Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit: An Illustrated Encyclopedia
by Bob Flowerdew, Jekka McVicar and Matthew Biggs
Published by Laurel Glen
640 pages, 2003
Gardening to Eat
Reviewed by Monica Stark
It's impossible to think about being a beginning gardener and never consulting a book. Not unless you had a flotilla of green thumbed friends and relatives around. But, left to your own devices with a desire to eat at least a little something brought forth from the ground due your own work and diligence, a book -- or 40 -- must at some point be consulted. Publishers know this. It's why so many gardening books reach the market every year. And, again, since so many gardening books are published every year, it's obvious that no one expects us to survey all of the available options and say: That one. That's the only book I'll need to make my garden happen.
These are the things I was thinking about when I first perused Vegetables, Herbs & Fruits: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Bob Flowerdew, Jekka McVicar and Matthew Biggs. It's a very desert island sort of book: the kind that is so all encompassing, so deep with its reserves of information and instruction, it's possible to feel confident enough from the knowledge gleaned in this single large volume to tackle the business of growing many of the foods we eat.
The book is broken into three nearly even parts: one each for vegetables, herbs and fruit. Each part is further broken down to specific plants, the importance of the plant and the variety of uses to which it can be put determining the amount of space devoted to each entry. No species is given less than a full page, nothing is worthy of more than four pages, with the exception of plants with several distinct varieties that can, nonetheless, be planted and prepared for table in the same or similar ways: the section dealing with pumpkins and squash, for example, is six pages long. Arugula, on the other hand, with limited uses, minimal medicinal purposes and straightforward cultivation is given only a single information-packed page.
Each entry begins with a very good photo of the fruit, vegetable or herb in question, along with its Latin name, common name, alternate name and -- briefly -- its nutritional value. This is followed by a few highly informative paragraphs that discusses the highlights of the plant in question. In most cases, this includes a bit of history, a sweeping look at the way the plant can be used and any warnings that might be appropriate. In all cases, these plant summaries perfectly condense everything you need to know into a few sharply written paragraphs. If this was everything included in Vegetables, Herbs & Fruits it would be enough to warrant that the word Encyclopedia be included in the subtitle. It would be enough, even, to make for a very satisfying book: a primer or introduction to the world of vegetables, herbs and fruits. With this particular book, however, it's only the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
Each species also includes a listing of major varieties with a bit of a rundown on the merits and demerits of each. And thus we discover that the Cheltenham Green Top beet "is a tasty, old variety with rough skin and long roots. It stores well." While Barbabietold di Chioggia "is a mild, traditional Italian variety. Sliced it reveals unusual white internal 'rings.' It gives an exotic look to salads, certain to provoke comment. When cooked it becomes pale pink." And so on.
From varieties we go -- quite naturally and appropriately -- to cultivation. Subsections here are determined, of course, by species. But -- still using the section on beets as an example -- we're given a rundown on propagation, growing, maintenance, protected cropping, container growing as well as harvesting and storing,
Next come sections on pests and diseases, companion planting ("Beets flourish in the company of kohlrabi, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, onions, brassicas, and most beans..."), other uses -- with yet another, separate, section on medicinal uses -- and, finally, a warning.
Each entry ends with a completely separate sidebar called "Culinary" that includes one to three recipes using the vegetable, fruit or herb in question.
In case all of this is not enough -- and, for most of us, it will be -- the end chapters deal with practical gardening, a planting calendar, a very good glossary, a section offering up suggestions for further reading (all those gardening books we already talked about) and a resource listing of seed sources.
With 800 color illustrations and photographs, and coverage of close to 300 edible growables, Vegetables, Herbs & Fruits truly is -- as the cover informs us "the definitive sourcebook to growing, harvesting, preserving, and cooking" the things we cultivate to eat. If you were truly looking for a single book that covered all the bases, Vegetables, Herbs & Fruits would get you off to a great start. | May 2003
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.