Roots and Shoots: Reading for Long Winter Nights

By Pamela Doan

We’re one week into winter and spring planting is months away. Pass the time by considering new ideas and learning new skills. Here are three books that will help until the days get longer.

Weedless Gardening: The Hassle-Free All-Organic System
By Lee Reich

I’ve learned most of what I know about fruit trees from another Reich book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, and his blog about what he calls his “farmden” (that is, “more than a garden, not quite a farm”) in upstate New York. He’s also a researcher who has worked with the USDA and Cornell University. In this new book, he provides a step-by-step approach to no-till gardening that applies equally to flowers, fruit and vegetables. By not digging into soil, gardeners avoid stirring up weed seeds that are dormant underground. Weeds can be managed by topping the soil with mulch to block sunlight and hand pulled when necessary.

I re-evaluated my vegetable garden cleanup based on his advice. Ripping spent tomato plants out of the soil, for example, breaks up the microbial communities and brings the weed seeds to the surface. Cutting plants off at the soil, gently prying them out or using a trowel to scissor the roots up does less damage.

A gardener of any sort of plant, edible or ornamental, could pick up something from this book. While I am familiar with and practice “lasagna gardening” — a technique of layering organic matter to create and build soil — Weedless Gardening is more thorough on low-impact soil improvements with less work. And if you want to lower your carbon footprint, not digging up soil lets it hold carbon dioxide. Every time you sink your shovel into the ground and turn up the earth, CO2 is released. So hang up the tools and rototiller next season.

Three gardening books to help pass those short winter days. (Photo by P. Doan)

How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do
By Linda Chalker-Scott

Understanding horticulture can go a long way in becoming a better gardener. If the discussion of cell division doesn’t click, though, Chalker-Scott includes practical applications. I found her chapter on trees especially useful. Pruning is not an art or guesswork. Understanding tree growth and being able to identify the parts of a tree are necessary, though, and will help you avoid serious mistakes.

Chalker-Scott is one of four academics who administrate a Facebook group called The Garden Professors, and a blog, gardenprofessor.com. I’ve learned a lot from reading the questions and comments there. It’s rigorously moderated with information backed up by science, which I’ve always found more reliable than relying on anecdotes and opinions.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer

I can only read this book a chapter or two at time. Then I set it aside for a day or a week and let it permeate my thoughts. It changes the way I look at the connectedness of nature. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer, a scientist, explores indigenous ecological values and traditions through both lenses and in the book channels the soul of gardening in respect for the earth.

I first learned of her work through an interview she did with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast. I sought out her writing immediately and loved her other book, Gathering Moss, a meditative discovery of the world’s most basic plant life. Braiding Sweetgrass will take you around the world and deeper into your own relationship with plants as you also learn about indigenous people and the history of America.

The Current is a nonprofit supported by its readers; please consider a tax-deductible contribution.

What Do You Think?

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. Submissions are selected by the editor to provide a variety of opinions and voices, and all are subject to editing for accuracy, clarity and length. We ask that writers remain civil and avoid personal attacks. Submissions must include your first and last name (no pseudonyms), as well as a valid email address. Please allow up to 24 hours for an approved submission to be posted. All online comments may also appear in print.

Your email address will not be published.