In Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier, two plant geeks have a lifelong dream of designing and growing permaculture gardens with plants that provide food. Permaculture promotes sustainable, long-term agricultural systems. These gardens substitute perennials for annuals so you don't need to replant each year, or ever, if you've planned it right. Ideally, the garden forms its own ecosystem.
Unfortunately, most people have permaculture gardens in the tropics, so the plants that are known to grow well and reseed themselves year after year are only suited for warmer climates. The author and his friend live in Massachusetts, where it gets below freezing over the winter, so tropical plants won't work. They have always lived in rented places, so these become their first experimental gardens. Finally, they buy a duplex that sits on 1/10 of an acre, which adds another wrinkle to the problem in that 1/10 of an acre isn't much land to grow a food garden on. The lot is also overgrown with weeds, and the soil underneath is better suited for a parking lot than a garden.
The book details their work over the course of several years of planning and planting their garden. Their garden eventually provides a lot of their food, including bananas, persimmons, grapes, pears, kiwi, pawpaws, and much more. For a place that gets below freezing in the winter, they're surprised to find that they can grow tropical fruit. Take that, Florida! Their garden becomes a classroom for others interested in making their own permaculture gardens. This book was inspiring both for seeing the amazing variety of plants they could grow and for the dream of not having to weed much because the plants you want crowd out the weeds.
Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America's Family Farms by Richard Horan follows a man who decides to participate in the harvests of a dozen different crops on small, family-run farms (and then write a book about it). He goes coast to coast and lives in the farmers' homes while working in the fields with them. He finds similarities among the farms and the farmers, even though they differ in many ways.
Some of the farmers have chosen their crops for historical or heirloom value, some chose them because they like growing them, and some seemed to have just happened upon this lifestyle and found that it suited them. Obviously, these are all people who care deeply about the land and its health and ecology, yet most of them are not from generations of farmers.
Surprisingly, when you consider the premium we pay for organic food (those organic bananas better taste organic), most of these farmers have partners or spouses who need to work at other jobs in order to make a living wage. The work is extremely hard and Horan recalls his youth when he was able to do this kind of physical labor that is now so wearing on him. He also gives us some background on the new growth of family farms and compares their practices to commercial agriculture. This sounds clichéd, but Horan re-discovers his soul and purpose and a new optimism by working on these farms.
Not many of us get to do what we love. So, get out there in your garden and put your hands in the dirt. Get dirty. Get downright filthy. Eat healthy food and get enough fruits and vegetables (because they just might keep you from turning into a zombie).
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