Friday, November 20, 2009

Gaia's Garden (Book Review, It Sucked)

In all honesty I tried very hard to read this book, in fact I'll very likely be returning to read chapters here and there. But I feel I've read enough that I can voice an opinion. The book is
Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture
by Toby Hemenway

I would love to recommend this book but I just can't. It's so highly overrated on Amazon, and brings up mixed feelings in me. The book is about Food Forests and Permaculture, that is growing the most bang for your buck. The problem is the author suggests using to many nonnative plants that are the cause of current environmental problems. It's a healthier environment to have a forest but we're already landscaping homes with nonnatives as it is.

It's an easy read but reminds me to much of a text book. Each chapter starts with a few good paragraphs of useful information usually fallowed by more boring details that drive yet another nail into the coffin. Some people may like this attention to detail so that's not really a fault. I always appreciate having a book around that acts as a reference I've already read books that explained it simpler and in funner ways.

He's somehow managed to make grdening a very boring subject. Picture for a moment your garden putting out 100% efficiency. There is no lawn to speak of. There are pathways laid out in a diagonal 10 by 10 grid. Each 10 by 10 square of soil has it's own hill with a fruit tree growing on it. Around each fruit tree are an assortment of bushes, herbs, and food crops. In other words the most boring garden ever created. You and Colonel Klink (possibly the name of your dog) will tour the garden every morning at exactly Oh Nine Hundred, clipboard in one hand, garden trowel in the other for the morning inspection. Trees will be pruned, Herbs will be picked, and Sour Grapes will not be tolerated.That is exactly the image this book gives me (without any of the humor).

The problem is a lot of it goes hand and hand and what few images there are in the book usually undermine the paragraphs they go with. For example near the start of this book there are pictures of garden layouts. Picture 1 has a plants in rows with measurements how much wasted space one needs to walk between them. Picture 2 has all the plant rows close together which uses much less space. And Picture 3 shows the garden arranged in a circle with a key hole shaped pathway in the middle and all the rest is plants. Next to these wonderful pictures we have paragraphs about how to save space. Sure it's a smart design but he goes on and on and on with it. A garden of mostly key hole shaped walkways. Who honestly grows 40 herbs, for the purpose of being used as an herb? On and on with the herbs, he can't suggest enough of them. Follow this man's advice and your yard will be supplying India with herbs.

I would have loved this book if he'd just kept it garden designs and kept his plant suggestions to simple plants. In a disappointing way, though, he starts talking about the roles different types of plants play. The different categories of trees, bushes, and mentions some plants attract pollinators, or feed wildlife, or fix nitrogen in the soil. That would have been great had he just left it there, but Oh dear he goes on to start recommend plants. He mentions what a wonderful fence Bamboo will make, how great Perennial Sunflowers are, why Blueberries are fantastic plants. It's great that he named the positives but that's all he mentions! Not once does he mention Blueberry needs acidic soil in order to flower, how Perennial Sunflowers fall over and shade out the plants next to them, or how god awful Bamboo is! Nothing eats bamboo besides Panda! There are varieties of Bamboo that don't spread as violently but you won't find them mentioned in this book. People if you're going to plant bamboo... please please make sure it's completely dead , or that you live in Asia and have a stock of cuddly Pandas or try NOT PLANTING IT. If my neighbors tried planting bamboo along the fence I'd set their garden on fire.

His thoughts on attracting pollinators are sometimes laughably bad but he has a few good suggestions. One recommendation is planting Lilacs to attract bees but he doesn't mention Lilacs are notorious for not blooming sometimes for 8 years or more. He is correct though when they do bloom they do get lots of bees, the trouble is they usually bloom with fruit trees and can be viewed as competition. If you have to many things flowering besides your crops you're not getting enough bees then. He mentions what type of beneficial insects his suggestions attract and it is a nice list. Some plants like Yarrow attract tiny hover flies, and I can attest to that. They're excellent aphid control. But he doesn't really talk about seasons though, or times of blooms. Some herbs and crops he's recommending actually do a fantastic job of attracting pollinators on their own. Radishes, Chives, Onions, Fruit Trees, Melons as well as a number of herbs, Lavender and Mint especially, all do a great job of attracting pollinators! Having some Bee Balm around won't necessarily increase your crop yields. Try planting a much bigger crop to get their attention.

Only mentioning the benefits of plants is a real problem in this book. In the back there's a list of plants where Common Milkweed is listed as edible but what isn't written there is Milkweeds all contain toxins that will cause you to die after suffering from a heart attack. This stuff WILL KILL YOU, YOU WILL BE DEAD unless you boil it until it no longer tastes bitter. Even then I'm not eating it. To omit it's preparation when it's life threatening is just unforgivable. He may as well have listed Fox Glove, Digitalis, as a heart medication. This plant will kill before you've put your cup of tea down if you eat any part of it. Just because a heart medication is made from it though doesn't meant it should simply be listed as such.

As I read more and more about Forest Farming and Permaculture I'd hoped to find something to respark the magical feeling of nature in me. But sadly this book did not achieve it. Forest Farms are easily made with modern varieties of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees. There are YouTube videos that summaries the highlights of this book. It's not hard at all. I really wanted to look into this concept and love it, but I've found nothing but disappointment. It just doesn't compare with walking through a forest of native plants and watching nature do what it does best.

To summaries the concepts, plant a native tree that gets 60 feet tall. Throw in some evergreens while you're at it. In front of them plant as many 30 foot or smaller fruit trees as you can. Assorted fruits are best with multiple varieties of each. Feel free to use grafted 2 in 1 or 5 in 1 (etc...) fruit trees if you like. Below them add bush and thatch crops like Blueberry, Raspberry and so on. Below and around those throw in your annual crops in raised beds and rotate these as needed. If you like grapes or some sort of vine substitute a fruit tree for an arbor. If you live in a small space prune the fruit trees back to small bushes. Follow planting instructions as needed for each plant. That's it.... There's nothing more to it.

In the end you'll be left with a more sustainable property of almost completely alien plants. And I think that's wrong. It's like planting a lie. You have a forest that's better then having nothing at all but for nature it's still not that much better then having just a lawn. Just because a plant is useful doesn't mean you should let it bribe you into keeping it. But somehow that's fine because it's providing for you. But you've gone through all this effort, taken years of your life to plant a forest, including so many nonnative plants is almost like stepping backwards.

It's almost like he wrote a book for the wrong country. Brilliant native plants such as Trilliums have no place in this kind of garden besides being used as toilet paper. His garden designs are for efficiency and lack any concept to them.

Here is another blog that features the only real highlights found in his book. I would only recommend reading this book for that information. As it's already found online though I don't see any need to recommend buying it. He recommends way to many plants without really talking about any of them.