Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Small-Scale No-Till Gardening Basics by Anna Hess

If you follow Anna Hess' blog, or if you've read her books on gardening, you know she's passionate about dirt.  Especially the dirt in which she grows vegetables.  As a result, she's spent a LOT of time turning an eroded, nutrient-depleted patch of ground into an impressively productive garden space on her southwest Virginia homestead.

The cover shows Anna with good dirt, Anna with giant sweet potatoes, and a soybean cover crop in a solarized bed, all on a background of an oat (or ryegrass?) cover crop.  That's two positive outcomes and two tools in the toolbox, if you're counting.
Not surprisingly, she's learned quite a bit in the process, and is currently distilling her real-world experience and knowledge of soil science theory into an easy-to-read, highly-actionable eBook series to help you do the same for your garden.  Small-Scale No-Till Gardening Basics is Volume 2 in the series, and is an excellent addition.  By the end of Volume 1, you should know what kind of dirt you're dealing with.  In Volume 2, Anna tells you how to start dealing with it in the context of no-till (or till-once) gardening, which is hands-down the optimal way to build fertility and battle weeds (that is, optimizing speed, cost, and effort).

Accumulating organic matter and strategically using kill mulches are the backbone of small-scale, no-till gardening (after initially remedying things like compaction issues), but how to best deploy those tools depends on your specific circumstances.  The book has very detailed advice for normal-to-overly-wet garden areas, because that's where Anna has the most experience. There aren't as many tips for dry-climate gardens (which, coincidentally, is where we happen to garden), but if you are in a dry climate and not garden-space constrained, Steve Solomon's Gardening Without Irrigation is a useful complementary reference.  (If you are space constrained like we are, you may have to resign yourself to installing some type of irrigation, but minimal tillage is still a good idea.)

One possibly-confusing note is that the "plant-now" lasagna gardening technique mentions squash as a good option in this "shallow-roots-only" system early in the book, but says later on that winter squash are deep-rooted and not suitable for that system. We had to wonder, is summer squash ok and winter squash not ok?  We couldn't find much differentiation between winter squash and summer squash root systems, except slide 93 of this random, 241-slide presentation, which does indeed suggest that winter squash cultivars have deeper root systems than summer squash cultivars.  However, the same slide includes tomatoes with the deep-rooted veggies, while Anna says they work well in the shallow-root-only system.  On the other hand, this book lumps winter and summer squash together.  So, there's a bit of ambiguity on the squash front, but otherwise things seem to check out.

Finally, while there is a ton of practical advice throughout the book, we thought the recommendations might also be usefully represented as a flow chart.   So, although there are many details and insights we couldn't fully capture in a graphic like this, we put together a sort of 'quick-start guide' to help you get your no-till (or till-once) garden started this year:

If you're planning to break new ground for your garden, you might want to consider getting a broadfork.

Our overall conclusion: We liked this book a lot, and although we received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, we feel it's definitely worth the $2.99 price of admission. There are a lot of lessons from the school of hard knocks in these pages, and for all the effort and experimentation it took to learn those lessons (and write them into book form!), three bucks is definitely fair.


  1. Nice review. ...and nice flowchart!

  2. Nice review. ...and nice flowchart!