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The Way We Garden Now

Kip reviews The Way We Garden Now by Katherine Whiteside

The mission statement of this book is to "get you going on the path to happy gardening." Not "skillful gardening" or "successful gardening" you will notice, but "happy gardening." Admittedly, I am not what you would call a happy gardener — I'm too obsessive for that, and too intent on perfection, which is always up ahead around the next corner. And I am not all that happy with some of the advice given in The Way We Garden Now. For example:

...I know that some books advocate the use of mulch in flower beds to keep the weeds down, but I don't like this look. If I may be blunt, it hints of gas station landscaping. Mulch also prevents annuals from gracefully self-seeding and perennials from gently spreading so that you never lose that "brand-new garden" stiffness.

Really? What about the use of mulch to conserve moisture and keep the soil from crusting over? I often use grass clippings to mulch annual flower beds, a practice rarely observed at gas stations in my neck of the woods. If self-seeding is a desirable outcome, you better not plant hybrid varieties because hybrids will not come back true to type from seed. (Even with mulch I weed out thousands of second-generation seedlings every year.) As for perennials, I've been mulching mine with bark nuggets for decades, and those that have a tendency to spread do so with such vigor I spend hours every spring dividing and thinning them. What I wouldn't give for a bit of "brand-new garden" stiffness.

Chapter seven ("Don't Get Bugged") is about preparing a line of defense against insects. Naturally, after more than 20 seasons as gardener for The Victory Garden, I've dealt with more than my share of insects, and I was interested in seeing whether I might be able to pick up a few tips.

An organic gardener has many allies to call upon in the battle against bad bugs. Wild birds, ducks, chickens...

Whoa! Stop right there. One year our chickens were allowed to run free, and the damage they did to our gardens in one week was more than a season's worth of unfettered insects could have done. But let's move on:

Use floating row covers to keep flea beetles and other bad bugs off food crops. Remove when flowering to allow for pollination.

Well, all right... except for the part about flea beetles. Flea beetles live close to the ground and will likely be present before the row cover is put in place; they positively flourish in the warm, protected environment the row cover provides. I could go on and on like this, but I think you've gotten the idea by now.

Ms. Whiteside's book is full of methods and techniques I find questionable in the light of my experience of having to produce a camera-ready garden on demand week after week during the growing season, and the cartoon-like illustrations that garnish its pages make me wonder whether I'm supposed to take it seriously. To be fair, the book also contains a lot of sound, solid information, but the problem will be sorting the weeds from the prize flowers. The unbridled enthusiasm with which she presents her 41 pick-and-choose projects will likely be infectious for many people who haven't mustered the nerve to tackle horticultural endeavors their yards are crying for, and that's probably a good thing. But as for me, much of what she recommends is not the way I garden now.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007