Friday, January 6, 2012

The gift of books: For winter reading

The gardening energy starts to sprout soon after the New Year. We've had some downtime after the holidays and have reflected on how we want our garden to improve. A few sunny days get us excited for spring, although we can't break into the soil for another three months. So what can we do with that energy? We curl up beside the fireplace with a cup of tea in one hand and a book in the other, and plan next year's garden.

Of course, it's important to remember that the best way to learn is by doing. Don't get too overwhelmed by the amount of information, opinions and gardening methods out there. Only when you have solved the problem yourself will the answer truly be imbedded in your mind. Besides, sometimes reading can get beginning gardeners off track, as they dream about trying out some new gardening technique that may not be feasible for them until they have a good ten years of experience under their belts. In the first couple of years, they should really just be getting the feel for growing some of the basic crops.

So once the soil has warmed, get out there and give it a go—one step at a time!

It's important to balance your reading between the practical and the visionary. Read about the individual pieces of the garden and also the entire system. The following resources are geared toward overall theory, although most of them also get into the nuts-and-bolts.

Weedless Gardening. By Lee Reich. If you've never set up a garden or are interested in switching to a minimal-till method, I highly recommend this book. I particularly like the section on cover crops.

How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine. By John Jeavons. For those of you who love to be uber-productive (and love measurements and numbers), this book is for you! While I personally don't "double dig," I highly recommend reading about the concept, as outlined in this book. Biointensive mini-farming also incorporates some great composting methods.

The Soul of Soil: A Soil-Building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers. By Joe Smillie and Grace Gershuny. This book helps you understand the science (and magic!) behind soil, and you'll never look at dirt the same.

Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-free Vegetable Garden. By Sally Jean Cunningham. This book is especially good for those who want a beautiful garden ecosystem and are less concerned with producing a lot in a small space. Nevertheless, some of the intercropping techniques and beneficial flower strips can be incorporated in even the largest of agriculture systems.

Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. By Toby Hemenway. The concepts of permaculture are very important in designing your backyard. This book can help you create a system where all the parts work together, which will minimize investment in labor and unnecessary equipment.

The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener. By Eliot Coleman. While this resource is typically used by market gardeners, I recommend it for home gardeners so you can understand the importance of crop rotations and other soil-improving techniques. And for those who want a garden all year long, Eliot Coleman is the master of season extension.

The Mulch Book: A Complete Guide for Gardeners. By Stu Campbell. I came across this great find at a used bookstore, and it has been very helpful in fine-tuning my mulch-addicted gardening style.

Keep these resources handy when you're in the heat of the summer and need to avoid a gardening catastrophe.

The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control: A Complete Problem-Solving Guide to Keeping Your Garden and Yard Healthy without Chemicals. Edited by Barbara W. Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley. Includes easy-to-use and in-depth problem-solving, insect identification and disease symptom guides.

Organic Pest & Disease Control: How to Grow a Healthy Problem-Free Garden. A Taylor's Weekend Gardening Guide. Edited by Barbara Ellis and Frances Tenenbaum. I love the simple descriptions and large illustrations in this short 120-page guide.

Burpee The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically. By Karan Davis Cutler. While the instructions in this 440-page manual can feel overwhelming detailed, I love to learn the exact specifications of each plant. The alphabetical listing of plants include sections on site & soil, how to grow, and potential problems. It even delves into requirements of specific varieties of each vegetable. If you're having trouble with a certain plant and want to try everything under the sun to get it to thrive, this book is for you.

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. By Suzanne Ashworth. Whether or not you want to take the leap into seed-saving, this resource is important to understand the different pollination techniques and histories of vegetables. (So you can understand why those volunteer squash that sprouted in the compost pile don't quite look like the ones you planted last year!)

The Mother Earth News editions from the 1970's. At that time, the magazine published how-to articles on sustainable technologies, including precise instructions on how to create solar boxes and the like. Since the magazine was produced in Hendersonville, you can find back issues floating around in many basements in our region. You can also order issues online.

Whether or not you have an interest in producing for profit, it's good to review these resources to keep a practical mindset. It's much easier to dream than it is to implement, and these books keep you focused on numbers and logistics.

The Growing for Market journal is published 10 times a year and provides information about the latest trends on organic vegetable production and marketing. Sign up for a subscription at

The Organic Farmer's Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops and Staff—And Making a Profit. By Richard Wiswall. Before you make the leap of investing into an enterprise, it's important to run the numbers to make sure it won't break the bank. This handbook helps you do so.

New Roots for Agriculture. By Wes Jackson. This book is not intended to be a practical how-to guide, but I like it because it helps you hold close the motivations for your work. Even though Wes Jackson primarily writes from a Midwestern large-scale farming perspective, he still has been a tremendous inspiration in my endeavors in soil-building.

So maybe your computer is not as cozy to cuddle up to as a book, but Google is often the quickest way to answer a question. However, sorting through the prolific information can be annoying. Here are a few reliable sites:

The NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Project, known as "Attra" to most, has excellent articles about soils and compost, organic farming and pest management. While the site is geared for the small farmer, anyone committed to proper land management will appreciate Attra.

If the online materials are from the Cooperative Extension, then you know that the information has been thoroughly researched and tested true throughout the years. One of my favorite Extension resources is Growing Small Farms, produced by the Chatham County Center. Debbie Roos, Agriculture Extension Agent, is an excellent resource about pollinator gardens

Don't forget that seed catalogs often specify growing requirements of crops.

Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog is an excellent resource about interesting vegetable, herb and flower varieties and gardening tools to make your life easier.

The Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange emphasizes varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds that perform well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. The company specializes in heirloom and open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds.

Sow True Seed is an Asheville-based company that has hundreds of varieties of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. They are forward-thinking company with excellent ambitions such as increasing the number of North Carolina farmers who produce seeds to sell to the company.

Megan opens up her library to clients of her garden coaching service. You can hire Megan to help you design a garden system that fits your lifestyle and needs, set up a management plan, and work with you in the garden. Set up an appointment with Megan by calling 828.333.4151 or emailing gardens(at)wncmretc(dot)com.