Lee Reich contacted me and asked if I would review his new book, called “The Ever Curious Gardener – Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden. I was thrilled to have a look at the book. Combining science and gardening makes so much sense and so few books take this approach.
If you have not heard of Dr. Lee Reich you’ve missed out on one of the industries leading authorities on gardening. He has degrees in chemistry, soil science and horticulture, and has done research in agriculture. He uses this extensive knowledge in his writings to cover a wide range of gardening topics.
I became familiar with Lee many years ago when I read one of his earlier books called, “Weedless Gardening“. It combines science with common sense to figure out how to simplify chores in the garden. I also remember a multi-month series on soil in Fine Gardening. Each month I learned something new about soil. Lee’s writing has significantly increased my understanding of plants, microbes and soil.
The Ever Curious Gardener
The Ever Curious Gardener is a perfect combination of plant facts and gardening know-how. Using science as a basis, he gives good advice on how to garden smart.
I have great respect for Lee’s knowledge so I couldn’t contain the myth-buster inside of me. As I read the book I was looking for mistakes. Did he say something that was not true? Did he repeat a commonly held myth? Was there anything I could challenge him on?
Unfortunately No! The information in this book is rock solid – that is rare in gardening books.
I also like his writing style. Too many gardening books are full of fluff. You know the kind – you read 5 pages and realize you haven’t learned a thing. This book is completely different. Each paragraph is chocked full of information that teaches you something, or reminds you of something you learned in the past. That is my style of book.
In the following sections, I have pulled out some topics that are of interest to me. They will give you a more detailed insight into the book. In a very few cases, Lee and I don’t agree 100% and I have added them to the discussion. All quotes come from the book.
“A Handful of Soil has More Biodiversity than All the Animals in the Amazon Basin”
“A teaspoon of soil …. has 10,000 to 50,000 species and more microorganisms than people on earth.”
This fact is not entirely news to me, but expressing it in terms of biodiversity is. Lee goes on to explain how these microbes affect plants. It’s a great read.
Should You Prune Woodies in Summer?
The common sage advice is that you should not prune in summer, especially in colder climates because it causes new growth that will not harden off before winter, resulting in die-back.
I questioned this a while ago and watched the growth of a number of different types of shrubs after an August 1 pruning (zone 5). The results are reported in Pruning Trees and Shrubs – What is the Best Time? In most cases late summer pruning does not cause new growth.
This book explains the changes in woody plants as they progress through the seasons and goes on to discuss good reasons for doing summer pruning. I’ll have to steal – I mean borrow – some of these ideas for my pruning videos.
Plant Poisoning is the Darker Side of Soil pH
“Low pH can render manganese so available that it becomes toxic; geraniums are particularly sensitive. At high pH the plant nutrient molybdenum becomes available in toxic amounts.”
We talk about nutrients becoming unavailable at high pH, but it was news to me that magnesium becomes toxic at low pH. The story is even more interesting. The Ever Curious Gardener goes on to explain how pH also affects microbes and plant diseases.
What is the Difference Between the Nitrogen in Regular Fertilizer and Fertilizer for Acid Loving Plants?
The secret is in the chemistry – but you will have to read the book to find the answer.
Too Much Nitrogen Can Lead to Aphid Problems
“Nitrogen can be overdone. Plants gorging on this nutrient are overly succulent and barely able to hold themselves up.”
This can also cause pest problems, like aphids. The book goes on to discuss how nitrogen levels affect plant growth and its effect on nitrogen fixing bacteria.
Do you need to add an inoculate for these bacteria when planting beans and peas? Manufacturers of the product certainly say you do. Lee Reich explains how they might be useful in a new garden, but they are not required in an established one.
Touching Cucumbers Produces More Female Flowers?
“Shaking and touching plants does not only or always dwarf them. Cucumber or melon plants respond to being caressed by bearing a greater proportion of female flowers.”
Some people say that touching seedlings makes them grow stronger – a kind of hardening off process. I am not yet convinced that this is true. Nobody seems to quantify the amount of touching needed to make a difference. But really – caressing a cucumber plant makes female flowers? How is caressing defined? Does it have to be done on the couch? By a roaring fire?
I need some ‘hard’ science to be convinced.
Do Tomatoes Cross Pollinate?
I have never been a big fan of heritage tomatoes, mostly because I want the disease resistance provided by hybrids. But I have been trying them for the past three years.
I always wondered how people can provide pure heritage tomato seed when they grow many varieties. Don’t they cross pollinate? Turns out tomatoes are self-pollinating. They are usually pollinated before a bee visits, so there is little cross pollination. OK, so now I trust heirloom seeds a bit more.
I thought I had this myth nailed down until I read The Ever Curious Gardener. Turns out some tomatoes like Brandywine will cross-pollinate. I’ll have to do a myth post about this topic.
Lots more about cross pollination in the book.
What are Lazy Mutants?
Ever wonder why we have weeping shrubs and tress? Wonder no more. It is due to lazy mutants, and Lee revels it all in the book.
For those who are not familiar with weeping trees, you really need to look into them. They are perfect for smaller gardens.
Does Paint Prevent Sunscald on Trees?
I dealt with the topic of sunscald on trees before, but Lee has added a new twist. To his latex paint, he adds eggs to keep rodents away. Rodents are vegetarian and don’t like the egg taste – or is it the smell?
“Sometimes I throw in some cinnamon, mint, and/or rosemary for added aroma that, I hope, makes the mix even more repellent.”
How many myths do we have about cinnamon, and mint? Do we need another one? At least Lee added the words “I hope” so that people don’t go off and beleive this definitely works. It might work, but without some scientific studies we don’t know.
Does Crop Rotation Work?
The Ever Curious Gardener says, “Roots of different kinds of plants mine the soil for different spectra of nutrients, so crop rotation helps to maintain a balance of nutrients in the soil.”
I don’t entirely agree. Different plants do take up different ratios of nutrients, but the variations are relatively small. For example, no plant uses zero potassium or zero iron.
Most garden soil doesn’t have significant nutrient deficiencies, so it is unlikely any one plant will deplete soil of a nutrient. This is especially true since most gardeners keep adding some form of organic material to the soil. If that is the case, crop rotation does not change nutrient levels. Farm land is different.
Lee Reich gardens on quite a large space, something he calls the ‘farmden’, half farm, half garden. With a large space there are certainly benefits to crop rotation. I am not convinced there is such a benefit for most home gardeners who grow their vegetables in a couple of hundred square feet.
Flavor and How it’s Produced
The final section of the book is very interesting. It discusses the various things that affect the flavor of food plants produce. It is a complicated topic that Lee has reduced down to easy-to-understand language for the average gardener.
It is a great book that has found a permanent spot on my book shelf. I know I will use it as a reference the next time I am curious about something in the garden.