Book Review: Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

I adore this nonfiction book for so many reasons! As a gardener, a dreamer, a reader, and a Montanan (after being here 43 years), this book nurtures those of us craving some prodding towards creativity. It’s about the conversion from conventional, large-crop, synthetically fertilized farming to rotating, small crop, organic farming. Technical while still being accessible to the non-scientist, Lentil Underground explains the process of finding new ways to do what no longer works and the willingness to take the leap away from the mainstream. Many third-generation farmers were facing bankruptcy in the 1980s while farming the way they were told to do by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Montana State University agriculture professors.

Liz Carlisle, a Missoulian by birth who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, writes in a crisp journalistic style made popular today by writers such as Michael Lewis and Mary Roach. She weaves information into a timeline featuring real characters in an ongoing story that reflects recent history of the past few decades.

“My intention has changed from making money to growing good-quality, healthy food. I think the soil’s happier. The farm just feels better. It’s like it knows I’m not going to pillage.” These few farmers in Montana who moved away from debt to large corporations towards certain weeds to replenish their soils represent a broad philosophical shift. The independence and innovation of farmers fortunately cannot be restrained, even though they were bucking the trend and often alienating neighbors and family members. In the long run, most organic farmers not only survived but thrive.

What began with some founders of AERO (Alternative Energy Resources Organization), now based in Helena, has become essentially commonplace. Albertson’s and Walmart carry organic produce, whereas that designation used to be only carried by specialized, expensive health food stores. The movement no longer is the domain of a small, kooky cluster of transcendentally minded hippies, although the evidence, as explained by Carlisle, is that it started that way. Both the history of the movement and the character descriptions involved make colorful fodder for reading.

As a gardener, I still feel mixed about black medic and clover helping fix the nitrogen in my flower and vegetable beds. On one hand, I care about appearance. I get stuck in those middle class values that Carlisle confronts: “It became customary, when passing by a tidy, productive farm, to remark that a good family must live there.” Alternatively, I feel relief knowing I help the soil by ignoring what’s under the canopy of flowers and vegetables, thereby contributing to healthier, nutrient-rich soil.

She includes some celebrities, too, since land use often mirrors personalities of those that own it. I won’t be a spoiler, though, because reading the book far exceeds reading this review. If you have doubts about picking up a copy, keep in mind that it was the ‘Read for all Incoming Freshmen’ at the University of Montana in the fall of 2017. The themes of thoughtful change while taking charge of destiny from the ground up can inspire future leaders and gardeners everywhere to ask essential questions and experiment.

BOOK REVIEW submitted by Bess Lovec


Successful Gardening On The Prairie

Book Review


Successful Gardening On The Prairie

Author Eric Bergeson

This book review is a first for me – I have until now reviewed books which I heartily recommend. I found it hard to find any redeeming quality in Successful Gardening on the Northern Prairie and I do not recommend it as a garden guide.

I found the author’s tone to be terse, bossy and sarcastic. I would prefer a helpful tone to a garden guide, especially one that is supposed to be good for beginning gardeners. Mr. Bergeson also frequently makes what I consider to be odd statements, such as voles are half mouse, half mole and one short row of carrots can produce bushels of carrots (I wish). Here is another example: “It is not necessary to plant large masses of annuals to make a splash…Plant $50 worth of geraniums in three or four clay pots, place them across the front of your house, and (you) could add as much as $10,000 to the market value of your home.” Really?

I was very surprised when he recommended planting Russian olive trees, which are exotics and a weedy tree here in Montana (the author lives in Minnesota). He also recommended castor bean plants which were banned in California when I was a child due to their poisonous beans. He is also not careful to identify exotic plants in the plants he recommends.

He freely recommends the use of herbicides, chemical fertilizers and tilling the soil. He talks of adding organic matter to the soil but only devotes a half page to composting. And he frequently recommends trees by name that were developed in his nursery, making these recommendations sound like an advertisement for his nursery.

I thought that most of his advice was equivalent to common sense and maybe at times helpful to a novice gardener or landscaper, but not much help to an experienced one.

