Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower's Handbook
The Scything Handbook
The Independent Farmstead
Ted's Greenhouse – Creating a Four-Season Passive Solar Greenhouse From the Ground Up
Karl, Get Out of the Garden!


The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower's Handbook
By Andrew Mefferd
Chelsea Green, 2017
288 pages, paperback; $34.95

You can expect two to four times more tomatoes from plants grown in a high tunnel compared with those grown in the field, and more of them will be blemish free. That's enough for many growers to consider building a tunnel. Add to that the pleasure of beginning the growing season in March when fields are still covered with snow, having red tomatoes in June, and the fact that the Natural Resources Conservation Service actually has a program to help farmers pay for building tunnels, and there is no mystery why "protected culture" has taken off.

The availability of technical books on the subject has lagged behind the demand, but that recently changed with publication of "The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower's Handbook" by Andrew Mefferd. This book not only talks about tomatoes but includes how-to information on the eight most rewarding crops when grown in a high tunnel or a greenhouse. Mefferd ought to know rewarding when he sees it: He has farmed for a living.

Why is the yield potential and quality so much better for crops in tunnels? The term "protected culture" gives away the answer. Management is the key. Growing conditions in a tunnel are managed. You control the water; you can keep leaves dry (resulting in less fungal growth); you can keep the howling wind off the crop; you can keep the soil moist – never too wet or too dry; and so on. All of this management means a grower can get closer to the yield potential of the crop. Of course, the potential for poor management could turn things ugly quickly. That is where this book comes in.

Mefferd's book is organized logically. Chapters begin with the basics of why protected culture works, and what to think about when choosing the type of building. Following is a clear discussion of managing the parameters that lead to the best crop growth: light, water, temperature, etc. This section of the book is essential for someone starting anew with protected culture, and it serves growers wondering why things are not as good as they hoped. As a crop advisor I am amazed at the number of calls I get from very experienced growers who did not recognize problems they got when their tunnels got too hot or too cold, or something else very basic happened. The basics discussed in this book can firm up the knowledge of even very experienced growers.

The second half of the book details specific crops that truly do better in tunnels. Tomatoes are the clear winner on most farms, and Mefferd rightly gives them the longest discussion, but cucumbers, peppers, eggplants and leafy greens clearly shine as well. Each chapter covers basic production and the best methods specific to protected culture. Small tips that can make big differences jump out as something only a farmer could have developed.

Mefferd makes his book a fun read for those interested in more than production methods. He covers topics such as the history of protected growing, recordkeeping, making a profit, and stories from his farming. Appendices address hydroponics, pests and diseases, and tools and supplies. Because the environment in a greenhouse or high tunnel is so different from the outdoors, the pests and diseases are very different. This appendix could be the next book.

– Eric Sideman, MOFGA


The Scything Handbook
By Ian Miller
New Society Publishers, Sept. 2016
160 pages paperback, $24.95; ebook $16.20

Ian Miller's "The Scything Handbook" is low-key and conversational, an exuberant celebration of learning. While reading it, I felt like I had stopped by the land that Miller works and he was enthusiastically showing and telling me everything he'd learned about using and maintaining a scythe and about haying and growing grain. His voice is earnest, his research exhaustive, his experience for such a young man impressive.

The nine chapters cover three main topics: the scythe, haying and growing grain. Chapter 7, "The Forging of a Scythe Blade," is a beautiful and absorbing history of the scythe blade from the second century BC. Miller writes, for example, that "to minimize the risk of any fire that might occur at the scythe works spreading to nearby buildings, a linden tree was nearly always planted between the works and other buildings to intercept flying sparks."

Most of the book is an introduction to the scythe, proceeding from scythe assembly and mowing basics to honing and minor repair. In an insightful chapter titled "Getting the Best from your Body," Miller shares how the Alexander Technique and brief, twice-daily meditation bring ever-increasing focus to his mowing (and his life).

Miller also shares a "Guitar Craft aphorism" that is always in the back of his head while mowing: "Honor necessity, honor sufficiency. In other words, honor necessity by putting forth the effort that is required and nothing less; honor sufficiency by putting forth the effort that is required and nothing more."

In the second portion of the book, Miller introduces the joys and challenges of haying by hand. Information includes timing the mowing, hay rack design, nutrient loss, and storage.

The closing portion of the book is about Miller's experience of growing and harvesting grain. It's a lot of work! He suggests finding one's own scale, method and schedule, a common thread throughout the book.

"The Scything Handbook" will delight new and seasoned mowers. As a new mower I found Miller's style warm and welcoming. The information was accessible and well organized. I visited the safety section several times and think it could benefit from additional attention in future editions. Having consulted fellow mowers, I feel supported in questioning the safety of hanging a scythe in a tree. I would rather see a blade cover or red guard employed when the mower takes a break. A second safety note: Mowing gloves are a good idea.

