When the August sun is at its zenith and even the best-watered garden looks as droop-shouldered as Willy Loman after another day on the street, it’s time to turn your attention to what grows best in the cool beneath a shadowing umbrella magnolia or monkey nut tree. That is, it’s time to feed your head.
Each year there are more new garden books than you’ll ever have time to read while curled up before the fireplace on long winter evenings. So why not pour yourself a long, tall something and settle in for a quiet read during the dog days? Here are four recent gems.
Unquestionably the most interesting garden book I’ve read in a long, long time, Jefferson’s Garden by Xpress contributor Peter Loewer (Stackpole Books, 2004) is a delight. I can’t remember the last time I’ve eagerly read a garden book cover to cover. Thomas Jefferson was an inveterate plant collector, and Loewer’s virtual tour of the framer’s grounds serves up a surprise around every corner. Did you know that Columbus carried seeds when he invaded this hemisphere? Or that the Spanish government decreed that all ships bound for the Indies do the same? The first white settlers in Pennsylvania found wild peaches — almost certainly planted by Native Americans who’d obtained seeds from the Spanish 100 years before. By 1760, the seed business was in full swing on this continent, and the first mail-order seed vendor set up shop less than a century later. Loewer offers an easy flow from Linnaean and common nomenclature through bits of plant history to cultivation instructions and soil requirements, all interwoven with inspiring information about Jefferson’s plant experiments and forays into garden design. Although I’m a condo dweller these days, I have a pot of calendula blooming at my elbow, thanks to Loewer’s (and Jefferson’s) encouragement.
During 33 years of organic gardening, my bible has been Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and the dirt-smeared pages of my second copy attest to the seasons it has spent in the field with me (the first succumbed to green-thumbing long ago). Well, all things must pass. My new favorite gardening guide is The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey Publishing, 2003). The author catalogs 765 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and nuts and lists controls for 201 pests and diseases. But even better than Denckla’s sheer numbers is the way she presents the information. For each species, there’s a clear, concise, easy-to-use directory covering every aspect of planting, culture and storage. The single best feature may be the planting charts for annuals, which make it simple to calculate when to start the first and last seeds of the season, based on the last and first frost dates. Rodale’s classic will never be far away, but from now on I plan to pick up Denckla’s volume first.
Readers of my garden columns know that I subscribe to the go-with-the-flow school of cultivation rather than the invade-and-conquer approach. If you’re similarly inclined, Ecology for Gardeners by Steven B. Carroll and Steven D. Salt (Timber Press, 2004) is a superb textbook for working with nature. The two scientists (one is an ecologist/botanist, the other holds a doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology) explain the garden-as-ecosystem in clear, vernacular language. Beginning with plant parts and their functions, the authors proceed to other garden inhabitants, from elephants (yes, elephants) to prions — prions? — to micro-environments, plant interactions (both with natural forces and with other garden organisms) and on to gardening as applied ecology. This is a splendid educational tool, and this reader learned a lot. (Elephants need no explanation, particularly to West African gardeners. Prions (pronounced pree-ahns) are believed to be infectious proteins that apparently convert normal proteins found within cells into other prions. Most notoriously, they are thought to be the infectious agent in Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE).
Of course, the intent of vegetable gardeners extends beyond the carefully nurtured ecosystem to the ultimate destination: the plate. An early entry into the gardening cookbook category, The Victory Garden Cookbook, has long been a favorite of mine, presenting delicious recipes side by side with suggestions for planting and cultivation and sometimes-too-precious stories about the famous made-for-PBS garden. But that worthy tome stops short of integrating its subject into the broader food equation: the systems that feed us. Enter The Sustainable Kitchen by Stu Stein, Mary Hinds and Judith H. Dern (New Society Publishers, 2004). This set of scrumptious recipes is interspersed with theory. And though it’s not a large volume, it’s amazingly comprehensive, carrying you through from appetizers to nuts with seasonal dessert recipes that range from the crunch of Sun-Dried Cherry Biscotti to the liquid — Chilled Syrah Poached Rhubarb Soup. Besides fruits and vegetables, recipe ingredients include fish, shellfish, poultry, beef, pork, game, eggs, cheeses and even wild mushrooms. And a section on wine selection offers a splendid short course on a complex subject.
Whether you’re a vegetarian (with the enormous ecologic benefits that accrue) or an omnivore, the authors want you to consider the source and the season as you choose your food. Local and fresh are best — not only because local is fresher, but because those dollars linger in the local economy. Stein, Hinds and Dern explain why most fish farming is a source of environmental degradation, how to tell the difference, and which methods of catching fish are most sustainable (as well as which fish are now managed most sustainably). Distinctions in meat production are spelled out as well, with specific guidelines for humane treatment, organic feedstock (and no animal byproducts or waste — which can convey BSE prions), avoiding hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotics, and raising the animals on land that’s treated as a sustainable resource.
It’s a start. So cultivate your head this summer while you’re escaping the heat, and get a “head” start on next season’s fascinating dance with nature.