Book Review - Soil Mates - Companion Planting

Book cover of Soil Mates - Companion Planting by Sara Alway

Soil Mates is a fun, handy book about vegetable growing and companion planting. The physical appearance of the book, with it's hessian like cover, preludes the organic text within.

3 Stars

Publisher: Quirk Books
Published: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59474-445-7

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Foreword by Kelle Carter, Farmer, Southern Roots Farm Market Garden, Colorado.

The foreword emphasises how growing fruit and vegetables is open to everybody, whatever their ability. Kelle Carter talks about how growing your own produce is one of the few remaining simple pleasures in life, in this highly technical, complicated world. As the proprietor of her own market garden, Kelle compliments Sara's book saying 'Even growing on a large scale, the information in this book is relevant and applicable. It provides all the details to grow food in any capacity, and the recipes supply gardeners with delicious and easy ways to eat their work'. 

The foreword encourages you to get out in the garden and grow your own fruit and veg. It emphasizes the importance of making mistakes and learning from them each year, as you become a more experienced and knowledgeable kitchen gardener.

The first section of the book is introductory and entitled 'What is Companion Planting?' It explains the basic principals of companion planting and the benefits to the gardener. For example, the properties that some vegetable plants have that deter pests from their companion plants and the consequent reduced need to use chemical pesticides as a result.

Then the book moves on to the main feature, the 20 pairs of vegetable plants that are 'The Soil Mates'. Each pair has been chosen by Sara Alway because they make ideal companion plants. 

Each pairing of companion plants begins with a light-hearted description of each one. The whole book has a romantic, match-making theme throughout, talking about the plants as if they had just signed up to a dating agency, explaining what they have to offer and why each member of the pair is so right for each other.

The 4 pages dedicated to each pairing are split into different sub-headings

After the description of each plant the 'Love Match' describes why the two plants are suited to each other. For example, they might have the same requirements in terms of soil type or amount of sunlight required.

'My Place or Yours?' describes how to plant each vegetable plant and includes a nicely illustrated diagram, complete with planting distances. Advice is given on the method of growing e.g. planting seedlings or seed sowing. 

The Plant Profiles section follows for each pair, split further  into the following sub sections.

'Turn-ons' describes the things that the plants likes e.g. 'Basil likes to be pinched' and 'Tomato likes to be caged to keep her tasty treats high and dry'. 

'Turn-offs' provides information on what the pair of vegetable plants don't like e.g. the vegetable plants/families that they don't like to mix with. 

'Needy Alert' describes any essential needs of either of the plants in the pairing. E.g. the type of compost required, feeding requirements or amount of watering needed.

'Stalker Alert' states the most common pests that attack the plants. It also gives advice about the beneficial insects that can be attracted to combat the pest and which plants can be planted to attract the beneficial insects. 

'Love Triangles' is a bit over the top, but you have to take it in the light-hearted nature of the book. It describes other plants that either plant in the pairing might prefer to be with and why. E.g. 'Tomato likes to spread her love and is often unfaithful to poor Basil. She admires the tall structure of Asparagus and has an eye for Chives, Onion, Parsley, and Carrot'. 

Each plant pairing concludes with a recipe that uses both of the plants in the pairing. 'Roasted Eggplant spread with Marigold Petals', 'Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Thyme' and 'Spinach and Pepper Couscous Loaf' were amongst the most appealing. The recipes all look healthy, simple and economical. 

The humorous nature of the book goes a bit too far for me. 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. 

With some of the plant pairings, no clear reason is given why the two vegetable plants make good companions. In other examples, a good clear reason is given. E.g. 'Sugary carrot finds well-built onion exceedingly attractive, especially because his bulbous, intimidating rotundity (and repelling scent) is perfect for scaring off her corrosive stalker, the annoying carrot rust fly'. 

There are some occasions where good useful information is given, but it is not expansive enough. 'Fluffy and fragrant, Rosemary is a sought-after lady in the vegetable patch and herb garden alike. Broccoli appreciates her ability to repel his arch-enemy, the cabbage moth, and admires her strong, woody physique'. Reading this, the scientist in me is pleased to learn that Rosemary helps to keep the cabbage moth off broccoli, but I want to know more. Some science explaining what it is in the Rosemary plant that repels the cabbage moth would be really interesting and useful. 

The final section of the book is one of my favourites. Entitled 'Garden Preparation, Planning and Care', this chapter contains a lot of really useful information for the Organic Kitchen Gardener. Whilst there are still subtitles such as 'Is it for keeps or just a fling?' (a section about the life cycles of different plants and how long they live for) and 'Aphrodisiacs' (a section on composting and fertilisers) the over-the-top, match-making  tone of the book is greatly diluted in this final section and for me it was a welcome relief. I was pleased to return to no-nonsense, factual yet very interesting learning. 

There is some really good basic botany here for the learner gardener or the keen amateur who needs to refresh their knowledge. You can learn about plant breeding and hybridisation. There are useful, quick reference tables such as the one on page 95 that groups vegetable crops into their families and gives cultural tips on the needs of each family group. 

There is a lot to be learned about crop rotation, and a really good, handy list of what you should and should not put into the compost bin. For those who have little or no garden space there is also a very useful section on owning a containerised kitchen garden.

In my opinion, the best part of the book is saved until last. Entitled 'Keeping Stalkers at Bay' it is like a little recipe book of organic pesticides that you can make at home in your own kitchen. I will definitely be testing some of them in my own garden this year, maybe 'Tomato Leaf Bug Repellent' or 'Spearmint-Hot Pepper Horseradish Spray'.

Gardening Guru's Verdict

Make sure your sense of humour is suitably lubricated before you read 'Soil Mates'. There's a lot of really useful information about companion and organic vegetable gardening to be extracted from amongst some of the pages of this colourful, fun book. 'Soil Mates' won't be every reader's 'cup of tea', but  it would make an unusual  and surprising gift for the keen Kitchen Gardener on Valentines Day!

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