Always The Dirtiest Book On My Shelf


Damrosch Workman Publishing has just released The Garden Primer: The Completely Revised Gardener’s Bible. It is, as you may have gathered from the title, the completely revised edition of Barbara Damrosch’s classic 20 year-old how-to book. 

Fortunately, it’s not completely revised. It is still one of those rare things in life that is simply better than it needs to be, like the Lindt 70% cocoa bars I buy in the supermarket or my son’s fourth grade teacher. Damrosch’s book is more personal, warm, and literate than we have any right to expect from a how-to, and I love her for it.

In fact, I’ve given away at least ten copies of the original version of this book to friends–apparently, all my copies, so forgive me if the one comparison I want to make with the old version is just a fiction of a faulty memory. However, there is a humbler tone now than I remember in the 1988 edition. The section that discusses pests and diseases ends with an eloquent plea for the interdependence of all life and the limits of our knowledge:

My own philosophy is that most of the time I can’t predict what the outcome of my manipulation of the natural world will be, because that world is so complex.  So although I might regulate this or that aspect of it, I try to do the very minimum and avoid any measures I fear might be harmful. I don’t try to be a perfect gardener; I don’t always judge my success by the number of flowers on a plant or the size of a fruit.

Amen.  We gardeners have come a long way from arguing that because rotenone is organic, we can powder the joint with it with impunity.

The best part of the book is still its sections on fruits and vegetables.  Damrosch stretches for comprehensiveness by including information on perennials, shrubs, trees, and even houseplants, but she doesn’t pretend to love all her children equally: "Even as a veteran rose-sniffing, tree-hugging grower of ornamental plants, if I had to choose between growing food and growing flowers, food would win." A woman after my own heart.

For years, I never planted my vegetable garden in spring without dragging a dirty copy of The Garden Primer into the garden with me to remind me that beans like acid soil.  Superbly well-organized, vegetable by vegetable, the essential information about sowing, growing, and harvesting is all here.

Here is what the book is not: a primer. While this is the best possible reference for beginners, it is not the book to persuade the timid to begin gardening. For one thing, it is 820 pages, including the index.  Though Damrosch’s writing is delightful page by page, the sheer volume of advice might convince the less-than-committed to take up scrapbooking instead.

And the book still includes a diagram for double-digging–I’ll leave it up to Elizabeth to explain what is so horribly wrong about that–and two of those insane perennial bloom-time spreadsheets. It’s just not nice to frighten the young ones that way.

Still, these are minor quibbles with that rare gardening book that I still pick up after 20 years and enjoy immensely every time I do. I certainly hope that Susan Harris, who will be planting her first vegetable garden this spring, has a copy on hand. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to give mine away for the 11th time.


  1. I’ll definitely be getting a copy. I bought my first copy of Damrosch’s “Garden Primer” used at a garage sale when I first started gardening. I still have it, but it’s a little worse for wear.

  2. Never fear, Michele, my used-from-Amazon copy is already dirty. I love the veggie-specific pages, too, but I still have questions. Like how EXACTLY do you get those teeny-tiny seeds 1/8 or 1/2 inch below the soil?
    I need a damn video. Barbara, how about it?

  3. Amen, sister! I have always enjoyed Damrosch’s take on things, especially her “just think like a plant” and all will be well. Her vegetable mantra is also helpful: some for the pests, most for my household…we should all be so generous.

  4. @ Michele: For the tiny seeds there are a couple tricks. Firstoff, much like cooking, I’ve found seed planting to not be an exacting science.

    For the larger tiny seeds who need to be 1/4 inch deep, I have my handy-dandy tiny seed sower doohicky. It’s like a giant hypodermic with a little plunger for a needle, if that makes sense.

    The other thing I do is sprinkle/place the seeds where I want them, and then comb the soil over them (or sprinkle some soil on top). It seems to work pretty well for me doing it this way.

    I’m sure there are other methods- but I figured I’d share mine!

  5. I own the original, and yes, my copy is soiled also. I double dug my first garden. What a nightmare, and now we know it’s not good for the soil, earthworms, etc. Ah well, you can tell gardening is good for you. Look how good she looks.~~Dee

  6. Doe’s anybody remember Gardening Naturally on the Learning Channel from the 1990’s? It was one of my favorite gardening shows. I didn’t know there was a book by Barbara until this site. 800 pages, really? Awesome! This old gardener loves reading about gardening so will get this book.
    This couple should be on TV again

  7. Susan–it is hard to go wrong with favas, provided you plant them early. Here, the space between winter and summer–the period in which favas want to grow–is approximately three days–so my plants tend to yield 2 delicious meals before they burn up in the heat, getting diseased and blackened. But if I don’t lose patience and yank them all out, I might get another two meals in fall.

    Beans are really, really easy! Don’t sweat it! I’ll bet yours do fine!

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