Christmas must be close. The New Zealand garden book market has sprung into life and vegetable gardening is still red hot. Two titles landed simultaneously, both veg garden guides and both by younger women who represent the new face of gardening in this country. Auckland landscaper Xanthe White gives us a month by month guide for the novice vegetable gardener while Auckland food writer and keen vegetable gardener Sally Cameron gives us the Tui version of the famed Yates Garden Guide, though focused only on vegetables and herbs.
The NZ Vegetable Garden is a solid book, designed to be used repeatedly (good PVC plastic cover). Yes it is sponsored by Tui but that is generally unobtrusive. The text avoids the cult of the personality so the book may well have some longevity on the shelf because it is a genuinely useful guide to growing vegetables and herbs at home. It contains most things you are likely to need to look up on both individual crops and on the wider management of the edible garden. Of course one can go through and pick holes and criticize individual details but the bottom line is that this is a pretty comprehensive, well organized book with good layout and helpful photos. It is a reference book and it avoids dumbing down or over simplifying the subject. There is a bit of crossover into the kitchen which is entirely appropriate – handy instructions on sprouting your own beans and one tasty but practical recipe per vegetable or herb. Sally Cameron’s last book, Grow It, Cook It, was a more personal effort. As I recall, I commented at the time that it was better on the recipes than the veg growing side. I wouldn’t say that about this book which we will be keeping on our own garden reference bookshelf.
I have one pedantic niggle. Last time I looked, the adjective from fungus was fungal, upon occasion even fungoid. Fungous is something that has the transitory nature of a fungus. So the useful chapter on fungous diseases should really be on fungal diseases. But they can change that on a reprint and this book may well prove to be worth its salt as a useful reference and therefore run to reprints.
Organic Vegetable Gardening has the look of a book dreamed up by the publishers. I am not sure how long the lead-in time is but I am guessing eighteen months to two years. So if you imagine up on the top floor of Random House Publishing, the editors and managers met and the conversation may have run as follows:
“Item 5 on the agenda: Christmas 09. Wot’s gonna be hot for 09?”
“I have a list here. Home mechanics. Making new clothes from old. Surviving the property crash. Return to floral art. Organic vegetable gardening…”
“That’s a good one. Organics are hot. Vegetables are hot. Great idea. Now who can we get to do it and give us a fresh face which appeals to both Gen X and Gen Y?”
“How about Xanthe White? Good designer. Young, trendy, lovely smile. Won a silver gilt at Chelsea, don’t you know. Now the pin-up girl for motherhood. Smart too, and can write.”
“Great. But does she know anything about growing vegetables?”
“What does that matter? If she doesn’t know anything, she can do it on the run and record progress as she goes. I can see the press release now: walk alongside Xanthe as she learns…”
“Hasn’t that been done already? Don’t Lynda Hallinan and the gals at The Gardener have that area pretty well sewn up?”
“Well, yes and no. They are moving on. They are hardly novices any longer. No, there is going to be an empty space there. Let’s give Xanthe the role.”
“But how about the organics side? Does Xanthe know about organics?”
“Look, what is Google for? Besides we are all organic at heart, aren’t we? Organics is as much about what you leave out (the toxins and chemicals) as about what you actually do.”
“Great. All go. Sign Xanthe. Now what sponsors do we have for this book and what sponsors is Xanthe likely to be able to bring on board with her?”
The result is learn how to garden one step behind the charming Xanthe, who is undeniably somewhat glamorous in a wholesome new age sort of way, but a book driven by the cult of the personality, intrusive product placement, and superficial, with no depth of experience in either organics or growing vegetables. So we have advice such as that on digging. “Never dig any deeper than 10cm unless preparing for a very specific need, otherwise you will upset the natural structure of the soil.” Pardon me, but didn’t I just read about Xanthe gardening in raised beds with soil mixes (Daltons Lawn Mix, shipped in from Matamata, no less) and composts brought in from elsewhere? Where is the soil structure she wants to protect? And if you garden on poor soils, are you not trying to alter the soil structure for better outcomes?
I am not confident about the advice on composts either. Do people really need to be told not to put metals or plastics in their compost bin? Let alone painted timber. “No, Phil, you can not put the old weatherboards in the compost bin. Hire a skip.” And if you are going to put a blanket ban on adding any manure from animals which eat meat, this rules out Grunt, the ever useful pig compost, ZooDoo, and chook manure. Poultry are not vegetarian. But honestly, how many new veg gardeners from Ponsonby and Grey Lynn are going to pile the kiddies into the people mover of a weekend and drive out to the country to slip a few dollars into the hands of some friendly farmer (just look for the one wearing an old straw hat, chewing on a piece of hay and speaking in the thick accent as befits Friendly Yokel) just so they can buy some wholesome horse or cattle manure for the compost heap at home (page 61, I kid you not).
There has been some heavy criticism here of the claim in the book title to be organic. It is fine to write a book aimed at young women from St Heliers and Grey Lynn who probably drive SUVs but want a potager and a home orchard. It is not fine to reduce organics to the same level. We are keen to see organics demystified, separated from the flakey side which confuses faith and good practice and given some clarity of thought. Alas this book reduces organics to cliché.
But spare a thought for poor Xanthe. Presumably the crop of books for the 2010 Christmas market is well underway already. Odds on Sally Cameron will have been given the topic of a manual on caring for the home orchard. All those multitudinous fruit trees sold over the past couple of years will be needing some attention by then. The topic should sit well with Sally’s style and Tui’s sponsorship. And Sally can do splendid seasonal recipes to go with harvests.
I had already predicted that Xanthe’s allocated topic for next year would likely be the low maintenance productive garden, notwithstanding the fact that vegetable gardens and easy care are mutually exclusive concepts. The October copy of the The Gardener magazine arrived, in which Xanthe has a page where she solves readers’ design problems. There is the letter: “We live on a lifestyle block with four young kids and don’t have much time for gardening. But I’d love to have fruit trees and veges. I want a funky, colourful, edible jungle … but it would need to be low maintenance.” Funky? Colourful? Edible jungle? But low maintenance? Xanthe is a professional landscape designer with an established reputation. I sure hope she is paid well to deal with this type of candyfloss fashion gardening.
The NZ Vegetable Garden, Sally Cameron (Penguin, ISBN 978 014 320228 8)
Organic Vegetable Gardening, Xanthe White (Godwit, ISBN 978 1 86962 1551)