Passalong Plants

More than any other book, I can see Passalong Plants as a blog. The book is a collection of short essays (posts) focusing on an individual plant. Each entry has a snappy title and all contain a very personal story about encounters with said plant. Nothing formal or academic about Passalong Plants and yet the information is the best kind…words of experience. Most entries have a photograph. Doesn’t that sound like blog format?

Steve Bender (who gardens in Birmingham, AL) and Felder Rushing (who gardens in Jackson, MI) write in a determinedly folksy style, heavily laced with southern drawl. I can just imagine lounging on the front porch, as water condenses on the tall glasses of iced tea, listening to the pair of them tell one interesting plant story after another.

I don’t have to imagine too hard because I had the good fortune to have lunch with Felder Rushing in 1995, the day after he had a book signing at the local garden club. I’d bought three copies of Passalong Plants, one each for me and my two best friends at work. One of those friends just happens to know the owners of Barton Springs Nursery who just happen to know Felder Rushing and the next thing I knew we were all eating Mexican food at ZuZu’s on Bee Caves Rd. His stories were just as funny in real life. I remember especially his attempts to obtain a cutting of variegated St. Augustine grass from a little old lady who had discovered it in her garden.

Before I bought my own copy of Passalong Plants, I’d read the library copy several times. As a beginning gardener I found the writing style a reassuring antidote to all those stuffy books on English or Connecticut gardens. Most importantly, the plants discussed were plants I had growing in my yard and in my neighborhood. And they celebrated the same wacky aesthetic sensibility (bottle trees, pink flamingoes, tire planters) that my neighborhood is infamous for. In short, they spoke my language.

“Jeff McCormack, who runs the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange…describes the fragrance as reminiscent of strawberry and cantaloupe when the flower first opens, changing to burgundy wine and then spiced apples as it ages…I’ll stick to my description of the scent as similar to that of Juicy-Fruit Gum. Vintage 1979 Juicy-Fruit gum, to be exact. — Steve Bender

Passalong Plants didn’t influence just my plant choices for the next 10 years. It influenced the way I wrote about gardening. When I began Zanthan Gardens in 2001, I was primarily interested in writing up Plant Profiles, my own reports on how plants fared in Austin. My layout is loosely borrowed from Passalong Plants: a sidebar with some plant factoids, a photograph or two, and the story of my own experience with the plant. I’m not as funny or as informative of Messrs. Bender and Rushing–but they had an unmistakable influence, don’t you think? Pure inspiration!

“…a bottle tree, what the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture describes as “the poor person’s stained glass window.” I’m not exactly poor, and I’m not looking for a stained glass window, but I do have a bottle tree in my back yard. It’s a stunning specimen, if I do say so myself, composed of rare, cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles. Some folks use plastic milk of magnesia bottles, but these are shoddy efforts.” — Felder Rushing

Rereading the book has been such a joy. I’d forgotten how many plants I’d tried on their recommendation. The point of a passalong plant is that it has to be easy, easy to grow and easy to propagate. Unless a plant is kin to a weed, its chances surviving me are pretty much doomed.

I decided that the best way to demonstrate just how important Passalong Plants has been to my garden development was to make several lists of plants described in the book. The first is the list of plants that were already in my 50 year old yard and thriving without any need of a gardener’s intervention. The second is the list of plants that the book encouraged me to seek out and try. The final list is plants passed along to me…not all the plants I’ve received, just the one’s described in the book.

Leafing through the book I see I have a lot more plants to try and these days I know a lot more gardeners that I can beg passalongs from.

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Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners

I’ve forgotten where I picked up my original copy of Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners. I suspect it was one of those books that Margaret thoughtfully tucks into our Christmas box. However, browsing Half Price Books, I was excited to find a hardcover edition. My paperback is the 1977 second American printing from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The hardcover edition is an 1998 Ecco Press reprint. Its pages looked fresh and the binding sturdy. I snapped it up.

Looking at it more carefully at home, I noticed the new book was actually a reprint of two works, the second being Bridget Boland’s 1977 Gardeners’ Magic. It was only then that I realized that the new book was named Gardeners’ Lore instead of the original Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners.

