Book review: Sugar snaps and strawberries.

Sugar Snaps and Strawberries:  Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-Space Edible Garden – Andrea Bellamy (2010, Timber Press, Inc., Portland)

This beautifully-photographed tome is a must-have for wannabe small-space urban gardeners:  it’s a comprehensive how-to manual that details all of the necessities for creating an aesthetically-pleasing and highly productive food garden on a balcony, deck, courtyard, driveway, or small yard.  Containers, of course, are the cornerstones of Bellamy’s designs, but she also offers construction plans for raised beds.  All the gardening nuts and bolts are covered:  light, water, soil, amendments, fertilizers, siting, pest control (organically, natch!) and all of the cultural requirements from sowing to pruning to harvest (including a really great section about saving seed and deliniating the terms “heirloom” and “hybrid”).

About one third of the book is devoted to the food plants themselves, with brief, detailed portraits of standby greens, herbs, tomatoes, root veggies and small fruits – and some surprises, such as mushrooms and grains.  I’m a bit astonished that Bellamy has included larger plants such as apples and corn on this list (particularly the latter, about which she writes, “Unfortunately, corn, also known as maize, is not suited to growing in very small places.”   I’m not quite sure it belongs here, especially as she doesn’t mention that it can be grown as shoots, which may be more appropriate given the theme of the book.  In her defense, though, a small yard can support a few corn plants, soooooo).  All in all, however, the plant selections are excellent small-space choices and many of them can be grown even in geographical locations with limited frost-free days.

Written in a easy-going, very accessible manner (and as an aside, I LOVE the fonts and layout!), this is THE primer for small-space gardeners looking to get started on their first food garden…it’s well worth purchasing as a reference tool.

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Bellamy is the creator of the blog Heavy Petal, which can be found here.

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Related posts:  The Book of Little Hostas.

How to Grow Your Food.

Book review: The book of little hostas.

The Book of Little Hostas:  200 Small, Very Small, and Mini Varieties by Kathy Guest Shadrack and Michael Shadrack (Timber Press, Inc, Portland, 2010)

After several weeks of absolutely BALMY winter weather here in Calgary (since when is it plus 13 degrees Celsius in January?), we were hit with a blast of the white stuff and falling temperatures yesterday.  In an instant, I switched back into hibernation mode (well, sans the hot chocolate and Bailey’s – alas, my cupboards are currently bereft of such essentials, and it was far too windy and chilly to walk to the store to restock).  Fortunately, I’ve got quite the stack of gardening books on my kitchen table, enough to fortify my imagination for a few wintery days.

The Book of Little Hostas is pure eye candy for me.  I’m not sure how I would fit these petite perennials in my flowerbeds as they are currently designed, but I have been thinking of undertaking a serious overhaul over the next few years and maybe I can work in some of these beauties as edging.  As the authors state, these are not plants to just plop in a bed willy-nilly – siting them is everything.  Due to their size, they can easily be overwhelmed by larger plants; as well, with the massive variety of foliage colour, pattern, and shape, you really want to show little hostas off in their own raised bed or a rockery, perhaps, or in containers.

Little hostas have been hybridized primarily with the serious plant collector in mind – since 1996, with the introduction of Hosta ‘Pandora’s Box’ (with beautiful variegated white and blue-green leaves), the whole little hosta trend has mushroomed so much that the American Hosta Society had to create categories to distinguish the miniature from the just “small.”  To determine if a hosta is small, very small, or miniature, the size of the leaf blade area is measured:  plants with a leaf blade area smaller than approximately 11 cm² is considered miniature, while a small hosta has a leaf blade area between roughly 25 cm² and 60 cm².  (Notice the categories don’t make mention of the overall height or spread of the plant, but don’t worry, these are definitely space-saving compared to full-size hostas.  I believe in most circles, “miniature” hostas are less than 15 cm in height, and “small” plants are between 15 and 25 cm tall). ¹

Authors Michael Shadrack and Kathy Guest Shadrack carefully outline all of the maintenance and care needs of little hostas, including specific cautions regarding soil and amendments:  little hostas, it seems, are far more choosy when it comes to soil type than their bigger siblings.  Addressing the collectible nature of these plants, there’s even a section in the book about mapping and labelling cultivars, and a list of things to consider if you plan to journal as you grow your collection.

But, it’s all about the photographs, really, and it’s easy to spend A LOT of time ooh-ing and aah-ing over the amazing diversity of little hosta cultivars.  I’ve always has a soft spot for variegated hostas, so I was immediately drawn to ‘Calypso’ and ‘Hi Ho Silver’ and the gorgeously streaked ‘Fireworks.’  And what about ‘Lakeside Zing Zang’, which has white to cream-coloured leaves splattered with green flecks and blotches?   Extremely cool.  Other (non-variegated) favourites include ‘Cheatin Heart’, which sports heart-shaped leaves (of course) in gold.  Or, there is ‘Plug Nickel,’ with shiny bright green oval foliage and delicate lilac-coloured flowers.  If you want just-plain-weird, look no further than ‘Hacksaw’, with light green, narrow, extremely serrated leaf blades.  It doesn’t resemble any other hosta I’ve ever seen, but the texture and colour of the foliage really draws the eye.

(And you have to admit, the cultivar names are pretty creative:  ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’, ‘Little Stiffy’ (???), or ‘Holy Mouse Ears’, anyone?).

While I’m uncertain that ALL of these cultivars would perform in challenging zone 3a, it’s just so wonderful to go through a book like this and consider the possibilities….

¹I got this info from Durable Gardening.  (I switched the measurements to metric, though).   You can check out a photo of another crazily-named hosta – ‘Wheee!’ PPAF – on the same page.   It’s a full-sized hosta cultivar, but it was introduced just last year and it’s a hot selection right now.

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.

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Check out this You Tube link for a stretching video to accompany Restuccio’s book:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDS-To5OBQM.    (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).

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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.