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.

Back to the Books! You Grow, Girl

A Gardener’s Reading, 24 of 30

By Gayla Trail (Fireside, 2005)

I can’t believe (well, yes I can) that my 30 book reviews planned for the holiday season stopped at 23. Life and laziness intervened, but I’m back at it this week with some new and old books – and, with any luck, we’ll hit 30 by spring.

Today’s book is You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening by Gayla Trail, one of the first blog-to-book publications. In 2000, Trail – a stalwart Canadian, so she has northern gardener credentials – started a website called It’s still a lively site for folks with an interest in small space and food gardening. Since the publication of You Grow Girl in 2005, Trail has written two other books. Grow Great Grub on small space food gardening and the soon-to-be released Easy Growing on growing herbs and flowers in small spaces.

You Grow Girl has a fun, cool vibe. It covers a lot of the basics of gardening: choosing a space, deciding what to grow, how to deal with poor soil. But what distinguishes it from other basic garden manuals, other than its hip tone, are the projects. Trail tells readers how to make a simple planter box, a wire cloche to protect plants, tea bags for herbal teas, seed packets and a succulent container among many others. All of the projects are well-illustrated and easy to follow. She lets readers know how difficult the project is, and truthfully, none of them are that hard. When I first got the book, I made the garden apron for my sister, who cheerfully modeled it at our family Christmas party.

There isn’t a lot in You Grow Girl that is new but it is loads of fun to look at and, if I knew a young woman who had an interest in gardening, I would give her this book. It would provide a good start in the garden and lots of crafty fun to boot.


Deer Resistant Landscaping

A Gardener’s Reading, 23 of 30

Like many northern gardeners, I’ve battled critters pretty much as long as I’ve gardened. At my old house, the issue was raccoons, who had a cozy home in the storm sewer under our street. At my current house, we’ve dealt with mice, pocket gophers, and most recently moles and beavers. Unlike many northern gardeners, deer have not been a problem where I live–at least not yet. In the past year, we have had many more encounters with deer than in the previous 11, so I’m just waiting….

If deer are a problem where you live,  however, run out right now and get Neil Soderstrom’s new book, Deer Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals. Soderstrom offers a sane approach to dealing with unwanted garden visitors. Readers learn why these creatures are in our landscapes, what their role in the environment is, and what you can do to discourage their presence or live peacefully with them. The book focuses first and foremost on deer, including in-depth profiles of nearly 200 plants deer don’t like.

While that is extremely helpful information, it’s Soderstrom’s discussion of animal behavior that is most interesting. For instance, expectant deer mothers become very territorial. They spend most of the year traveling with other female relatives, but when they are close to delivery, they head out on their own.  Opossums, which seem more prevalent here the last couple of years, move their dens every few nights, and while they can be a terror if they get in your garage, opossums are helpful in that they feed heavily on snails and keep the populations of mice and voles down. Mice enjoy making nests in the spare tire well of cars and while voles breed pretty much constantly, moles breed only once a year.

If you have a critter problem, but aren’t sure what it is, Deer Resistant Landscaping has photos to help you identify it, including shots of animal tracks, tunneling and burrowing systems, mug shots of the various suspects, and critter doo-doo pictures. What I really liked about the book is that Soderstrom helps homeowners consider their options carefully.  For instance, the mole who has been bugging me since last summer is actually eating a lot of bugs in my yard and there’s likely only one mole, so maybe doing nothing — and adjusting how I mow the lawn to camouflage  his tunnels – – is the best bet. Soderstrom offers practical advice on how to dispatch animals in the least inhumane way possible and he’s quick to point to the situations that really demand a professional. (Transporting a skunk: No, thank you!)

For sound and responsible advice on dealing with critters, you can’t do much better than this book.

The Northern Heartland Kitchen

A Gardener’s Reading, 22 of 30

By Beth Dooley (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

I mentioned in an earlier review that I was hoping to get a copy of The Northern Heartland Kitchen, a new seasonal, local cookbook from the University of Minnesota. Well, lo and behold, in the most recent batch of books I picked up from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society for review, was a copy of Beth Dooley’s cookbook. Dooley has been writing about food in Minnesota for many years, and if you read Mpls/St. Paul magazine, you are probably familiar with her restaurant reviews.

In this book, Dooley marches through the seasons, creating recipes and meals with ingredients most likely to be local in markets in the North. So fall is filled with delicious ideas for using squash, apples, cranberries, duck and kale, while spring boasts recipes for lamb, arugula and asparagus.  While the ingredients used are local, the recipes span the globe with Dooley offering an Asian-inspired Chicken Noodle Soup, Scandinavian Baked Beans and Spring Vegetable Curry as well as Midwest standards such as Corn Relish, Apple Crisp and Beer-Can Chicken.