That change takes the punch out of the brilliant opening line, “We are not Old Wives ourselves, being in fact old spinsters; nor are we professional gardeners in any sense.. The readers of the Ecco edition must wonder what in the world they are talking about.

And the new title destroys the focus of the book as a celebration of hand-me-down wisdom.

We began to ask all our friends, wherever they lived, for the sort of lore their grandmothers had passed down to them. Modern scientific gardening books we read, of course; but we found in old books too so much practical advice of the grandmotherly kind that the new books never covered that we decided to pass it all on to those who are not afraid of finding a certain amount of superstition mingled with good sense.”

The new book is a facsimile reprint. However, there is one glaring omission. A paragraph has been whited out. There is no explanation for the edit; no indication that this reprint is actually abridged. I might never have noticed it except that it was a story that had stuck in my mind and I looked it up one day to quote it in a comment. And it wasn’t there. I was so angry that I gave the book away.

Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners
The edited page.

Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners
The original page. I’ve typed out the missing paragraph below.

We once read of a family in France who were said to bury the unwanted babies of maidens in the villagery under their vines, presumably on the same principle. but let it not be said that we actually advocate this.

The Gardener’s Year

Note: This review is for the Garden Blogger Book Club over at Carol’s May Dreams Gardens. The Gardener’s Year is one of my favorite books and I’m glad Carol pushed me to finally review it.

In this small book, with chapters not much longer than the average blog post, Karel Capek speaks the universal language of gardeners, a language that connects us across the decades and continents. What does it matter that he wrote 80 years ago and tended his plot in Prague, or that he introduced the word “robot” into our vocabularies? If you are a gardener, you will see yourself on every page, nod your head in agreement, and spend a lot of time laughing.

Your relation toward things has changed. If it rains you say it rains on the garden; if the sun shines, it does not shine just anyhow, but it shines on the garden… p 10

The chapters for each month are intertwined with essays on what it means to be a gardener, how one becomes a gardener, the gardener’s complaints on the weather, searching for signs of spring (crocuses and seed catalogs), the trials of gardeners on vacation, how a gardener’s physiology should have evolved, the envy and lust of gardeners, the importance of soil, the gardener’s prayer for rain (gently every day from midnight until 3AM but not on the drought-loving plants), the pain of choosing among the offerings in seed catalogs, the restlessness to be doing something in the garden in winter, and the miracles of seeds.

The Gardener’s Year is a quick and easy read. You will breeze through it. Maybe you won’t think much of it…until you are attacked by your garden hose, or waiting for the grass to sprout, or sifting through conflicting advice in gardening books. Then you’ll realize that almost every sentence is a gem. So, although it is small, don’t rush through it. Or read it once and then go back and read it again, savoring it.

I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil…the gardener is not a man who smells a rose, but who is persecuted by the idea that “the soil would like some lime”…A rose in flower is, so to speak, only for dillittanti; the gardener’s pleasure is deeper rooted, right in the womb of the soil. After his death the gardener does not become a butterfly, intoxicated by perfumes of flowers, but a garden worm tasting all the dark, nitrogenous, and spicy delights of the soil.–p. 34-37

snake in her hand

Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion… –p. 13

There are times when the gardener wishes to cultivate, turn over, and compound all the noble soils, ingredients, and dungs…Only cowardly shame prevents the gardener from going into the street to collect what horses have left behind; but whenever he sees on the roadway a nice heap of dung, he sighs at the waste of God’s gifts. –pp 31-33

This is one of Nature’s mysteries–how from the best grass seed most luxuriant and hairy weeds come up; perhaps weed seed ought to be sown and then a nice lawn would result. –p. 9

We gardeners live somehow for the future; if roses are in flower, we think that next year they will flower better…Each successive year will add growth and beauty. Thank God that again we shall be one year farther on! –p. 160

Ten Acres Enough

In the sixties Edmund Morris wrote a slim book about how he gave up city life i. his native Philadelphia and moved, with his wife and six kids, back to the land. He used half his life savings to purchase a small farm in New Jersey outright. Although he had no previous farming experience, he had spent years beforehand reading everything he could about farming, talking to farmers at the market, and visiting farms. Within three years he had made more money than he’d manage to save in his previous twenty. He owed no rent and his family ate well off what the farm produced. He believed so firmly that he had found a practical path to comfort and security that he wrote Ten Acres Enough to explain how he did it and encourage others to follow his example. The year was 1864–almost a hundred years before Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, The Mother Earth News, and the Whole Earth Catalogs.

