Book Review: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

Beatrix potter bookWhen my children were young, an older relative gave us a petite set of books by the children’s author Beatrix Potter. With their warm water-color illustrations and sweetly droll humor, the books soon became a favorite of mine. I think the girls liked them, too. So I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales (Timber Press, 2013).

Potter’s books are filled with illustrations and stories that gardeners can appreciate, from Peter Rabbit’s forays into Mr. McGregor’s garden (the longer I garden, the more I side with Mr. McGregor) to silly Jemima Puddleduck picking onions and sage for a dinner at which she is to be the guest of honor — and the main course — to country mouse Timmy Willy, who falls asleep in a peapod before he is shipped off to the city in a basket of garden produce. Potter loved nature and the country life and her stories and illustrations show it.

McDowell’s book is really three books in one, and each has its own merits. The first part is a biography of Potter, a shy and lonely girl, who took refuge in keeping rabbits and drawing plants and animals. She was a skilled botanical illustrator (mushrooms were a particular specialty) but achieved recognition when The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1901. Her parents were the demanding Victorian type, and disapproved of her writing as well as her romance and engagement to her publisher, Frederick Warne. Sadly, Warne died in 1905 from leukemia.  Grieving and seeking independence, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of western England. There, she continued to produce books (23 in all) and garden. At 47, she married a local attorney and began to buy more property in the area. She published her last book in 1922, and spent the final 25 years of her life as a farmer and conservation activist in the Lake District.

The biography section of the book is entertaining, marked by vibrant prose and an abundance of  drawings and photographs. You get a genuine sense of how Potter’s books reflected her interest in nature and her life as a gardener.

The second section takes a reader through the year in Potter’s garden, from the dark winter to the blooming primroses in June to fall and the harvest season. It’s evocative and well-illustrated and gives a full picture of English country life. Through letters and other material, McDowell shows Potter dealing with many of the problems familiar to all gardeners — invasive plants, poor weather, more ideas and work than time. The last section is a short introduction to visiting Potter’s gardens and farms and the Lake District. Potter left most of her property to the National Trust, so there is a lot to see, if you are able to get to this somewhat out-of-the-way part of England. The book is rounded out with resources and suggestions for further reading as well as plant lists, including lists of all the plants that appear in each of her books as well as those she cultivated.

For Potter fans or lovers of English country life that is not of the Downton Abbey variety, this gardener’s biography is a great read. I will be donating the review copy of the beautiful book to the MSHS Library, a great resource for gardeners in Minnesota.

New Guide to Protecting Pollinators

After almost 50 hours of Master Gardener training this month, there is one image that I cannot get out of my mind. During the lecture on growing fruit, the professor put up a photo of some workers in China, up on ladders in the middle of an apple tree that was covered with blossoms.  The workers were pollinating the flowers by hand because excessive pesticide use in the area had killed all of the bees and native pollinators for apples.

Pollinators — bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, birds, and a host of other insects and animals — are crucial to food production, whether you are growing a home garden or apples for the world market. That’s one reason I was so excited to receive a review copy of the Xerces Society’s new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, (Story Press, 2011). This is a well-illustrated, down-to-earth guide to why pollinators matter, what is happening that threatens pollinators, and the simple things any of us can do to increase the world’s pollinator population. (In a nutshell: Plant flowers and back off the pesticides.)

While considerable attention has been given to diminishing populations of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, honeybees are not native to North America. They are hugely important in pollinating some crops (almonds, especially) but the average Midwestern garden is far more likely to be visited by bumble bees, orchard mason bees, or the guys who seem to love it at my place, leaf cutter bees. Most of these bees (and 90 percent of all North American bees) are solitary insects who play a vital role in helping us produce vegetables and fruit as well as helping to control problem pests.

The book provides detailed instructions on how to provide habitat for pollinators, what plants to plant in various regions (I was pleased that more than half of the recommended plants for the Midwest and Great Plains are in my garden now, with more to come), and how to recognize and support the pollinators in your yard.

