Spring + Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Okay, so spring always gives me a bit of a reading slump. Basically, it suddenly turns warm and sunny and super happy outside, and I lose all interest in being inside.  Instead, I want to plant things and even though I’m a terrible gardener, I spend all sorts of time pouring over seed catalogs, browsing garden centers, reading about homesteading, and yes, even planting.

This is our first spring in our new house, so I’m especially excited about outside stuff this year – I think I’ll be around to see it again next year!  Plus, we can plant trees, dig up shrubs, and plan flowerbeds without asking anyone’s permission!  It’s amazing!  So, if you’re interested in seeing what I’ve been doing instead of reading, feel free to check out the house blog!

So Tom and I both interested in becoming a bit more self-sufficient, especially now that we have a little bit of space to call our own.  Even though we only have about an acre here, we are full of plans for food-producing plants, chickens, and rabbits.  Who knows how much of it will actually  happen…  the hardest part is pacing ourselves so that we can actually do some stuff all the way, and do it right, instead of starting everything and completing nothing!

In that spirit, this year we’re trying to focus on some stuff that takes longer to grow, like fruit trees and bushes.  I’ve been working on developing an herb/perennial garden along the side of the house, and we’re just kind of working from there!

The point is, my way of doing stuff is by starting with books.  I go to the library website, type in the topic I’m researching, and check out a dozen books on the subject, and then go from there!  So I thought that I would share a few of my non-fiction reads of late…  while I haven’t really sat down and read any of them straight through, these are some of the books I’ve been referencing and flipping through (although not even close to all of them!)

//The Backyard Homestead//edited  by Carleen Madigan//published 2009//



Okay, the truth of the matter is that I could probably focus this entire post on this particular book. If you’ve ever considered trying to become a bit more self-sufficient, this book is the first one I would recommend as a go-to.  The Backyard Homestead is perfect in every way.  It has loads of information that is concise, well-organized, and easy to understand.  While this book isn’t the end-all reference, it definitely covers all the basics.  It’s a great place to read about something and decide whether or not you’re interested enough to pursue the topic with more depth.

I absolutely love the illustrations in this book, plus it’s full of recipes, plans, and tons of other useful stuff.  I bought this book when I was on vacation in 2010, before I had a house of my own or was married, because I fell in love with the table of contents – who could resist???



Anyway, as you can see from the awesome table of contents, this little book covers all the basic areas of self-sufficiency/homesteading, and it does it with the idea that you’ll be working with a small(ish) space.  Actually, the book starts by showing possible ways to utilize a tenth, half, or whole acre.  The chapters each look at a different aspect of homesteading basics, like vegetable gardening, raising herbs, and planting fruits.  Then, within each chapter there are tons of facts, tips, charts, recipes, and instructions.  For instance, in the herb chapter, there are four pages of an herb chart, listing herbs, whether they are hardy perennials, tender perennials or annual/biannuals; their height; whether they prefer dry or moist soil; whether they prefer direct sunlight or shade; how they’re propagated (seed, cuttings, root division); and what part of the herb is used (leaves, roots, flowers, berries/seeds).  It’s fantastic!


I genuinely love the way this book has garden layouts and tons of recipes – just loads of great starter ideas. So perf.

This book is published by Storey publishers, and I highly recommend them as another great starting point for homesteady topics.  Usually, when I’m getting ready to delve into something (like planting an herb garden), I look through Storey’s list of books on the topic and work from there.  I really, really love their books.

There are at least three more books published in the same style as the original book – one on livestock, one on building projects, and one energy self-sufficiency.  Actually, I didn’t know about the building project one until just now when I was finding an image of this book’s cover…  guess what book I’m reserving at the library next???







//Five-Plant Gardens//by Nancy J. Ondra//published 2014//

The subtitle for this book is “52 Ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants.”  It’s this spring’s addition to the outdoorsy-book library. I just couldn’t resist the way the book was organized!!

Plus this book is almost square. I really love square books.

Plus this book is almost square. I really love square books.

The basic concept of the book is that even a small(ish) area can be turned into a lovely little garden, and it doesn’t take a huge selection of plants to make that happen.  Ondra divides her book by garden location.  The first half of the book is devoted to full-sun areas, while the second half is partial/full shade.  Within each of those categories, each garden is then planned either to fit a certain type of soil/area, e.g. a hillside, a boggy area, sandy soil, etc., or are categorized some other way, such as color (a blue or white or red garden), or because they are all plants that attract butterflies or are plants that are commonly seen in cottage gardens, or whathaveyou.

