I'M FEELING a little circumspect about gardening this year; partly because for the first time in more years than 1 care to count, 1 won't have a garden to work with until it's too late to plant anything, and partly because I've now joined the ranks of gardening book writers myself and therefore have a better idea of what goes into writing one of them. During the final edits of my book 1 had a lot of fun teasing my editor by claiming that it was my first real work of fiction, by dropping in unprintable revisions that attacked professional gardeners and other wearers of boloties and overalls, and by talking about what kind of pranks I would retaliate with if she included any yellow flowers in the book's illustration. But for all the fun and games, I was learning that gardening books are big business, and those involved in the production end of them - the illustrators, editors, marketing specialists, and publicists - are both more professional and more passionate about their subject matter than are most of the people in literary publishing.
I discovered several interesting things along the way. For instance, there is almost as complex a range of genres and subgenres in gardening publishing as in literary publishing, and nearly as large a range of personalities among the writers, editors, and publishers. I seem to have lucked out. My editor was as skilled as any literary editor I've worked with, and she was quite a lot more fun than most, particularly while we were stickhandling our way around the press's tight style manual. On the lighter side, I discovered that the lunatic fringe in the gardening-book industry is as large and censorious as those you'll find in any other kind of book or magazine publishing, or within, say, the current federal government. There is, however, an important difference: these people, instead of promoting Anglican church and other "have-a-nice-day" values, trying to keep things as they were in 1970, or giving our national assets to the multinational corporate sector, actually want to change things for the better.
Since gardening books have become almost as ubiquitous as novels, the trick seems to be to produce a beautiful and readable volume that speaks to specific gardening applications, without getting so specific that there are only a half-dozen readers out there to speak to, and without making the book so expensive that those who might want it can't afford to buy it. It's a neat trick to accomplish, and it is done with startling frequency these days. The gardening books that Books in Canada received for review this year are primarily specialist books, and all have something to recommend them.
The beauty queen of this year's selection is The Harrowsmith Salad Garden (Camden House, 176 pages, $19.95 paper), by Turid Forsyth and Merilyn Simonds Mohr. Its subtitle is A Complete Guide to Growing and Dressing Fresh Vegetables and Greens, and the authors aren't kidding - it really is complete. The book takes you from seedbed to salad bowl, with readable bed-preparation and planting instructions, and a range of detailed recipes for seasonal salads, dressings, herb vinegars, and other herb-infused delights. It is also lavishly and intelligently illustrated, and filled with advice on how to garden and saladeer.
Also from Camden House is Vines: A Harrowsmith Gardener's Guide (96 pages, $12.95 paper), which is number six in Harrowsmith's series of gardening guides. Written by a group of Harrowsmith staffers and associates, it is more technical and not quite so pretty as The Salad Garden; but like the other volumes in the series, it is knowledgeable and useful. As a long-time vinelover, I'd have liked to see more text to go with the colour photos, but that's a fairly minor quibble. The book is a guide, and not quite a manual, and it is more than adequate to the task of introducing beginners to the pleasures of vines.
I'm somewhat less enchanted with Patrick Lima's The Kitchen Garden: Growing Vegetables and Fruits Naturally (Key Porter, 154 pages, $22.95 paper). Lima and his photographer-gardening partner John Scanlan are remarkable people and dedicated gardeners, having made both a life and a lifestyle out of building their spacious gardening tract somewhere north of Toronto; but they're wonderfully vague about the economics, and seem charmingly unaware that 1) not every gardener is prepared to make the sacrifices they have, and 2) there is no way to garden with their degree of attention to detail and organic purity without making the 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year commitment to it that they have. If you're prepared to do that, this is a good manual. If not, it is still a decent read about passionate people doing what they've chosen to do, and it has many helpful gardening tips, particularly if you have a fairly large rural garden and want to grow vegetables.
From the West Coast, and slightly more goofy and New Age, is Dan Jason's Greening the Garden: A Guide to Sustainable Growing (New Society, 208 pages, $12.95 paper). I'm not up on recent New Age/organic dietary practice, but if Jason's interests are typical, it has become even more idiosyncratic than it once was; and cooking with these legume-loaded recipes isn't going to win you any gourmet-cooking contests or make you popular on crowded buses or at cocktail parties. Still, despite the quirky organization of the book, the actual gardening information it provides is useful and occasionally fascinating. Jason is a localist and a seed specialist, and his interest in heritage seeds is worth taking seriously. His book will be an essential addition to the libraries of committed organic gardeners, if not to those of us who garden in cities.
Key Porter has revised and updated two specialist manuals, one on solar gardening and the other on hydroponics. Home Solar Gardening (164 pages, $14.95 paper), by John H. Pierce, is a useful and well- illustrated primer for those interested in learning about greenhouses and other under-glass gardening applications. For reasons that completely elude me, it also contains a section on "plant beauty care recipes" - including recipes for shampoos, rinses, cold creams, and soaps. Personally, I haven't ever found beef tallow (an essential ingredient of homemade soap) growing in a greenhouse, but I'm willing to defer to Mr. Pierce's expertise in this area.
Hydroponics for the Home Gardener (146 pages, $14-95 paper), by Stewart Kenyon, is quite readable, and its discussion and illustration of hydroponic techniques clear and simple. I was a little confused about the book's audience, until I came across the food recipes in the back, most of them from restaurant chefs who use hydroponically grown herbs. We all know the traditional amateur use of hydroponics in North America, which is not unrelated to the fact that the place to pick up second-hand hydroponic equipment is at police auctions. Still, Kenyon's rather chatty expertise (did you know that one-fifth of Moscow's tomatoes are grown hydroponically?) is convincing enough to incite really dedicated herb lovers to grow their own, even the ones you can't get arrested for.
Last but hardly least, The Real Dirt (Penguin, 172 pages, $12.99 paper), by Mark Cullen and Lorraine Johnson, is exactly what it says it is: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony and Apartment Composting. It is intelligent, readable, and very thorough. I found it much more convincing than Cullen's previous book, A Greener Thumb: The Complete Guide to Gardening in Canada, which was considerably less than complete and, I thought, rather uninsightful. The infusion of Lorraine Johnson's writing skills and enthusiasm for composting to this volume have really made a difference. If you want to start composting - and there are very good reasons for even urban dwellers to do so - this is your book. Although I'd stop short of putting a three-bin composter on an apartment balcony, I'm both entertained and convinced by almost everything in this book, and so will you be.
IT LOOKS LIKE any other picturesque gardening primer, but Brian Fawcett's The Compact Garden (Camden House, 127 pages, $17.95 paper) - which we couldn't let him review, of course is in fact a book with attitude. Fawcett detests marigolds and kale, discourages home-growing of strawberries, and doesn't like the look of peach trees or the standard house setback demanded by the "jerks at City Hall." He admits to a little midnight clipping of overhanging blooms before he grew his own flowers, but finds increased neighbourliness one of the assets of urban gardening. He loves wisteria and nicotiana, and couldn't live without fresh cilantro and basil. Opinionated and practical, The Compact Gardener is refreshing to read, and a useful basic guide for the novice, as well as the gardener with more ambition than time. I found it especially good in its sections on planning, building up soil, fertilising, and composting, but every section offers the benefits of Fawcett's extensive experience and is comforting about the difficulties of achieving perfection. As a veteran of a few gardens of my own, currently an urban one, I've learned some new tricks from this book, and it will be a trusted adviser on my reference shelf. A word of caution: if you're a beginner, you should take some of Fawcett's attitudes with a grain of salt, at least until you develop your own ideas. Brian, you should see my peach tree in fruit; it's pretty special!