Edmund Morris had studied the economics of the westward movement. Out west land was cheaper but corn and wheat brought low prices at the market and there was the trouble of freighting them there. He decided it made more business sense to grow berries and soft fruits to sell to the Philadelphia and New York markets.

I’m fascinated with the details of this book in the same way I’m delighted with the descriptions of daily life in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books which describe a much more primitive life two decades later. Edmund Morris kept very exact accounts and shares them with us.

He planted 804 peach trees, six acres of strawberries, two acres of raspberries, one acre in tomatoes, one in clover, and the remaining in miscellaneous vegetables such as cabbages and pumpkins. His wife and eldest daughter were in charge of a large vegetable garden. Whenever they went to town to shop, they took their surplus to the town general store to sell on consignment. At the end of the year when they settled up their grocery account, they were surprised to discover that the merchant owed them money.

Edmund Morris was an advocate of what we call the “French intensive” method of gardening. He believed in digging deep and adding a lot of organic material. He collected leaves from all over the neighborhood and built huge composting trenches. And he believed, more than anything, in the power of manure. His biggest expense ($248) for manure. When you consider that his 11 acres and the house cost $1000 and that he paid his live-in help an annual salary of $144…it’s mind-boggling. Eventually he embarked in a system of manure production in which he bought spring calves which he raised to maturity and then sold, not for the profit on the cows (which was about $2) but for the manure they produced (saving him $248). He developed a system of watering his crops with manure tea by putting a large watering tank on wheels.

Morris was ahead of his time in his views on birds and dedicates an entire chapter to explain how beneficial they are to farmers and gardeners, who considered them pests and thieves. When he discovers “three great, overgrown boobies, with guns in their hands, trampling down my strawberries, and shooting bluebirds and robins,” he evicts them. “I suggested to them that I thought their own township was quite large enough to keep its own loafers, without sending them to depredate on me, warned them never to show themselves on my premises again, and then drove them out.” Another time a neighboring farmer was killing some birds in his wheat field. To prove that the birds did more good than harm, they “opened up its crop, and found in it two hundred weevils, and but four grains of wheat, and in these four grains the weevil had burrowed!”

He embraced innovation and science. While still living in Philadephia he had invested almost $1 a piece for six root cuttings of a newly discovered and improved blackberry (discovered in 1834 by Lewis Secor but made famous by William Lawton)–known as the Lawton or New Rochelle blackberry. He felt cheated when the plants came in a letter, “mere fibres of a greater root–certainly not thicker than a thill quill, not one of them having a top. They looked like long white worms, with here and there a bud or eye.” Two summers later “they bore a crop of fruit which astonished me. From the group of bushes I picked fifteen quarts of berries superior to any thing of the kind we had ever eaten.” When he moved to the farm, he brought 200 blackberry plants with him. His neighbors laughed at him for planting blackberries that grew in every hedgerow and which they struggled to dig out. However, when he sold the superior fruit at market at high prices, they clamored for plants. He ended up selling $460 worth of blueberry plants which is what put him in the black his first year on the farm.

He faced problems with his tomato crop because early and late tomatoes fetched a high price at the market but in mid-season the market was glutted. Morris describes as hopeful the new technique for tinning tomatoes so that they can be preserved for winter use and save the waste of letting them rot in the fields when the effort to ship them to market is not worth the gain. He marvels at the dexterity of the tinmen who can solder lids on cans at the rate of almost 100 an hour.

Another problem was the expense of the cartons and cases required to ship his produce by train to the cities. A certain portion were not returned. He longs for some disposable form of packaging which would reduce his cost and perhaps encourage people who do not want to mess with returns to buy produce. Well, we all know where that led us.

