I decided some time ago that I did not want to be a reviewer of books. I’m a hyper-critical reader, and while I know that there are always some positives to draw on —if a book was published by a reputable press, it has merit no matter what my tastes or biases—sometimes it’s just hard work. And when I really engage with a book, I’m often inclined to just want to savour it without pondering why.
However, when I was offered a gardening book for review right in the midst of hands-in-the-dirt and heard the title, No Guff Vegetable Gardening, I didn’t resist. I’ve been growing vegetables since I was old enough to drop chunks of seed potato into the cleft in the earth made by the spade of the adult I was following. At a family gathering a few years ago, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years asked me if I had a garden. He remembered my mom’s garden so vividly, he said. I knew he was not nostalgic over geraniums or dusty miller, but was recalling the long rows of peas and beans, the hills of potatoes, and the first crisp radishes of the season. I was almost embarrassed to admit that my “garden” is primarily tall trees, a pond, pathways through perennial beds, and only a few raised beds in sunny corners for the greens, pole beans and tomatoes that are the sum total of the vegetables I can successfully grow after years of trial and error. Nevertheless, I do persist and most years I’m rewarded with a good crop of beans, lettuce and chard through most of the summer and into fall, and boxes of late-ripening tomatoes wrapped in newspaper in the basement. The last three summers in Calgary have been wickedly difficult for growing hot weather crops. We’ve had frost and snow well into May, summers wetter than I can remember for decades back, and winter galloping in with a vengeance by early October. I was open to any kind of tips on out-smarting Ma Nature or just optimizing the microclimate in my garden.
I had confidence in the book before it even arrived. The authors are Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs. Donna Balzer is a well-known Calgary garden guru, and I’ve enjoyed her gardening advice on CBC radio and in local newspapers and magazines for many years. Steven Biggs is a Toronto gardener with a comparable reputation for straightforward advice. My first impression of the book was that it was a visual feast; big, bright and full of colourful photos and graphics, and somewhat kooky design.
I approached this book wondering what it would teach an old gardener like me. In fact, I admit that I approached it wondering why anyone would need a big fat book in order to grow carrots. On my first quick read through the book, I was reminded of how complicated gardening has become in 2011. Any time I flip through a gardener’s catalogue or magazine, it seems to me there are simply too many choices to be made. A novice gardener could be totally befuddled by the plethora of advice on the very basics of soil, crop selection and garden planning, feeding, and tools. Enter “Guff”, the cartoon character who pops up throughout the book to spew dogmatic advice, which the two authors refute in a she says/he says format, not always in agreement but always presenting their opinions in a highly readable and practical way.
This is a sensible book that de-mystifies vegetable gardening and takes it back to the pleasurable. The advice is straightforward and makes sense. The topics are arranged from soil to harvest and as hard as I thought about it, I could not come up with one question left unanswered. This is a compendium of basic vegetable gardening knowledge with a whole lot of humour and additional tips. The one complaint I have about the book is around the very thing that impressed me in the beginning, the design. The book is wide and floppy and I found I could only read it if I was sitting comfortably and had it spread on my lap or a table. This is not one to carry around for reading in spare moments on trains and planes. Neither does it lend itself to be carried outside and grabbed up for a quick glance in the garden. I found the numerous fonts and the many columns and sections and mix of graphics and photos throughout a little confusing. If one sits down to read the book cover to cover, the format is fine, but for searching for specific pieces of information, not nearly so effective as a more straightforward presentation would be. But on the positive side of the design, I think that in spite of the detailed and fairly sophisticated information, the graphics and the format would make this a fun book for introducing kids to vegetable gardening. And I remain firm in my belief that every child should know that a carrot grows under the ground and should have the opportunity to poke spinach seeds into the spring soil and watch them sprout.
No Guff Vegetable Gardening would make a great family gift, and I think would be happily devoured by anyone yearning for some fresh-from-my-own- garden salad.