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  • Tracy Frisch

The Healthy Vegetable Garden:

A natural, chemical-free approach to soil, biodiversity and managing pests and diseases.

Reviewed by Tracy Frisch

Author, Sally Morgan

Published by Chelsea Green, 2021. Softcover. 198 pages. $29.95.

The first thing to know about this book is that author Sally Morgan gardens in England. Morgan serves as the editor of Organic Farming magazine, a publication of the Soil Association, the UK’s organic farming organization.

I volunteered to review this book out of curiosity about an English perspective on the subject. However, geography makes major aspects of this book irrelevant for gardeners in our region.

The Healthy Vegetable Garden is an attractive book with full-color photos. Written in a conversational tone, the book brings in big ideas and grounds much of the material in science and the author’s broad experience. The book offers some interesting tips for populating your vegetable garden with complimentary plantings, creating habitat for beneficial insects, and generally increasing ecological complexity. The author is strong on biological control and introduces readers to a range of natural predators. This could be an eye-opening book for gardeners looking to expand their horizons and enliven their growing environment.

The value of biodiversity in the vegetable garden informs the book from start to finish. In that vein, Morgan enthusiastically extolls the virtues of sowing flowers along with vegetables to attract beneficial insects. She also brings in ideas from permaculture. I particularly appreciated this about the book, because as an enthusiastic practitioner of integrating flowers into food gardens, I enjoy the beauty and habitat that flowers provide, though at times I have to work hard to contain the flowering plants that I allow to naturalize or that are competing with my food crops.

While healthy soil is central to creating a healthy garden, the book doesn’t treat it as the most important topic. The soil basics chapter hits on key concepts. The chapter on regenerating the soil mostly addresses compost making at the garden scale, followed by a couple of pages on cover cropping and more on mulching and woodchips. The book would have done well to contrast healthy soil and lifeless dirt, as regenerative North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown does in his fast-paced book Dirt to Soil.

From soil, Morgan moves on quickly to pests and disease, which strike me as her main preoccupation. Yet, as my gardens became healthier, insect pests receded as a primary concern. I used to need to use row cover to protect my cucurbits and brassicas from cucumber beetles and flea beetles. Luckily, changes I have made to the way I garden have increased these crops’ resilience.

First, I began amending the soil with trace minerals and micronutrients along with sulfur and calcium, to correct deficiencies. I periodically send soil samples to Logan Labs for a detailed analysis. Second, I started cover cropping every garden bed at least once annually. I also stopped automatically applying compost except for heavy feeders as my garden has ample organic matter and sufficient nitrogen for most crops. And I practice no-till gardening, an approach that Morgan also embraces.

Morgan barely mentions soil minerals and is silent about micronutrients and trace minerals. She doesn’t explain that buckwheat plants make phosphorus available or that grain crops scavenge surplus nitrogen. Nor does she make the connection between excess nitrogen and outbreaks of aphids, long the scourge of British gardeners.

Returning to the question of how relevant an English book is to us, I note that the island’s climate and growing conditions – as well as its major insect pests and plant diseases –- are pretty different from what we encounter in upstate New York and New England. My favorite example of the book’s mismatch is a photo with the caption, “Hedgehogs feed on a variety of garden invertebrates.” The only hedgehogs living in North America are pets.

Given the climatic differences, it’s not surprising that the cover crop chart in the book omits winter rye and hairy vetch, our old standbys. Also absent are oats and field peas; red clover; and sorghum Sudan and cowpeas.

The geographic mismatch might not be such a big deal if a full quarter of the book weren’t devoted to mostly unfamiliar pests and diseases. Still, this section does include a worthwhile five-page sidebar on slugs and snails, which are enjoying this waterlogged growing season.

If you are looking for a how-to gardening book, The Healthy Vegetable Garden is not a good choice. Do not expect to find step-by-step instructions or an in-depth discussion of considerations for particular crops or situations – except for pests and disease and recommended flowers. No book can cover everything, but the lack of any further references or resources is unfortunate.

In my experience, one of the most common reasons for garden crops to be sickly or unproductive is inadequately spaced plantings. Poor air circulation increases the likelihood and seriousness of disease, and weak, crowded plants are more vulnerable to insect pests. Morgan stresses the need to sufficiently space crops, but only in the context of particular disease organisms, and she does not inform readers where they can find guidance. Yet, one of her chapters is entitled “Getting the planting right.”

Likewise, weeds are a major issue for many gardeners, though Morgan only makes a few general pronouncements on the topic. I consider that to be a problem for a book that encourages no-till management.

I have learned the hard way that several of Morgan’s recommended plant companions are aggressive perennials, incompatible with annual vegetable plants. The plants in question are horseradish (not kept in check by my large rhubarb plants), nettles, and tansy, which I had to move far from anything that it could overrun. Similarly, Morgan fails to caution gardeners about the downside of letting certain weeds proliferate. She suggests letting weeds, including ground ivy (gill-over-the-ground), function as a groundcover in the vegetable garden. Having once spent hours helping a friend try to remove ground ivy which had gained a foothold in her garden, I disagree.

For me, the value of this book lies mainly in a few interesting ideas that I wasn’t familiar with. Woodchips have done wonders for the degraded old cornfield soil out of which I created the second of my current vegetable gardens. The author advises planting cuttings of willow to provide a renewable source of wood for chipping. Morgan also introduced me to beetle banks and bug hotels with text and photos.

Another tantalizing idea is presented under the heading, “Vaccinating trees.” Morgan dissolves half of an aspirin in a few liters of water and waters her tomato plants with it toward the end of their fruiting period. Aspirin tricks them into responding as if they were under attack by pests or disease. This mobilizes their plant defenses and stimulates the tomato plants to pump more sugars into their fruit to make them more attractive to animals that would disperse the seed.

It is the job of the author to determine the scope of their book. While I am confused by some of Sally Morgan’s choices, I am pleased that The Healthy Vegetable Garden has given me some new gardening ideas to try.

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