Casaubon's Book

31 Books – The Resilient Gardener

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 profund 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!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 John Beall
    January 3, 2011

    Sounds like a book for me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Always want to learn more.
    Just curious, did you like the british sit com “Good Neighbors”?

  2. #2 Kevin Wilson
    January 3, 2011

    I bought myself this book for Christmas, and had a very similar reaction to you, Sharon. Aha moments right from the first page, lots of things I want to run out and do, and so much meat! (the kind for the brain, not the stomach LOL). Took me longer than most books to read, because there was so much there. I even read all the notes at the end, because I didn’t want to have to stop!

    For me, there’s also the advantage that Carol gardens in a climate similar to mine (PNW) though I am further north than her. It will be very interesting to see if we have a long enough season here to ripen the corns she discusses.

    AND she apparently will have seeds for sale, something I’ve been wishing for ever since Breed Your own… although the website (Fertile Valley Seeds) says not available yet.

  3. #3 Shannon in Maine
    January 3, 2011

    I bought this a few weeks back, started it, and then received “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties” as a Yule gift. I’ve been egrossed in BYOVV (mad scientist tendencies have awakened!) but can’t wait to get back to “The Resilient Gardener”. It’s also a nice, sneaky good book to give to family and friends to teach about reslience in the face of uncertainty without sounding like a doomer hard-ass. Carol Deppe is my new gardening crush. :)

  4. #4 Jennie
    January 3, 2011

    I got this one for Yule too!
    Yea, I make it through a chapter or so and have to stop to chew. :-) Love it.

  5. #5 Claire
    January 3, 2011

    My DH gave me The Resilient Gardener and I am thrilled with it! I start designing my year’s veggie garden right after New Years Day, so it came at the perfect time. It’s a bit frustrating for me that Carol gardens in a very different climate from mine, so the particular varieties that she suggests may not work as well for me (though I plan to try some of them anyway). My summer climate is much hotter for much longer than hers. But I can use info from both her books to find varieties that work well for me. Also I can start from her recipes and modify as needed to make a kind of corn bread that works for me and my DH. I agree with you: this is the perfect book for an experienced gardener who wants to grow a more-complete diet and wants to do it in a way that works in difficult times.

  6. #6 Don
    January 3, 2011

    Thanks for this review, Sharon! You’ve confirmed my initial impression of the book from what I read on Amazon. I hadn’t heard of Carol Deppe or this book before it showed up in my Amazon “recommended” list (you know, based on previous purchases, books on my wish list, etc.). I was quite impressed with the reviews and write-ups, thinking it sounded good enough to place alongside my other favorite gardening books–John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables and Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. I’ll be ordering my copy soon (tomorrow at the latest)!

  7. #7 Michelle
    January 4, 2011

    Thanks for this review Sharon, very timely as I am waiting for this book to be delivered, a new years gift to myself!

  8. #8 Dunc
    January 5, 2011

    The same is true with double digging – I’m sure it is a great thing, but I’m way too lazy to do that.

    Meh. Double digging was invented by hard-line Calvinists, terrified they were going to Hell if they didn’t put in 20hrs hard labour six days a week, but too poor to acquire enough land to keep them busy. It’s over-rated. Nobody’s double digging the rainforest, and it grows just fine.

    Mind you, my only real gardening book is Charles Dowding’s Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way

  9. #9 Don
    January 5, 2011

    Dunc: I concur–double-digging might be overrated..
    We sort of double-dug our first garden bed. The soil underneath the top layer was so compacted I had to use a pickaxe to loosen it. But we didn’t do it with the second bed–we just turned over the sod and made a raised bed above it with topsoil and composted manure. It was just as productive as the double-dug bed.

  10. #10 kate@livingthefrugallife
    January 5, 2011

    How nice to find a glowing review of a book I recently bought purely on the strength of its title. (Chelsea Green was having a great sale, don’t you know.) It’s already in my short stack of books next to the bed, and I think your recommendation will put it on the top of that pile. I certainly agree that titles in the middle ground for gardeners are few and far between. Looking forward to reading it.

  11. #11 Christine Robins
    January 7, 2011

    It’s a great book. I refer to it frequently, and her advice has changed many of my gardening practices.

    Her emphasis on easy-to-grow, easy-to-store staple crops is a refreshing change from all the attantion given to fussy foods, such as tomatoes, that require large amounts of energy to process for storage.

    Her chapter on “Labor and Exercise” is a must for any gardener with physical limitations. (Which is most of us who are middle-age or older.)

  12. #12 Rhizowen
    January 18, 2011

    I got this book for Christmas too. I think I agree with pretty much everything that has been said here.

    Living in Cornwall, UK, we have a climate a bit like Western WA. I’m working on breeding new tuber crops to create a tuber polyculture, but I’m also keen to have a go with corns now. If Lavender Parching Corn grows in Port Townsend, it jolly well ought to grow here.

    It is very gratifying that Carol Deppe places emphasis on hearty staples, rather than the current fad for exotic crops that are really just a peripheral contribution to the diet of people who have an abundance of calories courtesy of supermarkets and agribusiness. Having gardened professionally, I soon got a sense of which crops actually merited the effort required to grow them. Like her previous book, Breed Your Own vegetable Varieties, this book will be one I refer to for years to come. Can I get hold of Oregon Homestead Sweet Meat squash before it’s time to plant? Here’s hoping Fertile Valley Seeds goes online soon!