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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Two book reviews

I think there are two types of how-to garden books. One type focuses on techniques and one type focuses on the needs of specific plants.

Mel Bartholomew came bursting on the garden scene over 30 years ago with his technique of Square Foot Gardening. I have visited many gardens that use his raised bed, grid organized system out here in the country, and I have seen it in front yards when we have visited our son in Cambridge. This year, Bartholomew has come out with the “Square Foot Gardening Answer Book” (Cool Springs Press $16.99) that he says was inspired by the questions that some dubious gardeners ask, and that others ask because they feel the need for more information.

Bartholomew has an easy conversational style and he explains his technique with all the detail a gardener will need. His system is based on contained raised beds. The bed structure can be made of naturally rot-resistant wood, cinder blocks or composite materials, but he does advise against using treated lumber. In fact, he embraces all organic principles including avoiding pesticides and herbicides.

His technique does not require tilling. His boxes are laid on the ground, possibly the lawn, and after laying down high-grade landscape cloth to kill grass and weeds, he fills the box with Mel’s Mix: 1 part blended compost, 1 part peat moss and 1 part coarse vermiculite. Those who believe we should not be harvesting and using peat moss because of environmental concerns will not like this mix, but he is quite adamant about how well it supports vegetable and flower growth.

Bartholomew advises using strips of wood or vinyl that will permanently divide the box into square-foot sections that can each be planted efficiently with a single crop. Organic gardeners sing the praises of mixed plantings like this because an infestation of a harmful insect or a disease is less like to take hold. Those squares also encourage replanting after a crop is harvested, thus increasing your annual harvest.

He doesn’t recommend watering with any kind of hose, preferring to water by hand with a bucket and cup. He acknowledges this might seem time consuming but feels it is part of keeping a close eye on your plantings.

Obviously, in any book that focuses on technique you may find elements that you question. In the “Answer Book.” Bartholomew explains his rationales. His technique has been so successful that the state of Utah now has a square-foot garden at most of its elementary schools, and square-foot gardens are being planted around the world. Teaching about home gardening and producing more fresh food locally has got to be a good thing.

Jacqueline Heriteau and Holly Hunter Stonehill, along with Liz Ball, James Fizzell and Joe Lamp’l, have put together the “New England Gardener’s Handbook: All you need to know to plan, plant and maintain a New England garden” (Cool Springs Press $24.99) that focuses on the plants that will thrive in the our soil and climate.

Heriteau and Stonehill have been gardening and cooking together for many years; they are mother and daughter. Ball, Fizzell and Lamp’l will be familiar to many gardeners from their other books, lectures and TV appearances and shows.

This encyclopedic book is divided into sections covering annuals, bulbs, shrubs, ground covers, vegetables, trees and more. Each of these sections includes general cultural information followed by photographs and specific information about a selection of appropriate plants. For example, the perennial section begins with artemesia and finishes with yarrow. This is followed by a month-by-month description of what is happening, including bloom season, and what the gardener should be doing and thinking about throughout the season. They also make suggestions about plant combinations.

Because this book is devoted to New England gardens and gives clear zone information (even though they acknowledge that every garden may have its own microclimate), it is really useful for the new gardener.

A final appendix has more general information about pests and diseases and the way to control them. I was familiar with most of them but there is always something new to learn about controls like sabadilla. I had never heard of this but it is made from the ground-up seeds of the sabadilla plant and it can control caterpillars, Mexican bean beetle and thrips.

They also have advice about dealing with larger pests like bears! Also, of course, deer and moles and voles and rabbits.

The “New England Gardener’s Handbook” is illustrated with beautiful and instructive photographs. “The Square Foot Gardening Answer Book” is illustrated with decorative and instructive drawings.

Both of these books give general and particular information and advice, which makes them perfect for the new gardener. On the other hand, many experienced gardeners are interested in trying new ideas or new plants. I know from my own experience that we older gardeners are looking at shrubs with a new eye and the expectation that they will lessen our labor and add new beauty to our borders.

What kinds of gardeners are on your gift list? Inexperienced? Open to new ideas and plants? Both of these books fill the bill.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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