I enjoyed this book so much that after checking it out from the library, I bought it for myself. The writing is a bit old-fashioned. And, especially in the last two chapters, it has the distinct tone of a proselytising self-help book. That was it’s aim, to encourage other people to go back-to-the-land. He includes plenty of details of his methods and lots of facts and figures. I’m stunned at the enormity of his labors but he seems to think life in the country is much easier than the stress of living in the city and “working for the landlord”.

Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime

Defiant Gardens bookcoverMy good friend KAT noticed that I began this gardening site the week of 9/11. In fact, on the morning of the attack I turned off my TV and went to the Natural Gardener to buy a cubic foot of Dillo Dirt just as I had planned. I spent the rest of the day feeding the roses. Do you think me callous? I think in times of great stress that it is natural that we turn to our gardens, to feel grounded so that we can regain balance, to feel a connection to the larger natural world that enables us to see with perspective, and most of all to find hope in the processes of germination and growth.

Why do you garden? Is it a leisure activity? a hobby? Gardening in this time and place is stripped of necessity. Cheaper food is to be had at the new Wal-Mart and those who argue against paving over farmland to build it and for paying higher prices for locally grown foods are considered a bit eccentric.

I garden neither from necessity nor simply for diversion. I garden from curiousity and compulsion. I garden because I must. And I feel guilty that I have this land and do so little to feed myself. My own garden is primarily decorative. At least it nourishes the spirit.

In Defiant Gardens Kenneth I. Helphand documents gardens tended in impossible places at impossible times: in the trenches of WWI battlefields, in the ghettos of WWII Poland, in the POW camps of Europe, in the civilian internment camps run by the Japanese in the Philippines and those run by the Americans in the USA. These are gardens of necessity, grown to feed starving bellies. But they are something more. They are acts of defiance. Helphand quotes Henry Mitchell’s famous line, “Defiance is what makes gardeners.” and expands upon it.

In an extreme situation beyond an individual’s control, such is common during war, the manifestation of he human ability to wield power over something is a potent reminder of our ability to withstand emotional despair and the forces of chaos. Gardens domesticate and humanize dehumanized situations. They offer a way to reject suffering, an inherent affirmation and sign of human perserverance. In contrast to war, gardens assert the dignity of life, human and nonhuman and celebrate it.

Kenneth Helphand writes many pages of analyses attempting to wrest meaning from the act of gardening under the most horrible conditions. The why seems obvious to me but he does a good job of articulating it. Still I prefer the more concrete descriptions–the answer to my questions of “How did they do it? How did they manage?” The book is at its best when he lets the gardeners speak for themselves. The quotes from letters and journals and the amazing photographs of gardeners who, in many cases, did not survive their imprisonments are mesmerizing, unforgettable.

Of the Minidoka internment camp Robert Hosokawa writes, “Bit by bit they brought home clumps of grass, mint plants, cattail, reeds and willows. Some found cactus, desert moss and bunchgrass. At first they placed these in bottles and brightened up their rooms. Few had gardens in mind but the materials increased and the idea grew. They carried home unusual formations of lava rock, dug gnarled grey sagebrush to plant as shrubbery along their porches. Children cornered little fish in the shallos of the canal and found rocklike mussels buried in soft silt.”

What of today? We have learned to defoliate the landscape with Agent Orange. We bulldoze olive groves that have stood for generations. Are there gardens in Bagdad? at Guantanamo? The American government does not allow them. Yet they grow.

Gardening With Heirloom Seeds

book coverOne of the joys of leafing through seed catalogs is reading and comparing the various descriptions and imagining what it would be like to grow (and in the case of vegetables) taste the offerings. Two of my favorite catalogs are Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds and Renee Shepherd’s Renee’s Garden Seeds. Both the catalogs and the seed packets of these firms are filled with descriptions and histories of old-fashioned seeds (mostly open-pollinated so that you can save them from year to year) in addition to extensive growing instructions…practically a blog entry on a packet.

