Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: Soil Mates, by Sara Alway

NOTE: The publisher has agreed to send a FREE copy of Soil Mates to a lucky PATSP reader in the U.S. or Canada.1 (Unlucky readers, as always, will have to fend for themselves.) Details about how to enter and how the winner will be chosen are at the end of the post.

ALSO: I received a free copy of this book with the understanding that I would write an honest review of it, which I'm fairly confident that I have done. I'm not saying that I have so much integrity I could never be bought, just that I have more than $17 worth of integrity.

Initially, when I first got my copy of Soil Mates, I was sort of disappointed: at only 127 pages long, it didn't seem like there could be that much in it. I mean, people do write much longer books about vegetable gardening. Maybe important information was being left out? But now that I've read it, I'm less bothered by that: it seems fairly complete to me. I'm not the best judge, I suppose, this being out of my area of expertise, but I was at least left without many lingering practical questions, and I wound up being fairly impressed with the information density Alway achieved. As for the accuracy, well, I read as many other people's reviews of Soil Mates as I could find to try to figure that one out, which I'll talk about later.

The book's shtick2 is, it presents the reader with twenty pairs of good companion plants (plants which grow well near one another), and talks about how one would plant them together (spacing, when to start, what kind of soil preparation for the pair, what other plants would also work well with one or the other of the plants, etc.). The tone is very non-technical and light, partly because the plants are anthropomorphized as romantic pairs. Consequently, instead of alternate pairings for the plants she discusses, Alway talks about "Love Triangles," and instead of talking about plants that don't do well near members of the pair being discussed, she talks about "Turn-Offs." Some reviewers thought this a little too cutesy, and occasionally confusing, which I suppose I can understand -- if it's not your thing, then it's not your thing -- but I can't say I ever felt like I was having a hard time keeping it all straight.

Though I have a famously high tolerance for plant anthropomorphizing, so maybe that's why.

In any case, even the critical reviews3 don't seem to have a problem with the accuracy of the information. A few people would have liked there to be more information,4 and I'll admit that I would have liked to see the science behind companion planting addressed a little more forcefully. Alway does often include some justification for pairing plants up, and sometimes the reasons provided are fact-based, like one plant attracts bugs which would bother the other plant,5 or tall plants can shade more delicate, low-growing plants from intense midday sun, but sometimes there's no explanation. I was more bothered by the way she doesn't discuss the degree to which companion planting actually matters. (If I plant tomatoes and brussels sprouts next to one another, will they all die? Will they just produce a lower yield than if they'd been further apart? How much lower? How necessary is it, in a normal year, to have some dill near the cabbage? Etc.)

It didn't bother me a lot, and it's an enjoyable read anyway, but yes, I did wonder about the whys and hows from time to time, and those aren't consistently addressed. I also occasionally found myself wondering how Alway knows this stuff in the first place, because she never says specifically that she's tried lots of different arrangements and this one is the best; she never cites other books or scientific research; she doesn't talk about getting out the Ouija board and contacting the spirit of Cleopatra for corn-growing advice. (Not that Cleopatra would know anyway, corn being unknown to Egypt during her lifetime, but one might pick things up in the afterlife, just from talking to people or whatever. Or maybe Cleopatra likes making things up to mess with people.) The source doesn't matter if what she's saying is true, and the other reviewers didn't raise objections about the accuracy, so I assume it is good information being presented here, but I do kind of like to know where it's all coming from, so I know how seriously to take it. So that's a bit of a quibble.

On the other hand, at the end of each pair's section, Alway gives a (usually vegetarian6) recipe in which both vegetables are used. This is simple and yet kinda brilliant. I think every review I read agreed that the recipes were a good idea. I don't actually like to cook, or even really aspire to like to cook, but there's a practicality to including the recipes that I suspect encourages readers to go forward with planning and planting a garden, and that's kind of awesome.

The last section of the book goes over basic garden concepts -- fertilizer, starting plants from seed, composting, pests -- and seemed reasonably solid, based on what I know about vegetable gardening. (In fact, one of the more surprising things about the book, to me, was how much of it was sort of familiar. Apparently I've picked up more from working at the garden center, reading blogs, and reading the comments readers leave here at PATSP, than I thought I had.)

