Reviewed by Jill
Stephanie Alexander’s passion for kitchen gardens is possibly best known through her programme in Australian primary schools. That’s fifteen years of inspiring young gardeners to plan, cultivate, harvest, and enjoy. Kitchen Garden Companion : Growing shows parents how they can capitalise on those school garden skills, or initiate a similar programme in their own gardens — no size too small.
Resist the impulse to go to the plants that interest you. Start with Alexander’s introduction. She explains her philosophy on a range of topics such as chemical fertilisers, water use, garden layout, and beneficial animal life. Her own garden layout reflects these concepts, even in its new dramatically-downsized form. Kitchen Garden Companion : Growing has practical information for all gardeners, but those wanting to utilise a small space will be especially encouraged.
Alexander has included the topics a gardener expects to find: pest control, companion planting, composting, plant nutrients, a planting chart, worm farms, mushroom kits and plant varieties. There is a list of essential equipment. It’s the ‘extras’ that lift this book above the competition — the special tips and advice that would not fit into a more formal book.
The ‘What to grow’ section constitutes most of the book. Plants are sometimes grouped. There may be an overarching category, and an individual family may have its members listed. An overview page for each plant provides the usual ‘what, when, where’ facts, the advice on soil preparation, weeding, companion (and non-companion) planting and tips specific to the plant. A particularly valuable item is the ‘Quantities to plant for a family of four’. It is surprising just how few plants will keep a family in fresh vegetables, fruits and salad. Six bean seeds planted every two weeks may sound a little conservative, but heed the voice of experience. An overview page is followed by several pages of in-depth information. This is where the gardener will learn to recognise ripeness, how to cook unusual vegetables such as spaghetti squash, and some insight into the toxic possibilities of Warrigal greens. It is also the place to find gems — an idea for a simple vegetable dish in two or three sentences.
Container planting can solve many a space and soil problem. There are different products on the market, and some have their downside. People who want to compost may wonder which composter to buy or construct. The balcony or courtyard gardener will have a different question — is there anything for me? Yes there is, and Alexander suggests several solutions.
No-dig gardens have been a feature of home gardens for a long time, but the no-dig banana circle was a new one for me. It consists of a cordon of banana plants, enclosing a compost heap. The banana plants produce the fruit and leaves for the dining table. They also create a more favourable environment for other plants when soil quality, frost, strong winds and excess sun frustrate the gardener. A selection of beneficial bug plants complements the ‘community’. Three pages are devoted to directions, accompanied by clear line drawings.
Understandably, climate will limit the range of crops. Alexander is a temperate zone gardener but this does not limit the advice she can give. Her school kitchen gardens programme has been to some climatically extreme parts of Australia. The guidelines on what to grow where are broad, but with common sense, local knowledge and a little caution, gardeners should reap a crop. I had no sense of climate bias as I read.
The illustrations are informative. Familiar items such as tools and outdoor furniture are shown near plants and composters. The reader can get a sense of the space needed. Breakouts contain anecdotes from the author’s travels, tips on preparing particular vegetables and additional information that would benefit from emphasis. Red-coloured in-text references alert readers to a different section where a topic is covered more comprehensively. There are also acknowledgements to well-known gardening personalities who have further advice on a subject. The reading suggestions are mostly Australian.
Alexander has written for beginners or the inexperienced. The book has been designed for parents with their junior gardeners in mind. Throughout, there is an emphasis on the young ones – the fun, the need to be responsible for their own patch, the value (to children) of speedy germination, and opportunities to extend the learning by understanding plant structure and how to harvest. Staggered plantings and crop rotation are concepts familiar to adults, and children can learn them from a young age. Alexander suggests a minimum age of four years, though some illustrations feature toddlers with their hands in the soil, lost in the moment. Visits to orchards and historic homes with old-variety fruit trees, making laurel wreaths, seed saving, simple pickling, and plant superstitions all extend the learning.
The style is conversational and easy. Parents — this is a book for sharing with your kids.
By Stephanie Alexander
Penguin Random House