Lynn Coulter’s Gardening With Heirloom Seeds expands on these catalogs, turning them into an attractive reference book with glossy photos on every page, many by David Cavagnaro. Unfortunately, many of the other photos are of Renee Gardens seed packets which give the book a strangely mercantile look. The information from nineteenth century seed catalogs is fascinating. I must remember to explain to AJM that I’m keeping all these old seed catalogs around to aid future historians.

For those of you who do not want to spend hours pouring over and comparing catalogs, Gardening with Heirloom Seeds provides a very convenient summary. The fifty plants are arranged by season and then alphabetically by common name, flower and vegetables mixed together indiscriminately just as they might be in your cottage garden.

Each entry begins with a history of the plant, then follows with short descriptions of several varieties, and ends with growing tips. I found the growing tips especially useful although they are somewhat biased toward gardeners in the northern US. Particularly the initial grouping of plants into a spring, summer, or fall gardens is confusing to us southern gardeners. Nigella is grouped in the summer garden but in Austin it sprouts in the fall with the larkspur and blooms at the same time in late spring. Pansies, snapdragons, and violas are the backbone of Austin’s winter flower gardens. In reading the essay on the winter garden Lynn Coulter’s observes, “Most gardeners will admit that they are not altogether sorry to see the end of the growing season.” my mind immediately jumps to Elizabeth Lawrence’s words in A Southern Garden.

“The garden year has no beginning and no end. There is not a time when everything is in bloom at once, nor is there a time when the box is wrapped in burlap and the borders covered in pine boughs. There is not time for the gardener to take a rest before beginning again. To follow the tradition of bloom in three seasons only is to miss the full meaning of gardening in a part of the world where at all times of the year there are days when it is good to be out of doors, when there is work to be done in the garden, and when there is some plant in perfection of flower or fruit.”

However, even for plants I’ve grown for years, I learned interesting tidbits from Lynn Coulter–that cosmos bloom best after the summer equinox and that larkspur seeds (which I collect every year) quickly lose viability after a year. There is a nice bibliography as well as a list of sources for heirloom seeds.

If you haven’t grown many plants from seed or if you are new to cottage gardening and heirloom flowers and vegetables, this book is a great introduction. As for me, it is an interesting jumping off point for looking back over my own notes and other reference books. The outside margins of the book are designed with a space for notes. If I owned this book, I’d certainly be scrawling points of agreement and disagreement. I’d even get out the yellow highlighter I use on my seed catalogs. I love comparing notes with other gardeners. Don’t you?

Other Sources
I frequently buy seed from Botanical Interests because I’m always tempted by the display near the checkout counter at Central Market. They also have great seed packets.

Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas

As the Govenor’s office of Economic Development and Tourism proclaims, “Texas, It’s Like a Whole Other Country®”. To Texas gardeners (despite the rest of the nation’s image of us as cactus and cowboys) Texas is a bunch of different countries–or at least climate regions. There’s the hot and humid Gulf coast of Houston and Corpus Christi. The piney woods in the east. The blackland prairie and hill country of central Texas. The high plains of the north. And the lush Rio Grande valley in the south. Oh, yeah. And somewhere way out in west Texas beyond the Pecos River is the desert southwest and mountains. So writing a book that covers gardening in Texas is quite the challenge.

Maybe because I garden deep in the heart of Texas where all the extremes average out, I found Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas to be pretty durn accurate. (Apparently there’s a redesigned 2005 edition but I’m reviewing th. 2000 edition which I found in the library.)

The book is divided alphabetically by type of plants (annuals, bulbs, houseplants, lawns, perennials, roses, shrubs, trees, vegetables, and vines) and then again by month. The advantage to this arrangement is that you can zero in on a specific type of plant you’re growing (for example, roses) see what you have to do each month of the year. It also allows some general information about each type of plant to be summarized at the beginning of the chapter.

The disadvantage is that if you want to see everything you should be doing in December for your lawn, roses, annuals, perennials, bushes….well you get the idea, then you have to jump from chapter to chapter. Fortunately there’s an index if you can’t immediately determine what category your plant is in. (The chapter on vines includes a miscellany of ground covers and even ornamental grasses.)

