Winter Reading Project

Last winter I read a bit over 1200 pages on Soil Science, and the learnings from that project were profound enough that they inspired me to revamp the way I plant my gardens,  created and taught several workshops on Introductory Soil Science and posted enough about composting that you all were justifiably concerned about my interests bordering on obsession.  Passion often comes delivered without an “off” switch…  I never did write up my learnings on Soils in a specific series of posts and that is on my list of winter writing projects.

But this year, with December half gone, I was struggling a bit as I was lacking a research project for the winter.  Plans for next year will be coppice experiments and a Full Bore shot at small scale, intensive “ecological yardening” (really need to just take a Permaculture Design Course so I can use the dang copyrighted term in my business).   With the readings of the past several month and the 3 days at the Midwest Biomass Conference I am only about 2 books short of the books on coppice that I want to read – and one of them isn’t even written yet.

So for this winter I am focusing on 2 subjects:  Systems Thinking for the theory side, and Small Scale Agriculture systems on the practical side.  The goal will be 3 books on each, which will leave some room for the week or two in January where I lock myself into a room with seed catalogs, coffee, and spreadsheets to plan my gardens, and still leave time for some strolls into literary whimsy should one present itself.  To that end here are the first few contenders (please add your own if you have recommendations) – I typically only buy 1-2 books at a time, as they almost always lead me to new pathways.

Systems Thinking

Resiliency Thinking, by Brian Walker and David Salt.  I just finished this and HIGHLY recommend it.  If you want to better understand the theory on how complex, ecological systems respond to change and why some bounce back and some cross tipping points, this book is a fascinating starting point.  150 pages means you can polish it off in a day of reading and a few pots of tea, but though it is very accessible, it is so dense with epiphanies that I gave it 2 weeks so that the insights could percolate through my thinking more thoroughly.  Great books change how you think and interact with the world.  This is one of those.

Next on order is Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows. Ms. Meadows authored Limits to Growth in 1972 and has been one of the most influential thinks of the Energy Descent movement.   When an author is recommended highly by the likes of Lester Brown, Hunter and Amory Lovins and is referred to by Bill McKibben as “one of the smartest people I ever knew” I take notice.

We’ll see where my muse takes me after that, but contenders are some of the books by Fritjof Capra, though not sure if he’s a quack yet, and likely a re-re-re-read of Permaculture Principles by my hero David Holmgren.

Small Scale Intensive Ag / Applied Suburban Permaculture

Solviva, by Anna Edey has been on my “should read” list for several years now and I need to tear the bandaid off.  So its on order too.  There are several other practical books out there such as Gardening When it Counts, the Urban Homestead, The Self Sufficient Gardener and the Backyard Homestead.  But likely I will stick to more theory (shocking) and read some of the newer permaculture books out there that I’ve missed so far such as the Earth User’s Guide by Rosemary Marrow or The Permaculture Way, by Graham Bell.  The upcoming book by Sepp Holzer should be a knock out – I loved what I saw of him on You Tube.

And that brings up another element – we are reaching a point now where the interweb is an ever more important source for researching these aspects as the practical applications of Permaculture are far outstripping the pace with which conventional media outlets can keep up.  Again, it is the diverse organic solutions that we as individuals are creating that will be the solutions.   And to that end expect these books and research to continue to influence my thinking and writing this season, and of course expect the dirt to fly as soon as the frost is out.   Should be a great winter!



24 Responses

  1. Super list! Thanks so much for the recommendations, I’ve got them on order from the libraries in my area.

  2. I’ve read Gardening when it counts, the Urban Homestead and the backyard homestead. If you want Gardening when it counts or backyard homestead I can send them to you.

    I didn’t think any of those were really exceptional, but that’s just my opinion. Gardening when it counts, for me, was a huge waste of time.

    • Thanks Matt. I’ve thumbed through it, and the Backyard Homesteader a few times and had the same conclusion. The Resilient Gardeners seems a bit better – read an essay of hers on Chelsea Green or somewhere- the chic puts up 1600 pounds of potatoes a year. And eats them all. DAMN.

