Book Review: Deep-Rooted Wisdom

Suppose I asked you to tell me everything you know about plants and gardening. Not the specific plants themselves -- I don't want you to create a list of plants -- but things in general: how to plant, what tools to use, where to get plants, how to create good soil, pest management, etc. Everything you can think of related to your garden. A daunting task, right? Now suppose that I asked you to include details on how you learned each of these things, especially if you learned it from another gardener.

That's how I can best describe Deep-Rooted Wisdom, "Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners" by Augustus Jenkins Farmer (2014, Timber Press). It's "everything" Jenks Farmer knows about gardening plus lots of stories about the people who taught him.


This is not a book that will instruct you on a specific topic like propagation, attracting wildlife, roses, dealing with pests. You will not find step-by-step instructions, or suggestions on plants to use in specific conditions. This book is not really about the specifics, but it covers such a wide range of topics common to all gardeners in such a personal way, that I couldn't help but feel that I became a better gardener by reading it.

Here's a partial list of topics covered: building soil, tools -- especially old ones, seed saving, rooting in the ground, handmade structures, watering by hand, and more. These are the chapter topics...

...but there are so many subtopics and sidebars, I promise you'll learn something new! Spirit houses, downcycling, partnering with mushrooms, rehydration therapy, the plant collector Code of Conduct -- such a wide range of interesting and useful topics!

When I first flipped through the book, I was a little concerned about this. Most of the books on my gardening shelves are more focused: bamboo, hardscaping, propagation, trees. How could a book that touched dozens of areas keep my interest?

The answer for me is simple, and is obviously of great importance to Jenks: it's the people.

The personal stories of the people that taught Jenks a certain skill or trick, or have some special focus in the world of plants and growing are key in this book. For instance, when writing about creating great soil, Jenks doesn't just say "you can make wonderful soil from wood chips and earthworms", he tells the story of the woman who has been doing just that for several years:

Including the stories of these people really makes the book so much more enjoyable. I felt more of a connection to the techniques offered because of it.

Take for example one of my favorite chapters: "Rooting in the Ground". I love propagating plants from cuttings, but I've never thought to just take a cutting, stick it into the ground, and come back months or a year later to collect the new plant.

Never thought it was possible. When reading about specific gardeners who have been doing it that way since they were children, and that their gardening parents (and probably grandparents) had been doing it too, well, that just resonated with me. (It could also be the fact that it's a completely no-effort way of propagating, and I'm all for reducing effort!)

I did get a feeling that perhaps there was something about the procedure that wasn't being revealed to me. There were no direct steps to take, a guide I could follow. There were no details on temperatures needed (to help those of us in colder climates) or anything specific, but I suppose that's how gardening knowledge gets passed down in person: just do this! 

There are certainly some details, like a table of a few plants that are easy to root in the ground:

(Did I stick any cuttings into the ground this fall? You bet I did!)

Another thing that all of the personal stories did for me, perhaps because many of the gardeners included were older and more experienced, was to relax me. It's easy to get stressed about the garden sometimes, and the overall theme I got from these vignettes was "chill out". One of my favorites is Jenks talking about the pest philosophy of Miss Hattie Wilson:
Of most pests, including mildew on phlox, Miss Hattie recommends one of three options: pretend not to see it, pretend not to care, or go dig around your house to realize that you'll likely find more little whiskers of fungus on a pair of sneakers in the back of a closet, and focus on that.
Love this advice!

When I earlier described this book as "everything" Jenks knows, of course I was exaggerating. Still, I didn't expect to see armadillos mentioned, but they're in here!

To summarize, I really enjoyed this book. Don't expect to get too many details or specific steps -- this isn't a how-to guide. You won't find a catalog of plants, or building plans, or bed layouts. What you will get though is ideas, encouragement, and passed-along wisdom. 

My four book review questions (in lieu of a rating):
  1. Am I glad to have it on my bookshelf?    Yes!
  2. Would I be disappointed if I misplaced it it?   Yes!
  3. Will I read it again?    Definitely yes!
  4. Would I give it as a gift?   Yes!

Note that Timber Press sent me a copy of this book for review after I expressed interest in it, but as always I was not otherwise compensated for posting this review.


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Mark and Gaz  – (November 14, 2014 at 4:52 PM)  

The format of the book sounds endearing, even heart warming. Not a book that preaches but rather shares.

Rock rose  – (November 14, 2014 at 7:59 PM)  

Great introduction to the book and great revue. I'll probably pass on this one although I still have much to learn, and do every day, I have had a vast wealth of gardening knowledge passed down to me already. I would have to kick some out to put in more. And yes, I am really good at rooting in the ground but I doubt it would work in frozen ground. We'll see how many of the 15 Felicia cuttings root this year. Hope yours work out.

danger garden  – (November 15, 2014 at 12:44 AM)  

This is one of those books in my "need to read soon" pile, thanks for the preview!

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