate change, doing so must be thankless and heart-breaking considering how few will listen and how little will be done about it. And yet, somehow McKibben has kept his spirits up and has produced an incredibly readable, engrossing, and compelling book that has the potential to inspire its readers to move more “lightly, carefully, gracefully” on our formidable new planet.
The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food By Ben Hewitt (Rodale Press, 2010)
Many books have been written about individual quests to eat locally (Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and Alisa Smith’s The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating easily come to mind). Ben Hewitt takes a different approach with The Town that Food Saved by chronicling the efforts in a small northwestern Vermont town (population around 3,200) to establish a local food system that will not only feeds its residents, but also create jobs, build community, and transform the economy. Such a system also reduces the demand on energy resources and reduces costs associated with the transportation and preservation of food.
Hewitt is a small-scale farmer with a conversational style—as if he is taking a stroll with the reader through the town of Hardwick and its verdant surrounding farmland. Like any community, Hardwick is rich in history, characters and rumors—and Hewitt presents each with compassion and humor. He shares a range of experiences from butchering pigs to visiting a cheese cave, from inhaling compost to volunteering in the local co-op, all while skillfully examining the pros and cons of a local food system.
In 2008, the town of Hardwick captured the attention of national media for its emergence as a successful agricultural model, thanks in large part to the promotional efforts of Tom Stearns, the de facto spokesman and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. Stearns is among a handful of what Hewitt terms an agripreneur “(a word…coined to describe the agrarian entrepreneurialism that infuses many of the region’s food-based enterprises).” Although creating a decentralized food system based on businesses producing cheese, yogurt, soy, honey, composting and organic seeds (to name a few) may be a bright and hopeful concept, Hewitt also deftly describes some of the pitfalls.
As adamant as Stearns and others are about the benefits of Hardwick as a local food model, some locals are less than enthusiastic. Hewitt’s neighbor Suzanna Jones (also a small scale farmer) is unimpressed with Stearns and his plans. She says, “Tom Stearns’s approach to agriculture has so many elements of that (currency) system that it’s not an alternative … What do people really need? They don’t need convenience; they need food, clothing, shelter. They don’t need this gentrified green, boutique scene.” Jones’s attitude is not opposed to the idea of a local food system; she believes that Hardwick has a long-established system already—it is the home of the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op, one of the oldest operating food cooperatives in the county. Instead, she sees communities such as Newark, N.J., in greater need of such a system because it is so reliant on other entities.
Hewitt’s willingness to show both sides of the story is one of the great strengths of this book. Another is his ability to describe the landscape, the people, their passion for locally grown food, and the possibilities a different type of food system holds. If you care about exploring these possibilities, read this book.
Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest To Learn The Truth About Food Safety by Ben Hewitt (Rodale, 2011)
As I write this review, one of the deadliest food-borne illness outbreaks in the last ten years, listeria, has claimed the lives of 25 people across the United States, and over a hundred more are ill. The deadly bacteria was traced to a crop of cantaloupe from a farm in Colorado. There’s a lot that’s unsettling about this particular food-illness outbreak; the number of deaths, the people still suffering, and how widely and how quickly it spread.
In Making Supper Safe, Ben Hewitt sets out to inform Americans of our increasingly vulnerable food industry, vulnerable due to the “consolidation of agribusiness and the ever expanding distance between people and their sources of nourishment…” Hewitt begins and ends the book with a strong visual as he tags along with a dumpster-diver in Vermont. After all, what sounds more dangerous than eating out of a dumpster? But what I really think Hewitt illustrates with these bookend chapters is awareness. Interestingly, the dumpster-diver or “freegan” is very conscious of food safety and risk and not as vulnerable as Hewitt believes the average American is.
Pathogenic bacteria are everywhere, and while many may be familiar with the bacterium E. coli, Hewitt explains that salmonella and listeria actually kill far more Americans each year. In simple language without a lot of scientific jargon, Hewitt explains why and how outbreaks happen and who is to blame.
Hewitt also addresses the raw milk debate, raw food, food rights, antibiotic use in food-producing animals, high fructose corn syrup, the increase in multinational food processors, and the global seed industry concentration. Each of these topics could be a book-length subject in itself, but Hewitt does a good job introducing the topics and explaining how each adds to the debate.
