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  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerWinter 2006-2007Book Reviews   
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From Grass to Gardens: How to Reap Bounty from a Small Yard
Organic, Inc. – Natural Foods and How They Grew
The Canning Season

From Grass to Gardens:
How to Reap Bounty from a Small Yard

Janet Lembke, 2006, The Lyons Press, Guilford Conn.
221 pages, $16.95, paperback.

When I pick up a book, I often flip to the table of contents before reading the jacket flap. What enticed me to take home From Grass to Gardens was not just the cover photo of peppers, cabbages, broccoli and flowers, but the chapter titled “the grass extermination project.” As a veteran of the turf wars, I am always looking for advice, tips and helpful hints on vanquishing that tireless foe.

Lembke discusses the philosophy of Lawn: What is Lawn for? She writes about golf and play space, the natural history of grass, and why Lawn is a sterile environment. Trees sequester more carbon than do blades of grass; the garden offers more diverse habitat for insects and birds – she offers reason upon reason for exterminating the typical suburban Lawn as we know it, but no practical tactics for those who would like to do away with the chore of weekend mowing.  Still, the book is a fun blend of garden advice, history and literary ramblings that will appeal to gardeners,  especially those with small plots.

Lembke turned her back yard and front yard into gardens, for a total of 2660 square feet of arable land (approximately 1/16 acre). Her gardens incorporate fruit, vegetables, flowers, trees, paths and places to sit and dream.  In return for sprinkling compost, spading soil and picking off beetles, her gardens reward her with abundance that nourishes her body and spirit.

Those just beginning their own grass-extermination campaign will find an abundance of useful information.  From wooden markers to cultivators, Lembke writes about the tools she uses, where she stores them, and how they connect her to the long history of agriculture. Apparently hand tools have not changed much in the past few centuries.  “We see the same constellations,” she writes. “We use the same tools.” A discussion of hoes leads to a discussion of Virgil and the contemplation that the existence of civil communities depends upon agriculture. Writing about cold frames, she diverges to a story about the Emperor Tiberius and his glazed frames (for cucumbers).

Lembke explores the curious folklore surrounding “not thanking” someone who gifts you with a cutting, a seedling, a basket of bulbs.  She writes about connections between gardening and healing and the delicate distinction between “liberating ownerless plants” and thievery.  She weighs in on the debate to allow or not allow volunteers in the garden, and comes down firmly on the side of planting birdfeeders and birdhouses along with the veggies.

Her garden is a muddle, she tells us--a mix of flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs, trees.  She shares the culture and history of her favorite herbs, describes the flowers every gardener should include, and devotes an entire chapter to the secret lives of vegetables.  Her writing is flavored with recipes, spiced with linguistic history (tomatl is an Aztec word), and backed up with charts for companion planting.

While Lembke does not label herself an “organic” gardener, she does promote nonchemical solutions to garden problems.  Got weeds?  Know the enemy – it might be a useful plant you have yet to understand.  But if you do want to get rid of it, grab that hoe and root it out.  If you can’t identify a plant, she offers time-tested advice on how to prepare a sample to mail to the local extension educator.  Throughout the book she plants tips to try, and she ends with a section listing sources for seed, bulbs, shrubs, trees and tools.

While From Grass to Gardens does not offer hard-hitting practical advice for specific garden questions, it is a great source of inspiration and would make a great gift for any suburban-dwelling friend.

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, N.Y.

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Organic, Inc.
Natural Foods and How They Grew

by Samuel Fromartz
Harcourt, Inc., 2006; $25 hardcover

Business writer and organic food enthusiast Samuel Fromartz opens his Organic, Inc., with the lawsuit that Maine organic blueberry grower Arthur Harvey filed against then Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman for allowing national organic standards that did not comply with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In part, the standards permitted some synthetic, nonorganic ingredients in processed foods labeled as organic; and reduced the 100% organic feed requirement for cows transitioning to organic production. Such changes were among the factors that allowed some organic farmers, processors and distributors to get big fast, helping lead to today’s schism between industrial organic agriculture and smaller, usually more local growers and purveyors.

Fromartz talks about his own awakening to organic foods, initially through a Whole Foods store and subsequently through farmers’ markets and direct contact with growers. The growth industry piqued his business-writer curiosity, so he went to California to find out how and why organic strawberries are grown; he learned about the origins of baby greens, starting with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and followed by their growth into an organic, plastic-packaged, national industry; and he heard about the trial-and-error beginnings of what is now Dean Foods-owned Silk soy milk. Readers meet Drew and Myra Goodman, who first packaged baby greens and made the product into a national staple; about Steve Demos, who worked with soybeans for years before coming up with the wildly successful Silk product; and others—including smaller scale farmers who sell close to home. The characters are presented as three-dimensional people, with all their environmental and social ideals, goals, compromises and rationales.

Organic, Inc., makes for fascinating reading and is a good historical look at the organic movement.  We meet some interesting and dedicated people, as well as some…”unusual” folks (especially in the section on the origin of Kellogg’s cereals) and end up wondering where the movement will go.  The concluding chapter discusses who buys organic food and why (surprisingly, income is not a consistent factor), and who sells it successfully and why.  Whole Foods has succeeded, says Fromartz, because it learned to combine the virtues of health with beautiful and tasty food presentations, so that consumers no longer dreaded either tasteless health foods or grocery shopping.

The author captures the complexity of our food choices.  He notes that some organic purists originally worried what the industry might come to:  organic Twinkies?  No one imagined, says Fromartz, “that consumers might buy conventional Twinkies and wash them down with organic milk…”  He himself finds the organic vs. local argument tedious, since each represents only 1 to 2% of the food supply. He compares the argument to “two people in a room of one hundred arguing about who has the most righteous alternative to what the other ninety-eight are doing.  Both are right for different reasons and can thrive simultaneously.”

Fromartz concludes that both growth and purity are necessary to increase the amount of organic food grown and sold.  “Growth cannot occur if the ideals become compromised, but the ideals can’t come to fruition without growth.” He lists factors that will affect the growth of the industry.

Organic, Inc., is an interesting and enjoyable read about the business of organic.  I was curious about the extensive coverage that Whole Foods got, and to a lesser extent, Trader Joe’s, while Wild Oats, the other large chain, was mentioned only once and briefly.  And I would love an index …  Otherwise, I enjoyed and learned enough from this book to make me keep an eye open for whatever Fromartz writes next.  An expansion of the final chapter, with more detailed suggestions for growth of the organic industry, would be a useful contribution.

– Jean English

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The Canning Season
by Polly Horvath
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003; $6.95, paperback

Looking for a quick, funny, poignant, intelligent novel to pass a winter’s day? Pick up The Canning Season. (I got my copy at the Maine Historical Society Museum Store on Congress St. in Portland, where you can find lots of other goodies.)

This National Book Award Winner is about two old, twin sisters who live contentedly in a big old house on the Maine coast, way out in logging territory, among blueberries and bears. Their remote and peaceful way of life changes when two teenage girls with issues show up. One sister feels compelled to take the girls in, due in part to her budding Buddhist philosophy of opening the door to anyone who shows up. The rest of the book concerns the interactions among the characters, as they learn to live and grow with one another.

Horvath is a very good and funny writer who creates superb characters. While this book might seem as if it’s written for young adults, the author says she doesn’t write for any particular age group, and that’s true. I was laughing aloud throughout the book, except for a few sad places. Every sentence in the book is well crafted.

Treat yourself to The Canning Season.  It’s delicious.

– Jean English

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