Archive for the 'garden design' Category

The Medicinal Ornamental Garden

admin May 19th, 2011

Ornamental edible gardening gets a lot of attention right now.  Consider a new book  _The Edible Front Yard_ by Ivette Soler that The Peak Oil Hausfrau has just reviewed.  I did a post a while back on ornamental perennial edibles, and I wanted to do a companion piece on ornamental medicinal herbs.  If you are looking for something to put up front, your medicinal herb garden is a really choice.  Not only are many of the plants useful, but they are also drop-dead gorgeous.  And just as perennial edibles run “under the radar” – meaning that neither zombies nor your local zoning board are likely to even realize that your garden is  (gasp!) useful as well as purty – medicinals do the same.  Just as I did in my perennial ornamental edibles post, I’m going to give you gardens for both sun and shade.  Obviously, this will be most useful to people who live in my climate or something like it – hey, if you can grow saw palmetto or chasteberry, go for it.  I can’t, but there are plenty of gorgeous options here.  Oh, and a lot of them are highly scented as well – even better!

First, let’s do a sunny border with a lot of general-purpose medicinals, useful in most households.  I’d suggest you throw in a handful of low-growing sunny annuals as well to add some brightness – calendula perks everything up, and german chamomile makes a great, cheerful understory plant.    This is for a site of ordinary soil, with ordinary moisture levels.

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First, large backbone plants.  You’ll definitely want Valerian, which is a beautiful plant with vanilla-scented flowers in bloom.  It gets huge, so give it plenty of room.  Valerian is a reliable perennial, and can be dug and divided when you harvest the roots.  The roots smell like dirty socks, but tinctured they are one of the best relaxants out there, and a natural sleep aid.  Valerian does like some moisture, but will grow in ordinary garden soil.

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All the mallows have roots with soothing properties – particularly good for coughs or irritated urinary tracts.  Marshmallow, above, is a beauty with pink flowers, but you can also use Malva sylvestris or garden hollyhock!

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Angelicas are cool and weird looking.  They umbels with dark stems are odd, but beautiful.  Carrot family members, they attract insects like crazy and also attract visual attention.  If you have anyone female in your household, I’d recommend growing A. sinesis, also known as Dong Quai.  It is used for both menopause and menstrual cramps, as well as to gently help regulate high blood pressure.  It is not a safe herb for pregnancy, however, as it increases the risk of miscarriage.

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You either love elecampanes or you hate them – I love them, huge and strange looking sunflowerish things that they are.  They were a common ornamental during Victorian times, but they’ve fallen out of favor – and I can understand, but I find them structural and cool.  Their roots are used for bronchitis and persistent coughs, but a grad student in Ireland has also found that extracts of elecampane in alcohol kill MRSA, which is certainly a non-trivial usage.

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Moving up to the middle of the border, an obvious candidate, one that does well in almost all gardens, are the coneflowers.  Generally what you want are Echinacea purpurea or augustifola (shown) as the easiest to grow, but if you can grow one of the rarer species, please do – they are often endangered and very beautiful.  The medicinal qualities of the ornamental hybrids are probably lower, so stay away from those.


Meadowsweet is one of my absolute favorite herbs for its tidy foliage, beautiful sprays of creamy white flowers, wonderful fragrance and medicinal usage as both a painkiller (this is the plant from which salicytes were originally isolated) and a stomach soother.  It does cause hayfever in some people, however  and those with asprin-sensitive asthma should not use it, but unless I was terribly allergic, I’d have this plant around – it is just too useful. Its flower heads have also been used to flavor ales and jams – it imparts a slight sweet almondy taste!  The roots also produce a black dye.

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You have to be careful with tansy – in some of the drier parts of the US it is an invasive pest and can become weedy.  You also have to be careful with internal use of tansy – not for kids, pregnant women and I personally wouldn’t take it internally unless the benefits outweighed the risks – but it is a great worm killer for internal parasites.  Best of all, however, are its natural insect repellent qualities, its delicious fragrance and those cheerful bright yellow buttons.  Tansy just begs to be mixed with reds and oranges, so it is a great companion to calendula! 2820 rbgs11jan.jpg

Pretty mounds of tidy leaves with lovely wands of purple flowers – I’m surprised that Betony (stachys officinalis) doesn’t make it into more gardens.  It is great for headaches, and the leaves taste pretty much like black tea – and has similar antioxidant qualities.  This is a fond favorite plant in my garden, and you can never have too much of it!


I’d have feverfew in my garden even if it wasn’t a medicinal – but it is, with good documentation on its ability to affect migraines.  The flowers are just gorgeous – and they come in double forms as well.

Yarrow if a favorite of mine as well, and it tolerates almost any conditions, from dry as a bone roadsides to damp spots in my garden.   The flowers are used to treat hayfever and allergies, the aerial tops for colds and the leaves can be used as a styptic to stop bleeding.  Yarrow looks like a lot of umbelliferae, and some people have occasionally mistaken poisonous plants like water hemlock or cow parsnip for yarrow, which is all the more reason to grow your own!  You want the true white yarrow, not the ornamental colored species, although the chinese species A. asiatica, which has lovely pink flowers, is also extremely ornamental and used for fever pains and arthritis.

