Exotic Additions: Perennial Vegetables

Exotic Additions: Perennial Vegetables - A book/DVD combo for a great gardening gift

Perennial Vegetables by Eric ToensmeierWith winter setting in and visions of lush spring gardens already dancing in our heads, here is something to intrigue and inspire you or your favorite gardener: a book/DVD combination on how to grow 100+ perennial vegetables. From asparagus, rhubarb, and ramps to taro, goji berries and perennial cucumbers, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles by Eric Toensmeier won the American Horticultural Society Book Award and is a gorgeous book will set your mouth watering and have you paging through seed catalogs for some permanent additions to your garden. The accompanying DVD (sold separately) is a “culmination of workshops recorded in Mexico, Florida and Massachusetts.” It’s an enjoyable way to be introduced to over 100 beautiful, practical perennial species, and is the perfect companion to Eric’s book. Both are available from publisher Chelsea Green as well as other booksellers.

(A note on sustainability: many people are interested in perennial varieties, because they can provide a perpetual, low-maintenance source of food. If you know me, you know I have reservations about this idea… so, while recommending this book wholeheartedly as an enjoyable read and a useful guide, I must insert a caveat: to maintain sustainability, be careful how you use perennials in your garden–they can be heavy feeders, and you don’t want to overburden your soil with constant extraction. However, used correctly and judiciously, perennials are an interesting, exotic part of the spectrum of species that can be used in sustainable gardening, and can add interest and new flavors to your table. You may want to use a few of them in your complete diet smallest scale GROW BIOINTENSIVE backyard mini farm!)

Booklist notes, “Toensmeier’s groundbreaking guide is destined to become the bible for this new class of edible growing.”

American Horticultural Society Book Award says, ‘promotes fresh thinking as to what a vegetable garden can be.

Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden observes, “Eric … has         comprehensively filled a huge gap in the sustainable landscape.”

Ellen Ecker Ogden, co-founder of The Cook’s Garden Seed Catalog, and author of From the Cook’s Garden, points out, “Toensmeier’s knowledge of edible plants is impressive and inspiring.”

From the back cover: “imagine growing vegetables that require just about the same amount of care as perennial flowers and shrubs—no annual tilling and planting. They thrive and produce abundant and nutritious crops throughout the season. … [including even] ground cherry, ramps, air potato, … the antioxidant-rich wolfberry…Toensmeier explains how to raise, tend, harvest and cook with plants the yield great crops and culinary satisfaction. Including dozens of color photographs and illustrations, and filled with valuable growing tips, recipes, and resources.” Easy to understand tables are a real plus!

Contents include:
37 Species Profiles
Perennial Vegetables for Each Climate Type
Recommended Reading, Helpful Organizations and Websites
Sources of Plants and Seeds
Sources of Gardening Supplies and Materials
A Bibliography
An Index

It reads well and is a joy to learn from. Now is the time to begin! Happy gardening, everyone!

Miraculous Abundance: 1/4 Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World

Miraculous Abundance Book CoverFor years, scientists and practitioners of sustainable agriculture have been aware that our food chain is vulnerable. Soil depletion, resource scarcity, population growth, and the many and varied impacts of global climate disruption can and do impact our ability to grow and source food.

If we needed more evidence, 2020 has shown us how our fragile our food chain really is: from shortages of key items in stores, to essential farm workers risking their lives harvesting in a pandemic, to crops lost due to lack of labor, to an inland hurricane or “derecho” that destroyed millions of acres of crops across the Midwest and felled hundreds of thousands of trees in an afternoon, to unemployment making it difficult or impossible for millions to buy food, it’s certainly a wake-up call that is being heard. From Peru to Kenya, from Canada to California, Ecology Action and our international partners are seeing an upsurge in the number of people wanting to learn to grow their own food, sustainably and affordably. And given that there is as little as 22.5 years of farmable soil remaining in the world, the miniaturization of farming and more truly sustainable practices are key to everyone being able to grow food right where they are.

While I’m a little biased towards How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible With Less Water On Less Land Than You Can Imagine as a guide to sustainable soil-building and mini-farming, I’m always happy to read about other people’s successes and ideas, and 2020 in particular has led me to search out the hopeful and inspiring stories to help light the way. Sometimes the thought of starting to grow your own food can be daunting and intimidating. So, if you are looking for a delicious and positive story that will inspire you to get out in the garden and start small, then Miraculous Abundance by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer is the book for you.

