Plants are smart. They know what to do, which is grow and reproduce. It's up to us as gardeners to give them every chance to do so: the right soil, the right spot (sun or shade), the proper pruning, watering, weeding, mulching and more weeding. The delight is boundless when we succeed, and on the other side of the scale, there are disappointment and puzzlement when we don't. Thank heavens there are writers who have put in the hours of research, testing and sweat to answer our "what," "when," "where" and "why."
It doesn't matter how long you have been gardening, there are always questions you need answered. An all-around how-to, when-to, what-to and why-to book has come on the market: Canadian Gardener's Guide:Everything You Need To Know To Create and Care for Your Garden (DK/Tourmaline, 448 pages, $30), edited for Canada by Lorraine Johnson. It covers just about everything from preparing the soil – "utmost importance" – to surfaces, lawns, decks, pathways and buildings, to choosing and caring for fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, to planning a garden to suit your lifestyle, to choosing the right plant for the right space – and then preserving your bounty. This is a great book to have at hand when all those questions arise.
There are three notable books in which the authors have chosen one plant to write about. The first of these, In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb (GreyStone, 202 pages, $19.95), by Liz Primeau, absolutely sparkles. Whether you're a garlic eater, a garlic cook or a garlic grower, or just enjoy a great read, you will enjoy this book. Primeau peppers delicious quotes throughout the book, many worth memorizing. (Augustus Saint-Gaudens: "What garlic is to food, insanity is to art.") And she intersperses personal stories with information on planting, caring and harvesting, along with history ancient and recent. Just reading about the trade disputes with China, which is trying to take over the world's garlic market, should make you a more discerning shopper. Equally hilarious and informative are Primeau`s trips to garlic festivals in Gilroy, Calif., and Lautrec, France, the latter celebrating the area's famous pink garlic. The book contains wonderful recipes that had me salivating so much I had to immediately choose one and make it. I can heartily recommend Lentil, Bacon and Tomato Stew, with 40 cloves of garlic. Best ever.
Speaking of plants that are really good for you, Sharon Hanna has written The Book of Kale: The Easy-To-Grow Superfood (Harbour Publishing, 191 pages, $26.95). Easily grown (it has been called "bombproof"), beautiful (it looks great in a flower bed) and "antioxidant-rich and bursting with phytonutrients," kale is a "dream food." Just reading about kale's powerhouse of nutrition, or Hanna's Twenty Reasons to Love Growing Your Own Kale, is enough to make you feel guilty for not having it in the garden. Hanna's book covers a short history of kale, different varieties, fun with kids and kale, and, of course, the planting, caring and harvesting of kale (it can be harvested well into the winter months; it's even sweeter after a frost or snow). But the majority of Hanna's book is made up of delicious and inventive kale recipes. And yes, it has a kale chip recipe. Tried it, loved it. You will too.
I always knew there were people passionate about growing fig trees. But it wasn't until I heard Steven Biggs give a talk about them that I realized how ideally suited they are for our Canadian climate: outdoor in a pot in the summer and then indoors in the cool and dark to be left dormant in the winter. All this and more is well explained in Biggs's Grow Figs: Where You Think You Can't (No Guff Press, www.grow-figs.com/buy-grow-figs-book, 57 pages, $19.95). It's not very long, but it is witty and informative. There is only one recipe, but then the fresh figs, so sensuously bursting with pure sweetness, rarely make it into the Biggs kitchen. Read this and you too, like Steven Biggs, may become a "fig pig."
Gardening farther north can be problematic. But as Barbara Rayment says in the dedication to The Northern Gardener: Perennials That Survive and Thrive (Harbour Publishing, 188 pages, $26.95): "To all the gardeners everywhere who cope with short growing seasons, poor soil, untimely frosts, drought, windstorms, rainstorms, hailstorms, and arguments about political correctness in the garden – and yet still continue to experiment, try new varieties and methods, and share plants and information with each other. It's what we do." Rayment classifies plants using a simple "habitat system." representing "a matrix of soil, moisture and light conditions: "forest floor … dry and shady"; "woodland … semi shady, more moist, with humus-rich soil"; and so on. Hanna has "grown, tested (and in many cases killed) virtually all the plants in this book." This is a thoughtful, well written and "it's-about-time" gardening book. Rayment's astute insights alone make it great reading for any gardener, in any zone.
"Terrific" and "wow" were two words that came to mind when I read Senga Lindsay's Edible Landscaping: Urban Food Gardens That Look Great (Harbour Publishing, 144 pages, $19.95). The "wow" was for sections on edible walls, vertical gardens built on whatever walls are handy, and some walls built just for planting on, including an A-frame wall mounted on wheels to be pushed to sunshine (or just out of the way), and the Eat House, a fully planted structure that is not only a building, "but a garden to eat, smell, taste, seed, weed, and harvest." The "terrific" was for Lindsay's beautiful design sense, which informs all aspects of the food garden, including permaculture gardens that "ensure all the elements in your garden connect to one another in a beneficial way," to varied children's gardens, rooftops, balconies, small courtyards and much more. This is a book of creative paths to take, with excellent design tips and essential how-to information.
Sherry A. Firing is a Toronto artist and gardener.
Food for thought: the Globe's selection of six must-read food books
Food and the City
Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, by Jennifer Cockrall-King, Prometheus Books, 372 pages, $24.50
Edmonton writer Jennifer Cockrall-King reports on the urban agriculture movement, which sees city dwellers around the world shorten their food chains – at any given time, in any given city, there is only enough food to last three days – by using backyards, rooftops, vacant lots and roadways to provide fresh, environmentally sustainable food for themselves.
Fear of Food
A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat, by Harvey Levenstein, University of Chicago Press, 218 pages, $25
Harvey Levenstein, an emeritus history professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and author of previous books on the history and sociology of eating, examines the way North Americans have been buffaloed by corporations and food scientists to the point where they choose their foods based on fear rather than taste. His advice? Relax and enjoy.
All the Dirt
Reflections on Organic Farming, by Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch and Robin Tunnicliffe, TouchWood Editions, 227 pages, $29.95
A must-read book for small-scale organic growers, veteran gardeners and budding environmentalists, All the Dirt covers everything from where to farm and what to grow and how to grow it, with valuable tips on on equipment, harvesting and selling produce, with stories of the authors' experiences as growers.
A Biography, by Evelyne Bloch-Dano, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, University of Chicago Press, 112 pages, $20
French writer Evelyne Bloch-Dano explores the history, biology, sociology, culture and, of course, cooking, of 10 popular garden vegetables: artichokes, beans, cabbage, cardoons (a Mediterranean plant related to the artichoke), carrots, chili peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, pumpkins and tomatoes.
A World of Gardens
By John Dixon Hunt, Reaktion Books, 368 pages, $45
John Dixon Hunt, emeritus professor of the history and theory of landscape, takes readers on a tour of key gardens through many different eras to explore humanity's continued fascination with plants and landscaping.
His book is a celebration of the fact that similar experiences of gardens can be found in every era across a wide range of cultures.
The Omnivorous Mind
Our Evolving Relationship with Food, by John S. Allen, Harvard University Press, 301 pages, $25.95U.S neuroscientist John S. Allen makes the case that our deeply ingrained eaten habits reveal a great deal about human evolution.
He moves from the diets of our earliest ancestors to the role of cooking in human experience, exploring cooking's role in human culture and addressing the present fascination with food and its preparation.