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I can’t grow the traditional Arnica montana in my garden – elevations aren’t high enough and my soils aren’t naturally acidic enough – but A. Chamissonis grows well for me, and the bright, low growing flowers are easily tinctured or added to salves to ease sore muscles and bruising.  This is an external use only herb – but it is heavily overharvested in the wild, so growing your own becomes imperative.

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Lady’s bedstraw is a lovely, low growing, incredibly fragrant plant that ought to be in more gardens.  Besides its use as a natural curdling agent for cheesemaking, a decoction is also used for urinary tract issues, and the roots produce a red dye, while the leaves produce a pretty yellow one.  But the honey scent and the way it flavors cheese would be enough for me!

Add in calendula, california poppy and german chamomile in the front of the garden, and you’ve got something no one will ever believe is useful!  If you are looking for more of my herbal writings, check them out here.

Ok, next time – the ornamental, medicinal shade garden!


Gertrude Jekyll Meets Edible Landscaping: The Ornamental Edible Border

admin March 3rd, 2011

Ok, you know about edible landscaping – you’ve replaced your burning bush with blueberries and your spireas with elderberries.  You’ve trained that grapevine over the arbor.  Now you are eying that space on your front lawn where the perennial border is (or should be or used to be or is in your head).  You want flowers.  You need flowers because they make you happy.  Maybe you have to grow flowers there if you grow much of anything but grass, because of neighbors or zoning laws.  Can you grow an ornamental flower garden that is totally edible?  Yes.  Yes, you can!

I don’t just mean “edible flowers” which, after all, are very cool but not main crops.  And I don’t mean something you might add a tiny taste of to your garden. I’m talking about food plants that are beautiful too.  Consider it  your stealth food garden – and consider it perfect for public places, where you are worried about someone nipping off with your cherry tomatoes or your carrots.  Only the well informed will have the faintest idea that these are even food.  There’s something magical and fun to me about the idea of a “secret garden” in plain sight.

I have two plans here for a garden of edible flowering plants, one for sun, one for shade.  Obviously, if you live somewhere tropical or desertish, you’ll have to do your own planning, but for much of the temperate US from zone 7-4 certainly and probably into parts of 8 and 3, you could grow most of these plants.  They are beautiful, they offer a long season of flower and foliage beauty, many are perennial (you can fill it in with annuals that I’ll suggest at the end) and they are tasty.  What more could you want?  My idea was to ask myself “If Gertrude Jekyll was planning an edible garden, what would it look like?”

First, a shady ornamental-edible garden – this will work best for light to moderate shade and reasonably moist conditions – very dry or very deep shade won’t work.

Ok, even I didn’t know until my awesome partner-in-crime Aaron Newton told me – Hostas are edible!!!  I’ve never liked them much, but after I heard the shoots  taste like slightly salted asparagus, well, I’m softening on them.  So first, hostas!   My research suggests that some varieties are tastier than others, but that not much research has been done on this – so here’s an opportunity to contribute useful and important knowledge!

Daylilies are a gorgeous and delicious edible plant/flower and will tolerate partial shade, although they do best in full sun (at the southern end of their range, they might actually prefer shade).  The wild orange daylily will do well in part shade, as do several cultivated varieties, including “Orange Crush” and “Dallas Star.”  One source I found suggested that dark-colored daylilies generally do better in shade.  I have a Stella d’Oro that does well as well in moderate shade.  Daylilies provide two seasons of food – the shoots are tasty fresh and are traditionally dried and used in hot and sour soup, called “golden needles.”  The flowers are the best tasting edible flower out there and wonderful in salads.

Giant Solomon’s Seal (polygonatum giganteum) is a gorgeous woodland native that offers spring to early summer white bell flowers.  It will even take partial sun, but without enthusiasm.  The shoots are edible (look like asparagus but taste more like artichokes) as are the tubers (good with butter, I’m told, but I haven’t tried them).

Orange Jewelweed -aka Spotted Touch Me Not.  Ok, you aren’t going to get more than a tasty snack out of this – they aren’t really a calorie crop, but it is such a valuable plant it is worth it.  Jewelweed seeds (you know, the ones that “pop,” which explains the other common name) taste exactly like walnuts – they are delicious.  Very, very small – you won’t be making too many cookies with them, but yum. Plus, Jewelweed is the best anti-itch plant around – soothes poison oak and ivy, rashes of all kinds, etc…  The leaves are weedy looking, I fear, but the flowers are gorgeous and orchid-like and well worth it.

Ramps don’t really flower, but their strap-like foliage is pretty and pleasant all year round, and their flavor is spectacular – my kids beg for ramps. They do look a lot like lily-of-the-valley, so don’t plant them anywhere near the latter, since lily of the valley is quite poisonous.

Ostrich Fern – the ideal source of fiddleheads.  A delicious and beautiful crop, you get your spring delicacy with ferny beauty put together.

Jerusalem artichokes will tolerate quite a lot of shade, and indeed, are less aggressive that way.  They provide delicious tubers that are really wonderful, and provide bright late season color.  The only important thing is to keep them from overpowering everything else.

Bee Balm is another possibility – it will probably do well in partial shade.  It is prone to mildew in shade, but it is an excellent tea plant and the bright red, pink or purple can light up a border.  The flowers are also edible.

