The Resilient Gardener

Resilient GardenerI’ve read a lot of gardening books in my thirty-one years, and I’ve learned something new from every one. But it isn’t often that a book comes along in which I not only learn something new in every paragraph but each bit of new information feels absolutely vital. Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener is that kind of book.

The subtitle to Ms. Deppe’s book is Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. As much as I hate to admit it after toiling so proudly in my 2500-sq.-ft. backyard garden, if disaster struck and the commercial food distribution system in this country shut down, my family would still go pretty hungry. We would have great-tasting, very nutritious veggies, but very few carbs and very little protein.

Let’s face it: if we aren’t providing ourselves with carbs and protein from the garden, we’re really not independent of the commercial food supply. Which means that, one, we’d be very vulnerable if natural or economic disaster reduced our access to purchased food. And two, the bulk of the things we eat are not as well-grown, nutritious, or tasty as the vegetables we lavish so much attention on.

As someone enamored of the idea of self-sufficiency and convinced of the superiority of homegrown crops, this bothers me. But until now, I haven’t been sure what to do about it. The meat and potatoes I might be able to handle. I’ve slaughtered chickens before, and grown a few hills of Yukon Golds. But I have to confess, I’m addicted to bread. And from everything I’ve read about growing wheat, I just can’t honestly say I have confidence in my ability to one day grow, scythe, thresh, winnow, and grind all of the grain consumed by my family.

But last week I read Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener. And I discovered something that Native Americans knew countless generations before we Europeans arrived on the continent with our sacks of wheat seed: that the plants that are native to the Americas–potatoes, corn, beans, and squash–are quite sufficient sources of carbohydrates and protein, especially if combined with a little game. And perhaps the reason most of us don’t know this is that, since we’ve made wheat such a staple of our culture, we’ve lost the particular varieties of these vegetables that are capable of being such staples–and that taste spectacular in the process! Deppe’s work as a plant breeder has made a giant step toward retrieving these varieties, and this latest book of hers will help us recover and put to work the lost cultural knowledge about how to grow, select, harvest, cook, and preserve them.

I am most fascinated by Deppe’s chapter on corn. Not sweet corn. Flint corn and flour corn. Corn that you can grind (by hand, in your own kitchen) into flour fine enough and tasty enough to make into angel-food cake. And yes, she provides the recipe. She also provides recipes for pancakes, sweet breads, polenta, and skillet bread. Skillet bread is cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet. But hers, it seems, has very little to do with the cornbread we’re used to, prepared from store-bought cornmeal. The cornbread from this recipe–developed by Deppe over the span of a decade of experimentation–doesn’t contain any wheat flour or refined sugar, and yet it holds together well enough to make sandwiches out of! The secret is a special “pre-batter” made with boiling water, and of course the natural sweetness of traditional, pre-industrial corn varieties.

It is clear throughout Deppe’s book that the information she provides is hard-won through years of her own experience, trying and trying again. How many of us have heard of Buffalo Bird Woman’s method of drying squash for winter? How many of us have tried it only to fail miserably? Well, Deppe kept at it and now is able to tell us that the variety of squash is very important. Drying squash changes the flavors, and only some varieties produce delicious outcomes. Her favorite is Costata Romanesca, though she says Golden Zucchini and Golden Bush Zucchini also do excellently. Generic, green zucchini produces “bland, virtually tasteless dried squash.” And, as she says, “[o]ne very dark green zuke variety whose label was lost produced a dried flavor that was actually foul.”

You will also find much of use in Deppe’s book if you’d like to know which squash and pumpkin varieties keep all winter long just sitting in a corner of the living room–and actually improve in flavor! Or if you’d like to know which variety of potato can be stored for months right in the ground where it’s grown. Or which corn varieties make the best bean poles to which beans, and whether you should plant the corn or the beans first. Or what variety of garbanzo bean can be popped in the microwave just like popcorn and tastes like a roasted nut!

In short, there’s a wealth of information to be discovered in The Resilient Gardener. (And I didn’t even mention her chapter on duck eggs….) I read a copy from my local library, but I’ve already ordered my own, since this is going to be reference work for years to come.

(If you’d like to order a copy, check out my favorite online bookseller, Better World Books. For every book you buy from them, they donate a book to someone in need. Plus they have free shipping!)


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason says:

    I’m adding this one to my must-get book list! Thanks for the overview. I really enjoy growing unique/native varieties and it sounds like this book could make choosing varieties something I could do with more confidence.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on self-sufficiency versus community/cooperative scenarios. Being a sort of jack of all trades, myself, the idea of growing all my own food naturally appeals to me, but doing so would pretty well mean trading my full-time job for a full-time hoe & spade and just isn’t practical. (Though, admittedly, the though of growing all my own grains and grinding them into flour is something I know I’d get a thrill from!)

    In a utopian world I dream of, I would be surrounded with neighbors who all bartered with each other for eggs, grains, cheeses, etc. Wouldn’t that be great?! I wouldn’t have to try growing it all myself.

    1. Sharon says:

      I think community is essential, actually. When I was writing this post, I was trying to think of a word that was like “self-sufficient” but referred to sufficiency AS A COMMUNITY. Because I think we always have to depend on each other, and it’s part of what gives life its charm. Deppe absolutely recognizes this. And she talks about how even Native Americans would trade for certain items across long distances. After all, certain rocks/minerals/hides/etc. aren’t available everywhere, and some of them really make life easier, even for the mostly “self-sufficient” local economy.

  2. I have this book on my wish list, but have been wondering how relevant it would be to us in the UK.

    1. Sharon says:

      I’m not sure. Carol Deppe gardens in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. They have very rainy winters and very dry summers, and winter temperatures are fairly mild (perhaps not unlike in the UK?).

  3. Becca says:

    This has been on my to-read list for a while but is always checked out at my library! Your review put me over the edge, I’ve got to buy it. Thanks!

    1. Sharon says:

      Yeah, I had to reserve this one at my library and wait a couple of weeks to get it!

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