Posts Tagged ‘gardening books’

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

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The One Straw Revolution

It’s an older book, but The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka is still a good read. When I was poking through the library at the Denver Botanic Garden, I picked it partially for the interesting title and partially because it is a slim volume. After all, I was already reading other books and I would be returning it in only a couple of weeks. I figured it would be an easy read and one more thought to ponder.

Don’t let the size of the book fool you. The book is written with the same spare elegance that seems to personify his “do-nothing” farming technique. It is simple, it is straight-forward, and if you’re paying any attention at all, it packs a heck of a punch. He relates stories with humor and mistakes with humility, the whole time knowing that there is a better way. His instructions are as understated as his description of his farming technique. It does require that you do something. However, he discovered that if he worked with nature rather than against, that he needed to do a lot less than traditional or modern farm techniques require. His particular techniques are designed for his home in Japan, but the theory behind them is applicable anywhere.

The two main themes that I pulled from this book are that we aren’t the be-all and end-all of knowledge (his sudden revelation that he understood nothing- as in recognizing the insufficiency of intellectual knowledge), and that we are making things too difficult for ourselves (“do-nothing” farming). Both of these are ideas that I have been coming to understand but hadn’t put words to until I read his. As he was coming up with his farming techniques he was bypassing centuries of traditional farming techniques and the budding agri-business techniques. (At the time it was written in 1978, he had already been farming for about 40 years) Rather, he looked to how plants were grown and produced without any outside influence whatsoever. He looked to nature.

As a young man, he was a scientist and a researcher. The revelation of understanding nothing sent him from the microscope back to his father’s farm where he began to explore this concept further. Through trial and error, being a good scientist, he discovered that the less he did to work against nature’s preferences and habits, the less work he actually had to do. By harnessing the natural rhythms and seasons, he figured out that for a quarter-acre field, two people can take care of the planting of summer rice and winter grains with only a couple of days labor in the fall. A field that will probably yield 1,300 pounds of the winter grain alone. His yields are consistently in line with the best of the harvests in his country.

There are concepts that I disagree with, and some that I am simply not ready to wrap my head around. I don’t believe that rice and vegetables makes a complete diet- even if they are the highest-quality vegetables you can find. I do believe that too many of us are out of touch with what food is and where it comes from. I am not ready to sow my vegetable seeds by just scattering them on the ground. However, I am working toward the idea that there are easier ways to grow them than “Big Ag” would have us believe.

As I don’t live in Japan, the details aren’t good for much more than an illustration of his points. However, at some point I intend to acquire a copy to keep around as a reminder of the philosophy behind those details. Look around. What is working where you live, and how are you making your own life harder because you didn’t notice it?

Square Foot Gardening

At the moment, if I was asked to recommend a book for a beginning gardener, it would be Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. (I read the original not the all new ones he’s got for sale.) Like any book, I have some disagreements, but the way he outlines the whole process makes it very accessible and worth the effort. It is a thicker book, but he covers everything from plotting and preparing the soil to some basics of harvesting and storing what you grow.

The premise is that rather than working in rows, you work in beds. His twist on the bed concept is that you function on a square-foot grid. This means that you only have to think about a single square foot at a time. By thinking on such a small scale, any chores are kept at a reasonable level. He came up with this from watching people in community gardens just get overwhelmed as the summer went on by weeds or watering or even harvesting. However, once you have weeded, watered, planted, or harvested one square, you have a solid accomplishment in a short time which makes it easier to move on to another square.

He is all about continuous and reasonably sized harvests. He does discuss the logistics of planning a large, one-time harvest if you are planning on preserving food for other seasons. However, most of it is about how to plan your garden so that you can harvest what you need and plant the next round with as little fuss as possible. One square holds 16 carrots. Since you probably don’t want to harvest more than that at once, you plant one square of carrots, wait two weeks, then plant another square. This gives you a clear progression for harvesting, once you get to that point. Once the first square has had all of the carrots harvested, it is ready to be turned over with some compost and replanted with the next crop. This keeps you from being overwhelmed by needing to spend a full day planting or harvesting. It also helps even out the “boom or bust” that most garden crops have if they are planted all at once.