The back cover notes, “What began as a simple dream in an historic Normandy village has turned into one of the world’s most radical innovative experiments in small-scale farming…In this lovely, hopeful book, an unlikely couple creates an astonishingly productive edible landscape in Normandy, weaving together the insights, materials and techniques of dozens of acknowledged predecessors [while] restoring the biosphere.”

Topics include:
• Permaculture
• Biointensive Microagriculture
• Eliot Coleman
• The Parisian Market Gardeners of the Nineteenth
• The Forest Garden
• Working by Hand
• To Be Small
• Microfarms
• Microagriculture, Society, Planet
• The Earth is an Adventure
• Bio-Abundance

Miraculous Abundance is proof that we and our gardens can be a joyful part of the solution that grows a better tomorrow – for everyone. So, plant a garden and enjoy the adventure! Enjoy actualizing your dream! ●

Growing Strong: What’s Wrong with My Plant? (and how do I fix it?)

What's wrong with my plant book cover

🌻🌞Happy Summer to the Northern Hemisphere!🌞🌻 A new gardening season is here, and we want it to be an excellent one! The COVID-19 lockdown experience is a difficult for us all, but one of the silver linings that I can see is that so many people, finding themselves confined to their homes or communities, have turned to gardening to keep themselves occupied.

But as enjoyable and centering as growing plants can be, whether in a pot on a windowsill or a field full of garden beds, it is a process that has its own challenges. If conditions are not optimal, plants can fall prey to a variety of maladies; figuring out what to do about it can be frustrating, especially to new gardeners (Hint: If you know me, you know that I’m going to say that a good way to insure a healthy, productive garden is to create a good, fertile soil. How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries and Other Crops With Less Water Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine will show you how to grow the best, healthy soil. 😊)

Historically, newer farmers would ask more experienced farmers for advice when things went wrong, but in most places, “old farmers” are scarcer than essentials on the grocery shelves these days, so what do you do if your plants are looking peaky?  I have just the thing: What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix it?) A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth can make all the difference in the world (and your garden)—without resorting to unpronounceable chemicals: most problems can be solved organically! The key is to ACT, the minute you observe a challenge. I have found, if you use common sense and learn to “think like a plant”, you may find the problem disappears quickly! Once, years ago, we had a problem with the dreaded “black spot” on cherry tomatoes at our Common Ground Mini-Farm in the Stanford Industrial Park in Palo Alto, California. The books at the time said the only solution was to remove and destroy all the plants. You can imagine our distress. Instead, since the books also said it was caused by excessive humidity, we just stopped watering for four days to see what would happen. The black spot, which had been pervasive, disappeared.

IMG_3078For us, back in the “wild west” of the organic movement, we were making it up as we went along. Luckily, you don’t have to do that: What’s Wrong with My Plant? is an excellent guide to common sense plant care! “Extensive color illustrations and photographs guide you to a diagnosis and a safe organic solution. Part 1 presents easily understood, illustrated charts—organized by the plant part on which the symptoms appear that enable you to accurately diagnose what is ailing your plant. Part 2 tells you how to fix the problem; whatever the cause—growing conditions, pests, or disease—you’ll find a safe, organic solution. Part 3 is a photo gallery of all common problems…Curing a plant just doesn’t get any easier.”

Chapters include:

  • The parts of the plants
  • Roots, Bulbs, Root Vegetables, Seeds and Seedlings
  • Growing Conditions
  • Fungi
  • Insects
  • Mites
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Nematodes
  • Resources
  • References, and
  • An Index

In short, this is useful and interesting publication that can make troubleshooting in the garden… fun? Well, maybe. At the very least, you’ll learn enough to one day be an “old farmer” with advice to spare for the next batch of sprouts. You will become expert. The authors certainly are! Enjoy!


What to Read Now: Warm Climate Gardening

What to Read Now: Warm Climate Gardening

It’s winter here in the northern hemisphere, and farmers and gardeners everywhere are dreaming and planning about what to plant in the spring and summer!

