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.