Book Review: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity

By Pam Dawling

Carol Deppe, Chelsea Green, 2015

An independent and iconoclastic gardener, Carol introduces each chapter with a passage from her own translation of the 2500 year old Tao Te Ching and intersperses fables from her anthology Taoist Stories. 13 chapters with titles like “Honoring Your Own Essential Nature”, “Non-Doing” and “Joy” lead us into the practicalities of crop requirements, plant genetics, lacto-fermentation and preserving land-races. A combination of Carol’s exquisite attention to detail, solid grounded-in-experience advice and application of Taoist philosophy can help make us better and happier gardeners.

The tomato chapter covers how to grow and plant transplants, how to choose the best-tasting varieties, then how to breed late blight resistant tomatoes. The chapters on peas and green beans explain how to direct sow big seeds. Carol recommends Gaucho golden dry beans for flavor, yield and for a short two-week dry down period. The greens chapter tells how to sow small seeds, and introduces the Eat-All Greens Garden, a new way of growing direct-sown greens, producing high yields from small amounts of work. The final chapter explains why and how to grow your own seeds and prepare them for long-term storage.

“Alexanders greens, Smyrnium olusatrum, self-seeds and a patch can be kept growing well for many years in a shady place where even grass won’t grow. Germinate in the fall. The flavor of the trefoil leaves is a cross between celery and parsley. Harvest young leaves, stalks and perhaps some roots mid-winter to late spring in Oregon. Use for salad or cook the greens. They bolt and produce seed in late spring. ” Carol Deppe.

Carol clearly thinks for herself. I enjoy reading her take on the recent “accepted wisdom” of “imitating nature,” prioritizing perennials, growing in polycultures (the carrots-love-tomatoes school), increasing diversity: “Ant agriculture violates all these principles”. Instead, Carol encourages an emotional and spiritual attitude including humility and looking at what actually happens in nature, what actually works in the garden. Is this particular organic-approved pesticide actually less damaging to non-target organisms and the general environment than the synthetic alternative? Will planting extra to “share” with pests like gophers still provide enough of a harvest? (“Lots of luck with that,” says Carol.) In the Balance chapter, Carol cautions against veering into unrealistic beliefs about what to always or never do. “Prudence trumps completion when it comes to your health or safety.” “Ultimate Knowing does not create emergencies.”

Although the USDA doesn’t regard tomatoes as an essential food group, most gardeners act as if tomatoes are fundamental. Indeterminate varieties for full season crops give the highest yields and the best flavors. Determinates provide the earliest harvests and come to an early end. Make your own decision about “large determinates” and “compact indeterminates”.  Plenty of large leaves will be more likely to produce lots of sugar and flavor for the fruit, compared to what is possible with less well-endowed plants. (But keep an eye on Craig LeHoullier’s new Dwarf  Tomatoes.)

The color of a variety depends on the combination of skin color (clear or yellow) and flesh color (red, pink, yellow, green, purple, black, brown, striped or mottled). Green-when-ripe tomatoes have a gene that prevents them losing chlorophyll as they ripen, combined with a gene that causes them not to produce lycopene, the red color. Chlorophyll + lycopene = “black”. I was fascinated to learn that the green shoulders of some heirloom varieties are a cause of good flavor. The extra chlorophyll develops more sugars and flavors. Modern breeders decided to eliminate the undesired green shoulders and got uniform ripening at the expense of good flavor! My respect for Glacier and Stupice grew! Carol’s favorites for her shady Oregon garden include Amish paste – Kapuler, Pruden’s Purple (flavor, size, earliness), Black Krim, Legend (not for flavor, but for earliness, size, dependability, and especially for late blight resistance), Geranium Kiss (late blight resistance, lots of 1 ounce fruits).

Carol explains (Late Blight 101, page 96) why we need to be more careful about Late Blight now. Previously there were several strains of Late Blight, but they were all in the same mating group and could only reproduce asexually (requiring live plant material) and not produce enduring spores. Unless we left cull piles of potatoes in our fields, we only got the disease if we were unlucky enough to have spores blow in or be imported on diseased plants. This has now changed and newer strains of Late Blight, from both mating groups, have moved into the US. The disease will be able to evolve more rapidly, and the oogonia (sexually propagated ‘spores’) can persist in the soil. We will need to develop tomatoes and potatoes with stronger resistance. We will need to get better at recognizing late blight symptoms and acting swiftly.  See usablight.org/. We will need to be more careful and not put any store-bought tomatoes in our compost piles.