Finally, let’s anchor our planting with a couple of shrubs – two beautiful black elderberries, providing flowers in the spring and fruit in the autumn, and a black currant, whose leaves can be used to crisp and give a smoky flavor to pickles, while their delicious fruit makes jam, wine or juice.  Or if you prefer, red or white currants.  All will tolerate partial shade, all are extremely ornamental and tasty!

If you live in a warmer zone, you can probably also grow taro (elephant ears) and additional plants.  Pansies and Johnny-jump ups are good annuals for shade to fill in any weak spaces and add more color – the flowers are delicious in salads – they will provide color all season long in the cooler regions and spring and fall color in warm places.  Tuberous begonias have edible, slightly tart-crisp flowers and do well in shade as well.

Ok, now a sunny perennial border with a few annuals thrown in for good luck!

As much as I really don’t like hostas (a prejudice I’m getting over) I *love* sea hollies – they are a favorite plant of mine.  The roots, roasted, really do taste like chestnuts.  They were once upon a time candied and served as aphrodisiac desserts.  I’ve not tried the latter ;-) .  The shoots can be blanched, the leaves are edible and tasty, and they are weird but stunningly beautiful, and come in the rarest of all colors, blue. What’s not to love?

Sweet and spicy Codonopsis roots are a delicacy, served in korean style barbecue sauce or used to give a spicy-sweet taste to rice, or added to soups.  It is also known as Dang Shen or “poor man’s ginseng” although the compounds in it are not the same as in ginseng.   They are an important medicinal also used as food in much of Asia.   It does need something to climb on, and the roots usually take several years to mature, but are well worth the wait.  In the meantime, the plant is gorgeously ornamental.  In the warmer parts of its range, it will take part shade, and it will take light shade even in more northerly spots, so it could be part of the garden above as well!

I credit Eric Toensmeier’s _Perennial Vegetables_ for pointing out that ornamental cannas are actually edible.  In our range, the tubers have to be lifted and stored over the winter, but that’s a small price to pay for something so delicious and so beautiful.   Canna starch is used to make cellophane noodles used Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines, and Canna production for starch is a major Vietnamese agricultural product.  Canna tubers do need to be roasted for a long time, but come out meltingly sweet and carmelized and very delicious.

Daylilies would be another great addition to this, and you could add Jerusalem artichokes or Maximillian Sunflowers, or just use annual sunflowers at the back of the border to add height and drama.  As long as we’re talking about drama and height, annual amaranths come in a wide range of stunning colors, produce edible grain, young salad leaves and cooking greens.  They are the perfect ornamental edible.

In the grain department, what about Job’s tears?  It is perennial tropical grass, grown as an ornamental annual here – and it is lovely stuff.  Moreover, the seeds can be eaten as  a porridge, ground to make a nutritious drink, or for that matter, laquered and used as jewelry – they have a natural hole that lends itself to stringing.  It doesn’t overwinter, but the tufts of grass are pretty if left standing in the winter garden as well.

I admit, I simply don’t grasp why everyone doesn’t grow okra in the north – it just isn’t that hard.  Somehow, okra and sweet potatoes (another fave) have the perception of being southern crops – but I get good harvests of both her in zone 4.  Okra is certainly purty enough to make it into the border.  Other more common vegetables worth including in the sunny border are eggplant, ornamental hot peppers, edible chrysanthemum, and “Red Russian” and “Bright Lights” Chard.

(Shunkgiku, or edible Chrysanthemum)

As fruiting things go, Maypop is sort of borderline in the northerly parts of our range, and it can be invasive in the most southerly ones, but there is a happy medium, and I’ve successfully managed to nurture one along in a sheltered spot and get a few passionfruits every year – worth the effort.  The stunning flowers are worth a lot too!

There are certainly no shortage of ornamental shrubs out there to anchor your border – I’m sure you can think of a bunch.  I won’t bore you with blueberries, however – what are some of the unusual ornamental edibles you could grow?

Honeyberry is pretty – it is a honeysuckle and has lovely, very early flowers an is the first fruiting shrub in my garden.  The berries are good – its only major flaw is that it drops its leaves early in the season, but I’ve heard you can stave this off by fertilizing late.  The provide such beautiful early flowers and fruit, however, this seems a small price to pay.

Bush cherries are just plain stunning in the landscape – well worth it. The fruit is ok straight, but excellent in jams and syrups, and my one experiment with it suggests it makes terrific wine.

Aronia is my other recommendation – the bright, fiery fall color would make it worth it alone, but the berries are terrific, highly nutritious and the whole thing is the easiest plant out there – put it in a hole and forget about it.

If we need to fill in spots in the border with bright annual color, certainly, let’s throw in some nasturtiums which obviously add color, delicious flowers, tasty leaves and best of all, seed pods that taste like capers when pickled.  Or how about safflower blossoms, to add to salads and to color our rice without spending bazillions on saffron.  For that matter, you could add autumn color by growing saffron crocuses (not annual).  What about flax for edible seeds?  And a tuteur or trellis covered with Hyacinth beans and/or scarlet runner beans.

See, Gertie, told you I could do it!   I’m hoping, btw, that we will be able to offer many of these plants, if not all, in our plant CSA and herb nursery – more information on that coming up ASAP!


