A deep, complex garden book that is fun to read…


From SHARON ASTYK
casaubonsbook

There are a lot of gardening books out there, and whenever anyone asks me for my favorite ones, I find myself struggling to make a list. There are three rules about garden books to remember.

1. All garden books are local to one degree or another, unless they are very general. That is, all garden books are fundamentally about the experience of gardeners in particular places and in particular circumstances. Beyond basic books, the best garden books are by authors who remember this and try and connect what they have done with others, while also acknowledging the limits of their experience. Bad garden books become prescriptive “no one should use mulch” or “everyone should use mulch” or whatever because their experience with mulch is deemed to be universal.

2. There is a difficult middle-space gap in garden writing between books that are written for the absolute beginner (many) and speak in such general terms that after you’ve mastered the basics, you don’t really need to read more of them, and the technical research papers that often present new research or ideas. By this I mean that the experienced, engaged gardener who doesn’t need to read another basic explanation of how soil fertility works or how to start seeds leaves them with little truly new, exciting and creative to read. The papers can be useful and inspiring, but they are rarely readable or entertaining, the general books may be fond and familiar material, but one goes back to them as reference, and there are only a few dozens of good books written for the expert gardener who wants to learn something new. One ends up falling back on personal narratives “the story of my garden” and trying to glean what you can of their expertise from that (which can be rewarding in its own way). Once you’ve read Eliot Coleman and Suzanne Ashworth, John Jeavons, etc… and the best books on herbs and fruit and pruning and perennials…now what?

3. The very best garden writers are the ones who are actual people with actual imperfections. As much as I admire, say, Dave Jacke’s wonderful pair of books Edible Forest Gardening, for example, I do read his many, many part list of “things I should do before I plant a single thing” in his section on site preparation with a “I’m just not going to do all that.” The same is true with double digging – I’m sure it is a great thing, but I’m way too lazy to do that. My favorite garden writers are the ones that acknowledge up front that we *shouldn’t* ever let a weed go to seed, but realistically, we probably will, and have methods for adapting to our flawed existence.

4. Most garden books assume that you are gardening for pleasure, rather than from need, and often assume one has more money to spend than many of us do and no need to prioritize crops or space or time. They are good books, but often ill-adapted to difficult or hard times. The category of books that is well adapted to these is fairly small, and from one reason or another, often have some deep flaws that make them hard for me to recommend. But there’s a real need for gardening books that actually address the reality – that gardening isn’t about $64 tomatoes, but about keeping people fed in practical, inexpensive ways.

It is rare for me to read a book that does all three things – that fills that middle gap by offering me genuinely new and engaging ideas, is local to its place but thoughtful about how information gleaned in one environment might connect to another, is written by someone who does have limits on time and energy and occasionally desire to do it perfectly, and finally, is conscious of the need to garden in response to difficult times. That’s why Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener is such a gift.

Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties has long been on my list of must-have books, and is something I recommend to anyone who plans to save seed – or even anyone interested in knowing more than the basics about the plants they grow. Carol Deppe is just such a profound well of knowledge about plants, and her deep curiosity about them drives her to do kinds of research that no one else is doing. The Resilient Gardener is a reflection of her wide ranging interests and fascination with the process of producing her own food.

The premise is one that I can’t but appreciate – she points out that hard times come to all of us, whether they are national or international in scale or purely personal. The narrative begins with the years she spent caring for her mother who suffered Alzheimers disease, and the ways that her garden was a respite and a nurturance to herself and to her mother, but also the ways that her garden had to become resilient to allow for demands on her time and resources. She then shifts us towards a world picture, but never forgets that our gardens have to serve us in complicated situations.

Deppe has celiac disease, and one of the values of this book is that it focuses on a smaller number of crops that provide dense nutritional value without grains – Potatoes, Corn, Squash, Beans and Eggs. This is value not only for many people who are intolerant of grains, but those who live on land or in environments not suitable to grain growing. She makes a reasonable case that from these five main crops, you could produce on a moderate sized lot the better portion of a balanced diet. Although one doesn’t grow eggs in dirt, she offers an invaluable discussion of raising poultry on garden crops that alone would be worth the price of the book.

Deppe has so much to say and so much information to convey that occasionally she gets bogged down, giving every subject the full benefit of her analysis – I suspect the discussion of what protein sources make her feel full could have been cut down a touch. That is the faintest of criticisms of a book that was quite possibly the most intellectually engaging and delightful garden book I’ve ever read. I am only frustrated that I read it in winter and can’t immediately rush out and begin trying many of her ideas – for example, I’ve clearly been drying the wrong variety of zucchini. Only Deppe would have the patience and wisdom to sort through dozens of varieties for the ones that retain their flavor best when dried, or to find the best popping chick peas. I find myself humbled by her energies – I too often have tried a vegetable variety in one preparation and said “oh, this one isn’t that great…” rather than doing as Deppe does and trying to figure out what the variety might actually be good for.

This is not a beginner’s book, although new gardeners might well want to acquire it and read through it, planning to take what they can now and come back again and again as they acquire new experience. It has much to offer a new gardener, however – her section on tools and techniques, and the one on physical exertions are very good, as are her basics. But this book throws *a lot* of information at you – so if you are a new gardener, expect to revisit this one. Actually, nearly everyone should expect to need to read it more than once, which is a good argument for ownership, rather than simply borrowing it. I know I’ll be revisiting it over and over again, because it is that rarest of all things – a deep, complex garden book that is fun to read and entrancing, and that stretches one’s mind far and hard. What a delight!
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See also The 20 Potato A Day Diet and Mendo Island Transition: Achieving Local Food Resilience
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One Comment

I loved the book, too, and as Sharon Astyk says, it regularly gets taken down from the shelf so I can reread a chapter or note the differences between the different types of corn or see which kind of potato she likes for which kind of cooking method. I appreciate the “reviews” Deppe has given different varieties of squash, beans, corn, and potatoes, and I’ll be pulling the book down off the shelf once again in the next couple of days to complete that order to fill in the gaps in my seed collection. (How did it get to be February so soon?) Her chapter notes at the end of the book have so much additional information — don’t skip them.

I think I have read the chapter on Ancona ducks four or five times now and I keep trying to decide how to fit in raising them along with all my other responsibilities. Deppe makes a great case for keeping ducks and her Anconas sound delightful.

If I could only keep five or six of my gardening books, this book would be one of them.

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