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To become a better gardener, start by being a curious gardener


I read most of Lee Reich’s book The Ever Curious Gardener in an unlikely place: on a Florida beach with my toes in the sand. I think Lee would be the first to tell you his book is not your typical beach read but there I was, in between dips in a very warm gulf, obsessing about how I must have espalier currants in my life (page 98, in case you were wondering). 

The tutorial on how to grow espalier currants is a small part in a book of small parts. The Ever Curious Gardener is a vast collection of a bit of information a wide variety of gardening topics, each well-researched, science-based and practiced by the author, who has a doctorate in horticulture.

the ever curious gardenerBut never fear, The Ever Curious Gardener is not laden with highly technical scientific journal-type language. Reich’s writing style is approachable but not pandering, a skill he’s developed writing countless gardening articles for general audiences for publications including the New York Times and for gardeners in magazines including Fine Gardening and Horticulture.

“My goal was always to translate science in way that understandable and useful,” Reich said.”

If I can’t be gardening there are few things that I enjoy more than chatting about gardening, or, I’ve discovered, reading about gardening on a beach. The latter having been accomplished, I chatted with Reich about the book, his garden (which he calls a “farmden” in zone 5 New York) and so much more.

The book, Reich said, is the product of a belief that “if you learn a little, you grow better.” In other words, you don’t need to have a doctorate in horticulture, you just need a bit of knowledge to make a big change in how successful you are at gardening.

lee reich vegetable garden
Lee Reich’s high-production garden owes its success to his science-based gardening know how and a whole lot of compost. Lee Reich photo

That belief had always been there, but the inspiration for the book first struck when Reich was making compost.

“I was making compost and I was thinking about what I added and how added it and I became more conscious of this,” he said. 

Reich makes good compost and a lot of it, he said, but it’s not an overly complicated process. He has 12 bins (he wasn’t lying about make a lot of it), each of which make about 1.5 cubic yards of compost. 

Everything that possibly can go in the compost does—grass clippings, all spent vegetables, kitchen trimmings, everything taken out of the garden, and even old clothing, shoes and leather gloves. “To bury something in the landfill is really disrespectful,” he said.

He rations things out in each pile, adds a bit of soil, waters carefully, turns the piles once, and watches as things heat up to a toasty 150 degrees or so and in a year to a 18 months he has finished compost (the entire process notated on a chart he keeps). 

how to make great compost
Reigh uses a sprinkler to slowly water his compost bins to keep them at the right moisture level. Lee Reich photo

Reich doesn’t keep any vegetative matter out of the compost, including diseased plants. 

“For decades I have thrown everything in there,” he said. “With enough time and temperature everything will be OK.”

Lee Reich

A prolific writer—this latest work is his seventh book—Reich also does a lot of speaking and many of the questions that are frequently asked during these talks are addressed in The Ever Curious Gardener. 

A few of these fall in the debunking myths category, things like mulch robbing soil of nitrogen (only if you dig it into the soil, but not if it’s layered on top) and adding gravel to the bottom of containers to increase drainage (it does the opposite by creating a perched water table). But more than anything, gardeners often complicate things unnecessarily.

“There are so many products out there that I think people feel they have to use them,” he said. 

And it can be hard to look objectively at what works in your own garden.

“If you grow a plant you tend to look upon it with more affection,” he explained.

This “halo effect” might explain why you may think the pears from your old pear tree taste absolutely delicious but none of your friends seem to agree. 

“It helps to step back and realize that’s going on,” Reich said.

And that’s a big part of what The Ever Curious Gardener offers: a look at why we should do things in the garden, making gardening less about trial and error and more about success.

Check out Reich’s website, which includes a very interesting blog, as well as his Facebook page. And you can pick up The Ever Curious Gardener here (that’s an affiliate link) or any of his books through his website.


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