Cottage Gardens and Swept Yards: Recreating a Vernacular Horticulture

admin January 3rd, 2011

This is one of my favorite posts I’ve ever written – it appeared last year at Science Blogs, and I find myself drawn back, as I plan my garden to the question of what constitutes a true vernacular garden for my place. 

At first glance, swept yards, derived from Africa, at one time common in the south and now mostly the province of a few, aging African-American southerners; and Cottage Gardens, invented in Britain under the feudal system and now evolved into a trendy “flower garden style” that implies mostly a mix of abundant plants and mulched paths as seen in any supermarket magazine, have nothing to do with one another.

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But looking past the obvious, the two of them have a great deal in common indeed. Both emerged from the need to make good use of a smaller piece of land for a family with subsistence needs. Both responded to climate and culture and evolved over time in keeping with their environment and the needs of the people that grew them.  Both allowed for a substantial variety of activities and plant life in a small space. Both made use of what was available, valuable and abundant, rather than focusing on rarities. Both responded to inadequate housing by transforming outdoor spaces into living spaces. And perhaps most importantly, both took pragmatic traditions and made them respond to two equally important needs – the need for food and medicine and subsistence from one’s garden, but also the need for beauty, peace, and respite and a place to express one’s artfulness.

In his superb history _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott tracks the origin of the swept yard back to West Africa, and explores how it changed over centuries, from slave yard to a now-dying way of life in the rural south. Instead of attempting to grow grass or other ground covers in the hot south, often on difficult red clay, rural southerners would sweep and tamp down that clay until it baked hard as a rock, reducing dust tracking and making the space suitable for yard work. Houses, hot during the day, were abandoned and people moved outside to shaded yards where they could do the washing, cook, eat, butcher animals, and do other heavy work in the shade of trees. The gardens, a separate but often connected space, contain the crops – and the pig area, the chickens and other livestock. The yard was separate from the garden, often marked by an enclosure, and as Westmacott observed had originally been marked by medicinal herbs and dooryard plants, but gradually transitioned to largely ornamental flowers. Westmacott observes of the sustainability of the whole of traditional southern rural yards and gardens:

“It might be argued that a vernaculture garden must also be sustainable. Gardening is an adaptation of nature, and for gardening to become indigenous to an society, it must be sustainable. In most African societies, sustainability is intricately associated with religious beliefs. As has been shown, most of the gardeners in this study expressed alarm at the changes they saw occurring in the environment, and many lifestyles were remarkably self-sufficient and sustainable.”

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A yard swept bare of plant life may not sound very pretty, but in reality, it made wise use of what there was – it allowed housekeepers to manage the clay and dirt, while transforming the dooryard into the “outdoor rooms” that ornamental garden books like to praise but rarely actually succeed in creating. And it wasn’t an empty space – containers and marginal areas were planted with trees and shrubs, where water could be focused. Recycled materials and scavenged ones made a remarkably creative yard full of planters made from abandoned materials – themselves artful. Moreover, there is, in the photos in Westmacott, a seamlessness to the transition space between yard, garden, livestock and field. Indeed, although I refer to this as an African-American tradition, it was so successful that before the advent of warm weather grasses, the swept yard was the norm in much of the rural south in white and black households, regardless of class.

I recently emailed Aaron Newton, my co-author on _A Nation of Farmers_ and my guide through southern life. We’ve been working together for four years now, and over the years have spent a lot of time politely and not so politely explaining the realities of our respective regions to one another, so I wasn’t surprised that my query about whether anyone still swept their yard in his region of North Carolina was responded to by “Does anyone still wear tricornered hats up by you?” I took that to be a no – it is, as Westmacott documents, a dying tradition – supplanted by warm weather landscape grasses, by people spending more time in air conditioning and less in their yards, but the homogenization of garden design and by the destructions of the informal economy and subsistence activities. But a lower energy, less wealthy society may yet find uses for some of the things that the swept yard did well.

Most interesting to me about the swept yard is how it contained space for both ornamental and food gardening. Westmacott observes that traditional African-American yards were often a riot of flowers and plants – but not organized as most white gardens were. First of all, the emphasis was on vigorous and abundant production and self-seeders. Flowering plants, instead of being organized by color and form were interspersed with one another, with a preference for bright colors. Until recently, few shrubs were involved – because of the high cost of woody plants, most woodies were food producers, rather than purely ornamental. Medicinal herbs would have been mixed in with flowers grown for scent and beauty. Because of the high cost of plants, annuals and seed grown plants were preferred and were shared widely. In this sense, the vernacular traditions of the rural south sound very much like the cottage garden.

In the early 1950s, Eudora Welty introduced the writer Elizabeth Lawrence to market bulletins published throughout Mississippi where gardeners sold perennials, herbs and ornamental sto one another. Lawrence took up a correspondence with dozens of women and men (mostly women) who divided and shared seeds and plants for a small fee, and generously offered advice and told stories of their origins. In their gardens were plants that were otherwise lost to the seed trade, being spread about and preserved in household gardens, and shared for pennies among men and women who valued them for the art and expression they could create. In _Gardening for Love_ Lawrence observes that these gardeners were minimally compensated for the considerable time and effort they spent in preparing and shiping plants, and explaining how to grow them – and most of them worked long hours doing other work. The compensation was the spread, the abundance, the increase in beauty and the preservation of the plants.