Last, but not least, the author devotes 130 pages to trees and bushes and only 12 pages to growing vegetables which to me makes the title of the book misleading. I think he should have called it Successful Landscaping rather than Successful Gardening. At the end of the (very short) chapter on growing vegetables, he states: “This chapter is short for a reason: the best knowledge of vegetable gardening comes from trial and error…New vegetable gardeners should simply dive in and get to work. Successful vegetable gardening on the northern prairie is not complicated.” Maybe we don’t need our extension service and our classes if it’s so simple!

I value books that address our regional challenges to successful gardening. I had my hopes raised by this book’s title, but was sorely disappointed by its content and tone.


Book review Submitted by Ann Guthals

Book Review: Our Native Bees

Our Native Bees
By Paige Embry

Say “bee” and most people think of honey bees. There has been a lot of press devoted to the plight of honey bees in recent years as the number of hives declines and people worry about getting crops pollinated by traveling honey bee hives if there aren’t enough to go around.

Our Native Bees is about the “other” bees—the natives. Honey bees are not native to America—they come from Europe. There are over 4000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada. The author, in part, wrote this book to answer the question of whether the natives can fill in adequately to pollinate our plants if the honey bees disappear.

our native bees 3.pngThe first half of the book is devoted to the relationship of bees with agriculture and speaks to the question of whether natives can fill in for honey bees, and the second half is about the natives themselves, as well as ways to increase habitat for all bees. Along the way, every page is filled with interesting and captivating anecdotes of Paige’s quest to learn about bees and facts about bees that we wouldn’t ordinarily know. For example, ground nesting and being solitary is normal for native species. Many natives are small, even as small as a grain of rice. Most native bees don’t sting. And the majority of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and the main pollinator is bees.

The book is filled with page after page of gorgeous photos of bees. The photography is absolutely spectacular and as fascinating as the narrative.our native bees 2.png

Both food (think flowers) and nesting sites are important to encouraging healthy native bee populations. When we think of creating a bee-friendly garden, we mainly think of the flowers we can plant. The author points out that providing nest opportunities is just as important (and sometimes can be  “unsightly” to a tidy gardener). There is an important chapter devoted to making golf courses and lawns more bee-friendly in ways that support the bees and are still usable and enjoyable to the people. In the first part on bees and agriculture, she describes how large fields with monocrops, herbicide usage and machine tillage are hard on all kinds of bees and she describes a farm with smaller, more diverse operations and why this encourages diversity of bees as well.

The more we understand the natural world in and around our gardens, the better we can garden in ways that support that world, as well as grow food and provide beauty. Learning about our native bees is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals

Book Review – ‘What A Plant Knows’ by Daniel Chamovitz

Humans use their senses to get information about the world around them. We use this information, in part, to decide what actions to take. Our five main senses are sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Do plants have similar senses?

In What A Plant Knows, Israeli botanist Daniel Chamovitz compares human senses with equivalent senses in plants. In each chapter, he describes a human sense, then explains whether plants have a similar ability to perceive the world around them. Plants do have senses similar to humans with one exception (hearing), because plants also need to gather information from the world and then act on this information.

For example, plants can “see,” i.e. perceive light, as we can tell when plants grow towards a light source. It is vital that plants perceive light because, for plants, light equals food. For each sense, the author explains how the sense is exhibited in a plant and also the historical development of our understanding of the ability, including clear, brief descriptions of elegant experiments. For example, for the perception of light with concurrent growth towards the light source (phototropism), Darwin hypothesized that light was perceived at the tip of a seedling so he performed the following test: one shoot was allowed to grow normally, bending toward the light; the next had the tip cut off and did not bend; the third had a dark cap on the tip and did not bend; the fourth had a glass cap on the tip and did bend; and the fifth had a band around the stem and not the tip and did bend toward the light.

In addition to the five human senses, there are chapters on how plants know where they are in space (perception of gravity) and what and how a plant remembers.

This fascinating book is so readable it’s like reading a novel or a mystery—you get caught up in wanting to know the answers and find it hard to put down. When you’ve finished this little book, you’ll have a better understanding of how plants live, function and perceive their environment, and you will also probably treat plants with more respect and appreciation for their abilities. You will find that you have more in common with plants than you might previously have thought and you will appreciate the interconnectedness of all living things. Having a better understanding of plants and how they live may also result in better care of the plants in our gardens and landscapes, as we understand their needs better.

