Three Books for Beginning Veg Gardeners in the North

A few years ago (gosh, it was 10!), I did a list of best books for beginning gardeners, with a focus on vegetable gardening. Those books are still good options, but several more recent books are really worth adding to your collection. And, any of them would make a wonderful gift for a young gardener just starting out.

vegetable garden bookThe Homegrown Pantry (Storey Publishing, 2017) by Barbara Pleasant is the perfect book for a vegetable gardener who also loves to cook (and isn’t that most of us?). It’s also great for gardeners who aren’t sure how much to grow and want to make the most of their space, their time in the garden and their time in the kitchen. The focus of this book is both on growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, and on storing and processing them. It’s full of the kind of information your grandma learned from her mom, but updated for modern homes, kitchens and gardens.

The books starts with an explanation of why it’s good to grow your own produce, then covers basic storing and preserving techniques, including useful photos and step-by-step methods. The bulk of the book covers veg-by-veg information on how much to grow, best varieties and best ways to preserve the vegetable. For instance, she recommends growing five sweet pepper plants and 2 hot pepper plants per person. (I’d half that number for each child.) Then suggests varieties such as ‘Sweet Banana’ and ‘Early Jalapeno’. She covers when to plant them, how to care for them during the season and common pests and diseases to watch out for. She then explains how to dry, pickle and make sauce with them. Every vegetable and fruit gets this in-depth treatment.

Pleasant lives in Virginia, but her growing recommendations are based on frost-dates, so it’s easy to modify instructions for a northern climate. If you think this book might be too much for your newbie gardener, consider Starter Vegetable Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2010), also by Pleasant, which includes 24 plans for a beginner’s vegetable garden. One of the plans is specifically for shorter-season gardens.

The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest (Timber Press, 2015) by Michael VanderBrug is the perfect gardener’s Christmas gift because your favorite gardener can start using it in January. The book takes gardeners, month-by-month, through the year with what-to-do-when instructions. VanderBrug is a professional gardener who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so he knows cold. What I loved about this book is how well he explained the various climate zones of the Midwest and modified his instructions based on which zone a gardener is in. This is a basic vegetable gardening book, covering soil, watering, ways to trellis plants, seed starting and all the how-tos that go into vegetable gardening. The book also includes a helpful chart on when to plant and harvest each vegetable as well as variety recommendations specifically for Midwestern gardeners.

I did a mini-review of John Whitman’s Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates, (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) about a year ago. Since then Whitman received the Gold Award from GWA, the organization of garden writers and communicators (beating out both my book and Pleasant’s). I’m a bit on the fence about recommending this book to a complete beginner, but if your gardener likes a thorough explanation of how to grow vegetables in the North and is committed to organic methods—this is your guide.

Whitman offers comprehensive information on everything from amending the soil when you start a garden to how to grow edamame organically in Minnesota. It’s the kind of book your new gardener will return to again and again as experience and love of gardening grows.

Two New Garden Books to Read

There are so many solid gardening books out now that it’s hard to keep up with them. Here are mini-reviews of two that I’ve read lately and appreciate.

The Wellness Garden

Chicago-area gardener, writer and blogger Shawna Coronado recently came out with a new book on her experiences gardening with chronic disease. Called The Wellness Garden: How to Grow, Eat and Walk Your Way to Better Health (Cool Springs Press, 2017), it describes how she used food, gardening and walking to deal with extreme chronic pain.  The book begins with her own health journey. Coronado was diagnosed with severe degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, which made gardening and other activities incredibly painful. Working with a nutritionist, she changed how she eats, banning grains, sugars and dairy from her diet and adding in more wholesome fats (avocados, seeds, etc.) and organic vegetables. This anti-inflammatory diet reduced her pain levels significantly, and she was able to add walking 60 minutes a day and yoga, as well as gardening, to her health routine over time.

For gardeners, the book offers encouragement and advice on growing foods organically and extending the gardening season so you can enjoy healthy homegrown vegetables for much of the year. She also offers wonderful tips on growing food in raised containers to reduce stooping and bending as well as how to use tools in ways that are less likely to cause injury or pain. These techniques are thoroughly illustrated and explained—and should be mandatory reading for gardeners over 50. Some of the gardening information may be familiar to experienced gardeners, but Coronado’s focus on health and exercise makes this a unique book for gardeners. It also recognizes and celebrates something many of us know in our hearts—physically, emotionally and spiritually, gardening heals.

