this is not a review: no guff vegetable gardening by donna balzer and steven biggs

Seems I’ve outgrown many of my old gardening books. Not because I’ve learned so very much [mostly what I’ve learned is how much I don’t know] but because my style has changed. Used to be I liked a cacophony of colour from March to November, which meant endless planning and revising, wandering the crowded aisles of garden centres in a confused fog, pushing about a giant trolly, only to find all that consideration of height and spread and bloom time amounted to zip when somehow all the tall yellow stuff ended up together—not to mention the expense of annuals to fill in gaps and baskets and pots everywhere.

Worse, at the end of a day of ‘garden management’, I’d kick back on the patio with a glass of wine, look at the lovely vista in front of me and say: oh crap, the phlox is three inches too close to the Echinacea… and they’re both pink!!

And then one day, I’m not sure when or how, I changed.

Now my pots are filled with food: peppers and eggplant and basil, and what I like best is green with splashes of colour wherever colour chooses to appear. I like surprises better than control. There are few annuals and all the perennials are either native or very hearty. No wimps allowed.

And nothing is ever in the wrong place. Sometimes I move stuff, sometimes I don’t.

So goodbye fancy formal books that describe how to do Vita Sackville West’s white garden, or Hugh Johnson’s idea of simplicity—something along the lines of casual Versailles—and hello No Guff Vegetable Gardening, by Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs.

That is where I’m at today. Food and simplicity.

And that, thank god, is where Balzer and Biggs are at.

Not only do they get the joy of gardening and, specifically, the pleasures of growing food, they’re able to share that enthusiasm—along with the wisdom of their experience—in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a book.

Written from slightly varying points of view—their differing opinions centre around gadgets, fertilizer, cauliflower coddling…[and getting both sides is part of the fun]—but overall there is agreement on the basics of organic and do-able gardens. The pages are a mix of beautiful photos, colourful illustrations by Mariko McCrae, charts, lists, refreshingly straightforward advice from starting a garden to succession crops to harvesting tips to composting—essentially everything any home veggie gardener needs to know or be reminded of, and then some.

With that much info coming at you it’s easy to slide into a cluttered look but they’ve avoided that with good page layouts—multi-coloured fonts and backgrounds and a balance of graphics and pics—making for easy to read bite sized chatty chunks… and [so clever] both the cover and the pages are a smooth glossy finish as if made to be delved into straight from the garden with mucky in-the-middle-of-a-situation-that-needs-an-answer-NOW  hands.

Which is exactly how I approached the book the other day when I noticed my zucchini are all flower and no veggies and found out why in a small blurb on p.146 under the title: ‘Gender Roles Affect Squash Harvest’… wherein it was very simply explained [I’m paraphrasing here] that the bees haven’t done their job and hand-pollinating is in order. Male flowers have a long stem; females, a short stubby one. Get a tiny paintbrush and go to it. Directions are supplied of course, as is an aside by Biggs saying he’s never hand-pollinated and feasts on the blossoms instead. Which is what I chose to do. And may I say they’re delicious. (Dip blooms in egg wash, then bread crumbs, and sauté lightly in butter with a drop of olive oil so they don’t burn. If you want to stuff the blooms, do that before dipping. This is so good that I’m not even sad about no zucchini this year. I go out every day and pick the flowers instead.)

For me this book is a little like having that neighbour at your beck and call [the one who grows the best tomatoes and beans], dispensing not only answers but pearls of garden wisdom, anecdotes, recipes, back and forth exchanges and incidentals. You just want to hang around and hear more, ask questions.

Having said that, should you ever find yourself in the mood for the intricate details of herbal knots, Latin binomials or how to maintain French lavender topiaries in the shape of the Eiffel Tower—there are better books on the subject. What I like about the No Guff concept is its smart idle chat feel; you don’t read it so much as open it and find a conversation [or debate] that welcomes you right in, practically pours you a drink and never says a word about conflicting colours.

This one’s going straight onto the gifts-to-give list.

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