As a gardening author, I have read and enjoyed a lot of gardening books by a lot of wonderful authors.
Writers like Masanobu Fukuoka, Steve Solomon, Herrick Kimball, Eric Toensmeier, Toby Hemenway, Ruth Stout, Robert Kourik, Sepp Holzer, Jeff Lowenfels, Bill Mollison, Dick Raymond, Carol Deppe, Gene Logsdon, Rosalind Creasy, Suzanne Ashworth, Thomal Elpel…
…okay, I could keep doing this but I should stop. Except to say that Amy Stross is now on my list of Good gardening authors (pun intended). I just finished reading The Suburban Micro-Farm and I can say without reservation that it’s the best book of its kind I’ve read yet.
A few years ago, Brett Markham’s very popular book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre opened a new sub-genre of gardening titles. When I got the chance to check out Stross’s book, I at first wondered if she would cover new ground or if this would be another take on Markham’s intensive backyard gardening approach. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she has a unique perspective of her own — and she covers material that some authors gloss over.
Myth Busting Suburban Food Production
She also covers the myths that hold many back from gardening, and even makes a good argument for the suburbs:
“…some people today think of the suburbs as an embarrassment, with water-hoarding lawns and a lack of car-centric alternatives, so they choose to live elsewhere. I once made that decision for myself and enjoyed my urban apartment within walking distance of amenities and no lawn to worry about. It was a dandy time! However, if we realize the enormous potential the suburbs have to change overall consumption habits and transform land use practices, the suburbs could end up being just the solution our cities—and perhaps even civilization—need. After all, out-lying villages have performed this function in ancient cities of the world throughout history. All we need are some pioneering micro-farmers!”
I completely agree. The push towards putting us all in little apartments and big, soul-less cities rankles me. I’m a product of suburban South Florida and I can tell you: There are a lot of people growing food there and it wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It’s not all a wasteland. Grow where you’re planted.
Another myth she mentions is the myth that a small space – a small amount of food, noting that “in actuality, it doesn’t take much space to grow a lot of food–only creativity.”
A case in point: This last season my 10-year-old son grew 50 pounds of ginger roots in a roughly 5-by-8-foot bed. My eight-year-old planted a similar sized bed and managed to grow 68 pounds of winter squash on one vine, plus a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes and multiple African yam roots. The square vines sprawled up and over the fence and into a little citrus tree which was soon decorated with huge, melon-like squash.
You can grow up, you can grow in unused strips, you can grow in buckets, bathtubs, along the sidewalk, even under trees. It just takes creativity, and as Stross has shown, even 1/10 of an acre can give you big results.
Small-scale Gardening with Fruit Trees
Another point Stross makes is one I’ve repeated to my readers again and again. Start gardening on a small scale, learn to win, then expand:
“Plant only what you can manage – if you can’t maintain the existing stuff, why plant more? Gardens can be overwhelming, and that’s why I prioritize keeping what I’ve already planted alive and harvesting what I’ve already planted before I take on new tasks like building more garden beds or planting for the next season.”
Seriously, she’s got it. And this is just one of many points in this book where I found myself nodding along. This observation, for example:
“A fruit tree can be the single-most source of fresh produce for the least amount of space and effort.”
Plant fruit trees and get them established until they can take care of themselves and you’ll reap the benefits for years — and others will into the future. We used to have two pear trees at a previous house. They had been neglected for years yet still bore plenty of fruit. In fact, a neighbor told me that the trees were supposed to have been ‘Bradford’ pears, not fruiting pears, and had been planted on accident. What a happy accident! For the years we lived there we had pear pies and pear butter, we made pear brandy and pears in syrup, pear salsa and pear sauce — plus our children ate the honey-sweet, sun-warmed fruit right from the trees. Now another family is there and still enjoying pears.
Stross is right. It was almost no effort to keep those pears and the amount of fruit they provided was startling. When I got to the portion on growing berries, I thought, “okay, Amy, you’d better mention mulberries… if you miss mulberries I’ll know you’re a no-good poser!” And then she mentioned mulberries. Mulberries are incredibly productive and easy-to-grow but there are still a lot of gardeners and writers who completely fail to mention them. Good work.
