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Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway – A Review

If you had asked me a year ago whether I’d be obsessively gardening now, I would have said no. I thought of gardening as plant micromanagement and didn’t see the point of bossing plants around. Gardening meant taking on responsibility for constant care of plants that hadn’t chosen to live where I put them. Plus, I had once managed to accidentally kill bamboo. Gaia’s Garden changed all that.

After watching Rachel O’Leary’s excellent “Summer Tubbing” series on breeding fish outside, I wanted to do a deeper dive on it. Some research led me to “The Tub Pond Handbook” by Ted Colletti (which deserves a write-up in its own right). Once I’d finished that, my Kindle recommended this book called Gaia’s Garden. I didn’t know anything about permaculture or gardening at that point, but I’d heard the word before and was a bit curious, so I decided to give it a try.

Who should read Gaia’s Garden?

Everyone. Seriously, I think I’ve given a copy to just about everyone I know. For the novice gardener, it will walk you through the permaculture approach to gardening in an approachable and understandable way. For the experienced permie, it provides one of the best guides out there on fruit tree guilds. For those who have done some conventional gardening but don’t know much about permaculture, it gives you ways to gently transition your garden into a state that requires much less work and produces much more food.

What does Gaia’s Garden cover?

It starts out by introducing the reader to basic ecological principles, and explaining how they come into play in a garden setting. It explains how bugs, birds, and even weeds can play an important role in our gardens and save us a lot of work.

From there, it goes into the different elements that make up a garden. It discusses natural ways to build healthy soil and the importance of soil microbial life. It provides strategies for getting the most out of your available water, which as someone living in the high desert I was fascinated by. It goes deeply into the many roles that plants can play in the garden and the ways that they can help each other out as they grow. And finally, it looks at the roles animals can play in your garden ecosystem and how to incorporate them successfully.

The last section looks at how to integrate all of these elements into a well-functioning whole. It goes from basic polycultures to tree guilds to food forests. It gives tips on integrating your garden into the larger community, including a chapter on permaculture in the city. (Hemenway also wrote an entire book devoted to urban permaculture, which I am still reading but will try to review when I’m done.)

What’s the final verdict?

I really can’t recommend this book enough. The clarity of the writing and the usefulness of the information are unparalleled. If I ever find out how to order books wholesale, I’m going to have to start handing out copies door to door.

For more book recommendations, check out my book recommendations page!

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