Tag: Gardening / Food

by Sarah Stewart

After reading Stitches I wanted to see more by the artist, David Small. His illustrations have a slightly different feel in this book- they’re feel softer, more gentle. Still just as vivid, with the expressive line I admire so much. Story is of a young girl in what I assumed was Depression era, but not sure. She has to leave the family farm because times are hard (I guessed they were having trouble feeding the family) and goes to stay with her uncle in the city. He runs a bakery. He never smiles. She wants to work hard and prove herself useful, but also longs to see her uncle smile. And brings her love of plants with her, packets of seeds from her grandmother’s garden. Gradually through the pages you see green appearing then filling the pages- first in a corner here, on a fire escape there. She grows flowers in window boxes and more people stop to look at them from the sidewalk, drawing customers into the shop. But she’s really making a huge surprise for her uncle up on the roof of the building. There’s a double page spread near the end that’s just a glorious riot of flowers, bold and free with color. Lovely. It’s all told in brief letters the girl writes home, so not a lot of detail in the words, you have to gather it visually through the images, but it’s one you want to linger over anyway. The art is a bit loose and sketchy but I enjoyed trying to identify some of the species pictured anyway: daffodils, amaryllis, tulips, sunflower, zinnias, daisies, morning glory, cosmos, marigold, astilbe . . . Really nice story of a girl facing a hard situation, bringing some cheer into a dingy place with her ‘green thumb’.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
40 pages, 1997

A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food

by Dana Gunders

I read this book in between the last four. And took lots of notes. It’s about saving food in the kitchen. Planning better to buy only what you need, being organized so you don’t forget what’s in the back of your cupboard (or fridge), storing things properly so they stay fresh longer, and lots of tips on how to use up leftovers, salvage a dish that got slightly burnt or over-salted, or tell if your slightly-off-looking produce is still okay to eat. What you can freeze and for how long. There’s a chapter on how to start composting, a list on what you can safely feed your pets, and more on making household use of food items you won’t eat (banana peels to shine shoes, onion skin to make egg dye, etc). Facts on food-borne illness, what exactly causes it, how to avoid it.

Some things in here I’ve already been doing for years- I try to plan meals to stretch the ingredients- for example, I often make a meat pie dish with whatever vegetable bits are leftover in the fridge, and I nearly always make enchiladas using sauce from a chicken mole the day before. I usually peel broccoli stalks and dice them up to add to a soup or the meat pie, but never thought of doing a salad with them. There’s a section of recipes that give general guidelines for using whatever you have on hand that needs to be eaten- soup, fried rice, shepherd’s pie- and I’m going to copy some of them down. Also others that sound like great ideas but I’ve never tried before- brownies with black beans in them, a chocolate mousse made out of slightly-overripe avocado. Disappointed that the directory mentions using cooked quinoa to make a flour-less chocolate cake, but there’s no recipe for that so I’ll have to look for it elsewhere. The directory is a list of some 80 common foods, with notes on how to store them, how to tell if they’re still good, and how to make the best use when they start to go bad or you have too much extra. (No notes on cabbage though. I had to look online: cabbage goes in the high-humidity crisper drawer. Yes, my family eats cabbage- I have half a head in there right now!)

In the middle of reading this book I put it down, went and adjusted my crisper drawers (I’d been using them wrong), moved my oranges in there, put my grapes and fresh-picked green beans in paper bags. I’m sure there’s other things I’ve been doing sub-optimally all this time! Not all the instructions work for me, though. This book says that potatoes, onions and bread shouldn’t be kept in the fridge. But where I live we have high humidity. I’ve found that onions kept under my sink will spoil, bread wrapped on the counter goes moldy before we eat it all, and potatoes in my basement storage room (where I thought it would be cool enough), go bad. So I do keep all those in the fridge.

Borrowed from the public library. I found an article by the author here, on why she wrote the book. Notes I took for myself below. There’s more on my garden notes blog.

  • Freeze leftovers if you think you won’t use them soon, and label with a date.
  • Don’t overcrowd the freezer, it needs air circulation to work well.
  • Rewrap meats brought home fresh from grocery store, before freezing portions.
  • Burnt pan of food? put in a larger pan of cold water, then scrape off what’s salvagable.
  • Eggs are good three to five weeks past the ‘sell by’ date.
  • Whole wheat flour and brown rice should be kept in the fridge in an opaque, air-tight container.
  • Use yogurt instead of milk in baking: add half teaspoon baking powder for every cup yogurt.
  • Save peach, plum, nectarine etc pits in freezer. Make syrup w/them later.
  • Save butter wrappers, freeze, use later to grease pans
  • Scrape clean the base of a pineapple top, remove lower leaves and root in water for a houseplant!