For each garden, Ondra lays it out in a sort of “plant by number” plan.  The gardens come in a variety of shapes and sizes – squares, rectangles, triangles, long “edging” gardens, etc.  The shapes can easily be combined or repeated to fit the area where you are planting.  Ondra also always labels the “1” plants as the largest/tallest, and the “5” plants as the smallest, so if you like a type of garden (say, the butterfly garden), but have an area that is more triangular instead of square, as the butterfly garden is laid out, you can use a triangle pattern and insert the butterfly garden plants.  I feel like I’m describing this poorly, but it’s actually brilliantly simple and fantastic.



Ondra does a wonderful job describing and listing the plants for each garden, and then providing several options if you can’t find that particular type of plant.  There are drawings of her preferred plants for each garden, and drawings of each garden, as well as the actual layout for each one.

You know how you have silly day dreams that you know are a little crazy?  Well, one of mine is to have a yard that is entirely garden.  And for some reason, this book makes me think I could accomplish that… just plant one little square at a time!!

Anyway, Ondra aims her gardens towards middle zones – most of the gardens are zones 3-8ish; she has purposely chosen plants that can survive in a fairly wide range of zones.  Some of her “other” options for each plant are more zone specific.  We’re in zone 5/6 here – 6 in a normal year and zone 5 about every five years, so this book is full of plants that I can definitely use.

I also really like the way that she includes all of the Latin names – when I was looking up some of these plants at nurseries online (now there is a dangerous way to spend an afternoon!) I was not always able to locate the plants by the common names listed, but could usually find them by the Latin names.

Even though I haven’t planted any gardens exactly as planned in the book, it’s also a great place to get ideas for certain plants – for instance, I love combining specific colors, so flipping to the garden of all-pink plants is a great place for ideas for pink plants!

While Five-Plant Gardens isn’t for everyone, if you’re like me and you like things to be super organized and to get clear, straight-forward instructions, this book is a great place to start – it can really help you take a blank-slate area and turn it into a nifty little garden (at least in your mind!).

//The Water Gardener’s Bible//by Ben Helm & Kelly Billing//published 2008//

51hgsdp0bSL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_So if you’ve checked out the house blog, you know that I’m busily working on our side garden area.  It’s slowly becoming a happy herb garden.  But Tom and I are also super interested in installing a small fish pond (with a waterfall, of course), because the garden is right outside of our kitchen/off the front porch, and it just seems like it would be fantastically happy.

However, neither of us really knows a whole lot about water gardening.  I, of course, checked out about half-dozen books on the topic, and while they have all been informative, The Water Gardener’s Bible lives up to its name – it is an excellent overview on the topic, with enough detail to really get you going.

This book is laid out in an order that makes sense:  Planning/Construction/Installation, Stocking Plants & Fish, Common Problems & Solutions, Plant Directory, Fish Directory, Pond Management.  I appreciate how-to books that, if you start at the beginning and read straight through, take you through the process in the order you’ll need the information (kind of like reading a recipe, except on a larger scale).  This book does just that – it starts by telling you what supplies you’ll need, and then explains how to combine them (and in what order!) so you end up with a pond that suits your area and desires.

As an aside, this is the only non-Storey publishing book in this post.

We haven’t started the practical application of this book yet, but it has definitely been an informative one to flip through and garner ideas from!

//Kiss My Aster//by Amanda Thomsen//published 2012//

kissmyasterDo you ever wish nonfiction books were a little more… interactive?  Thomsen says that she decided to write a gardening/landscaping how-to book based on the concept of those crazy books we had when we were kids – you know, the ones where every couple pages you had to decide what the protagonist was going to do and then turn to the appropriate page?  (Frank decides to check out the abandoned shed – go to page 62.  Frank obeys his mother and stays in his own backyard – go to page 41.)  Anyway, Kiss My Aster has somehow managed to capture that concept and has turned it into a rather zany, unique, and engaging reading experience.  I found this book to be completely addictive.  And, unlike those books I read when I was a kid, there really isn’t a plot – so I would flip this book open to a random page and go from there!  Thomsen says that the idea is that you only end up reading the information you need (if you aren’t planting trees, you don’t read the tree pages because you’ve chosen another option), and, theoretically, one should be able to read through the book and come out at the other end (probably not on the last page) with a plan for creating an engaging outdoor area.


