Friday, March 02, 2007

Book Review - The Vegetable Gardener's Bible


This is my all time favorite gardening book,and I have quite a few. I turn to this one more than any other. Edward C. Smith discusses his "W-O-R-D" method: Wide rows, Organic soil, Raised beds, and Deep soil. I stole the image from amazon.com; you can't really search inside by clicking on the picture.

Ed is a big fan of wide rows, which help the gardener devote more of the garden plot to growing space and less to compacted walkways. In Ed's garden, about 75% of the area is devoted to food production, as compared to 50% in the average home garden.

Mr. Smith explains how to evaluate your soil and amend it so that it will improve over time. he'll help you determine whether you have clay, sand, or silt, and how to transition toward a loam structure. He helps you understand which amendments are best for your needs and your circumstances. He also gives an overview of composting.

He talks about how plants grow and why deep soil and raised beds are better for the root structure and the overall health of the plant. A healthy plant not only produces healthier produce, but it withstands disease better and pests will pass it by in search for weaker plants which make easier targets.

Ed discusses pests and diseases, how to recognize them, and how to combat them organically. In addition to organic pesticides, he goes into companion planting. Thanks to information in his book, this year I will plant companion plants to deter the squash beetles and Japanese beetles that gave me fits last year.

Also included in the book is an overview of crop rotation. Rotating your crops even in a small space helps avoid depletion of the soil - for example, tomatoes will use up a lot of calcium while other plants have other requirements. Rotation also helps reduce pests to some extent. While many pests travel far to reach a target host, some lay eggs in the soil and when the eggs hatch the larvae need to find a friendly plant pretty quickly if they are to survive.

Finally, there is a great section on common garden vegetables and herbs. There are lots of photographs and the information is arranged concisely so that the reader can determine planting dates, depths, and other crucial information at a glance. More detailed cultivation information is presented in narrative form for each plant.

Edward C. Smith's excellent book lists for $25 and is available new from amazon.com for $16.47. Used copies are also available. Here's a handy link to the book on amazon if you want to check it out.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Book Review: Storey's Basic Country Skills

I received a comment recently from Kat, saying she can't wait to be where I am, experiencing all the newbie things. It *is* wonderful, after all the dreaming and scheming, after all the searching and getting your hopes up looking for property just to have them dashed when a deal falls through -- it is wonderful to finally be loading the U-Haul and to be on your way. I've also noticed lots of urban people on a couple of forums I frequent (Mother Earth News and Homesteading Today) asking "How did you get started?".

It seems that, as in the seventies, there is a big "back to the earth" movement, for a variety of reasons. As in the seventies, the promise of unlimited cheap energy is in question. Natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina have given us a good look at how easily our food and water supply can be disrupted and how reliant we all are on "the system." The huge national debt causes some to question the stability of the dollar. For these and other reasons, it is not uncommon for people today to seek out a more self sufficient lifestyle.

How DOES one get started? When my husband and I first began talking about acquiring a bit of land and moving to the country, we were totally green. I'd lived in big cities or medium sized towns (40K citizens or more). I didn't know diddly. In fact, I found out I didn't even know enough to do effective Google searches. I didn't know the difference between ranching and farming and I had trouble finding info on how to to it on a small personal scale. I'd never known anyone who lived in the country. I didn't know the word "homestead." I felt as though I didn't know enough to begin learning.

As it turns out, there are lots of online forums, books, and magazines dedicated to self sufficient living, or homesteading. You can find a list of my favorites on the resources page of my website. In this article I'd like to introduce you to a fantastic book.

Storey's Basic Country Skills is a wonderful resource for the beginning homesteader or for the city dweller contemplating a move to the country. It is also a good first source of information for established homesteaders needing information about some new aspect of self sufficiency. It covers an unbelievably wide variety of topics, some of which I'll touch on later. Naturally with a scope this broad it won't have the depth of information as a book devoted entirely to, say, incubating eggs. It does contain sufficient detail to allow you to be effective in a given pursuit, and you can seek out more information as interest and needs dictate. In the back of the book you'll find a categorized list of suggestions for further reading on various topics.

The book is divided into four sections which discuss the dwelling, gardening, food preparation and preservation, and the animals. For fear of writing an entry longer than anyone in will want to read, I'll focus on the first section, entitled "Your Place in the Country". Aspiring homesteaders will immediately relate to the opening sentence: "Living in a Brooklyn apartement, we dreamed of owning a few acres, an old farmhouse, a garden, a stream, and a pond."

This portion of the book will help you decide how much land you need, give you ideas on how to begin your search for land, and how to evaluate properties that you find. It discusses dwellings and how to inspect them. One thing we found while looking for our place is that while some homes were fairly modern, many were built in the 50s and some had been log cabins. Happily, this book discusses old fashioned fuse boxes as well as newer circuit breakers. It discusses the old shallow hand dug wells (yes they're still being used - our place has one), drilled wells, springs, and city water. It covers heating by wood, coal, pellets, gas, and solar. If you want a comprehensive book, this is it!

The book has practical applications for city and country dwellers alike, showing how to build things like decks, walls, and walkways; how to repair leaky faucets, unclog drains, and fix a toilet that won't flush. It has instructions on what to do when the power fails and information on basic wiring. It even touches on home improvement, explaining how to install various types of flooring or hang wall paper. Simple maintenance activities are explained: how to unstick a window, how to change a doorknob, how to repair a screen. Building and restoring furniture is discussed. There's even a section on housekeeping, with helpful suggestions on how to remove different types of stains and various uses for vinegar (who would have thought vinegar could do all that??).

Please be aware that I'm barely skimming the surface. There are so many other interesting topics in this first section I find myself wanting to just list them all: soap making, controlling pests with herbs... but a long list soon gets tiresome so I'm doing my best to exhibit a bit of self control. The other three sections are just as full of information, and the portions that a city dweller can't put into immediate use (livestock, or type of barns, for example) are wonderful for fueling dreams and will prove valuable as you search for your homestead and evaluate potential candidates. Country folk can of course take immediate action utilizing suggestions in the book.

Storey's Basic Country Skills was compiled and edited by John and Martha Storey, whose publishing company has produced many top-notch guides to various aspects of country living. As your homesteading library grows, you'll begin recognizing the plethora of contributing authors as well known and respected experts in their fields. Gail Damerow, Stu Campbell, Louise Riotte, and so many more it makes my head swim. The list of contributing authors truly forms a "who's who" roster of knowledge and talent.

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