While all gardens have their challenges, those who grow food and flowers in warm and/or arid climates need a special skill set to get their gardens to thrive and produce. Some plants thrive in the warm weather, but most vegetables and fruits begin to experience problems with germination when temperatures are higher (or lower) than the optimal range. Cool season plants like lettuce and broccoli germinate best at 55-70 F (13-21 C), while warm season plants like squash and marigolds germinate best at 70-85 F (21-13 C.). Fruit production and seed set are also effected; for example, tomatoes experience problems when temperatures get higher than 96 degrees F (36 C). I know when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, we had better luck growing vegetables and soft fruit in the (relatively) milder spring and autumn seasons. The summer could range often from 95 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit! And with climate change increasing temperatures across the globe, more farmers and gardeners will need to learn how to cope with hotter growing seasons.

Warm Climate Gardening Book CoverDon’t you wish there was a book that would tell you how to handle the heat? Funny you should ask! Barbara Pleasant’s book, Warm-Climate Gardening: Tips, Techniques, Plans, Projects for Humid or Dry Conditions is my go-to how-to for the challenges of hot-weather gardening. The book covers vegetables, flowers, fruits, herbs, ornamentals, grasses, and ground cover. From the back cover:

Do you garden where winter is an active growing season? Are your springs violent and short? Are your summers so hot that few plants (and few Gardeners) enjoy them? …you’ll find a solid source of information for your unique gardening needs, not a translation of cold-climate techniques. You’ll learn:

  • How to exploit the cool seasons lurking within the warm climate year
  • How to choose and manage drought-resistant plants
  • Why summer hardiness is as crucial as winter hardiness
  • How to schedule maintenance chores during pleasant weather
  • Labor-saving tips and suggestions that make gardening more fun.

Chapters include:

  • A Walk Through a Warm Climate Garden — What goes on behind the scenes
  • Gardening in Six Seasons — Fundamental Methods and Special Techniques
  • The Gourmet Garden — What, when and how to grow a productive vegetable garden
  • Sun Proof Fruits — Incorporating low-maintenance fruits into the home landscape
  • Fundamental Flowers — Best bloomers and how to grow them
  • Grasses and Ground Covers — Hardworking grasses and growable groundcovers
  • Solving Problems with Pests— Directory of pests and control methods — with many practical tips, and lists of both Challenges and Beneficial Insects
  • Regional Resources — Where to learn more
  • USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Don’t let the heat keep you out of the garden. Read this book and you may just find it’s possible to enjoy becoming proficient in Warm-Climate Gardening!

Join me for a 3-Day Workshop!

I wanted to keep you in the loop about Ecology Action’s upcoming workshop, and hope you will share this message with friends, family, and like-minded gardeners who could benefit from learning the GB method:

Ecology Action invites everyone to a  3-Day GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-Farming Workshop in Willits, CA on Nov. 6-8, 2020! (we are hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic will be resolved enough that the workshop will be possible. However, if it is necessary to cancel it, those registered to attend will receive a full refund or the option to transfer attendance to the Spring 2021 3-Day Workshop. )

GROW BIOINTENSIVE is the original regenerative, sustainable agriculture, rooted in heritage farm-craft and proven with science. Together with Ecology Action farm staff, I’ll  share the skills grown over 48 years of developing, using and teaching this wonderfully productive system.

In just 3 days, you’ll learn how to use up to 66% less water, up to 94% less energy, and grow soil up to 60 times faster than nature – all while increasing your garden yields—plus much more.

Whether you’re a backyard gardener or a market farmer, this workshop will build your skills, just in time to go into winter and prepare for spring. Come, have fun, and learn How to Grow More Vegetables (and other crops) than you ever thought possible, on less land, and with less water than you can imagine!

Complete information, prices, and registration are available at: growbiointensive.org/workshop.html

Registration closes November 1, but these workshops can fill early, so don’t wait too long!
Hope to see you there!

Eye Spy: A Book for the Budding Naturalist

Eye Spy: A Book for the Budding Naturalist

William Hamilton Gibson was an American illustrator, author and naturalist (1850-1896), well-known for his work in Harper’s Monthly. He also wrote several books including Pastoral Days: Or, Memories of New England and Highways and Byways. Eye Spy, — Afield with Nature Among Flowers and Animate Things, first published in 1897, is delightful a compilation of illustrations, short stories, and essays, providing an astounding exploration of the natural world for children and us all! The age of this publication only increases its usefulness. Its topics include:

