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Book Review: The Alternative Kitchen Garden

Recently on Twitter, You Grow Girl asked for thoughts on getting your gardening mojo back. Seeing that took me back to my early gardening days when I was just starting to dig in the soil and see for myself what all the fuss was about. We'd recently moved into an old farmhouse in Michigan, and to me the yard looked like a blank slate. There was no vegetable garden, but I slipped one in along a fence line and planted the usual suspects: tomatoes, beans, basil, and peppers. I sat out next to the garden just watching the plants grow, the sun set, and the barn swallows come around while our cat napped in the tall grass near the edge. (We've never been big on mowing.) I took notes on everything and read every book my husband's uncle would lend me, and then some. It was great.

But, it all felt a bit standard. Tidy rows of vegetables with a few flowers and herbs were all very nice, but it seemed a little...boring. Maybe it was too tidy and orderly for my taste, but I got tired of that standard line-up in fairly short order. Then I checked out Sally Cunningham's Great Garden Companions from the library, and my world changed forever. I began planting not only in rows but in circles. I mixed herbs, flowers, and vegetables in the same area (gasp!), and my garden began bursting at the seams with blossoms, bounty, and lots of bees, birds, and butterflies. I was hooked. I drew up charts, made lists, kept a garden journal. When we moved to our own home a few years later with a bigger garden, fruit trees and chickens, I entered a kind of personal heaven. It was impossible to be bored.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma Cooper could well be a similar book producing similar results. For gardeners feeling like it's getting to be a bit of the "same old, same old" even as those seed catalogs come pouring in, this could put the heat back in your compost pile, so to speak. An A-Z guide of ideas for the garden and home, The Alternative Kitchen Garden informs and inspires. Like any good gardening book should do, it had me jotting down notes about things to research (trefoil as a green manure), things to purchase (borage is the newest perennial to be added with comfrey to follow in short order), and things to do (interplant chamomile to improve soil). In short, it gave me a boost after a difficult growing season when I needed it to start planning for the season ahead.

Cooper is based in the UK, which means that most of her advice is geared toward those gardening there, but I still found plenty to pique my interest. The book is now, of course, littered with notes not just for this review, but for my garden, too. I daresay, as well, that the next time we venture to that other island I'll be visiting some of the places she mentions in the book - the RISC Roof Garden springs to mind as does Garden Organic's demonstration gardens in Ryton - and I've already begun trying to persuade friends there to join the latter's seed library.

What I really liked best about the book, though, is Cooper's way of telling what's happening inside the plant or under the surface of the soil. As an organic gardener and farm-assistant, I'm curious to know these things. I don't rely on chemical pesticides or fertilizers at all, and so I need to know how to best create an environment that my plants can grow in. It means feeding the soil, inviting wildlife, and monitoring for pests and disease. Advice such as "Build your wildlife from the ground up." (pg. 37) reminds me that my garden is really a whole swirling mass of living beings of which the vegetables are perhaps just the most conspicuous. I need the whole suite of companions to make it really amazing.

Cooper's explanations are delivered in a chatty manner that could (but does not) detract from the quality of the information offered. Stories of her own misadventures, discoveries, and successes form the foundation of the information here, which gives it a 'truthiness' that is appealing. Clearly, she's an expert in her field, but like me she's continuing to learn and her willingness to share the resulting knowledge makes this book feel like a useful reference as well as an "over the fence conversation." Chapters with titles such as Happiness and Years could come off as syrupy and sentimental, but instead strike a chord with gardeners everywhere: "Seeing the sparrows swooping onto the patio to feed among my containers makes me smile,and so does the blackbird - although he digs through the soil and makes more of a mess!" (pg. 121)

While sometimes limited by the amount of space available (two pages for each letter of the alphabet) the book offers a goodly amount of information without being overwhelming. The chapter on tubers, for example, contains a nice bit of technical language that kept me on my toes, but also glued to the page. I had no idea tubers were "plant storage organs...that keep plants alive when they're dormant and allow them to burst into life and grow leaves" that are really "modified plant stems." (pg. 296) It sounds logical now, but who would have thought? Similarly, while I had a basic knowledge of why hardening off plants helps ensure their success I did not know exactly what was happening inside the plant. And the chapter on xanthopyll offered paragraph after paragraph of solid information on sources of leaf discoloration with some good advice for amelioration, too.

I also quite liked the creative connections Cooper makes to things that at first glance might be considered non-gardening (hence the title, I suppose) such as Zero Waste, Freecycle, Footprints, Climate Change, and Osteopath. Some, like Freecycle, are good ways to cheaply find supplies, meet neighbors and reduce the carbon footprint of the garden itself. Climate Change advises gardeners to " your own seeds so that your vegetables adapt to your local conditions" as well as to "...make your garden wildlife friendly so that you have a robust garden ecosystem that has the best chance of adapting to changing conditions." (pg. 53) Others, such as Osteopath, offer advice to ensure the ability to continue gardening in a healthy manner.

Perhaps the only downside to The Alternative Kitchen Garden is the self-imposed brevity of the explanations. A good chunk of one of the allotted two pages is taken up by a photograph, which while lovely (U is perhaps my favorite) might be better smaller to allow more room for writing. There were moments (xanthophyll and mulch, for example) where things felt a bit rushed or awkwardly stretched (marigolds, perhaps) to accommodate the space. These were rare moments, though, and didn't detract from my overall enjoyment and learning.

As a gardener, I like a challenge. (I wouldn't be out there in all weather if I didn't.) New vocabulary, new ideas, new techniques, etc., is what I'm hoping for when I open a gardening book and often what I need now and again, too. Offering these things to gardeners at all stages of experience, in a variety of sizes, types, and locations is the challenge of a broad-themed book like this one, but one that The Alternative Kitchen Garden meets admirably.

by Emma Cooper
376 pages


fer said…
sounds very interesting. I shall keep on the look for it
Cathy said…
Major post Joan - seems like you can write just fine in January! I always enjoy 'hearing' your voice. But hey - you have an ad on your blog? You growing up girl!
It is a really interesting book, fer, and well worth the time to read, too. I anticipate that it will become quite worn in this next year even.

Thanks, Cathy! January has been rough, though. Some exciting things happening, and at times I feel like I can't quite keep up. :)

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