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 more 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 www.soilandhealth.org and Mrs. Deppe keeps a site updated under her name www.caroldeppe.com
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.