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Ginger Dawson: The Intrepid Urban Farmer is a self-taught gardener, advises starting with a gardening library

I am a self-taught gardener. Now, you would think that since I grew up on an Ohio farm, I would have some foundation of knowledge about gardening. I sort of thought I did too. I was around it–my Grandfather had a magnificent vegetable garden every summer. He was a school teacher and lived in town. He had a small garden behind his house there, but the main event was out at our place in the country. This garden was enormous, and a thing of beauty.

Every Spring and Summer, I would wake up and look out the window down at the garden. Grandpa was already out there at it, taking advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. He was almost always ready to leave by the time I rallied for the day.

Generally, after he was gone, I would make my daily inspection of the garden, usually alone. There was always some vegetable ready to pick and eat. It was standard to pull up a carrot or radish, knock off the dirt, and eat it. I attribute my healthy constitution to this practice. Take note kids and parents— If you want to be healthy, you’ve got to eat a little dirt!


I gave little thought to the work and process that my Grandfather put into his gardening endeavors. Eating the results was good enough for me. Unfortunately, simply eating a vegetable does not teach you much about it’s life secrets. If only it was that simple. And why can’t it be?

There have been accounts of psychic phenomena reported of people simply sleeping with a book under their pillow and acquiring all of its knowledge.

Native Americans, in their earliest history, would eat the hearts of their enemies after mortal combat to acquire the bravery that their courageous foes had demonstrated.

Eating carrots won’t teach you a damn thing about gardening.

Years later at around the age of thirty, when I became a homeowner, I decided to have a garden. I took it for granted that if I just plugged a few plants and seeds in the ground, it would do its thing and I would have vegetables. Of course, my first couple of gardens were awful. For several years, slow progress was made. SLOW progress. I seemed to be determined to do it, but not determined enough to do it well. You’ve no doubt heard the proverb, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. I was raised with this expression, and as these words nibbled away at my conscience, I determined that I had a character flaw that had to change.

I had a lot to learn, so I began a gardening library.


I did have one book, “The Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening”. I’d had it for a few years and I had obviously paid no attention to it. It was no doubt due to a bad attitude I had picked up after hearing that “The Reader’s Digest” was not a serious resource for any “serious” reader. I had a snob attitude. Now THAT is funny. I picked it up and started to look at it. A little. But, I had questions that this book couldn’t answer. I needed more resource material.

The gardening quest for knowledge began. I started looking in bookstores and the library. Now, you must remember, the internet and it’s treasure trove of dilettante’s information was still a few years away.

I picked up current books (meaning current at the time) over the years and also found many much older books in antique malls. I decided to not use the library after awhile because I would have a question come up, remember that I had come across the answer to it SOMEWHERE, and realize that I no longer had that book at my disposal.

I have a somewhat fluid way of learning things, so a personal library works best for me. You may have a different method. Whatever works, I say.

By this time, I have roughly fifteen to twenty books, and five or six that I reference quite often. I transcended my bias toward the internet (another “Reader’s Digest” attitude?), and have found some very good information there too. When I have a question come up and I’m looking for a solution, I use it all. When I find something valuable out there in the ether, er…cloud(?), er.. internet(!), I print it off and keep it in a ring binder for future reference.

Most of my “go-to” books are general reference garden books. A couple of favorites are “The Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Book”, by Felder Rushing and Walter Reeves, and “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” by Edward C. Smith. I can recommend both of these. The “Bible” in particular is a great fount of wisdom, hence the name. After I read this book, epiphanies abounded and my gardening efforts were born again! I’m kidding. I do have holy tomatoes now, though. Ok, ok, I’ll stop.


The one indispensable book that I have is quite specific in its subject matter. “Garden Insects of North America” by Whitney Cranshaw is very good. I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I love that fact that I can look up bugs and figure out what to do about them, and hate the fact that I have to do it at all.

I am always on the lookout for new books. I never know when I will run across a good one. My most recent acquisition is “Garden Wisdom & Know-How” from the editors of Rodale Gardening Books. I already have “The Rodale Book of Composting”. It is a geek’s wonder of information about composting (are you bored yet?). I have high hopes for this one. I haven’t had time to really give it a serious once over, but it looks promising.

Go ahead and start getting your library compiled. But please realize that you are going to have to READ the books and not just sleep with them under your pillow. It doesn’t work. I’ve already tried it.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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