The Holistic Gardening Handbook

A Book Review

holistic gardeningThe Holistic Gardening Handbook – creating health and abundance in your organic garden by Phil Nauta.

I wondered if it was worth the money. Is an e-book really worth it? Its not on, so I cant browse it.

Its over 300 pages. Is it going to be boring and academic and like reading a textbook?


I got a sample chapter as part of the 15 lessons for becoming a better gardener free e-course Phil offers. It was on EM or effective microbes. EM are the microbes used in bokashi. I was always rather confused about what bokashi is, and this chapter provided a very enlightening explanation.


So I took a chance. I bought the book. And I found that I was delighted with the material.


How Long is it?

Its large. Its 333 pages. (For those committed to the belief that you dont have time to read 300 pages, there is a 100 page condensed version that comes with the package.)


Even though the book is meant to be read all the way through, reading sections in no particular order works as well. I started with the food web and then skipped to compost tea.


I found I was able to fill holes in my knowledge and bridge concepts that way. But thats just me.


Whats in the Box?

The package contains:

  • the full version of The Holistic Gardening Handbook
  • the 100 page abridged edition
  • 27 audio files
  • Phils Garden Checklist
  • Phils Garden Calendar

Im a podcast junkie. So I love the audio files.

The audio files are not Phil reading chapters of the book. He covers the same concepts, but I think hes just freestyling on the topic. I found the audio very helpful in digesting the information.


I really appreciate Phils Garden Checklist as well. It is a great way to start implementing what Ive read.  You can also scan the checklist and see what topics are covered in the book.


The checklist is your map.  It reflects the big picture while providing the necessary detail to make a great garden happen.

Phils writing style is simple and direct. (Note, I did not say simplistic.) He is able to paint with a broad brush and give the big picture, while also supplying the necessary detail for implementation.


Whats the Big Idea?

The big idea of the book is:

Growing food is part of a living ecosystem, not apart from it.

I highly recommend the book to anyone whos serious about growing healthy food and promoting a healthy earth in the process.

As a closing comment, the term organic has become watered down and confused. Phil touches on this in his introduction.


Many people are looking for a new term for agriculture in which agriculture is executed in such a way as to be in balance and harmony with the surrounding ecosystems and promoting health for humans and the environment. Holisitic gardening may be that term. I just wish I would stop spelling it with a “w”.

Texas Strawberries

I replanted my parents front flower bed because over time, the sun-loving plants that were there got shaded out.  It was full of lantana, pink skullcap, and mealy blue sage.  Watch the short video and see what I planted.



Both the Salvia coccinea and Ruellia are seed spitters and spread quickly.  I chose these because my parents need something that will fill the bed and be super low maintenance.  Dont plant either of these if you dont want them to spread!

Turks cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) is a great sun/shade plant.  Its one of those rare ones that really can do both.


Texas Strawberries

I was itching to put food in that bed somehow.  The two big problems were deer and shade, not to mention the fact that certain neighbors would think food growing as somehow subversive.  Little do they know that they are right.



I picked strawberries for the following reasons:

  • In Arizona, people would grow them as a sort of ground cover.  Granted, the growing conditions are much different, I thought it was crazy enough that it just might work.
  • That particular bed has been mulched with wood mulch for 15 years.  I figured there had to be the type of fungus found in woodland soils in that soil, a plus for strawberries.
  • Commercial strawberries are sprayed with a super toxic chemical, methyl bromide and I wont buy them anymore.
  • I was gambling that the 3 hours of late afternoon sun would be enough for the strawberries to grow.

So far, so good.  What crazy chances have you taken in your garden and how did it turn out?  Let us know in the comments below.

Why I Like the Idea of Growing Mushrooms

Growing mushrooms intrigues me.  I don’t know why.  I’m not a big mushroom fan.  I eat them, but don’t go out of my way to obtain or eat them.  I don’t hunt my own.


Growing Mushrooms Reason 1

I think what I like about the idea of growing mushrooms is that they are pretty much a no care product.  Once the spores are implanted, the only care is watering once every few weeks.


Growing Mushrooms Reason 2

I also like that mushrooms are grown in an unusual way, by stacking up logs.  How cool is that?  I love things that make people wonder what the heck Im up to, or even better, are not even identifiable as a project.  They just think Im weird and messy.


Growing Mushrooms and Paul Stamets

The last reason Id like to grow mushrooms is because of the work of Paul Stamets.  Mushrooms produce excellent antibiotics, sequester carbon, can be used to produce fuel and are excellent for toxic waste cleanup.  They can even be used to eradicate carpenter ants and termites.  Like composting worms, mushrooms are a small and overlooked group of organisms that can create big positive changes in the way we live.


How to Grow Shitake Mushrooms

Ive read some articles on growing mushrooms.  Then I found this video.  These guys do a great job of showing the process.  Holes are drilled in a fresh oak log, and spores are implanted.  The holes with spores are sealed with wax and then left alone to do their thing.  If you werent aware, mushrooms are the fruit of the fungus, so the mycelium need time to grow.  One log can produce several harvests of mushrooms before needing to start over.



Have you ever grown mushrooms?  If so, leave us some tips in the comments.

Soil Simplified: Why You Should Care About the Soil Food Web

The Texas Transfarmers of Austin, Texas, recently had a meetup at Third Coast Horticulture Supplies.  At the meetup, Shawn Bishop, the owner, passed around this easy to understand essay on the importance of soil microbiology.  With his permission, Ive reproduced it here.