The book is concise and to the point…as the authors explain, “Think of this book as a large, expanded checklist.” It is one of the most practical gardening books I’ve ever come across. If you are live in Texas and are new to gardening, or if you are a long-time gardener who had just moved to Texas, I highly recommend it. As for me, I’m due for a refresher course and this a very comforting book to consult. Another quote, “New gardeners do not have the experience to know the rhythm of the seasons, and more knowledgeable gardeners often wish for a clear explanation of what to do at a particular time.”

Exactly! I started my garden diary because I knew the garden cycles in Austin were different than most books I read. Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas provides validation of what I’ve observed. And so it’s won my trust in areas that in which I have no experience. Any book that recognizes that Austin has two temperate growing seasons (late-March to mid-May and late-September to mid-November) which are interrupted by “brutally hot days” of summer obviously understands what it’s like to garden in Texas. Especially when it cautions, “There are no sharp boundaries between these seasons, and gardeners should always be aware that unusually high or low temperatures may occur at any time, especially during season transitions.” One observation of August is “Since it may be too hot to enjoy working in the garden, except in early morning or late afternoon, get out those spring bulb catalogs.” Another is, “At this time of year, this section should be called ‘dreaming’ not ‘planning’.”

The pages are pleasantly laid out and easy to read. There is neither too much information packed on a page nor excessive decoration on space-wasting eye-candy. Each 2-page spread includes subsections on planning, planting, care, watering, fertilizing, and pest control.

There is a lot of repetition which is a feature, not a flaw. The repetition enables you to skip to a specific point and find the information for month and type of plant without backtracking to information from the previous month.

The writing is straight-forward and informative. I wish I had had it when I started gardening in Texas.

Improve Your Gardening With Backyard Research

You wouldn’t be writing about your own garden if you weren’t an inquisitive sort of person, curious about what’s going on in your garden and why. Each of us knows our garden experience is unique and we blog about it to share our collective knowledge. In our frustration with garden books written for the general case, we observe and document and experiment and compare our experiences with our gardening friends.

Instead of simply documenting the development of the garden, what if you set up systematic trials to see what methods, plants, and soils work best for you? That is, what if you approached gardening (if I may use this word in 21st century America) scientifically. This ideal appeals to me because my attempts to grow plants is primarily about experimentation and only secondarily about decoration. Even in my actual landscapes I think of the world as a giant laboratory.

Lois Levitan’s Improve Your Gardening With Backyard Research give you ideas to explore and methods to explore them with. One important element of experimentation that I frequently lack is to have a “control”–something to use as a basis for comparison. For example, how do you know what ratio of brown to green materials heats up best in a compost pile unless you try different ratios?

And there are so many topics to explore in the garden. Compost. Weather. Comparing varieties of plants (like this year’s wonderful Hanna’s Tomato Tastings). Methods for dealing with pests. Composition of the soil. Companion planting. Methods for sowing seed.

My favorite discussion is on the energy efficiency of various crops–that is, does the amount of energy (in consumable calories, available proteins) exceed the amount of energy you put into growing it?

I found this to be a very inspiring book. Now if I can only get over my lazy tendencies and take action.

Living with Sheep

book cover: Living with SheepOn an August day in Texas when the sun keeps us indoors from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, Living with Sheep is not much on our minds. The thought of one wooly lamb causes prickles of heat rash; a flock, a swoon of claustrophobia.

“Who would want to read about sheep in Austin?” I thought as I pulled the book from the library shelf. On the other hand, my urban neighborhood is already populated with chickens, a goat, and a pig. Maybe sheep?

The answer is no. Sheep would be even more miserable in an Austin summer than the rest of us. The fact that I was compelled to read Living with Sheep from cover to cover is a credit to the writing–direct, elegant, informative, and humorous.

Living with Sheep is targeted toward the beginner shepherd, one who has no previous experience raising livestock. It’s one of those books that was written to fill a gap in the author’s collection when all he could find were highly technical books on sheep diseases. As such it sets out to answer “the big picture questions, the general cases, the wide range of options.”

Wooster approaches his efforts to understand sheep with the same curiousity and delight that mark the best travel writers. He became a shepherd without really planning to: some friends were looking to sell and he’d just moved to a farm. “Before I knew what was going on, I was in over my head and encountering adventure and intrigue around every corner.”