Legend and other of the more resistant open-pollinated and hybrid varieties are very useful in breeding work to produce more varieties resistant to late blight in future. Carol lists the resistance level of 10 promising hybrids (including Mountain Magic which we grow on our farm, Jasper, Golden Sweet, Juliet, Defiant PhR, Plum Regal, Iron Lady, Mountain Merit, Ferline and Fantasio) and 19 OPs (in order of earliness: Red Pearl, Stupice, Slava, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Yellow Currant, Geranium Kiss, Legend, Pruden’s Purple, Quadro, Black Plum, Red Currant, Tigerella, Old Brooks, Black Krim, Brandywine, West Virginia 63, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Aunt Ginny’s Purple and Big Rainbow. At the end of the book, Carol tells us how to do this. It’s not that difficult.

I have long felt annoyed and frustrated by the carrots-love-tomatoes belief, so I got special pleasure from reading Carol’s amusing story of actually trying to make interplanting carrots and tomatoes work, despite different needs for temperature, soil texture, soil fertility, watering, plant spacing, mulch, fencing, and length of time occupying a garden bed. And then the competition for sunlight. I’m actually a practitioner of some interplanting (spinach and peas, lettuce and peanuts, cabbage and okra), saving space, work, and in some cases, mulch or rowcover. But the almost religious belief that certain crops “like” each other, despite lack of data and lots of practical impediments, drives me potty. Carol takes the time to explain which pairs of crops stand a chance of complementing each other, and to point us towards a study by R Fred Denison that showed that yields of the best intercrop combos were somewhat better than the lower-yielding of the pair as solo occupant of the space, but less than the higher-yielding of the pair was capable of. So don’t plant crops together hoping for increased yields.

Carol gives examples of intercropping that work for her. She sometimes plants her Eat-All Greens between alternate rows of corn (not sweet corn, which is quickly over), after the corn is up and has been cultivated twice. I’d guess that’s about 4 weeks after planting, the same age corn would be if sowing pole beans to grow up the corn stalks. The greens can grow fast enough in the shade of the corn to need no weeding, and the corn can be harvested from the alternate aisles without trampling the greens.

Carol names her “Perfect Polyculture” as Russian Hunger Gap kale (a tall, hardy Brassica napus, unlike the Hungry Gap kale I grew in England, which is an oleracea type), and vining winter squash. Initially an accident, the self-sown kale came up after she planted her squash. It grew rapidly, and timely harvesting of the kale nearest the squash was important to maintain enough space for the squash to thrive. Carol recommends her Candystick Dessert Delicata C.pepo fall squash; Sweet meat – Oregon Homestead C. maxima and fast-maturing Lofthouse Landrace Moschata C. moschata winter squashes. The Lofthouse squash is not sweet, so works well for soups and other savory dishes.

The chapter about the Eat-All Greens garden also has the title “Effortless Effort.” The idea is to broadcast seeds densely enough that no weeding is needed. Harvest when 10″ – 16″ tall by cutting the top 7″ – 12″ with a serrated knife, leaving the lower 3″ – 4″ of tougher stuff. Align the stems in the harvest tote or trug, to make chopping in the kitchen easier. Yields can be as high as 4.5 pounds per square yard (2.45 kg/sq m) in 8 weeks. The patch can be resown as many as three more times in the Willamette Valley climate. This is like a grown-up-tall version of growing baby salad mix, in that the entire tops of all the plants are harvested together. But salad mixes are cut small and may provide more than one cutting from the same plants. Eat-All Greens are usually harvested just once, then cleared., although it can work to harvest out the biggest plants, leaving others to grow bigger later in the increased space available.

Generally it’s best to grow just one type of Eat-All greens in one patch – mixes don’t do as well, because they grow at different rates to different heights. You can sow patches of different kinds right next to each other, and harvest whatever is ready. The Eat-All Greens system is a technique to perfect by practice. Spacing, timing, varieties – all can make or break your success. Timing will depend on your climate. Carol can sow in mid-March, harvest in mid-May and follow with a crop of tomatoes or squash. We tried Eat-All Greens outdoors in the fall (it seemed the best seasonal match for Virginia’s climate). I wrote several blog posts about our success. Go to my website sustainablemarketfarming.com  and put “Eat-All Greens in the search box.

After years of work, Carol identified 11 good Eat-All crops, from five plant families. You can read the qualities of a good Eat-All crop in her book and test others, but I recommend taking advantage of her experience rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Suitable greens include Green Wave mustard, Groninger kale, Tokyo Bekana, Spring Raab, several leaf radishes (Shunkyo Semi-Long, Saisai, Four Seasons, Hittorikun and Pearl Leaf) , several Chinese kales/gai lohns (Crispy Blue, South Sea, China Legend, Hybrid Blue Wonder, Hybrid Southern Blue, Green Lance Hybrid), three amaranths (All Red, although a bit slow-growing, Green Calaloo and Burgundy), Indian Spinach – Red Aztec Huauzontle, quinoa (choose a variety expected to grow well locally), pea shoots (Oregon Giant Sugar edible pod peas or Austrian Winter Field peas) and shungiku (oh no! Chrysanthemum greens, I just haven’t managed to learn to like those!).