Rating: 3/5
200 pages, 2015

by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Lovely book I remember so well from my childhood. Although the characters aren’t so lovely themselves at first! but that’s part of the charm, seeing how they grow and change. Orphaned Mary Lennox is downright unpleasant when she arrives in England from India, where her parents had died of cholera. She’s to stay with her distant uncle in a huge old house full of unused rooms. He travels a lot and she’s pretty much left to her own devices. Bored and lonely, she wanders the grounds where she finds a gruff older gardener working. Mary discovers that there’s a locked garden somewhere on the grounds, and curiosity drives her to locate it, and find a way to get inside. She wants to know if anything is left alive, since the garden was locked up for ten years. Partly guided by a friendly robin, she does find the garden and its door- and then keeps it a secret as she works to bring it back to life herself- weeding and coaxing the flowers to grow. Of course she can’t hide it forever. Soon she makes friends with the housemaid’s boy Dickon, and lets him in on her secret. Later she makes a shocking discovery (at least, it shocked me as a child) that she has an invalid cousin, who keeps to his room in another part of the house. The boy is just as spoiled as she was upon arrival to the house, but now she wants to help him grow healthier and enjoy life- by showing him the garden. Together the children conspire to keep their use of the garden hidden from adults- while being out in the fresh air, exercising and enjoying other’s company seems to help the sickly cousin Colin grow stronger. Mary is convinced that the garden is magic- that being among the beautiful growing things helped her, and now it’s helping Colin.

It’s hard to argue with that. A lot of the story has some obvious metaphors- as spring unfolds with the growth of plants, Mary gradually blossoms into a lively, kind child (though she still has her moments of sour temper). It seems the author’s message was that attitude can have a huge influence on how one feels, even affected your health- but I think that’s only to a point. Maybe she carries this idea a little too far- especially in Colin’s case. Everyone around him believed he was a sickly baby who grew into a sickly child who might never live. So he believed it himself. Until Mary startled him out of feeling sorry for himself and took him out in to the garden. Nature the great healer. I liked better the beginning of the story when Mary was attempting to clear things in the garden and help the plants even though she knew so little about it, rather than the end when some of the characters got a bit preachy. But overall it’s still a wonderful story.

I wanted to read this one again because I watched a recent movie version of it with my ten-year-old. I expected some parts to be different from the book, but I was a little disappointed how different they were. For starters, there’s no dog in the original story. The movie left out the old gardener entirely, and he was one of my favorite characters! I was dismayed at how much the movie emphasized the idea of magic, rather than just wholesome living and positive attitudes, working their cure on Mary and Colin. And the garden was oddly full of tropical plants, not at all like I’d pictured it from the book. I recognize that nowadays people have issues with racist attitudes the book showed- particularly towards people of color, and the servants, and even maybe the Yorkshire accent is offensive? those things didn’t bother me at all on a re-read, I suppose nostalgia let me breeze over them too easily. For all that, I still much prefer the original book to what this movie portrayed. However I found in poking around online there’s quite a few older film versions, some look interesting and closer to what I felt was the original feel of the book. I might try and find a few!

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 1911

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
Dear Author
Mr. Leeper’s Bookshelf
anyone else?

The Thinking Person's Guide to Good Gardening

by Ken Thompson

Collection of very brief essays on gardening topics, from what was once a newspaper column (seems to be a common source for many gardening books). This one was of particular interest because the author made a point of combing through many many scientific journals to pull out results of studies and reports that he thought common gardeners would like to know about: answering questions, laying to rest long-held myths, or just satisfying some curiosity. Things like- do shards in the bottom of a pot improve drainage (no), does it matter what color you paint a birdhouse (maybe), is compost tea worth making, what vegetables are most worthwhile to grow in your garden, what makes strawberries taste better, which insects are in decline (as of its publication), etc. Some bits were of less interest to me than others, but the sections I actually skimmed were very few. I’m always rather pleased when at the end of reading a nonfiction book, the top page block is crowded with strips of paper I stuck in to remind me to look things up. On finishing The Sceptical Gardener, I looked up more info on: harlequin ladybird beetle, New Zealand flatworm, calabrese, saskatoon, sowbread, flower sprouts (or kalette- I want to grow this!) Some of these are just because the author is British so the terms were unfamiliar. He says for example, that a certain berry is “widely grown and eaten in America, where it is called saskatoon.” I’d never heard of this berry. Looked it up: oh, serviceberry! I know that name. Also, one interesting note for cooking: to make a tomato sauce taste super fresh, add some tomato leaves to the sauce, pull them out before serving.

