Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) Paperback – 4 Jan 2006
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About the Author
Steve Solomon is a well-known west coast gardening guru, and author of five previous books. The founder of Territorial Seed Company, he has taught Master Gardener and Urban Farm classes at the University of Oregon in Eugene. His book, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades has appeared in five editions.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I had to really chuckle when I read his rudimentary back to basics tool list consisting of a shovel, a bow rake, a hoe and a file to keep them sharp and useful. A simple wheelbarrow, buckets, knife and stone fill out his recomendations. He's so very right when he suggests that it doesn't take an armada of gadgets and do-hickies and specialty tools to make a very sucessful garden. And his comments on using some commonly sold garden gadgets make for humorous images for those who have suffered too short handles, stooped backs and the associated aches and pains. Many folks pondering the latest garden knick-knack catalog could do well to remember Solomon's basic tools will get the job done advice. Admittedly, he does sound like what MY grandfather would've said in the tool chapter. ("Put down that dreambook, pick up that hoe, and get to doing something useful." ... <still chuckling>)
What I particularly thought useful was the idea of returning to planting based on choosing plant spacing not for intensity of harvest if thoroughly irrigated, but rather choosing less dense spacing based on potential for drought. In the drought chapter, Solomon makes the case that earlier gardeners more concerned with crop survival than sheer bulk of harvest knew to choose spacing that allows for stronger, more durable plants that better survive droughts. There's a lot more to it than that. I'm oversimplifying his points to make a point, and that is that there is something useful in this book for everyone; from those who've never dug their hands in dirt to those who think that they have a "better way".
I'm currently recommending this book as a good solid intro to veggie gardening that will produce the produce for those interested in delving beyond the picture books. Frankly, I've got lots of gardening and permaculture books and yet this was the first that I've seen fit to review, as I think it bears some recommendation to a wider audience.
The books subtitle, "Growing food in hard times", refers to the coming shortage of oil and the economic troubles ahead. Don't let this scare you away, the author spends very little time on this soapbox. The book falls a little short of the promise, though; after explaining why fertilizer, including the organic kinds, water, fuel for machines, etc. will be scarce and expensive, he spends a lot of space discussing imported fertilizer ingredients, sprinkler systems, and large plant spacing, none of which, by his own assertion, will be available to most of us in the future. He does discuss a few short term strategies, including compost cropping, increased plant spacing to save water and nutrients, but does little to help us prepare for the coming shortages.
This is one of those rare books that improve with the second reading. There is plenty of well-presented information. If you are new to gardening, or want to expand your harvest, this book is an excellent choice. If you are an intensive method gardener, this book will introduce an alternative perspective; read with an open mind, you will learn much about the strengths and weaknesses of both methods.
Sometimes the narrative left me behind and I didn't follow. Gardeners in general (not just this book) tend to gloss over details as if we're just supposed to know. For example, the fertigation section of the book doesn't have a really good definitive statement of what the heck fertigation is. Nor do I recall any specifications being provided on the size of the hole or how you make the hole in the first place. Good definitive (and idiot proof) topic sentences would've been a huge help.
Also, it was frustrating for a book that purported to teach gardening for hard times to say it's not worth it to garden in clay soil or rocky soil. I would've thought there would be a focus on things that can be done to maximize growth in all conditions. This is Gardening When It Counts, not Gardening In Ideal Conditions.
That and gardening is more expensive than I thought. Especially as the author notes that once oil prices go up so will the cost of all the fertilizers he advises you will need. Can I afford to garden when it counts? I'm not sure.
Plus, unless you can buy seeds at least every other year, you are S.O.L. (which I would've hoped there would've been more discussion on alternatives, perhaps some discussion of exchanging seeds with local gardeners etc...)
In addition the author recommends at least 2700 square feet of garden space times two (so you can rotate your crops). This is not practical for most of suburbia.
Again, back to my point that this book is not supposed to be about Gardening In Ideal Conditions With Unlimited Funds And Space, but it often seems to take that tack.
There are some positives.There is no question that the author is a master gardener so whatever info you do glean from the book is solid. Composting is covered in great detail. There are some excellent nuggets of information that make the book worth a read (the seed company recommendations were much appreciated). However, you will not learn everything you need to know in this book alone and I question whether it truly does offer any good advice on how to garden when it counts for the average person in the average house.
While the book is intended to help the novice gardener, the tone made this title a difficult book to read. The author spends a great deal of time ridiculing other garden writers (John Jeavons in particular) that he refers to as Everyone Else. While describing these authors as foolish slaves to production quantity (apparently Everyone Else includes every person who believes in raised bed, intensive gardening), Steve Solomom extolls the virtues of planting in rows and giving plants 'room to grow'. He provides his own example of having not one, but TWO 2400sq ft garden beds - he allows one lot to lie fallow each year with a green manure while the other is planted.
Steve also seems to loathe clay soil, so much so that he doesn't even bother giving any advice on how to improve it. He says clay is the worst, nutrient-sucking soil (like a battery that eats nutrients) and that even when adding lots of organic matter, it will still hurt your crop production. So instead of recommending a realistic and effective means to address this soil type, the author recommends paying someone to haul in a truckload of topsoil to create the ideal garden bed. That's what he did (spending $1200 in the process), and of course he has beautiful results. Seeing as how I am reading the book to learn how to garden 'in hard times', and I do live on northeastern American clay soil, I had to look past this ridiculous recommendation to get to the good information in the book.
