Eliot Coleman was organic before organic was cool.

The New Organic Grower

Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower contains loads of information for serious organic vegetable growers.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Monarch butterfly

A balanced organic production system fosters the survival and well-being of numerous insects that are good for your garden.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Compost bin

Composting is a great way to recycle dead plants and food scraps into a rich soil amendment for your organic garden.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

The primary goal of his 1995 book, The New Organic Grower (Chelsea Green Publishing Co.), was to provide information to serious gardeners – so serious that they might want to start growing crops for sale. Even if you have no such aspirations, you’ll find the techniques, tips, tools, ideas and crops that Eliot discusses really translate to serious organic home gardeners as well.

The first few chapters of the book focus on practical business concerns – but from an agricultural production viewpoint. Topics include the land itself and labor concerns, and then Eliot launches into selecting crops to grow, how much to grow and how to sell them after harvest.

His next topic is soil and how to keep it healthy. If you think soil isn’t important, you’ll change your mind by the time you finish this section. His chapter on crop rotation may be the most thorough I’ve ever read. Other chapters include green manures (sometimes called living mulches), tilling methods and improving soil fertility with imported and on-farm fertilizers.

Getting young plants off to a healthy start is Eliot’s next issue. He has some great practical, low-cost ideas on seed starting, making your own pots and setting out transplants.

The author gardens in Zone 5 Maine, so extending the growing season is a big issue for him. To deal with his short season, he uses mobile greenhouses (which may be the greatest idea in this book, in my opinion). Mobile greenhouses are temporary tunnels, shaped like Quonset huts or half-moons, but they’re set on metal tracks, like sliding doors in your house. Why a mobile greenhouse? It’s common for insects and diseases to accumulate in these structures, but it’s very difficult to treat these pests using organic methods. So after the plants have been harvested, the house is rolled down the rails. The pests fly away or are taken care of by natural processes such as wind and rain. Brilliant!

I read this book years ago, but its tenets have stayed with me. I’ve never met Eliot, but I have great respect for the man. He’s a firm believer in the old “knowledge-is-power” adage, so he makes it a point to travel once a month to his local land-grant university library to read the latest research journals and trade publications. That – combined with his years of knowledge and hard work, his easygoing writing style and wealth of ideas – makes The New Organic Grower a great read and an essential reference for anyone serious about organic gardening.