Carolyn Herriot is a well-known fixture in these parts, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the publication of her new book, The Zero-Mile Diet: A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food. I managed to pick up a copy at the fabulous Watermark Books (they have no website, which is a shame, because I was ready to read through the whole bookstore!) on Saltspring Island a few weeks ago, and read it cover to cover over a day or two. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, so for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts.
First, the reason that I had been looking so forward to reading this book was because Herriot and her husband, local environmental activist Guy Dauncey, have been working on gaining food self-sufficiency over the last number of years. They live on a small property just outside Victoria, and Herriot has been writing, teaching, and selling plants from the property for a long time. I’ve seen her present about backyard chickens, among other topics, and she is hugely knowledgeable. So I was excited to read about how her family had become self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables, and eggs (and meat?), on a not-so-big property in my local climate area.
This also ended up being my main disappointment with the book, because this book doesn’t tell that story. Herriot mentions in the introduction that her family set out on a self-sufficiency goal that to their surprise only ended up taking 5 years–even from a soil base of clay fill, which is what we have!–but she never does clearly explain how they did that. So that’s too bad. But the fact that the book wasn’t conceived as I was hoping it would be is hardly a reason to judge it badly. And Zero-Mile Diet in fact does many other things very well.
Like her previous book, A Year on the Garden Path, The Zero-Mile Diet is set up as a month-by-month how-to guide, which appropriately groups garden tasks and knowledge in the season during which they are needed. Thankfully there is also a good table of contents and index to help you when you don’t know what month pest management or some other topic might be covered in! Reading the book straight through does give a reasonable sense of the cycle of the year, which makes for a good overview, especially for the novice gardener.
Once you find the particular topic you’re interested in, luckily, Herriot goes into full depth, rather than just touching on what you need to know that month. So when we get to composting, for instance, we get all the information we need, not just what’s appropriate in May. There’s a lot of useful information throughout the book, including detailed information on seed saving that goes through plant by plant, a decent section on backyard chickens, including coop sizes and feed requirements. Herriot is also a big proponent of lasagne gardening, and she gives easy-to-follow instructions with photos.
In fact, the large, colorful book is packed with photos, which is one of its best qualities. Overall, Herriot looks like she is trying to make backyard food production look easy and fun, and the book is definitely appealing to read. She is also balancing a potentially wide audience with a real sense of the local climate on Southern Vancouver island, and one of the aspects of the book I appreciated the most was her attention to what grows well here. As a longtime seed producer, Herriot has given her customers access to some unusual, heritage, and otherwise specialized vegetables, herbs and flowers. In this book she talks more about what these plants are, how they taste, and how to cook or preserve them. And there are some great looking recipes scattered throughout the year that I will definitely try!
As with any “overview” book, I have some quibbles with what’s left out. She has a good discussion about composting, including a “recipe” for her “Super-Duper Compost” which she says will produce nursery-grade compost in six-months. I’m getting ready to try it! But despite her advocacy and passion for the topic, she never gives really practical beginner-level instruction on building the compost pile. She provides the “30:1 Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio”, but never breaks that down into how to use the ratio in your home compost. This is a silly oversight, because 30:1 doesn’t mean anything when you’re standing in front of your grass trimmings and your kitchen bucket at home! Tell us that we need to layer our straw or leaves or paper in a ratio of inches on the pile to make it easy.
She also has a section where she talks about her preliminary experiences with Muscovy ducks in her garden. This is a topic of particular interest to us, as we’re seriously contemplating ducks rather than chickens. She’s up front about the fact that she’s just learning, but more detailed information would have been helpful, as it’s difficult to find.
So, like many books intended for wide, beginning audiences, there is lots of information here that’s covered in other places, and there are some gaps where reading additional books is necessary or at least helpful, to get more depth. I could see that even while I was standing in the bookstore, trying to decide whether to bring The Zero-Mile Diet home. But in the end, I’m glad I bought it, particularly for the following reasons:
1. Seed Saving: this section is excellent, and seed-saving specific books are not in the budget at the moment. The Skipper is particularly interested in getting us started in this regard, and this section is thorough enough to give us confidence.
2. Perennial Vegetables: Permaculturists and others are experimenting with perennial vegetables and other edible plants. It’s hard to get good info and even harder to figure out what will grow well in our area and then even harder to find the seeds! But Herriot treats these unusual plants with practical ease, and her company even sells the seeds for the varieties she discusses. Super-helpful. And did I mention the cooking instructions?
3. Practical Advice for our Climate: I’m not sure if this would be as helpful elsewhere, but I can’t see why not. I know in my extensive reading, I’ve often come across contradictory advice or been left with questions about how to apply a practice in my specific yard. The Zero-Mile-Diet answered a lot of these questions for me, and also gave me convincing reasons to follow a particular direction in areas where there is debate. For instance, there is some debate about whether it’s better to start seedlings and transplant them or to direct-seed into your garden beds. I’ve been a proponent, in the abstract, of direct-seeding as much as possible, as the resulting plants are often more productive and are usually stronger and healthier than transplants. But Herriot makes a convincing case that raising transplants is important when our changing weather patterns make traditional planting cycles unpredictable. This spring I was very glad that I had healthy tomato transplants in the greenhouse and that I could wait until the weather co-operated to plant them out. Herriot suggests that over her 20 years of growing here, the springs have become colder and more unsettled, and that transplants are the way through unreliable weather. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that seedlings raised up off the ground are also less vulnerable to slugs!
All in all, although this isn’t the narrative of becoming sustainable that I was hoping for, it is a very helpful how-to guide that covers some topics that others don’t, and that even experienced gardeners will take some good tips away from. It’s a well-illustrated, down-to-earth way to get started, and reading it certainly made me wonder if food sustainability is just that easy! We’ll see. 🙂