So how do we support pollinators? The simple answer is to provide a diversity of plants. If possible, choose plants that are native to your area and plan for a sequence of blooms from early spring through fall. Try to provide habitat as well, such as a bee house or nesting sites for ground nesting bees.  Don’t be too obsessive about keeping your garden cleaned up — a pile of brush can be home-sweet-home to many pollinators. They also like holes in the ground and hollow logs, if you have one hanging around. Also, plant “sacrificial plants,” those that you know may be eaten by caterpillars or other larvae on their way to becoming butterflies.

That’s the simple answer, but for more detail and some fantastic bee and butterfly photos, check out Attracting Native Pollinators. If you are a member of the Minnesota Horticultural Society, the review copy I received will be in the hort society library in a few weeks.

Keeping Vegetable Gardeners on Track

If growing more vegetables is one of your New Year’s resolutions (it is one of mine), you might want to check out a new book designed to tell vegetable gardeners specifically when to do what. The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook (Storey Books) by the father-daughter team of Ron and Jennifer Kujawski was just published, and is a combination calendar/how-to manual. It tells gardeners which specific tasks to do when based on the last frost date for your area — a key statistic for determining what kinds of crops you can grow and the best way to grow them.

After you determine your frost-free date, the book asks readers to back up 20 weeks, and from there, provides week-by-week tasks to prepare, plant, weed, and harvest a great vegetable garden. According to the book, my frost-free date is May 3. That’s the date for Rochester, Mn., the nearest city listed in the appendix, and it seems about right based on experience. So, backing up 20 weeks from May 3, I should have already inventoried my seed-starting supplies (check!) and inventoried and cleaned up my gardening tools from last year (double check!).  Anytime in January I should order seeds, start from seed any herbs I plan to plant, and even sow leeks indoors, if I plan to grow them.

Because Minnesota’s season is especially compressed, not every task can be done on the schedule the Kujawskis set out — but when that’s the case, they usually note it. So for seven weeks before the frost-free date (mid-March in Minnesota), they recommend gardeners sow carrots, beets, and leaf lettuce outdoors — if the soil is workable — or in containers, if it is not. It’s almost certain I’ll be sowing beets and leaf lettuce in containers.

The book is more than a to-do list, however. It offers charts and drawings that show gardeners how to do the tasks, and it provides insights obviously gleaned from years of experience. (Ron Kujawski was a Massachusetts extension educator for 25 years.) A few examples:

  • Having a shady yard doesn’t mean you have to give up on vegetables. Gardeners with as little as two to four hours of sun can grow leafy greens and herbs such as parsley and chives. If you have dappled shade, you may be able to grow small-headed cabbages.
  • If you are plagued by dry weather, some vegetables endure it better than others. While all vegetables need water as seedlings to develop good root systems, some such as asparagus, eggplant, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, can tolerate a dry period.
  • Even if your tomatoes are covered with blossoms, that’s no guarantee you will get fruit. If temperatures are below 58 degrees F or above 85 F (each a distinct possibility in Minnesota in July), tomatoes will not set fruit. I wonder if this is why we had such a poor tomato year in 2010.

If you are planning on buying a vegetable garden book in 2010, this is definitely one to consider.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of The Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook from Storey Press. No other compensation was received and my copy of the book will be in the MSHS Library in a few weeks. The library has one of the largest collections of garden and horticultural books in Minnesota.

Book Review: Made from Scratch

Jenna Woginrich’s Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Hand-Made Life is the most enjoyable and accessible of the living-off-the-land books I’ve read. Admittedly, I have not made a thorough study of the genre, but I’ve read several (This Organic Life, Animal Vegetable Miracle, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a few others) and Woginrich manages to convey both the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes from growing food, raising animals and living more frugally, as well as the real responsibilities that come with living in a more self-reliant way. And, she accomplishes this without being pedantic or glossing over the complexities inherent in the task.

Here’s the story: Woginrich graduates from college and works as a graphic designer, first in the mid-South, then in northern Idaho. Along the way, she decides to tread lighter on the world and be more self-reliant. That decision prompts her to rent a farmstead in Idaho, where she learns how to garden, bake bread, keep chickens, bees, and rabbits, sew, knit, and reuse and recycle whatever she can.  The book is an homage to doing daily tasks yourself.

