Blogging, like beauty, is of course its own excuse for being. However, perks are always appreciated, and surely one of the best that comes with blogging is free books. Case in point: Asked if I would link to information about a new gardening book, I entered a counter-request: could I review it first? A week later, it was in my hands. Thank you, Jessica.
Even better, she has made an extraordinarily generous offer to all of you out there:
Quote the Manic Gardener review in an e-mail to email@example.com, and get 40% off on this book!
If most gardening books leave you feeling utterly overwhelmed, try Growing Stuff, put out by Black Dog Publishing. It truly deserves its subtitle, An Alternative Guide to Growing, because where most books assume that you have money, space, and time, this one does not. You might guess that this book takes an unusual tack since the foreword was written by Guerilla Gardening guru Richard Reynolds, but even if you don’t, you’d figure it out as soon as you leaf through a few pages.
Open most gardening books at random, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a chapter. Open this one, and you’ll almost always find a two-page spread devoted to a single topic, plant, or project. (One or two topics are given more space, while a few get less.) Illustrated with enticing photographs, drawings, and the occasional recipe (including a couple for herbal hair rinses), these short articles all emphasize accessible projects and inexpensive tools and methods.
But the alternative (might I say, subversive?) slant of this book slices even deeper, reaching perhaps the most basic premise underlying most gardening books: the assumption that one must have a garden. This book tells you how to grow carrots in worn-out wellies (rubber boots), potatoes in plastic sacks, or mint in a tin can. If you’ve got a balcony, or the corner of a patio, or just a windowsill, you can do at least some of these projects.
The articles are grouped under six general headings such as Getting Started, Herbs & Flowers, and the intriguing Curiosities & Other Things. The chapters themselves range from “DIY Root Cellaring” (under Wildlife & Practical Projects, itself a curious pairing) “Edible Weeds” and “Mediterranean Windowbox” to "Guide to Pest Control” and “Tomato Hanging Baskets.” Want to make your own plant food, polytunnel, leanto, or bird feed? You'll find a chapters on each of these. There's even an entry on "Living Stones," plants which bear a remarkable resemblance to stones until they bloom, at which point they look like daisies. And vegetables get treated thoroughly; it's hard to think of one (besides besides onions) that doesn’t rate an entry.
Authors, like the topics, are many and varied. The list includes a number of relative newcomers but also several well-known garden-writers, such as Elizabeth McCorquodale (author of Kids in the Garden) and Emma Cooper (of Fluffius Muppetus, and author of The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A-Z).
A distinctly British production, Growing Stuff employs both the units and the vocabulary of its home country, so Americans (who lag behind the rest of the world in this regard) will have to do a bit of extra work to convert metric measurements to more familiar units. (Presumably no space ships will crash if one gets these conversions wrong.) The British vocabulary adds flavor and a sense of place to the book; summer squash are “courgettes,” indeterminate tomatoes “cordons,” and lady bugs “ladybirds.” In addition, one encounters “punnets,” “lolly sticks,” and other Britishisms. (A “punnet,” by the way, turns out to be a small basket (about a pint in size) for strawberries or other fruit. I plan to confound all my acquaintances by employing this term as frequently as possible.)
Of course, there are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos, to my endorsement of this lovely book.
First of all, the writing quality varies widely. Most articles offer concise, precise instructions punctuated by the occasional perfectly worded phrase, such as a reference to soil structure that’s “really appalling,” or a suggestion that one keep extra herbs “in case of disaster.” Sensitive readers, though, will find themselves wincing over frequent repetitions, wordiness, and weak constructions (a paragraph that begins “This technique is good if…” followed by another that starts “This method is good if…”) There are even (horrors!) occasional semi-colon, sentence structure, or number errors. I know I sound like the original grammar hound, but “Freezing your freshly harvested herbs are a great way to preserve them…” strikes me as cringe-worthy. there are also a couple of instructions that seem to be missing a step. Here’s hoping that later editions receive a thorough review.
Secondly, I wish that someone, somewhere along the way, had seen fit to explain why all the soil recipies call for peat-free mixtures. I assume it’s because peat comes from bogs, which repair themselves only very slowly and which are being decimated by the booming gardening industry. Good reason; why keep it a secret?
Finally, one thing left me seriously confused. This was the use of the term “compost” where an American book would refer to “potting soil”–the soil one uses in pots and seed trays. Throughout this book, one is instructed to plant seeds in compost, or to fill containers or pots with compost, which here in the States would refer to unadultereated well-decayed organic matter. A hasty and unscientific poll of my UK garden-blogging buddies has revealed that this usage is common across the pond; in such settings, “compost” apparently means “potting compost,” which is roughly equivalent to our “potting soil.”
My own profound confusion is deepened by the early chapter, “Just a Bit of Old Dirt,” which distinguishes between Potting Compost (a mixture of compost, garden soil, and sand or grit in the proportion of 3-2-1), Seed Compost, and Garden Soil. This distinction looks hopeful, but quickly breaks down. The entry on Seed Compost starts by saying that “Compost used for growing seeds is simply ordinary potting soil with something added to help with drainage,” but ends by instructing the “small-scale grower” to add sand or grit to “the soil you will grow your mature plants in …at a quantity of three parts potting compost to one part sand.”
Whoa. “Three parts potting compost?” So–”ordinary potting soil” is actually the “three-parts-compost… two-parts-clean-garden-soil-and-one-part-sand-or-grit” potting compost defined in the previous section? I wouldn’t call that ordinary. And now I’m completely confused.
But even this irritation is precisely that: a minor hitch in what’s overall a lively book chock full of useful and sometimes surprising information captured in small, neatly packaged nuggets, all of which concentrate on doing more with less.
The minimalist approach, together with the short, focused articles, goes a long way towards making gardening accessible. You don’t need to invest in dozens of rakes, hoes, and shovels, you don’t need to commit half your summer to the project, you don’t need to dig up your yard; in fact, you don’t even need a garden, just enough space to set out several containers or window-boxes.
For anyone who feels overwhelmed by all the research and planning recommended by many gardening books, Growing Stuff is a godsend. It makes gardening manageable on a limited budget and in limited space.