– Vivian Blatt, Perry, Maine


The Independent Farmstead: Growing Soil, Biodiversity, and Nutrient Dense Food with Grassfed Animals and Intensive Pasture Management
By Shawn and Beth Dougherty
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
336 pages, paperback, $39.95

"Whatever the dictates of ignorant idealism, it remains true that good farming has always involved pasture, grazing animals, and animal manure for fertilization." — Wendell Berry

Farm animals have a bad reputation these days. Going all the way back to Frances Moore Lappé's "Diet for a Small Planet" and up to the recent film "Cowspiricy," animal agriculture has been vilified for various reasons. While Lappé might not have had methane emissions and climate change on her mind, she was spot on to shine a light on industrial-scale meat production as a key driver in world hunger. Animals, she pointed out, are poor converters of grain to protein, grain that could feed humans directly. "Cowspiricy" draws a less pointed and more sensational argument, condemning animal agriculture on all scales. Both projects, and many others, argue exclusively for a vegetarian diet to help solve the world's food and environmental crises. As we look deeper into self-sustaining, or better yet, regenerative agricultural systems that can actually reclaim damaged land, draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and produce their own fertility, we must recognize the integral role of ruminants and other grazers.

While CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) on an industrial scale doubtless cause great environmental damage and excess animal cruelty, and create food lacking quality, another model of using animals in the landscape can help restore damaged ecosystems, respect the natural inclinations of farm animals and produce food of high nutrient density. In "The Independent Farm and Homestead," Shawn and Beth Dougherty outline such a model and back it up with a tremendous amount of hard-won knowledge that can come only with decades of experience. The model they portray is one driven by sun, rain and grass rather than fossil fuels, chemicals and biocides. It is by its nature human scale, biodiversity rich, and as independent as possible from off-farm inputs. It relies on the intelligent management of pasture, avoiding the pitfalls of tillage for annual grain crops that leave bare soil exposed to increasingly intense weather events.

With so much of New England's hilly, stony terrain unsuitable for conventional tillage, the holistic grazing model that the Doughertys promote in this book will play an increasing role in restoring our agricultural landscape while meeting the growing demand for locally and humanely produced food. But this is not primarily a book of philosophy. "The Independent Farmstead" is rich with valuable information for anyone looking to revitalize a landscape with animals, including beef and dairy cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, each species with its unique function. From finding land, laying out paddocks and pastures, and managing water and fencing, to butchering and cheesemaking, the authors share their wealth of knowledge in an accessible and often humorous way. This is not to say that this or any other book can provide a concise prescription of how it is done. The authors are the first to admit that each situation will yield its own best solutions, but their wise counsel will instill confidence and set the aspiring homesteader or local market grower on the right track.

– Scott Vlaun, Executive Director, Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, Otisfield, Maine


Ted's Greenhouse – Creating a Four-Season Passive Solar Greenhouse From the Ground Up
by Ted Keller and Peggy Hamill
Pale Green Jade Press, New Mexico, 2017
108 pages, paperback, $18.50 (shipping included) within the United States by sending a check to Peggy Hamill, 40 Camino a Realidad, El Prado, NM 87529. Also available on Amazon and Kindle. All book profits are donated to Taos food pantries.

Ted Keller and Peggy Hamill moved from Maine to Taos, New Mexico, in 2008. There they designed and built a 484-square-foot greenhouse that has served them well in their climate, which, they say, is much sunnier than Maine and somewhat warmer, but at 7,000 feet they do have a real winter. Their frost-free dates are similar to those they experienced in Maine. In fact, the severity of the Taos climate – the strong winds, hot sun, cold nights – and hungry gophers prompted them to build their greenhouse so that they could grow the food they had been accustomed to growing for themselves and their friends and neighbors.

Keller built a beautiful freestanding structure – a gable-roof-shaped building with an entryway – with an insulated foundation, redwood frame, polycarbonate panels, and, for heat storage, bricks, concrete pavers and cinder blocks. Planting beds are in the ground. Keller and Hamill designed the greenhouse themselves, and they share their detailed construction plans, with valuable discussion points, in their book.

"The design is not the most inexpensive greenhouse available," they say. Their budget shows a total cost of $18,000 for materials purchased in their area in 2012-2013 and for electrical labor (Keller provided all other labor). That cost, however, does "add an ability to hold heat, sturdiness, convenience, durability, great sunlight, ease of ventilation, and an automation that allows us to travel. We are confident that this building will last for a good many years. Spending a little more also allows for aesthetic appeal. Our visitors describe the building as elegant."

In addition to sharing the building design, the authors also share information on products – vents, fans, thermostats, etc. – that have or have not worked for them.

– Jean English


Karl, Get Out of the Garden!
by Anita Sanchez
Illustrated by Catherine Stock
Charlesbridge, 2017
48 pages, hardcover, $17.99

Here's a delightful book for children ages 7-10 about the life and work (i.e., fun) of Carolus Linnaeus. A poor student who was bored in school, Linnaeus was happiest outdoors – including in his parents' garden – and he always wanted to know the names of plants and animals. Sanchez writes that his parents hoped he would become a scholar, lawyer, minister or shoemaker. Fortunately for science, one of his teachers who noted his love of plants suggested that he become a doctor, using plants as medicine. The rest is nomenclature … and Sanchez describes how Linnaeus traveled and studied and named things, sometimes fighting with the scientific establishment – and naming a foul-smelling weed after one such "idiot and fool." The writing and illustrations are wonderful – just right for a young child who is as curious about nature as was Linnaeus.

– Jean English