  3. gardening when it counts was hard for me to read too because steve is all about bare dirt (dust mulching i think he calls it).

    i’ve heard good things about The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe, and I’m about to start reading it myself.

    • Good to know – haven’t been impressed with the book whenever I have thumbed through it, but great title. Deppe’s book is on my short list too, mostly because her choice of crops: beans, squash, potatoes, corn, etc show that she “gets it” and is rather practical. One concern about “popular” permaculture is that one can honestly wonder what we will put all the jam on since we will all apparently be growing 3000#’s of fruit a year with little protein or carb crops. 🙂

      • Zing! I’m so sick of hearing “…and plant the understory with X, Y, and Z, which make good jam.” Um, I don’t think we’ll survive on condiments…especially ones that require sugar to make them palatable…

    • Yeah, the research on Dust Mulches was pretty at odds with his book see:

      That turned me off too much. Carol Deppe is well-researched but kind of missing some pieces (I reviewed it on Rob’s next post).

  4. Thanx for this great listing of superintresting material!
    Im diggin into the theme of resilience too, and i´m amazed of the new perspective it gives. Being one who always has my nose into the ground, having some kind of macroview of things, the resiliance view lifts me up and gives a greater picture.

  5. Steve Solomon lives in the next town to me. I have his Growing South of Australia book. Something of an legend here in Tasmania. I look forward to reading your take on SystemsThinking and Small Scale Agriculture. Coppicing too. I use the Pittisporums in my yard for pollarding. Works well. Looking forward to an exciting year of learning and experimenting.

  6. Thanks for the recommendations. Just ordered a few of those through inter-library loan. I too was unimpressed with Gardening When It Counts. Maybe it just hit me in the wrong frame of mind, but I found the author’s tone to be hugely negative at certain points, and….well, a little too self-congratulatory, I suppose. Backyard Homestead….I don’t think you should order this, Rob. I have a copy. It’s good on very broad concepts and very light on details. You’re already way ahead of everything covered in that book, trust me. Try the library for that one if you really want to see it.

    • Thanks for you comments Kate, I really appreciate your insights. I have similar fears about being “beyond” much of the current literature. But then again, I learn something every time I (re)read Elliot Coleman or Jeavons and I struggle with arrogance. For the Sub Acre research I think I will likely end up with going back to design theory, and trying to take as many tours as I can. Will likely spend the book money on better schematic/layout software. Loving Omnigraffe lately.

      For the library, I typically buy them and then donate to our local library to get them into the county system. I’ve got about 100 books in the “sustainability section” that the head librarian and I started with my donations and local money from businesses and residents. It is AWESOME to see people checking them out (we still use the paper stamper method).

  7. If you want to get your official permaculture accreditation so you can use the term, try one of the online trainers.

    There’s one near me that trains people from all over the world, Permaculture Visions. The nice thing is you can take as long as you like to finish all the work, so you don’t have to find a 2-week block of time to dedicate to a fulltime course.

    I plan to do a PDC with them at some stage, but simply won’t have the time until my kids are a bit older.

    • Darren, thanks for the suggestion, but the local PDC certifiers are friends and continuing to be on good terms with the local network is huge. That is far more important than saving a few hundred dollars; odds are we’ll all be relying on the network of local permies and doomsday freaks rather a lot in the coming decades.

      • Ah, that’s cool. It’s a good point too – local networks are hugely important.

        I was thinking more of the time cost of doing a full-time course, rather than the monetary cost of getting the qualification. With all your other activities, I thought it might be hard to get time to attend a course.

        I work full-time, so taking the time off to do a traditional course would be almost impossible. But this web-based course lets you take as long as you need, and do it in your own time.

        I don’t have any affiliation with them (other than having met one of the owners once), but they’re local to me – so that would give me ticks for time, cost AND local networking! Cool.