In contrast to the swept yard, at least superficially, the cottage garden is booming. Googling “cottage garden” got me a bazillion entries. The problem is that all of them are a watered down version of the cottage garden – but very few of them have anything to do with the cottage garden as it existed before it was taken over by the affluent who had no reason to grow anything but flowers. I have a fondness for Gertrude Jekyll too, but for those of us interested in vernacular gardens, she did everyone a disservice by taking up the cottage garden. Yes, they are very beautiful – but their beauty in reality lay in the way they combined aesthetics and subsistence – and the subsistence has been erased.


But the history of the cottage garden has as much to do with bees and pigs and vegetables as it does with wisteria and foxgloves. The recasting of cottage gardens as an intentionally informal style to be propagated by comparatively affluent ornamental gardeners obscures the fact that the cottage garden grew up among people just as poor as many of the rural African-Americans who preserved the swept yard.

Christopher Lloyd’s and Richard Bird’s _The Cottage Garden_ offers a concise history and at least an attempt to draw us back to the mixed use garden with a heavy emphasis on food plants and herbs. He observes that John Claudius Loudon in the 18th century attempted to help cottagers with reduced land access (as a result of the destructive enclosure laws) to use cottage style gardening to be able to feed a famly of five on 600 square yards of garden. Pigs, chickens and bees were essential to this project. They track back the ornamental elements of the kitchen garden to the Elizabethan dooryard and the herbs that lived in it. As in the African-American yards in the South, at first medicinal and other functional herbs predominated but they too had ornamental value, and it was hard to tell if tall spires of hollyhock were central because of their medicinal or ornamental utility.

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The presumptions of the cottage garden were much the same as the African-American yard despite the radical difference in climate and culture – that much had to be gotten out of small space, that one needed a place to live and work outside when the weather permitted, that the ornament and utility were not incompatible, and that the best plants were abundant self-seeders or easily grown annuals. It had the additional virtue of using vertical space well – which some African-American gardens had as well, particularly in the use of scavenged articles as trellises. The ubiquitous cottage garden image, of course, is of a cottage covered with ivy or wisteria.

As the cottage garden was adopted by more affluent people, and transferred away from the real cottages of low income farmers and workers in Britain, the cottage garden changed, and became what we see today – a garden style, more heavily invested in perennials, with more shrubs and almost no emphasis on plant utility. The romanticization of the cottage in both gardens and literature worked to the detriment of the actual cottager – now that people longed to live in them, admired them, they became harder to actually live in for most working people. In _Sense and Sensibility_ Jane Austen’s romantic Willoughby jesting threatens to tear down his estate and replace it with a cottage. But the cottage imagined in the romantic imagination was erased of subsistence functions, because, they were unromantic. In Georgette Heyer’s superb _A Civil Contract_ the overly romantic, affluent Julia declares she would be delighted to live in a cottage, but her mother clarifies (in a terrifically funny passage) this fantasy for what it is – a sanitized dream.

“Could you be happy in a cottage? I could! How often I have longed to live in one – with white walls and a thatcheed roof and a neat little garden! We’ll have a cow and I’ll learn to milk and make butter and cheese. And some hens and a bee-hive, and some pigs.”

 ”Oh, won’t you?” struck in her unappreciative brother. Well, if you mean to cook the meals, Lynton will precious soon want something more and who is to kill the pigs and muck out the henhouse?”

…”Lady Oversly, having removed Julia’s hat, had clasped her in her arms and was tenderly wiping the tears from her face, but she looked up at this and expalined: “Live in a cottage? Oh, no, dearest you would be very ill-advicsed to do that! Particularly a thatched one, for I believe that thatch harbors rats, though nothing, of course, is more picturesque, and I perfectly understand why you should have a fancy for it! But you would find it sadly uncomfortable: it wouldn’t do for you at all, or for Adam either, I daresay, since you have both of you been accustomed to live in a very different style.

And as for hens, I would not on any account rear such dispiriting birds! You know how it is whenever an extra number of eggs is needed in the kitchen: the hen woman is never able to supply them and always says it is because the creatures are broody. Yes, and they make sad noises which you, my love, with your exquisite sensibility would find quite insupportable. And pigs,” concluded her ladyship with a shudder, “have a most unpleasant odour!”

The beauty of the cottage garden in many ways was its success, and thus its downfall – while beauty was always part of the project of creating the garden, always intertwined with utility, its very success at being lovely made it ripe for the erasure of its utility. But it is possible to come back to the cottage garden – to the yard as proximate space that extends the kitchen and the household outwards, brings us outside and into a riot of color and forms that are both beautiful and useful. There is still a place for the herb garden, and the cottage garden and the traditional African-American yard remind us to value plants that may be both ornamental and useful, that are vigorous and energetic.

The swept yard and other southern vernacular garden elements don’t much suit my climate, but for thousands of my readers, they could be useful. This publication by cooperative extension suggests strategies for implementing some of the traditional design elements of African-American yards

In my wet climate, the cottage garden model makes a lot of sense. I may have 27 acres, but I also have a yard – a space outside my kitchen door that I have gradually been converting to herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruiting trees. Looking at the cottage garden model, I can think of ways of better integrating aesthetics and practicality.