Woginrich never hides her enthusiasm or her ignorance, and she addresses — sometimes eloquently — the consequences of her mistakes. An experiment in beekeeping, for example, ends in disaster for the bees twice — once when she forgets to unpack the queen bee, leaving her bees milling around aimlessly until they die and again when a hungry bear attacks and destroys her hive. Throughout her journey, Woginrich seeks advice from more experienced hobbyists, and along the way gains friends who give both Woginrich — and her readers — information on how to live more self-reliantly.

I have no experience with bees or chickens but I’ve gardened a lot, baked my share of bread, and know my way around a sewing machine. In each case, Woginrich gives solid advice for beginners and suggests ways to start learning these skills that will most likely result in success without an excessive outlay of cash.

Made from Scratch is a short book with a good resource section at the back. It came out in hardback in 2009 but Storey Books is publishing a paperback edition this spring. I was able to get an inexpensive copy at Monkey See/Monkey Read in downtown Northfield. If you’re looking for inspiration to learn some new skills, you won’t find a more accessible guide than Made from Scratch.

Bruschetta, a la Julie and Julia

IMG_6514If you had a chance to see the movie Julie and Julia, you know it’s full of images of fantastic food. But the scene that made me salivate was the one in which Julie Powell (played by former Chanhassen Dinner Theater actress Amy Adams) prepares bruschetta for her husband, and he devours it with messy gusto. With tomatoes finally coming in, it was time for some bruschetta.

I made the tomato topping first, dicing up three kinds of tomatoes and adding a couple of tablespoons each of chopped basil and parsley from the garden. To the veggies, I added a good shake of salt and pepper and two tablespoons of olive oil. This macerated in a bowl on the counter for 45 minutes or so. Then, I sauteed slices of Brick Oven baguettes in a combo of olive oil and a dab of butter (in deference to Julia Child) flavored slightly with garlic.  Normally, I would not fry the bread for bruschetta, but that’s the way the movie did it, so why not! At dinner, we piled the tomatoes on the bread. If you can set the bruschetta up a few minutes ahead of time to let the juices seep into the bread, it tastes even better.

I don’t usually review books or movies here, but Julie and Julia is a hoot. It’s based on two books, Powell’s book of the same title, which is entertaining in the way some memoirs are — you are glad to be reading about this person and not living with her — and Julia Child’s My Life in France, which is a heartfelt tribute to France and especially to Child’s husband, Paul.

Best Books for Beginning Vegetable Gardeners

Last week, a newbie vegetable gardener e-mailed me for some information about the Vegetable Gardening 101 class I took at Just Food Co-op a few weeks ago. She was looking for a similar class in the Twin Cities and also asked if I had a reading list for new vegetable gardeners. I don’t, but it sounds like a great idea — so here goes.

I haven’t done any kind of comprehensive review of vegetable gardening books, but if I were just starting here are a two types of book that might be worth buying or taking out from the library.

Your Basic Guide

Beginners have basic questions and need a guide book that is like a friendly, knowledgeable neighbor.

mwkg_med-1A few months ago, I came across the Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden, revised edition (10 Speed Press, 2005, $19.95) and have been really impressed by it. In addition to listing the vegetables you might want to grow, when to start them, how to maintain them, and how and when to harvest them, author David Hirsch offers recipes and a dandy 30-page section in the back with basic information on placing your garden, soil, compost, mulching, and other techniques gardeners need. The book has enough information about everything but not so much you are overwhelmed.

Other good overview books would include The New Victory Garden, a sort of 1980s vegetable classic; Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew (great for small-space gardeners), or if you are interested in a specific type of garden, any of Rosalind Creasy’s books. (Be warned, though, she lives in California and doesn’t exactly get the concept of dead winter for six months.) I’d avoid books that are just too complete, such as Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer, unless you plan to use it strictly as an encyclopedia.

