Grow the Good Life: Book Review

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My first reaction upon opening Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise by Michele Owens was, “Ah, a gardening book without pictures.” I am more of an essay person myself, and it seems like it has been a long time since I have found a newly published collection of garden essays to read. But while any of the chapters in this book could function as a stand-alone essay, they are even better as parts of a whole.

The Secret Is Out

Michele gives away the secret: gardening isn’t as complicated as it’s been made out to be. Or perhaps I should say, gardening can be as complicated as you want to make it–or as simple. In her chapter on Money, I was reminded of similar parallels between new gardeners and new parents. For both, the industry wants to sell you a plethora of “essential” equipment, when in reality there are few essentials and the rest may or may not make life more convenient for you. And there are as many methods or styles of gardening as there are gardeners. There’s no one right way to garden.

bowl of tomatoesThere’s plenty in this book that I’d wish I’d known when I started out, but figured out for myself eventually. Facts such as, every year, some vegetables will do better than others, due to factors beyond your control, namely, the weather. And that most of gardening is learned on the job, by trying something and seeing if it works. And that double-digging and rototilling are not the best ways to condition your soil. I found myself nodding my head in agreement numerous times. This is exactly what I’d tell anyone just getting started, backed up with more research than I’d be able to muster. (Some soil bacteria are mood lifters? Who knew? Yet veteran gardeners would not be surprised.)

It’s Not Quite The Same For Me

butternut squashBut there are ways in which my gardening experience has differed from Michele’s. I’ve yet to mulch my entire garden the way she has, though I’m sure it would save time and improve the soil. Why don’t I? Part of it is a failure to find suitable inexpensive mulch materials in sufficient quantity. Maybe that is a lack of imagination, or perhaps a lack of social skills. Or maybe I’m just scared that once I have that big pile of whatever sitting in the driveway, I won’t have the time or energy to get it distributed over the garden, and the whole family will be mad at me, and I’ll look like a fool.

And frankly, gardening hasn’t had the same slimming effect for me as it obviously has had for Michele. I certainly agree that gardening is good exercise, but for me, even at the height of the gardening season, it needs to be supplemented with additional exercise if I’m going to see a downward trend on the scale. Maybe that’s my metabolism, or maybe I don’t work as hard as Michele. I just want to point out that gardening may not be the total solution for your weight problem, even if it is the most soul-satisfying one.

Michele’s children seem uniformly gung-ho about gardening, but some of my kids are more enthusiastic than others. Some make it clear that the only contribution they want to make is eating. A few want to indulge their spring fever by helping to dig on the first mild day; after that, forget it. And a few others, the diehards, want the whole enchilada: to plant, to weed, to water, to harvest. But all of them, regardless of their level of involvement, know where their food comes from, and they all know that store-bought produce doesn’t taste nearly as good as homegrown.

Finally, arugula is one of Michele’s must-grow crops, but my arugula is just too bitter. What am I doing wrong?

Gardening Is As Varied As Humans Are

But really, all those differences just prove Michele’s point: that gardening is a human activity, and is as endlessly variable as humans themselves. If you’ve tried gardening and were disappointed by the weeds or the skimpy harvest, read Grow the Good Life. I bet you’ll be inspired to try again. And if you’ve thought about growing your own food, but just weren’t sure, I think Michele will persuade you to overcome your hesitation. Just remember: start small, feed the soil, and grow what you like to eat.

Rodale Press sent me Michele’s book to review not knowing whether I would or not. I thought it was worth sharing with you. And I suppose I should confess that my husband, the Gentleman Farmer, is the vegetable grower in the family. I pretty much stick to the inedible ornamentals, though I cook what he grows.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

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Deborah March 4, 2011, 12:16 pm

We’ve grown arugula for years, and find it’s much like lettuce in that the bitterness increases with heat stress. If we get it out early and cover it with row cover (to limit flea beetle access), it’s great stuff. And when it starts bolting, pull it out and fry the usable bits up with some garlic and olive oil. Yumm!

Kathy Purdy March 4, 2011, 2:03 pm

I should probably be sowing it at the same time as spinach and peas, right? I am the only one who likes it even at its best, so it’s hard not to sow too much.

Marianne Peters February 28, 2011, 10:40 am

Hi Kathy — thanks for the book review! I’ll definitely have to look this one up. I’m with you — I’m not sure gardening is all that slimming for me. Maybe because I insist on eating everything I grow! It’s probably all that pasta and olive oil. I keep insisting to my triathlete husband that gardening is just as beneficial as swimming, biking, and running, and that if he gets a fancy-schmachy tri-bike, I should get to spend that much on my gardening equipment! Thankfully, we tolerate each other’s passions pretty well. I subscribe to your blog and always enjoy it. Keep up the good work!

Kathy Purdy February 28, 2011, 10:48 am

Hi, Marianne, I remember meeting you at the GWA symposium in OKC. Thanks for stopping by!

Donna February 27, 2011, 6:31 pm

Kathy so glad you liked it…it is on the “to read” pile…I have never mulched my whole garden either for many of the same reasons you cite..oh well…and I am trying arugula for the first time this yr…I’ll let you know…

Barbara Bell February 26, 2011, 12:59 pm

I enjoy reading about your efforts, even though my gardening efforts have been minimal in the past couple of years. Lack of consistent sun in any part of my property limits what will grow, though I have a few small successes.

I enjoyed your review because I very much agree that gardening is a very personal, almost “custom” activity – it becomes what you have put into it, you take from it what you want and need. It’s not “one size fits all”.

Donna February 26, 2011, 8:43 am

I really enjoyed your review and commentary on the thoughts within on gardening and enthusiasm. I mulch my garden, one because it is tiny, but more importantly it is free and done by my friend the landscaper. I do collect all his farm refuse too to bring back to nourish the soil. Like composted manure, pine needles, composed nursery plants, fresh topsoil, etc. He has a wealth of stuff down there that helps make great tillable soil. I just have to be in the collecting mood and have a strong back.

Jacqueline D'Elia February 26, 2011, 6:19 am

Great post Kathy. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in my 40 years of gardening has been during the past 5 years. No tilling is one of them. I’ve opted for the layered approach that mimics what nature does on native prairies and forest floors. In 2009 I added a truck load of leaf mold compost to my garden, and it has done wonders for my beds, and my lawn. A great soil builder.

BTW, your blog is one of the best Wordpress implementations for a garden blog I’ve seen. Love your section on Blogging Arts&Practice.

Kathy Purdy February 27, 2011, 2:01 pm

Thank you, Jacqueline. Blogging Art & Practice is where I share blogging tips and offer paid help for Wordpress and Thesis.