Rating: 3/5
338 pages, 2015

the Making of a Canadian Garden

by Douglas Chambers

Here again, is a book about gardening with a different bent. I could never dream of having a garden such as this- 150 acres of avenues, hedges, flower beds, impressive views and gravel walks connecting what is really a series gardens in what sounds like lovely and surprising ways. I had never heard of this author when I happened upon his book by chance. He was a university professor and sounds like he very much loved literature, poetry and the arts. His gardens were built on a grand scale with amusing quirks- personal humorous asides and favorite quotations from writers and poets placed in very apt locations. Inscribed on stone usually, and relating to each portion of the garden by its design. He says the gardens were each to represent a particular aspect of garden design history, and those who knew the references would get it the moment they stepped into the garden. I admit that rather went over my head- I did not get far with the one serious book on garden design I tried to read. While the scale of everything he did felt so far beyond my own scope- planting dozens of trees to line a path, and then replacing half of them the following year (because they died), no problem. Having artisans design and built gates out of old farming equipment, which sounds very picturesque and practical, stonework laid everywhere, bulldozers flattening or changing slopes here there and everywhere- visitors later remarking how wonderful that he’d inherited such gardens (on the old family farm) but no he built them all from practically nothing- it looked well-established though because he did it properly right from the beginning, with effort and expense but I am sure the results were beautiful. The book does have photos but most are black-and-white, not very large so I did a lot of imagining. While I could never dream of having such a spread of well-designed and flawlessly laid-out gardens (he had formal gardens of many designs, an herb garden, a large vegetable garden, a cottage garden full of flowers, made a lake, etc etc) I really admire the way he thought it all through- “zany” as it sometimes sounded (his own term)- also so perfectly delightful and for once, I was familiar with most of the plants (same continent, though further north). I could well relate to many of the struggles and joys he had with plants- tending the young seedlings, digging and moving things that didn’t do well to a new spot next year, hoping to finally roust the pests (groundhogs in his case), and so on.

I was a bit surprised on finishing this book to look around online and discover that while it’s considered “a Canadian classic” there are very few online reviews- or at least I could not find any. Please see the one I linked to below. I was deeply saddened to learn at the same time that the author passed away recently in May 2020, of Covid-19. I did not know the man, nor do I ever expect to visit his gardens (if they are still kept up), but this does make me feel dismal.

Rating: 4/5
230 pages, 1996

more opinions:
barczablog anyone else?

by Winefride Nolan

This was much more to my taste! Straightforward and down-to-earth, very much so in fact. The author lived on a farm in Ireland and wrote what it was like farming in the forties and fifties, how their farm gradually changed from using old methods of harvesting by hand, with horses and simple implements, to modern equipment and technology- and why they made that shift. She said she wrote the book so her grandchildren would know what farming used to be like- and the book is mostly just about the farm, how it was run and maintained, very little about the family interactions or characters of neighbors, etc- although a few little sketches and incidents are mentioned. Interestingly enough, it’s also about why this family farm shifted from being one that raised a variety of livestock and crops, to becoming very specialized- mainly for the profit margin. They simply could not make a success of it, otherwise. They quit raising pigs, chickens and sheep for various practical reasons, eventually gravitating to dairy cattle. (A very amusing but exasperating- sounding incident with one of their last pigs was related: the pig had rooted into a very large stack of stored straw and wound up against a wall, they heard it grunting when they called it to come feed, but the pig wouldn’t back out, so they had to climb the straw pile and dig down to get it free). It was a different kind of focus for a book about farm life- compared to others I’ve read- and I found I liked it very much. I think if I knew these people I would like them very much, too.

Added two more books to my list: the precursor to this one, called The New Invasion, and a book the author twice mentioned reading herself, Malabar Farm by Louis Blomfield.

