Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.



Catalogs vs. Online Seed Shopping

old seed catalog
old seed catalog
This is the catalog one of several seed companies once based in Minnesota.

Within a week or two, the pile of seed catalogs next to my reading chair will be just about to topple over. It’s that time of year—and I love it. Though I’m not a complete Luddite and do much of my work online (ahem, this is a blog), seed ordering seems to require paper and pens.

The reasons I prefer to choose seeds using catalogs are many: the comfort of being able to page through multiple catalogs at once; the feel of the catalog paper and the chance to peruse gardening information without having a hot laptop on my thighs, savoring the images and the descriptions of beans, potatoes and melons that would make a poet swoon, plus I have my special seed ordering system.

Here’s how it works: I wait until mid-January or beyond to even look at the catalogs, just letting them pile up as the anticipation builds. Then some evening—after the Christmas decorations have been removed and preferably with snow falling—I start reading. At my left is a cup of tea and a red pen. On the first pass through the catalogs, I circle all the seeds that appeal to me and rip out the pages on which they are listed. No judgements, just what looks good. In one evening (sometimes two), I’ll have a pile of torn pages and a pile of tattered catalogs.

Of course, my eyes are always bigger than my time, my garden and my skill, so I need to restrain myself. What do I really want to grow and eat? What kinds of annuals do I want to grace my front walk? What will work in my soil and sun and climate? What old faithfuls must I plant and which new things do I want to try? There will be lists and sometimes maps of the garden space. This is—as my father once said about waxing a car—contemplative work. No need to rush.

When the list has been narrowed, it’s time to get practical. I don’t like to order from too many companies, and I have my favorites in terms of quality and customer service. But I usually order from at least three companies. When all the decisions have been made, I rev up the laptop and do my ordering. With the catalog pages at hand, it’s easy to finish this step quickly. Some seed companies do not have catalogs because of the cost involved in printing. I understand that, and if I am looking for a specific seed, I may check out these sites. But still, I hope companies will continue to produce catalogs.

My winter evenings would not be the same without them.


Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers

A Gardener’s Reading, 29 of 30

By Alan L. Detrick (Timber Press, 2008)

Back in 2007, I had a chance to take a day-long photography course with Alan L. Detrick as part of a Garden Writer’s Association event in Kansas City. Even though I was using a point-and-shoot camera (I’m embarrassed to admit that!), Alan was a true gentleman and a fantastic teacher. He even liked some of my pictures, and he truly wanted all of us — editors and writers — to become better photographers.

A few months later, I bought a digital SLR and this book. Macro photography is essentially super closeups done with special lenses. Detrick walks readers through the reasons for taking macro photos, the equipment you’ll need, f-stops, histograms, and the basics of thinking about photos: light, angles, composition, background. Like a true photographer, Detrick believes you get better pictures by paying attention to what you do before you push the shutter rather than trying to adjust the photo on the computer.

The best part of the book are the dozens of photos Detrick has taken in his years of photographing gardens. Each one is accompanied by a lengthy caption explaining how it was taken, the equipment involved and why the photo worked. Often, the book includes side-by-side shots of the same image taken a different way to illustrate a technique or idea.

If you are interested in taking macro photos of plants and gardens, this is a great book. However, I will say that I’ve learned much more from taking short courses on photography from Detrick and from Donna Krischan than from any book. If you have room in your schedule and your budget for a course, that’s really the way to go to improve garden photos. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the North House Folk School and photographer John Gregor are among those offering photo courses geared toward gardens and nature.

The Naturescaping Workbook

A Gardener’s Reading, 28 of 30.

By Beth O’Donnell Young (Timber Press, 2011)

Beth O’Donnell Young

A couple of years ago, I started to notice more and more gardens that seemed to be built around wildlife. Maybe this is a trend; maybe I just opened my eyes, but it seemed that more people were concerned with providing the water, food, shelter and cover that birds, bees, butterflies and other animals need to thrive. I accidentally planted a garden that wildlife love, but now that we have so many birds and critters around, I want to make it even better. This book by Oregon-based Beth O’Donnell Young will help me achieve that goal.

What I like about this book is that it provides a step-by-step guide through the process of creating a habitat in your yard. It’s a more mindful approach than just planting some shrubs with berries — though that, too, will attract wildlife.

Young begins by setting down some principles of naturescaping, involving everything from managing runoff to thinking in terms of ecosystems and habitats. She also asks readers to take an inventory of what they have in place already, including structures, views, drainage, neighbors and city regulations. The checklist highlights many of the stumbling blocks to creating the garden you want, which will make gardeners more savvy about the changes they attempt.

