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

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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

GARDENING IN THE 18TH CENTURY

It’s mid-June and the spring planting rush is over. Thank heavens for all of the resources we have at our fingertips—from nurseries, seed catalogs, the library, and the internet to our own Master Gardeners’ private cache and network.

Such a plethora begs the question of how people got their gardening information before the modern advantages we all enjoy.

Plants and information moved much more slowly but I think you might be surprised at the variety available to people living in a four-mile-an-hour world in which most people seldom left their counties. Here are three examples.

William Faris, a silversmith, clockmaker and avid gardener, lived in Annapolis, MD across from the state capitol from 1728-1804. Because of his prime location, he had contact with everyone from local slaves to the governor and he discussed gardening and traded seeds with anyone he could. He was, in fact, the hub of a very democratic gardening network. In addition, because Annapolis was an international port, Faris had early information of which ships arrived from where and what plants, seeds and people they carried. He had access to seeds and plants from around the world. Luckily for us, Faris kept a careful diary of his gardening, including sketches of his garden layout and the plants he and his slave cultivated. You can read more about Faris in Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805 (Baltimore, 1998) by Barbara Wells Sarudy.
Also, read her excellent blog about all things gardening in early America at this link:
https://americangardenhistory.blogspot.com.

Charles Carroll, Barrister, lived in Annapolis at the same time as William Faris and surely knew him. As a young man, Carroll decided to build a country house on the Patapsco River, in what is now Baltimore, on land he owned and on which was an
iron mine. A wealthy bachelor, Carroll planned a showpiece plantation, Mount Clare, that included an extensive orchard, a kitchen garden and a greenhouse (in which he and his wife later grew pineapples.) If he got seeds from William Faris, he did not make note of it. Rather, many of the varieties of fruit trees and vegetables he grew at Mt. Clare came directly from England. It was a slow process but Carroll wanted to do everything according to the latest standards of the time. The process began when Carroll shipped iron from his mine to London. He sent with the captain a very long shopping list of all the fruit trees, vegetable seeds and latest gardening manual he wanted the captain to bring with him on his return to Maryland. Dozens of varieties were available to him. Three months later when the captain arrived in London, he handed the list over to Carroll’s agent in London who did the shopping and delivered the plants, seeds and book to the ship. That may have taken several months. It was at least a three-month journey back to Mt. Clare and the condition of the plants depended completely on the diligence of the captain in seeing that they were watered and protected from the sea weather. Many of the plants must have survived the trip because the grounds of Mount Clare were well-known once they were established. For pictures of Mount Clare, see 
http://www.mountclare.org/.


John Bartram (1699-1777), a Philadelphia Quaker and botanist, traveled up and down the eastern colonies collecting native American plant species in the early part of the eighteenth century. He took them back to Philadelphia and established a plant nursery. In addition, he began to collect seeds, plants and knowledge from correspondents, many of whom were in England. Bartram’s Garden became the first plant nursery in the colonies and had customers from the colonies as well as England. In 1765, King George III named Bartram his “Royal Botanist”. Bartram’s son, William, also a naturalist and plant explorer, ran the family nursery after his father’s passing. After 1810, John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband, Robert, took over and expanded the gardens. At one point, they offered 1400 native species and over 1000
exotic plants to their customers. The gardens closed for business in 1850. Luckily for us, though, the gardens were preserved, first privately and now as a public historic site. You can learn more about Bartram’s Gardens at
https://bartramsgarden.org/about/history/horticulture/.

To my knowledge, no one has made a comparison of the species and varieties available to early Americans and those available to us today. I suspect that they would find that while we enjoy a wide number of genera native to many parts of the globe we have
lost what people in the past had—a smaller number of genera and a larger number of species and varieties. It gives one pause.


Submitted by Trudy Eden

The Zen of Gardening by David Wann

I marvel at the lush gardens I see on gardening shows and admit to a bit of
“green” envy. Unfortunately, those shows and gardening books for the humid
eastern U.S. do not help me much here in Montana. Instead I seek out advice
from gardeners who create successful gardens in our challenging conditions out
west.

David Wann is one such gardener. David began gardening at 7000 feet outside
Denver in the early 1980s. He has faced the same drought, wind, heat, cold, hail,
poor soils and short growing seasons that we cope with here in Montana. He
has distilled decades of experimental gardening and many lessons from masterful
gardeners that he has interviewed and worked with into this book.

Mr. Wann covers a very wide range of topics from mulching, choosing natives,
starting seeds, growing garlic, producing food in the winter to planting trees,
shrubs and perennial flowers. The novice and the seasoned gardener alike will
find great information here. As I read the book, I started a list of useful tips that
I plan to implement in my garden, such as mulching potato plants with pine needles, feeding my strawberries with compost and bone meal, using different methods of seed-starting to meet the varying needs of seeds, growing hairy vetch as a cover crop and companion plant to tomatoes, and trying the adage “When cottonwoods bud, plant the spuds.”

This book is not a story that you can read through like a novel. It is more a reference book and can be read gradually or used as a go-to source for specific help. One philosophical approach I particularly like about Mr. Wann’s gardening is that
there are lessons in failures—gardens are an experiment that we learn from every year. That is one of the things I love about gardening—there is always something new and useful to learn. And I definitely learned a lot reading The Zen of Gardening.

Reviewed by Ann Guthals