Rating: 4/5
178 pages, 1966

by Nora Janssen Seton

This book wasn’t what I expected. But after I adjusted my expectations, I liked it well enough. It’s about the author’s experiences working on other’s people’s farms and planning her own. A lot of it is information she gathered weighing the pros and cons of keeping sheep and goats or cattle, of raising certain vegetables, or maybe even pigs and chickens (which she’s not partial to). She relates snippets of conversations she had visiting other farmers, asking them questions about their operations, and with her friends or husband, going over all the details of how her farm would work. I had read over fifty pages and finished a chapter all about the disconnect between farmers and end consumers, and the state of food production in America, when I started to wonder how much of this was going to be about agriculture in general instead of one farm in particular? I looked up a few reviews (there aren’t many) and discovered that she never has a farm. In the final pages she and her husband find the perfect farm they could purchase in Connecticut, only to accept a move overseas when her husband suddenly gets a better job offer. Well. So I continued reading, not at all sorry I had given myself a huge spoiler, just keeping in mind this was a book about planning for a farm that never became a reality. As such, it’s still a decent read, although at times the dialog felt a bit off (as if transcribed directly, then not reading well in text) or the descriptive language left me baffled. (There’s a few sentences I just could not make any sense of.) Sometimes her thought process or opinions were at a complete disconnect for me. For example, she didn’t like gardening or working with plants on a small scale- always nervous of mishaps with plants she thought were fragile- but was fine dealing with one crop at large- a field of cabbages or potatoes, no problem. I don’t quite get that, being a gardener myself . . .

However my favorite part of the book is when she relates one farmer’s words about his love of the work:

I found great peace in the raw chores. In farming, your aspirations have to be within the chores themselves. You have to want to work with and be interested by the earth, when it’s mud, when it’s ice, when it’s swamp, or when it’s wildflowers . . . It’s very humbling, farming is . . . A small farmer like me doesn’t grow tired of the basic miracles of seeds and newborn calves. Sure I get tired of waking up a three a.m. . . . but I don’t get bored with my work here. . . I’m never indifferent to the growth of plants, the way hay dries, the interactions of these animals. I’m not religious and I probably should use the word miracle– but farmers I know are just open to the wonderment of it all.

That’s how I feel about my garden. I’m always delighted, every spring, with the wonder of tiny plants growing from the seeds I pressed into the soil, how they unfold their green leaves capturing the sun, how they turn that into food growing right out of the dirt behind my house, fed by compost that recycled leftovers from my kitchen. It’s an endless sense of miracle I hope I never grow tired of.

Rating: 3/5
225 pages, 1993

A Complete Guide to Growing Scented, Culinary and Medicinal Herbs

by Sarah Garland

Herb gardening from past to present. The book starts by telling about herbal gardens in history, how they featured in monasteries and the private courtyards of wealthy ladies in medieval days, how their style and use changed through the times, ending up to the state of gardening in more modern times. The included illustrations taken from ancient manuscripts and paintings are lovely. Traditional and historical ways the herbs have been incorporated into cooking, used for scents, as dying materials or for health are all mentioned, with suggestions and many cautions- as a lot of ancient herbs are highly toxic or their original medicinal use is no longer recommended. Many are named just because they are pretty or have interesting properties- like curiously shaped seeds. There is also information on how to grow the herbs, whether from seed or cuttings, and care for them. Really though much of the book is about building a garden- how to design and plan it, how to lay paths and construct benches, walls, arbors or a trellis, with many ideas for an attractive or practical arrangement. I garnered some new ideas on what an herbal bed in my own garden could look like (for example, I might do well to separate my perennial herbs that like richer, damp soil- the lemon balm, sorrel and perpetual onions- from those that like it dry and lean- the lavender, sage and winter savory- and mix grit or broken stone into the latter). There’s helpful lists grouping herbs by the soil type they prefer, or sun/shade exposure, by color or height. And more extensive lists by use- herbs for medicines, for dying fabrics, for a scented garden or kitchen use. Many many plants are named that I know little about- with enticing hints at their growing habits and textures. The photos are a tad disappointing- often slightly grainy, not clear enough focus to actually see the individual plants well, though they do give you a good impression how the herbs look together in various garden styles. The twenty-five page glossary lists a bounty of herbs, with useful details on them, but scant pictures.

