Book review: How to grow your food.

How to Grow Your Food:  A Guide for Complete Beginners – John Clift and Amanda Cuthbert (2011, Green Books, United Kingdom)

I know the gardening season has come to an end, at least for those of us on the Prairies (the snow is falling as I write, after all), but I believe you can never start soon enough with the dreaming.  I mean, we have ten seven months of winter – what else can we do?  Planning for next year’s garden takes longer than growing and harvesting the garden itself!

If growing vegetables and fruit is new territory for you, but you’re dreaming of having your own fresh food next year, then Clift and Cuthbert’s book is perfect for you.  This is about as basic as it gets, right down to the format of the book.  It’s a very tiny, slender volume, with information about each plant on one side of the page and excellent, large photographs on the opposite page.  Only one or two paragraphs are devoted to descriptions on how to grow, maintain and harvest each plant – this isn’t the place where you’re going to learn quirky facts or get bogged down by fancy cultivar names.  Yet…it’s just the right amount of information for you to take with you to the garden centre when you buy your seeds in the spring, or to take to the garden plot after it’s been dug out and is ready to plant.  You can grow veggies right away based on what is in this book – even if you’ve never put your hands in the dirt before.  And, considering the book’s size, there are a lot of veggies, fruits, and herbs represented (forty in all):  carrots, beets, zuchinni, garlic, onions, spinach, leeks, parsley, basil, currants, raspberries, rhubarb, potatoes, salad greens, even beansprouts.   Even if you’re not a food garden newbie, there may be some plants you haven’t tried yet, and this book will give you sufficient direction.

Track this book down and start dreaming!  The photos alone will make you drool.  And, if you have never grown vegetables or fruit before, do give it a try – you don’t need a huge garden plot, and a great many varieties can be grown in containers.  Don’t get frightened by the traditional view of straight rows in a massive bed that takes up half the yard – that’s not necessary (unless you want it to be).   With the high cost of food (and I mean that in more ways than one), it’s worth it to grow at least a few plants for yourself.  You’ll be hooked.

Related post: Rhubarb rhuminations.

Book review: Get fit through gardening.

Get Fit Through Gardening:  Advice, Tips, and Tools for Better Health – Jeffrey P. Restuccio (2008, Hatherleigh Press)

Everyone knows that gardening can be a real physical workout:  the vigourous pull of raking, the lift and twist of shovelling, the repetitive motion of weeding, the forceful push of a lawn mower or a wheelbarrow, the hilling of potatoes or the turning of compost – it all makes your body move, sometimes in strange and wonderful ways that you may not be used to.  (I have firsthand experience of that – my spring cleanup this year somehow resulted in a strained hamstring!  I have to ensure that my fall cleanup doesn’t cause the same).  Many articles and guides have been written about how to address the physical nature of gardening without sustaining injury, with tips about stretching before and after performing gardening tasks, using ergonomic tools, creating a more user-friendly garden through design, and so on, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, until now, a book that uses the actual act of gardening itself as a fitness plan.  Forget those Bowflex infomercials  and your old Richard Simmons videotapes!   Jeffrey P. Restuccio shows the reader how to embrace gardening as a workout regimen in and of itself.  Fitness need not be a mere byproduct of your gardening labours any longer:  it can be the end goal.  And why not?

Restuccio starts off by addressing fitness equipment – no rowing machines or dumbbells here, we’re talking long-handled rakes and hoes, and short handled trowels and cultivators, all with proper weighting and length and grippy, comfortable handles.  Restuccio describes types of tools and their specific functions, and offers tips about what to buy and how to properly use/work out with them.  We’re also introduced to the mini-tiller, which some people may or may not use (depending on your opinion regarding no-till gardening) and the rotary push mower.  For all of these tools, there are specific exercises that can be performed:  “The Mini-Tiller Shuffle” is one, with accompanying photos showing a man engaged in the proper, fully extended push-and-pull action of moving the machine.  (We won’t talk about how he isn’t working out in the veggie beds, but rather on the lawn, with the tiller in the “off” position – that’s for his neighbours to speculate about).