Next, Young has readers map out and define zones within their yards so they can determine how to make each area more attractive to the wildlife they want (and less attractive to the wildlife they do not want). Finally, she has readers  think about plants and design strategies for each area. This step-by-step approach, along with the checklists and maps Young uses as examples, make this a great choice for folks who want to get serious about creating a beautiful landscape for wildlife and people.

My only quibble with the book is that Young’s location in Oregon (where you can grow just about anything) shows in some of her plant recommendations. Northern gardeners should use this book for planning and designing, then consult with a local nursery or more northern-oriented books when deciding which plants to choose. Still, this is a terrific book that I will be using myself as well as lending to friends.


The Fruit Gardener’s Bible

A Gardener’s Reading, 27 of 30

By Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry (Storey Publishing, 2011)

I just received this book, so this is really more of a first impression than a full-fledged review, but I am eager to get into this manual on growing fruits, which was originally published in 1992 as Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden.

Except for raspberries, I find growing fruits challenging. In Minnesota, apples are tough to grow organically, my preferred method.  Blueberries demand an acid soil that I have not been able to concoct, despite several efforts. (I may make one more this year in a bed near some pine trees.) I’ve had decent luck with sour cherries, and have been told that currants would grow well in my yard. Still, fruit is something my family loves, and I would like to grow more of it, and to grow what I do more carefully.

The Fruit Gardener’s Bible is a detailed overview of how to grow a large variety of fruits. After covering the basics of soil, sun and site, the authors start with the easiest fruits to grow—raspberries and strawberries—and move on from there. Each section gives details on how to plant, prune, maintain and harvest the fruits, as well as fairly extensive discussions of diseases and insects and how to prevent or control them. The authors also recommend varieties for different climates, which is extremely helpful in a book that is geared for a national audience. I sadly skipped over the section on peaches and nectarines, which cannot be grown in Minnesota.

After a first pass through the book, I discovered that my apples have something called “bitter pit” and that I might be smarter to plant lingonberries than blueberries in the acidified soil near one of our conifers.  I also found the “Checklist of Activities for Fruits and Nuts” helpful, in that it lays out a yearly schedule of what to do. I expect this is a book I’ll be nipping in and out of all summer.


The Way We Garden Now

A Gardener’s Reading, 26 of 30

By Katherine Whiteside (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

I first read The Way We Garden Now when it came out in 2007, and almost immediately did one of the 41 projects in the book to create a new garden in my front yard. Looking it over again to do this review, I found two other projects for the coming garden season.

That’s what I really like about this book. It meets gardeners where they are and gives them the hands-on tools to create the gardens they want. It’s inspiring, but not in that you-need-a-degree-in-horticulture-and-a-fulltime-gardener way that some garden books are. The projects are organized into five categories: basics, design, ornamentals, edibles and seasonal gardening. Within each category, there are projects appropriate for rank beginners, such as the smother method project I did in 2007, as well as those for more advanced gardeners, such as installing a patio. In between, Whiteside gives accessible instructions for how to build a compost pile, create an herb bed, plant for birds, use garden ornaments, plant a hedge, create a path and a couple of dozen other ideas.

One reason I think this book is so accessible is that it includes no photos. There are plenty of illustrations, whimsically drawn by Peter Gergely, but these are not overwhelming. They show you how to do the task, rather than what the task should look like when you’re done. It’s great for those of us happy to embrace imperfection.

If you are looking for ideas and instructions for ways to improve your garden next year, check this one out.


Mrs. Greenthumbs

A Gardener’s Reading, 25 of 30

By Cassandra Danz (Three Rivers Press, 1993)

Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Toois 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 two books full of stories and advice. This is the first one, and Northfield readers can find it in the Northfield Public Library.

Mrs. Greenthumbs started out as a character in comedy sketches Danz performed, but Danz was a knowledgeable gardener and her advice is spot-on and delivered with humor and joy.  In a chapter on Japanese beetles she notes that “to have a cultivated garden, you have to be prepared to kill something.  You have to pull out weeds, cut down weed trees, and scare off, fence out, or murder woodchucks, rabbits, deer and destructive insects.” The beetles, she says, “would make a lovely brooch,” but the have to go. Many northern gardeners would agree.

In addition to rants on beetles, Mrs. Greenthumbs will tell you how to prune a tree or shrub, how to avoid double digging, and which seven perennials you must have in your garden (columbines, peonies, irises, hollyhocks, daylilies, phlox and asters). 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.