Book review: Practical Organic Gardening by Mark Highland.

Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally – Mark Highland (2017, Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group, Minnesota)


Gardening is all about inputs (and, obviously, outputs): you need the water, nutrients, light, soil, seeds/cuttings/transplants, and a bunch of elbow grease and sweat and love and passion to reap the rewards.  I’m thinking that most gardeners have substantial overflowing reservoirs of passion and love for their plants, but I’d argue that one of the most important of the remaining inputs is soil.  Specifically, healthy soil.

Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of Mark Highland’s new book Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally.  He talks a lot about soil (he does, after all, own a soil company in the United States).  More importantly, he stresses how to respect instead of work the soil – a statement which really aligns with my whole abject laziness when it comes to that elbow grease expenditure.  I can respect with the best of them!  Seriously, however, his discussion of the significance of the relationship between the microbial activity in the soil and organic gardening/no-till (or low-till) principles is one many gardeners may be interested in.  No matter if you garden organically or not, knowing something about the biological and physical properties of your soil will help you offer the very best for your plants. And understanding how to conserve your soil brings your garden closer to sustainability.

When he’s not presenting valuable tips about boosting soil health, Highland covers everything from irrigation and siting, to amendments and mulching, and using organic controls within Integrated Pest Management.  He talks about food forests and mushroom farming.  He offers solutions for container and raised bed gardening, and explores xeriscaping design.  He wades into the lawn/no lawn debate. Chapters explore planning your garden, seed starting, and vegetative propagation.

With its accessible layout, excellent photography, and straightforward, experienced voice, Practical Organic Gardening is comprehensive and highly informative; I can easily see this as a go-to manual for both novice and experienced organic gardeners.

*Quarto Publishing Group generously provided me with a copy of Mark Highland’s Practical Organic Gardening; as always, my opinions about the book are my own.

Book reviews for spring planning.

If you’re like me, and you’re living in a location where the spring storms have brought snow and your cautiously-emerging early-flowering bulbs are buried under the white stuff, you’ll be needing a little pick-me-up to tide you through until the weather turns around in earnest.  Try out these books for a double whammy of eye-candy and excellent information:

The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables by Marie Iannotti (2011, Timber Press, Inc., Portland)

Okay, so I may have drooled a little on this book – hopefully I won’t get fined for the damage when I return it to the library.  It’s just that it’s so unbelievably pretty, you can’t help but ooh and ahh over all of the sumptuous photographs.  I keep opening it, just to take a random gawk at the ‘Chioggia’ beets in cross-section, the ‘Japanese White Egg’ eggplants (which actually look like perfect white chicken eggs), or the beauteous purple-flowered ‘Di Sicilia Viletto’ cauliflower.  Or what about feathery-leafed fennel ‘Zefa Fino’ or the potent brilliant orange ‘Fatali’ peppers, or the watermelon radish, with its bright white skin and “red meat” inside?  And although you could treat this as merely the world’s most tantalizing picture book, Iannotti gives you all the information you need to know to grow all of these wonderful vegetables, including what’s most important:  how to save the seed and preserve these heirlooms for the future.  Add to this the fantastic stories of the origins of some of these veggies and you’ve got my hands-down favourite gardening book of the season so far.

Okay, but then there is Carolyn Herriot’s The Zero-Mile Diet:  A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food (2010, Harbour Publishing, B.C.).  Another book that is blissfully heavy on the seed-saving side of things (seed-saving methods are provided for every crop listed in the book – how amazing is that?), The Zero-Mile Diet is seriously fun to pore through.  While there are A-Z sections for veggies and herbs, there is also a large chapter devoted to fruit crops, and every inch of the book is loaded with extras:  inspirational quotes, historical facts, food recipes (for humans AND for plants – did you know how to make a nutritious fertilizer from comfrey before this?), cultural recommendations, charts and tables, and more photos than you could shake a stick at.  Oh, and there are chicken and duck raising tips in here, too!   As if that wasn’t enough, it’s all laid out to follow a year in the garden:  what to plant and when, what to harvest and when – and while the West coast of Canada has a decidedly different climate than we do here on the Prairies, we can still use this template (we just have to compress it a little and move it ahead a few months.  Okay, and we can’t grow everything.  But we can dream!).  The key word with this book is “sustainability” and there are examples of it in spades – it’s really a treasure trove of useful, practical information.

Hands down, one of the best books on the planet if you want to learn how to improve your soil organically and keep it healthy and viable for your plants is Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis’ Teaming with Microbes:  The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Revised Edition, 2010, Timber Press, Inc., Portland).  While it’s a little textbook-y compared to the likes of Herriot and Iannotti’s books, it’s not about the glamourous side of gardening.  Teaming with Microbes is all about what makes up garden soil, all the fungi and bacteria and mold and spores and critters that give the soil life – and in turn, help your plants take up moisture and nutrients so that they can thrive and produce.  You want to know the science behind compost?  It’s in this book.  So is a marvelously detailed discussion of mycorrhizal fungi.  And mulch.  And leaf litter.  And, most importantly, how to maintain a healthy lawn and garden just by understanding your soil and knowing what to contribute, and when, so that your plants get the best leg up.