Q&A with Will Bonsall, author of the “Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening”

By Shelley Pierce | February 19, 2017
by Shelley Pierce
February 19, 2017

Will Bonsall has worn many hats since going “back to the land,” including prospector, draftsman, gravedigger, hobo, musician, logger, and artist, among others; however, he considers subsistence farming to be the only true career he ever had. He is the director of the Scatterseed Project, which he founded to help preserve our endangered crop-plant diversity. Will lives and farms in Industry, Maine, with his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, and two sons.  In Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, Bonsall maintains that to achieve real wealth we first need to understand the economy of the land, to realize that things that might make sense economically don’t always make sense ecologically, and vice versa. The marketplace distorts our values, and our modern dependence on petroleum in particular presents a serious barrier to creating a truly sustainable agriculture.  Read on for more information about this Chelsea Green Publishing book and enter to win a copy!

What is your personal definition of self-reliant gardening? Why do you feel it is important we become self-reliant gardeners?

A: “Regular” gardening, even “regular organic” gardening, pays little attention to the real bottom line: where do all these soil-building materials come from and what is their real (ecological) cost. These things are often unaccounted for by the marketplace, but in a truly self-reliant system it’s impossible to ignore the “externalities.”


Q: Your book is the Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening. Why do you consider your methods radical?

A: Mostly for the same reasons I described in the first question: “Usual” organic gardening often comes up with superficial answers altogether too similar to conventional gardening, because it fails to ask the right questions. “Organic” implies an integration of parts, as in an organism, endless circles that we break whenever we simply bring stuff in from away and then, in the case of market gardening, we send the food and its components off to market, whence it ain’t never coming back to the land which begot it.


Q: What makes your book the essential guide to self-reliant gardening?  Tell us about some features that are standout in your book.

A: Actually, the title was not my idea, but the publisher’s. I had called it “Gardens Without Borders” but they preferred this for some good reasons “¦ it says basically the same thing with up-front clarity. Anyway, the “essential” is not meant to imply that you can’t get along without it (though I like to think that as well), but that it looks at the “essence”, the core value of organic, which again is sustainable cycling. Indeed, the focus on self-reliance rather than marketing gets back to the same point: When you’re growing and eating the same stuff without importing or exporting fertility (even our bodily wastes are composted and used), then you cannot fail to see the big picture of how well your system is working; you cannot miss the externalities that are often hidden on the paths to the marketplace. I should point out that my “self-reliance” is not just about mesclun greens and salsa ingredients””we’re talking about grain and pulses and oilseeds and fruit, plus your own seeds and fertilizer. That is also what makes the book radical; I’ve focused on ideas that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, like medlars and amaranth and witloof chicory, and turning rocks from a nuisance into a resource, and building the soil with leaves and chipped brushwood. Even when I don’t have ideal answers, I still try to at least ask the right questions.

In addition to discussions of food GROWING, a section deals with PROCESSING: making your own kraut, pressing oil from pumpkin and melon seeds, milling your own buckwheat flour and making soba noodles, etc., etc.


Q: What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the course of your 40 years growing and eating your own food? 

A: From forty-five years of subsistence gardening I’ve come to the conclusion that growing ALL your own food is difficult, impractical, probably impossible, and perhaps undesirable. We belong to communities where some degrees of specialization and interdependence are very good. But in certain times the ability to be more-than-less self-reliant is vital. It’s good to know how, and that’s what the book tries to offer.


Q: After 40 years, do you still find that self-reliant gardening is very much a constant learning process””what new things have you learned lately?

A: Gardening of ANY kind is a constant learning process, unless you’re just not paying attention. We can’t assume (and shouldn’t expect) that our children will choose to follow us in everything we do””hopefully they’ll do better. As I grow older, I need to rely more on hired labor if I continue to insist on growing all this stuff (which I do””I can’t buy like quality or variety anywhere). When you grow weaker, you must grow smarter.


Q: What advice do you have for those wanting to partake in self-reliant gardening?

A: Buy my book. Read it all. Try it all out. Then take a good look around, see what works for you, throw the book out, and write your own.

WIN A COPY OF “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening“!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, February 26, 2017 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Why is it important for you to become a self-reliant gardener?

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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