I don't think I have any actual complaints about Soil Mates. It's not a book for advanced vegetable gardeners, but advanced vegetable gardeners don't need books to know what they're doing anyway. Some of the advanced gardeners who wrote reviews criticizing the light tone and anthropomorphization were, I think, maybe failing to take into account how complicated new subjects can seem when you're first starting out, and how much less intimidating a casual, put-this-here-put-that-there approach can make learning.

Not all beginning vegetable gardeners are going to like Soil Mates either; some people do have more of a just-the-facts style to them, and there are already books for them so they should just go read those. Also potentially problematic: the Soil Mates emphasis on relationships and feelings and such might be distressing to younger American men of anxious or insecure masculinity.7 It's not an especially manly book. (No cigar-chomping sunflower mows down a field of borage with an AK-47 because of a drug deal gone wrong; we don't see a grim-faced pepper walking in slow motion away from an explosion.8, 9)

So, upshot: I thought it was fun and interesting read, and pretty close to the technical level I need, as someone with very little veggie-gardening experience. If you regularly read PATSP, you'll probably like Soil Mates' style just fine, and will find it reasonably entertaining. Whether you find it useful or not will depend mostly on how much experience you already have with growing your own food and, to a lesser degree, how much help you need finding recipes for the stuff you grow.

TO WIN A COPY OF SOIL MATES: Leave a comment which includes an e-mail address at which you can be reached.10 Deadline for entry is Monday, February 7, at 7 PM CST. A winner will be chosen at random from the eligible comments, and will be announced and notified by 9 PM CST.

UPDATE: The winner, by random drawing (you'll just have to trust me that it was random), is Emily.

1 (Sorry, rest of the world.)
2 Not to malign the idea by calling it a shtick; shticks aren't necessarily bad.
3 Other reviewers have mentioned that the book appears to owe an unacknowledged debt to Louise Riotte's book Carrots Love Tomatoes, a book I haven't read, but which is famous enough that I've heard of it. I don't know whether that's a fair criticism myself, but by all accounts the style of Soil Mates is substantially different from Carrots Love Tomatoes, and Soil Mates has a much narrower focus, so they're definitely not the same book, even if there's information overlap.
4 E.g.:
"Statements are made maybe in jest that have little substance and are just not useful to the gardener who is reading the book, keen to learn. 'Cucumber dislikes Potato, with her bulbous figure and staring eyes'. Whilst some will find this amusing, this is fictional and I have learnt nothing."
This is . . . well, not untrue, but I'm not sure it's a fair criticism, either, because you know from the first page that there's some heavy anthropomorphization ahead. Criticizing Soil Mates for not being fact-dense and having a light tone is a bit like criticizing "Teletubbies" for not discussing different methods of birth control.a You knew it wasn't going to be all graphs and footnotes when you started reading it.
     a Though I suppose "Teletubbies" is a moderately effective form of birth control unto itself. (Are they still making that, or have the kids moved on to something else now? Did Tinky Winky ever get a boyfriend?)
5 Though I'm sort of confused about why it's a good idea to be attracting and feeding pests on purpose. I mean, I get it -- you want to make sure they won't bother the crop you really want, so you grow something else that the bugs like more -- but there's just something wrong-seeming about going out of one's way to feed pest insects. That doesn't really work indoors; obviously there's a perspective problem here somewhere.
6 Not vegan: most of them involve butter, milk, or cheese at some point. But plenty of them are vegan, and those that aren't can be tweaked, if that matters to you.
7 Which is to say most of them.
8 Perhaps in the sequel? Sara Alway: call me.
9 Not that it's a hundred pages of Tomato, Cabbage, Nasturtium, and Sweet Potato sitting around drinking ginger-apple-cosmotinipolitans while talking about the latest Prada line and their biological clocks, either ("Thinking about my relationship with Summer Savory is making me so depressed, guys. Let's go shoe-shopping. . . . In Europe!"), but it's a bit closer to that than it is to "Radish: First Blood, Part II," and it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.
10 If you want, you can disguise your address to prevent its capture by spambots, as in the following examples:
  • "moc.loa@evitcnujbusrm" backwards,
  • "zefhowhapgvir@nby.pbz" in Rot13,
  • "" without the three "k"s, etc.
Just make sure to disguise it in a way that's simple enough that I'll be able to decipher it. Or take your chances with the spambots. Whatever.