By necessity, Restuccio devotes an entire chapter to both static and active stretching exercises and warm-ups, addressing every part of the body, and listing suggested repetitions and hold counts for each.  (There are photos for most of these stretches as well).  Had I performed many of these exercises, I likely would have prevented my hamstring boo-boo earlier this year.  While I may not be cruising around with my yoga pants and my weed-trimmer out on the front drive, I will certainly adhere to the stretching tips.  (And, really, these are good, effective stretches for any type of work, even for sitting at the computer and blogging).  Restuccio also gets into a little tiny bit of anatomy, describing how and why certain exercises work for the body:  don’t worry, though, he doesn’t go into enough detail to make your eyes glaze over.

And then, there is the workout!  Segmented into categories based on equipment use, and illustrated with photos, we have everything from the “Classic Lunge and Weed” (in which you use a short-handled weeder and the fairly common forward lunge movement, well-known to runners and most people who ever suffered through, I mean, set foot in a gym class) and “The Lawnmower In and Out” (a variation of the bench press I’ll bet you have never ever considered before) to an ergonomic take on “Digging” that incorporates very proper squats and lateral movement (without wrenching your back).  And who knew that aerating the lawn worked your triceps, or that digging post-holes could be so effective, employing your hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps, glutes, and the abdominals?  In all seriousness, I believe that many people who garden don’t really think about the types of movements they perform (or which muscles they engage) while enjoying their favourite job or pasttime, and this book quite successfully illustrates the proper form and execution of the exercises it promotes.  I don’t know that I would deliberately use garden tools in place of hand weights and I don’t think that I will be spending any extra time with the lawnmower in “rowing” practice, but this book is a good, solid fitness and health resource and the skills and knowledge gleaned from it can be easily transferred into everyday living – outside or inside the garden.


Check out this You Tube link for a stretching video to accompany Restuccio’s book:    (It’s kind of rapid-fire, offering a very quick look at several different exercises.  I’d take them down a whole lot of notches if performing them myself).


Related postsBook review: In the land of the blue poppies.    Book review: Tree and shrub gardening for Alberta.   Book review: Perfect perennials for the prairie gardener.

Book review: Perfect perennials for the prairie gardener.

Perfect Perennials for the Prairie Gardener – Dawn Vaessen (2011, Fifth House Ltd.)

Prairie gardeners obviously face a different set of challenges than, say, our counterparts in Ontario, or coastal British Columbia.  In the past, many Canadian gardening books have proven too general in scope to address our particular conditions and issues, but this is rapidly changing:  over the past few months, I’ve perused several new-ish volumes specifically dealing with Prairie gardening, on topics ranging from best annual selections, to delectable edibles, to identifying insect pests.  Dawn Vaessen’s book focusses on perennials, a subject near and dear to my heart, and she covers it with thoroughness, colour, and humour.

Vaessen’s mission is to offer Prairie gardeners a detailed examination of plants that are both highly appealing and adaptable (ie:  drought tolerant and winter hardy), and she accomplishes this with flair.  Weather, climate, hardiness zones, day length, microclimates, sun exposure, soil conditions, fertilizing, division, transplanting, pruning, watering, buying appropriate garden tools, planting levels, diseases, weeds, mulching, composting, dealing with plants and kids…you name it, it’s all here.  Vaessen infuses what could potentially be dry textbook writing with fantastic personal accounts:  in my favourite story, Vaessen, a teacher by profession, recalls one of her junior high school student’s comparison of deadheading plants and an erroneous take on the “emo” lifestyle.  (If that’s what it takes to bring garden writing to the masses, and the younger generation in particular, then I’m all for it!).

