If you like the idea of growing your own food, but haven't the foggiest idea of where to start, then this is the book for you. The key is to start with the easiest, most forgiving crops.
Every locavore knows the joy of spying a new seasonal offering at the farmer’s market and rushing home to transform it into a flavorful dish. The memories of those first asparagus sautés, the crunch of early lettuce, and those juicy tomato-basil sandwiches stay with us all year round, helping us get through the long winter months of root-centric dietary monotony.
Imagine if you could take that relationship a step further, moving beyond the farmer’s market to your own backyard. Picture having a luscious vegetable garden where you grow the very foods you want to eat. Then you would call yourself a real locavore, a foodie in the truest sense, who understands the entire life cycle of a vegetable and has interacted with it every step of the way.
This is the idea behind a new book called “The Food Lover’s Garden: Growing, Cooking, and Eating Well” by Jenni Blackmore. Blackmore, a farmer from Nova Scotia who lives on a windswept island in the Atlantic Ocean, wants to “turn hesitant gardeners into avid vegetable growers” by offering a crash course in which vegetables are easiest to grow and, simultaneously, most versatile in the kitchen.
I appreciate this approach because I am an example of someone who loves to cook with seasonal ingredients, but (embarrassingly) has never had a successful vegetable garden. I’ve noticed that many gardeners seem to be natural cooks – perhaps out of necessity – but fewer cooks are competent gardeners. This is an unfortunate knowledge gap that Blackmore’s book promises to repair.
A major theme throughout “The Food Lover’s Garden” is ease of growth. A successful harvest is paramount, or else new gardeners will become discouraged by crop failures. In the chapter on tomatoes, which Blackmore admits are a common source of disappointment, she writes:
“If you’ve never grown anything before, a single ‘no show’ or ‘wimp out’ can easily fertilize an attack of Black Thumb syndrome. Truth is, Black Thumb, much like Writer’s Block, doesn’t really exist. It’s merely a figment conjured up by that critical adult voice that’s always trying to deep-six our brightest dreams… There is no such thing! Plants inherently want to grow. This is an indisputable rule of nature.”
Blackmore keeps her list of suggested vegetables short; it includes potatoes, leeks, beets, greens, squash, beans, herbs, and a few others. She urges readers to find local varieties to ensure optimal production based on one’s climate, and provides several pages on how to plant, care for, and harvest each one. The beginning of the book has basic directions for creating garden beds, i.e. raised or lasagna-style, and the last chapters focus on combining garden produce in quick, economical recipes.
The writing is clear and simple. The author deliberately does not go into more complicated subjects like seed-saving and fertilizing, and keeps discussions about compost, inoculants, and pruning to an absolute minimum. For example, she writes:
“Companion planting is a huge topic that can become a bit unwielding if taken to extremes, but here in a nutshell is the overall rationale: many plants have the ability to establish ‘friendships’ or symbiotic relationships while others just don’t get along.”
It is clear that she does not wish to overwhelm the uninitiated and, as someone who has been intimidated by overly scientific gardening books in the past, I am grateful for this.
This book comes at a perfect time for me, as my mother gave me a vegetable garden for my birthday last week. (In other words, we worked together to make one when she came to visit.) A tiny row of radishes has just sprouted, the lettuce is beginning to poke through the dirt, and a row of peas still sleeps beneath the surface. I’m excited about this newest venture, but worried I’m going to screw it up somehow.
Blackmore offers reassurance, reasoning that anyone can grow food anywhere. If she can do it on a rocky, windy island with brutally cold winters, then surely I can in a sunny, urban backyard with rich soil – and so can you, whether you’ve got a window box or a field.
You can purchase "The Food Lover's Garden: Growing, Cooking, and Eating Well" (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2017) online here.