Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening

Simon Hursthouse | Friday, 28th April 2017
An inspirational book with plenty of facts and figures to learn how to be a self-reliant gardener.
Author: Will Bonsall
Publisher: Chelsea Green
Publication year: 2016
RRP: £23.99

By his own account, Will Bonsall would have called this book ‘Gardens Without Borders’. This theme – gardening’s wider implications – has informed and shaped the author’s back-to-the-land life in New England.

After an eye-opening stint in mining in his formative years, Bonsall was drawn to organic gardening only to find mined elements here too in the form of imported soil amendments. It was an incongruity he could not ignore, and his response since the seventies has been to develop a way of gardening that relies as far as possible on the economy of the land being farmed. Hence Bonsall avoids the marketplace whenever possible by seeking out natural capital solutions instead (e.g. sowing and routinely saving open-pollinated seed), thereby closing the loop.

Intriguingly, he keeps no livestock for food and soil fertility (growing their feed is deemed an unnecessary burden), utilising only what can be gleaned and produced on his mainly woodland plot, where seven-eighths of an acre feeds the family of four. This is an inspired and erudite take on making good use of what’s to hand (no polytunnels and plastic row covers here).

There are nods to practices that fall under permaculture’s umbrella (‘Growing Permacrops’ is one of the longest chapters), and the author’s take on ‘obtaining a yield’ is considered from the interesting angle of ‘eco-efficiency’, i.e. what gives the most food energy (or valuable biomass) for the least amount of soil fertility?

Bonsall relates his decades of fieldwork clearly and entertainingly. Having chosen a veganic approach he rigorously addresses meeting his family’s nutritional needs. The book is a distillation of knowledge gathered through long study and is chock-full of information on soil health, establishing a garden and growing food.

At almost 400 pages, Bonsall covers the essential ground (and some fascinating diversions) with brio and humour. From pruning and grafting to processing oilseeds and ramial chip research, this is an inspirational book to refer to again and again.

If you like lots of figures with your facts then you won’t find many here, though more than 40 years in the self-preservation business is the most telling number, surely?

Simon Hursthouse runs tour-central.com in rural Hungary, where he has lived since 2005 to lean as closely as possible to modern day peasantry.