Mae said...

Ooo oo! I want to enter to win! amanda (dot) hallows (at)

By the way, THANK YOU for mentioning that maize wasn't in Egypt during Cleopatra's time. That snagged me until I read your footnote. I ordered an "authentic" gyro from Pita Pit once and the guy put green peppers on it. I gave him an autistic lecture on how that made the gyro non-authentic. Yeah, I'm a dork.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I've never heard of this book, nor seen it anywhere, actually. But maybe that's because I haven't been looking for this type of book. In any case, I'll add my email here and see what happens.

Paul said...

As a cook and companion planter, I'm compelled by the recipes and emphasis on companions/bad companions. That REALLY does work in most cases (or, not-work in the case of mature fennel, who's kind of an as$hole.)

No gardening or soil book is legit without compost details, too. Sounds like a win.

Pat said...

Rest of the world weeping into our ginger-apple-cosmotinipolitans.

Can't wait for Soil Mates II: Veg Revenge. Perhaps that could deal with biological controls? They can be the sort of gruesome men love.

I recently learnt of an interesting superscientific companion planting devised for use in Africa against both the corn borer and Striga. Amongst the maize you plant a species of Desmodium which gives off a chemical into the air that is the same as a plant already heavily infected with corn borers. The roots give out a chemical that makes Striga seeds germinate but stops them growing properly so they can't parasitise the roots of the corn and the Striga just dies. The Desmodium is in the pea family so also fixes nitrogen.

Around each plot of corn you plant another large grass, Napier grass (that can be harvested as fuel or compost), that attracts the corn borers more than the corn does. However this grass kills most of the corn borers that try to eat it.

This is called the push-pull method and more info can be found here.

Excellent review, only slightly less hilarious than when you are tearing into a bad book. Glad to hear your integrity is worth more than $17 :0)

Pat said...

Here is a more colourful leaflet on the push-pull system.

rameen said...

Sometimes I'm lucky. This may or may not have anything to do with random chance of winning a book.

Kenneth Moore said...

Heh, I agree with Pat--I would very much enjoy the sequel that you yourself write, but the Hothouse Flower review was funnier, although possibly because I had also read that book.

I am not entering the contest, FYI--I already have plenty of such books. Might as well have a new gardener win!

mr_subjunctive said...


"Authentic" is a very slippery word.

Kenneth Moore:

Well, we should all remember that Hothouse Flower was a very special event, and is unlikely to be repeated. As proud of it as I am now, it was incredibly painful to write, and I sort of hope never to go through that again.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of information I always found interesting when it was presented on T.V. shows like Victory Garden. Thanks for the review. (take out the extra z's)

Joseph said...

If I may weigh on with my scientific opinion, I have, over the years, looked high and low for good scientific studies to support companion planting lore, and there is almost nothing to be found. A few specific examples here and there (trap crops, crop rotation in general, black walnut hate everything, sunflowers hate grass) but as far as I can tell, the vast majority of these "carrots love tomatoes" stories are just that: stories. Possibly stories with some truth to them, but still unconfirmed stories.

Mae said...

Authentic is indeed a slippery word, especially when you're buying a pita from The Pita Pit! That's like expecting authentic Mexican from Taco Bell! ;-)

Emily said...

I'll enter: qazthorn (at)

Anonymous said...

Soil Mates - Great title!

Calum Macintyre said...

This would be great! I'm a bit fuzzy on vegetables.

Anonymous said...

I need that book for free.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book giveaway.

Unknown said...

Oops--must leave email address. Thanks for the book giveaway. without t's.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like something I need to read! Thanks for the giveaway, and the amusing writing. This is the first time I've stumbled across your blog, and I enjoyed it - I'll be back!

Take out all the z's:


prettyPeas said...

I hate romance, but love vegetable gardening and companion plantings. So I'm in. Plus, I'm originally from Iowa, just in case this isn't random.