  • A Naturalist’s Boyhood (which, unusually for the time, addresses itself to both boys and girls!)
  • The Story of the Floundering Beetle
  • Fox Fire
  • A Homely Weed with Interesting Flowers
  • The Fairy Sponges
  • Green Pansies
  • Mr. and Mrs. Tumble-Bug
  • the Horse-hair Snakes
  • Professor Wiggler
  • Cow-spit, Snake-spit and Frog-spit
  • The Paper Wasp and His Doings
  • The Spider’s Span
  • Ballooning Spiders
  • The Lacewing Fly
  • The Perfumed Beetles
  • Mushroom Spore-prints
  • Some Curious Cocoons
  • Nettle-Leaf Tent-Builders
  • The Evening Primrose
  • The Dandelion Burglar
  • The Troubles of the Housefly
  • Tendrils
  • A Strange Story of a Grasshopper
  • Riddles in Flowers
  • Luck in Clovers
  • Barberry Manners
  • A Woolly Flock
  • “What Ails Him?”
  • The Cicada’s Last Song

With its numerous detailed and evocative drawings and photos and a graceful and inviting writing style, Eye Spy is a fun and enjoyable book for the children (or young-at-heart naturalists) in your life to enjoy as a thoughtful window into the mysteries and beauty of the observed natural world.

Eye Spy by William Hamilton Gibson - Book CoverYou may be able to find the original in print format through the Interlibrary Loan Service at your local library. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform recently made a new, affordable print version available by scanning the original, noting “We believe this work is culturally important, and … have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.”

You can also find the original in electronic format for free online at https://archive.org/details/eyespyafieldwith00gibs.


Foraged Flavor: Finding Our Culinary Roots in Wild Food

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything we buy or grow to eat now was once a wild species. Our ancestors have done the bulk of the work identifying and domesticating the foods we now take for granted in our gardens and stores. But the world still holds a vast abundance of wild foods that you can enjoy if you know how to find them. Whether your backyard is a small plot of grass and weeds, or Winnie-the-Pooh’s 100-Acre Wood, foraging for flavorful, nutritious and delicious wild foods is a delightful way to reconnect with and experience the bounty of our beautiful planet in the same way our ancestors did.

Of course, you don’t want to just pick any old plant up off the ground and take a bite! When foraging, it’s important to follow some common-sense precautions to make sure what your eating is safe, and that you’re not harming the ecosystem as you harvest. Wild Edible blog provides an excellent list of basic guidelines for foragers, including finding a mentor, learning about habitat, being familiar with poisonous species, identifying companion plants, recognizing seasonal changes in plants, learning what parts are edible, keeping a foraging journal, harvesting safely and sustainably, avoiding toxic areas, leaving rare plants alone, and cultivating wild edibles in your garden. Of course, one of the main pieces of advice is: GET A GOOD BOOK!

Foraged flavor cover. Image: https://www.amazon.com/Foraged-Flavor-Fabulous-Ingredients-Backyard/dp/030795661X

With this in mind, I recommend one of the most exciting books on foraging and cooking in my experience; Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market by Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy Leroux.  I’d describe it for you, but the back cover says it best.

Forage for wild food and discover delicious edible plants growing everywhere—including your backyard—and how best to prepare them to highlight their unique flavors, with this seasonally organized field guide and cookbook.

While others have identified in the past which wild plants are edible, Tama Matsuoka Wong, the forager for Daniel, the flagship restaurant of renowned chef Daniel Boulud, and Eddy Leroux, its chef de cuisine, go two steps further, setting the bar much higher. First, they have carefully selected only the wild plants that are worth seeking out for their fabulous flavors. Second, after much taste-testing, they have figured out the best way to prepare each ingredient—a key in getting to know these exciting new foods. In Foraged Flavor, they reveal their seventy-one favorite plants, which are easy to identify and can be harvested sustainably across the country (including at farmers’ markets for those without access to nearby fields and forests). Tama helps readers uncover bright lemony oxalis growing in patches of their lawn or creeping jenny, with its unmistakable leaves and delicate green-pea flavor. Eddy then gives simple recipes to showcase the foraged finds, including Cardamine Cress with Fennel and Orange Vinaigrette; Braised Beef, Dandelion Leaves, and Clear Noodles; and Purslane Eggplant Caponata.

With twenty-five botanical illustrations, fifty color photographs of the plants, and tons of field- and kitchen-tested know-how, Foraged Flavor will be an indispensable guide for cooking enthusiasts.

The text is a delight to read, the identifying details beyond comparison—all being ordered by the time of the year! Descriptions on how to forage sustainably, how to harvest the plant optimally, and how to develop a Wild Kitchen Garden are unexpected and very desirable inclusions.

