What We’re Reading

December 26, 2008 at 9:35 am

Brad Moldofsky

I’m committed to making massive changes in the 2009 garden, so I’m snuggling under a blanket on the couch, reading books. Here are some compelling ones.

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

If Chairman Mao had written gardening books, they’d look like this. Mel peppers his pages with photos of himself fondling vermiculite, presenting his vegetables with a “ta-da” arms-open flourish, teaching some young whippersnapper to install a climbing fence, or grinning broadly on his ubiquitous floating head to emphasize a crucial point.

Though a handy book filled with some strong ideas, Mel sells it like it’s a pyramid scheme, working hard to convince the reader to follow the SFG method. Perhaps this is to keep us from being evangelized to follow the Cubed Foot Method instead. (Yes, that’s a book, too. And it’s one dimension more!)

I like Mel’s plan of throwing a 4 x 4 wood frame atop of a patch of lawn and filling it with custom mixed soil. A plastic tarp beneath the frame keeps the weeds below the tarp from mingling with the raised bed. This is far easier than treating existing soil with whatever pH-balancing chemicals are necessary to reach dirt Nirvana, and makes more sense than extending the wood frames that encompass my garden beds into longer rows, as I had planned.

SFG’s modular design advocates planting in carefully measured squares instead of standard rows, which, after all, mimic the shape of a traditional farm where equipment is hauled in long, straight lines by animals or tractors.

Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte

I’m reminded of Bill Murray’s line in Ghostbusters, “Dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria.” And the book continues in much the same vein for a few hundred pages.

Once I’ve compiled my short list of what to plant, Riotte’s going to help me identify what additional flowers or herbs to plant, and which vegetables to keep away from each other. Her book shamelessly reveals the “secrets of companion planting,” for all the world to know. Here’s a good one: tall-growing okra serves as a windbreak for brittle sweet pepper plants.

Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening by James Fizzell

This is a helpful bible, discouraging Cook County residents like myself from growing pineapple or coconut, but offering time-tested instructions on when and where to plant in the Land of Lincoln. The books focuses less on, say, soil preparation or watering techniques and delves deeply into specific characteristics of the vegetables that grow well around here.

As I was browsing the library’s recent acquisition shelves, snickering at the titles of “How To Invest” books published last year, I stumbled across Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) by Steve Solomon.

Although I don’t believe we’re headed into Great Depression II, I’m sure 2009 will be a challenging year in many regards. So it’s interesting to hear from a guy who endured a hardscrabble life building a seed business in the early ‘80s. Though he skimps on the illustrations, I enjoyed his writing style—neither too folksy nor too preachy. Solomon includes many personal reflections and stories of starting and running his business, as well as graphs showing the root structure of many vegetables. Too much information for my liking, but interesting in its own way. His book makes a better cover-to-cover read than many of the other manuals.

Solomon’s book is geared to people who desperately need to get their garden right the first time and avoid mistakes. Me, I don’t mind making mistakes and working towards perfection over the long run. Also, Solomon admits that no one can tell you exactly what to do or when to plant. There is too much variation in soil, sun, weather, water and skills to give precise, failsafe instructions. As a backyard farmer, my quest is to become more intimate with my own property, and note how it changes over time, adapting my technique to its strengths and weaknesses.

Tips for the Lazy Gardener by Linda Tilgner

I was swayed by the cover illustration of a couple relaxing atop a flower, as well as the title and the fact that it’s a free library book. But I haven’t gotten around to reading it.