Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Essential Garden Books: Resilient Agriculture starts with Resilient Gardens

This is a repost from my Kerry Cattle blog that I am in the process of  cleaning up.  Though I wrote the reviews below some time ago; I would only make one change. If the reader is only going to buy a small number of  gardening books, buy one of these two and Herrick Kimball's Planet Whizbang Idea book for Gardeners.  I owe Herrick's book its own review, but for right now, I will simply state that  it will complement either the Deppe or Solomon book nicely.
Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener and Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts: A Review Essay
We have no TV, but maybe 2,500 books in the house. While we have no shortage of reading material, we do not have huge selection of gardening books. There are a few old favorites on the shelf: mostly works by William Cobbett, John Seymour and Gene Logsdon. There are some histories of plants and gardening. We also have some antique books from the era when the line between farming and gardening was a lot thinner.
I think there are two reasons for our dearth of garden books. One is that we garden pretty much the way I learned as a little kid agrarian, combining my experience with my wife’s natural green thumb.  My dad was known throughout our small community as an exemplary vegetable gardener. As my wife once said, it would be easier to list the things he did not grow, than those he did. Dad’s main garden was an acre of straight rows, located behind our house on the four acres Grandpa gave him when he married Mom. Growing up, it provided us with everything from French Horticultural Beans to Potatoes.
When my wife and I returned to the old house on the adjoining farm, we took over my grandparent’s old garden, a well drained half acre plot enriched by decades of manure.
The second reason I don’t own a lot of gardening books is that most really don’t help the reader grow better vegetables. Many garden books are simply picture book eye candy for gardeners stuck inside during Winter. While I appreciate pictures of greenery during the 67 days of February, garden catalogues can accomplish the same purpose for free. I also find that many garden books sell gimmicks rather than advice. Most Americans look at raising vegetables as back breaking toil, so they buy books that promise oodles of vegetables without the sweat.
There are  two  recent  vegetable gardening books that are actually worth reading and recommending. The first is Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food In Hard Times. The Second is Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self Reliance in Uncertain Times. These books came to my attention via people I respect on the Internet. The recommendation came from two men who actually know how to grow food. not self proclaimed experts (The Web is full of bad gardening advice). I learned about the Solomon from fellow agrarian blogger Herrick Kimball, who stated simply that was his favorite gardening book. Having avidly followed Herrick’s garden for years in his blog, his simple endorsement got my attention. As I was finishing it, I read a review of Carol Deppe’s book by another agrarian blogger and pen friend, Scott Terry over at the North Country Farmer. Scott is an organic dairy farmer, and from our correspondence, I think he knows his business. His review intrigued me when he stated, “I’ve grown all the crops covered in this book and I learned a few new things by the time I finished”. The folks from Chelsea Green publishing were kind enough to provide me an examination copy of Mrs. Deppe’s book, so I could do this comparative review.
Both books and authors share some similarities. Both authors were part of the 1970’s “back to the land” generation. They bring decades of real life experience to their subjects. Both gained most of their experience in the Pacific Northwest, and don’t pretend to know every detail about gardening elsewhere. However, 95 percent of the information in both books is pretty universal. Both are good writers with a quirky sense of humor. Both also advocate a traditional approach to vegetable gardening that involves:
  • Emphasis on the use of hand tools, especially the hoe
  • Growing basic staples like Kale and Potatoes to gain the most nutritious calories with the least effort
  • The importance of manure when it can be obtained (Both giving a positive nod to our famous neighbor Joe Jenkins’ Humanure Book)
These books both avoid foolish extremes of planting so intensive that the water bill results in $600 tomatoes, or the gimmicky no labor techniques that some praise but which don’t produce enough food to feed family though summer, let alone hard winter. Both authors also maintain a web presence to help others. Mr. Solomon is the founder of the online library at and Mrs. Deppe keeps a site updated under her name
Perhaps most important, both books also look at gardening as central to the family diet, not a garnish. Solomon describes this as being a “vegetabletarian” who does not shun meat, but frugally bases his diet on what he grows. For Mrs. Deppe, this information is presented around meeting the dietary needs of many people who cannot eat a typical American industrialized diet. We sell livestock, so I watch prices and trends with rapt attention. I believe that whatever happens in the future, the American cheap meat party is about to end. With high corn, high fuel, and low cattle inventories, there will be fewer steaks on the Nations’ grills this summer. Cheap meat is not the norm for human history, and we are about to return to normal. During the Depression, my family thrived on this farm. Nobody went hungry and there was extra for family members who moved back home and even hoboes got fed. However, even on a farm, meat was not part of every meal. When it did appear on the table, there was enough for a serving; seconds had to come from vegetables.  
Gardening when it Counts begins basic on soil fertility and the needs of various classes of vegetables. It continues with affordable options for soil building. This is essential to the new gardener who is turning over his turf for the first time, especially if that yard is a suburban lot. Most suburban housing developments had the topsoil stripped during grading, as the relative fertility needs of yard grass is low. The book then discusses some basics of Tools, including the essential need to sharpen hoes and shovels. This simple task is often the difference between pleasant hard work and drudgery (We have a few old hoes around here with three inch blades from decades of repeated sharpening. I don’t use them but cannot bear to throw them away)
Among the most useful chapters are Mr. Solomon’s insider’s look at the mail order seed business (He used to own a seed company), and his common sense information about compost. I have sometimes been guilty of buying cheap hardware store seed, but after reading this remembered why Dad always bought commercial grade seed. After reading this, my seed dollars will be more carefully spent. The chapter on compost will probably ruin a few myths among those who think that composted household garbage alone will grow top quality broccoli (Compost is not magic. The material used to make the compost influences its value as a soil amendment).
One of my favorite parts of this book is the thoughtful criticism of super intensive vegetable growing methods. Mr. Solomon continually points out through the book that plants need nutrients. There are useful diagrams of the subsurface root systems of most common vegetables throughout which show just how deep and wide roots must travel to obtain subsurface nutrients. As a stockman, I would describe the super intensive planting scheme as a “feedlot for plants”. Like a cattle feedlot, lot of inputs must be brought to the crowded plants to ensure growth.  I have read from defenders of intensive beds that nature plants that way. It does indeed, but nature’s concern is plant survival, not human survival. Nature’s approach often results in lots of scraggly plants, rather than a few good ones. I would urge the reader who doubts this to visit a woodlot that has been thinned, and one that has not. Man accelerates plant growth through management; that is the essence of gardening.
The Resilient Gardener begins with some of the best analysis about the common sense “prepping” that was once the American norm, versus some of the nonsense surrounding Y2K (and similar nonsense that is rearing its head again today).  Mrs. Deppe remembers when all but improvident families bought apples by the bushel in the fall and stored them in basements. In real hard times, buying and storing food bought affordably in season seems more sensible to me than expensive freeze dried foods. The author notes that expensive freeze dried foods will taste just as crummy in bad times as good. I also love that she advocates growing vegetables as a basic skill that is part of being a human adult. She also offers some sensible options to expensive land ownership, even in the expensive Willamette Valley where she lives. Her book represent a good lesson that anyone can grow some of their own food, even if they have challenges of health, age, or finances.

