Book Review: “Gardening When It Counts”

NOTE: I originally wrote this review last year, but with spring planting season upon us again, I thought I’d repost it.

Like most people, I like to eat. Shortly after I came to the conclusion that the peak oil issue was a real concern, I decided that I needed to learn more about how to raise my own food. Since the city and homeonwers’ associations usually frown upon people raising livestock in their backyards, I decided that a good first step would be to learn how to grow some vegetables. I hadn’t touched a garden implement willingly in my entire life. I was conscripted into the weeding and transplanting duties around my folks’ house growing up, but that was about it. Being a bookish sort of individual, I decided to buy some books on the subject. I started with some basic book on container gardening before discovering permaculture. Permaculture is a wonderful set of practices, but it’s focused more around trees and perennial plants, not the annual plants that make up the majority of vegetables & herbs that I like to eat. So, more research was needed. It was at that point that stumbled across the holy grail of vegetable gardening, or so I thought.

“How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine” by John Jeavons was pitched as the answer to many of the world’s food problems… using organic, biointensive methods, you could grow truly amazing amounts of food on small plots of land. Theoretically, you could grow all the food you needed for a family of four on a plot of land about the size of an average backyard. This sounds great to me, and I bought this book and a simpler introductory book on Jeavons’ methods as well. Now that I’ve moved into a new home and convinced the wife that a veggie garden was a good idea, I was all set to start the process of laying out a few raised beds and harvest tomatoes, peppers, beans and other foodstuffs by the bushel. Then, by chance, I saw a link to another book that has given me pause for thought.

Steve Solomon’s “Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times” is basically the antithesis of Jeavon’s biointensive mode. Mr. Solomon, a long-time gardener and founder of Territorial Seed Company, takes a much different view of how to grow food for one’s own sustenance. Drawing upon his own experiences in gardening along with a vast library of agricultural books that were printed before industrialized agriculture took hold, Solomon promotes what could be described as the old way of raising food. In a nutshell, Solomon states that it’s possible to grow up to half of your food in traditional garden beds using only a handful of common gardening tools. He criticizes Jeavons’ biointensive model both for being misleading about the possible yields and well as the amount of time and unnecessary backbreaking work required to set up and maintain a large number of plants growing in close proximity to each other. Solomon isn’t the only writer to challenge Jeavon’s estimates for food yields, by the way. Noted permaculture writer Toby Heminway also notes that it’s very hard to get results similar to the ones Jeavons claims in the bibliography for his book “Gaia’s Garden.”

The main issue with growing plants the biointensive way, Solomon writes, is that in addition to the extra work of turning over the soil 24 inches deep, a large number of plants growing close to each other will have an high demand for water and nutrients, made even more acute by their inability to fully grow out their root structure due to competition from neighboring plants. In contrast, Solomon offers advice and guides for growing vegetables in larger, more spread out beds that will grow (in his opinion) more robust and more nutritious food, taking a fraction of the time, water and energy needed to keep the biointensive beds running.

I’m no expert in gardening, so I won’t support the claims made by either writer. The books differ slightly in their focus with Jeavons promoting a plan to grow all of your food on a plot of land, while Solomon is looking to augment your staples (that come from elsewhere) and hopefully make the difference between malnutrition and health. Based on what I’ve read, though, Solomon’s methods make more sense in a low-energy future, where access to abundant fertilizer, compost and water are not given like they are today. I plan on trying a Solomon-style bed or two next year, and will post back my results when I can.

In addition to his running critique of the biointensive methodology, Solomon also offers advice on how to select and care for quality garden tools, how to properly select high-quality garden seed, and specific details about individual plants and climates. There are also reviews of specific seed companies based on the quality of their products, broken down by specific climates. One of the things that piqued my interest in “Gardening in Hard Times” in the first place was Solomon’s desire to write this book as a guide to help people survive the coming hard times that he foresees. He mentions climate change, peak oil and water scarcity as a few of the issues he’s worried about. If you’re like me and know little or nothing about gardening, I’d urge you to pick this book up. It’s a cheap investment in your future.

Mr, Solomon also runs an online library of out-of-print books on health, agriculture and other topics of interest at http://www.soilandhealth.org.

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9 Responses to Book Review: “Gardening When It Counts”

  1. Miranda says:

    One of my concerns is growing enough food in my yard for our family. If I had four growing seasons I may be able to do it – but in Minnesota we have only a short growing period. Does either author speak of anything to do with that?

  2. Bart says:

    Miranda,

    Both authors are/were based on the West Coast with their milder winters and longer growing seasons. I’ll check the books out and see if either of them say anything about it. From my admittedly spotty memory, I don’t think Jeavons says anything about it, while Solomon addresses it briefly. I’ll check it out and post a comment here.