  8. Rob, did you ever read The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant? It has a huge survey of different methods from around the world, but doesn’t go into the science very deeply. I found it complements a lot of the other books you read last year very well. A couple of the methods are similar to your pit and mound method. (instead of trenches of woodchips, one method has periodic holes full of vegetable scraps, woodchips, etc.). It’s an easy read.

  9. The best ever permaculture book (IMHO) is Gaia’s Garden: A guide to permaculture. Table and Illustrations galore.Plain and easy to read advice on how to create a system that will work for you.
    Love reading One Straw! Anyone know of a blog about permaculture techniques for SW (read desert)?

    • Gaia’s Garden was arguable the book that started all this for me and I continue to re-read large sections of it every year or so. Mollison’s Intro to Permaculture is a great next step and for a truly Deep Dive it is difficult to beat Edible Forest Gardening Vol 1. I find I reference Vol 2 more, but mostly for the massively helpful appendixes – the text in Vol 2 is so technically dense I have never managed it, but I am a “shiny object” guy and its been a few years.

      A good place to start in the SW would be the Permaculture Institute which focuses on California, Arizona, New Mexico and Central/South America.

  10. I have Gardening When It Counts, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living (by Kellogg and Pettigrew), and The Resilient Gardener.

    I’ve read all of these, except about the last third of the latter. Deppe has advice you might want, on saving potato seed without transmitting disease: basically, borrow a page from the certified seed farmer’s playbook and grow with enough isolation, rogue out at appropriate intervals, and only use a piece of land for potatoes once every five years.

    If you want to handle water a lot differently, Toolbox might be more up you alley than either Solviva or the new book by Holzer: it’s a very nuts-and-bolts approach, including solid plans for constructed wetlands to filter greywater and two varieties of aquaponic setup (extensive wind-and-pond-liner vs. intensive pump-and-55gallon-drum). The part on bioremediation is headed in interesting directions; I hope to buy whatever either of them writes on the subject a decade from now.

  11. Rather than a comment, here is a challenge: Stop writing about teaching and theory and actually do this for a living. Come up with a plan to quit your job, earning your living off the land. Post your plan to encourage others to do the same. I think all this talk of theory and systems is only useful when applied to real life problems and locales. The challenge to balance your checkbook with all this theory is the ultimate challenge. Then you can write all you want, as you have then walked the talk. Until then its all just experimentation and conjecture. I say this as a fan of your blog and as someone who has done this in reality, so I know its not easy. With the ever increasing likelihood of government bankruptcy (seen 60 Minutes on 12/20 about the States of Illinois and New Jersey?), we will have to rely increasingly on creative and resilient private sector solutions instead of vacuous, self interested, power hungry politicians and government grant welfare. As Einstein said, “The problems we face today will not be solved by the minds that created them.”

    • TomKumpf, That’s grumpy, unreasonable, and irresponsible advice. Not that Rob’s a novice, but many farms still fail, even after generations of accumulated wisdom and careful management. A couple bad seasons, especially with climate growing more unpredictable, and anyone can lose it all. And not everyone has the capital to buy a farm, or the skills to manage it well. 90% of other small businesses fail in their first year.

      Taking advantage of actual scientific research can improve someone’s odds, and starting off as a hobby or a side business is more resilient to naturally learning the hard way, by making some mistakes.

      Also, if Rob and the rest of us don’t read and share what we know before we’re experts, we waste a huge opportunity. I learn a lot by reading other people’s failures and musings. Plus, it builds community and makes me feel less of an idiot over my own mistakes.

  12. Hmm, I can’t find your reading list from last year. What are these 1200 pages you read? 🙂

    • Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels
      Soul of the Soil by Grace Gershuny
      Roots Demystified by Robert Kourik
      Compost, Vermicompost and Compost Tea: Feeding the Soil on the Organic Farm by Grace Gershuny
      Mycelium Running by Paul Staments
      Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff

      And a few others, but these were the winners.

      • Cool. Lowenfels, and Staments were already on the short list. I’ll look into the others. Thanks.

    • Gershuny is well worth it and Kouriks book completely shift my understanding of what happens in the soil. The plants RULE the soil ecosystem.

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