The book includes a very detailed discussion of the link between gardening and dietary needs. Mrs. Deppe suffers from some food allergies, and has developed her gardening around meeting her needs. This section of the book is very important for anyone who might be coping with both economic and dietary restraints.
Like Mr. Solomon’s book, this work also includes a section of basic tool use, but with an emphasis on working around natural physical limitations as we age. There is some great common sense advice about breaking up major tasks.
Mrs. Deppe also includes a section of poultry keeping as an adjunct to gardening which in her case means a duck flock. As this is a book about cheap living, she had some innovative thoughts on alternative poultry feeds.
The last half of the book discusses growing the staple crops of corn, beans, squash, and potatoes. I am eternally grateful for her passionate defense of the value of corn and potatoes in particular. Both crops have gotten a bad rap of late, mostly due to GMO corn and Americans’ over consumption of potato chips and fast food fries. Mrs. Deppe makes a good case that these crops should still play a role in the garden for anyone who wants to eat frugally but well. There is also some great advice on developing a breeding program for each of these crops and some recipes I cannot wait to try.
Which one to buy?
For the person who want to become a better gardener or is already a homesteader, I endorse both books. They are also uniquely valuable for both the new and the experienced vegetable grower. However, since this represents about a $50.00 investment many readers might only want one. In that case: Gardening when it Counts is best for the reader that is already fallen upon hard financial times. It is less money and the modest investment will pay for itself in the more produce from the first garden.
The Resilient Gardener would be more worthwhile for any reader that has health or dietary restrictions (food allergies, diabetes, etc). It also contains more recipes, poultry husbandry and some breeding information, so it would be better for readers who wish to mix animal keeping into their garden.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Making the Farm Pay!

