Everyday Gardener // Great garden reads

When I decided to write my October column on garden-related books you might want to check out during our impending (and far too long) winter, I had no idea I would be writing it on a warm, 75-degree evening just a couple of weeks before Halloween. But I figure I’ll do it anyway because, well, this is Minnesota so all hell could break loose tomorrow and you might be in need of a good book while waiting for your neighbor with jumper cables to help you start your frozen car!

I’ll begin by warning you that there are several memoirs in the bunch, but then I’ll make it all better by assuring you that these aren’t the sorts of memoirs where disheartened divorcees run off to third-world countries to find love and enlightenment. No, no. (Ack.) These are memoirs packed with dirt and critters and plants. At the top of the list is, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. I found out about this while reading one of my favorite gardening blogs, Garden Rant:  gardenrant.com. 

In her memoir, Bailey tells the story of how when she was bedridden with a mysterious illness for many months, a friend finds a snail in her yard and brings it to her for company. Bewildered, at first, by her friend’s weird choice of gifts, Bailey moves the creature into a terrarium and begins to watch the snail as it goes about its daily life. Short on self-pity and health-related details and long on cool stories and facts about snails, the book is getting rave reviews and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I just finished, and loved, “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer,” by Novella Carpenter. The daughter of hippie, back-to-the-land parents, Carpenter and her boyfriend move to “Ghost Town,” a gritty, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., where, after getting a soil test and clearing away a lot of garbage, she slowly begins to farm a vacant lot across the street from their apartment. 

The book chronicles all that they (mostly Carpenter) go through as she keeps bees (unsuccessfully), grows fruit and veggies and raises rabbits, chickens and even pigs on that scrubby lot.

On a more science-like note, I really enjoyed Jeff Gillman’s book, “How Trees Die: The Past, Present, and Future of our Forests.” As a horticultural scientist at the University of Minnesota, Gillman has researched trees extensively, so observing their suffering and death is part of his job, something to be studied and understood. 

What captivated me was Gillman’s storytelling. While his previous books, including “The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Line,” have offered up well-researched information in a humorous and completely 

accessible way, this one reads at times like a short story only the characters we come to care about 

so deeply are trees. 

I would also highly recommend “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms,” by Amy Stewart. I took this book on a trip to Chicago in June and could hardly put it down. Stewart is a master at taking on subjects that could be dry and boring and turning them into page- turners. (Her “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities,” being another good example of this.)

Having nurtured earthworms in her gardens and in worm bins just outside the door of her own home for years, Stewart understands well what the creatures are capable of — and not capable of. Did you know it isn’t true that earthworms can always regenerate if their bodies are cut into pieces? Neither did I. 

Last but definitely not least, I want to give a shout out to “Insects of the North Woods” by Jeff Hahn, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota. At the risk of coming off like a complete freak, I’ll just admit that I love guides to stuff. Bugs, birds, plants, butterflies, it doesn’t matter what the subject is, if there’s a guide to help me better understand what I’m seeing when I look around in the world, I want it. What’s great about this guide is the writing. Hahn is kind and funny in real life and that comes through in this book, too. 

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to meleah@everydaygardener.com