The Resilient Gardener:
Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

by Carol Deppe

Chelsea Green, 2010. ISBN 978-1-603-58031-1.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 11/03/2010

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

I have been looking for a book like this one for several years, so the publication of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times gives me cause for rejoicing. Carol Deppe (whose earlier book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, should be on every gardener's must-read list) brings us practical, common-sense garden wisdom and comprehensive, detailed advice for producing our own food staples. She's funny, too, and her wry humor goes a long way toward lightening her serious subject.

Carol Deppe is a long-time gardener and plant breeder (in Corvallis, Oregon) who specializes in developing open-pollinated, public-domain food plants for organic gardens. The Resilient Gardener encourages us to redesign our gardens for hard times. Its first focus, Deppe says, is on achieving greater control over our food supply, rather than relying on fossil-fueled industrial agriculture to supply our staple foods. Its second focus: on surviving the natural and personal disasters (droughts, family emergencies) that can wreak havoc in the garden. Its third: on gardening not just in the good times, or even in the hard times, but "gardening in mega-hard times." And not just gardening for ourselves, either, but for others: "A gardener who knows how to garden in both good times and bad can be a reservoir of knowledge and a source of resilience for the entire community." The bottom line, for Deppe, is the awareness that a time may come when our gardening pastime turns into a basic survival skill. Natural disasters, widespread resource depletions (fossil fuel, water, soil), or a catastrophic economic downturn may require us to grow our food, she says, so it's a very good idea to learn how to do this before we have no other alternative. To which I say "amen."

The first four chapters expand Deppe's definition of resilience and self-sufficiency in the context of climate change, possible food shortages, and personal dietary needs. The next three focus on gardening essentials: labor and tools, water, and soil fertility. There's lots of important basic information here, and I found myself frequently underlining and taking notes. Her chapter on the laying flock (although it feels a bit interruptive to me, coming as it does between potatoes and squash) fits neatly into her DIY food philosophy. Home-grown protein-rich eggs are an important addition to our diets, and even urban gardeners are finding ways to raise backyard poultry these days. I learned from her discussion of ducks and, while I'm a chicken person, I have to admit that it made me nostalgic for the ducks I've raised in the past. I had to smile, too, at the love and humor evident in the song she sings when she tucks her ducks in for the night: "It's Great to be a Ducky in the Rain."

But the really good stuff in this book happens in Deppe's chapters on potatoes, squash, beans, and corn—staple foods that do not receive enough attention in our arugula-centered gardens. Because Deppe is a plant breeder, she knows these plants from seed to harvest and beyond, and offers an extraordinary amount of valuable planting, culture, harvest, and storage information. Although some readers may not feel they need all the technical advice on plant breeding, Deppe's guidance on the selection of varieties, on garden layout and planning, and on pollination is basic, helpful, and encouraging. As well, she is an enthusiastic cook and relies on each of these four staple crops in her own diet, so she includes some excellent recipes and cookery information, as well. There's more to corn than roasting ears, and more to squash than zucchini!

It has been very good to see the recent swing away from ornamental to vegetable gardening. Some garden writers are beginning to pay serious attention to the practical business of raising our own groceries and are encouraging us to become less dependent on the supermarket as our sole food supplier. But Carol Deppe's book stands out among the current crop of vegetable gardening guides in the same way that a 10-foot stalk of Aztec Red Mexican corn stands out in my garden. If you're looking for help in growing staple crops at home, put The Resilient Gardener at the top of your list.

Carol Deppe is a gardener and plant breeder who focuses on developing public-domain plants in sustainable situations, as food for human survival. She is the author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and Tao Te Ching: A Window to the Tao through the Words of Lao Tzu. She has a BS in zoology and a Ph.D. in biology and has been gardening in Corvallis, Oregon for thirty-plus years.

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