April 11, 2010

Bumper crop of books on growing food

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Books take time.

TOM’S TIP

IT’S GARDEN-PLANNING time. And, although the recession is technically over, the good times have not, as yet, returned.

SO THE PEOPLE at the UMaine Extension office in Cumberland County want you to know that it is time to sign up for Plant a Row for the Hungry, a program run nationally by the Garden Writers Association. The extension officials reported figures from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank that 13.3 percent of Maine households have problems getting enough nutritious food.

SO PLAN TO grow more food than you are likely to eat and arrange to give the rest away. To request a PAR enrollment package, call 1 (800) 287-1471 (in Maine) or 780-4205 or e-mail choyt@umext.maine.edu.

An author gets a hot idea, perfect for the market at the moment. But then the book has to be written, edited, designed, published and delivered. And maybe the idea isn't as hot anymore.

That probably explains why the mailbox this year has been filled with books about growing food -- fruits, vegetables and herbs in containers, raised beds and the old-fashioned garden plot. Last year, with the down economy and string of food scares, was the year that everyone was going to return to the victory garden. This is the year the books sprouted.

All may not be lost for these writers, however. The weather last year was cold, rainy and really rotten even for experienced gardeners. Beginning gardeners probably will want to try again, and they could be looking for more knowledge from some other source -- like a book.

Don't consider what follows book reviews. I read only two of these cover-to-cover, but I did spend at least half an hour with each of them.

"Small-plot, high-yield gardening" by Sal Gilbertie and Larry Sheehan (Ten Speed Press, $18) was my favorite of the group. Gilbertie is the third-generation owner of Gilbertie's Herb Gardens in Westport, Conn., and Sheehan is the professional writer who made Gilbertie's vegetable-garden ideas clear, concise and coherent.

Gilbertie is an organic gardener, and the 248-page large-format paperback includes plans for a dozen different gardens, information about vegetable families, buying seeds, planting and production techniques, compost and more.

There is one Gilbertie suggestion, however, that Nancy and I will not try. Gilbertie thinks rabbit manure is the best garden fertilizer in the universe. He raises rabbits simply to harvest their manure. That, to me, seems like an awful lot of work.

"Starter Vegetable Gardens" by Barbara Pleasant (Storey, $19.95) tries to do basically the same thing as Gilbertie's book. The larger-format paperback offers "24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens" and opens with a three-year plan to create a 120-square-foot, attractive and productive garden. Her year-one plan involves putting plastic bags of commercial topsoil on the lawn and planting in the bagged soil. In the second year, the lawn below the bags is dead, and the garden grows.

She also has three-year plans for a bountiful border and a front yard food factory. She lost me a bit, however, when she recommended double digging, a labor-intensive shoveling exercise that most gardening experts have abandoned.

"Grow Your Own Vegetables" by Carol Klein (Mitchell Beazly, $19.99) has an excellent format. It gives a bit of an introduction to vegetable gardening, followed by a listing and descriptions of vegetables, with excellent photographs. The downside is that it was written originally for gardeners in England, a much milder climate than we have in Maine, and I don't think it translates particularly well.

"Raised-bed Vegetable Gardening made simple" by Raymond Jones (The Countryman Press in Vermont, $15.95) might be trying to give too much detail. In one section, he spends three pages telling you how to make your own yardstick. There is a lot of good information there, but it is a bit dry and reads like a textbook.

"Easy Container Combos:Vegetables and Flowers" (Color Garden Publishing, $19.95) is the third in a series of container gardening books by Pamela Crawford. The photography is excellent, and many of the ideas are original. It combines the trends of growing vegetables and growing in containers.

"The Vegetable Gardener's Book of Building Projects," from the editors of Storey Publishing, is an excellent book if you want to build things. The plans seem easy to follow, with photos, good cutting diagrams, measurements and simple instructions.

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