    For the most part, trying to grow enough food here to last a whole year becomes a mathematical exercise more than anything else. Figure out what and how much you need to grow to last until next spring, and then can/cold store/preserve the rest. Is it any wonder that casseroles and hot dishes are so popular here? It’s a good way to use preserved vegetables in winter…

    Another option to check out are the books ‘Four Season Harvest’ by Eliot Coleman and “Solar Gardening” by Poisson. I don’t own either book but checked out the Coleman one from our library. Long story short, it’s mostly dealing with cold frames, greenhouses and selecting specific vegetables that do well in cold temperatures, with the idea that you grow them in the fall and then leave them in the ground until you need to harvest them. Examples are Mache and cabbage.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’ve been reading Jeavon’s book and was a little suspicious due to the absence of any discussion of downsides. He does provide garden plans that vary by the length of the growing season though. And, they have done good work throughout the world and Bountiful Gardens sells some wonderful seeds. I also buy from Terroritorial. I’ll have to check out this book too. Thanks Bart!

  4. Bart says:

    For Miranda:

    I took a look at the Solomon book last night, and other than a brief discussion on root cellaring, he has little to offer in terms of extending the growing season beyond the usual tips for getting an early start to things.

    “The New Organic Grower” by Eliot Coleman has a chapter on the “Winter Garden” that covers more or less the same stuff he talks about in “Four Season Harvest” albeit in a more compacted manner. Cold Frames and/or greenhouses seem to be a must along with proper plant selection.

  5. Bart says:

    I think there’s a lot of good information in Jeavons’ books as well, but it sounds like you need perfect conditions to get the kind of results he mentions. And it’s beyond a doubt that his group has done much good work in the world. From what I can tell Solomon’s main beef is that Jeavons is held up as a ‘gardening guru’ of a sort and that his way is the only way.

    The two methods and their proponents come from radically different places. Jeavons represents (to me at least) the cutting-edge scientific mode of optimizing plant growth and food production whereas Solomon is a student of the old ways, relying on knowledge gained through generations of trial & error. Solomon’s work in re-discovering ‘dry farming’ is commendable and makes the book worth the purchase in my opinion.

    Another thought is doing intensive gardening like the folks at Path to Freedom (See blogroll if you haven’t already). I don’t know what you’d call their methods, but they obviously work.

  6. Ryan says:

    It’s interesting that Solomon’s work is seen as the “old ways” when it seems to originate from pre-industrial western society, not from ancient indigenous methods. Jeavons borrows directly from indigenous methods around the world, which is one reason why his system makes sense for much of the impoverished 2/3 of the world.

    As I began to peruse Solomon’s book, I found his dislike of Jeavons’ work to be based on some questionable claims. It felt like a straw-man argument: he refers to “intensive” growing methods as if all intensive methods are the same, which they very much are not. He then goes on to attack Jeavons’ methods over common issues with intensive plant production—the very same issues that Jeavons’ Grow-Biointensive method is designed to overcome.

    He attacks water use. Loose, healthy soil holds more water longer. Growing the plants at the spacing and arrangement Jeavons recommends allows the development of microclimates, fully shading the soil and further conserving moisture.

    He attacks input requirements. Jeavons’ system is organic, and requires no chemical fertilizer. He does recommend a good bit of compost to be mixed into the soil, but any sustainable growing system needs a way to return nutrients back to the soil. The higher amounts in the beginning are based on the idea that you’re starting with zero topsoil.

    He attacks labor. Both systems rely on manual tools, as many mechanical tillers can create hardpan and increase soil compaction. Jeavons’ system may use more labor per square-foot, but it uses less square-footage. Besides, most of this extra labor only happens once or twice a season per bed.

    In the end, Jeavons has the experience of all the growers involved in Ecology Action to back up his yield claims. Solomon has his own direct experiences and what seems at best a passing familiarity with the foundations of Jeavons’ work.

  7. Eliza says:

    The Solomon/Jeavons issue hard for me to wrap my head around, too. Both seem so knowledgeable that I’m prone to get cynical and assume both are fluff and bury my head in the compost pile. Any advice on maximum yield/nutrition/success?
    -eliza

  8. […] A great review of Steve Solomon’s book, ‘Gardening When it Counts, Growing Food in Hard … […]

  9. Soi Disant says:

    From where I garden–very short season, deep winters, moderately fertile soil–Solomon’s book definitely presents a much better way than Jeavons’.

    Certainly, I agree that Solomon’s techniques can be augmented with Eliot Coleman’s ideas.

    Unless I were in a very warm, nearly year-round, intensely fertile setting, I’d choose Solomon’s path over Jeavon’s, every time.

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