A very few of the succulent, mouth-watering detailed recipes include:

  • Scrambled Eggs with Wild Garlic Greens
  • Wild Garlic Green and Potato Pancakes
  • Pickled Wild Garlic Bulbs
  • Sautéed Henbit with Fava Beans and Cipollini Onions
  • Galium (Fragrant Bedstraw) Potato chips,
  • Chickweed Crostini
  • Anise Hyssop Gazpacho,
  • Wild Herb Ravioli,

and many, many more.

You can begin to understand why Tama was given the Steward of the Year Award in 2007 by the New Jersey Forest Service!

Read this book and give foraging a try. Bon Appetit!

The Book of Barley

In 1981, while Ecology Action was preparing to relocate its GROW BIOINTENSIVE farming program to from Palo Alto to Willits, CA in 1982, I received a letter from Lorenz Schaller, an amazing grainsman, noting that the Kusa Seed Society—”a voice for the precious edible seeds of the earth”—was seeking a location where they could grow out their grain seed. If we had been staying in Palo Alto, it would have been wonderful to collaborate, but since we were moving, our paths diverged. Instead, Lorenz (or “Lenz” as I came to know him) began a periodic correspondence when Ecology Action needed information about a specific variety of grain. Lenz would respond, typically in four single-spaced pages, apologizing for the brevity of his answer. You can see by his Book of Barley (http://barleybook.com/)—many years in the making, in three volumes totaling 1,613 pages—that he was accurate about the wide scope and comprehensive nature of his knowledge of grains. What is astounding is the fact that he is almost entirely self-taught!

Over the last almost four decades, Lenz and I have become good friends, and I can say without reservation that his knowledge and skill have increased proportionally with his age. His interests extend beyond grains, as well: of particular interest to me is his macrobiotic diet, which is based on 60/30/10 proportions, similar to the 60/30/10 GROW BIOINTENSIVE crop ratios which ensure the sustainable production of complete balanced diets, sufficient compost materials from these carefully-chosen diet crops, plus vegetables, soft fruits and seeds for to balance out vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and income – food for one’s wallet. (Incidentally, while traveling in Austria several years ago, I was told by a fellow traveler of a nearby valley on the way to Italy. It seems that this valley, which had been developed by the Romans many years previously, grew wheat, potatoes and vegetables using similar 60/30/10 proportions. Interesting!)

Anyway, back to Lenz’ new book!


Volumes 1 and 2, Tibetan Barley Tsampa—The Story of An Ancient Food are described as follows: “Here in this book, sparking and scintillating, the buried treasures of a precious human ‘lost art’ are unearthed and brought to light… Assembled and displayed in one place for the first time ever, here in The Book of Barley … is the remarkable story of this ‘founder crop’ of agriculture, one of the world “pillars of civilization’. From its early beginnings as a sacred grain on the first mini-farms at the dawn of agriculture to its deserved place on the supper table of the health-conscious modern home, the world history of this important foodgrain is herein explored from East to West…

Saints and mystics have used this cereal for a staple, surviving on it and little else, sinners too. The crop’s boundaries are few, as world advances many. Despite the very positive modern nutritional value and culinary utility of foodgrain barley, its remarkable life story has never been gathered together, assembled and told in one place—until now.

Foodgrain barley is at the heart of the blending together of the East and the West—a marriage across time of the mystery cult of Eleusis in ancient Greece, the later cult of the goddess Ceres of Roman Italy, through to today’s XVI Dalai Lama, the 3  scion of barley mini-farmers who lived in a remote high-altitude valley in The Land of Snows.

A nutrition-substance landmark, this comprehensive and monumental work is the result of the author’s 50 years of modern-era research, study, experimentation and direct experience, involving this ancient human foodgrain.”

Chapters include:

  • What is a Tsampa
  • Porridge
  • Malting Barley
  • More Ancient than History
  • Egypt—“I am Barley”
  • The Origins of Tibetans and Their Barley
  • Ancient Barley Cultures in Turkey
  • Ancient Barley Cultures in Ireland
  • Food Barley and Ancient Greece
  • Barley’s Nutrition
  • The Green Juice of Barley Leaves
  • Barley— A Rich Source of Natural Antioxidants
  • Barley’s Medicinal Properties
  • Barley Bread
  • Seeds – Marvels of Microprocessing Genius

Volume 3, The Book of Barley—Foodgrain Barley: Small-Scale Production is “…a comprehensive technical manual for growing food-barley, a nutritious human foodgrain. Beginning with a detailed botanic and agronomic portrait of the food-barley crop plant, the book proceeds with detailed presentations of ‘how to” techniques for successfully growing and harvesting food grain barley in grain-gardens and on mini-farms.

