Book review: "The Tao of Vegetable Gardening"

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening
by Carol Deppe
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015, 265 pp., $24.95
by Susan Mulvihill

I admit it: the title of this book initially put me off. I don’t have anything against Taoism or other philosophies and religions, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around what The Tao of Vegetable Gardening must be about. Perhaps I should have read the book’s subtitle more closely -- “Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy, and Serenity” -- before passing judgment.

When I finally sat down to read it, I discovered this is a thoughtful, at times quite funny, information-packed gardening book that has taught me a great deal.

In the first six chapters, the author begins by briefly relating a teaching or fable from Taoism, and then weaves her own garden tales around them.

For example, in the “Balance” chapter, she discusses growing the right-size garden, dedicating one’s limited time to the most important and/or rewarding tasks, and finding the right approach to soil and tilling (adding enough organic amendments, not doing too much tilling, using the right amount of water and fertilizer). She advocates soil-testing rather than just adding nutrients to the soil.

When it comes to dealing with pests, she suggests a gardener be realistic about the efforts one has to make in order to get a harvest.

In the “Non-Doing” chapter, Deppe points out how we should be efficient at what we do, rather than doing something just because it’s how we’ve always done something -- even if it isn’t necessary.

One chapter section is entitled, “Twenty-four Good Places Not to Plant a Tree,” which is a great lesson on properly locating a tree. That’s something all gardeners should have! She also covers “Seven Reasons Not to Chop Down a Tree” and “Thirty-seven Reasons for not Planting Various Vegetables” (my favorite is “I don’t like the taste... And I don’t care how well it overwinters. Part of the reason it overwinters so well is nothing else likes to eat it either.”)

From chapter seven on, Deppe packs so much information that all gardeners should know, it makes a reader really slow down to try to absorb everything.

For example, she has a 38-page chapter on important information a gardener should know about growing tomatoes. She explains the difference between hybrids versus open-pollinated varieties, and the importance of avoiding hybrids since they don’t breed true from saved seeds.

An alarming development Deppe discusses is how late blight has become so prevalent in the eastern and southern regions of the U.S. It is a huge risk to heirloom tomatoes, reproduces both sexually and asexually, and spreads by water, wind, tools and clothing.

While late blight doesn’t currently survive in temperature regions like ours, she suggests several strategies gardeners and farmers should employ. These include growing your own tomato plants or purchasing them from a local nursery that has grown them, avoiding purchasing plants from the big-box stores (which may have purchased their plants from areas of the country where late blight is a problem), and avoid overhead watering to keep the tomato leaves dry.

There were a couple of issues Deppe brought up that I felt could easily be addressed through the use of drip irrigation and plastic mulches but it’s possible her farming set-up makes those methods prohibitive.

The tomato chapter also includes a list of late-blight-resistant hybrid varieties as well as other disease resistance, and lists heirloom and open-pollinated varieties with disease resistance. She has her own seed company, Fertile Valley Seeds, and has put her knowledge from a career in molecular genetics to use in order to produce heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable seeds.

She shares her impressive experience on other gardening topics such as weeding, growing squash, producing abundant crops of greens, and cultivating peas and beans.

Two topics Deppe devotes a lot of space to are seed-saving and how to “dehybridize” hybrid varieties so we can save those seeds for future crops and generations. I’ve learned quite a lot from that chapter.

She is outspoken on several issues, such as grafted tomatoes and the limitations of hybrid varieties, but to be honest, her views are sensible and realistic.

Carol Deppe has also written two other garden books you may be interested in: The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliancein Uncertain Times and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’sand Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving. Both are published by Chelsea Green Publishing.