The reality is that a shift to subsistence in a densely populated world will require us to draw upon all of the things we have learned about how to meet our needs – for food and beauty – in smaller spaces. There are thousands of traditions to draw upon from all over the world, and all of them will have things we can take and make use of. As we cast back upon our collective history, the answers to how we will feed ourselves – and feed our souls – is contained in part in stories from our past.

Grasshoppers Garden: What To Read

Sharon May 13th, 2010

I recently got an email from a couple in their 40s who asked me if I would advise them on the very basics of gardening.  They mentioned that they want to do this, but that gardening is a completely unknown world to them, and that they’ve been reluctant to even take my garden design class, because the word “design” seems so overwhelming when you are looking at dirt seriously for the first time in your life.  They wondered if I would be willing to advise some absolute newbies.

And indeed, I am – because realistically, that’s more of us than anyone would like to admit.  It was me once – my first balcony garden, grown in college, failed because I didn’t realize you actually had to fertilize your plants – I dumped potting soil in pots and left them there, watering occasionally.  I’ve done every stupid thing you can imagine in a garden. 

So I’m delighted to offer some very basic gardening guidelines.  The couple asked to remain anonymous, so I’m referring to them (with their goodnatured consent) as “Ms. and Mr. Grasshopper” and will be answering their questions throughout the season.

The first one is what to read about gardening.  They went off to the local library and bookstore and came home with a bunch of books.  But, they admit, most of them are either too advanced or too confusing.  And they say such contradictory things – who should they believe?

And this does point up a real and serious problem in gardening – that in fact, most garden books do give wholly contradictory advice.   You’d think that someone who spends as much time as I do thinking about gardening would have a pile of just absolutely perfect authors, whose wisdom I agree with 100%.  in fact, I don’t have any such thing – the majority of garden books contain some good and useful information.  They also contain (in my opinion) some uninformed nonsense and some things that are helpful to some people, but wrong or pointless or irrelevant to people dealing with different pests, weeds, climates, soils or conditions. 

This is true even of gardening books I like.  And I assume that it will be deemed true if I ever write a gardening book.  The old joke about Jewish folks “Two Jews, three opinions” is even more true about gardeners.

So unfortunately, I can’t actually suggest to my Grasshoppers that they buy the one or two most useful garden books.  This would be very helpful to them, but instead, what I suggest is that they begin acquiring (or borrowing from the library) a range of books that will help them, remembering, also, not to take as gospel anything anyone says – including me.  This is much harder than giving the one true answer.  But anyone who says they have the one true answer in the garden is a liar or a fool.

So here is an opinionated, annotated list of the garden books I’ve found most useful. It is somewhat changed from the lists provided in _A Nation of Farmers_ and _Depletion and Abundance_, as I’ve read more books and changed my thinking some.  In each, I try to note what the book is actually good for, and if I can remember, where it is wrong.  I’ve included books that my Grasshoppers might not be ready for yet (and pointed out where this is true) in the interest of appealing to a broad range of readers.  But first we’ll start with absolute beginners:

Beginner Books

Mel Bartholomew’s _Square Foot Gardening_ has done more to make gardening accessible to more people than perhaps any other basic garden book out there, and is well worth the investment.  I actually think the older version of this book is better, because it emphasizes purchased inputs less than the more current one.  I think he uses more chemicals and purchased components than I like, but the basic method is very clear, very straightforward and very helpful. I don’t really think anyone should ever have just one garden book, but this wouldn’t be a bad candidate to get started with.

I wasn’t that excited by the title, but _The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening_ is actually excellent.  Written by a father-daughter team, she a Garden writer, her father a retired Plant Biochemist, it somehow manages to get just the right balance of information.  The book is clear, it focuses on the food crops most people will want to start with, it covers everything you need to know from design to soil biology in very clear terms.  This book and Bartholomews are as close as I can come to imagining a small but comprehensive garden library.  It is good enough that the book will be a good addition to moderately experienced gardeners as well.

Robin Wheeler’s _Gardening for the Faint of Heart_ is more idiosyncratic and less comprehensive than either of the above, but is a nice supplement to them, and is about the most accessible and friendly of all garden books.  Think of it as a chatty companion with lots of information. 

Most gardening books are really regional – unless they are so general as to be useful only to the beginner.  The best of these are honest about who they apply to.  Bob Thomsen’s _The New Victory Garden_ is a superb basic book for people living in the Northeast, Northern Midwest and northern Mid-Atlantic – its advice is perfect for those regions, but since my Grasshoppers do live in the Midwest, this will be a good addition to their list.  One of the best things about this book (based on the old PBS tv series available cheaply, but don’t get the old Crockett’s version, which is heavy on the pesticides) is that it will tell you what to do in each month to get your garden started.

My Grasshoppers see the proper beginning place for them as a fairly conventional annual garden of popular vegetables, but that isn’t necessarily the only or best way to go.  I’d like them to think at least a little about permaculture and designing a space that does more than produce annuals with a maximum of effort. For that, I think the single best “help people see the basics differently before they get locked in” book is Toby Hemenway’s wonderful _Gaia’s Garden_.  I recommend this for every household, even if you don’t think you want to know about permaculture.  You really do – and this is a superb book that will get you thinking in the right terms.

These five books, put together are a very good start for most beginners.  Those in other regions of the world will want to find an equivalent basic regional book for their area.