Written in understandable language for laypeople, this book is a “grower’s handbook” for successfully producing this nutritious cereal crop using organic ecological methods – completely avoiding the use of any synthetic, toxic, agricultural chemical fertilizers, seed treatments, or biocides.

Valuable tips and details covering techniques and tools for planting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, and producing the crop for home food utilization are provided. This book emphasizes small-scale, “hands-on” appropriate technology throughout. Information in this book is based on practical methods researched and tested during the author’s more than thirty-five years of experience in small-scale field production of the crop for home food use.”

Topics include:

  • Feed vs Food
  • Food Barley as a Spiritual Teacher
  • Food Barley — The World’s Missing Grain
  • Growth Stages of Barley
  • Basic Barley Agronomy
  • Threats Specific to Winter Growth-Habit Barley
  • Protecting Stored Barley Grain
  • Quick and Easy Guide to Growing Food-Barley
  • Advanced Barley Growing
  • Raising Excellent Seedlings for Transplant

Happily, a fourth volume is planned as a culinary and recipe guide.

For anyone interested in nutrition, farming, soil, and the history of one of the most important grain crops known to humans, I highly recommend checking out Lenz Schaller’s tour-de-force exploration of barley. Don’t wait! Begin this exciting ages-old and new as today nutrition-and soil-growing adventure, now!

To order, see Amazon.

For the Kusa Seed Catalog, see https://ancientcerealgrains.org/seedandliteraturecatalog1.html

“What I Stand On”: Sustainable Inspiration from Wendell Berry

What I Stand On box set cover, cropped

According to Wikipedia, Wendell Erdman Berry (born August 5, 1934) is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

What I Stand On by Wendell Berry - image of the box set.What I find more profound than all these accomplishments is the breadth and scope of Berry’s understanding of people, society, and farming, and how they can work together to form the ground and foundation upon which our civilization literally and figuratively stands. In his deeply moving collection of essays What I Stand On (The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry in Two Volumes, 1969-2017; Jack Shoemaker, Editor, published by the Library of America, 2019) Berry takes what he has lived and observed, and uses it to give sense to the heart of what we need to internalize and act upon, as we confront a world in which climate change and agricultural challenges are growing at an ever-increasing rate.

The back cover of Volume 1 summarizes this feeling: “Wendell Berry is our essential voice on the cultural and ecological crisis brought on by industrialization, technology, and the market economy, urging us to live differently, better, more sustainably. This Library of America volume…presents the complete text of his landmark 1970 book, The Unsettling of America—a far-ranging meditation on the intrinsic connections between culture and agriculture—along with thirty-two essays from eight other books published from 1960 to 1990. It reveals the younger Berry as an already masterful stylist, whether challenging corporate greed and innovation for its own sake or treating topics as varied as family, farming, the dignity of hard work, and racism. Anticipating such contemporary concerns as organic farming, buying local, renewable energy, even the do-it-yourself and slow food movements, Berry’s incomparable essays peak with gathering urgency today.”

The back cover of Volume 2 notes, “Iconoclastic, inspiring, powerfully moral, democratic in tone and attuned to the rhythms of nature, Wendell Berry’s essays are quintessentially American. … [This volume] finds him turning to issues of political and social debate—big government, science and religion, technology, and the meaning of citizenship following the tragedy of 9/11—and burnishing his reputation as one of the master prose stylists of the last century. Here is the complete text of his 2000 book Life is a Miracle in which E.O. Wilson becomes an unlikely adversary—and forty-two essays and speeches from nine other books published from 1993 to 2017, among them his 2012 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities, It All Turns on Affection, an eloquent plea for practiced love of the land.”

I have worked for almost 50 years developing GROW BIOINTENSIVE, seeking to heal the depletion of agriculture, and to help farmers live and work in harmony with the everyday miracle of the seasonal and biological cycles that nourish and sustain our civilization. I am drawn to Berry’s writing because he expresses so well the thoughts and emotions that keep me inspired to continue this work. Two other individuals come to mind, whose writings have given us (me) such a rich sense of humanity and inspiration for the difference we can make in the world as individuals, particularly in the area of farming and tending the Earth.

