Winter tales for better growing
Recommended books with information for the sustainable gardener
Deborah K. Rich, San Francisco Chronicle January 1, 2005
If you're like me, you've been raising a few of your own fruits and vegetables for several years now. Of course you're not using chemicals; when you want chemicals, you buy them at the supermarket. You've grown some good tomatoes, green beans and pumpkins, even a few cucumbers, cabbages and butternut squash. And you're pretty into this gardening thing, not only for the fruits of your labor, but for the enjoyment and appreciation you're finding in life writ large right in your backyard.
But if you're like me, your yields vary wildly. You enjoy what you harvest, but you dare not count your eggplants before you've got them sliced and soaking in salted water. You look at a lot of catalogs each year, but mostly grow whatever seedlings the nursery has in stock when you get there. You've planted sweet alyssum to attract beneficial hoverflies, but your techniques vary from year to year, depending upon what article you just read.
The one thing you know for certain is that farmers who can make a living growing vegetables organically must have their "compost" together.
If you, like me, want to take your food gardening to the next level -- to try to produce, say, all of your summer vegetables -- here's what I recommend you plant this winter: yourself, at the table or on a comfortable couch with a pen and a pad of paper close by.
You and I need to take a step back and do a little research. If we're going to grow fruits and vegetables without relying on manufactured chemicals to deliver nutrients to our plants and to rescue them from insects and disease, then we must learn how plants stay productive and healthy in the absence of chemical inputs. In other words, we need to understand the principles that underlie healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems and how to apply these principles to growing food.
This past summer, I asked authors, farmers and gardeners Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and Toby Hemenway and plant breeder and philosopher Frank Morton for a sustainable-gardening reading list. These individuals have all taken vocal stands in favor of sustainable agriculture, and they practice what they preach. Plus, they know a good instructive read when they see one.
I have chosen five books from their generous recommendations (see the complete list in the accompanying column) as our required reading this winter. These five titles explain the natural systems at work in the garden and detail specific techniques for working within the systems to maximize fruit and vegetable production.
My alma mater had a wonderful month between the fall and spring terms called the "winterim." During the winterim, we studied only one topic, attending class for several hours each day, then reading furiously through the evenings. Most of us don't have the luxury of studying gardening full time, but we can have our own winterim of learning before it's time to decide whether we're growing our own or buying our seedlings this year.
The natural way
We'll start our reading with "Gardening with Nature: How to Grow Your Own Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers by Natural Methods," by Leonard Wickenden (Devin-Adair Co., 1954). Yes, 1954. Wickenden, a fellow of the American Institute of Chemists and a lifelong gardener, wrote during the post-World War II era, when the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers marked a farmer as progressive, as American and as committed to feeding the world. Wickenden recognized earlier than most the threat that synthetic farm chemicals posed to the environment and believed that chemicals were unnecessary and that they also diminished productivity in the long run.
Wickenden emphasizes fixing the cause of plant diseases rather than focusing attack on the disease itself or on its symptoms. He believed most plant diseases were brought on by poor soil health and that the key to maintaining soil health was incorporating large amounts of organic matter into the soil.
Wickenden recommends readers start with his five chapters that discuss soil, insects and nutrients, for background, and then pick and choose from his other chapter topics as needed. Wickenden covers insects commonly found in the garden and presents a detailed plan for a vegetable garden that will feed a family of four. He discusses how to attract birds, chicken husbandry and best practices for raising flowers, fruit vines and trees. Finally, he provides growing tips for 40 popular vegetables.
Wickenden writes with clarity and directness, explaining why the pH number, a measure of acidity, decreases as soil acidity increases, as easily as he does his technique of wrapping seedling stems in newspaper to deter cutworms. Always, he encourages the gardener to experiment and to test Wickenden's own conclusions.
About the only thing that is dated about Wickenden's book is his recommendation that we freeze surplus vegetables in wax boxes sealed with a hot iron.
Next we'll read "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture," by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2000). Writing nearly a half- century after Wickenden, Hemenway applies the knowledge we've gained about how ecosystems function to gardening.
In "Gaia's Garden," Hemenway endeavors to equip every gardener with the ecoliteracy necessary to imitate the natural systems that sustain meadows, forests and wetlands. Doing so, says Hemenway, will allow the gardener to suppress weeds, limit pest damage, reduce the impact of drought and eliminate runoff all without the use of chemicals, without depleting the soil and without working so hard.
Hemenway encourages us to see our garden as a whole system, to consider how the often segregated patches -- a bit of wildlife habitat here, a flower bed there, a raised vegetable bed off to the side -- can be integrated and how the functioning of one can complement the others.
Dividing the book into three parts, Hemenway first introduces the concept of the garden as an ecosystem, then focuses on the elements of the garden ecosystem separately: soil, water, plants and animals. Finally, Hemenway offers examples of how to assemble the pieces of the garden into a self- sustaining productive whole.
