Gardening and the Bibliophile

CoverAt this time of year – particularly with the weather we’ve been having – it’s rare to get a sunny weekend day to spend in the garden. So what’s a librarian-gardener to do but curl up with a few good garden books and plan ahead for the spring and summer months?

I always know I’ve met a really, really good book when I find myself gripped by the (occasionally socially inappropriate) desire to seize upon anyone nearby and say “You must read this!” One author who consistently provokes this reaction in me is Michael Pollan. He is better known for his thought-provoking books on food politics The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defence of Food and, most recently, Food Rules: an eater’s manual (which is far more amusing and engaging than it sounds), but his earlier memoir Second Nature: a gardener’s education is not to be missed.

His gently humorous, wise descriptions of his own gardening experiences – and the way we as a society see our gardens – had me alternately laughing out loud and pausing in that middle-distance-y kind of thoughtfulness that a really good read occasionally provokes. It’s a lovely book for a gardener to curl up with on a winter’s night and ponder how the garden, as concept and reality, enriches, educates and (occasionally) humbles us.

The occasional sunny winter’s day, however, inevitably makes the gardener itch to get out there and do something. One thing you can do in the garden now, despite the weather (providing your garden isn’t completely waterlogged) is plant garlic. Garlic is incredibly easy to grow from cloves and traditionally gets planted right about now. Just make sure you buy seed garlic or organic garlic, as most of the other stuff has been treated with a sprouting retardant.

By the way, tradition tells us to plant garlic at midwinter and harvest at midsummer, but really there’s a bit more leeway than this. You can plant your garlic at least a month either side of midwinter (the key thing to remember is that garlic likes frosts but hates being waterlogged) and if you want your garlic to store you’re actually better to leave your garlic in the ground until around late January – early February in Christchurch. I tend to think of the traditional guideline as being more about the actual coldest and hottest parts of the year rather than the calendar solstices.

I recently came across the beautifully illustrated Complete Book of Garlic in our collections and I’ve now read more than I ever thought I didn’t know about the history, cultivars, growth and use across the world of this pungent bulb. My three varieties of garlic cloves have been planted with enthusiasm and I’m now looking forward to the coming summer’s tasty crop!

For more inspiration about things to do in your garden in winter, check out our newly updated Winter Gardening Guide. You might also want to take a look at our digital audiobook lending service, Overdrive, for an electronic copy of The Botany of Desire.

Food Thoughts

Michael Pollan is my current favourite writer and I can’t wait to read his latest book, In defence of food.

I came across his first book, Second Nature: a gardener’s education, by chance and loved it. Pollan is a former journalist, and now professor of science and environmental journalism at UC Berkeley. He is also a hugely informative, entertaining writer who will take a theme (gardening, building, food, eating) and follow it totally. He builds, he gardens, he farms and as he does so he thinks about what he is doing, why we (or at least Americans) do things one way and not another. Pollan is a true polymath and a joy to read.

He spoke at the Auckland Writers’ festival earlier this year and there is plenty of information about him on the internet, but the best way to get to know his ideas is to read his books.

The whole topic of food supply is very hot right now – see Jamie Oliver’s two shows that recently screened on TV and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as well as Pollan’s own Omnivore’s Dilemma: the natural history of four meals, not to mention most of the feature articles in the latest NZ Listener. Although I love Kingsolver’s fiction I found this book difficult to get into. Maybe it’s because it was written in collaboration with two other people.