As noted in yesterday’s blog post, I am short on time these days. I need to take leave from blogging until the end of February. But I will still be posting a daily “little bit” here. Each little bit will be a short excerpt from the book, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon.
Each day’s “gardening bit” will be posted below the previous day’s, so the collection will read in logical order from the top down. I will also change the picture at the top of this blog each day when I add a new bit. So if you stop by and see a picture different from the previous day, you know to scroll down and read the new “gardening bit.”
When I return from this gardening bit break on March first I will provide a picture of my mysterious "midlife crisis" birthday present to myself (which I mentioned awhile back). And I also expect to provide a photo with some details about the “Planet Whizbang” gardening tool that I’m currently working to bring to market.
Gardening Bit #1
20 February 2009
I have all kinds of books about gardening. Not one of them is the total and final word on the subject. But every one is a worthwhile source of useful information. Based on my readings and my predilection for down-to-earth simplicity, I am particularly fond of Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon.
I was initially hesitant to send for the book because I thought the subtitle, Growing Food In Hard Times was gimmicky. Besides that, I was starting to think maybe I had enough gardening books. How much more could there be to know about this subject? Well, shame on me for the latter thought, and nothing could be further from the former impression.
It turns out that Steve Solomon has written a commendable book. It is chock full of valuable insights and useful information. The book is also decidedly contrarian in many ways, as you will see. But Solomon's opinions and methods of gardening are informed by many years of personal experience and research. What’s more, Solomon is the fellow who started the Territorial Seeds company in 1979, when he was 37 years old. Seven years later, he sold the business and moved to Tasmania where he continues to garden and grow a large portion of the food he eats.
“Gardening When it Counts” was published in 2005. Solomon foresaw “coming hard times,” and the need for basic, sound gardening information to help people provide for themselves through those hard times. And those hard times have now arrived. Here is an excerpt from the book:
Gardening magazines, garden centers, and seed catalogs all promote the idea that their appealing merchandise is useful and essential—that you need it. Actually, to veggie garden successfully you need only a few hand tools, used properly. I am going to educate you about this as your grandfather should have done. But almost none of us had a grandfather who knew how to grow vegetables, who grew up on a farm, who sharpened shovels and hoes and worked the earth. If you’ll allow it, I am going to be the gardening grandfather you never had.
Gardening Bit #2
21 February 2009
During the 1970s, inflation and unemployment were high. In such lean years, many people grew substantial backyard veggie gardens. I was a young man who did that.
Good times returned in the 1980s and continued into the first half of the first decade of the new millennium—fat years. I was there. In easy times people go to restaurants and take summer vacations; not me, I continued gardening.
During the fat years an unfortunate change happened in veggie gardening. Books and magazine articles promoting traditional homestead and backyard methods—growing well-separated plants in rows far enough apart that you could walk between them—disappeared. Row gardening was universally denounced as a waste of space, inefficient with water, and low-producing, densly packed, deeply dug, super fertile, massively irrigated, raised bed systems became fashionable. As I write this book in 2005, intensive gardening still reigns.Steve Solomon goes on to explain that he adopted the intensive gardening methods of John Jeavons, and by 1984 he had written three of his own gardening books recommending intensive methods.
But in the 1980s, as he grew seed variety trials for his Territorial Seeds company, Solomon noticed something...
Trials require that you grow plants far enough apart that each can develop its full potential. One thing I noticed from doing this was that my trial plots didn’t need nearly as much irrigation as my intensive veggie garden. Another was that these well-separated plants got much larger; they tasted better than crowded vegetables did when they weren’t harvested properly; and many vegetable species grown that way yielded more in relation to the space occupied, not less as I had read in books by intensivist gurus.This realization of Solomon’s resonated with me as I read it because I myself adopted the raised bed intensive gardening approach for several years. Then, two years ago, I ripped out all my rotting wood-framed beds with neat walkways between them and went back to traditional row gardening. I’ve looked at gardening from both sides now and I’m persuaded that less intensive, more traditional gardening is better suited to growing a serious amount of good quality food with the least amount of fertilizer, water, and other inputs.
This is, of course, a debatable gardening matter. But the point is, intensive gardening is not a panacea and Solomon’s book goes on to explain the reasons why traditional methods should be reconsidered. That is not the who point of the book. There is much, much more to the gardening wisdom of Steve Solomon, but he is clearly not a proponent of intensive gardening.
Gardening Bit #3
22 February 2009
If your goal is to produce not half, but nearly all the calories and nutrition needed year-round, and if your family can depend on the ordinary potato as their healthful staff of life, then you can add more land in order to produce sacks and sacks of nutritious spuds or sweet potatoes.