Sprinklers for Irrigation and Toxic Manure
I did disagree with her dislike of sprinklers for irrigation. My preferred method is to use stand pipes with sprinkler heads on them, set in an overlapping pattern. She is correct that they are wasteful, yet I like their mimicry of the rain as well as the fact I don’t have to worry about fiddling with drip irrigation. You can move beds around, stick potted plants under them, fix problems quickly and they don’t clog up as easily.
This isn’t a big quibble, however. I just like simple and have plumbing allergies. Another note, which isn’t a disagreement per se, is that Stross somewhat understates the risk of herbicide contamination in manure. She does give a warning but it could be missed:
“When finding livestock manure locally, look for farms that pasture-raise their animals and feed them organic feed, since manure from other types of farms can include herbicide residues that can stunt plant growth.”
Some of these toxins go far beyond “stunting” plant growth and well into “nuking gardens from orbit” territory. I once bought a load of cow manure, which killed some of my fruit and nut trees, an entire 80-foot row of blackberry bushes, plus multiple garden beds. The cows looked happy and were raised on pasture but the farmer had sprayed the field with an aminopyralid-based herbicide the previous year to kill pigweed — and the manure, well-aged and beautiful as it was, still contained the stuff.
It’s very important to ask questions as Stross recommends, but it’s also important to know that many farmers don’t have a firm grasp of the long-term implications of some toxins. I’d like to see lots of underlining and capitalization in warnings on manure these days! Like Stross, I won’t take manure from anyone’s farm anymore unless I know they both don’t spray anything and don’t buy in commercial feed. Hay often contains these herbicides and they’ll pass right through the animal’s digestion and into the manure. Even after composting, they’re still potent enough to destroy a year’s worth of gardening.
You might read Stross’s warning and say “I think we’ll be okay since so-and-so is doing fine,” but don’t be too sure. Also, know that there are plenty of people that haven’t been hit yet who are walking a thin line. I once brought up the issue in a column I wrote and one well-known gardening author completely denied the risk altogether, then went on to call me names. Once you’ve seen your gardens wrecked, though, you’ll never doubt the deadliness of modern agrichemicals.
The Suburban Micro-Farm isn’t just a book for wonderfully crazy people who want to turn their yards into food factories. It’s a well-rounded book which works as a great beginning book for new gardeners and a solid set of ideas for more advanced growers.
It’s also very real in that it doesn’t present a pie-in-the-sky picture of what to expect. It’s a book on growing your skills over time, using hacks which work, observing and learning and struggling and planting until you find what works. She even shares her trouble with getting community involvement and dealing with less-than-enthusiastic neighbors. Not everyone is going to “get” your enthusiasm and jump on board. There will always be lawn-lovers and complainers. There will also be weeds and bugs and not enough time to get things done. Yet, after consistent little pieces of work over time, you’ll find break-throughs and move towards a healthy, satisfying and better future where more and more of your food is coming from your own soil — soil rich in minerals and life, without chemicals and toxins.
Also, kudos to Stross for not writing an obligatory chapter on climate change. We know what the problems are and reading a gardening book that stays out of political activism is refreshing. She gives you change that will make your life better without scaring the pants off her readers, letting you know that this world isn’t perfect but you can build something wonderful in your own backyard. Or front yard, for those of you with extra guts.
Finally, Becky Bayne’s illustrations nicely complement the text. They’re clean and neat and easy to understand. Illustrators rarely get the kudos they deserve.
My verdict: 5 out of 5 stars. Stross shares good encouragement and good advice and her recommendations mesh with my own experience over the decades I’ve been gardening. Get a copy and get another copy for a friend. You’ll enjoy it — especially if you’ve followed Stross’s writing at Tenth-Acre Farm.
It’s a great first book and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future. Vive la révolution suburbaine! The Suburban Micro-Farm (2018) is available from Chelsea Green Publishing.
David The Goodis a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme CompostingandGrow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. Find new inspiration every weekday at his websiteTheSurvivalGardener.comand on hisYouTube channel. Read all of David’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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