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Alternatives for the Kitchen Garden

Book Review by Val Harris

The Alternative Kitchen Garden: an A-Z

by Emma Cooper

Foreword by Mark Dianco – River Cottage Head Gardener

Permanent Publications   2009         ISBN :  978 1 85623 046 9

pp 371             £14.95

Emma Cooper’s book could not have arrived at a better time for me to review it.   We bought our smallholding a year ago as relative novices to vegetable growing.   Having been a regular subscriber to Permaculture Magazine, I could see that the first year was going to be relatively straightforward according to Permaculture principles.   One observes  - and observes some more.   I did manage to grow some vegetables that first summer, mainly to placate my cynical husband who thought I was opting out, but this year I will have no such excuse.  I have been trawling through all my various books and magazines but getting hopelessly confused – to dig or not to dig?

I began by reading Emma’s introduction.   She describes how she reclaimed her neglected urban garden in Oxfordshire to create the ‘alternative kitchen garden’, and she documented this on her blog and via internet radio, culminating in her first book.


I liked her approach to gardening immediately: she states that “There are really only two real rules – be kind to the environment and have some fun in your garden!”   I really get the impression that she has a go at growing anything and everything on a very small budget and she learns as she goes along.

The book is set out alphabetically; I leafed through quickly to get a feel for the subject matter.  Each letter covers about four or five different topics spread over two pages with a well-illustrated colour photograph.  I chanced upon ‘D’ and there it was - ‘digging’.  As she wisely puts it “you’re either a Digger or a No-Digger, and never the twain shall meet”.  She gives the argument for both sides, although her chosen method is raised beds with mulches, but she stresses that we all have choice.

What does she have to say about weeds –“Weediness is in the eye of the beholder”. Again there is loads of advice and alternatives on what to do and when – all very straightforward and all down to choice.

This book certainly deals with the tasks in the garden but Emma also braves the bigger issues of zero waste, yields, climate change and carbon footprints.  Under the letter ‘H’ she has a page entitled ‘Happiness’ quoting “Research shows that regular exposure to plants and green spaces reduces stress levels and improves mood.”

We are thinking of keeping chickens, and Emma shares her own experience with her two hens, Princess Layer and Hen Solo.   Despite having endless books on how to keep chickens, I find Emma’s first-hand experience refreshing and liberating.  I am not left wondering how I might keep chickens but rather when I might keep chickens.

We also have two orchards and are to plant a third.  There is a section on fruit and another on apples.  There is ome useful advice here, all tried and tested by Emma in her alternative kitchen garden.  She is passionate about growing food for her own consumption: all fruit can be eaten, but did you know that you can also eat the leaves of strawberry spinach?

Would it be a book I would recommend to a more experienced gardener?  Yes, there are angles and experiments that Emma has recorded which would interest those that are further down the gardening path than I am.  However, it is the perfect book for those starting out, or for those of us who are procrastinating or rather sitting on the fence dithering.  She shows us how she has planted and grown her own food for many years now – recording her successes as well as her failures – and makes me, at least, want to have a go.  Tomorrow I shall be out there with my cardboard, manure and woodchip, creating my beds – I am going to go for No-Dig!

Val Harris lives in Clifford, near Hay-on-Wye. After working in the television industry for twenty years, Val has spent the past ten owning her own art gallery and facilitating art workshops.  She trained as an energy healer at the School of Energy Healing, and plans to run healing workshops this year.  In the meantime, she is involved in Transition Hay, and, with Dave Prescott, is co-ordinating the Permaculture Garden Project for the 2010 Hay Literary Festival.





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