And then there are the perennial selections themselves…each plant is carefully written up with descriptions of origin, companion plants, best varieties/cultivars, and specific “pros” and “cons.”  Sumptuous photographs that can be easily employed for identification purposes accompany each choice.  In order to make things easier for readers, Vaessen carefully groups the plants into categories such as container plants, ground covers, edgers, borders, vines, and ornamental grasses.  The careful details and the sheer scope of this book make it an accessible and welcome addition to the library of both novice and more knowledgeable gardeners alike.

Related postsBook review: In the land of the blue poppies.    Book review: Tree and shrub gardening for Alberta.

Book review: In the Land of the Blue Poppies.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies:  The Collected Plant-Hunting Writings of Frank Kingdon Ward (2003 Modern Library Edition)

Have you ever really thought about where the plants in your garden originate?  (I’m not talking about the trademarked and patented hybrids).  Some of the plants we grow here in North America are certainly native to our geographical regions – but others had to come from somewhere a little more exotic…like Asia, perhaps, maybe by way of Europe.  Consider the plant-hunters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men like Frank Kingdon Ward (1885-1958), who risked life and limb clambouring over mountain ranges in extreme weather in politically-volatile countries such as China and Tibet just so that gardeners back home in England could grow new species of unheard-of plants.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies is a collection of excerpts from Kingdon Ward’s adventures, comprising nearly fifty years of plant exploration.  Kingdon Ward undertook approximately twenty-five expeditions during his lifetime, each trip lasting several months, over multiple seasons, as he searched for viable seed to send back to his commissioners at home.  By all accounts, it was a lonely, crazy series of adventures that Kingdon Ward seemed to rather relish – his tales of his encounters with animals, with the people of the countries he visited, and with the harsh and stunningly beautiful elements of Nature and geography make for some pretty interesting reading.  In the heyday of plant collecting, it was certainly not enough to be merely a botanist – you had to be Indiana Jones, as well, it seemed.  Straddling rope bridges over a cavernous gorge containing a swollen spring river, or finding himself stranded in a bamboo thicket for over two days alone and without food or water seems par for the course, barely fazing the intrepid plant-hunter.  When one of his men becomes drunk and unruly, Kingdon Ward bops him a good one on the nose and then tramps off to climb a snow-tracked mountain in search of another new rhododendron.  It’s all in a day’s work.  It’s astonishing indeed to consider the miles Kingdon Ward travelled and the heights and lengths he went to – and all this in the days before modern climbing and hiking equipment and clothing.

And although I suspect Kingdon Ward was an adventurer first, plant collector second, his passion for flowers constantly shines through:

“In September the collector definitely turns the corner; henceforth flowers are fewer each week, berries are blushing, capsules are drying, pepos are fattening, legumes are bulging, leaves are wilting.  By October the bushes are robed in splendid livery and beaded with coral red berries.  Seeds are being scattered – plumed seeds which float away dreamily into the air on some bold voyage into unknown places; winged seeds which slant weakly to the ground like fledglings:  hard, plain seeds, which are jerked out of their capsules and fall unenterprisingly round the parent plant; dull seeds which do nothing for themselves but whose fine houses, being eaten over their heads by birds, claim the insurance money and are straightway planted far and wide.”  (pp. 112-113)

His prose is beautiful and simple and vaguely humorous, indicative of a man who was living the life he desired, despite all of its oddities and hardships.  Kingdon Ward was responsible for the discovery of several species new to Europe, including several rhodendrons and lilies.  He brought back the viable seeds of hundreds and hundreds of different species, some of which were intitially huge successes in English gardens and remain popular selections today, all over the world.  The stories of how he came by his discoveries are intimate and fascinating glimpses of history and an examination of distinctive cultures, and are well worth a sampling.


About the blue poppy:  Kingdon Ward didn’t discover Meconopsis betonicifolia, he just brought back what he thought were the first viable seeds of the plant during his first solo expedition in 1911.  Unfortunately, those plants didn’t flower, and Kingdon Ward was quite upset about it.   A few years and expeditions later, he was successful, and the plant was a wild hit at the Royal Horticultural Society flower show in 1926.   It still causes a sensation, really.

