Reviewed by Caro Roszell
What struck me most while reading Nigel Palmer’s The Regenerative Grower’s Guide to Garden Amendments is that this book is much like a good NOFA Conference. It unapologetically brings together ideas from both science and spirituality, traditional practices and emerging research.
That eclectic, heterodox approach reminds me of nothing so much as a NOFA conference, where in a given day you can attend sessions from farmers on no-till and organic farming methods to Extension researchers discussing the latest research on brassica diseases to herbalists discussing home apoth ecary and biodynamic farmers explaining how to make cow-horn preparations.
And, much like a NOFA conference, you can skip the stuff that just isn’t your cup of nettle tea. Full disclosure— I saw the photo of magnets on a bucket on page 77 and skipped the subsequent page on water and energy, because I have a limited appetite for the water energetics topic. I likewise skipped
the half-page on homeopathy. I agree with Palmer’s concerns about additives in water and their impact on biology, but I stop short of following him into a discussion of imparting intention into water.
Water energy, intentions and homeopathy content aside, I found this book to contain a lot of useful, down-to-earth content rooted in both established science and practical experience— and the fertile interstitial space between the two.
The first 34 pages of this book are dedicated to a thorough overview middle school chemistry and biology topics, explained clearly and concisely with colorful and easy-to-understand illustrations. If you need a refresher on things like pH, cations and anions, and xylem and phloem, you will find these pages helpful.
As a lover of science writing, I found myself men- tally contrasting the opening chapters of this book with those of Chelsea Green’s other relatively recent publication on soil / plant health, Mycorrhizal Planet by Michael Philips (which, as the title suggests, goes into depth on fungi in particular). I learned quite a bit more from Philips’ biological concepts overviews than I did from this one, but I found Philips’ efforts at poetical flourishes off-putting and therefore a slog to read, while Palmer’s writing is admirably clear, breezy and concise.
After the opening chapters, the book is largely populated with a surprising amount of useful, practical information on how to make, source, and apply alternative amendments to your garden. When I say ‘alternative’ I mean basically anything that you wouldn’t be able to find sold in a bag as a garden amendment. While a lot of the content is about making your own amendments from home-grown and foraged ingredients, Palmer also suggests sourcing local rock dusts (which you can actually buy in a bag from Fedco) and waste streams like seafood byproducts and bones.
A few highlights:
- A soil-building approach to potato gardening (p.59-62)
- Instructions for a homemade crusher tool for pul- verizing shells, rocks and bones (p. 94)
- Equations for figuring out how much of a given material to apply per unit of area (based on lab results) (p.104)
- Assorted Amendment Recipes (p. 121-180) includ- ing water extractions, homemade vinegar, vinegar extractions and a variety of indigenous microorgan- isms (IMO) recipes
One of the things I appreciated most about this book is the ethic of up-cycling, reusing, diversion of waste streams, and bioregional self-sufficiency that undergirds the entire approach and bubbles up into even the smallest details. For example, in describ- ing the aforementioned crusher tool, Palmer doesn’t say, “go buy an X diameter pipe and a Y diameter one with these specific lengths,” but instead what he advises is,“Find two pieces of steel pipe, one of a larger diameter than the other, such that the smaller pipe fits into the larger pipe with some room to spare so it can be moved up and down. Be sure the smaller-diameter pipe is longer than the larger.”
He accompanies his basic fabrication instructions with a photo describing “scrap pipe.”
I appreciated this make-do ethic, once common, but now vanishing from a world in which a more cynical publisher and author might have lined up a pre-fab “Palmer’s Crushing Tool” and placed a QR code to an online shop on the page.
Overall, this book contains a truly impressive amount of information in a slim volume, which can be attributed again to the aforementioned clear writing style. Yet the book is not too workman- like; Palmer takes the time to weave in broader implications of the practices he describes, such assoil carbon sequestration, emotional wellbeing, and empowerment.
If you like your non-fiction books well-cited and thoroughly grounded in research, you may want to skip this one as it tends to move seamlessly in and out of what some would consider scientifically uncontroversial concepts with speculative, debated, or scientifically debunked concepts (ie, homeopathy). But if you don’t mind that kind of eclecticism and can sort through information for yourself— which you must be, as a NOFA member— then I think most readers with gardens and even some farmers (though most of the guidance is garden-scale) will find a lot to explore and try in this book. I am certainly looking forward to trying out some of the recipes and approaches in this book in my own garden this year.
Caro Roszell is the former Education Director at NOFA/MA and is now the Soil Health Specialist at American Farmland Trust.