With suggestions for interplantings, plant guilds and multistoried gardens, Hemenway encourages us to become an integral part of the garden ecosystem. This book, alone, will have us filling a notepad full of ideas to implement in the spring.
We won't read "The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control," by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar and Helga Olkowski (Taunton Press, 1996), word for word right now, but knowing the wealth of information and solutions it offers will help to keep us from reaching for a quick fix when the rest of nature doesn't appear to be cooperating with our good intentions to garden sustainably.
The first chapters of the guide discuss how nature regulates pests, the concept of integrated pest management, beneficial insects and how to select control strategies. The rest of the book addresses specific pests grouped according to where we are most likely to encounter them: lawn, food and ornamental gardens, and shade trees. For each pest, the guide provides comprehensive background on an insect's life cycle, giving us the knowledge necessary to analyze our own situations and to decide when and what type of intervention might be necessary.
Looking up aphid, we read that aphids respond to nitrogen levels in plants. Plants have the highest nitrogen levels when they begin active growth, and the nitrogen concentrates in the parts growing most rapidly, such as the buds and tips of stems. This explains why aphids cluster in the hearts of my cabbage plants and is one more reason for maintaining nitrogen at levels just adequate for slow to moderate growth (through regular applications of compost) rather than periodically dousing plants with soluble nitrogen.
The guide encourages prevention as the first means of reducing pest problems and recommends chemicals only as a last resort for infestations that have gotten out of hand. Finally, the guide provides an excellent resource appendix and index.
Let's take a breather and enjoy "This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader" by Joan Dye Gussow (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2002). Gussow will help remind us why we're spending so much of our time reading about staggered plantings and insect life cycles.
Gussow's book snuck up on me the first time I read it. For the first several chapters, I wasn't sure why it had been recommended since Gussow begins the book by discussing her and her husband's decision to move into a smaller house. The book didn't seem to be serving up much more than an entertaining slice of life. But I'm glad I kept reading.
Against the backdrop of their home and garden restoration, Gussow addresses the hows and whys of producing food sustainably. As she ponders where to plant her paw-paw tree seedlings, Gussow discusses the wide variety of food that can be grown locally, even in New York state. In the chapter that includes her recipe for tomato glut sauce, Gussow remembers the ill-fated Flavr Savr tomato and considers the threats to biodiversity posed by other genetically modified foods. And in the chapter that begins with Gussow scattering her husband's ashes in the garden, she explains the importance of returning organic matter to the soil food web.
Sharing her recipes and strategies for producing the majority of the fruits and vegetables she eats, Gussow shows us how sustainable gardening can fit into, and complement, a modern life.
We'll wrap up our winterim of reading with "The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener" by Eliot Coleman (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1995). In this book, Coleman shares the philosophies, crop rotations and tillage systems he has honed over 30 years of gardening and supplying and managing farm stands and markets. Coleman provides the nitty-gritty on seed spacing, equipment sizing, extending the growing season and maintaining post-harvest quality. Though expecting saleable and edible results from his efforts, Coleman approaches raising food as a craftsman, seeking to garden and farm in a way that respects the land, the gardener and those who consume the fruits of his labor.
Coleman walks the reader step by step through evaluating garden sites, deciding how large a piece of ground to work, choosing what crops to grow and when, building soil fertility, managing weeds and limiting pest damage, harvesting, and marketing. He even offers advice on how to use library resources for further information.
Coleman conveys a vast amount of detailed information without ever insulting the intelligence of the reader. He speaks as if to a fellow home or market gardener, sharing what works for him and discussing what he knows and what he doesn't know.
"The New Organic Grower" will be the book you dog-ear and feather with yellow sticky pages, returning to it time and again to check Coleman's recommendations on which varieties to plant as seed and which to transplant and into what size bed.
For further reading
Asked for their book recommendations for sustainable gardens, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Toby Hemenway and Frank Morton offered these suggestions:
"An Agricultural Testament," by Sir Albert Howard
"The Soil and Health," by Sir Albert Howard
"Gardening With Nature: How to Grow Your Own Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers by Natural Methods," by Leonard Wickenden
"The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening," by Gene Logsdon
"This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, by Joan Dye Gussow
Emma Hardesty, Kingsolver's assistant
"Cornucopia," by Stephen Facciola
"Permaculture: A Designer's Manual," by Bill Mollison
"Start With the Soil," by Grace Gershuny
"Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability," by David Holmgren,
"Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture," by Toby Hemenway
"The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control," by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar and Helga Olkowski
"Fertile Soil," by Robert Parnes
"Cornucopia," by Stephen Facciola
"Knott's Handbook for Vegetable Growers," by James Knott, Donald Maynard and Oscar Lorenz
"The Hidden Connections," by Fritjof Capra
Deborah K. Rich is a Monterey writer and olive rancher. E-mail her at [email protected].