Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book review of 'The Intelligent Gardener'

The Intelligent Gardener (Steve Solomon with Erica Reinheimer, New Society Publishers, 2013) is a rare gardening book because it invites readers to broaden their opinion on what organic is and acquire soil-analysis skills that go beyond the repertoire of most experienced food-gardeners.

On page 93 Steve Solomon says 'I wrote this book to function like 'Analysis for Dummies'.  I will tell you only what you absolutely need to know - in the simplest possible terms.  Indeed, a better title for this book would have been 'Soil Science for Dummies', because that is what it is.  It is a clever attempt to convey the very basics of soil science, soil testing, soil analysis and formulation of fertilizer plans to non-professionals who are not afraid to be taken on a big learning curve.  

The book assumes the reader knows nothing about chemistry.  However, as Steve says on page 71, 'soil testing and all that goes with it does not match some personalities. If having a non-scientific personality describes you, using Complete Organic Fertilizer is a parallel approach to soil re-mineralisation that does not require soil testing or precise weighing and spreading of fertilizers.'

Inexperienced gardeners and those who do not wish to learn anything about chemistry might want to read Steve's book Growing Vegetables South of Australia instead.  It is an excellent general-purpose vegie-garden book. The version presently for sale in bookshops contains Steve's latest Complete Organic Fertilizer recipe and all you need to know to produce healthy fruit and vegetables.

On the other hand, if you are an experienced vegetable gardener with a commitment to feed your household on an ongoing basis, then you may learn a great deal from The Intelligent Gardener.  This sentence by Erica Reinheimer at the start of the book (page xiv) may make you interested 'this book uses organic methods, but it widens the scope of organic gardening to include some of the best techniques used by today's certified organic farmers.  The result is better, more productive gardens, more nutritious food, and the best tasting vegetables you have ever eaten.'

In The Intelligent Gardener, after providing evidence that in the 21st century we can do better than 'just compost, manure and mulch', Steve Solomon argues that a standard organic fertilizer mix can only provide what the average garden needs.  He says (page 84) 'no standard complete organic fertilizer can possibly grow food to the degree of nutrient-density that can be achieved from re-mineralisation according to a soil test result.

I will probably have to read this book a number of times before fully grasping its content, but then I would like to sample my garden's soil, have it tested, interpret the results and formulate a complete organic fertilizers specifically tailored to the needs of my garden.

For the analysis part Steve provides worksheets at the end of the book that precisely follow the report you receive back from the test-lab. Erica Reinheimer developed an alternative in the form of an online app named OrganiCalc (see  After paying a small fee, you simply enter your soil test results in it and it tells you what your tailored complete organic fertilizer should contain.

The aim of this book is to make available to serious vegie-gardeners the opportunity to analyse their soil themselves.  The whole process is simplified by focusing on just one carefully-chosen extraction method (type of test) and the layout of the test report provided by one carefully-chosen US company.  That of course means that (page 100) 'should you attempt to fit the reported levels given by any other extraction method into this book's system, well, the numbers simply won't work.'

It is suggested that there is a small-business opportunity here for people who easily grasp the material covered in this book and are happy to learn more. Page xi says 'The writers hope that some readers, after having learnt how to analyse their own soil, learn enough to become a 'neighbourhood soil analyst', helping gardeners collect soil samples, send them to a lab, analyse the results, and supply and mix the organically approved minerals the soil needs'.

Steve and Erica started a soil analyst cooperative (see that lists registered soil analysts (at present mostly in the USA) and supports those who want to set themselves up to test soils and provide organic fertilizer mixes to other gardeners in their communities.

The book gave me the feeling that it was written first and foremost for American readers, but that does not take away from its relevance to Australia.  If there had been more reference to Australian research, soil conditions and products and if kilograms/10 sq.metre had been used in addition to pounds/acre (lb/ac) then Australian home-gardeners would have felt more 'at home'.

Never before have I seen a gardening book on this subject for non-professionals.  For the right type of reader The Intelligent Gardener may for ever change the way they think about and treat their garden's soil.  It may lead to better organic practices and most-importantly result in more nutrient-rich organic food.

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