Will Bonsall has farmed in Maine for over 40 years and subscribes to the ethos of self-sufficiency. His new book Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening is funny, intelligent, informative, educational, and offers readers in-depth information on growing, harvesting, and processing an incredibly diverse variety of food crops. The author describes the book as “a broad mix of grand vision and detailed practices—sort of a how-to and why-to” in the pursuit of sustainable living.
Bonsall’s many life experiences as prospector, gravedigger, musician, and artist, among others, have contributed to his philosophy and desire to raise awareness of the practicalities and rewards of subsistence farming. He published his first book Through the Eyes of a Stranger in 2010, an eco-novel set in a sustainable society of the future, Esperia, and referred to in his latest book as “a vision of a Land of Hope.” Bonsall also founded the Scatterseed Project in order to preserve the genetic diversity of many endangered crops. Nationally and even internationally, Will Bonsall is known as one of the foremost seed curators.
In this Guide, Bonsall describes living in the present whilst looking to the future. Over the last four decades, through trial and error, he has found a formula for self-sufficiency. He chooses not to raise livestock, believing that the effort to grow the animals food as opposed to buying it far outweighs the benefits. The farm concentrates on growing plants, grains, fruits, and vegetables with Bonsall stating, “my goal is not to feed the world but to feed myself and to let others feed themselves.” He keeps his use of petroleum products to an absolute minimum.
Contained in 400 pages, there are chapters on composting, land management, seed propagation, crop growing, and using the harvest—all of which are explained in understandable terms and with a sense of humor. The odd (and some of them are very odd) scientific or historical nugget is thrown in for good measure.
Bonsall’s approach is a welcome mix of passionate advocacy and nitty-gritty detail. For example, on the philosophy of soil fertility, he is a devotee of the “cover-the-earth process”, eschewing (no surprise) synthetic fertilizers. He compellingly describes a system of composting and mulching based on wastes from the homestead, garden, and nearby forest. There are diagrams on how to build compost bins and what to put in them. The section on composting humanure advises the reader how to utilize this valuable resource and which plants might actually benefit from its use—corn and squash are great choices. His work with forest-based fertilizers may inspire the home gardener to really think differently about soil.
Half of the Guide is devoted to growing practices, including those for uncommon vegetables and other crops, arranged in natural groupings. Within these sections, the reader finds invaluable practical information on such topics as planting, spacing and the characteristics of individual particular varieties, including tips on selecting complementary early and late cultivars for a full harvest season.
Sweet corn gets another mention as “one of the least eco-efficient plant foods.” However, the variety “Baxter” is, in Bonsall’s opinion “for those who remember and crave the taste of real corn,” and he details the process of companion planting edamame and undersowing ladino clover to correct the soil nutrients that corn depletes.
Bonsall includes “how-tos” on building a stone wall, improving drains and ditches, better land management, and leaving a smaller footprint whilst farming. He has built over 30 terraces on his property in order to prevent erosion and increase the percentage of flat growing areas, and there are detailed instructions on the stonework and tools required.
In a photographic appendix to his book, Bonsall provides detailed information on the more traditional farming implements he uses, typically sourced from auctions and barn sales. Bonsall’s dedication and enthusiasm to the Esperian premise of each household being responsible for producing its own staple foods comes across loud and clear.
Whether you are a seasoned farmer, interested in self-sufficiency, or looking for an informative read, this book contains a wealth of interesting and valuable material.
Reviewed by: Jayne Guitart tends an urban garden with enthusiasm, good intentions, and varying degrees of success. Jayne is a bookseller at Westwinds Bookshop in Duxbury and would be thrilled to get this book into your hands.
Photos/Art Credits the Will Bonsall Collection