What it boils down to is this: there are two books that address year round gardening in the BC/Washington/Oregon region, and this is the only one that...moreWhat it boils down to is this: there are two books that address year round gardening in the BC/Washington/Oregon region, and this is the only one that is in print. (Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest is the other one, out of print and older. I haven't yet gotten my hands on it.) It's useful, its region-specific information basically makes sense. If you live in this region, it's an important companion to whatever other gardening books you may use, perhaps even if you aren't oriented towards year round gardening. But make sure you read a wide variety of gardening books to get more perspectives on the basic, not-very-regional topics this book also addresses.
Beyond that, this book has some issues. First of all, there's a lot of snark in the author's writing style. It trickles through as he mentions the prejudices of experienced organic gardeners, and comes out in full as he writes about an old neighbor he once had who gardened very inefficiently, which inspired the author to eventually write this book. Apparently the fellow's produce was "pathetic" and he is described as whining. Then the snark goes back to being subtle. I get into gardening as a great joyful optimistic thing, and I appreciate writers who assume you will and should think for yourself--no 'side comments' needed. Forgive me if my review is not snark-free either, though I'll try!
Second, his way of approaching compost seems a little crazy to me. But let me start by saying that his essential point, that the rainy season in our regions leaches nutrients from the soil, is of course completely true. That's essentially the fact he's trying to work with, and it's useful for a gardener to see what his suggestions are. I would just also suggest that the gardener should not stop there--read more about compost from other sources, lots of other sources. Digest this information together and come up with a approach that makes the most sense to you, then experiment with it.
Another caveat is that a lot of sources seem to me to be crazy in their approach to compost, both with industrial style gardening and the most common sources of organic gardening. This includes this book but it's hardly fair to single this book out, and the author mentions some of these issues as well. We'll skip the problems of industrial style fertilizing/composting because you're probably already familiar with that and if not the information is readily available. But in common organic gardening, the approach is often to import as much compost as you can from outside the garden. In a normal garden, it's not usually not practical to be a 100% self enclosed system, where you get all your food out of the soil, and then you put back a healthy proportion of organic matter left over from the plants, and also safely put your human waste into the soil, though this may be a sustainability ideal. But it's still worthwhile to be skeptical about importing, for a number of reasons: (1) The less heavily you rely on importing compost, the more environmentally sustainable your garden will be, since you'll be doing less depleting of outside soils. We already often have food waste from our kitchen that didn't originate in our gardens, so that's a practical source. (2) Imported compost materials can be full of weed or invasive seeds, weird chemicals or salt in the case of seaweed etc, pesticides and other chemicals in the case of materials grown on land. Just because the supplier says they aren't doesn't guarantee anything nowadays. (3) When you import compost from a wild area, such as seaweed, you may be throwing off an ecosystem--not a big deal if few do it over a large area, but something to keep in mind. (4) Manure can be tricky to use in a balanced way, and may also contain chemicals or seeds--my parents import manure now and then, and then let it cure on the lawn before putting it in; one particular manure load left a big barren spot on the lawn one year, which is still there. Manure can be worthwhile, but it's perhaps overhyped in traditional organic gardening. (5) Importing compost materials may be an added expense, when you could just stick to kitchen waste and grow some of your own, ie corn stalks. So anyway, those are all details to keep in mind. Another issue is that often in gardening books there can be an overemphasis on nitrogen. This book has a nice treatment on the carbon and nitrogen ratio.
I'm trained in the biointensive method, which he criticizes on page 60. I'll just write a quick response here:
"If you are limited to a very tiny backyard, you may wish to produce every possible radish and head of lettuce regardless of the effort expended and the attention needed to get that last radish." Well yes, I'm limited to a small, though not tiny, back yard. Many of us are--it's not an unusual situation. My veggie space competes with fruit trees, unproductive plants, and social/recreational space in there--and let's not forget about compost space. I would love to be able to squeeze more berries in, and so on. It's really not *that* much more work compared to more common gardening methods, though I think it can be harder to learn at first without some in person instruction. (Online videos may change that.)
"(1) I am concerned about the natural degredation caused by overuse of compost and manure." I don't know where he's gotten this idea that there's overuse involved. Let's set aside 'perfect biointensive' which would be a closed system mini farm like I mentioned above--few of us can do that anyway, so we'll just address biointensive as most people can and will practice it. Manure is normally not used since animals are not really included in the biointensive system--they could be, but they usually aren't, and there's little information on how to do so. Compost is not used any more than it is in any other vegetable garden. Granted, there's an emphasis on providing enough compost, whereas common organic gardening can either have insufficient compost or import way too much--anything goes. In biointensive, most of your compost comes from the garden. While the garden is more productive than a regular garden, as he points out below in (2) as another flaw, it's not *that* much more productive. Importing compost material is generally minimized aside from kitchen scraps. So this problem really doesn't exist. (He makes some good points about general problems with compost in our soil, with its low nutrient levels thanks to leaching from rains, but it's not like you'd want to stop using compost, nor does he recommend that.) Now, in biointensive there *is* a stronger emphasis on carbon in compost, and having more carbon coming out of the garden (ie from big plant stalks like corn). For relative sustainability and long term soil health, this is best. But beyond that it isn't very different from a garden which imports its carbon heavy or 'brown' compost materials.