One of the most interesting points is how very space-efficient this is. I grew up with a row garden that most people are familiar with. It turns out that long, thin rows aren’t just since the advent of tractors. I ran across an old instruction to make your garden long and thin rather than lots of short rows because you would spend significantly less time turning your plow horse or team. On our property, we had the space and rototiller that made a sprawling row garden logical. However, if your space is limited or you just don’t want to turn over that much land, by eliminating the walking path between each crop row, you save on a lot of things. You have less bare soil to keep weeded and watered. You also have less compaction from walking so close to each plant. The plants themselves even help with weed reduction and water retention as they can grow close enough to shade most of the soil in their square. His estimate is that you can grow the same number of plants in only 20% of the space of a more conventional garden.

His covering of pest control is interesting as well. Not only is not using chemicals healthier, but it’s easier. His solution for caterpillars is to pluck them off and crush them. For cutworms, you dig in the ground around the freshly felled seedling to uncover and crush the guilty party. The reason this works is because you have such a tiny space to monitor that you will see most changes caused by pests before more extreme intervention is necessary. In later chapters he goes over other information like season-extending and setting up boxes for patios and rooftops. He even offers some recipes to help you manage your bounty. It is a very complete look at having a garden.

I do have a few points to pick at. After all, does one ever agree with everything? For one thing, raw veggies are not more digestible than cooked ones, no matter how young and fresh they are. Also, you might also only turn over the full garden once per year, but renting a shovel because you only use it once per year? I agree that you can do away with most of the fancy tools, but a shovel is just a practical thing to keep around.

Overall, it is a very practical book, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A couple of weeks ago a friend handed me Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Since it’s winter, it’s the season of reading and learning more than doing. I have been pouring over all sorts of non-fiction gardening books that focus on “how to.” She handed me this one to help remind me of the “why.” Why is a question we don’t ask often enough after we get out of the perpetual “Why?” stage as children. I am actually considering re-aquiring that phase. There are altogether too many answers that we’re given that should be challenged with a five-year-old’s tenacity.

The story is about a family that moves to Appalachia to grow their own food for one year. They aren’t new at this. In fact, they’d been gardening in that particular farm for years during the summer as a break from their lives in Tucson, Arizona. It wasn’t just gardening and hen-raising that they were already familiar with. The family hadn’t been eating CAFO meat for years by the time the story started. Barbara has a degree in evolutionary biology. Her husband, Steven Hopp has a Ph.D. in animal behavior and has taught everything from ornithology to natural history. Their older daughter, Camille Kingsolver, was, at the time of writing, in college for biology, anatomy, and dance. She also had the benefit of being raised by a family that took food and science seriously. The younger daughter, Lily, has fewer titles, given her age, but the story wouldn’t be the same without her.

The bulk of the story is told by Barbara. It is nonfiction, but she does have a flair for making it a story anyway. Gardening and eating what they produce is not a totally new concept, but they learn a lot along the way. Things like, when to start? After all, the beginning of the calendar year is not the beginning of the growing year. Steven adds more scientific and factual asides. Camille offers a young adult’s prospective and quite a few recipes for each season. Each person, including Lily who wasn’t old enough to actually contribute to the writing, added skills and insight into the whole process. At the end is an impressive list of additional resources.

The book was a great read. I intend to pass it on to my mother because I think she will get a kick out of the story, having fed a family out of a vegetable garden herself. The story also made me seriously nostalgic for the family meals that I don’t have any more and probably didn’t appreciate enough when I did. It made me think about the bar Mom put in when she redid the kitchen. That way everyone could still gather there like they always did, but she would have space of her own for the cooking and other kitchen chores that seemed to be neverending. I used to bemoan the fact that my mother’s world seemed to revolve around food. Feeding a family of six on home-made meals will do that to you. Now I’m beginning to think that there are far worse things for a world to revolve around. After all, how else would you aquire memories of the women in the family gathering in the kitchen for canning and gossip?

I will say that by the end of the book, with her descriptions of the trials of her breeding-stock turkeys, I am thinking about possibly starting with turkeys for my own fowl experiments. After all, they did almost become our national bird, so they shouldn’t be allowed to die out. If all else fails, they taste good, too.

“How to” is very important. I will continue reading up on that, but it’s good to be reminded of why we need to learn how. The end result. While I don’t have the need, or at the moment the ability, to harvest 400 pounds of tomatoes, I do have the need to be reminded that food grows in dirt and that tomatoes are best eaten during tomato season.