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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Just in Time for Spring - Inspirational Gardening Books

Posted by patron and guest blogger Alana T.

So, spring has sprung and you are thinking about the garden. Perhaps this is the year you want to want to actually start a garden. Or maybe, you've been doing the usual things for a while and you want to try something a little different. Or perhaps, you just want a new perspective. The following three books published within the last 18 months, fit the bill perfectly:The first, Grow for Flavor: Tips and Tricks to Supercharge the Flavour of Homegrown Harvests by James Wong is a good starting place for a beginner or source of useful information for everyone else. The author wisely suggests that you should focus your vegetable growing efforts on plants that 1) truly taste better when home grown or, 2) are too expensive to purchase, but straightforward to raise. The emphasis is to grow for maximal flavor, not yield. After all, if you want 20 pounds of poor tasting tomatoes it is cheaper and easier to go to the grocery store.

Mr. Wong is a botanist and science writer working with the Royal Horticultural Society (the books is a RHS publication) and he writes from a British point of view. He discusses (briefly and simply) studies on growth performance, nutritional content, insect herbivory, taste perception and other related topics. He provides data to back up his conclusions, but everything is easy for a layperson to understand. The result is friendly advice about all the usual gardening topics (watering, light, soil, fertilizer, pest control, etc.), but with the goal to nudge a plant into producing crops with maximal flavor. Some of his suggestions run counter to prevailing wisdom or habit and some will actually decrease yields.

The author describes common crops and suggests varieties to try. The downside is that many of the listed varieties are not available in the American market. Fortunately, the tips for each crop will work everywhere. All the usual suspects (tomato, salad greens, corn, peas, carrots, beets and squash) are covered, as well as some less familiar (chervil, truffles). A separate set of chapters covers fruits (figs, strawberries, pears, cherries, plums, wine grapes, rasp & blackberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes). Recipes and suggestions for eating unripe and atypical plant parts are included.

Have you always wanted home grown fruit, but dreaded the idea of dealing with the actual tree? Prepare to readjust your viewpoint. Start with a very simple premise: fruit trees should not be higher than the gardener can comfortably reach and pruning should take no more than 15 minutes a year. Of course there is more in Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph, but you've got the basics right there. The author gently, kindly, but firmly tells you that the answer to your problematic fruit tree mindset is to prune the tree HARD to the size you want. The answer is not growing super-dwarf varieties (which often don't grow well anyway), or trees with multiple varieties grafted to one trunk, but starting with any normal bareroot tree and cutting is down to size at planting time (now, by the way).

As a gardener who has raised espalliered trees, I am familiar with the first brutal cut (trimming the bareroot baby to a stub about 18" tall) and can attest to a small tree's ability to grow an astounding amount the first year. After that, the author suggests that basically anything goes as long as you prune in summer and keep that tree small. She provides an anecdote that, while trying to see how far she could push a tree, she regularly trims a Santa Rosa Plum with hedge trimmers into an actual hedge; it happily produces a large harvest of plums a year. Her overall and very realistic suggestion is one of moderation. Grow a small tree (or several) and harvest a small amount of fruit that you can eat or process without waste or hassle. That might mean only 20 peaches a year, but if 20 peaches is all you can eat or pack in the freezer, then 20 is the perfect number for you. You are the boss, not the tree!

This viewpoint is a radical change from the way most gardeners view fruit trees. Many people living in suburban areas consider fruit trees to be a hassle because of the pruning and mess of the fruit (what to do with 20 bushels of apples?). Or a person might want a tree, but thinks that she doesn't have room in the yard. If you prune your tree to be the size of a large rose bush, both issues vanish. 

Are you the kind of gardener that has a competitive streak? Do you have kids and you want them more enthusiastic about the garden? Do you want to grow one thing really, really well? This book is for you. Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening: The Secrets to Growing the Biggest and Best Prizewinning Produce by Jodi Torpey is all about growing veggies to use in competitions (such as county or state fairs), but the information is useful for all types of gardeners.
The emphasis of this type of gardening is visual perfection for exhibition. The most common competition vegetables are discussed (beans, beets, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, peppers, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes), but the author points out that there are other categories for many types of vegetables including oddities (e.g. eggplants that resemble Elvis). Each vegetable has a chapter in which growing tips, variety selection and harvest are thoroughly discussed. If you are interested in competing for the first time, there is a lot you need to consider. Everything is covered in the book: planting dates, how to transport your harvest, competition rules and guidelines, judging methods and more. No matter if you want the best tomatoes on the block or your kids are competing to grow the biggest pumpkins, read this book and you'll be set.
Happy gardening!

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