Book Review – The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired The Little House Books

Book Review
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired The Little House Books
By Marta McDowell

Did you grow up traveling the prairies and woods with the Ingalls family? I got lost in Laura’s adventures as she grew up and never paid any attention to the details about the30 Little House 2 flora in the different locations. This book uses many passages from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to chronicle the agricultural practices, home gardens, seasonal chores, and daily activities the Ingalls family engaged in to grow, harvest, and preserve food for storage.

The book makes use of archival territory and plat maps of locations the Ingalls family lived from Wisconsin to Minnesota to North Dakota and more. It also verifies many events and observations Laura weaves into her stories by including newspaper articles, agriculture circulars and historical photos. Plants mentioned in her stories are often depicted by not only original Garth Williams line drawings, but also period botanical illustrations and contemporary photographs.

31 Little House 3While McDowell’s book is not a how-to-garden directive, it does show the deep connection to the seasons and land that beloved children’s author and pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder shared subtly through her childhood stories. It is satisfying to see that even with changes to our climate and the urbanization of Laura’s frontier landscapes that many of the plant species continue to thrive.

~ Review by Elizabeth Waddington


Book Review – The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs
By Peter Wohlleben

This fascinating little book does indeed have much information on using nature’s signs to predict the weather, a useful skill for home gardeners. Among the indicators explored are wind patterns, clouds, flowers that close prior to storms, and bird songs. Then the book goes on to be a wealth of more information on many aspects of reading nature to help us garden. Even though the author is German, generally his information and advice translates well to our latitude and longitude.

The topics covered vary widely from basics to interesting unusual tidbits such as what elaiosomes are (a small fatty, sugary morsel attached to seeds to entice ants to carry both home, thus spreading seeds far and wide) or synanthropes (animals born wild but who thrive in close association to cultivated human environments like the Eurasian collared dove that showed up in our yard last year and stayed). One of my favorite stories is about the flower clock created by the eighteenth century Swedish natural scientist, Carl Linnaeus. He discovered that different flowers open their blooms at different times of the day, enabling him to create a flower “clock” with different types of flowers for each hour. Equally interesting was learning that birds often sing at specific times of the day, so that after one learns their calls, one could roughly know the time when a certain bird sings.

There are several chapters with decidedly practical advice and applications for gardeners: how to work in cooperation with rather than at war with nature, increasing soil health to increase garden health, adapting to climate change, in addition to accurately predicting the weather.

There are also chapters that increase our enjoyment of the natural world: using all of our senses not just the visual, and discovering new and interesting information about many aspects of nature.

As in his other books, Mr. Wohlleben writes in a flowing, readable manner that effectively translates up-to-date scientific information into layman’s terms. I hope you will soon read and enjoy The Weather Detective, so much more than a guide to predicting the weather.

~Review by Ann Guthals

Book Review: TEAMING WITH MICROBES—The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

Book Review: TEAMING WITH MICROBES—The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

If you look closely at the title of this book, you will think there is a misspelling. But it is not by mistake that the authors use the word “teaming” rather
than “teeming.” The purpose of the book is to help gardeners understand the inhabitants and activities of the teeming microbes in the soil food web and to learn to team with these organisms to create the healthiest possible soil and plants in their gardens.

The soil is indeed teeming with microbes. The sheer number of each type is mind-blowing. “A mere teaspoon of good garden soil, as measured by microbial geneticists, contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes.” (p. 19) Bacteria are so small that a few hundred thousand can fit in a space the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The importance of these tiny soil microbes in supporting the health of plants cannot be underestimated. Yet many people (even some gardeners) have little understanding of the role and importance of these organisms and how to support their functioning.

The authors divide the book into two parts. The first part has a summary of soil science and a chapter devoted to each of the major participants in the soil food web: bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and slime molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, gastropods, and larger animals. The role and functions of each group of organisms are described as well as their connection to gardening.

The second half of the book is devoted to explaining how to assess the health of the soil food web in your own soils and how to employ three major tools to build the health of that web: mulching, composting and making compost teas. The application of these tools for annuals and perennials is explained.

At the end of the book there is a gardening calendar and a summary of the authors’ 19 soil food web gardening rules. The information in this book is dense and concise and, as such, it is not an “easy” read. It resembles a textbook more than a gardening handbook. But it is worth wading all the way through to gain a better understanding of what should live in our soils, how these tiny organisms partner with and support our plants, and how not to interfere with their work and maybe even learn to support it.

Over time we are learning not to disrupt the soils in our gardens, yards and fields and instead help the food web to live and thrive in incredible balance, resulting in healthier plants and better crop yields. Teaming with Microbes is an important addition to the literature of no-till, restoration gardening and agriculture.

Submitted by Ann Guthals

Book Review: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

BOOK REVIEW by Kristine Glenn

In the depths of winter when the green and growing garden is covered by a blanket of snow, the heart of a gardener can wither away. This is the time to pick up a book like Beverley Nichol’s Merry Hall. The book chronicles the British author’s search for the perfect garden and the perfect house. More specifically, he wants a Georgian house and a garden of at least five acre: “a garden riddled with brambles, stung almost to death with nettles, and eaten to the bone with blight… I was in a rescuing mood.”

He finds the ideal place early in the book and Merry Hall describes his initial forays into rescuing and restoring the house, and especially the gardens. The book is written in the aftermath of World War II in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, E.F. Benson, and Jane Austen. Deliciously witty, Nichols delves indiscriminately into horticulture, his talented and taciturn gardener (Oldfield), cats and more cats, nosy neighbors (Miss Emily and Our Rose), garden aesthetics, music, and more. But his first love is the garden and the book hones in on all things gardening. Nichols frequently rhapsodizes about the beauty of a blossom, warning the reader “when I begin to write about flowers, I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.”

With every reading and re-reading, Merry Hall keeps me simultaneously laughing and in awe of Nichols’ turn of phrase and ability to cut to the heart of the matter, whether it is commentary on a passive-aggressive spinster or falling in love with a bank of Lilium regale. The story wends its way through the pages in an organic and enticing manner. Nichols cautions the readers that Merry Hall “is not really a book at all; it is only a long walk round a garden, in winter and summer, in rain and in sunshine; and if it bores you to walk round gardens you will have long ago chucked it aside.”

The book is meant for slow reading where each page is savored and the story visualized, absorbed, and chuckled over. It’s best read with a notepad close by so you can write down unfamiliar plant names and references for later research. It can take some work to adjust to the style as the setting is quintessentially British and the world it inhabits is from almost 70 years ago. But it is worth the effort. So I encourage you to settle down with the book – preferably in a comfortable chair, by a crackling fire, and with your favorite drink – and enter the entertaining, insightful, and somewhat cynical world of Beverley Nichols.

Note: Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer in a career spanning 60 years. Best remembered for his gardening books, his most popular is Down The Garden Path, which has been in nearly continuous print since 1932. Merry Hall is the first book of the Merry Hall trilogy. If you like it, the next book, Laughter On The Stairs, shifts the focus to restoring the 22-room mansion amidst life in the village. The final book, Sunlight on the Lawn, brings more stories of the house, garden, friends, and neighbors. All of the books are available on Amazon. Regrettably, they are not available at the Billings Public Library. I’ll remedy that if I find some spare funds.

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