The good thing about potatoes is that working plots of this scale can be done entirely with hand tools. To produce the same amount of nutrition by growing cereal grains would require five to ten times as much land per person. The healthful potato is really the thing for getting through hard times.I could not agree more with this advice. We typically grow several bushels of potatoes, keep them in crates in the basement, and depend on the supply through the winter. If times were hard, I would plant more potatoes. Fact is, I hope to be planting more potatoes this year. The hardest part of growing potatoes is digging them in the fall. You can read an essay I wrote about digging potatoes, and see a Whizbang Garden Cart full of homegrown spuds, AT THIS LINK
Gardening Bit #4
23 February 2009
Chapter Two of “Gardening When it Counts” is titled, “Basics.” Here is where Steve Solomon divides vegetables into the categories of low demand, medium demand, and high demand. These categories refer to the fertility necessary to grow each category. Then he explains the importance of balanced fertility when growing vegetables.
Solomon makes it clear that soils with ideally balanced fertility are very rare. He further states that the addition of organic matter in the form of composted vegetation and animal manures is a good thing but it does not necessarily correct unbalanced fertility. Fact is, organic matter from soil with a fertility imbalance will amplify already existing soil nutrient imbalances.
The point being, you can not balance fertility in an unbalanced soil without the addition of external inputs (i.e., some sort of fertilizer), especially if you are growing medium and high demand vegetables.
With soil nutrient imbalances in mind, Steve Solomon presents a “recipe” he has developed for:
...an organic soil amendment that is correct for almost any food garden. It is a complete, highly potent, and correctly balanced fertilizing mix made entirely of natural substances, a complete organic fertilizer, or COF. I use COF and regular small additions of compost. Together they provide incredible results. I recommend this system to you as I’ve been recommending it in my gardening books for 20 years. No one has ever written back to me about COF saying anything but “Thank you, Steve. My garden has never grown so well; the plants have never been so large and healthy; the food never tasted so good.Solomon’s COF recipe is not something I feel I should reveal in detail here (I encourage you to get the book), but I will have more to say about it in the next gardening bit.
Gardening Bit #5
24 February 2009
Yesterday I told you about Steve Solomon’s Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF). I didn’t feel it would be ethical of me to reveal the recipe here because the book is protected by copyright. Small sections of the book, for the purposes of review, and with my encouragement to get yourself a copy, seems appropriate, but I don’t want to cross the line.
However, Stepahanie Skelly who has a blog called One Big Adventure, sent me an e-mail to say that Steve Solomon himself has written about his COF recipe at THIS INTERNET LINK. Thanks Stephanie!
The COF ingredients, things like seedmeal (i.e. cottonseed meal), ordinary agricultural lime, dolomite lime, and ground rock phosphate are typically available in bulk quantities for reasonable prices from most rural agricultural farm supply stores. There is such a place about six miles from my home. I think it has been in business for over a hundred years. They cater to farmers but when I need something they are glad to oblige. So that’s the kind of place where you can get these ingredients.
If stored properly, COF ingredients will keep for years. I intend to stock up on a mullit-year supply this spring. As far as I’m concerned, a supply of COF is better than money in the bank.
Tomorrow I will provide a quote from Solomon’s book about how to build soil fertility if you can not afford to buy COF (there is also the possibility that, one day, if things in the world get bad enough, COF ingredients will not be readily available). For now, I’ll leave you with this quote about COF from the book:
The ideal fertilizer would release slowly, so the nutrients didn’t wash out of the topsoil with the first excessive irrigation or heavy rain. It would be a dry, odorless, finely powdered, completely organic material that would not burn leaves if sprinkled on them and would not poison plants or soil life if somewhat overapplied. All this accurately describes COF.
Gardening Bit #6
25 February 2009
For those who may not have the financial resources to purchase the ingredients for Steve Solomon’s COF for their vegetable gardens, he provides some lesser options. Among them is this one:
Soil improvement materials were always scarce for Native American gardeners. Their approach, and a wise on it was: concentrate what fertilizer they could get into hills. Usually several plants were grown on each fertilized hill. The word “hill” in this case does not mean a high mound; it is a low broad bump about 18 inches in diameter that is deeply dug up and into which fertilizer is mixed. For Native Americans the fertilizer was often a buried bony “trash” fish that weighed at least one pound. I expect the Native American garden was also used as the family latrine and as the burial yard for slaughtering waste, dead dogs, and other small animals, with each deposit making a hill.
These days, hills might be fertilized by roadkill or a quart of strong composted chicken manure and a few tablespoonfuls of agricultural line.That advice brings to mind several things. First, I guess I should be glad that my dog buries so many woodchucks in my garden every year. Second, my Whizbang Squash Planting Secret is something akin to a Native American hill and this year I’ll be adding COF to the mix. Third, I’m now thinking that all the deer bones we’ve been feeding our dog (and that are now scattered around the yard) can be collected up and used for fertilizer (Perhaps they can be ground up in my Whizbang Apple grinder). Waste not, want not, eh? The “Old Timers” would approve. Check out this old farm almanac entry.
