Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: The Resilient Gardener

I've just finished reading something excellent and thought I'd share.  It's Carol Deppe's recent book, The Resilient Gardener.  If you think you might one day want to feed yourself without recourse to purchased food, then I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It's one thing to grow a garden for a few years, and even come to rely on it for a significant portion of your calories and nutrition.  It's another thing entirely to really give up purchased foods, especially the cereal crops that make up such a huge portion of our western diet.  And when I say give up, of course I have in mind a time when it may not be a matter of giving up, but of being unable to obtain them, for one reason or another.

Deppe is allergic to wheat, gluten, and dairy.  Yet she feeds herself by concentrating most of her efforts on five crops: corn (maize), potatoes, squash, beans, and eggs.  She chooses these crops for their caloric and nutritional values, storing ability, proven reliability, and resilience in the face of unpredictable weather or even the lack of attention from the gardener.  It seems to me that anyone trying to feed themselves in a very large part of the world (certainly most of the US) would do well to devote much attention to those crops too.  I love my wheaten foods, but there's little chance that I'll ever be able to produce even a fair portion of the wheat I would like to continue to eat.  Corn is not my current starchy staple, but it's the most reliable grain in my region.  We already produce our own eggs with a tiny flock of four laying hens.  The other three crops consistently do well in my region too.  Greens, other vegetables, and fruit are all nice for supplementing, but Deppe has clearly identified one year-round "crop" and four long-storing staples that would do the heavy lifting if we should ever need to provide all our own food.

The Resilient Gardener is not a broad book, but a deep one.  And it's not a basic gardening book, but an advanced one. Deppe assumes her readers have read countless paeans to compost and mulch, and refrains from rehashing these topics.  Instead she caters to those with at least a few years of gardening under their belts.  Her dogged focus on these five crops allows her to recount a wealth of detail that will save many a backyard enthusiast from both errors and unnecessary effort.  And I mean the sorts of errors that even an experienced gardener might make.  Her long-term experimentation with many varieties within her five chosen crops is meticulous and scientifically rigorous.  If you've ever asked yourself a question about one of these foods, chances are that Deppe has provided the answer in her book.  She answered a few handfuls of mine.

I appreciate that Deppe discussed not just how to grow the foods, but how to store them and eat them too.  While I already eat all of the foods she writes about, I don't rely on them to the extent she does.  Since starchy staples tend not to be fungible ingredients when it comes to cooking, it helps to have some guidance with basic recipes.  Changing one's diet is rarely simple.  Even more do I appreciate her frank admission that not everything is worth doing well, or even doing at all.  What she terms selective sloppiness appeals to my sensibilities.  This is a book that will help you find the sweet spot between maximum productivity and minimum labor.  If you want advice on how to make your gardens a beautiful, weed-free show place, this isn't it.

Although she lives and grows these crops in the Pacific northwest, the information she presents is largely relevant to most other areas of the US.  The exception is her chapter on eggs, or the laying flock.  Here Deppe concentrates on ducks rather than chickens.  She explains her choice on logical grounds: ducks make more sense than chickens in her climate, so she has more experience with this species than with chickens.  Moreover, there are numerous books on small-scale chicken keeping; Deppe prefers to cover new ground, and does so with her usual level of gritty detail.  I don't think that backyard ducks are likely to rival backyard chickens in popularity anytime soon, but her contributions on the former nonetheless fill a niche.

Another very minor criticism I have is that Deppe addresses the issue of feeding the poultry flock in hard times largely by sacrificing to them portions of the other crops she grows.  I think there are many other alternative feed options for those with very small flocks, even when pasture is marginal or free-ranging not feasible.  Deppe's suggested feeds will certainly work for those with enough acreage to produce the extra crops.  But they still put livestock in competition with humans for the same foods, as well as turning eggs into re-packaged versions of the other staples in Deppe's dietary paradigm.  This would raise concerns for me about nutritional diversity and completeness. If feeding poultry from resources internal to your homestead is an important issue for you, I strongly recommend you look for Harvey Ussery's forthcoming book The Modern Homestead Poultry Flock.  It'll be published later this year.

Such minor issues aside, The Resilient Gardener is truly an invaluable addition to the bookshelf for those interested in food self-reliance and preparation for a low-energy future.  Due to the necessities of her own dietary restrictions Deppe has done work and research that can benefit anyone looking to produce their own food from a fairly small area and in uncertain times.  I'm thankful that she has chosen to share what she has learned. 


Michelle said...

Nice review, Kate! I've wondered about this book & happy to find out more about it. It's different from what I expected, but in ways that seem practical & helpful. I'm waiting for Harvey's book to come out.

thank you

Mr. H. said...

I recently read and enjoyed this book very much. I especially found her thoughts on drying squash to be really interesting and something I hope to try in the future. We will be growing her favorite sweet meat squash variety in our garden this year for the first time too.

meemsnyc said...

Oooh, it's a book I'll have to add to my book list. Thanks!

From Beyond My Kitchen Window said...

What a great review. You really gave a good honest opinion. Wish I had the land to really garden.

Dmarie said...

thanks for this review. always on the lookout for worthwhile content.

Hazel said...

I've heard about this book a couple of times recently, but hadn't really looked into what she covered. Now added to the birthday wish list!

Kate said...

Michelle, thanks and I'm glad the review is useful to you. I was lucky enough to read Harvey's manuscript. It's going to be a fabulous book, as one would expect.

Mr. H, yes, the level of specificity she includes on her chosen subjects is remarkable. Good luck with her sweet meat squash. I may try them sometime myself if I can obtain the seed.

meemsnyc, any time.

FBMKW, thanks. How much land do you have? It's surprising what you can do with a little if you put your mind to it.

Dmarie, you're welcome. Always glad to point out a good resource for those interested in such topics.

Hazel, I hope it shows up for your birthday! I think you'd like it.

Anonymous said...

True confession. I'm a preparedness book junkie so I have lots of books. :) I bought this book several months ago because of Carol's promimity to me (thus same growing climate) and I'm trying to grow as much of my food as I can.

However, I'm struggling to read this book - but will give it another try after reading your review. The parts I read were written in an informal conversational style. I'm certainly not an English major (or minor for that manner) but it was just very difficult to enjoy or follow the writing style. So many of the sentences were fractured that I found myself rereading entire paragrpahs to understand what was being said. The book could have been SO much better if the editing had cleaned up these areas. Like I said, I will take another stab at this and try to overlook this shortcoming. Thanks for the motivation!

Satchel and Tea said...

Thanks for this review! I might be moving (if all goes well!) into a new house with a large garden in May, and this book was one that I thought about buying to help me out. I'm also in the Pacific Northwest, and I'm also unable to eat wheat and gluten, so that right there helps me a lot to know! :)

Kate said...

Anon, I have a fair collection of books myself. Some are more valuable than others. I would like to do a series of reviews of some of the better ones, but my writing habits are too unpredictable these days to make a firm commitment to that project. We'll see if the spirit moves me in that direction again. Deppe's book isn't perfect by any means, but the information there is worth persevering for.

S&T, I hope you get your place with space for a garden. If you're new to gardening, this book might be a bit like trying to drink from a firehose. But it's a good book. Take from it what you can right away, and revisit it periodically.

Anonymous said...

Difficult to read? I found it very easy to read actually, maybe particularly because of the informal style. It's not boring at all. Maybe that's because I like to create snaking sentences myself :)

Nice review btw. and it makes me want to read on quickly to get to the rest of it. I'm on page 50 now.