08 March 2015

Review of 'The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: cultivating tomatoes ,greens, peas, beans, squash, joy and serenity'

At the outset let me state I am a fan of Carol Deppe’s gardening books, but haven't met, corresponded, or received any benefit from Carol or her publishers for this review. 
Her first gardening book, “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving” transformed my approach to vegetable gardening, and indeed took it to a level and in directions I couldn’t have conceived of.

I don’t make my living from food growing or seed collecting. I garden on a modest backyard plot, in dry central Victoria, Australia. I sell a few heritage tomato plants every spring, but probably give away as many as I sell. I still buy most of my food. This is partly Carol’s fault, but more of that later.

Carol’s first book has a clear, evidence based approach, illuminated with detailed, entertaining examplesand  systematically makes a great introduction to vegetable breeding, and why it might be a good idea for us to do so. It’s not driven by any overt philosophical position, but outlines pragmatic reasons why a reasonable gardener might wish to do something about the sorts of plants they grow. The discussions of the examples are extended and sufficiently detailed and situated to enable a clear understanding of the underlying principles, allowing those of us who live and garden in quite different climates to apply her ideas to our own situations.

Her second gardening book, “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times extends the principles of “Breed your own…” with more details on the essentials of growing staples. It includes - what are to a Southern Hemisphere gardener - some idiosyncratic problems and ideas and novel resources – frozen ground, cucumber beetles and gophers, thousands of indigenous crop varieties – but continues the clear explanations of her first publication grounded in her specific situations that allow the principles to be analysed and applied to new locations. I was a bit bemused by some of the manual gardening techniques, and culinary suggestions, some of which haven’t translated particularly well to an Antipodean cuisine, but this is after all a gardening rather than a cooking book. And it does offer novel approaches to produce preparation that are stimulating, even if they have not yet entered my kitchen repertoire.

If forced to one-liner descriptions the first book is a ‘what to grow’ book (finding and or breeding varieties that work for your situation), the second is a ‘how to grow’ book (here’s how Carol makes a living on her land, now go figure out how it might work for you), and the third is a ‘why to grow’ book, although each is so much more. And so to “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy, and Serenity”. This is perhaps her most personal of the three.

Carol begins each chapter with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, and a short story from Taoist Stories: a window to the Tao through the tales of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu. I’m usually not a fan of aphorisms, quotes and historical anecdotes prefacing chapters – I often find them self-indulgent, obscure or irrelevant – I’m usually keen to get on with what this author has got to say to me, not some exposition of their Classical education or erudition on obscure Sumerian texts. Perhaps I’m mellowing in my maturity, or, more likely, Carol has selected vignettes that clearly point to the nature of the forthcoming chapter – preparing the ground, as it were for the ideas about to be sown. Or perhaps it’s canny cross-promotion for her books on Tao – none the less, they work.

Gardening is distinct from and more than just growing plants. Only the most superficial gardener or industrial farmer would fail to recognise that it is a contract, a symbiosis, an emotional link between three things – earth, plants and people. The first three chapters of TTOVG cover these, but not in an other-worldly way. Carol’s writing is, if nothing else, firmly rooted in practice. These chapters are not prosaic dry treatises on soil chemistry, plant biology or psychology. Good, brief foundational material, peppered with examples, stories of success, failure, and the suprises of the natural world - a good basis to move on from, but with enough detail to allow us to make sense of the following chapters.

The next three chapters outline practical approaches to vegetable gardening with universal application – Flexibility, Balance, and Non-doing. (These chapters are perhaps striking a particular chord with me at the moment – my breeding projects - inspired several years ago by “Breed your own… “ are coming to late summer fruition, while I lie inside recovering from a frustrating but thankfully temporary incapacity.) They are not about busy-work, but about doing less, attending, backing off from our intended outcomes and letting garden ecosystems surprise us. My early readings on gardening, springing from post-war can-do approaches, emphasised double digging, order, pest and weed control, stringlines and spacing tools, strict schedules and fertiliser regimes. The let-it-flow no-dig, flowers-in-hair nature knows best approaches of the 70’s and 80’s may have led to greater harmony, but also often led to ravaged crops and failed harvests. The approach of TTOVG transcends these, and has, and will, take my gardening to another level.

I’m not sure this is a book for the beginning gardener. While the philosophy would have struck a chord, I’m fairly certain in my early gardening days I would have had neither the maturity nor the depth of gardening and life experience to see the clear wisdom in these pages.

The middle chapters cover tomatoes, weeding, squash, greens, and peas and beans, again, with a somewhat North American bias, but with sufficient clarity, examples and explanations that the more experienced gardener could easily transpose to alternative settings.
The book concludes with chapters on Joy and Seeds – it’s a trite comment, but these bring us full circle – the start of all plants, and why we might garden in the first place.

This book has re-invigorated me. My serious every-waking-moment gardening obsession has been slowed. I’m prioritising the joyful bits, delaying the more time-consuming and cumbersome, finally realising that I’m not going to answer all my gardening questions in this lifetime. And this is good. I’ve put a few space-and-water consuming (Deppe-inspired) breeding projects on hold, I’ll be making more room to grow the things I like to eat, and spend more time savouring them. The three quarters of my vegetable garden devoted to breeding growouts might now yield a bit more food, and the additional garden 4 kilometres away may return to horse pasture. My quest for an Antipodean purple snow pea is too close to fruition, and will, however continue.

The dominating theme through this and Carol’s other gardening books is the grounding of advice in evidence, the lack of prescriptive practices, the flexibility, and common sense. Many books, no doubt full of good advice for their situations, I often find prescriptive, unadaptable, wrong, or so tight in their methodologies that I would need to undo years of my existing practice based on the pontifications of distant experts who know little of my situation. My brain couldn’t garden in square-foot arrays, I haven’t got room for livestock, hedgerows or food forests, 3 cubic metres of compost bins or biochar incinerators. I don’t like eating kale.

I commend this book to thoughtful gardeners, who want to grow some food, already know a bit about how their garden works, and want to do it a bit better – and with more joy. But do yourself a favour, and buy all three of Deppe’s books.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review T! My copy is awaiting me at the post office, looking forward to it.