Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: The Chinese Kitchen Garden by Wendy Kiang-Spray

februarygardenkids2017-042The day that Wendy launched her new book at Politics and Prose in DC, I was at home reading about her life. Normally I skip the preface of any book but this time I enjoyed reading Wendy’s journey into gardening, which began when she became a mother, and her parents’ journey from China to Maryland, resulting in a successful business and a large vegetable garden. The Chinese Kitchen Garden is Wendy’s first book, a sublime integration of gardening and Chinese cooking. Divided into the four seasons, her book melds her own gardening advice on growing Asian vegetables with her parent’s ability to incorporate such vegetables into classic Chinese cuisine.

Wendy features 38 vegetables that are either native to China, commonly thought of as Chinese, or play a role in China’s culinary world. Each plant is labeled with its common and botanical names, Chinese transliterations, and pronunciations in Cantonese and Mandarin. Wendy describes the plant’s general use in the kitchen such as side dishes, entrees, soups, and salads and gardening methods for this area. Throughout the book are 20 family recipes incorporating the vegetables grown in her and her parent’s garden. Published by Timber Press, this book has excellent graphic elements such as Chinese characters, plenty of colored photographs, and easy-to-read sidebars plus resources for recommended reading, websites for more information, and companies that sell plants and seeds.

The first chapter, Spring, provides instruction on improving the soil, Chinese intensive beds, raised garden beds, container gardening, composting, and seed sowing. Wendy provides information on growing and cooking bamboo shoots, garland chrysanthemum, garlic chives, a variety of peas, and watercress. Recipes include “Bamboo Shoots and Pork Belly Braised in Sweet Soy Sauce” and “Stir-fried Flowering Chive with Roasted Duck.”

Summer addresses the typical problems of pests, diseases, weeds, and the need to water.  Wendy covers a variety of beans and greens, amaranth, bitter melon, bottle gourd, bunching onions, Chinese cucumbers, Chinese eggplants, Chinese peppers, daylily buds, fuzzy melon, and luffa gourd.  Recipes include “Bottle Gourd and Chicken Stir-fry” and “Long Beans with Garlic and Preserved Olives.”

Fall involves succession planting, seed saving, food preservation, and cleanup chores.  This chapter describes how to grow and cook with a choy, bok choy, choy sum, cilantro, gailan, ginger, kabocha, mustard greens, napa cabbage, radishes, stem lettuce, taro root, tatsoi, water chestnut, and winter melon. Recipes include “Kabocha with Ground Pork in Black Bean Sauce” and “Steamed Sea Bass with Cilantro, Ginger, and Scallions.” Several pages are devoted to her father’s signature dumplings with a recipe for “Crab, Pork and Napa Cabbage Dumplings.”

The story ends with Winter: techniques to extend the season, including cold frames, row covers, hoop houses, and cloches; growing cold-hardy vegetables; planning for the next year; and growing sprouts and microgreens indoors.

Throughout The Chinese Kitchen Garden, Wendy tells stories about her family: her husband and daughters, her father and mother, and her sister and her family. She has a very relaxed, easy-to-read style, as if she were chatting at the kitchen table, surrounded by her family. Those who are new to gardening will find this book to be a great introduction to growing Chinese vegetables in the Washington DC metropolitan area while those who are interested in cooking will be inspired to try the delicious recipes. Wendy provides more information on her website, wendykiangspray.com, her blog, greenishthumb.net, and on her Facebook page, The Chinese Kitchen Garden. This coming Saturday, February 18, Wendy will speak about her book at Rooting DC, an annual event in Washington DC.

My book review has been published in The Gardening Products Review

A month ago I wrote a review of Thomas Leo Ogren’s The Allergy-Fighting Garden for The Gardening Products Review. Editor Monica Hemingway just informed me that she published my book review, check out http://www.gardeningproductsreview.com. I had read his books before and his system of rating plants based on their ability to produce pollen. I was especially interested as I have family members with severe reactions to pollen, to the point that spring time pollen triggers asthma. Right now everything here in Northern Virginia is coated with the yellow dust, irritating people’s eyes and making them congested. Ogren’s The Allergy-Fighting Garden is a must read for folks suffering from allergies and asthma who would like to re-design their property to reduce the amount of pollen.

New Book: Homegrown Herb Garden

IMG_5811Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses serves a dual purpose: the book is an introduction to 15 culinary herbs for gardening novices and is an inspiring cookbook for experienced gardeners to incorporate herbs into meals, desserts, and drinks.

Ann McCormick, an herb expert and long-time Texan gardener, relays her experience with growing basil, bay laurel, chervil, cilantro, dill, French tarragon, Italian parsley, lemongrass, mint, onion chives, rosemary, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, and winter savory. For each herb, she describes common varieties, care and feeding, harvesting, and tips on growing the plants in small spaces. To use basil as an example, Ann recommends ‘Spicy Globe’ for an “extra flavor kick,” Thai basil for Asian foods, and ‘Purple Ruffles’ or ‘Red Rubin’ for vinegars. For planting in smaller pots, small-leaf varieties such as ‘Windowbox’ or ‘Italian Cameo’ work well.