"(2) Digging only 1 foot deep and using reasonable amounts of compost [see (1)] and complete organic fertilizer will result in a harvest nearly as large as double digging 2 feet deep and using many times more compost [again]." This is generally true. In some gardens, and with some soils, it will make a bigger difference over the first few years. If you have limited space to work with, a small-ish boost in harvest can be worthwhile. It will also improve the quality of your soil over the long term, so that it holds more organic matter, air and moisture inside it. And most of us want to reach a point where we no longer have to add fertilizer. But if your soil is of a decent quality already, you can do fine with just loosening the soil up with a garden fork and not double digging--you might want to plant your crops a little further apart if you do that. You'll be gardening in a more typical style with a more typical workload, but you'll still get the benefits of other biointensive techniques (transplanting, large beds, hexagonal spacing, etc).
"(3) Spacing plants as closely as generally recommended by intensivists makes plants overly competitive for light in the North, where we live." This one's a no-brainer--increase the spacing. You can still use a hexagonal planting, just plant them a little further apart. It's worth pointing out, though, that the numbers John Jeavons (the originator of the biointensive method and author of most books) comes up with are usually based on his research in Willits, California. The climate there is not *so* radically different from ours, except that their rainy season is much shorter and their summer drought much longer--but they still have both, as we do. Our tomatoes still grow in somewhat intense sun, but we need earlier varieties for the shorter season. Both of our winter spinaches are growing in the same drizzly conditions, we just have more time to eat spinach. Every region and micro-climate may need to experiment and try different spacings. Numbers may also vary for different varieties of plants, in some cases.
"(4) Establishing a double dug raised bed initially involves so much effort that the gardener must consider it to be a permanent raised bed in a permanent garden. But growing vegetables in one place for more than three years in our climate results in a lot of trouble that obviously does not occur in the climates where the authors of the book recommending this method practice it. (See the discussion of symphylans in Chapter 4.)" Man, I don't have the space to move my garden around every three years. I'm sure most don't. I wouldn't want to even if I had the space--that's a hell of a lot more work even if you aren't double digging! More effort to till, and more weeding. I'd rather let my garden go fallow for however long was needed, with either weed covers or mulch.
Finally, there are a lot of great things about biointensive which he doesn't criticize. It's a method that's worth looking at for everyone, though my complaint would be that it's hard to learn about usefully from books.
Now for some minor points which may come in handy. p 103 "On anything but the most sandy soil, to be able to sow anything in early spring requires having already prepared raised beds for spring crops the previous autumn. Without this forethought you'll have to join the multitudes who will be waiting several more months for the ground to dry out enough to till." Not true unless you're working a huge area all at once. Prepping in the fall for spring planting is disadvantageous because the constant rain will compact the soil all winter+. Just cover the beds/area you're planning to work on with a sheet of long term reusable plastic. Or heck, a big wooden board if you've got it. Leave this on for a few days--if rains are substantial, perhaps a week. (At least that's what I remember.) When the soil is reasonably drier, take it off and dig away. No big deal.
His description of low irrigation planting is quite interesting. Not very useful for my smaller garden, but if I ever decide I'd prefer low yield I might try it.
I was skimming a bit, but I was a little disappointed that his section on winter gardening and protecting veggies didn't go into as much detail as I was hoping regarding frost vs temperature, and different covers. I'll reread though.(less)
This book gets its fourth star primarily because there are not a lot of good books in the field to compete with--intrinsically I'd say it's just "good...moreThis book gets its fourth star primarily because there are not a lot of good books in the field to compete with--intrinsically I'd say it's just "good" but it's also the best I've found so far. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining what is known about food allergies and intolerances, which can be summed up in two words: "Not much." Here, the author's approach (in the Conservative Doctor vs Patient Who Just Wants to Get Better and Is Sick of Being Condescended To divide) is like a neutral party that manages to irritate both sides. Well, what can you do--this may not be an *ideal* book to help the sufferer understand what's going on because of this, but on the other hand it means that you can usefully lend a copy to a skeptical and uninformed doctor, if you need to keep working with him or her. In any case, even if the explanations of food intolerance aren't that illuminating, there's still a decent amount of information here and the author reviews the theories and so on, so it's at least enough to satisfy one's curiosity as much as it can be satisfied--and it's nice to get an honest explanation, however insufficient, before getting the recommendations.
The practical value of the book is in the chapter The Elimination Diet, which is only 40 pages long. The author really explains why certain foods are chosen, which is excellent because it allows you to tailor your elimination diet to your own needs. Specifically he offers either a "few foods diet" or a "rare foods diet" approach. So far I think it's the best guide to the elimination diet, though it could benefit by being more thorough. The author also points out that ideally one should do the diet with the guidance of a doctor--a naturopathic doctor is probably most appropriate for those who don't have serious conditions such as Crohn's.(less)