Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

To Remain Nameless — Book Review

To Remain Name­less; what a strange title for a book on fruit gar­den­ing. Well, actu­ally that’s not the title of the book. I decided to take this approach since I have encoun­tered a book on my review list that is so full of defi­cien­cies and mis­in­for­ma­tion that it really should not be in your library.

Nor­mally, if I find a book lack­ing I just don’t give it a review. (You know, “can’t say some­thing nice, just don’t say any­thing,” as our moth­ers taught us.) I don’t like to cut down and dis­cour­age new authors or pub­lish­ers. I’ve been there myself. Rejec­tion is hard to take and this busi­ness of writ­ing is full of it.

How­ever, in this instance I became con­cerned for the many novice gar­den­ers who trust in pre­sum­ably knowl­edge­able gar­den writ­ers and pub­lish­ers to bring them some­thing wor­thy of their hard earned dol­lars. This book did not do that! In my opin­ion, it could lead to gar­den­ers wast­ing their money, effort, and time only to have a suc­cess­ful har­vest elude them.

To a cer­tain extent, the novice might soon come to real­ize the book in ques­tion wasn’t going to take them down the suc­cess­ful gar­den­ing path. Some of the issues I encoun­tered with this book included:

p. 20 — tree nuts are con­sid­ered fruit because they grow on trees Cor­rec­tion: fruit or nut by def­i­n­i­tion is deter­mined by botan­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. “Fruit– a ripened ovary usu­ally con­tain­ing seeds or acces­sory parts. Nut — a dry inde­his­cent fruit with a husk cov­er­ing a hard shell.” (Glos­sary of Vital Terms for the Home Gar­dener. Robert E. Gough, Ph.D) Also some nuts can be grown as shrubs (e.g. hazelnut/filbert)
p. 20 — bram­bles are peren­ni­als that grow back each year. More accu­rately: tech­ni­cally yes, the roots are peren­nial. The fruit­ing canes are bien­nial and this is impor­tant infor­ma­tion when it comes to prun­ing or expect­ing a crop. Why no men­tion?
p. 33 — Gives a gen­eral list­ing of fruit and nuts grown in dif­fer­ent regions of the coun­try. Point of accu­racy: You’d be hard pressed to har­vest hazel­nuts, almonds, or pecans in the major­ity of the Greats Lakes region. The trees will grow, but the blos­soms will almost always suc­cumb to spring frosts.
p. 39 — Why no men­tion of apples in the space require­ments chart. They are one of the most com­monly and widely grown tree fruit.
p. 43 — A large major­ity of the coun­try seemed to be deemed too nutrient-poor for grow­ing fruit in the ground. Con­tainer grow­ing was advo­cated instead. Yet sev­eral of these areas are major com­mer­cial fruit grow­ing regions and cer­tainly accept­able for home grow­ing.
p. 44  — The author advo­cates cov­er­ing young seedlings with plas­tic if they are located in frost pock­ets. Yet there is no men­tion of the larger, long-term ram­i­fi­ca­tion of plant­ing in these low spots in the first place — repeated loss of crop due to blos­som dam­age from frost.
p. 50 — Plant­ing and har­vest­ing sea­son chart, ran­domly lists plant­ing dis­tances for kiwifruit, pineap­ples, mel­ons, and grapes with­out any sea­sonal ref­er­ences at all. Where was the copy edi­tor?
p. 60 — The dis­cus­sion of soil pH grossly lacks under­stand­ing of this con­cept that most of us would have stud­ied (and likely hated) in high school chem­istry. “.… pH below 6.0 is con­sid­ered too acid, mean­ing it may have too much mois­ture and may drown the roots or ren­der them vul­ner­a­ble to .…  dis­eases.” Con­versely, “.… pH above 7.0 is con­sid­ered alka­line, which means it con­tains too lit­tle mois­ture.” Cor­rec­tion: Soil mois­ture is not a func­tion of pH! Soil pH is deter­mined mainly by the native min­eral or rock frac­tion from which the soil was weath­ered. Indeed cer­tain soil types, due mainly to their par­ti­cle size and/or organic mat­ter con­tent, may exhibit ten­den­cies to be highly drained or of high mois­ture hold­ing capacity.

The whole expla­na­tion of soil pH, soil types, and their inter­re­la­tion­ship was becom­ing so mud­dled at this point that if I did not know what it was sup­posed to say, I sure as heck could not have under­stood what it was try­ing to say. Even a slightly expe­ri­enced gar­dener would have thrown up their hands at all the rea­sons why one could not grow most fruit on most of the “soils” men­tioned. What was the point?

Fast for­ward to the chap­ter on tools. Surely, this would be straight-forward. Socks and shoes — OK; spade — yah, rake — most gar­den­ers do have at least one. Now, a back­hoe (for rent at $650 a week­end) or Bob­cat and power rake (also for rent at mul­ti­ple hun­dred dol­lars) are likely overkill for a basic back­yard fruit gar­den. At this point it would be time to find a more suit­able site or give seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to con­tainer gar­den­ing. And so it went — each man (or woman) has their own “toys.”

When the photo cap­tion of fire­b­light said it was caused by a virus, that was it for me! Any rea­son­ably pro­fi­cient hor­ti­cul­tural edi­tor would know off-the-top-of-their-head that a bac­te­ria is the cause of this dis­ease. Most ama­teurs could find that info online with min­i­mal effort. Then we get the men­tion of ver­ti­cil­ium wilt on just mel­ons; what about rasp­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries? Surely the ram­i­fi­ca­tions on a long-lasting peren­nial should be noted.

This was expressly touted as a “Back to Basics” book. How­ever, there was no men­tion of prun­ing or vari­ety selec­tion, why? These are the most basic and com­mon ques­tions that I am con­stantly asked about. Read­ers want to know!

Yes this is a huge rant. This book is an unfair waste of money to the gar­dener and a speaks poorly of the author’s and publisher’s hor­ti­cul­tural knowl­edge. I would not spend 25 cents, let alone $25 for it.

Spot­ting a Good Book

So how does the new gar­dener know they are get­ting wor­thy con­tent when they pick up a new book, mag­a­zine, or online pub­li­ca­tion? A tough ques­tion with­out a fool­proof answer, but here are a few cri­te­ria that could be a start:

  • Does the pub­lisher have a his­tory of pub­lish­ing other well-regarded gar­den­ing books. If they’ve done sev­eral solid titles, it’s a good bet the one in hand will be worth­while too. Their good rep­u­ta­tion is at stake.
  • Look for an author with appro­pri­ate cre­den­tials and exten­sive hands-on expe­ri­ence. Although they may have some dif­fer­ent philoso­phies than you — for exam­ple, in the use of var­i­ous pest con­trol strate­gies — peo­ple with open minds can learn from each other. More learn­ing, more expe­ri­ence often broad­ens everyone’s think­ing over time.
  • Con­sider award win­ners. These books have usu­ally been judged by their pro­fes­sional peers. True pro­fes­sion­als in most any indus­try want to raise the bar and help their indus­try become even bet­ter. Few would reward sub­stan­dard work.

You won’t go wrong when you buy The Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home gar­den, The Apple Grower or Not Far From the Tree. All are packed with lots of infor­ma­tion and advice on grow­ing apples and more!

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