Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Garden book round-up

The seeds germinating in our upstairs bedroom have let me live in a dream state of near-Spring for the past week. I woke this morning to another thick blanket of snow, and the heavy flakes have brought me to back to Chicago's wintry reality. There are few ways, at this point, for me to get out my gardening ya-ya's. The seeds have been purchased, the catalogs thumbed through until pages have started ripping from the binding staples. The seeds that should be started early have been started. Last weekend, I even prowled the local garden stores, looking for clearance shelf bargains prior to the imminent 2010 restock. I am restless. This mild state of gardening desperation is, I suspect, a boon to nursery retailers everywhere. Isn't it the anxious itch for Spring that makes otherwise thrifty gardeners impulse purchase gloves, trowels, and inappropriate plants on the first day the sap starts rising?

In this same prowling and restless state, I went to the nearby Barnes and Noble to check out their stock of gardening books. The offerings were disheartening, mostly coffee table landscape books, second-rate container gardening guides, and marijuana growing manuals. While I do concede that a few familiar gems were mixed in (like Our Life in Gardens and the Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening) in general there were few real classics or even hot new books, like the bulb one everybody was crazy about at Christmastime. I really should know better than to expect more from the big-box bookstores, although I do suspect the more suburban North Shore bookstores might have a larger selection. If I ever buy books these days -- and I rarely do -- it is from Amazon. Online browsing, however, does not have the same therapeutic heft as standing in front of a shelf of real books.

So where does the literary gardening woman go in Chicago? In New York, I had the Strand, my favorite used bookstore. In New Jersey, there was the annual College Women's book sale, a dusty treasure trove of -- among other things -- gardening books. For every outdated 1950's gardening manual, there was a 25 cent copy of one of Euell Gibbons' guides or an out of print edition of Living the Good Life. I have not found an equivalent to the store or the sale here in Chicago. Yes, there are some used book stores, but their garden related stock is scant, and pricey. The Chicago Reader book swap had slim gardening offerings last I went. Maybe a local blog reader can point me in the direction of some yet-undiscovered source. But for now I have only the Chicago Public Library. And trust me, I ain't complaining. The library has an astounding array of garden books spread out over its many branches, available to me at the click of the mouse, and delivered rapidly to my local branch for pick up. For all of the downsides of living in one of America's largest urban centers -- the crime, the pollution, the stifling bureaucracy! -- I can crow that I have access to one of the most excellent public library systems in the country.

The online hold system at the library is indispensable, but still it is basically a borrower's Amazon -- a click-and-ship, minus the supersaver shipping. But even Amazon is more conducive to browsing, with its suggestions and "list-mania". With the library website, you need to do a directed search for specific authors and titles. The library holdings are so vast and varied, and the keyword search function so limited, that I find it difficult to genuinely browse. So all this lead-up was to announce that this is why I go directly to different branches, to lurk among their shelves, nosing out books I have yet to find online. This habit has acquainted me with the quirks of the various branches: the collections in other languages, a particularly excellent librarian at one location, and, much to the delight of my two year old sidekick, the goldfish in certain children's sections. So, after the disappointing visit to the bookstore, and in the full throes of garden Spring-itch attack, I headed to a new branch this weekend and found two books I have been meaning to read: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch and Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon.

The Garden Primer, from what I can tell, aims to be the equivalent of an all-purpose cookbook, like my beloved How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. It covers nearly every topic in home gardening, from shrubs to vegetables, from tools to composting. Each topic has a brief yet sensible entry. I did, overall, find the primer a bit unsatisfying. The entries, though well written and succinct, usually sent me to the computer for more information. Additionally, anything aiming to be a general primer necessarily sacrifices a certain regionality and charming sense of place that interests me as a reader. I know she is a four-season gardener in Maine, so I would have preferred to hear more about that, rather than Zone 9 invasive vines. My favorite aspect of the book is that Damrosch seems to have actually done and tried everything she writes about in the text. I have leafed through one too many garden manuals only to find the same worn advice, the same diagrams, the same "facts". How many of these garden authors have actually built and used the insulated, vented root cellar that I see recommended in every manual of vegetable gardening? How many of these authors have actually tried to till under green manure without a rototiller? Have any of them really tried vermicomposting? Now that I have started a worm bin myself, I read their few paragraphs on the topic with a skeptic's eye. It all seems to be recycled from some big gardening wiki in the sky. So here's to Damrosch for writing with the authoritative voice of actual experience.

