Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: Organic Gardening: The Whole Story

I have a book list a mile long about all things gardening. I am an old-fashioned bibliophile...don't hand me a Kindle or a website (although admittedly, I can peruse the internet for hours)...hand me a library card. My local library has a huge collection of books that I hope to get through in this journey of learning to grow organic food.
I just finished reading Organic Gardening: The Whole Story by Alan and Jackie Gear. I was surprised to find that I was the very first to write a reiview on it for GoodReads.com (one of those websites, by the way, that sucks me in for hours). I found this book VERY informative and it gave me some new topics to look into. Here is my review:
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While I was skeptical that this medium-sized book could actually provide the 'whole story' of organic gardening, I have to admit the authors packed a lot of wonderful information within its pages.

My first surprise was a foreword by none other than...Prince Charles! I had no idea that His Royal Highness was an avid supporter of organic gardening. A foreword by the Prince of Wales definitely made me sit a little straighter as I turned those first few pages; I figured there must be something of value to be found if the Prince was involved!

Written by Alan and Jackie Gear from the UK, the narrative follows their story of success in getting the word out about organic gardening. Both scientists, they gave up lucrative job prospects immediately after graduation to move to a small property owned by Lawrence Hills. Admitted idealists setting out in the world in the era of the 'back to the land' movement, they lived on a tiny salary and worked hard to research organic methods of growing vegetables and fruits under the guidance of Hills. With this humble beginning in the mid-70's (at first they lived in a shack with no plumbing and seemed to live on their idealistic passion alone), their small trial gardens grew into the Henry Doubleday Research Association, and they moved to a larger property which they transformed into Ryton Gardens. Ryton Gardens is still open to the public (along with other centers that HDRA has opened throughout the past 30 years) and provides a wealth of information about many aspects of organic gardening. Prince Charles became the HDRA's patron and along with his support and the support of thousands-and-growing membership in the organization, they were able to expand with many wonderful research projects and public awareness programs.

The Gears wanted to make organic gardening/food production accessible to every type of person, not just the 'hippies' of their day. When they first started out, the ideas surrounding sustainable living and organic growing were considered 'bizarre and crazy', or 'cranky' (the Gears must have used the term cranky dozens of times and I never ceased to be amused by the British use of the word). In my opinion, they DID bring their message to as many people as possible. Despite the fancy schmancy foreword by Prince Charles, there was a real down-to-earth quality to this book. No matter the gardening background, whether novice (me, me!) or lifetime seasoned cultivator, the Gears have a message for everyone. The dedication to their passions and beliefs is commendable--they are truly a couple who 'walk the talk'. I was surprised and touched that they made a conscious decision to remain childless in order to dedicate their lives to their cause (and to make a tiny mark in the problem of over-population). The couple made their organization and its growth their passion, their family, their life. With their seemingly tireless guidance as directors of HDRA (now called Garden Organic), the organization grew and branched out in many directions.

Scattered throughout the narrative of HDRA's history are timely and well-researched notes about the various reasons organic growing is so important. Many of the things we are just starting to realize about conventional, chemically-driven agriculture are the very things the authors have been trying to teach the public since the beginning of their careers. From loss of fertile land, erosion, traces of chemicals in the vegetables themselves, to the sheer amount of fossil fuels needed to produce the chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides, the book makes a clear, no nonsense case for growing food organically.

I was pleasantly surprised to find some information--whole chapters in fact--on topics I wasn't expecting but that left me feeling hopeful. Some of the shoot-off topics: third world countries and their specific hurdles, heirloom varieties and the dedication being made to save them from disappearing, the challenges schools face in reaching out to children when incorporating gardening into the education system.

Although most of the events and descriptions in the book are from the UK, the authors made many parallels to the US and the rest of the world, so I found the information very relevant. In fact, they cited countless books and organizations, many in the US, for further investigation.

In all, I felt that even if the book didn't tell the 'whole story' of organic gardening, it succeeded in answering many of the questions people may have in today's world. I found myself wanting to visit Ryton Gardens to see first-hand the demonstrations and the wealth of information available. This was a positive book, and full of hope. Alan and Jackie Gear are obviously dedicated to their passion of growing organically and have worked endlessly to spread their research, ideas, and strong beliefs in the possibility of an organic, sustainable future. Now retired from the organization they co-founded, they continue to offer information and consultation to those seeking advice and direction in today's growing organic movement.

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