Monday, February 11, 2008

Gardening Book Review #4: The Kitchen Garden

The Kitchen Garden: A Passionate Gardener’s Comprehensive Guide to Growing Good Things to Eat by Sylvia Thompson*

This is one of the best all-around gardening books I’ve ever read. Organized encyclopedia-style, with entries for each category of vegetable, it supplements the usual information about how to grow the plants with fascinating descriptions of unusual and tasty varieties as well as anecdotes from the author’s own gardening experience. Although Thompson’s climate zone (in southern California) is far different from mine, her scope is not restricted to her own region but includes pointers for those in other zones. There’s also a section in the back of the book with practical information about gardening in general, with charts and advice on miscellaneous subjects such as growing plants indoors under lights.

Her philosophy about which kinds of plants to grow is attractive, as well: She favors varieties that have great flavor in the kitchen, and she is committed to diversity. Part of her philosophy about vegetable diversity is rooted in the idea that maintaining a wide variety of edibles helps ensure that our food sources will be resistant to disease and other blights, but part of it, too, comes from her acknowledgment of the sheer fun of growing things that taste or look special.

She tells us how peppers are categorized according to shape, then explains how climate affects their flavor. In a long section on beans, she devotes space to dried, fresh, and shelly (fresh-shelled) beans and how to cultivate beans of many types. She isn’t afraid to make recommendations and to name varieties (such as the Kentucky Blue pole bean that I grew last year) that fellow gardeners have found disappointing in flavor or yield. Every so often, in one or another of the entries, she throws in some uncommon bits of information that can be tremendously helpful, such as her idea of germinating carrot seeds in a water bath before planting them or an explanation of how phosphorus levels in the soil affect the sharpness of onions.

This book lends itself particularly well to winter reading, because it allows the gardener to sit down with a favorite catalog and compare the varieties offered with Thompson’s commentary. This is the time for making decisions, and it’s important to know what kinds of varieties are suited to one’s climate or style of gardening. Thompson introduces her readers to the pleasures of growing produce that is fresher, more interesting, and better tasting than they would commonly find at the supermarket—which is a big part of what makes home gardening fulfilling.

* A companion volume called The Kitchen Garden Cookbook is also available.