Documenting the seasons of coastal Dorset. I'm a complete amateur so don't trust I'm always right. If ever you see I'm wrong - whether with identifications or in anything else - do say!

Saturday, 3 December 2016


Part of the menu for Boxing Day 1925 which includes 13 eggs.

In my family, when I was growing up, we had a saying 'Take sixteen eggs'. It meant anything which, while desirable in itself, was in-excess of our, or anyone else's, needs; a reference to Mrs Beeton's cookery.
* * *
This post is about a book I've been sent to review.
'Build a Better Vegetable Garden
30 DIY Projects to Improve Your Harvest'. 
It's by Joyce Russell with photographs by Ben Russell.
Published by Frances Lincoln.
Publication date - 5th January 2017

An illustrated introduction to cooking utensils, 1903.
From a 1903 version of Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book.
If you've been reading Loose and Leafy for a while, you will probably have noticed that I tend to be a bit cynical about books I review. When it comes to gardening my thought is that you only need one book. This book, in my narrow-minded opinion, would have information about seasons - when to sow and when to reap - rotation, pruning, a bit about composting, a bit about digging, a large section on pests and friendly insects (instars included). Beyond that, I'd write in big letters - READ THE PACKET and TAKE NOTE OF THE LABEL. That's it. You need nothing more. (If you want to grow cacti on windowsills . . . well . . . . )

Despite this, I get real joy from books recommending you take cushions from your house and put them in the garden, or that reckon you'll have the time and wealth to build beautiful paths and sheds on your allotment before spending only half an hour each day on the veg.. I like pictures. I like absurdity.

But I don't review all the books I'm sent. 'Sorry,' I say to the kind promoter. ' Sorry, I really can't recommend this'. (One of these rejects included a garden so boring it has now been completely ripped out and completely re-designed and completely re-planted . . . so I feel my judgement on that one has been justified!)

So . . . I'm about to tell you of a book so peculiar I really and truly have lain awake in the night puzzling about who would read it. It's not for me. I doubt it's for you. So what is it for? None the less, I've not put it aside so . . . there must be something which attracts . . .

Back to the sixteen eggs.

An illustrated introduction to cooking utensils, 1903.
It surprises me that tinned food was in the shops in 1903
- let alone tinned oysters!
If given the choice of simple meals I'd rather eat baked beans on toast.
One of the Mrs Beeton cookery books I have at home was published in 1903 - an era in which people of modest means were trying to be less modest in what they cooked; and they wanted to present themselves to the world as wealthier and more sophisticated than they really were. So the tone is confidential. It tries to show how one person in a kitchen can provide a meal which would previously have needed several staff to prepare. And although it advises how to truss snipe and serve a calf's head, it also gives a recipe for 'cheap gravy'. Tinned pineapples and peas figure in lists of ingredients.

At the front, someone has handwritten a menu for Christmas Dinner dated 1925. Then at the top of a list of meals for Boxing Day, low and behold, they've written 'thirteen fresh eggs'. (See at the top of this post.)

Now to the book about how to 'Build a Better Vegetable Garden'. (Using wood.)

Protection against carrot fly - Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
Heavy duty protection for carrots.
The 'recipes' here are as mind boggling as calf's heads and, on the whole, also in excess of what most people would want or need. I've turned it around in my own head, over and over - would anyone really take time to build a huge and heavy wooden fort in which to protect carrots from carrot flies descending from the sky instead of leaping sideways? How would I get the carrots out? Where would I put it in the winter? Who would help me cart it around the place. Would its benefits outweigh its challenges?

Picture of an hinged A-frame for growing runner beans up. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
A way to grow beans,

Then there's the hinged construction for growing beans up. Poles can be a bit awkward to tie into lines or wig-wams . . . but it doesn't really take that long if you only need a few . .  and it's very satisfying when they're all neatly in place . . . wouldn't a wooden frame which looks like a clothes airer not fly away in our mid-summer storms?

Salad trays protected from slugs by putting the legs in wellington boots. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.

And I seriously doubt that many children are likely to be gripped for very long by seeing the legs of 'salad trays' standing in wellington boots filled with 'slug repellent material'. (Interesting concept that; 'slug repellent material'.)

And when it comes to Raspberry Supports - it's not 'take sixteen eggs' but 'make holes in the ground with a crowbar' and 'use a sledgehammer to knock the posts in place'. (I think Mrs Beeton would have recommended employing a local professional and pretending you'd done it yourself.)

And in terms of health and safety . . . I don't think using a power-tool to drive screws downwards into the sides of frames supported only by hand is sensible. Nor using the lawn as a work bench. Stones are mysterious creatures. You think you've cleared them but they wriggle underground till they're back exactly where you don't want them; and if they've taken residence right under your whirring power drill . . trouble!

