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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon

Library book

Homesteaders these days are bemoaning the fact that a lot of what we need to know died about a generation ago.  There a very few old-timers from which we can learn, so a lot of what we're learning, we're learning the hard way.  I just finished reading Gardening When It Counts: Growing food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon. Reading this book was a lot like having an old-timer tell you what you need to know.

Solomon started Territorial Seed Company in 1979, which he later sold in the eighties.  He homesteaded a five-acre place in Oregon, wrote Waterwise Vegetables, and then moved to Canada, and then finally to Tasmania. What can put you off about this book is that Solomon comes across as an opinionated old man, but you know what? I don't mind opinionated old men if they know what they're talking about and are trying to teach me something useful.  The other thing that I found a little off-putting about this book was that it says it's about gardening in hard times, and then he recommends an organic fertilizer for which he gives the formula.  And then I think to myself: what if those hard times mean that I can't get the ingredients for the fertilizer?  But then I settled into the book and I learned a lot.

He starts with the basics, which is a really dummied down explanation of what vegetables are and what they need to thrive; there's a list of low demand, medium demand, and high demand vegetables that is useful for rotating crops from the part of your garden with the highest fertility to the area with the least.  As I mentioned before, he gives his formula for Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF), which is made up of items that should be pretty easy to get at the feed or agricultural supply store. His concern here is that your soil nutrients are balanced properly, and his COF formula does that. (I think the big lesson here is to build your soil fertility while you still can, and then compost your garden so you can keep that soil fertility.)  He tells you what the minimum is for tools that you need, how to pick good ones at the store, how to use them to keep your fatigue to a minimum, which includes sharpening them, and how to take care of them so that they last.  Have you ever sharpened your hoe or your shovel? I haven't.  Evidently sharpening them makes them a lot easier to use.

He disdains garden centers and the seed starts that they carry, but I can't say I blame him, because I rather do as well.  And it makes a great deal of sense when you consider that he's a retired seedsman. But he also believes that you should buy your seeds from regional outfits so the seed will be more acclimated to your garden, and he gives recommendations for vetted seed companies all over the country by climate type, as well as for the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He includes information for getting the maximum germination rate, as well as strategies for when things don't come up.

Where the wisdom of Solomon differs from most other gardening gurus is that he doesn't recommend intensive methods and thinks they can be disastrous because they rely on a lot of water.  He recommends something he calls dry gardening, because his theory is that people gardened and farmed for centuries before they could just turn on a tap and have water wherever they wanted it.  This requires more space between your plants so that their roots don't compete for moisture, and he recommends a 'dirt mulch', which is to keep the top inch of so of ground at the base of your plants well hoed and loose, which he insists does a better job at keeping the moisture in the ground.  His reasoning?  Regular mulches wick water away from the ground.  I think this method of gardening makes a lot of sense, but not for everybody.  Ultimately, his method will work best for folks that have that kind of room; if you don't have that kind of room, you're probably better off with an intensive method, but you'll have to be prepared to water your garden.  Where I have more room in the garden I may try this method, especially since it will be in very clay soil.  It could work to my advantage.  One of the best watering methods he discusses is something that he coined called 'fertigation'. Fertigation is accomplished by drilling a small hole at the very bottom of a five gallon bucket and watering with a 1:100 ratio of fish emulsion to water every three weeks on clay soil. On sandy soil, he recommends 2.5 gallons every ten days.  He also advises foliar feeding, and has a formula for that as well. Foliar feeding is accomplished by spraying a weak fertilizer solution (he likes a mixture of fish emulsion and kelp meal with a lot of water) all over the leaves of your plants. I think I would not use foliar feeding on something like lettuce, but on something like peppers it could be really helpful.  In any case, I am definitely using the fertigation method on my cabbage and Brussels sprouts which are both heavy feeders and which are both going into unimproved clay soil this year. But they will also probably have more space between them and I'll keep them dry mulched with hoed soil.

He's a little depressing in the compost department, because he says that all the experts are wrong about what makes great compost, and the fact that most home gardeners do not have the necessary inputs to make a great closed system, well-balanced compost.  He does say, however, that you can greatly improve your soil with green manure, AKA cover crops, and gives a lot of good information on the pitfalls to avoid there.  His coverage of insects and diseases is better than decent, even without pictures. And then he finishes up with what to grow and how to grow it, which is always helpful if you don't have this information anywhere else.

All in all, I liked this book.  There was a wealth of good information, and I took notes.  Would I buy this book? I think so. I wouldn't mind having a copy of it in the archives because I think it's a good reference book, and by the way it looks like things are going, I should probably keep it next to Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener.  I think this book will probably be a classic for a much drier future.


Amy Lagerquist said...

Hmm, I'll have to check this out. I own his Water-Wise Vegetables and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, and it sounds like this one might cover some of what is in those, but I'd like to see if his presentation varies at all. We had one awesome gardening year followed by last year's total bust (really!), and I'm interested in trying the green manure and a few other techniques. I'm also very interested in conserving water, but am not sure his dryland gardening method will work in the prairie I live in (where we have gotten up to 104+ degrees in summer).

Diane said...

I have always been suspicious about foliar feeding. It sounds kind of unlikely, doesn't it?
How do the nutrients get into the leaves? Anything that is sprayed on the leaves will eventually be washed into the soil so an experiment would have to prevent this. Do you know of any solid sounding work on this?

Paula said...

I think that with enough room between your plants and the fry mulching, it might still work for you Amy. If I remember correctly, he was living in southern Oregon when he wrote Waterwise, and even though Oregon has the reputation for a lot of water, there are parts that are very arid, and it does get pretty darn hot up here in the summer. The first summer in this house we had two days at 106, and several more after that which were still over 100. Also- think about the fact that people farmed the prairie well before there was a thing called irrigation. Another thing that may convince you to try this is the Ogallala Aquifer. I don't know where on the prairie you are, but there are experts out there very, very concerned about the impact of industrial agriculture on the Ogallala Aquifer, because basically, industrial agricultural irrigation is draining it dry. Water tables all over the country are getting lower and lower, so being able to grow food with a minimum of water would be a very good skill to have. And a rain harvesting system would be some very good technology to have. Do you have enough space to set aside an experimental garden? Also, do you have any idea why last year was a bust? I read about garden after garden last year that had problems. Even my sister in California, who majored in Agronomy at Davis, of all things, and all places, could not get anything out of her garden last year. She said it was like someone had poisoned the soil. Have you read The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe? She has some good ideas for resilience. Learning to garden successfully in dire circumstances may be what's required in the future. I hope you can lick your challenges!

Paula said...

I meant dry mulching. Please don't fry mulch!

Paula said...

To answer your question Diane, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about foliar feeding, complete with a university study in the 50's ( ) that indicates that it does work. Interestingly, they mention the trace elements that kelp provides, which is what Solomon recommends for foliar feeding. Evidently, trace elements, which are necessary for optimal plant growth are harder to balance in the soil. So there is probably something to his method.