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Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) Paperback – April 1, 2006
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The decline of cheap oil is inspiring increasing numbers of North Americans to achieve some measure of backyard food self-sufficiency. In hard times, the family can be greatly helped by growing a highly productive food garden, requiring little cash outlay or watering.
Currently popular intensive vegetable gardening methods are largely inappropriate to this new circumstance. Crowded raised beds require high inputs of water, fertility and organic matter, and demand large amounts of human time and effort. But, except for labor, these inputs depend on the price of oil. Prior to the 1970s, North American home food growing used more land with less labor, with wider plant spacing, with less or no irrigation, and all done with sharp hand tools. But these sustainable systems have been largely forgotten. Gardening When It Counts helps readers rediscover traditional low-input gardening methods to produce healthy food.
Designed for readers with no experience and applicable to most areas in the English-speaking world except the tropics and hot deserts, this book shows that any family with access to 3-5,000 sq. ft. of garden land can halve their food costs using a growing system requiring just the odd bucketful of household waste water, perhaps two hundred dollars worth of hand tools, and about the same amount spent on supplies-working an average of two hours a day during the growing season.
Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series(2005-11-16)
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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.
First, I agree with some other reviewers about the negative tone of the book. The author seemed very self satisfied with his methods and felt that he was FAR more intelligent than anyone else out there gardening. He spends an inordinate amount of time in the book bashing everyone who holds an opinion different from his. Ironically, I agreed with a lot of what he said, but I didn't like all the negativity.
Second, this book makes gardening sound *impossible* to do:
- He recommends very specific kinds of fertilizers, made to his exacting specifications, full of stuff I'd never heard of [ie: "4 1/2 parts less-potent coprameal, supplemented with 1 1/2 parts tankage"] [p. 21] He goes on to explain a bit what this is - tankage is apparently ground up scraps of animals left over from slaughterhouses. OK. I have NO idea where the heck I'd find such a thing [or that I'd be willing to use it on my organic garden]. Or coprameal [I'm still not sure what this is, exactly].
- He makes it sound so incredibly hard to amend your soil in order to grow anything - in fact, after going on page after page with very specific and complicated instructions, making it sound impossible, he says that he just personally bought a truck load of top soil and had it delivered to his farm and dumped on his garden - at a cost of $1,200 for one load. I don't know about you, but "hard times" for me would mean not having $1,200 laying around to drop on top soil for my garden... [heck, I don't have $1,200 laying around during "good times". LOL!]
Third, he goes on and on about balancing soil nutrients - if you don't do exactly what he says and use exactly the ratios of the products he recommends, your soil is going to produce nutrient deficient plants and you are going to end up with all kinds of health problems. He includes a nasty anecdote about his friend "Ken", an avid gardener whom he feels has unbalanced soil nutrients. As a result, in the author's opinion, Ken's children have messed up teeth and jaw development. [Which was just a discourteous and mean spirited story to share, in my opinion]. Personally, I just don't think Mother Nature is this stupid that she needs us to "fix" her with some very specific equation of additives - I'm sure soil deficiencies CAN develop, but people have been gardening and surviving just fine for millennia without his special mix of soil amendments.... my grandparents did.
Fourth, his chapter on plowing up the garden bed made me bonkers. The only method he recommends is hand digging the whole garden to a depth of 12 inches [I'm planning a really big garden where there is existing sod - this would take me forever the first time around]. If you do anything else, he feels that you are doomed to failure. If you use a tiller or a plow, he says you are going to create a "plow pan" 5 or 7 inches under the soil that is going to form a rock hard surface that will keep your plant roots from growing deep enough. So tillers and plows are BAD. Ironically, 4 pages later, he ridicules the raised bed method, which requires 2 feet of digging down, according to him. He feels that digging that deep is a waste of effort, and says "Over time the second foot will become looser without any extra effort on your part as worms transport the organic matter you put into the surface, and as plant nutrients leach into the subsoil [which chemically loosens clay...]. [p. 57] So, worms and leaching work in a raised bed but somehow won't work with a bed you've tilled mechanically? Maybe I'm missing something here, but that seemed contradictory to me.
Fifth, to do everything he says you have to do, you are going to need to spend a *fortune* on soil amendments, special things to balance your soil nutrients, and maybe bringing in several loads of top soil [at $1200 a load]. And then, according to him, the seeds or seedlings you are trying to use are probably from an "unethical" seed seller and won't work anyway.
Sixth, just about everything in the book is negative. If you buy seedlings, you are an idiot. If you buy seeds, you are an idiot. [He gives a very short list of seed companies that he considers "OK" to buy from, but this is based on research he did in *1989* - two of my favorite seed companies - Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co and Select Seeds - weren't even founded back then. Companies that did exist back then have probably significantly changed in the last 25 years. I did not think this list was useful.] If you start your own seedlings, you are probably going to do it wrong [because you are an idiot?]. Only buy the expensive tools because quality is better than low price, and he knows you are going to want to buy the cheap tools [because you are an idiot?]. [I agree about buying quality, but the condescension was obnoxious.] The book just goes on and on with negative things that can and will go wrong with this garden venture.
Seventh, I just didn't think the book was written well. In some places it is incredibly dry. In other places, the author just goes off on long rants about how he disagrees with this or that. I found this book difficult to read on many levels.
There IS some good information here. It was good advice to be cautious about where we buy seeds from, for example. Some of the information on growing individual vegetables was helpful. If the book could have been cleaned of the negativity and rants, I think it would have been worth my time [though still demoralizing and discouraging]. The author is unquestionably knowledgeable, but his delivery was very much lacking, in my opinion.
I am completely mystified as to how this book got so many glowing reviews...
At the end of this book, I basically have the feeling that I can't possibly grow anything, it will be completely impossible to have a successful garden, and I should not even bother. That was not exactly the "inspiration" that I was looking for when I bought this book.
[Updated 1/4/2015 to add: I FINALLY found the book I wanted on this subject: "The Resilient Gardener" by Deppe. If you were looking for a book that actually teaches you to feed yourself in simple and straightforward terms, THAT is the book you want. :) I LOVE it! So extremely helpful!]
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.
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