The front of the book provides information on how to eat more locally by shopping farmers’ markets and joining a Community-Supported Agriculture farm. I haven’t had a chance to cook from the book yet, but an interested to try her recipe for Ox-Tails in Stout and the recipe below for a winter salad of carrots and parsley:

Carrot and Parsley Salad

For the salad, combine: 7-8 organic carrots, grated (3.5 cups); a large bunch parsley, finely chopped; 1/3 cup dried cranberries. Mix the dressing: 1 large clove garlic, mashed, 2 TBSP raspberry (or other fruit) vinegar, 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 TBSP smashed fennel seeds. Whisk dressing together, combine with carrot mixture. Cover the bowl and let the salad rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight so the flavors blend.

Edible Gardening in the Midwest

A Gardener’s Reading, 21 of 30

By Colleen Vanderlinden and Alison Beck (Lone Pine Press, 2009)

If you are scrambling for a last-minute gift for a young or would-be vegetable gardener, here’s an inexpensive, helpful option.

Canada-based Lone Pine Press publishes a plethora of nonfiction books on everything from sports trivia to ghosts. Generally speaking, Lone Pine books are broad rather than deep, and that’s certainly true of Edible Gardening for the Midwest – that’s also the point of a how-to book like this and the reason it’s a good option for beginning gardeners. It gives readers enough information to be successful without overloading them with more details than they need.

Edible Gardening, written by Alison Beck and well-known vegetable garden blogger, Colleen Vanderlinden, is the perfect guide for a new gardener who wants to grow vegetables. The book opens with the basics: hardiness zones, soil, light, how to use vegetables in ornamental plantings, as well as preparing a garden bed, composting and seed starting. It also includes an A-to-Z of common vegetable garden pests, with enough photos to make a newbie feel confident diagnosing typical pest issues.

The bulk of the book goes from Amaranth to Watermelon, covering how to grow and harvest each vegetable. It’s the kind of book you might page through while thinking about ordering seeds. Do I have enough room to grow winter squash? Do I have the right soil type for blueberries or enough space to grow corn? Am I ready to commit to asparagus or raspberries or do I want the immediate gratification of green beans and tomatoes? The authors recommend specific varieties of many plants and the book has enough photos to guarantee any gardener will order more seed than there is room for outside.

Other vegetable gardening guides that I have used include The Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden and Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardening Handbook. Friends highly recommend Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer.

Which vegetable garden guides do you use?

A Quartet of Garden Memoirs

A Gardener’s Reading, 17-20 of 30

In this season of choir concerts and holiday musicales, I’ve been thinking about the many voices that sing of the importance of gardening – not just as a way to create beauty or grow food, but as an essential source of meaning in our lives.  People are creative – they want to make things, they want to feel connected to the earth and those around them, and as technology takes over so many tasks, gardening is one way people can make, create and celebrate their humanity.

In the past year, I’ve read four books that speak to meaning and gardening. The authors have disparate voices; they emphasize different aspects of caring for land, plants and animals, but the tune is similar:  Peace and love can grow a home garden.

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Books, 2009) tells the story of Woginrich’s transformation from college student to self-reliant homesteader. As a young graduate working in northern Idaho, Woginrich decides to tread lighter on the land and be more self-reliant. In pursuit of that goal, she learns how to garden, bake bread, keep chickens, bees, and rabbits, sew, knit, and reuse and recycle whatever she can. (She’s a big fan of coffee percolators.) 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. 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.

Since the publication of Made from Scratch, Woginrich moved to a farm in New York state where she cares for chickens, sheep and other animals and has written three other books about homesteading.

Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer and Dirt, by Kyle T. Kramer (Sorin Press, 2011) is another coming of age on the land story but it is also a powerful spiritual memoir. In his mid-20s, Kramer is a theology graduate student living in Atlanta, working at a private school and volunteering at nearby church. As fulfilling as he finds his work and study, he feels called to a life closer to his roots in southern Indiana and closer to the earth.

He eventually buys 20-acres of land that needs care desperately. He builds a primitive shelter – at first a pole-barn apartment with outdoor toilet facilities. He plants gardens and learns from his family and neighbors how to grow food better. He falls in love, and he and his wife build a house and then have twins. Along the way, he is supported by the Benedictine monks at St. Meinrad’s Abbey, who give him a job (Kramer still works as director of education there), shelter during his first cold winter on the farm, advice, and more important than all of that, an example of lives filled with physical work, prayer, community and love.

