I have to agree with other reveiwers that this is a readble, approachable book. It has excellent charts, graphs and visuals, and covers the concepts of permaculture in much less space then Bill Mollison's permaculture guide, which is currently running over a hundred dollars, so for these purposes, this is a decent book.
That said, I decided to try his advice out in my own garden, and here is what I am experiencing thus far. For background, I am an experienced gardener of 25+years, who has spent the last ten or so years transitioning over to the organic and sustainable approach.
Last year my 80x30 garden and two hoop houses were entirely planted in rows - monoculture. Upon reading Toby's advice, I have planted all of them this year with broader raised beds, with "key hole" type paths to reduce the traffic and compaction areas. The improvement has been from 50% to now being at least 70% plantable space. Very good.
I also did the multiple layer mulching that he details, and followed his instructions very closely. Here is were the garden encountered some very real problems. Toby suggested that the mix of seeds be directly sown - scattered more like - into this top layer of mulch. What I am discovering is that the germination and survival rate for the seedlings is abyssmal due to the high acidity of the mulch. What I found is that if I start the seedlings separately, and then plant them deeply enough to enjoy the compost layer, the plants do well. If however, they were direct sown seeds that have not penetrated through the mulch layer, they are struggling for nutrients, remaining stunted with pale color. I have been liming the garden to correct for PH, and have also been adding kelp meal and other nutrients from above to try to compensate, but it just cant approach what dirt provides a plant.
As a result, it is now mid June and we have no tomatoes yet, although in previous years, our plants were always bearing by now. The plants are smaller and some are still stunted. The larger ones have gone through the multiple layers of mulching and are finally taking off. The same has occurred with the cabbages and beans. The pepper plants ALL still look stunted, and only one plant out of 20 has a blossom.
Under all these layers, we have the most gorgeous soil, with large healthy earthworms in abundance. This is definately building a good environment for them - the shortcoming is the top mulch layer and the fact that out of the cupfulls of seed that I scattered only a few have come up. Yes, I have kept them moist, yes, they are germinating fine in starter trays, etc...
It is a much prettier garden, having departed from rows of monoculture. Instead we now have meandering paths that look more like an Elizabethan Garden. Instead of just working or harvesting in the garden, it has now become a destination in itself, with new things to look at around each bend. We have also planted permanent plants for shade and variety, such as columner apples (Jung seed) Nanking bush cherries, rose trees and bushes and perennial herbs. The honey bees visit the "bee bath" in the center and the ambiance is much improved over those boring old rows.
I am deeply concerned about his nonchalance toward invasive species of plants, even preferring to give them a new name "opportunistic." He casts blame for their existance on practices that made their survival possible. Having a large proerty with natural forest, I can assure Toby that the Kudzu has come up on enormous oak trees (slowly killing them) that have not been disturbed for Only Lord Knows How Long. The mountain olives are pushing out and taking over natural grassland areas, but this does not seem to disturb the author. As even the movie Planet Eart states, grasslands feed more animals on this planet than any other type of covering, and Toby's deep love for trees seems to exclude recognizing the importance of grassland ares for feeding indigenous species such as deer, grouse, wild turkey etc., which CANNOT survive with only the mast crop of the forest. He also seems unwilling to cast blame were is really lies, with the various department of natural resources (pick your state) that have imported these things ON PURPOSE as various experiments. My personal "favorite" was when the local DNR decided there were too many wild turkeys. Their solution was to import rattlesnakes to this area (no kidding) who would eat the eggs and drop the population. Well, rattlesnakes, being equal opportunity kind of guys, dont discriminate between turkey, quail, grouse, eggs. We haven't seen a grouse in almost 10 years.
So, in sum this is a good book for charts, graphs, etc, but for real life application I would suggest Sepp Holzer, who hase been working with the plants and actually using these practices before people were even calling it permaculture. While Gaia's Garden is a good book, I would not rely on it exclusively.
I will give an update on the garden in the fall and share the results. I am giving it three stars for now because a gardening book should help to get a garden off to a start where seedlings thrive. With the top acid layer of mulch problem, it leaves an additional step for the gardener to have to work out. More soon.
July 18, 2012 Update
Yesterday I planted our hoop house for fall harvesting, yet to date we have harvested exactly three tomatoes from our main garden, a serious disappointment, although there are finally large clusters of green tomatoes on the vines. The early setbacks we experienced have seriously delayed harvesting food. What we are able to harvest are those plants that send their roots down deeply, so carrots and turnips are doing well.