A When-to-Do-What Book

310gfv0d9yl_sl500_aa180_When should you plant tomatoes in Minnesota? (Later than you think!) When should cover your crops in the fall and how do you “put the garden to bed?” A book that tells you when to do what is useful, especially for new gardeners.

Melinda Myers, Wisconsin’s gardening guru, has a great book for this called Month-by-Month Gardening in Minnesota. It’s divided by months, of course, but also by what kind of gardening you’re doing. So, you can check in March and find out that now is a good time to start seeds. She also tells you how.  Another calendar book I like is The Time-Saving Gardener, by Carolyn Hutchinson. It not only tells you when to do things, but Hutchinson has lots of step-by-step diagrams to follow. She also divides tasks by season rather than month, which makes the book more applicable in northern climates.

In addition to a couple of books, I’d check out magazines — ahem, Northern Gardener — and the web for information. I love the GardenGirlTV.com videos, even though I’ve seen the cutesy intro 15 times.

Experienced gardeners, help me out. What books would you recommend to a new vegetable gardener?

A Bouquet of Mini Book Reviews

Garden books tend to come out at two times of the year: when the season is over in fall and just as it begins in early spring.  So, my poor mail carrier has been delivering lots of big packages with books in them recently. I don’t review everything I get, but here are four books worth considering for your collection.

Tauton Press Image
Tauton Press Image

Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love, by Julie Moir Messervy, (Tauton Press, $30). I mentioned this book earlier in a post on naming your garden. In it, Messervy, a designer and co-author of Susan Susanka’s Outside the Not-So-Big House, describes a process home owners should go through as they decide how to landscape their property. Like many garden design books, it’s full of fabulous photos of no doubt fabulously expensive gardens. Unlike most garden design books, Messervy deals with the kinds of problems average gardeners have, such as how to make a home welcoming when the garage is the first thing visitors see. (As the owner of a snout house, this is a pet issue of mine with garden design books. Note to authors and landscapers: People have garages. Please help us deal with them.) If you are starting with a blank canvass or planning a major garden renovation, this book is a great place to start.

Rodale Press Image
Rodale Press Image

Noting the surge in interest in organics and sustainable landscaping, Rodale has revised and reissued its Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, (Rodale Press, $24.95). Checking in at just over 700 pages, this encyclopedia covers everything from animal pests to xeriscaping with an organic approach. Most entries are short plant descriptions, but the encyclopedia offers much more depth on topics such as fertilizer, garden design and greenhouse gardening. Rodale has been writing about organics for 50 years–these are the folks who publish Organic Gardening magazine–so the information is solid.

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Lesslawn.com Image

From titans of the garden publishing world to a lone writer with a passion: Recently, Evelyn J. Hadden sent me a copy of her book, Shrink Your Lawn: Design Ideas for Any Landscape, (Less Lawn Press, $28.99). A Plymouth, MN, gardener and frequent speaker at local gardening events, Hadden offers practical and beautiful ways to reduce the amount of grass on your property. Her argument is that lawns, while a classic element of American landscaping, are costly and unsuitable for many environments and climates. And, there are many parts of your lawn you never go to except to mow–so why not plant something else there? Many of the examples Hadden shows in the book are from the Twin Cities, making her suggestions especially relevant to readers in the Upper Midwest. The book is just under 100 pages long, but for those dedicated to getting rid of at least some of their lawn, it’s well worth reading.

This last book is not new, but you may be able to find it at your local used book shop or library. If you do, grab it, because it is one of the most delightful garden books I’ve read in a long time. Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too, (Three Rivers Press, prices vary) is a march through the gardening year with a hilarious, opinionated guide: Cassandra Danz. I was sorry to read elsewhere that Danz died in 2002, but she left behind a wonderful book full of stories and advice. She’ll tell you how to prune a tree or shrub, how to avoid double digging, and which seven perennials you must have in your garden. Like a good friend, she’ll tell you the garden truths you do not want to hear (In my case, that you really need to have a fence or other form of enclosure to have a truly comfortable garden), and she’ll keep you laughing all the way through. Find it, read it.

Since winter is not giving up its frigid grip just yet, grab a book and settle in for a few more weeks.