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The Premise: If you camped out for a week in a bookstore and read as much literature as possible about gardening, you’d end up with a lot of ideas — a fat percentage of which have no foundation in science. It’s the equivalent to asking friends and neighbors for gardening tips. In many circumstances, an idea works once or in a specific situation, but it’s not necessarily a technique that’ll be applicable across a broad set of variables and skill levels. The author of Sustainable Food Gardens: Myths & Solutions recognizes that much folklore is prevalent in home gardening and makes an effort to examine sacred cows under the light of research.
The 411: Chances are you’ve picked up one or more sustainable gardening techniques over time. It could’ve been from a YouTuber or blogger, from a back-to-the-land magazine, or from a relative who always has a visually appealing vegetable plot. And it’s possible that you’ve embraced some principles as gospel. In reading this book, stay open-minded, as your foundations are about to be rattled. Author Robert Kourik explores practically every gardening concept that has been presented in popular literature over the last few decades, from no-till to raised beds to sheet mulching, and examines them against formal wisdom gleaned in the fields of agriculture and natural resources.
Beyond equipping his readers to nurture their soils, conserve water, and invite beneficial insects, Kourik takes on widely held gardening myths head-on. Some of these he dismisses, but he also tempers the conventional wisdom with research-based facts where appropriate.
Many of the principles of modern permaculture (perennial agriculture that mimics natural systems as closely as possible) are put to the test. The author questions the claims behind perennial forest gardens, hugelkultur, herb spirals, and plant guilds, among other techniques. There was a time when he himself had promulgated some widely held beliefs, such as dynamic accumulators, and in those cases he humbly breaks down areas in which he was mistaken.
Even techniques deemed to have merit are stripped down to their frames and rebuilt with a more scientific understanding. In the case of plant guilds, for instance, Kourik explores one by one the species considered major players within certain traditional fruit tree guilds and makes a case for or against each of these, often with alternatives. As an example, where resources have suggested Russian olive or Siberian pea shrub beneath fruit trees for their nitrogen-fixing capabilities, he encourages readers to forgo those two invasives and instead go with a perennial clover.
With a forest garden, the goal is to mimic the layers of a natural forest with upper canopy, mid-canopy, shrub, and ground layers, as well as vines and root-bearing crops. So, one may have nut-bearing trees as the upper layer of the “forest garden,” fruit-bearing trees and shrubs below, strawberries and herbs on the ground, passionflower vines running here and there, and so forth. While it sounds like a feasible and desirable system, Kourik argues that the ecosystems and communities behind forest gardens are more complex than some writings allow and presents alternatives.
A chapter on companion planting delves into not only which plants have been shown through research to be effective companions, but how these function to the benefit of the target plant(s). Companion plants may serve as a trap crop; they may repel or block a specific pest; they may camouflage the crop plant, or their purpose might be support of beneficial insects.
The Verdict: Sustainable Food Gardens: Myths & Solutions is akin to a textbook, rich with scientific nomenclature, graphs, and charts, but there’s no shortage of eye-catching illustrations. It isn’t light reading, nor is it a warm and fuzzy gardening tome you’d want to keep on the nightstand. But for any who are serious about producing a portion of their own food sustainably — and perhaps who are thick-skinned enough to accept that garden knowhow is dynamic — this resource should be on your shelf.
Book & Author
Sustainable Food Gardens: Myths & Solutions
by Robert Kourik