For those with health concerns, especially chronic disease, the book offers a well-researched road map to improved well-being. I loved that Coronado rebutted some of the silly health claims floating around the internet. Her advice about a vegetable-heavy diet, yoga for improved mental health and walking as a way to strengthen and heal the body is given with clarity, kindness, enthusiasm and appropriate caveats about seeking medical advice for your specific condition. My only quibble is I wish she had included a menu of what she eats each day—I think that would have helped readers understand how to put the diet together better. But that is minor. Overall, this is an inspiring book for anyone who wants to be healthier and knows that can be achieved in the garden.

Fresh from the Garden

I was happy to attend the Terrace Horticultural Book Awards event earlier this year for John Whitman, author of Fresh From the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). John has written or co-written several other guides for northern gardeners and is an expert at getting the most from your garden. His books are known for being thorough and well researched.

Fresh from the Garden is a comprehensive guide to growing vegetables in the North. Whitman begins with more than 100 pages of instructions on everything from building soil to growing vegetables in containers, raised beds and straw bales as well as thorough descriptions of seed types, seed starting procedures, transplanting, watering, staking and just about anything else you need to know to grow a good vegetable garden. The remainder of the book is a plant-by-plant list of what you might grow in a northern vegetable garden.

Each chapter covers growing needs, seed selection and starting, diseases and pests as well as mulching, thinning or pruning, if needed. It also includes lists of varieties of each vegetable that grow well in the North. I plan to use this as a reference as I’m selecting seeds and deciding what to grow in next year’s garden.  It’s also helpful for plants you have had problems with in the past as Whitman covers so many of the possible problems you might have with each plant.

For a dedicated vegetable gardener, this would be a fantastic gift and eventually a well-worn reference from a source you can trust.

What books are you gardening books are you reading now?




Book Review: Growing Perennials in Cold Climates

A Gardener’s Reading, seventh of 30

By Mike Heger, John Whitman and Debbie Lonnee (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

For many northern gardeners, the 1998 edition of Growing Perennials in Cold Climates has been the go-to reference for which plants to grow and how to care for them for more than a decade. That edition is still valuable, but for die-hard plant lovers, this revision and update is well worth the nearly $40 it costs.

growing perennials in cold climates coverAs I noted in a review of the book in the November/December issue of Northern Gardener, this edition has all the virtues of the original plus expanded plant lists and a rating system that helps gardeners choose among the dozens of plant cultivars that have been introduced in the past 13 years.

Like the previous edition, the revised book includes basic information on how to plant and maintain perennials. The bulk of the book is a perennial-by-perennial assessment of plants that are hardy to the North. What is most valuable are the long lists of cultivars of each variety and the authors’ five-star rating system, which gives gardeners vital information of which among the new plants are keepers and which are just good-lookers in the spring catalogs. For plant types with dozens (daylilies, hostas, coneflowers) of cultivars, the ratings will help home gardeners pick through the hype.

The authors are all respected plant-people with years of experience in northern climates. Heger owns the Ambergate Gardens nursery in Chaska; Whitman is a long-time garden writer and photographer; and Lonnee is a horticulturist who works with plants introduced by Minnesota-based wholesaler Bailey Nurseries Inc. In other words, these guys know their plants.

Growing Perennials in Cold Climates is first and foremost a reference, and it is one you will find yourself reaching for again and again as you plan and care for your perennial gardens.

Best Books for Beginning Vegetable Gardeners

I haven’t done any kind of comprehensive review of vegetable gardening books, but I read a lot and I love books on cooking and gardening the most. While there is a lot of gardening information on the internet, not all of it is trustworthy, besides sometimes a book just feels right in your hands.

If I were just starting a vegetable garden, there are two types of books I’d want.

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.)

Fresh from garden bookUpdate from 2018: If you live in the North, check out John Whitman’s new vegetable book, Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Herbs and Berries in Cold Climates (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). This is a comprehensive guide to growing food in cold climates and would provide all the information a beginning gardener needs. The book won a Gold Medal in the 2017 GWA: Association for Garden Communicators awards. The truth is, my book (The Northern Gardener, from Apples to Zinnias) was nominated in the same category. I did not mind losing to John’s great achievement.


A When-to-Do-What Book

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.

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