Hewitt doesn’t draw conclusions on food safety; he only presents information in an easy-to-read journalistic style. He clearly has his opinions, revealed in statements like, “…the most palpable threat in [Americans] food is the policy behind it, a policy that has given rise to a system of constant abundance that, even as it fills our stomachs to bursting, offering a false promise of wellness and short-term satisfaction, starves us of our long-term health.” For readers already conscious of where their food comes from, this book confirms what they already believed. But Hewitt also presents an argument for eating local and offers new information on “food corporatism” that I found surprising, including the fact that there are four times as many prisoners in the United States as farmers. Overall I found this book an interesting overview of the American food industry and our inherent risks as consumers—one that will most certainly prompt more research and discussion.
The Heirloom Life Gardener by Jere and Emilee Gettle (Hyperion, 2011)
In The Heirloom Life Gardener Jere Gettle, the owner and founder of the highly celebrated heirloom seed company Baker Creek Seeds, takes you on a journey from his boyhood passion of saving seeds to immersion in heirloom vegetables and the preservation and dispersal of these seeds as an adult. Steeped in historical references and facts, this book helps readers begin to appreciate the importance of preserving our heritage plants.
Being a life-long gardener myself, I was wondering what this book had to offer. I am thoroughly delighted to say that this easy read was both inspirational and timely. We have been at a crossroads for quite some time. Will we join the challenge of preserving and perpetuating heirloom plants or just let them perish? If Jere and Emilee have anything to say about it we are in good hands.
They make the gardening world easily accessible to all through commonsense suggestions and tips. The specific seed-saving techniques in the last chapter: “A to Z Growing Guide” is the crowning touch. A diverse garden of Gettle’s favorite heirloom vegetables varieties are described, along with their cultivation requirements, cooking suggestions, and of course, their requirements in saving seed.
This book will definitely find a prominent spot in my garden library.
Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth Directed By Dave Gardner (Citizen-Powered Media, 2011)
We’ve lived with it all our lives: The Holy Religion of Growth. Growth is Good. No Growth = Death. We want to grow our cities, our businesses, our lives (this being closely related to a twin affliction, Bigger is Better, relating to bigger cars, houses, TVs, breasts, etc.)
It’s understandable that the mythology has a firm grip on our psyche. Prosperity and growth have existed simultaneously for so long they’ve become (falsely) fused. And this idea actually worked fine when the planet was “empty.” Now that we’re “full” and getting more depleted by the hour it’s a different story. We’re finally seeing the light: Infinite growth in a finite space is just not possible. Furthermore, growth is now a negative force on our prosperity—loss of resources, species extinction, climate change and overpopulation are serious financial drains.
Through leading thinkers (scientists, sociologists, economists) and a winning sense of humor, Dave Gardener’s film Growthbusters (a play on Ghostbusters) separates fact from superstitition in a highly palatable way. It explores how our cultural beliefs are the true culprits, and reveals just who perpetuates the “Growth is God” mythology (hint—those who can afford to purchase their own self-serving brand of “truth”).
GrowthBusters finally asks the most critical question of our time: How do we become a sustainable civilization? The answer is recognizing that our current levels of consumption and population growth are the problem, and taking control.
Just as we see in McKibben’s book Eaarth, while things seem tough, it’s also a time for opportunity; an opportunity to jump off the consumer hamster wheel and claim more self-sufficiency, more time for our friends and family, and a greater connection to our communities: the truest trappings of prosperity.
Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise by Michelle Owens (Rodale Press)
These are huge claims for a singular pastime, and they might seem totally implausible until you give this book a good read. An amateur gardener for twenty years, author Michele Owens writes from experience, considerable contact with other gardeners, and heaps of winter reading. In addition to persuading her readers that vegetable gardening is probably the one most powerful and tangible thing any person, family, or community can do to add quality to life, Owens claims it is also simple and easy.
