Book Review: Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon

Steve Solomon is a guru of gardening in my area, which he calls “Cascadia”.  He founded Territorial Seed Company.  [pg 2]  His books are always available in the back pages of local seed catalogs, highly recommended, but the trio that make up The Greendays Gardening Panel have dropped little hints about his controversiality and the doggedness of his fans. Now that I’ve read one of his books, I understand.

The purpose of this book is to ensure you get something to eat from your garden this year.  “I assume you are reading my book because you seriously need to make a food garden, starting as soon as you can put some seeds or seedlings into the earth.  I assume you can’t afford costly mistakes and wasted efforts”. [pg 13]  In a chart on page 16 and in the chapter where he gives growing advice by crop he lists vegetables by level of care needed.  Advice is also given on a sliding scale – what to grow and how to grow it based on how dire your straits are.

Solomon initially subscribed to John Jeavon’s Biointensive method, but now rejects it.  While growing plants for seed trials for Territorial he found that wider spacing led to less irrigation, larger plants, and better taste. [pg 2]  He rails against the Biointensive method off and on throughout the book (to the point that it gets a bit old, if you ask me).  Now that I’ve read both books here’s what I have to say: neither method is bad, but they can’t both be right for your situation.  If you have access to soil improvers and a steady water supply but only a postage stamp of land from which to feed your family, go Biointensive.  If you have a whole lotta land but a restricted water supply (or you are utterly reliant on rain) and little or no soil improvers, go with Solomon’s system of inducing the plants to get their own water.

The author is an organic gardener of the truest type: soil-obsessed.  Logically, you can’t get more out of your soil that you put into it, but when you start to really (pun intended) dig into soil science you come to see that you get out of it exactly what you put into it.  Solomon makes a compelling case for perfectly balanced soil by explaining that if you’re short on any one component your plants are limited by that weak link.  He gives the image of a barrel.  All your soil components are barrel staves and the barrel is full of liquid plant potential.  If one component is deficient, that stave is shorter than the rest and the plant’s potential pours out through this low spot and is lost – no matter how tall the other staves you can only grow your plant to the point that the short stave allows.  Perfectly balanced soils also yield the most nutritious plants.  This is another thing I’ve heard time and again, but Solomon drives it home with a factual example: records of physical exams from the WWII draft.  “In Missouri, the prairie soils are far more fertile than the once thickly forested soils in the southeast of that state . . . Accordingly, approximately 200 men out of 1,000 examined from the northeast of Missouri were found to be unit for military service, while 400 young men out of 1,000 from the southeast of the state were unfit.” [pg 19]

Espouses the important organic tenet that many plant diseases and insect pests act like predators “like a wolf pack bringing down a sick, old animal” [pg 217] and that healthy plants can fight off or survive most attacks, but also points out something I hadn’t considered – you could be up against a veritable plague of treatment-resistant diseases or pests because of a nearby commercial grower’s enormous monoculture. [pg 218]  Nonetheless, fertilize before you fight and your plants may be able to resist the offensive without you having to go on the defensive.

Another “Aha” moment: root growth.  “For a plant to acquire nutrition efficiently, it must have an ever-expanding root system.  A root extends only from its tip, and it is capable of efficiently assimilating moisture and nutrients for only a fraction of an inch beyond the tip.” [pg 242]  Plants can’t make roots in areas already clogged by the roots of its neighbors, in hardpan or clay, and unless contained in a pot, the roots will not double back.  This effects plant spacing requirements – some plants make massive root systems which need as much or more (or many times more) room than its above-ground parts.  Chapter 9, “What to grow . . . and how to grow it” (ellipsis original) includes drawings from John E. Weaver and William Bruner’s Root Development of Vegetable Crops to give a visual idea of how much root space the crops will demand.

I do see why Solomon is not universally loved – when he’s not being cantankerous he can be contentious or just plain difficult.  The watering chapter is quite complicated and involves a surprising amount of math.  On page 23 he says “I suggest that you forget about pH . . . In fact, the whole concept of soil pH is controversial.” He gives harsh criticism of widely-held composting beliefs and practices in Chapter 7. 

Despite disagreeing with Solomon on a few key points, this was one of those books where I feel like I’m being reeducated – every other paragraph I have an “Aha” moment.  I have to have a lot of “why” with my “how” and this guy gives it.

– Amanda
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