Book review: Four-Season Harvest

With spring quickly approaching, I’ve been getting hot and heavy into gardening literature. Some of it I’ve already read, and some of it is new. One of the new additions is Four-Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman, a moderately well-known writer typically dealing with organic gardening. I’d heard some good things about this book, so I picked one up from the library – I think it was good enough that it’ll get added to my reference collection at some point in the near future.

I have to admit, I fit the “average northern gardener” stereotype that he talks about early in the book – once the first frosts hit, I pretty much pack it in until April, and don’t give any thought to extending the harvest. Sure, I’ve considered cold frames, but more for just starting things a little earlier in the spring. This book certainly changed my mind about what it means to have a four-season garden, and I’m almost kinda looking forward to next winter so I can try some of his ideas out. Not too much though – if summer wants to stay indefinitely, I’d be okay with that too.

Coleman talks about how Southern France and his home in Maine are at the same latitude, so the sunlight (the real driver of plant growth) is approximately the same. Of course, France, being on the Mediterranean, has a much milder climate, but his thought is that if it’ll grow in France in the winter, it’ll also grow in Maine, given the right conditions. The methods for creating these conditions that he dwells on for most of the book are cold frames and covered tunnels.

Some of it might be a little much for a small-scale backyard grower; I know I’m not ready for the attached 40-foot greenhouse that he has at his place. The rest of it is very helpful – different ways of designing cold frames, several ways of creating different sizes and styles of covered tunnels, and how various groups of people have used these divergent styles. It piqued my interest enough that I’m going to build a couple small cold frames for next winter. Another hook is that he says most of the work is involved in the planting upfront – once the winter hits, there’s almost no maintenance, and the only work is harvesting a little bit here and there for a salad.

The bulk of the book consists of anecdotes of his travels in (mostly) France, where he searched the countryside for winter vegetable gardens, his thoughts on the aforementioned cold frames and tunnels, many charts outlining varying planting times, a good description of several winter-hardy plants (some common and others not-so-much, like mache and claytonia), and other various tidbits, such as composting and raising ducks. There are also several appendices listing sources for seeds and building materials and covering the care of many common garden vegetables. It’s certainly educational, but also interwoven with stories and written at enough of a yeoman’s level that it reads easily.

If you’ve always thought that gardening ends in late September (but don’t necessarily want it to), I’d recommend giving this book a read.

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