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.