Book Review: Sustainable Food Gardens, Myths & Solutions

Robert Kourik, Metamorphic Press, © 2021

Baseball is simple, right? You throw the ball, you bat the ball, you catch the ball. Gardening is like that, right? You dig up the ground, you plant the seeds, you harvest the crop.

Neither baseball nor gardening is really like that. Both are subjects inexhaustible in their complexity. The baseball rulebook is the size of the Bible. Now Robert Kourik has given us the rulebook for sustainable gardening. “Sustainable Food Gardens” offers a guide to gardens that produce reliable crops in perpetuity, all while enriching the soil, protecting garden plants and animals, and interlocking with nature’s cycles of health and productivity. This new book debunks gardening’s myths and presents solutions based on peer-reviewed science.

Robert Kourik is an indefatigable dispenser of no-nonsense gardening information. He has written 18 books on organic, sustainable, and integrated systems of edible landscaping. His works have explored topics from permaculture to drip irrigation to the nature and function of plant roots. He goes beyond “book-learnin’” in his research, working in gardens and fields, observing and squaring his observations with the science that backs up his recommendations.

The creation of a truly sustainable garden presupposes a lot of different areas of expertise, including soil science, plant physiology, plant pathology, entomology, horticulture, water usage, and crop management. Textbooks on these subjects would fill a library shelf.

In “Sustainable Food Gardens,” Kourik cuts to the chase, touching on all these aspects in a concise but deeply informative way. The book is crammed full of insights and scientific results that are like pixels on a computer screen. As this information sinks in, the reader comes to see the big picture: the garden as a whole system, each working part needing attention if the garden is to live up to its potential.

He’s also not shy about mentioning past mistakes. He refers to his 1986 list of “bio-accumulators,” plants that can be added to a compost pile to enrich it with various nutrients, and points to its flaws: “[I would] eliminate plants that accumulate copper, fluorine, boron, and cobalt, as soils are rarely deficient in these micronutrients … eliminate lemon balm because it’s so invasive … mustards should be removed, as there is a possibility of heavy metals accumulating in their roots from contaminated soils … Nobody should grow tobacco, so it’s off the list.”

He reports visiting USDA herbalist Dr. James Duke at his office in Beltsville, Maryland: “At the time, Dr. Duke was looking for natural compounds that might fight cancer. In the process, he analyzed thousands of plants and determined the content in parts per million, of many of the chemicals and compounds in their leaves, seeds, stems, and fruit.”

Kourik uses Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical database to update his previously published lists, with tables outlining the plants that accumulate potassium, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. He also includes a chart of the amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium in dandelion (Taraxacum), lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), chicory (Cichorium), comfrey (Symphytum), plantain (Plantago), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), and purslane (Portulaca).

Bravo to Kourik for mining Dr. Duke’s extensive research and bringing it to gardeners who are looking for nutritious, edible plants for the family. This is just one detail in the 486-page book, a tome that holds the secrets to science-based organic and sustainable food crops. It joins a handful of essential books on the topic and delves deeper and more granularly into the process of nature-based gardening than any other book I’ve seen.

Review by: Jeff Cox, 11/2021