For me, the truly attractive part of this book was simply the fact that it was chock-full of happy illustrations and different types of fonts.  Did I mention that I love books with pictures??

Thomsen also has a very casual, conversational writing style that fits the book.  It’s not something I would appreciate in, say, a biography about Thomas Jefferson, but it works really well for what she’s doing.  Not all books could get away with telling you that a reason for growing your own food is because “A sun-warmed tomato brings you close to God (or Dog, if you’re dyslexic).”  But Thomsen’s writing is warm, friendly, and funny, and it really helps make the whole book flow.

Of course, the book’s unique layout is also, in some ways, its weakness…   because, just like with those childhood stories, I wanted to read all the pages.  I felt like this book could have done a better job of linking the reader back through some of the options.  Several times pages ended as deadends when they definitely could have just sent me off to some other random page and made me super happy.

Overall, though, if you’re a beginner gardener with no idea where to start – you’ve just moved into a new place and the yard is barren and dreadful – this book is a fun and low-stress way to start thinking about what to do with the space.  Thomsen covers not only gardens, but other landscaping areas, like trees and shrubs, creating a water garden, planting grass or groundcover, putting up a hammock, building a compost pile, etc.  She also does a great job of assuming you know nothing – she gives you the basics you need without talking down to you.  (I’ve read many a beginning gardening book that manages to come off just a tad patronizing…  like, “Wow, you’re 32 years old and you didn’t know that you need two different varieties of blueberries to make the bushes produce well?  Just.  Wow.”)  Thomsen instead manages to sound like that crazy aunt you always wanted who knows how to do a little bit of everything and when you stop by to visit her she’s probably climbing a tree or planting a boxwood maze.

//Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook//by Ron Kujawski & Jennifer Kujawski//published 2010//

51aGq8u5Y2L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Someday, I am going to plant a vegetable garden, and it is going to be beautiful.  And when I do it, it will be with the help of this absolutely delightful book.  This father-daughter author duo has accomplished a wonderful thing with this book – they’ve created a guide that is easily adaptable to wide variety of gardening zones by basing all of their instructions around the frost date. While frost date varies from zone to zone (and even within zones!), the Kujawskis work around this by allowing you, the reader, to manually fill in the dates that fit your situation.

Our average frost date is May 15, so, working from that date, I filled in the dates for the weeks before and after frost.  The book, after covering some basics like where to put a vegetable garden, soil types, etc., starts with “20-15 weeks before average date of last frost” – e.g., late winter.  For the beginning of each section (dates far away from frost, like the beginning one, cover a longer period of time – in the height of planting/growing season, the sections are only one week at a time), the authors list out what should overall be accomplished during this time – with a checklist – and then go into details about each item.  There are also diary areas for several years for note-taking purposes.  Throughout, there are tons of tidbits and tips on specific vegetables, different varieties, gardening methods, harvesting, saving seeds for next year, etc.  They also do fun little sections of she says/he says, where Jennifer and Ron discuss a subject where they have differing opinions – underlining the fact that a lot of gardening is personal preference!

The authors are friendly and personable.  While the main part of the book is fairly formal, it is still written in first person, almost as if they are writing a letter to the reader.  Many of box sections throughout are personal anecdotes from their years of gardening experience.  This book, like all of Storey’s books, is just full of useful, accessible information, with plenty of pictures, explanations, ideas, and directions for where to look next.


Well, illustrating the fact that I’m way too engaged with the great outdoors, it’s taken me over a week to finish this post!  I can’t really complain, though – I’m super excited to be outside and enjoying (/attempting) gardening.  This is only a handful of the many, many books I’ve been flipping through over the last month or so, but they are definitely my favorites.  I don’t own Kiss My Aster or The Water-Gardener’s Bible, but the other three are cherished favorites – The Backyard Homestead has especially been my close companion these many years, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in even very basic/minimal homestead practices.

And, by the way, no, Storey did not perk me for plugging their books – it’s just a natural result of the fact that their books are freaking awesome.  :-D

It looks like my fiction backlog of reviews will probably be in minireivew format as well (plus maybe an April Rearview…  although there isn’t much to look back on!), hopefully very soon.  And I read straight through an entire Wodehouse book in less than 24 hours, so my reading slump may be at an end (nothing like Wodehouse to get you back in the groove!).  I haven’t been tooling around the blogosphere much either, so hopefully you’ll start seeing my little “like” stars again soon, too!  :-)   Hope all is well out there… happy gardening!