Page from the 1916 Butler County Farm Directory. Click to Enlarge. HH Grossman was my Great Grandfather. My family has been breeding like rats in Western Pennsylvania for 200 years! We probably had to farm to feed all the kids! 
If you have not read the excellent recent Series on Family Economies by Herrick Kimball, you really should. I touched on a similar subject a few years ago here. DRAT! I linked the wrong post. THIS ONE is more to the point.

My family has been on the same farm for a long time, and I have direct connection to a pile of multi-generational farmers among friends and family.  In 1916, our farm was part of an agrarian nation and provided a relatively prosperous full time living for two adult men and their families. A short 40 years later, it was a hardscrabble place that only stayed in the family because my father and uncle wanted to keep a place to run our hunting dogs.  They paid the (then much lower) taxes by living poor, as they had been taught by their father.

I grew up here, with some knowledge of land capability and the demographics of the local food and farm markets.  We have made a bit of money in some years, and in others nearly lost our thrift shop shirts. I cannot emphasize how difficult it is to wring a cash profit out of farming without some pretty deep pockets and patience. Livestock is harder than fruits or vegetables in this regard. We mostly keep livestock these days for nutritional self defense (I ate at a supposed decent restaurant  last week and ended up sick for five days!).

If you are new at farming, you need to be spending most of your time competing with the grocery store, by growing produce and raising stock for your family. If you raise stock, you need to have a keen understanding of how to minimize feed costs. I have seen many small livestock farms by  exurbanites that have too many animals for the pasture available. There is nothing wrong with buying a bit of feed if you are

1. using the manure for the garden.
2. maximizing pasture for the full season in your respective climate.
3. have a rough idea about your feed costs versus grocery store meat of comparable quality and are willing to live with that.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Shooting Party

Shooting for the Beef, An 1850 painting by George Caleb Bingham shows Americans enjoying the national sport of agrarian America.
Longtime blog readers may know I once hosted Appleseed clinics on the farm, but those have been moved to the much better facilities at the Slippery Rock Sportsman's club. I still endorse the Appleseed as the best basic rifle course in America, but alas can no longer afford the time to volunteer.  Farm and garden work is a bit slack this time of year, so this Sunday afternoon, I hosted my own shooting party. With cold weather, it is easy for people to fall into very bad habits like television sports, video games or spending too much time on the internet. Shooting get us outdoors, and interacting with our friends and neighbors. After some very perfunctory planning, I ended up with a dozen shooters.

In rural western Pennsylvania, interest in guns and shooting is deeply part of the culture. It is the reason that though we are a "purple state" politically, there is not a lot of political will for gun control in Harrisburg.  Local interest in guns and shooting crosses all lines of ethnicity, education, age and culture.  My party guests ranged in age from 15 to 63. Education among the adults ranged from advanced degrees to GED's. There were veterans of three wars, and the descendents of immigrants from at least 8 countries.  The only unusual thing about the party guests was gender and occupation: a statistically high number of both full and part time farmers and all male.

When I made the invites, I said, "Bring whatever you want to shoot." Party-goers brought everything one  might imagine: a .32 pocket pistol, the latest in AR15's, beat-up Deer rifles, a match grade M1A, an "Ohio deer gun" set up for 12 gauge slugs, 1911's, Ruger auto pistols, etc. When I made the first invitations, one guest asked if he could invite some others. I said "Sure, its a party. Only two rules, no booze and use your head about gun safety." Five guests thus came as strangers and departed as friends. There were no violations of the safety rules. The party was not a match. The only prizes were compliments for good shots and a bit of hazing for misses.

We shot handguns first at my 25 yard range, then went out to the 200 yard rifle range. Inevitably, everybody ended up having a chance to try each others' guns. This was a great help for the youngsters, who could learn useful information, such as the safety locations and manual of arms for various types of firearms. In between shooting, we talked dogs, Turkey hunting, farming,...... and guns.

Shooting is a great sport for many reasons, but one is the lack of a generation gap. The young shooters actually listened to the adults' advice and were delighted to be there. There are few other realms of activity where teenagers actually want to hang out with their parents and elders.

After the party, I found out some wives and daughters wanted to attend, but did not want to be the only female in attendance. It would not have been the case, had they known other women were interested. I believe I will be hosting another shooting party soon.