Our family has a genetic flaw: we can't sit down at the table to eat or even take a break without being compelled to pick up some sort of reading material. Fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers...we don't care as long as it has words on a page. So it's not surprising that over the years we've accumulated a lot of reference books relating to the farm. We'd like to share a selection of our favorites in case you need some gardening tips, are interested in learning some crafts like handspinning yourself, or you're thinking about starting your own small farm.
So check back regularly as I make my way through the "stacks" and build a Red Fern Farm Recommended Reading List.
Please note that no single book is the be-all, end-all of reference books. For the most thorough, accurate information, it's good to have several sources on hand for cross-referencing.
Great for Beginners:
The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, Tanya L. K. Denckla. If you're just getting started gardening--either in the soil or in containers--this is a great primer that covers just about any fruit or vegetable you'd want to try your hand at. Each featured crop includes temperature requirements, growing days, sowing and harvesting information, and recommended heirloom varieties. (One caveat: the information provided for garlic harvesting is not accurate.)
Let's Get Growing, Crow Miller. Though this tome is out of print, it's worth tracking down a used copy online at amazon.com or half.com. It includes general gardening information on everything from preparing your soil to mulching and then provides specific information about a variety of vegetables.
The New Seed Starter's Handbook, Nancy Bubel. An oldie but a goodie, this is a more technical tome that contains a wealth of information on growing from seed and beyond. Recommended for beginners who like to jump into the deep end of the pool right away and/or want the science behind the methods.
The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe. I feel very strongly about this one: everyone who grows their own food or wants to absolutely must read this book. This information contained in this book is going to become increasingly crucial as weather systems get weirder and food prices climb to stratospheric heights. It's a dense read and is definitely not a picture book, but it could not be more valuable. The first half is especially good for beginners as Deppe covers all the basics in very thorough chapters that include "33 Golden Gardening Rules," "Water and Watering," "Soil and Fertility," and "Gardening in an Era of Wild Weather and Climate Change." If you haven't already, get this book.
The Herb Gardener: A Guide for All Seasons, Susan McClure. Geared towards creating and maintaining a more traditional herb garden, this book has great basic information on growing and harvesting herbs. It also provides some suggestions for layouts if you're interested in making a knot garden, wagon wheel, or other formal herb garden.
As soon as you start researching garlic, you'll find that there are a great many dissenting and oftentimes blatantly contradictory opinions out there. What works for some growers doesn't work for others; the only way to discover this is trial and error. I've not yet come across a good published resource for growing garlic in the South--most books are geared towards the cooler climes of the Pacific Northwest. So take any and all information in these books with a grain of salt and be ready to experiment to find the techniques that work for you.
Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers, Ron L. Engeland. We started our garlic-growing adventure armed only with this book and while it includes a lot of helpful information, much of the advice within is specific to large-scale operations and growing conditions on the West Coast. But it is a good primer and its slim size makes it a quick read. Engeland is a trailblazer in the realm of garlic taxonomy and this book presents his personal system, so cross-referencing varities you see available for purchase with his book can be slightly confusing.
The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks, Ted Jordan Meredith. My personal favorite, not only because it includes a wealth of comprehensive information and varietal breakdowns, but also because the author covers worst case scenarios and offers practical solutions for problems on both an artisan and home-grown scale. It's an unquestionably intimidating book, but it provides the best botanical understanding of garlic you can get outside of a classroom. If you're serious about growing garlic, read it cover-to-cover; if you're just trying your hand at it, you can easily dip in and out of the relevant sections.
Food, Farm Life & Memoirs
Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice. This amazing book speaks directly to the soul, and to the buried yearnings we all have for a meaningful relationship with nature and, through it, the Divine. Excellently researched, the book covers a lot of territory both familiar and unfamiliar, from Weston A. Price to colonial America to Greek myth. At the same time, Prentice infuses her book with anecdata about her personal experiences and delicious recipes I can't wait to try. Beneath it all runs a quiet but deep vein of spirituality so poignant it often brought tears to my eyes--it's very obvious that this is Prentice's prayer for a better world. A really beautiful work that I'll definitely be rereading again and again.
The Seasons on Henry's Farm, Terra Brockman. I knew I would love this book when it started with everyone on deck for the big garlic planting in November. A year-long portrait of a sustainable family farm in Illinois, this memoir was both exuberant and poignant as it detailed the practical workings of the farm and the extended family that runs it. The best way to describe Henry's Farm is as a well-oiled machine, but Terra Brockman walks the line between detached description and sentimentality with aplomb. There was something captivating about the way she finds poetry in the reality of every season. Highly recommended!
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball. Messier and more emotional than The Seasons on Henry's Farm, Kristin Kimball's account of the first year of Essex Farm in New York is nonetheless the perfect antidote for long, dark winter nights. (Well, one night, really--I devoured this memoir in less than 24 hours.) After tagging along for the rollercoaster ride of starting a farm with Kristin and Mark, I was so emotionally invested in their story that I wept at the end. A great, quick read that leaves you exhausted--in a good way. If you're a young person thinking of starting your own farm, read this book.
My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season, Carl H. Klaus. This daybook is about a garden rather than a farm, but it is an absolutely beautiful garden. Carl Klaus weaves together many threads of daily life--his day job as an English professor; his marriage and his wife's cancer; his neighbors, pets, and visitors; and, of course, the garden and the bounty he harvests there. The book is tinged with sadness, but it only enhances the richness of it. The gardening advice is born of Klaus' many years of experience, so it's great for information as well. I believe this has only recently come back into print, so it's worth getting now before it's gone again.
Stronger Than Dirt, Kim Schaye and Chris Losee. The tale of a New York couple (aren't they always?) who move to a piece of land in the Hudson Valley and carve out a successful flower farm while balancing the realities of maintaining an off-farm income and trying to make money at the NY Greenmarkets. Always honest about their failures and misconceptions but never indulging in excessive negativity, these farmers had me on their side from the beginning. There's lots of DIY content (Chris builds their home and greenhouse mostly of his own devising) and I appreciated the depth of detail about their market operation. It made me realize that other small farmers have the same challenges and experiences we do and the best advice is to just hang in there. Silverpetals Farm still operates today, 13 years later, so you know they did something right when they built the foundation of their farm.