Garden books with attitude

Here's the thing with gardening advice and “how-tos.” There is at least a fifty percent chance—and I am being generous here—that whatever you are told by any gardening expert will not work in your garden. It probably won't do harm, but it won't solve your particular problem either. This is not the expert's fault; it happens because every individual garden is different and comes with an accompanying set of conditions that no expert on earth can anticipate. Even general guidelines—as correct as they are—like “add compost” or “plant tulips in fall” can lead to inadvertent failure. And general design principles, such as those provided by our own garden columnist Sally Cunningham, are terrific, but you'll probably end up taking a lot of unexpected detours before you can make them work on your own property. When someone has spent at least three days working side-by-side with me in my garden, I'll listen to their advice. Maybe.

Nonetheless, the garden press pumps out several “how-to” books weekly. Someone must be reading them, but it's not me, unless I've heard that the book in question in particularly fun to read or contains particularly fascinating information. Because that's what I care about—the quality of the writing and the personality of the book.

Here are three garden books that are well-written, entertaining, and contain surprising information. One of them is even inspirational. None of them will tell you how to do anything.

Shut up and grow

Michele Owens' Grow the Good Life: How a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise (Rodale) takes on the naysayers who have been attempting to throw cold water on the grow-your-own-food movement. It provides passionate testimony of the author's conviction that growing edibles should be something that we just do—as our grandparents did—without making it into a great big deal. Owens claims that with $200 worth of seeds, fertilizer, and mulch, she can feed her family fresh vegetables for eight months and home-frozen or canned food for the rest of the time. She also says she saves $100 each week on the grocery bill. All that gardening and vegetable eating doesn't seem to be doing her health or figure any harm either, as you can see from the picture of the fifty-one-year-old author on this page.

Although Grow the Good Life is not a how-to, it does contain plenty of fascinating research to support why everyone who has some arable land and sufficient sunshine should consider a vegetable garden. Owens calls on academics like soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham and garden designer Michelle Derviss to discuss topics like why it's better—and less backbreaking—to top dress with lots of mulch than cultivate (dig into) the soil, and why a vegetable garden can be every bit as beautiful as a perennial garden. But she doesn't need any reliable sources to convince her readers that “finger-sized slices of parsnip, roasted with olive oil and salt, with the sugars caramelizing on the outside, is one of the finest dishes known to man.”

A $200-an-hour PR company should do so well.


Bring on the bugs

Just when you thought you were ready to embrace the world of creepy-crawlies and make the phrase “beneficial insect” a permanent part of your vocabulary, along comes this grim little reminder of the evil bugs can do. With chapter headings like “Destructive,” Deadly,” “Painful,” “Dangerous,” and “Horrible,” Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs (Algonquin) will make you shudder in that fun kind of way. Like her previous best-seller Wicked Plants, the book is beautifully illustrated with detailed portraits of the creatures. And just as in Wicked Plants, some of the most commonly-known bugs—the ones we see all the time and take for granted—are the ones that have caused the most horrific damage. I'd think about jumping on a chair and screaming if I was confronted by a tarantula, but in reality the sting of this hairy eight-legger is not much different than that of a wasp or a bee, which, if not allergic, I'd easily survive. But the bite of the ubiquitous mosquito—provided it is carrying dengue fever, yellow fever, or malaria—could easily kill me. In fact, according to Stewart, malaria is believed to have killed more people than all the wars in history combined.

Spiders and mosquitos are among the better-known bugs you'll meet in this book. Among the rarer—and most fascinating—insects are the bald-faced hornet, the Paederus beetle, the human bot fly (a charming creature that lives inside small wounds on the skin), and many more.

This is no dry collection of natural history and entomological research. The science is accurate, but it's also fun to read. Every bug comes with an explanatory story and usually several anecdotes concerning humans who have encountered the species in question. There are plenty of amusing sidebars and pullquotes—and of course the illustrations are magnificent.

This book reminds me of the days when I used to pore over the color inserts in our family encyclopedia that featured rows of beetles, butterflies, and birds. Reading about these exotic beasts was a cheap thrill—and educational. Amy Stewart seems to understand how to satisfy such innocent curiosities, with enough sophistication for the most jaded adult reader.


Gardening and the law

Do you feel like the government has invaded your backyard? Two professors—one in horticulture and one in political science—think you might, and they've attempted to explain why that is. Jeff Gillman is known for his sassy debunking of various gardening mythologies in his books The Truth About Garden Remedies and The Truth About Organic Gardening. He's brought in political expert Eric Heberlig to help make sense of environmental policies and regulations that affect the average gardener in a new book, How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth about Environmental Policies (Timber).

The average Western New Yorker might not know how many regulations we do have regarding such items as garden chemicals, front yard maintenance, and organic food growing. Take my word, they're there, and this book might be a good way to understand why they're there and how they might affect you. Or even why you might support changing them.

Each chapter takes on a single issue—fertilizers, ethanol, and invasive plants are three examples—explains it, gives examples of how it's regulated, provides some possible policy options, and finally attempts a “bottom line” summary—the place where common sense might possibly find refuge. There are a few entertaining stories along the way, like the guy who couldn't afford to sod his front yard and was finally rescued by kindly neighbors. Then there's the guy who cornered the market on bluegrass for golf courses in Minnesota for seven years—until his controversial patent finally expired. There are also serious explorations of why certain plants should or should not be legal, the harm done by various pesticides, and the question of what the term organic really means when it comes to organic food.

Is it possible to be truly impartial when it comes to these issues? I'm not so sure, but it is important to understand them. And that is the true value of this book.



Listen to author Amy Stewart's recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross by clicking here.

Catch Amy Stewart's book talk at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 25 at the Clearfield branch library, BECPL, 770 Hopkins Road, Williamsville, 688-4955. Michele Owens will appear at Urban Roots on Thursday, May 26 at 6 p.m., 428 Rhode Island Street, Buffalo 362-8982.

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