I took notes- especially listing plants that I want to look up, to visualize better, and see if they’d be nice in my own garden- their usefulness or attraction being hinted at in the text just enough to spark my curiosity. Also things that took me by surprise, such as the author’s note that salad burnet can grow up to 36″ (mine never was more than six), and that dill reaches up to five feet! Though this picture indicates that as well- when I first saw it in the historical section of the book, I thought the people were just of exaggerated proportion in a quaint fashion but no- I think the dill really was that tall!In my garden, it’s never grown more than a foot or two! I realized soon that the author is from the UK, so the climate she cultivated herbs in was different. Perhaps that is part of it.

Rating: 3/5
168 pages, 1984

Passionate, Heartbreaking, Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever

by Susan Warren

I should have guessed that in the world of competitive vegetable growing, there’s people whose goal is to produce the biggest pumpkin ever. When this book was written, men aimed to break the record with a pumpkin that weighed over 1,500 pounds (now the world record is 2,624 pounds). This story focuses on a group of giant pumpkin growers in a Rhode Island club, telling the ups and downs that several of them face through one season. The opening and closing chapters, which are mostly about the individuals and their competitiveness, the history of record-breaking giant pumpkins, and the weigh-in that closes the 2006 season, were not that great for me. The writing style tries a little too hard to be enthusiastic and felt awkward in some parts. Nearly stopped reading after chapter three. However the bulk of the book, about how the pumpkins are actually grown and tended, was more to my interest- I can relate as a gardener. Careful selection of seed, testing and prepping the soil, germinating and tending the young plants, setting them out then protecting them anxiously from rough spring weather, pruning and feeding and spraying against pests all summer, fretting over disease and disaster (hungry wildlife, cracked skins, even in one case a suspected fellow grower who jealously poisoned someone’s plants!) I’m not a competitive person myself so I don’t really understand the fire that makes them work for huge fruit with so much effort- forcing the plants to strain to the max without cracking, rotting or collapsing. I’d rather have something beautiful, useful, or good to eat, than just a right to brag about “mine’s the biggest”! But if I ever go to an agricultural fair I’ll be sure to stare at prize-winning pumpkins with different eyes now, knowing all that went into getting them that huge size. They do look rather obscene, though.

Rating: 3/5
256 pages, 2007

Designing with Tropical Plants in Almost Any Climate 

by Richard R. Iversen

     This book is about growing tropical plants in a temperate climate. It has information on design- including how to artfully combine the varied textures, colors and growth habits of different plants to best effect. It tells how to cultivate them, including keeping in pots or setting out into beds, and overwintering- which consists of either bringing plants inside, keeping seed, rhizomes or tubers to grow from next year, or taking cuttings. Some plants sounds like it\’s easier or more economical to just buy new plants in the spring- as once it is warm enough outside, if properly fed and watered, tropical plants can grow very fast. While much of the information in here is repetitive to me, the specifics on tropicals in my kind of climate was very useful. The author is really enthusiastic about tropical plants and his delight in them is infectious. I thought at first well, my choices are limited- I don\’t have a lot of space indoors to overwinter plants with bright light- nor can i afford to buy tons of basically disposable plants every spring (though I do try to add some perennials to my yard every year). Then I realized hey wait a minute- I already do some of this: I grow and take coleus cuttings every year. I bring my bay laurel, potted figs and geraniums indoors for the winter, set them out again in spring. The book taught me that I could do a few things differently- such as saving the tubers of my decorative sweet potato vine dried and stored in a small box, instead of keeping cuttings growing in pots. This would save space, giving me room for a different plant, and also maybe curtail my problem with whitefly and/or tiny leaf hoppers every winter, which tend to come in on my plants especially the sweet potato vine, even though I take measures against them. So! the book encouraged me. I started taking notes- jotting down names of all the plants that caught my eye in photos as being particularly striking or pretty, and then writing down species I liked the sound of from the some hundred plants in the detailed glossary. Sticking to only those I think I could handle their overwintering needs and mature size, I still ended up with a list of forty plants. It\’s like my never-ending TBR, the lists I make of plants I\’d like to try and grow- after learning more about them and hoping I can actually find a specimen to bring home someday. Now more eager for spring and a new growing season to try my hand at a few new things!

Rating: 4/5           170 pages, 1999


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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