Friday, 17 December 2010

Ryan’s Review: Soil Mates

Now and again I get the chance to review books and products, or even give them away to readers as per my regular competitions illustrate.  I’m a true book lover and anyone who knows me well is aware of my penchant for buying more books than I can physically read, whether at a bookshop, charity shop or other.  When asked if I’d like to review a couple of gorgeous paper beauties I jumped at the chance and when they arrived, coupled with the recent snowfall, it felt as though Christmas had literally come early. 

The first book, in what may become a series of book reviews, is ‘Soil Mates : Companion Planting for Your Vegetable Garden’. This small handbook does exactly what it says on the tin, well, nearly.  On first impressions the book is beautifully presented with it’s textured burlap-esque cover, colour coded chapters and many colour illustrations. It’s therefore no surprise that its author, Sara Alway, is a professor in graphic design and she clearly has a great eye for visuals and detail.  The book contains twenty “soil mates” sections, a section containing one or two plants that compliment one another in various ways, and this is further complimented with a recipe that uses said plants.  Following on from this comes a plant profile that gives cultural information to help the gardener achieve best results.  This information is presented in a casual if not sometimes humorous manner that is formed around the authors’ simple play on words.

Plants, just like people, can have natural affinities with other plants akin to human relationships, this can lead to the production of mutually beneficial outcomes in the form of increased yield, protection from pests or reduction in disease.  The author has taken the practice of companion planting and humanised it somewhat to create a light-hearted book that is aimed at beginner gardeners, encouraging them to branch out in to growing their own produce.  The notion that plants may have “soil mates” just as humans may be seen to have “soul mates” seems a little incongruous as I’m not sure the concept translates in to horticulture, however, this is not intended to be anything other than an introduction to the world of companion planting.

When asked to review the book I was informed that despite being an American publication the content still applied as the plants and vegetables contained within were recognisable to the UK gardener.  They are indeed recognisable, however, I’m not entirely convinced that all of the planting partnerships are suited to growing outdoors in the UK with the cultural advice that is given.  For example, I would be hard pushed to successfully grow sweet potato on the plot let alone find myself combating Mexican bean beetles.

When I finally reached the ‘Garden Preparation, Planning and Care’ section, which actually contains a lot of good information, I found that the writing style had started to become a tad annoying.  The notion that growing annuals was likened to a “fling” and that the plants’ anticipated senescence was described as “heart breaking desertion” was simply enough to make me want to stop reading.  The implied assumption that readers would be upset at harvesting plants and having to replant the following year, or maybe not even be aware of a plants life cycle, is somewhat concerning.  Surely the most uneducated of gardeners has the ability to read a seed packet at least or have some vague idea that not all plants live beyond a single growing season?  The problems don’t end there.  As you progress through this section you most certainly get the sense that this book is written specifically for the American market and is now to be sold in the UK as an afterthought.  Advice is given and suggestions are made to further help you in your quest to grow veggies, however, contacting departments or agencies that are only available in America is not all that helpful.  I also found that far too many pests, diseases or beneficial creatures were somewhat specific to the American gardener and would simply be lost here in Great Britain.  I’m sure that with a little bit of effort and a small amount of editing this could easily be rectified.

On reflection, ‘Soil Mates’ provides a good introduction to companion planting, although it is quite specific to the American reader.  The book itself is beautifully presented and I could not fault the overall design.  When it comes to it’s content, the vast amount of good horticultural knowledge and advice contained within is second to none.  However, for the vast majority of the book it is overshadowed by a repetitive and often irritating dialogue.  

If you are looking for a small gift or easy to read meander in to companion planting then this book may be of interest to you. Despite it’s apparent shortcomings much of the advice offered is sure to benefit you and by complementing the read with a little more research you are sure to succeed in your quest to grow great veg.

Have you read this book?  I would be interested to read your take on it.
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