The book does contain very good information that covers many aspects of how to treat a garden if you are to truly rely on its production. He provides an inexpensive recipe for a complete organic fertilizer (noting that today's chemical concoctions of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are creating vegetables that do not give maximum nutritive value - garbage in is garbage out). He also explains the importance of seed quality and provides information on how to obtain the ideal variety for your area, as well as selecting plants for seed to improve future yields.
While I did find a lot of good information, Steve Soloman's writing style made this book torturous to read.
If you are a hobby gardener or a staunch enthusiast of intensive methods you are going to dislike this book. You may even get your feelings hurt. Gardeners are an opinionated lot and Solomon doesn't pull any punches concerning his own experience successfully running a mail-order seed business or working a homestead.
Plants are not political nor are the insects that feed on them. Much current garden literature perpetuates a garden of eden myth that purports to be an enlightened response to the supposedly brutal crass monoculture practices of the past. The methods and products sprouting from this glorified ideal make for good sales but often leave home gardeneners feeling like failures when their efforts do not pay off. Solomon provides a revealing if somewhat depressing look at the gardening industry and explains why I have been so often puzzled by low germination rates, low yield, or a piece of equipment simply not performing adequately.
No matter your gardening persuasion, if you are beyond beginning gardening, Solomon is worth a read. His strengths as an advisor are:
1) If you take away nothing else, at least learn how to sharpen your tools from this man. No other gardening book is going to tell you how to do this simple thing that every farmer knows.
2) Solomon never loses his emphasis on cost containment and the little balancing trick we all must do on this subject. Most organic gardening guides don't approach the subject because most of their advice is quite costly, such as irrigation, growing of transplants and doubling up on seed for the necessary companion planting. Cost is a real world struggle for most of us and this issue permeates Solomon's experience and advice.
3) A soil thermometer! What a novel idea for starting those seeds directly in soil! I don't see this item in the gardening shops as often as the light meters and such. But I am going to look for one. A sensible piece of equipment that I had never thought of seeking out.
4) Low germination rates - it may not be your fault! Don't take to heart your failure to start plant from seed and resign yourself to buying costly transplants. Read the seed chapter and you are going to learn a lot from an ex-seedsman about what makes a good seed, how to save and buy seed, and for how long seed can be kept to contain your purchasing costs.
5) Professional farmers know about the plow pan where the soil compacts over multiple plowings and they understand that managing soil fertility is more than applying Miracle-Gro a few times a year. If you plan to keep the same garden lot for many years you may find that you have decreased yield over time. Solomon's strength is bringing professional information to the lay person and his writing will actually hold your attention as he talks about trace minerals and other arcane bits of soil fertility.
6) A soil amendment is provided in his COF formula (page 21) that addresses the trace minerals needed by plants over time and that doesn't flood the soil with one nutrient to the detriment of others. The ingredients are accessible and it is worth a try.
7) When you are paying for water knowing just how much is needed can save you a bundle. Solomon provides a system for measuring your sprinkling system water output and gives ideas for cost management and placement that could be a huge help to someone whose environment makes irrigation a must.
8) The cornstarch gel for laying out seeds, or fluid drilling, (page 126) what an awesome idea I have never seen anywhere else! Though seed is cheaper than starters if you have to buy enough seed the bill can run high. That means utilizing the seed you buy as efficiently as possible. Again cost containment is integrated in his approach and he brings some of the most valuable insider knowledge to the serious home gardener.
Solomon's one recurring limitation is one that we all share, he has a hard time imagining a life vastly different than his own. Having homesteaded so many years he doesn't have experience with the average shady city lot and may not realize just how much many urbanites relish home grown produce. Part of the intensive movement is a response to urban gardeners wanting to engage in more sustainable responsible environmental practices and partly due to an increased interest in gourmet, ethnic and traditional foods. More people are cooking from scratch and they want to cook vegetables they have grown. They don't want to move 50 miles from work so they can have a large garden plot and the world still needs doctors, lawyers and such who keep our infrastructure going. Homesteading is not for everyone nor should it be.
When considering your particular environment raised beds, irrigation and intensive planting schemes may be your best or only option. If you must garden intensively I recommend Sally Jean Cunningham who is as chummy as Solomon is crotchety. Actually I recommend that you read both authors, both organic growers whose well-explained diametrically opposed approaches will give you a strong broad knowledge base that will support you through years of gardening.
Gardening is as simple as putting a seed into dirt, but it is also a craft with a large body of research, experience and debate. This book is an articulate beginning primer into the actual science behind gardening. Possibly overwhelming for a beginner, but intriguing and blessedly honest for the gardener or homesteader seeking to push ahead their soil management skills and increase their yields significantly.
Solomon who describes himself as "gardening grandfather" is like all grandfathers, set in his ways, a bit crabby and way past any pretense of political correctness. When he trashes a practice he admits to his negative tone but does not soft peddle his recommendations. He shoots straight from the hip and be prepared to hear some of your more cherished notions challenged.
That is how we humans grow, not just as gardeners but as people. Don't let any irritation with the old man lose you the chance to take in what he imparts. A contrarian voice is sometimes needed when the prevailing wisdom fails us. Get mad but don't throw away your copy. There may come a time when you will need it.