While Woginrich is upbeat, even in her trials, Kramer sinks deep at points in this memoir – he despairs his tendency toward overwork and perfectionism, his lack of knowledge, his pride; he suffers depression – but he is held up throughout by his family, his neighbors, his faith community and his faith itself.  The book is not a downer, though. Parts of it are very funny, all of it well-written, and ultimately Kramer’s story is testament to ways the divine works through the land and community to reshape a heart.

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, by Shannon Hayes (Left to Right Press, 2010), views gardening in a political and economic context more than a religious one. Hayes, who lives on a beef farm with her husband and children, is the author of two meat cookbooks, but in this manifesto she sears a culture that encourages people to work too much, to buy too much and along the way, to disdain all things domestic and nurturing.

The book began when Hayes gave a talk about local and sustainable beef at a conference of dieticians. Local and sustainable food is possible for all Americans, she said, but an increasing number of people do not have the skills to cook (let alone grow or raise) their food. We need to bring back the home-maker, Hayes told the crowd of professional women, who – to her surprise – burst into applause.

In Radical Homemakers, Hayes examines the political and economic forces that promote consumption over creation, that drive people from home life toward a corporate and work-centered existence – what Hayes calls the “extractive economy” – and contrasts it with a more interdependent, family-centered approach. Having a job (or two), Hayes argues, gives an illusion of security but, as she said in an interview, “one angry boss and the income stream was gone.” Being able to manage on your own – growing food, being able to do home repairs, bartering with neighbors for goods and services – may afford more security, and it’s often more satisfying.

In the second half of the book, Hayes profiles 20 households that are “radical homemakers,” people who grow food, barter, have carpentry skills, and are not married to their work. Radical Homemaking is a manifesto, urging people to reclaim their homes (and gardens) and the domestic sphere as valuable.

Grow the Good Life: Why A Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise by Michelle Owens (Rodale Press, 2011) is in some ways a book in a different class from the three others reviewed here. Owens is a co-founder of the popular blog Garden Rant, a writer for O magazine, and for years, her vegetable garden was at her second home in upstate New York. My guess is, she has indoor plumbing.

And, that’s fine –most of us don’t want to tough it out just to eat fresh vegetables, and Owens’ argument is that gardening can “seamlessly fit into the normal insanity of modern life.”  She sees the reluctance of Americans to grow vegetables not as a corporate conspiracy, a la Hayes, but a marketing problem. Gardening is made to look harder than it really is, she notes correctly, and most households could and should have a garden.

For the bulk of the book, Owens combines personal stories with data to explain why growing a vegetable garden saves money, improves health, adds to the beauty of your landscape, is good for the earth and children, and will make gardeners themselves happier. I can’t argue with anything Owens says (unlike each of the earlier writers) and maybe that’s why this book struck me as a bit blah. It’s a nice looking book and a relatively quick read – the kind of book to pass on to someone who needs just a little encouragement to jump into gardening.





The Writer in the Garden

A Gardener’s Reading, 16 of 30

Edited by Jane Garmey (Algonquin Books, 1999)

Jane Garmey’s expansive collection of poems, essays and excerpts includes writers absolutely identified with a life in the dirt (Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Lawrence, Katharine S. White) as well as those whose fame grew from prose not plants (Jamaica Kincaid, Charles Kuralt, M.F.K. Fisher, Alexander Pope). Taken as a whole, it’s a rich collection – the kind of book you’ll dip in and out of for years.

The opening essay is from one of my favorite garden books ever, and its opening lines hint at what readers can expect from the rest of the book. “A garden, like a life, is composed of moments,” writes Janice Emily Bauer in A Full Life in a Small Place. “I wish mine would always be as it is right now, this late afternoon at the end of March.”

The Writer in the Garden is composed of many meaningful moments – from Joseph Wood Krutch’s description of February in New Englands as “the 3 a.m. of the calendar” to E.B. White’s poignant recollection of his wife, the Katharine White mentioned above, sitting in a director’s chair, dressed in an old coat, hunched against the wind, but determined to oversee the planting of hundreds of spring bulbs she would never see bloom, to Reginald Farrer’s wise advice (delivered in 1908, no less) “to those about to build a water garden – DON’T!”

Garmey’s editing keeps each moment brief and beautiful. Many of the 60-plus essays run only a page or two, but they are often the heart of larger works. The writers are opinionated, sentimental, harsh, determined and occasionally flawed in their approaches to their gardens and to life. Whether you are a writer or a gardener or both, this essay collection is bound to inspire your efforts.