Another problem that has arisen is pests. Now we've been growing organic for years now and are accustomed to a certain number of pests, but this is ridiculous. The author mentions problems with slugs in the early stages of the mulching, and he did not exagerate. They are everywhere. His "solution" is to plant more than you'd consume so that the slugs do the "thinnning." Not working - they have pierced every delectable plant with holes - none are without. His other "solution" is to make metal rings for each plant - does he realize this would number in the hundreds? The other plants have beetles and pests that I have never encountered before. Amazed about this I went to Eliot Coleman's book Four Season Harvest again and was reminded about this:
"The scientific evidence indicates that the effect of stress on a plant - whether from lack of nutrients, excess or deficiency....is to inhibit the synthesis of protein in the plant. When the protein synthesis is inhibited the plant accumulates increasing levels of free amino acids (also called free nitrogen) in its aerial parts....insects thrive on plants high in free nitrogen and are thus attracted to and feed upon those plants." page 148.
So something about the sheet mulch layers that created this early failure to thrive has now stressed the plants to the point that they are insect candy.
This has also been a very expensive venture. In addition to losing cup fulls of seeds early on (the author pointed me out to his sidebar with the advice about scattering seed, but perhaps this advice SHOULD be in the chapter where he actually discusses planting the seeds, FOUR chapters later), we had to purchase many replacement plants at the garden center - which I normally never do since we start our own seeds in trays here - but this year it was too late, so we ended up at the garden center. We also have about $160.00 in utlra fine mulch. With these considerations, we could have bought alot of organic produce at the grocery store for the money. But I dont think that actually growing much is this author's concern. In one section he states that his tomatoes planted in the shade don't yield as much, but that's OK. hmmmm.
I think that if you follow Eliot Coleman's advice about building soil, you'll end up with healthy soil that yields, with no less destruction of the environment.
I strongly suspect that this author is part of the "rewilding" groups that want to restore more of human inhabited places back to nature. If that's your thing, this book is perfect for you. If you want to put food on the table, you can expect much better crops from Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch.
More in the fall about the time of first frost....
October 16, 2012 Update
We had our first frost the other night, so its time for the third and final installment. I have revised my rating from three stars to two, having thought it through completely, and based on the assessment of this year's garden.
I can't stress enough what problems I have had with insects, including some that I have never had before, and cannot even find identification for on google searches. We have had tomato pinworms, squash beetles, japanese beetle, potatoes beetles, aphids, slugs, cucumber beetles (two kinds) and blister beetles, which were also newcomers to our garden, and ate every bit of chard they could get ahold of, at least when they were done eating the potato leaves. This strange new beetle was even eating the jerusalem artichokes, and I have NEVER seen any bugs eat those.
The trouble is, the keyhole approach does not give you good access to all sides of plants as rows do, and so going through the plants for insects, which I do regularly, is not nearly as effective because one is bound to miss some. It also means having to step into those mulched beds instead of staying on the path.
This system may work in the future as the multiple layers of mulching break down and the soil regularizes itself. In the meantime, as I pointed out above, my plants became insect candy, and the harvest was pathetic.
Out of all of those broccoli, califlower, and cabbage plants I bought, we ate NONE. I mean it, NONE. Those relentless beetles took over and devoured the plants. They eventually even went and took over the turnip tops after they had consumed every other brassica. To that, some members of my family finally had a sigh of relief - they were tired of turnips, even with huge amounts of Romano cheese.
The tomatoes eventually produced, and the carrots have done extremely well. As a matter of fact, every time I pulled a bug-infested plant out to destroy it, I sowed carrot seeds. So the only remaining greens in the garden are the frilly tops of carrots, and the volunteer fennel plants.
This book just does not cut it. Having read Bill Mollison's bible, as well as Sepp Holzer's I find that they have more practical advise. Look objectively at the picture on the cover, pretty, but lets be honest, messy too. Imagine trying to pick around that to find invading pests, or even the cucmber vine that trailed under the tomato plant, and now the cucumbers are setting seed.....frustrating. (And the lettuces in front are bolting, possibly from overcrowding?)
Weeding was also a challenge, due to the keyhole beds, In order to hoe, once again, you have to get in the beds.
If you are looking to restore some very neglected parcel of land, and have several years in which to do it, this book would be helpful, although you may as well go to the Master, Mollison, himself. For putting food on the table, this method is counterproductive. I go with my earlier statemnet, that Eliot Coleman provides the best advice for growing food.
I know there are lots of initiates to permaculture that get excited when they read this book, and the author certainly is engrossing and upbeat. But this book does not perform and therefore perpetuates the need to have produce brought in, and keeps the demand for fuel going.
One Friday, I actually bought vegetables at a produce stand - green beans, squash, beets, pumpkins - all items I TRIED growing in our garden. This book goes back on the shelf.