By Annette Gallagher Weisman
Edible Reads – edibleAspen – Fall 2008

I’ve often felt envious watching my neighbor planting and mulching and gathering flowers and having iced tea and getting a tan while she gardens. All the while I’m thinking, “I’d like to do that!” until I discovered that gardening is hard work. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to throw in the trowel after transferring a few plants from store-bought pots into decorative ones around the patio. All that bending, lifting and heaving bags of soil makes me wonder if I’ll ever get to the next step—a vegetable garden.

What I need is a “guerrilla gardener.” Heck, a whole troop of them, who’d descend on my garden overnight, resulting in instant flowers and food-bearing plants by dawn. In case you don’t know, Guerrilla Gardeners is a so-called political movement formed to cultivate and beautify neglected or abandoned land ( Gardening without permission goes back a long way, but this current movement is attributed to a young Englishman named Richard Reynolds. He and his troops have done much to cultivate dismal public spaces in England, and now other renegade gardeners can be found in various parts of the world, including the U.S. Reynolds’ fascinating account of these exploits is regaled in a new book called On Guerrilla Gardening (Bloomsbury, $25.99).

Now is the time to make plans for next year’s garden. By then, I hope to live off the land, or at least off the patio, by growing something edible. Whether you’re a master gardener or a novice like me, the following books may inspire you to sally forth among the weeds and create your own Nirvana. The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander (Algonquin Books, $13.95). This is more a what not to do than a how to book. Alexander encounters a multitude of gardening pitfalls, from pestilence to pillaging gophers, giving the reader a play-by-play as to what went wrong and how he dealt with them. Alexander’s far more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be. Still, I could have told him he was too ambitious, taking on a multitiered landscape of vegetables, a meadow and an orchard without being Boy Scout-ready for disaster.

It’s an entertaining and humorous read, though, and like eating ice cream, you can also have your fill at times of his Bill Brysonlike puns and asides. Eventually, Alexander becomes more reflective on the cause and effect of his efforts. And his persistence in trying to grow organic produce on his Hudson Valley property is admirable.

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World, by Wendy Johnson (Bantam Books, $25). Monty Python aficionados will recall the phrase, “And now for something completely different.”

This couldn’t be more apt when describing Johnson’s book. Here’s a woman who likes to get down and dirty with the soil, who’s completely at one with herself and nature. A lover of the “untamed and weedy,” Johnson has devoted more than 30 years to becoming a master gardener. Most of it she’s spent at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, renowned for its pioneering role in California’s food revolution. She recounts in detail that valuable experience, including her seven principles of gardening. Once you enter Johnson’s zone, her writing is hypnotic.  Among many impressive credits, she is an adviser to the Edible Schoolyard program of the Chez Panisse Foundation and lives nearby in Muir Beach.

Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden, by Jeanne Kelley (Running Press, $35). While this is mainly a cookbook, it contains some practical information about gardening, composting and organically growing your own exotic ingredients. A longtime contributor to Bon Appetit magazine, Kelley sustains herself and her family with produce from her small backyard garden in Los Angeles.  Kelley’s meals are enhanced by sky blue eggs from her Araucana chickens and milk from her pet goat. With no tales of mayhem, the overall content of the book is soothing and serene. Visually, from the font to the layout, it looks like a gracious gift for a bridal shower or for someone who appreciates beautiful things. With more than 150 delicious recipes, such as whole-grain tartines with ricotta, walnuts, cherries, honey and mint, cooks-cum-gardeners will love this book.

If I close my eyes, I can picture my dad mowing the grass with one of those old-fashioned push mowers. After marching up and down the lawn a few times, he’d lumber back into the house for refreshments, claiming exhaustion. That was about the extent of his gardening prowess— and mine. But now, having read these books, I am armed with fork and spade, I am determined, and I am ready to join the gardening nation—next year.