Q&A with Carol Deppe, Author of “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening”

By Shelley Pierce | November 20, 2016
by Shelley Pierce
November 20, 2016

Oregon plant breeder Carol Deppe, author of The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, holds a PhD in biology from Harvard University and specializes in developing public-domain crops for organic growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, and human survival for the next thousand years. Carol is author of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (Chelsea Green, 2010), Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, 2nd ed. (Chelsea Green, 2000), Tao Te Ching: A Window to the Tao through the Words of Lao Tzu (Fertile Valley Publishing, 2010), and Taoist Stories (Fertile Valley Publishing, 2014).

In her latest book, “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening“, Carol Deppe explores the practical methods as well as the deeper essence of gardening, focusing on some of the most popular home garden vegetables””tomatoes, green beans, peas, and leafy greens””and through them illustrates the key principles and practices that gardeners need to know to successfully plant and grow just about any food crop.   Read on for more information about this book and find out how to win a copy from Chelsea Green Publishing!

Q: What is the Tao of gardening? How have you drawn together the best of ancient wisdom and traditional crops?

A: The word Tao includes the concepts of way, path, method, subject, art, science, force, Spirit, God, power and essence. The Tao for gardening means going with the flow, rolling with the punches. I think most experienced gardeners have got a good bit of Tao in them. If the weather isn’t good for tomatoes, well, it’s great for cabbages.

Q: What is an eat-all greens garden and how does your book help us join the eat-all greens garden revolution?

A: It turns out that some greens grow so fast that if you sow them in beds at the right density, then grow them to a foot or a foot and a half high in two months or less-with the right variety, the entire plant will be succulent. This is an “Eat-All Green.” You can clear-cut the whole patch about 3 or 4 inches above the ground, and produce huge amounts of food this way. The caveats are that the crop and the specific variety has to grow very fast, and be able to shade out any weeds, and when they’re grown in that density the entire stem needs to stay succulent. It’s all edible, and all weed-free.

My first eat-all greens garden came about mostly by accident. At the time I had only three small garden beds, and was never able to grow as many greens as I wanted with my tiny garden. One spring I had a large pile of compost delivered and dumped on the concrete driveway. I wasn’t going to need the compost for a couple of months, or the driveway. If the compost was spread on the driveway, I thought, it would almost double my gardening space”¦at least for that couple of months. I decided to try it. Since it was mid-March, a full two months before our average last freeze in spring, I needed something that could handle freezes and grow fast in cool weather. And I craved greens above all else. So I chose ‘Green Wave’ mustard.

A few minutes of work with a hoe gave me a shallow bed of compost about six inches deep. It was the work of another three minutes to sprinkle the seeds on the newly formed bed and to bounce a leaf rake across the bed lightly to disturb the surface of the bed enough to cover the seeds. That was it. I never weeded. And since we get regular rains in early spring, I never watered either. Once the bed was formed, I did no work at all beyond sowing the seeds and harvesting. And the crop grew in an unusual way that made harvesting and handling in the kitchen much easier and faster: the central stems and all the leaves were all succulent and prime, and the yield much higher than I had ever experienced growing any greens.

After that, of course, I tried to repeat the experience. To no avail initially. It was a few years before I could successfully repeat that first eat-all ‘Green Wave’ mustard patch reliably. And it was the work of another two decades of testing many varieties of different greens crops before I developed a repertoire of, at this point, eleven different basic greens crops from five plant families that work as eat-all greens crops.

Q: Why is a personal seed bank important and how does your book guide us in the process of creating one?

A: A DIY seedbank is simply your own frozen stash of seeds set aside for long-term storage. The seeds can be seeds you saved yourself or seeds you bought. But they should be open-pollinated varieties that you are familiar with that perform well in your region. Your stash can save you money by letting you buy seed in bigger amounts less frequently. Its main role, though, is to mitigate against disasters large and small.

Seed banks are important because they can be used when a disaster occurs. There are two basic types of DIY seed banks for this. The first is oriented toward the smaller routine disasters. It contains all the varieties you usually grow in amounts sufficient to cover what you need for three years or more of ordinary gardening. If your favorite variety is dropped or screwed up by the commercial trade, for example, or if you find yourself cash-strapped at planting time, you use your stashed seed and save seed yourself to replace it.

The second type of seed bank focuses on dealing with bigger disasters in which your neighborhood or region might need to grow much more of its own food. It assumes that you will be growing a larger garden than you are now, and may also need to provide seed for others in your community as they turn lawns and fields into gardens. For this, you need larger amounts of seed of your ordinary crops, but especially lots more seed of staples””crops such as field corn, dry beans, winter squash, and others that provide storable carbohydrate and protein.

Q: Gardening books usually focus on doing. Your book, however, espouses the concept of “non-doing”. What does this exactly mean and why is it important?

A: There are three reasons to do something: It is the right thing to do, it is the right time to do it, and you are the right person to do it. Usually, it isn’t, it isn’t, or you aren’t. And you’re right; gardening books and magazines do usually focus on doing. They report the positive””things that worked at least once for someone somewhere on the planet. That is only part of the story. We gardeners are an inventive lot. We are capable of thinking of lots of other things to try that we have never seen anybody do or write about. Many of these other things have undoubtedly been tried repeatedly by gardeners in many times and places, and have failed to work for every single person who tried them. For everything that at least sometimes works, there are many-fold other things that never work. I have discovered quite a lot of these.
I think we have a hard-wired bias toward intervention. So we usually try to solve problems by doing something, even where doing nothing might be the best option. We often don’t give the problem any chance to resolve by itself without our intervention (and added work).

Q: What brings you the most joy when it comes to gardening?

A: I love just walking around the garden after the work is done and noticing things. I enjoy the meditative states that can arise spontaneously when doing the actual work. I love lounging in a lawn chair overlooking the garden after a good session of gardening, swigging sips of water, content, perfectly pleasantly tired. I delight in the produce itself. That first homegrown heirloom tomato in spring. A bowlful of sugar pod peas eaten with bits of cheese and a glass of wine. Spectacularly flavorful cornbread and polenta made from varieties I bred myself specifically for those fantastic flavors.

But even more than what the garden produces I enjoy how the garden shapes who I am. When I garden I become patient, optimistic. I get regular purposeful exercise. I eat a large variety of delicious foods I grow and prepare with my own hands. I notice everything, accept everything, use everything that comes my way, feel the birth and ebb and flow of everything. I am part of the pattern. I am a natural creature, as aware of the plants, soil, wind, and weather as any natural thing. I am fully connected to the land of my living.

WIN A COPY OF The Tao of Vegetable Gardening!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Thursday, November 24, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What brings you the most joy when it comes to gardening?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)

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