Gandhi said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Lincoln said, “Ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community where every member possesses the art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms.”

And Berry says “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

There has never been a better time to read and draw inspiration from Berry’s writing than right now, as we work to save a world where mechanized, chemical, herbicidal farming is wreaking havoc on our ecosystems, and as little as 21 years of farmable soil remains to feed future generations.

(Did you know that nitrate fertilizer used to grow crops exist as a result of surplus TNT explosives left over from World War II? It’s true. Also true is the fact that nitrate fertilizer use depletes soil organic matter and the ability of soil to hold on to organic nitrogen, in a vicious cycle: the more nitrate fertilizer a farmer uses, the faster the soil loses its organic matter (and its ability to produce food). In one loosely figurative sense, when we use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, we are dynamiting our soils in order to grow food as we focus on products rather than dynamic, living biological processes! Without a good, closed system, fully sustainable farming paradigm, we are “at war” with nature, and it is not possible for individuals, families, communities, ecosystems and the world to live well, or live at all. In contrast, it can be seen though the data in a University of California-Berkeley Masters Thesis, that living closed-loop sustainable food- and soil-growing biologically intensive practices, have the potential of building up to 20 pounds of fertile, carbon-rich, biological nitrogen-friendly, farmable soil per pound of food eaten.)

As I noted in The Soul of Soil, a heaping tablespoon of fertile living soil can contain approximately the same number of life forms as there are people on the Earth. May this living force be with us! It certainly is with Wendell Berry, a Master of Soul and Soil; we can all learn from his writings how to better live in and proactively transform our living, thriving mini ecosystems as we create a wonderfully livable Earth no longer besieged by climate change.

As you stand in your part of the Earth, your garden, and as you work in the living soil to grow a better and more sustainable and just tomorrow, read and be nourished by the wonderful opportunities Wendell Berry’s words speak to the deepest good in each of us. It is the cultivation of healthy souls, the conscious and unconscious parts of our inside selves that determines what we create.

In fact, the way we cultivate the soil is how we cultivate our souls.

Back to Our Roots: How Learning from Prehistoric Agriculture Can Help Grow the Future

Prehistoric Agricultur Edited by Stuart Struever

A healthy, productive agriculture relies on LIVING SOIL – truly the most important resource in the world. We live in a time of when healthy, living, farmable soil—as well as farming nutrients in organic and synthetic fertilizer form, fresh water, and energy—are all diminishing in quality and quantity.

Historically, farmers have had to adapt to the conditions that prevailed where and when they lived – they learned to farm in ways that fit their terrain, soil, and climate. In the face of the growing agricultural crisis (no pun intended, well, maybe just a little bit), as we work to bring our soil and our agriculture back into a harmonious cycle, knowing more about how

agriculture developed and was performed traditionally can provide key insights on how farming can be more effective, sustainable and adaptive in our modern world, on a local-global level.


Prehistoric Agriculture edited by Stuart Struever and published by The Natural History Press in 1971, is a collection of thirty-three articles discussing the worldwide study of agricultural evolution in Europe, the Near East, and North and South America, including pre-irrigation and irrigation forms of farming, covering research done on these subjects from the 1950s-1970.



Key topics that covered include:

  • The Domestication of Plants and Animals
  • Explanations of the Initial Shift to Agriculture
  • The Beginnings of Agriculture and its Consequences in Various World Areas
  • The Natural Scientist Views the Beginnings of Agriculture
  • The Role of Agriculture in the Development of Civilization

All these lessons – as well as their opposites – can guide us to create thriving, productive, local ecosystems with fertile soils. There is much work to be done to effectively develop the detailed contexts and practices needed to make this possible. This isn’t a “one-stop book” for all the solutions: are some gaps, not unexpectedly –Africa, India, the Far East, and Oceania and such food plants as rice, millet, taro, and soybean are not covered adequately in this book – but these topics are not difficult to find in other books, such as those mentioned in my posts hereherehere, and here. Other publications I’ll be covering in future posts will review how North Africa, Rome’s granary, became a desert and how the Sahara Desert used to be a forest, which I mentioned here.

Other useful books include:

Don’t hesitate to delve into the rich soil that our collective agricultural traditions provide – this is how GROW BIOINTENSIVE originated! The history of the “already beaten paths” can enable us to create a flourishing future!