There is actually quite the name-flap regarding the Himalayan blue poppy…let’s see if we get this straight.  In 1913 the explorer Frederick M. Bailey brought back from Tibet a single pressed flower of what was then called M. baileyi, in his honour.  This sample was considered botanically different than the M. betonicifolia discovered years earlier (around 1885) in northern Yunnan by a collector named Pere Delavaye.  In 1933, however, it was decided that both samples were of the same type of plant and the plant was given its old name of M. betonicifolia.  But, no, we’re not finished yet.  In 2009, the study of the Himalayan blue poppy was opened again and scientist Christopher Grey-Wilson determined that the plants are indeed different…so M. baileyi is once again named as a separate species.

To add more confusion, the Himalayan blue poppy isn’t a poppy at all.  Sure, it’s part of the same family (Papaveraceae) but true poppies are indicated by the species name papaver, which are the ones native to North America and Europe.  Meconopsis means “poppy-like.”  Isn’t botany fun?

*** – check out Bill Terry’s gorgeous book Blue Heaven:  Encounters with the Blue Poppy (2009:  TouchWood Editions, Victoria).  So far I’ve only had a gander at the photos in the book, which are jaw-droppingly beautiful, but one of these days I intend to give the text a go.

Book review: Tree and shrub gardening for Alberta.


I must be suffering from the wrong kind of fever:  I think I’m still possessed of the malingering “cabin fever” instead of the more desirable “spring fever.”  (I suspect it has something to do with the persistently falling snow outside).   Regardless of the correct diagnosis of my current malaise, I find myself trying to gain solace by reading gardening books, and, recently, while in pursuit of some information about trees that are particularly attractive to birds, I came across a certified gem:  Don Williamson’s Tree and Shrub Gardening for Alberta (2009:  Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB).  As with all of Lone Pine’s publications, this one is concise, precise, and chockful of great photographs and little sidebar tidbits and handy lists.  (Plus it’s a paperback, inexpensive, and – best of all – portable.  Seriously, take these books along when you’re shopping in nurseries and garden centres.  Plant labels can only give so much information, and that horticultural consultant you would love to speak with may have dozens of clients waiting in line before you.  Trust me, I know).   I get rather gung-ho about interesting plant facts, and Williamson delivers:  fr’instance, did you know that the fruits of sumacs are not only edible, but can be made into a summery little pink lemonade-like drink?  (If anything will cure my cabin fever, it would be sumac lemonade!).  And that we can grow apricots in Alberta, in the province where it is winter 365 days of the year?  (No, I joke…we’re usually snow-free in July and August.  Ahem).   They’re called Manchurian apricots (Prunus mandshurica), and they’re super-cold hardy.   And did you know that when selecting a new birch tree, you may want to look for a black birch (Betula nigra), as they’re more disease and pest resistant than other species?  From A to Z, Williamson covers the gamut of tough, cold- hardy, resilient trees for our tough, cold, and resilient province, and he does so with easy-to-understand and clearly stated instructions regarding planting and culture for each plant.  He also carefully notes the best cultivars for each species, an extremely valuable tool for anyone shopping for trees.

And the thing I like best about this book?  Williamson is not afraid to push the boundaries a little.  My biggest peeve regarding gardening is that too many gardeners don’t experiment:  with their plants, with their hardiness zones, with their microclimates, with their creativity.  Sometimes a little ingenuity and mindfulness is all it takes to make something grow, despite the fact that  the plant label suggests it isn’t possible.  (Of course, there is common sense involved in this – some plants simply cannot survive our climate, and that’s that.  You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a tree just to have it croak because it’s not suitable for its new location).  Williamson suggests that maybe it’s not such a bad idea to try yew, or cherry prinsepia, or maybe yucca…if you want to.  You just might be able to make it work.  Gardening isn’t a rigid science governed by strict laws that must be adhered to.  I mean, plants are alive…they don’t always act the way we think they should.  Isn’t that element of chance and surprise part of the reason we keep digging in the dirt?