09 March 2015

Review: Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet

Anyone paying attention these days has probably noticed a trend toward small. For example, tiny homes are huge (so to speak) right now. People everywhere are making the most of campers, shipping containers, tiny apartments. Before long we'll probably start seeing phone booth conversions (and not the kind that are bigger on the inside). It's as though an unspoken dare was issued to see how little space human beings can comfortably inhabit. I'm not a tiny home kind of person, but it does make a lot of sense to live in more compact quarters: the environmental footprint is less; it's easier to maintain and clean a small home; and they cost way less (both to build and to heat/cool). And, as the population continues to rise on this finite planet, smaller homes become more of a necessity as there's less and less space for spreading out.

It's not just indoor living space that's affected, either. The more people, the scarcer land becomes and the more expensive. Anyone living in a city already knows this too well. Yards are increasingly becoming luxuries, never mind acreage. Many people have little more than a balcony or a patch of earth outside their door. Even in suburbia, the large homes being built on shrinking lots leave little room for aspiring gardeners.

What does it matter if people no longer have space for gardens? Well, besides the fact that a garden will get you out of the house for fresh air, exercise, and a much-needed connection to nature, growing your own food is kind of awesome. At a time when supermarket produce is both pricey and poor in quality (am I the only one depressed that supermarket tomatoes taste like cardboard even when they're in season?), growing your own gives you a chance to eat well. Really well. Even if you're lucky enough to have access to great farmers' markets and CSAs (which you should absolutely take advantage of), nothing matches home-grown for quality, freshness, and flavour. Garden produce is as local as you can get, and is easy to grow organically--without organic-food prices (and you won't need to question whether you can trust the organic certification). On top of all that, growing your own food is crazy satisfying. All these reasons are why Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet is a great book to have on hand.

As soon as I picked it up, I saw the potential in this book. There are so many useful projects for small-space gardening--and they're actually doable for someone like me (heavy into crafts, not so much with DIY). I loved that so many of them used recycled and repurposed materials (good for the environment and helps lower the cost of what isn't always the most frugal endeavour). Must-do (for me, anyway) projects include the Strawberry Colander, Cucumber Trellis, Bicycle Wheel Trellis, and Blueberry in a Pot. The Nine Pot Plot and Raised Beds are also serious contenders. Not that every project is a winner: The Corn Oil Drum is good in theory but (a) full sun is hard to come by in urban areas; (b) how much corn will you really be able to harvest from a few stalks; and (c) you'll be lucky to get any corn at all before the local squirrels and raccoons do (unlike us, they don't feel the need to wait until a crop is ripe before they help themselves). It also would have been really nice if the book had included hints on where one can find an oil drum. Luckily, the good projects far outweigh the bad (and if you can actually get your hands on an oil drum, it seems like a great container option, although maybe for something other than corn).

The projects aren't the only selling feature of Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet. There's a lot of solid information here on how to grow, care for, and propagate edibles (general advice, as well as plant-specific). The book might be geared more toward the beginner gardener, but I think there's still plenty here for experienced gardeners too (I've found that there's always more to learn). I especially like the plant lists, such as "15 top shade-tolerant crops," "15 top quick-growing crops," and "15 top shallow-rooted crops." There's also info on soil, water, light, raised beds, themed beds, beneficial insects, and companion planting.

I love that the book features seasonal information. So many gardening books seem to skip from spring planting to autumn harvesting, with little more than a mention of ongoing progress, succession planting, or what you can do when early crops are finished. Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet tells you what you can grow and harvest in different seasons, and what to plant when another crop is done--good to know when you're trying to maximize the amount of food you can get out of a small area.

There's a useful, albeit limited, section at the back on common diseases, weeds, and pests. Instead of mentioning dogs, cats, and foxes in the pest section (none of which I've ever found to be problematic), I might have devoted the space to raccoons and squirrels instead. At least cats and foxes won't eat everything in sight and dig up your containers just for the hell of it (I'm looking at you, squirrels). Meanwhile, dandelion and stinging nettle are listed under weeds, where maybe they should have been listed with the other edibles (with limited growing space, should anyone really be casting aspersions on healthy, tasty volunteers?) The book ends with a resources list, which probably won't be of much use to anyone outside the US, but is still handy.

Overall this book is a great resource. If you're new to gardening in general or small-space gardening in particular, you should definitely check out Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet. And if you know where to find oil drums, drop me a line.

Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet by DK is available as a paperback or in ebook form.

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