My Grasshoppers have a moderate sized yard, but they have most of their sun in the front, and want to add some containers to their plan – but they don’t know what grows well in containers, how to fertilize or take care of them.  So the next category of garden book I’m going to recommend are books on container gardening – which is tricky, since most container garden books focus on just a few edible plants and mostly on flowers.  I like four books, personally. 

First, there’s _McGee and Stuckey’s The Bountiful Container_ – which covers a really nice range of container plants, soils, fertility and how to grow them.  This is really *the* comprehensive reference on the subject, and if you had to pick one book, this would be it.  I don’t think they spend quite enough time on soils and micronutrients but otherwise, it is good.

I like DJ Herda’s new book _From Container to Kitchen_ quite a bit, in part because he really includes some suggested interesting crops – I’m excited by his section on growing dwarf bananas in pots.  But rest assured, he also takes good care of basics – beans, cucumbers, tomatoes.  He’s an opinionated guy, and I disagree with a few of his recommendations – but in some ways opinionated gardeners (especially when their opinions are leavened with humor, as his are) are the best – because all gardeners are opinionated, but some conceal it under a veneer of scientific expertise, implying that there is only one true way. I like that Herda comes out and makes the case for his way.  It isn’t quite the Bible that the Stuckey and McGee book is, but it add something to the other.

If you are growing serious food in containers, sooner or later you’ll want to investigate self-watering containers, also known as earth boxes.  Because water and fertility stress aren’t the constants they are in most standard containers, this is a great way to up your container yields.  The standard book on the subject is Edward Smith’s _Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers_.  The problem I have with the book is that there really isn’t enough content in it to make a real book – it is stretched out with irrelevancies and huge pretty pictures that only emphasize that this good and valuable information really could have been contained in a pamphlet, rather than its own book.  It is a helpful guide to this technique, however, so it is worth reading. I’m glad I own it, mostly, although I think most of us could glean the relevant parts from a single borrow from the library.

_Fresh Food from Small Spaces_ by RJ Ruppenthal is a great book for urban folk or others with small spaces that want to maximize what they can do even in the city.  It isn’t wholly a gardening book, much less a container gardening book - it covers bees and chickens, fermentation and sprouting as well.  But it is a terrific book, and has some great ideas for using vertical spaces and found containers, enough that I’d add it to the list.  It is readable and passionate sounding, which alone makes it more fun than many garden books.


Being a Gardener means being a weeder – we pay lots more attention to planting and harvesting, but a lot of the day to day reality of gardening is simply keeping ahead of the weeds.  There are lots of strategies for doing this, and this is one place where folks get more opinionated than not.  My opinion comes down to two things – don’t let them get away from you, and mulch the crap out of them.  So that informs my books.

The first book you definitely want is a guide to your weeds – the more you know about weeds, the easier they are to manage.  My personal favorite is a pricey book that I bought some years ago, but have never regretted called _The Weeds of the Northeast_ (this kind of book doesn’t seem to lend itself to innovative titles ;-) ), but you will want whichever weed book best applies to your region of the world. I don’t know where most of you live, so I can’t offer a suggestion – call your cooperative extension agent and ask them.

The two other books I recommend on this subject basically both take the same approach, and you can easily get away with just one, depending on your tastes.  I like Ruth Stout’s old _How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back_ for the entertaining essays and Lee Reich’s more concrete and analytic approach in _Weedless Gardening_ for the nitty gritty.  Mulched gardening is not rocket science, and you can learn it from either, but the two together make a wonderful combination.  Weedless Gardening is also a pretty good basic book on gardening as well.


My Grasshoppers are purchase transplants for everything they can’t direct seed this year, because they are getting a late start, but eventually, they will probably find it financially friendlier to start at least some seeds in advance.  They may also find that they’d like to save seeds, and cut down on their seed bill for next year, as well as building local adaptation into their plants.  So once they get that far, they’ll want a couple of books on seeds, and maybe the very basics of backyard plant breeding.  I know that sounds overwhelming now, but again, it isn’t rocket science, and you go from raw beginner to expert, aching for a new challenge pretty quick in gardening.

For beginners who haven’t gotten to seed saving, I like Nancy Bubel’s _The New Seed Starter’s Handbook_ which has tons of specific information about every variety of vegetable, herb and flower you  could want, laid out very clearly. 

The best seed starting and saving book, however, is Suzanne Ashworth’s superb _Seed to Seed_ which covers the whole cycle of seed saving and spreading for a huge range of edible plants.  If you can only have one book on this subject, this is it.

In addition, even if it sounds intimidating, I love Carol Deppe’s _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_ – it is readable, entertaining, compelling and useful, and a great book.  It makes it clear that the work of creating new food plants that can adapt to changing conditions will not be left only to plant scientists – it can’t be, because we are the ones who know what we need. I recommend everyone read this book (once you get past the starting stage) even if you think you’d never do it. You won’t regret it.

More than Just Veggies

What happens when my Grasshoppers are ready to go beyond the most common fruits and vegetables and want to get into new plants?  Well, then they need some guidelines to less familiar plants – perennials, fruits, herbs, etc…  Depending on their interests, they may want some of these specialized books – and indeed, I will encourage them, once they’ve gotten their hands into the dirt for the first time, to add perennial and woody plants to increase the food they can produce.

