Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book review: The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe

I rate Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener the most important gardening book of the last few years, and simultaneously the most frustrating gardening book I've ever read. Deppe, also the author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, draws on more than three decades of experience in the Willamette Valley of Oregon to present a treasure trove of tips and tricks for Pacific Northwest (PNW) vegetable gardening. After touching on many common vegetables and devoting some space to orchards, berries, and nuts, she thoroughly covers five staples for calories, protein, and omega-3s: potatoes, eggs, squash, beans, and corn. Her distilled expertise alone makes the book a must-read for regional gardeners and highly valuable for growers in any temperate climate, and her thorough coverage of sustaining staple crops truly sets her book apart.

The Important

Yet Deppe goes far beyond the in-depth but limited scope of how to grow vegetables and these particular staples,. She provides a rough roadmap for each gardener to think through his or her unique circumstances of physical ability, available time, dietary restrictions and needs, land access, soil type, sun & water availability, local microclimate, regional climate, and regional history to design a practical plan for growing some or all of a nutritious, delicious, and balanced diet.

Complicating her task further, she doesn't work from a baseline of stable gardening conditions, but assumes any of a host of disruptions can and will strike at some point in every gardener's life: personal emergencies such as injuries or needing to care for loved ones; climate change causing more erratic and extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, and drought; temporary or long-term electrical outages; fossil fuel shortages; transportation shutdowns; and other possible disasters. She presents many ideas for minimizing risk of crop loss in various situations, such as organizing plantings for mantainance of the most important crops with a minimum of time and water; experimenting now with learning what you can get away with in withholding water, fertilizer, and attention; and staggering plantings of multiple varieties of multiple crops over multiple sowings.

Deppe has experienced many health issues in her life, including celiac disease, lactose intolerance, difficulty digesting raw vegetables, weight problems, food cravings, sugar jags, salt sensitivity, a bad back, general aging, and restless leg syndrome. Over the years she's observed her body and its reactions to different foods and exercise, allowing her to tease apart what works for her and what doesn't. The detailed description of her process and findings helps guide your own questions about what foods work well for you and which cause subtle or obvious problems. Interestingly, Deppe's observations have pushed her in some ways towards a paleodiet: she doesn't eat gluten grains such as wheat, eats pastured animal foods rich in omega-3s, rarely eats dairy except for pastured butter, minimizes caffeine & sugar, and avoids juices & processed foods. (But she seriously diverges from the paleodiet by relying on legumes & corn loaded with anti-nutrients, and taking in the vast majority of her calories as carbs including heavy reliance on potatoes.)

Deppe has worked out an extremely effective approach to growing not just greens and nutritious vegetables for herself, but also a significant portion of her calories and protein in a scalable manner. She's experimented enough with different techniques and levels of water and fertilizer input that she could, given access to enough land, cope quite well with whatever disruptions come down the line. She's saving enough of her own seed to continue gardening if commercial seed sources shut down. And she clearly relishes the results in every meal; her multitude of uses for each staple crop and her recipes convey a deep delight in the flavors and textures of her produce.

The Frustrating

I love that Deppe has laid out such a solid plan for growing a complete diet in the PNW (and with some thought, experimentation, and adaptation, anywhere in temperate areas.) I hate that four of her five staple crops grow as labor intensive, soil and habitat disturbing annuals. And I feel uneasy with three of her five staples conflicting with the paleodiet.

But I have nothing better to offer! It took me six years of experimenting with perennial vegetables and crops in Portland to:

  1. Realize that we could easily grow greens & nutritious veggies but
  2. ...we couldn't possibly eat enough of them to get a substantial number of calories.
  3. Identify some potential perennial herbaceous staples and
  4. ...start to grow them out and eat them in greater quantity and
  5. ...realize that we should select and breed for better yields and
  6. ...experiment with polycultures for more efficient use of space and minimized harm from digging the root crops.
  7. Realize that we had a solid base of winter root crops, but very few summer perennial roots or other staples.
  8. Just begin to see yields from the nut and fruit trees.

I haven't come across perennial enthusiasts presenting anything nearly as comprehensive as Deppe's system, at least not for intensively cultivated small to medium scale systems in modern private land ownership patterns. I doubt that her level of expertise exists for a system based on diverse perennial plant crops anywhere in the temperate world. (Though I'd love to hear examples of how I'm wrong!) Hence my deep frustration: I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe's level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don't know how.

The Future

Now that I've moved to Hawaii, I've dramatically simplified my own task of synthesizing perennials and animals and wildlife into production of a low labor, landbase healing paleodiet. But I still want to see similar systems develop in temperate areas. I have some hints and glimmers of hope based on my experimentations in Portland, which I'll post later.

In the meantime, visit to download free excerpts of the book. Drop her an email to be notified when she has seeds for sale; most of what she sells you can't buy anywhere else!


Steven Gubkin said...

"I yearn to meld the sustainability and low labor of perennial polycultures, the nutritional health of the paleodiet, and Deppe's level of experience growing resilient abundant staples into a truly permacultural blueprint for supporting ourselves and the rest of our landbase. But I don't know how."

Have you heard of I think the combo of hazelnuts and chestnuts as the staple diet is a pretty great idea. Once you establish a forest (10 years or so) you really only have to harvest and prepare your food. Throw in some fruit trees, nitrogen fixers, and veggies/herbs and you have a nice raw vegan diet. If you want meat, chickens work well with chestnuts by helping to control chestnut grubs. Chestnut fed pork is supposed to be great too.

I am currently saving up money to buy some farmland in Ohio to try to get this system up and running.

Norris said...

Hi Steven,

Yes, the work Badgersett is doing seems really good! I agree with the basic goal of using proven nut trees as the backbone of a sustainable temperate climate perennial polyculture system. I'd worry about relying too heavily on just two crops as climate chaos may severely disrupt even those crops which have worked well until now. I'd diversify with multiple species of acorns and with other protein/fat nuts, and would want to develop other back-up staples such as roots. (Also useful for the initial many years as you wait for the trees to come into full bearing.)

Chickens and pigs could eat more or less whatever does grow in the face of climate changes, so are a good backup in and of themselves. Also, presumably the system would attract deer to eat.

Good luck with your plans, and try to document your journey if you can! We need to share as much information about our experiments and learnings as we can to speed the necessary transitions!