Although I must say the claim of simplicity and ease may not hold as much sway as the plethora of other pithy arguments. Those qualities truly exist in the eye — if not the lower back — of the beholder. While vegetable gardening is experiencing a remarkable resurgence in recent years, I’m not sure anything in this book will convince those who believe gardening is a chore. But it might, for many reasons, compel a person not already attracted to gardening to give it a try. To the uninitiated convert, Owens applies considerable intelligence and tempers her claim with sage practical advice. She offers this encouragement as well, “If you look at your own development as a gardener as an organic process, one where your ambitions grow as your experience does, you will be astonished at your powers.”
With remarkable efficiency, dollops of acerbic wit, and downright affection, Owens elucidates topics as wide-ranging as the history and sociology of vegetable gardening in the United States since World War II and the beauty and beneficial challenges of gardening with kids.
“Beauty?” you might ask. Owens understands that many people refrain from converting sod to vegetables because they fear the aesthetic won’t work in their urban or suburban setting. She knocks the legs out from under that stand. To her enormous credit, she also understands some would argue that beauty is a superfluous reason to create a vegetable garden. “There is nothing irrelevant whatsoever about the beauty of a vegetable garden,” writes Owens, “even though a pretty one may well announce that its owner is a pleasure-loving fool.”
Each chapter could stand on its own as a topical essay, eliminating barriers for the time-pinched reader who must consume it one bite at a time. My favorite is “The Soil: Why Dirt Isn’t Dirty.” I’m sure love of soil is a sign of the maturation of a gardener. After five decades of gardening (the last fifteen years or so in the semi-arid southwest), the preciousness, mystery, and preservation of soil is a passion of mine. Owens handles the subject with reverence and heart.
Cofounder of the widely popular blog “Garden Rant,” Michele Owens has also penned articles for O, The Oprah Magazine and Organic Gardening. Even those long-acquainted with the art and science of vegetable gardening will find delight, laughs, and great good sense to hurl at detractors in this full and highly readable book.
[Editor’s Note: I have to add that Grow the Good Life has been my number one favorite gardening book this year.]
How the Government Got in Your Backyard by Jeff Gilman and Eric Heberlig (Timber Press)
What happens when you cross a horticulturalist with a political scientist? You get a well-documented introduction to the politics of organic food, alternative energy, genetic engineering, global warming, medical marijuana and other environmental topics. Jeff Gilman (the horticulturalist) and Eric Heberlig (the political scientist) have joined forces to write How the Government Got in Your Backyard. Don’t let the title fool you. This is not some wackadoodle polemic about the evils of government. The book’s subtitle provides more of an explanation: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth about Environmental Policies.
Nonpartisan is what Gilman and Heberlig are all about. In their book, the authors present the scientific facts and let you decide for yourself. They do give you some help, however. In addition to the basic science behind each environmental issue, the authors present various policy options with left-wing and right-wing ratings ranging from one star (NO!) to five stars (Ideal Policy), as well as their own analysis. It’s an interesting concept and if nothing else, you’ll be introduced to both sides of a topic, not a bad way to get to the “truth.” Who knows? You might even change your mind on a particular issue. This is definitely not “lite” reading, but worth the effort.
I Garden: Urban Style by Reggie Solomon and Michael Nolan (Betterway Books)
Now for some eye candy. Let’s face it. Not everyone can chuck the 9-5 job, move to a homestead in the country, and grow their own food. Most people don’t even want to. There are lots of benefits to urban living, and being in the city doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t garden. Reggie Solomon and Michael Nolan, authors of I Garden: Urban Style, have set out to show you how.
In this lavishly illustrated book, Solomon and Nolan walk the neophyte gardener through every step of planning, planting and harvesting an urban garden. The first chapters are devoted to helping the reader figure out a gardening focus (food or flowers?), a gardening style (tried-and-true or freewheeling?), and a gardening plan (How much space and time do you really have?). These are critical steps for any gardener but especially important for the urban gardener whose time and space are often quite limited.
Later chapters cover container gardening, site preparation, buying or starting your own seedlings, commonly grown vegetables and garden maintenance. While the authors are experienced gardeners, they remember what it’s like to be a novice and present the information in short, easy to digest pieces. This book is intended for the beginning gardener, but old timers will find useful information as well. I found the section on The 4-Hour Work Week enlightening, the recipes in Chapter 7 intriguing, and the resources in Chapter 8 quite helpful. Above all, the authors want gardening to be fun, something they call “Urban Garden Casual.” I think they hit the mark.