Pictures of tools from the 'buying tools' section at the beginning of Salad trays protected from slugs by putting the legs in wellington boots. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
Some of the tools recommended in the 'Build a Better Garden' book.
I've used a power drill, a jigsaw and various other conventional saws and planes . . . and from frustrating experience I know woods wobble and wander; and that while clamps are useful, in my non-expert opinion we can all do with a good vice when dealing with large planks of wood.  I've gone through decades of being an amateur and you really shouldn't even think of letting me near projects like these without a sturdy work bench. And everyone using this book will need a big budget. Sledgehammers, crowbars, staple guns, saws, hammers and spirit levels are on the shopping list. (You should see the big box she has of drill bits and power screwdrivers and things and - oh my goodness, I hadn't noticed this till now, she even has a circular saw!)

Things (like 6 Wrought Iron Stewpans) recommended for a 1903 kitchen, along with estimates of cost. (Mrs Beeton.)
Some of the kitchen tools recommended
for home cooking in 1903.
So . . . why am I telling you about this book when it could be dangerous in the hands of a ham-fisted amateur; and when there's not much point in buying it if you're a professional because you'll know it all already? I enjoy a bit of digging now and then, and I'd like to live in a big house with a big and beautiful garden and space to store carrot forts, but I'm unconvinced everything here is truly useful.

(To some degree, it's a matter of taste too. I love cold frames but beyond that I like an uncluttered atmosphere in vegetable gardens.)

Back to the question then - why am I writing about this book? And, for that matter, why did I lie in bed wondering why I'd decided I would do so?

Illustration of raspberries and raspberry canes. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
This is the kind of thing I admire but can never achieve.
Perfect and beautiful symmetry.
I think it's because I'm not a mathematician. I'm a disorganised muddler. And to be a carpenter you have to be incredibly good at making very precise angles. Precise angles are beyond me. So I admire them; and look at the perfectly placed holes for screws and am struck down by their beauty in round-ness and symmetry. And I read the simple instruction that the sides of a box should reach down beside its base, not be perched upon it . . . and I think 'wow, I would never have thought of that yet I can see clearly now why it should be thus'. And I look at the power drill and admire the writer who is bound to use it well; in contrast with me; for my drill turns itself dangerously on whenever I pick it up. (Because I've never been strong enough to grasp the handle without pressing the 'go' button by mistake.)

So, this book is, I've decided, a kind of philosophy of wonder . . . of how can anyone be this precise and clever? . . . and why would anyone want these things? . . . and would I buy all this equipment unless I wanted a career in carrot-fort construction?  . . . and why did the 1925 list-maker think it necessary to pencil into the front of her Mrs Beeton cookery book that her family would be subsisting on a relentless diet of potatoes, cold ham, cheese and swedes once Christmas Day was over?

For the thirteen fresh eggs which figure at the top of 'what's needed for Boxing Day' vanish as soon as they're mentioned. So here's another context in which we can say 'take sixteen eggs'. The strange desire for such superfluities surfaces when, although we don't specially want to be mega-rich, we'd wistfully like to have a little more than we have just at present. So we write 'take sixteen eggs' before knuckling down and trying to pretend, as that list maker did, that serving potato mashed is enough of a variation to make a plain diet festively exciting. And we write 'work bench' on our Father Christmas list before sticking bean poles in the ground as usual.

. . . except . . . except . . . I also have a cookery book which advises
 how to cook spinach . . . 
and ignoring all other recipes in it, it's worth the price for that alone . . .
 And for some of us 
having it explained how to make a wooden raised bed 
that doesn't wobble would be 
. . . pretty handy . . . hm.


squirrelbasket said...

A fascinating read (your blog post, that is)!
I would certainly read the Mrs Beeton cookery book - but that's just a sense of nostalgia for slower times.
As for the gardening book, generally I love all the Dr Hessayon "Expert" books, which are so concise. The book you are reviewing looks more of a book for a DIY fan. Even though it's written by a woman, dare I say it is more of a "man's" style of book, or is that terribly politically incorrect?
Thanks for sharing :)

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Pat at Squirrel Basket. Yes. I've already decided to add in a bit about how although it's supposed to be a gardening book it might be of more use to someone who simply wants to learn about carpentry.

But on your remark about it being more of a 'man's style book' - before I published the post I'd already edited a bit out which touched on this.

I don't know if you listen to Gardeners' Question time on Radio 4, but there's always a question where someone asks how they can get their spouse to do or not to do something - and the team will come up with answers like 'put them in charge of the mowing'. And this came to mind while reading the book. One person wants to garden. The other one wants to help but really gets in the way - so the 'gardening' one is advised to find something the non-gardening one can do which will give them the warm feeling they are doing something companionable and useful but it's really a kind of babysitting. And in this case it's carpentry. But it's backfired and the garden is now silting up with hefty wooden objects. It reminds me of homes where someone is mad keen on crocheting and everything in sight has some kind of crochet cover or adornment.

Perhaps I will leave this comment here. Perhaps I'll edit it away shortly! Hopefully if the writers take a look at the post they won't read comments. I find it terribly difficult to write fair reviews without hurting the feelings of those who have put such enormous effort into creating the book. If I were to write one I'd want nothing but praise!

liz said...

I really enjoyed and laughed over your book review, Lucy. I'm ham-fisted and scattered too, so the book would be beyond my comprehension. A 1903 edition of Mrs. Beeton, however, would be interesting.