If you want to grow medicinal herbs, there’s really one definitive book – Tammi Hartung’s excellent _Growing 101 Herbs that Heal_ – everyone may want to add basic medicinals or specific to conditions they or their family are dealing with, and while there are many herb books that focus on how to use the herbs, books that really emphasize how to grow them are few and far between. This is a wonderful one and I consult mine regularly.

What about grains?  Most of us rely on grains to provide staple calories, but few of us grow them, which is a pity, since most grains are grasses and very easy to grow.  Thankfully, Gene Logsdon has finally re-released the definitive and wonderful _Small Scale Grain Raising_ which was out of print for decades.  Revised and updated, it is an essential for anyone who wants to grow even a tiny patch of grains.

Michael Phillips’ _The Apple Grower_ is the modern definitive book on organic apple growing, and is wonderful – and much of what he says applies to other tree fruits grown organically.  Gene Logsdon has an out of print book _Organic Orcharding_ that is also excellent, and covers a wider range of fruits – I’m hoping that will be his next re-release.

If you are going to grow unusual fruits, I come back to Lee Reich, whose _Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden_ will help you sort through fifty different kinds of faux-cherry in your catalog and whether you want to grow Medlars. 

Eric Toensemeier’s super _Perennial Vegetables_ is also well worth the investment – he’s done the hard work of sorting through unusual and funky, even unknown vegetables in order to give everyone access to a range of crops that come back every year without effort.  Familiar rhubarb and asparagus are here, along with the unfamiliar, and it is worth having and considering.  This is another one I go back to year after year.

Getting More Advanced

Believe it or not, at some point terms like “soil ph” and “cruciferae” and “woody perennial” will turn from mystifying bits of an alien language into the ordinary terms of your day to day life.  You will know that blueberries need acid soil and not to set your peppers out until it gets warm and what damping off disease is.  A few seasons under your belt and you’ll recognize your seedlings from the weedlings and while you won’t stop making garden mistakes, you will probably go looking for some new and creative ones to make.  That’s when you need these books – the ones that help you take the next step on, whether it is market gardening, season extension or serious forest gardening or just a greater degree of self-sufficiency.

Eliot Coleman’s _The New Organic Grower_ is *the* book for small scale market producers, but larger scale home gardeners will learn a lot from it as well.  The discussions of green manures, undercropping, appropriate tools and technologies, soil building, etc…are past the level of a beginner, and for people who are really ready to get serious about gardening.  Like all of Coleman’s books, it is a well written and thoughtful tome

Also by Coleman are the two bibles of Season Extension – _The Four Season Harvest_ and _The Winter Harvest Handbook_ – the two build on one another, and talk about ways of extending the garden season year round in cold climates.  This book will be less valuable for folks in hot places, but for those in cold and moderate temperate climates they are indispensible.  If you had to get one, I’d get The Four Season Harvest.

Dave Jacke is a brilliant man who has written an enormous two volume book on Forest Gardening in temperate climates.  These are amazing books, and incredibly useful references even if what you are doing isn’t officially forest gardening – his plant information is astonishing, and the tables alone are worth the price of the book. I don’t, however, recommend them to beginners – or even folks who are still in the first few years of gardening, unless you really like anality.  The thing is, Jacke is so focused on doing it right – hundreds and thousands of pages of doing it right… that I think it is simply overwhelming to beginners who want to deal with smaller spaces.  Jacke knows his stuff cold, but by the time you finish reading all the steps in soil prep and design, you probably will have decided that this whole thing is far too overwhelming.  But once you’ve gotten past that, and are actually doing, they are wonderful books – very expensive, but worth the price.

I’m not a double digger, and I actually don’t think that highly of double digging as a technique – I know too many people who set out to use the techniques in _How to Grow More Vegetables…_ by John Jeavons and were knackered by the construction of the garden beds, and never did end up growing much.  If, however, you have many unrebellious teenagers to use as slave labor who need to sublimate sexual frustration, or you like double digging, you could build a large garden of double dug beds.  Or you could actually derive all the good and powerful knowledge in here about crops but maybe give yourself a little bit of a break.  I do think that outside of California, the yields are probably overstated, but even doubling their expected space gets you a lot of food in a small place.  Ecology Action also publishes a number of culture and climate specific garden pamphlets “A Complete Mexican Diet” “A Complete Kenyan Diet” that may be useful in many places outside California.  Their work is wonderful and the book enormously valuable, even if I don’t think you actually need to sit around and sift your soil through screen to two feet deep.

Finally, I have a particular taste for Terry and Mark Silber’s _Growing Herbs and Vegetables from Seed to Harvest_ because they are doing  so much of what I want to do.  This is a largely idiosyncratic choice, and if you aren’t trying to grow herbs and flowers along with vegetables, you might not find this book that interesting.  But it shows what they do on their farm to grow an extremely diverse range of crops, and I find it a very useful supplement to Coleman and the others, as well as doing a good job of actually illustrating what they are doing, rather than just showing garden porn (not that I don’t like garden porn, but pretty pictures aren’t everything.)

There you have it, Grasshoppers, your reading list.  More to come!


Speaking of Growing in Community…

Sharon November 5th, 2009

You’ve got to see Aaron’s map of his neighborhood in terms of potential growing space, garden friendly neighbors and potential food customers.  It is a great idea, and would be useful to a lot of people!

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