Another of those gardening myths is exploded when Carol points out that we don’t necessarily get maximum nutrition out of greens when we eat them raw. Tables of vitamin C lost when greens are boiled and the water poured away are plain irrelevant if you steam your greens and use the liquid. Assays of nutrients present before and after cooking a food tell us nothing about what we actually absorb. All animals absorb nutrients better from starchy roots and tubers, meat and grains when they are cooked. That has been studied, but there is no information on cooked greens. Clearly raw greens are neither essential nor harmful in themselves. Unclear is whether the claim that raw greens are more nutritious than cooked ones has any basis in fact, or is just plain wrong. Interesting.
For those who don’t know, the Southern “mess o’ greens,” pronounced “messuhgreens,” is a generous serving of boiled greens, dressed with some scraps of bacon, bacon fat, salt, pepper and vinegar. Lemon juice can be used instead of vinegar; olive oil instead of bacon fat; olives or feta cheese instead of bacon. Eat-All Greens do well served this way.

Carol wrote about dried beans in The Resilient Gardner. In The Tao of Vegetable Gardening she writes about varieties suited for eating fresh. This chapter includes instructions for direct sowing of any large-seeded crop, and explains when trellises or plant supports are needed and what types there are. For short vining types of peas, and bush beans, she recommends close planting so that the community of plants is self-supporting. For peas, that’s seeds 1″ – 1.5″ apart in a wide row 4″ – 8″ across. Summer plantings of medium-vine peas can be planted with corn, in 8″ round patches where a corn plant didn’t come up. Sadly for us, our summers are too hot for peas. Edible-podded peas provide much more food from the same space and the same amount of garden labor (and less kitchen labor) than shelling peas do. You need no longer confuse snow peas (flat pods, not sweet, harvested before peas develop much at all), sugar peas (flat pods but sweeter), and snap peas (round cross-section pods harvested after the peas develop full size). Oregon Giant Sugar is a flat sugar pod type, although it has fleshy succulent pods that can be harvested with fully developed peas. Carol calls this a “flat-snap” type. In England we grew “mangetout” peas, which according to Wikipedia can be either snow or snap peas, but according to the BBC must have flat pods and can be either snow or sugar peas. Thompson & Morgan classifies Oregon Sugar Pod as a mange-tout. Mange-tout is French for “Eat-All”, so they fit right in with Eat-All Greens.

There is a helpful sidebar on Presoaking Legume Seed Without Suffocating It. Presoaking seed can help germinate the seed by quickly providing enough water to swell the seed ready for germination. In cold weather this can save the seed from rotting before it germinates, in hot weather it can ensure there is enough water to get going. Seeds need oxygen while it is imbibing water, so use wide containers open to the air, use enough water but nor too much (ahh! experience), stir the seed occasionally while soaking, and possibly change the water. I soak pea and bean seed about 14 – 20 hours, unless I plan to pre-sprout, which takes a few days. Carol recommends 24 hour soaking at indoor temperatures, with the bigger beans like favas getting two days.

For those hoping to follow the Native American practice of growing pole beans on corn, Carol gives detailed instructions – there are so many ways to go wrong! I don’t grow field corn, so I didn’t take notes, but as always, I was very impressed with the helpful precision of Carol’s instructions. She can save so many of us from making wasteful mistakes.

Carol recommends we all try some seed-saving, in case of hard times, or for the benefits of selecting traits best suited to our climate and soil. She warns against buying a “Survival Kit” of seeds, as these won’t keep forever, and are unlikely to be varieties suited to your farm or garden. We need to pay attention and develop food crops that reliably feed us, not expect a miracle-in-a-can. Carol helps by leading us through a calculation of how much seed of a staple crop we will need, and how much land we will need to grow that amount of seed. She recommends a rotating stockpile of seed: grow and replace some of your seed every year. It is possible to “freeze-cycle” seed for long-term storage, or to kill any pest eggs in the seed. It’s important to make sure the seed is dry enough before you freeze it, or you will kill the seed too.

Carol also explains the importance of growing a large-enough population of seed plants to avoid loss of vigor associated with inbreeding. That’s a minimum of 100 plants for corn, which is very prone to this “inbreeding depression” for example. Also, continuously select to improve the crop and prevent deterioration over time.

At $24.95 this book will pay for itself many times over, and provide enjoyable reading, encouragement and inspiration on the way.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia, growing vegetables and berries for 100 people on 3.5 acres. She often presents workshops at the VABF and other sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam is also a contributing editor with Growing for Market and writes for other magazines, and she does consultancy work and teaching. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is widely available, and her second book The Year-Round Hoophouse will be published by New Society November 20, 2018. Pam writes a weekly blog post on her website www.sustainablemarketfarming.com.  facebook.com/SustainableMarketFarming.