Chapters Publishing, Ltd., Shelburne, VT; has since been sold to Houghton Mifflin Co., 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116. 1995. 128 pages. Paperback. $19.95.
(Price/availability info may have changed since original publication of review.)
This book is a fine and well-illustrated "how-to" on growing food in containers, guaranteed to stir up "garden envy" and the desire to produce food at home. It makes a good gift to encourage the container-growing urge, to excite the taste buds and persuade anybody that the balcony farm is within reach. What's more, it tells you how to get started, how to do it.
The first half covers the basics of containers and mixes, fertilization and water, seeds, pests and diseases. Most of the remainder is about vegetables, divided into warm-season and cool-season crops; the fruit and berry section is short, but detailed and specific as to varieties and culture. Although tomato is covered as a vegetable, there is solid support for calling it a fruit, thereby expanding the Fruit category. The range of containers described -- purchased and homemade wood, clay, fiber, plastic, recycled barrels and buckets, and bags is interesting, but I have a hard time getting excited about clay pots favored by the authors given their weight, expense, and the difficulty of cleaning them of the ubiquitous fungus deposits.
The array of container mixes in Chapter 3 -- It's Not Just 'Dirt' -- is good, considering that the subject of what to put in the pot is a discussion with no end, even after the pot is filled. Mixing your own -- I generally mix in a wheelbarrow with a shovel -- brings up the question: how? The authors say: "mix all the ingredients together with a shovel by turning everything over about 25 times..." From a civil engineering textbook on mixing ingredients in the field, I remember the instructions: build a pile of the ingredients; this will result in layers. Dig up the pile with a shovel and build a new pile, this is the first mixing. Then dig up the new pile with the shovel and build a third pile. The ingredients are now mixed. For a more thorough mixing, build a fourth pile.
A chapter on getting started and one on fertilizer offer a variety of choices. One of the more extensive displays -- Pests and Diseases, Chapter 6 -- is tempered by giving us a lot of information and encouragement on natural controls and beneficial insects. The suggestion to use a metal file on scale is too brutal for my tastes and might better be replaced with a soft wooden stick or an appropriate used toothbrush.
Chapter 7, Container Farming Tips, gives only a hint of the technology available for portable growing; this is better left to suppliers' catalogs. I am glad to see pictures of the simplest of all container-growing setups: the plastic bag of mix, ready to plant, water and produce. I saw a commercial tomato greenhouse in Rhode Island that used this method. Into a previously empty greenhouse went rows of these bags in January; by May they were selling tomatoes at the farmstand out in front. By November, the greenhouse was empty again, waiting for the next season.
I hunted this book with a magnifying glass, looking for things to complain about, but found precious few. The suggestion of ripening tomatoes "on the windowsill" is not the best way to do it; sunlight deteriorates the tomato. To ripen a tomato in the kitchen, put it in a shallow box with a sheet of newspaper on top, leaving space for ventilation. Tomatoes and peppers have production adversely affected by any temperatures below 50° F from flowering onward. And finally, the list of sources in the back contains at least some obsolete entries, even for 1995. And the covers of the book curl up after a short while. But these criticisms are insignificant compared to the overall quality, pictures and wealth of information provided by this book. A container growing book devoted entirely to fruits and vegetables is long overdue.