Submitted by Ann Guthals

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health By David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle bought a modest house in Seattle. They discovered that the glaciers that passed through that part of the world long ago left them with very little topsoil in their backyard. They began dumping a lot of organic matter in their space and creating a manure tea to feed their plants. After a few years, they had soil and lush foliage to show for their efforts.

David is a geologist, used to thinking in geological time. It surprised him that by actively adding organic matter to the soil, he and Anne could actually speed up the rate of soil creation relative to nature’s timeframe. They both began to wonder how this could be and this led them to discovering the hidden world of soil microbes and their relationship to plants.

Of particular interest to gardeners is the first part of the book that so clearly explains in an accessible manner the interactions between the microbes in the soil (primarily bacteria, protists, and fungi) and plants. Research over the last 10 to 20 years has illuminated the incredible partnerships between beasties we can’t even see and plant roots, resulting in a sharing of resources and information in ways not previously dreamed of.

David and Anne make a very strong case for encouraging these relationships by not tilling the soil and adding a lot of mulch. And they illustrate what is lost when the opposite happens – soil is disturbed by tilling and plants are fed chemicals, resulting in basically sterile soil.

When Anne suffered a battle with cancer, the two began to look more closely at what supports human health and drew parallels between a healthy human gut and healthy soil, in that there is much more communication between the microbes in our guts and our immune system than we had imagined and keeping this inner microbiome healthy is very important to our overall health, as is supporting healthy soils.

Along the way they describe how microbes were discovered and how for a long time were seen only as enemies, aka disease-producers. So our first knowledge and awareness of microbes was in a battle against pathogens. There follows a long section on what the good microbes in our gut do and how to encourage them. While the center section is long and detailed, it is important in that it makes a case that the vast majority of microbes are beneficial and we need to cultivate them.

Page 254: “A couple of decades ago, it would have sounded crazy to argue that plants and microbes in the soil run a biological barter system that functions as a plant‘s defense system and allows us to harvest nutrient-laden plant foods essential to our health. Even more unbelievable would have been the notion that bacteria communicate with our immune system, helping it to precisely mete out inflammation to repel pathogens and recruit helpful commensals. These surprising new truths carry fundamental implications for the way we view, and should treat, a wide range of seemingly unrelated maladies. In medicine, as in agriculture, what we feed our soils—inner and outer—offers a prescription for health forged on the anvil of geologic time….Put bluntly, many practices at the heart of modern agriculture and medicine—two arenas of applied science critical to human health and well-being—are simply on the wrong path. We need to learn how to work with rather than against the microbial communities that underpin the health of plants and people.”

One of the best parts of this book is the readability and ease of understanding of complex topics. If you are on a quest to better understand our soils and the importance of cultivating their health, this is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals


The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife

Naturalist Nancy Lawson’s primary purpose is to help animals. She writes a column called ‘Humane Backyard’ ( backyard.html?referrer= for the Humane Society publication All Animals and is the founder of The Humane Gardener, a comprehensive website and outreach initiative focused on gardening for animals(

In six chapters, Lawson introduces the reader to the ideas of: · Trying Something New – By abandoning preconceived notions of what a garden should be and focusing on native plants. · Embracing the Wild – By allowing nature to take over a portion of a garden to see who sets up housekeeping. · Supporting Ecosystems – Fostering habitat by providing desirable food and shelter for native animals, and making gardens safe for the animals that make their homes there. · Providing Natural Food for Wildlife – By understanding that the creatures that live in our gardens must eat, too. · The Importance of the Full Life Cycle – By taking a new look at decaying plant material that may be messy, but that provides food and shelter to garden inhabitants. At the end of each chapter is an in-depth profile of a pioneer who has reclaimed a landscape for wildlife.

There is a handy “Getting Started” guide at the end of the book that includes: · General Information · Regional Books on Habitat Growing · Native Plant Information and Regional Databases · Native Plant Retail Sources and Supplies · Co-Existing with Wildlife · Habitat Certification and Yard Signs. Each provides valuable resources for readers who would like further information on native plant species, humane gardening, and wildlife habitat. Also included is a section titled “Plants Mentioned in this Book,” a comprehensive list of the many native and non-native species discussed, with their common and Latin names.

The Humane Gardener is an idea-packed examination of what happens when we view our yards as opportunities to preserve and foster habitat for native plants and animals. As Lawson says, “Even in a small yard, you might be surprised by who shows up if you let them.”

By: Tracy L. Livingston