A graduate from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles, Chef Lisa Baker Morgan describes the culinary uses for each of the 15 herbs. She prefaces the recipes with combinations and cooking techniques but these are not just traditional combinations one would see in an herb book. Chef Morgan describes how the herb pairs with vegetables, meats, seafood, fruits, dairy products, oils, sauces, and other herbs. For example, basil is “wonderful with hydrating fruits such as raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and melons …” and “balance the sweetness of grilled or pan-fried fruit with a simple syrup.” Several recipes are listed for each herb from a wide variety of cuisines. Instead of the usual pesto, basil is used in “kobocha and coconut soup with Thai basil leaves” or “zucchini and basil soufflé.”  It is a joy to see how the herbs can be used in novel ways and with different cuisines.

Ann and Chef Morgan have done a wonderful job of pairing herbs in the garden with dishes in the kitchen. Published by Quarry Books, Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses is designed to inspire people to grow culinary herbs and try new recipes. To learn more about the authors, visit their own websites: Ann blogs at http://www.herbncowgirl.com and Chef Morgan writes at http://www.chefmorgan.com.

Book Review: Jenks Farmer’s Deep-Rooted Wisdom

deeprootedwisdomRecently I had the opportunity to hear Augustus Jenkins Farmer, known as Jenks Farmer, speak at a local gardening club. The topic was crinums, a popular southern bulbous plant that produces tall clusters of lily-like flowers in the summer. Crinums are known for being excellent survivors, hard to kill, and often found in abandoned homes and cemeteries. Because he owns and operates LushLife Nursery, which specializes in crinum plants, he talked about the various types plus his own design experience. At the very end of the hour, he casually mentioned, almost as an afterthought, his new book, Deep-Rooted Wisdom: Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners. That, in a nutshell, is Jenks. He has a vast amount of horticultural education, experience, and knowledge but he is so humble and so down to earth that he almost forgot to mention his 248-page book. Writing it involved interviewing over 20 fellow gardeners, famous and not, across the southern United States as well as culling hundreds of color photographs to illustrate his manuscript and sidebars to further explain the point.

Although the title of Jenks’ book is Deep Rooted Wisdom, I think of it as back to basics. The second part of the title Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners is his roadmap to those basic principles. In his plain language style, Jenks writes about the basics of gardening through his experiences as well as through the lives of experienced gardeners. At the end, you don’t even know you have been taught horticulture.

Eleven chapters follow a simple format – first a common garden practice or skill and how it may have become complicated or changed over the years; second, the experiences of one or two teachers (other gardeners in the south); and third, “Updates and Adaptations,” a combination of the teachers’ wisdom with commonsense methods and practices for us to use, much like a take home lesson or summary. Starting with “Stacking Up,” Jenks expands on the traditional concept of an English “cottage garden” — a simple garden comprised of both beautiful and useful plants to, in this modern world, gardens in whatever little space exists to support plants that beautify as well as provide food. Through interviewing teacher Nan Chase who has an urban, edible garden and teacher Richard Hager who has a large, southern, cottage type garden, Jenks illustrates how plants can serve many purposes. In Updates and Adaptations, Jenks explains the many uses of bamboo, and how parsley, commonly thought of as a useless garnish, is used on his land as mulch, as a winter green, as a pretty flower that attracts pollinators, and as a useful herb in the kitchen. The second chapter covers soil but unlike other gardening books, Jenks explains the importance of soil microorganisms, including mycorrhizal fungi, and motivates you to use legumes to add nutrients back to the soil instead of synthetic fertilizers. Chapter three explains the importance of building up the soil with mushrooms and earthworms instead of tilling while chapter four favors watering by hand versus automatic watering systems in order to observe how the plants are doing. Chapter 5 and 6 are really about plant propagation – making cuttings and saving seed. By reading stories of how older generations have propagated and shared plants, you feel more comfortable trying a stem cutting yourself. Chapter 7 and 8 discuss hardware: making garden structures by hand and with natural material instead of buying everything from a store and using basic hand tools. Scavenging, my favorite chapter, is looking for the gem among the trash, looking for the plant that everyone forgot. It honors the lifelong tradition of finding and preserving plants in neglected areas. Chapter 10 teaches a holistic approach to insects and weeds and the last chapter, “Finding the Spirit,” encourages you to tell your own story through your garden while being aware that how you garden can impact the future of the land, as well as those around you.

Although Jenks has written for many national gardening magazines, this is his first book and I hope there are more to come. Born and raised on Beech Island, South Carolina, Jenks has a B.S. in Horticulture from Clemson University and a Master’s degree in Public Garden Management and Forestry from the University of Washington. He has spent years designing the Moore Farms Botanical Garden and the Riverbanks Botanical Garden, both in South Carolina. Although he still designs gardens, writes, and travels giving lectures, he and his partner Tom Hall operate LushLife Nursery and grow crinums for sale. Check out his great web site at http://www.jenksfarmer.com. Deep Rooted Wisdom: Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners was published in March 2014 by Timber Press, Portland, OR; with a foreword by Felder Rushing.