Beach Books for Veggie Gardeners

All right, maybe not the beach. But as we exit spring and enter the “oh maybe I’d rather stay indoors in the AC” season, I’ve got some recently-published books that might encourage you to get out there and make your garden better (but you can read them inside on a hot day and count that as horticultural education). Want to learn how to identify and deal with pests? Want to know if there’s anything to this “companion planting” stuff? And what’s up with “regenerative gardening”—can your soil really feed your plants? Read on!

The first book is The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook by Susan Mulvihill. I recently reviewed this book for Washington Gardener Magazine, and here’s what I said in the first paragraph:

Sometimes, a reviewer just has to take a deep breath, stare longingly into a book’s front cover, and let out a heartfelt WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? And then get on with the review. This book may not be the ideal dream reference guide to insect pests I’ve always wanted, but it is darn close. Just having a book that covers all (or nearly all) of the nasty little bugs that attack our vegetable plants, and in fact does more (but not too much more), is fantastic. It’s not a doorstopper guide to every insect you might find in your landscape no matter where you live in the U.S., which can be useful but overwhelming; it’s also not a guide to growing vegetables that mentions a few pests offhand that somehow are never the ones you’ve encountered in your own patch. It is the just-right Goldilocks find of the garden book world.

You can tell I might be a little enthusiastic about this new pest guide! Really, I recommend this to everyone: experienced veggie gardeners who have seen all these bugs but want to learn more, and especially beginners who are encountering them for the first time and feeling discouraged. This book gives you organic solutions to deal with pest insects (and related friends) with plenty of information about life cycles and favored plants so you can track them down. And you can find them in the book, too: by name, by appearance, and by the plants they’re likely to be feeding on. More than 30 pests are described, with tons of practical advice.

Next we have Plant Partners: Science-Based Companion Planting Strategies for the Vegetable Garden by Jessica Walliser. “Companion planting” has always been a pretty iffy combination of folklore, anecdotes, and actually valuable advice; this book sorts out the science from the junk. If you’re expecting a tidy chart of which plants “like” other plants, you will be disappointed, but if you want a guide to practices like cover cropping, purposeful allelopathy, interplanting for pest and disease management, trap crops, beneficial insect attraction, and living trellises, this is the book for you. There are lots of plant combinations and other suggestions to follow up on, and all the studies referenced are listed in a bibliography, so you can read them yourself if you’re science-minded and curious.

A good “companion book” for Walliser’s would be Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler, which describes how the soil food web can be nurtured in a way that both benefits our environment and creates a bountiful garden. Making great soil is like building a house from the roof down, Miessler says: cover first, and then work on walls, ventilation and plumbing, and a nice well-stocked pantry. There’s an increasing body of literature on the practices of regenerative agriculture; this is the equivalent for us home gardeners, without the cattle.

Enjoy your summer reading, and your improved garden!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

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