The nice thing about his tale is that he doesn’t assume that everyone has his same “Go for it” personality. So after introducing a concept with a personal anecdote he steps back and provides the big picture view of options–from deciding how involved a shepherd you want to be, to approaches toward butchering.

And, yes, after nine laugh-out-loud chapters filled with gorgeous photos of cute sheep, of advice for choosing among breeds, how to fence and shelter them, what to feed them, shearing, breeding and birthing, we face the inevitable “Chapter Ten: Slaughter and Butchering”.

“There is no point trying to sugarcoat it: killing animals is an intense and disturbing business. This is doubly true when the animals in question are ones you’ve fed and housed and raised from birth. All year long you’ve nurtured and cared for an animal and done your best to make it happy and healthy. Then you wake up one morning, pick up the proverbial knife, and do it in.”

So begins a thoughtful and beautifully written essay on taking responsibility for the food we eat. For us omnivores that means dealing with death. For the shepherd it means being the agent of death. The photo of a sheepskin hanging over the fence caught my attention. The caption said it was MolÉ–and I recognized the name as the lamb he had talked about earlier, the first one ever born on the farm, a singleton abandoned by his ewe that Wooster had to bottle feed.

Some final notes wrap up the book including a controversy that’s been brewing more and more lately in backlash to the success of Whole Foods Market. Which is better: local or organic? “My neighboring farmer’s hay, although rich and wonderful and harvested from fields that have been well cared for by his family for more than a century, is not certified organic…If and when I decide to raise my sheep organically, I will be doing so at the expense of my neighborhood farming economy, which I am reluctant to do.”

If you are considering getting sheep, this is a must read book for you. If you’re not, this is still a pretty good read. I hope Chuck Wooster writes more books because, whatever the subject, he makes it interesting.

Living with Sheep: The Website!


Fields of Plenty

The taste of just picked tomatoes draws many people to vegetable gardening. Even apartment dwellers attempt a pot of cherry tomatoes on the balcony. Why? Because anyone who’s eaten a ripe tomato off the vine knows that nothing that passes as a tomato in the supermarket comes close.

Farmer and writer, Michael Abelman feels as passionately about all the food on his table. “Food shouldn’t be just another fuel, grown out of sight by anonymous people, prepared and consumed as quickly as possible as if it were an inconvenience.” he writes in Fields of Plenty. He want us to rethink how we as a society participate in the food system…in America, a system where 2 percent of the people grow food for everyone. He believes that we should know not only where our food comes from, but the who provides our food. He wants us to have a personal relationship with our “family farmer” just like we do with our doctors and teachers. And so he sets out in the middle of summer from his own farm in British Columbia to visit the fields and orchards of independent farmers all over the United States. He introduces us to the people who sell at farmers markets and to big city chefs, who make speciality cheese, and famous ice cream.

These farmers are all alike in their dedication to the quality of their food but that is where their similarities end. One farmer believes the weeds need to grow up with the vegetables in order to create a perfectly balance ecosystem. Another has perfectly tended fields. Gene Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm specializes in potatoes. Hilario Alvarez grows as many different varieties as he can pack into his fields. One family in a poor rural Pembroke Township sees farming as a way to keep the family and the community together. Ken Dunn moves the City Farm from vacant lot to vacant lot in Chicago, supplying dowtown restaurants and poor neighborhoods alike with fresh produce. All the descriptions of the food make you wish you had gone along for the ride. Like any thoughtful host of a celebration of good food Michael Abelman graciously supplies recipes.

Michael Abelman is right in the midst of the organic standards controversy. He does not have any kind words for Whole Foods Market which he sees as the driving organic farming into another brand of agribusiness. Fields of Plenty provides an antidote to corporate anonymity by putting a face behind the food.

Interview with Michael Abelman

I first became acquainted with Michael Abelman through his book On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm in which he describe the survival Fairview Gardens, a small farm almost overcome by suburban sprawl when neighbors decided that the didn’t like living next to the chickens (even though the chickens were there first).

Both these books are fascinating reads.