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Book Review: No-till Intensive Vegetable Culture

Written by Bryan O’Hara
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020
Reviewed by ML Altobelli

I know what you’re thinking – this isn’t a title that you think ELA might review – and in many ways Bryan’s book is not exactly what an eco-landscaper is looking for. But, think again.

I’ve listened to Bryan more than half a dozen times over the last few years and have learned to see the world a little differently each time I listen to him. This is a man who OBSERVES his world! The most marvelous part of getting a chance to read his book is that it’s even clearer than his presentations. Also, there’s the move in the managed landscape world to add edibles to more ornamental and natural landscapes, whether it’s from a permaculture perspective or some other construct, and creating high intensity “nodes” of edibles in an otherwise less intense landscape, as described by Bryan, can be a useful trick to learn how to manage.

When we choose ecological landscape management to earn our living, we work to create an internal integrity with our designs, installations. and maintenance plans for each site that we’re asked to work with. Granted, many of our clients don’t think that way, but we should, and Bryan’s book is all about the internal integrity of his highly intensive farm. He started with a farm with massively damaged soils – soils crusting and eroding almost at will. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of our sites after a wet period and following the total destruction of the soil system by contractors who “can’t wait” for better weather? Bryan details how he developed the observational skills needed by all of us to make decisions and assess changes. We all need that observational capacity.

A word about the soil work in the book. It’s designed for high-intensity, no-till vegetable production – not a wildflower garden or a native’s nook! Having said that, Bryan understands more than almost anyone I’ve ever listened to (or read) about how to recreate a true crumb-structured soil that is loaded with fungi and bacteria, soil for which compaction is no longer any problem at all. That’s something we’d all like to be able to say about our sites – at least I would! Think about how soil relieved of compaction could help us manage the flood/drought oscillations that are building in our weather patterns. It’s always prudent to factor  storm water management into every site.

Some chapters in this book include information that can be used immediately. Check out the “Mulching and Irrigation” chapter for a very clear description of the various mulches and their characteristics. Bryan has spent years trialing all kinds of mulch, and you’ll find the discussion valuable.

Next, check out the composting chapter. Here’s the first line of the chapter: “Composting is, of course, the very heart, backbone and, shall we say, digestive tract of the organic system of agriculture.” That digestive tract is clearly defined and Bryan outlines information about composting that we need to incorporate into all of our ecological installations. Our job as landscape professionals is to take plants not grown in situ, to plunk them into soils that are not at all what they’ve been grown in, and to trust that they will settle down and grow. The fact that so many survive and thrive is amazing considering how little we work to address their biological needs – and highlights once again how really great plants actually are. Bryan understands both their greatness and their need for support. I’ve never heard anyone detail composting better than he does, and his chapter on composting is as good as listening to him.

Bryan follows the discussion on compost with an excellent chapter on indigenous micro-organisms. He has a better grasp of them than anyone else I’ve ever listened to, and, the information he provides in this chapter is even clearer than as described in his presentations.

The last chapter of the book is titled “The Grower.” Again, here’s his first sentence: “The cultivation of vegetables is, in essence, the application of the human will and desire to an area of land.” That need to wrangle land to our will is what all of us working in the landscape are trying to do, and Bryan understands this very well. This is the kind of chapter that many of us might gloss over – the very human chapter on why we do what we do and how do we choose how to do it. It can be hard to step back far enough to look clearly at our decisions, but Bryan encourages us to do just that. This chapter alone is worth the cost of the book, but the compost chapter still beats it.

Written in an easily understandable style, this short book (250 pages), nonetheless provides a different and very useful look at the world of soils and plants. The fact that No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture addresses the production of vegetables and not lady slipper orchids should in no way limit its usefulness for the true ecological landscape professional.

About the Reviewer

M.L. Altobelli is one of the founding members of the Ecological Landscape Alliance. She owns and operates M.L.’s Greenery in Motion, a design, installation, and maintenance fine gardening company and Woody End Farm with a dairy goat herd, duck flock and hugelkuture beds. Her focus for both is on healthy soils and healthy plants and animals. She chairs her local Agricultural Commission, runs several series of training workshops, and helps to run a 20-vendor Farmer’s Market.

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