The authoritative voice is certainly present in Steve Solomon's book, Gardening When it Counts. The pages are bursting with highly opinionated and occasionally cranky tidbits of advice. I don't mind a crank when they are actually speaking from experience, so I read Solomon's wise words with joy and amusement. He also writes with refreshing skepticism on well-worn gardening topics, questioning some "truths" about composting, eviscerating the garden and seed industrial complex, and acknowledging some of the genuine limitations of homesteading. Almost every homesteading manual I have read -- and believe me, that's a lot of them -- blithely, nay almost smugly, lists the benefits and joys of living off the grid. It all looks so easy on the page! Few acknowledge the drudgery of months of winter greens. Solomon makes me laugh out loud with surprise when he predicts likely tooth loss from soil calcium depletion if one was truly living off the land. I was expecting, however, a more "survivalist" mentality, especially given the subtitle of the book. On the topic of soil amendments, while Solomon does offer advice on how to use compost and manure exclusively, he is pessimistic about long term soil quality with such a plan, and endorses a mix of homemade fertilizer using bulk products from the agricultural store. He also stands firmly against intensive raised-bed gardening. While I applaud him for bucking a trend, and agree with many of his critiques of this method, this makes his book of little utility for the urban gardener. His method requires two tracts of land (one active and one fallow) around 3,000 square feet in area. Just one of these tracts is larger than the entire footprint of my city lot (on which, mind you, sits a house and a garage). So I recommend this book for its grumpy, grandfatherly wisdom, but it is certainly a text that makes me wistful for a larger swath of rural real estate. For now, I am forced by my environs to go with the intensive potager method.

So, dear reader, if you too are suffering from Spring itch and need to get your garden ya-ya's out, these two books may sate your appetite for a while. While the flakes fall, I will sit with these two experienced dirt farmers and plot out my own follies. Perhaps, one day, I will speak with the same optimistic wisdom as Damrosch or the bemused skepticism of Solomon. I will have my own failures and successes to report, and --who knows?-- maybe I will actually have built that oft-diagrammed root cellar.


  1. Both great books! Gee... I never go to big box stores... if my local bookstores do not have a book on their shelves ... they will order it for me. I do think it so important for us to all support local business. I hope it is OK to say this. ;>) I do realize that some may not have the choices I do... then they go where the books are. I love the clean look about your blog! Your writing is engaging, informative and witty. I enjoyed reading these reviews very much. Your photo depicting the winter street scene is quite lovely! Carol

  2. Of course it is okay to remind me to promote local businesses! The critique of any bookstore -- especially the big boxes -- is the environmental impact of current book industry practices -- here's a link to a blogpost on the topic:


    I have been thinking about the book business for a while, as well as my choice to use Amazon versus independents. Here is an article from Slate that I found very provocative, though I don't agree with all of it:


    The author ends up at the same place I do -- the library!

  3. Dear Abbie, I am well able to understand your frustrations at this time of year but it does seem to me that you are blessed in Chicago with, as you yourself say, an excellent public library. That you can order books on line for collection is marvellous.

    Whilst I understand the appeal, and convenience, of Amazon, I do have a concern that it may well, in some not too distant future, close down every independent retail bookshop. If that were to happen, then it would be a great loss to us all. Perhaps the situation is different in the USA but here, in the UK, bookshops are closing down at an alarming rate. There is nothing, as you say, quite like browsing through the bookshelves.

  4. Here in the south 'burbs we have the SLS (suburban library system,) encompassing 500 libraries in the south and west suburbs.

    Although it's not local to Chicago, there's a pretty neat used book store in Viola, a small town in southwest WI, with an online presence @
    http://www.driftlessbooks.com/browse/792/ I'm sure there are other similar independents with internet stores, including the Amazon and Alibris used book sellers, many of which probably have their own websites.

    I know what you're saying about being able to hold, see, and browse a physical book before purchasing, or borrowing it from the library, and about the decline of independent bookstores (independent anything, for that matter, in the era of the big box, franchise, and chain.) In the absence of the local used book seller, libraries, and independent new and used bookstores will continue to receive my support.

    Nice to find another Chicago-area gardening blog - came across you on Chicago Gardeners' blogroll, and have added you to my sidebar blogroll.

  5. I see Garden Girl has been here who I was going to point out to you since you both have very thoughtful writing styles. Anyway, your post got me thinking and now that the Chicago Gardeners blogroll is growing and more and more locals are taking their gardens online maybe we could have a book & plant swap in the spring/summer.

    One place I always look for books is the local thrift store. Even if the book doesn't look that great I can't help but buy it because they're sometimes brand new books and for a dollar or less I don't mind rescuing them from the eBay/Amazon resellers that troll the place.


  6. MBT, a local plant and book swap would be fun!

  7. Hi, my name is Gloria a Chicago wildlife gardener (if you consider birds and bees wildlife). Found you through the Chicago Gardeners blogroll like Garden Girl and Mr Brownthumb.

    Supporting the local library is of more interest to me than saving small bookstores. I really don't see the point in paying more for a book for disney atmosphere. Used book stores are great but as you say of limited value to a gardener, especially one interested in the wildlife aspect as well as flowers and groceries.
    Libraries offer space for authors to meet with their readers and really provide an outlet for university press releases. Some of the best stuff I have read are little read outside a classroom.
    Amazon has a place in my heart with the suggested book of similar interest offered on each book search. What a bonanza of books to order from the library before buying.

    Current library find... Native trees, Shrubs and Vines for Urban and Rural America. Gary L. Hightshoe. Professor of Landscape Architecture ISU. The librarian had to order it as it was not available online but worth the wait. It is expensive but such a great resource that I'm considering buying. Amazon will get the sale.