Gardening Bit #7
26 February 2009
For those who want to save money or don’t have a lot of money to spend on the grocery bill, Steve Solomon provides a personal recollection from his book, Gardening When it Counts:
From mid-1980 through mid-1983, most of the food my household ate was vegetables, supplemented by some apples rom an old orchard and helped out at breakfast most mornings by blackberries, picked during high summer, stored in a rust-speckled old chest freezer in the woodshed, and blended with frozen bananas, bought as “overripes” at super-bargain prices. Money was so tight that when the germination percentage of the seed company’s bean seeds dropped below what was ethical to sell, I’d bring those seeds up to the house and we’d cook them. The food we purchased during those years was the odd bit of brown rice or millet, sometimes a chunk of ordinary cheese, some real Jersey butter or milk from the man down the road, olive oil and vinegar for salad dressing, and in winter, oranges or grapefruits now and then, but only by the full box and only when really cheap. I bought enough gasoline to go to town twice a month, paid the land taxes, purchased the odd bit of clothing at the Salvation Army, bought a chunk of beef about once a month when I’d crave it.To this list of simple, inexpensive, wholesome foods, I would have to add oatmeal or oat groats. It is hard from me to imagine life without oatmeal.
The point of this story is that you too can eat that frugally...if you need to. I could do it again too, if I needed to. And in terms of health, we’d both be better off if we did.
Gardening Bit #8
27 February 2009
Steve Solomon founded Territorial Seed Company. As a former seedsman he knows the seed business very well. We who are not seedsmen look through garden seed catalogs and see colorful vegetable pictures and descriptions, but Solomon looks beyond the outward appearance and judges seed businesses by their ethics.
My personal definition of ethical is “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.” When it comes to the seed business, Solomon believes an ethical seed company will test the germination level of all seed lots twice a year and will cull out the weak seeds, even when it means throwing away thousands of dollars of product. I wonder how many actually do that?
Furthermore, Steve Solomon believes that an ethical seed company will conduct seed trials. That is, they will plant and grow out the seed they sell to evaluate the plants and vegetables that are produced. He contends that a minimum size for a meaningful trial ground would be half an acre. A medium-size seed company would need a few acres.
As you might imagine, properly conducted seed trials would take a a fair amount of time and work and money. And, as you might also imagine, many seed sellers do not take this part of the business seriously.
With all of that in mind, Solomon writes the following in his book:
In 1989 I wrote an article for Harrowsmith, then a brave country-lifestyle magazine. I explained the garden seed trade and evaluated and ranked mail-order companies. Why do I say “brave”? Because mail-order seed sellers made up a large portion of Harrowsmith’s advertisers, and my article offended more than a few of them. First I sent out 69 questionnaire’s on Harrowsmith’s stationery, stating that I was the ex-owner of Territorial Seed Company, that I was writing an article evaluating garden seed companies, and that I might telephone for further information after the questionnaire's answers had been received. Some of the questions were: Do you have a trials ground? If so, how large is it? Do you have your own in-house germination laboratory, even if uncertified? If so, how often do you test the seed lots on your shelves? What germination standards do you use to determine if a lot is fit to sell? What percentage (or how many) varieties in your catalog are actually grown by your company”And so it was that Mr. Solomon revealed that some seed sellers operate their businesses to much higher standards than others.
After eliminating those who elected not to respond (about half, which was not a surprise to me), I then removed from consideration those without trial grounds. Out of 69, only 20 were left. After a probing telephone chat with the management of these companies, I found 11 were worth recommending.
“Gardening When it Counts” proceeds to list American seed companies that Solomon believes are the most ethical—which is to say, that sell seeds of the highest quality for home gardeners. I’ll name names in tomorrow’s Gardening Bit.
Gardening Bit #9
28 February 2009
If you sold vegetable seeds to people and you also sold gardening books in your seed catalog, would you sell a gardening book which evaluated and recommended a list of ethical seed sellers, and your company was not on the list? No, you would not.
And that explains why you will not find Steve Solomon's book, "Gardening When it Counts" amongst the book offerings in most seed company catalogs.
In regards to this matter, must say I admire what appears to be plucky Populism in Steve Solomon. That's the attitude of a Yeoman—someone confident and independent; not beholden to corporations or government; free and unafraid to speak the truth as he sees it. Yes, I like that in a person.
Below is a list of the American seed companies that Solomon recommends in his book. Unfortunately, he does not reveal the list of all companies he evaluated. A short commentary about each of these garden seed sellers is also in the book.
Johnny's Selected Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Park Seed Company
Territorial Seed Company
This concludes this "Gardening Bits" series.