Book Reviews: The Seed Garden and The Ethical Meat Handbook

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I love it when I get the chance to read great books and then tell other people about them. And, of course, books make great gifts. If you want to read more of my book reviews, click on the Book Reviews category in the list on the left side or here.

First up today, is  The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving

Edited by Lee Buttala and Sharyn Siegel. Written by Michaela Colley and Jared Zystro. Published by John Torgrimson, Seed Savers Exchange, 2015. Distributed by Chelsea Green $29.95 400 pages.

Seed Savers Exchange published Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed in 1991, one of the first popular seed-saving books. The Seed Garden brings the information up to date. This is a beautiful, inspiring and informative book, which provides all you need to know to start seed growing, or to start saving seeds from a crop new to you. The explanations are clear. The technical information that you need is in a very readable, accessible form. Many mysteries and confusions are cleared up. With this book, you have all you need to understand how to reliably get plentiful viable pure seed.

The Seed Garden is written for home gardeners as well as farmers, and is divided into two sections. First comes the Art and Practice of Seed Saving, then come the individual Crop Profiles

Section 1 covers the botany of seed saving, pollination methods, plant life cycles, maturity indicators, seed harvesting and drying methods, seed-borne diseases, seed longevity and how to store seeds.

Section 2 includes information on population size (how many plants you need to preserve genetic diversity), and isolation distances (how much distance is needed between your seed crop and other crops it could cross with). The crop profiles are by scientific name. Appendices explain germination testing and a table of seed-borne diseases.

Throughout the book are “Master Class” sections, giving two or three pages of practical advice (such as how to hand pollinate squash) and explanations of important phenomena such as inbreeding depression, photoperiodism and vernalization. There is an excellent glossary and a good index.

There are chapters with Regional Considerations. For example the mid-Atlantic has hot summers long enough for most heat-loving crops, such as cowpeas, limas, eggplant, peppers, sweet corn, melons and watermelon. There is regular rainfall and high humidity, which can lead to fungal and bacterial diseases, so it is harder to grow dry-seeded crops. Harvested material should be brought under cover. Biennial seed crops can usually be over-wintered outdoors. Except in the hotter regions of the mid-Atlantic, winter is cool enough for vernalization. Cool season crops are best sown early so that seed is produced before the very hot weather which can reduce seed quality.

I read up about growing buckwheat seed, because I participated in a VABF/VSU buckwheat trial which included growing some seed. Buckwheat takes 10 weeks to produce mature seed. Temperatures above 90F reduce seed yield. The minimum population size is 80 plants, and the isolation distance is 800ft-1/2 mile for home use, 1-2 miles for commercial seed. Buckwheat has perfect flowers (that is, all flowers have both male and female parts), which come in two types. The pin types have long styles and short stamens; the thrum type have short styles and long stamens. An individual plant produces only one type of flower and pollination is only possible between different flower types. This is referred to as an “obligate outcrosser”.

Another section I studied was the explanation of the difference between Brassica napus and Brassica oleraceae. Brassica napus varieties (rutabagas, Russian and Siberian kales) are biennial and must undergo vernalization in order to flower and set seed. Vernalization requires plants with about 8 leaves standing for 10-12 weeks at temperatures below 40F. They are hardy to 10F. Brassica oleraceae annuals (such as heading broccoli) on the other hand, have only a minimal cold requirement of 1-4 weeks below 50F before they start to flower. The biennial B oleraceae (European kales, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kohlrabi, sprouting broccoli) need 10-12 weeks below 50F before flowering. They are hardy to 20F or lower (some much lower).

Finally I read up on growing sweet potato slips, which I do every spring, hoping to learn a new trick. Presprout at 80-85F and 90% humidity, for 2-3 weeks. (I think I do that) Then plant in 2-3” moist sand at 80-85F for 4-5 weeks until shoots emerge. (Yes, I do that but use compost rather than sand.) Cut the slips 1” above the sand (compost) when they are 8-12” tall. (Yep.) Pot up or plant directly (We plant into flats for a few weeks). I’m on the right track, no worries there.

My examples show you the level of detail and breadth of topic that this book includes. Additionally, the photos are breath-taking. A book of practical inspiration!

On the Seed Savers Exchange page for the book, you can view a short video about seed-saving.


EthicalMeat_Comps1Next is  The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete home butchery, charcuterie and cooking for the Conscious Omnivore

$24.95, 256 pages, published by New Society Publishers October 2015

Meredith Leigh has given us a wonderful book. The trifecta of practicality, politics and poetry. “You need food. What everyone will not admit is that you should love it too. If you don’t love good food, put this book down. Now.” “The key is to honor the process, the pursuit of good food.” Ethical meat is that from an animal which enjoyed a good life, was afforded a good death, the meat is butchered properly, then cooked or preserved properly.

One aspect of her book combines practical information on how to butcher beef, lamb, pork and chicken step by step; make sausage and smoked meats; raise livestock humanely and successfully make a living doing so. She encourages and demystifies, sharing otherwise hard-to-find information in words and photos. I won’t say much about this section. I have butchered poultry and in the past, a few sheep. But this is not my area of expertise.

The second aspect includes the politics of animal farming. Meredith says “I am not a meat-crazed woman. I detest dietary dogma.” She was vegetarian for nine years, vegan for two, and also a vegetable farmer. She advocates for integrating meat consumption into a robust, diverse diet. She explains that she became a vegan motivated by “deep empathy and political aggravation . . . but my solution, sadly, mostly helped only me.” She now sees that her diet had been one of luxury and a desire to escape a system that she felt she could not affect. Now, in her life as a butcher, she can be more politically effective. Her book does not dwell on abuses of livestock, but promotes the more ethical path. In answer to those who criticize the water use of livestock farming, Meredith points out the bigger picture: water given to livestock doesn’t disappear – that which isn’t converted to meat returns to the pastures to improve the organic matter and to be used again. It’s the water cycle we should consider, not water “use”. Using water isn’t wrong – it’s important how you use it.

Supermarket food is subsidized by our tax dollars. We are not paying the true cost at the point of sale. The true cost of “cheap” food includes higher healthcare costs, higher environmental clean-up costs. Paying in installments causes us to expect food to be cheap.

The third aspect of her book is her poetic way of sharing her observations and feelings. Her farming and domestic partnership collapsed, she lost her farm – clearly that was hard.

In the Pork chapter she writes “I owned land once. Looking back, I like to think I can remember every single morning on my farm, but what I really remember it is the way that it feels each time to walk out the door into it. That’s the hush.”

“I used to feel like an invalid every spring, or like someone who had been asleep, because I was always so surprised at how new the earth made itself.” “ But the pigs, now are lying in the sun. It is the stillest, sweetest moment, there in the mud, and they are all spooned up against each other sideways. Every now and again, an ear twitches, or a chubby head bobs, but the pigs and the sun are mostly etched there, silently.”

And while it’s clear that losing her farm was hard, it’s just as clear that Meredith has jumped back on her feet, and now she runs a retail butcher shop. “Inspire yourself to a point of spirituality towards the animals you raise.” She is a true foodie: “Good food ignites all of our senses.” She generously shares some very delicious recipes.

Meredith Leigh at work. Photo by New Society Publishers

Meredith Leigh at work.
Photo by New Society Publishers