Soil Simplified: An Introduction to Your Gardens Microbial Life


Plants Relationship With Microbes

Until modern times, plants have relied on nutrients provided by their relationship with microbial life.  This relationship can seem complex and mysterious.  There are however, some key elements to microbial soil life that can enlighten curious gardeners with little more than a brief explanation:

  1. Plants exude sugars from their roots.
  2. Bacteria and fungi ingest these sugars.
  3. Protozoa and nematodes then eat the bacteria and fungi.
  4. Their excess waste is transformed into plant available nutrients right in the root zone.
  5. The plant uses these nutrients to grow.
  6. The plant is in control of when and what it eats.  By using a piece of its own energy to feed these microbes, the plant insures a future source of energy greater than what it has lost.

Understanding this cycle will help you better learn how plants relate to the soils in which they are grown.  Realizing that plants evolved with this relationship can help you decide what is best for your garden.


Soils Relationship to Microbes

Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, and a full spectrum of living creatures.

It is also a microscopic landscape where life decomposes to its base ingredients and ushered into new forms.  Gardeners dont need to know complex biochemistry to know their garden, but understanding some of the processes going on in your soil can be rewarding:

  1. Fresh organic material is broken down by microbes.  The bacteria eat the sugars and fresh green material.  The fungi eat the tougher woody material and proteins.
  2. Plant material is further broken down by larger microbes, small bugs, and worms that feast on the bacteria and fungi.
  3. Microbes hold moisture and nutrients in their biomass.  They keep the water from evaporating and the nutrients from leaching away.
  4. Bacteria produce slimes that bind particles together to form humus in your soil.  This helps the soil store oxygen, creates cracks for water to flow, and provides shelter for the multitude of creatures thriving underfoot.

These are just a few examples of microbial soil interactions that can help you better relate to your garden.  Through these processes, the life in your soil maintains balance with the environment that it is a part of.


Working With Soil Biology

If you are adding compost, mulching, or avoiding chemical fertilizers, then you are probably already doing much to improve your soils health.  By learning how these actions affect your garden, you can better trust your own reasoning and intuition to guide your relationship with soil life.



Compost is organic matter that has been broken down by microbes so that its energy is stored for further use.  Applying it to your garden adds colonies of diverse organisms to the soil.

It also supplies a new food source for existing colonies.

There is much variation in qualities compost can process.  For instance, the debris that comprises the compost should be fully broken down and unrecognizable.  It should have a deep brown color and rich but subtle smell.

If it smells strong then it is probably potent in some way.  If it smells rotten, then it could add problems to your soil.  Many methods of producing compost can yield different results, but remember:  We evolved with these microbes, plants, and soils as well.  Your senses can be the best judge of the quality of compost.


Compost Tea

Compost tea is a brew of oxygen rich water, high quality compost, and some foods to help microbes bloom in population.

The goal of good compost tea is to substantially multiply the beneficial organisms.

They can then be used to coat leaf surfaces, inoculate compost, and restore or improve soil health.

A bio film of compost tea on leaf surfaces can keep pathogens from reaching the plant as a food source.  The microbes also respire CO2 that helps fuel plant metabolism.  Use of tea in compost or soil can drastically increase the biomass of healthy life that stores and converts energy.



Most plants in Earths soils have evolved to have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi.  This  is when a specialized species of fungi attaches to the root of a plant, and directly exchanges nutrients in the soil for foods from the plant.

The fungi use enzymes and organic acids to break down minerals in the soil and draw them into the plants roots.

The fungal hyphae (strands of cells that form the organism) can multiply the water-absorbing surface area of the root zone by hundreds of times.  Use of mycorrhizal fungi spores can greatly increase your plants access to water and nutrients.



Many of the nutrients locked within our soils are in the form of minerals.  Some are readily available to plants, while others need the help of microbes to unlock their energy.

When we harvest from our gardens, we deplete the nutrients made available from organic matter and minerals.

We usually replenish organic matter in the form of compost or fertilizers.  It is also good to add minerals while restoring fertility to your soil.



Mulch can be a useful tool for dealing with a number of garden issues.

It can keep moisture in the soil, prevent weeds from sprouting, and be a food source for the microbes in your garden.

Mulch should be layered thick enough to accomplish these tasks but loose enough to allow for the flow of oxygen.  It can take many forms and each posses unique functions.  Try different materials and decide for yourself whats best for your garden.



Tilling your soil can destroy fungal colonies, damage bacteria, and release precious nutrients back into the air.

Sometimes it is necessary while rehabilitating a landscape to till damaged soil.  Compost and compost tea should be applied soon after to inoculate the soil and restore its composition.  Hand picking weeds, cover cropping, and mulch can be useful alternatives to annual tilling.  When it comes to tillage, less is more.


Everything you do to your garden affects microbial life.  With little effort, you can enhance this life for the benefit of your garden, our health, and your environment.

Backyard Aquaponics

aquaponics harvestChanging climate patterns are making backyard aquaponics look better and better.


Aquaponic systems require time and money to set up, but have very distinct advantages:

  • Super low water usage
  • Super low electricity usage
  • Low maintance
  • No watering, no irrigation systems
  • Fish production as a by product
  • Organic if not, it will kill the system
  • Compact and easy to enclose for year round gardening


How Does Aquaponic Gardening Work?

Aquaponic gardening works by growing plants in water, similar to hydroponics.  Hydroponics uses human made chemicals to supply plants with all the minerals and nutrients they need.

Aquaponics uses fish and a bacterial community to supply the plants with the minerals and nutrients (nitrogen) they need.

Basically water is circulated from a fish tank to a plant bed and back.   This circulating system provides everything the plants need.  All that is required is to feed the fish.

Since aquaponic systems tend to be very compact, they can easily be enclosed or set up in a greenhouse.

I wont go into any more detail about aquaponics here.  If you want to know more,  search the web and Youtube.

But I do have one suggestion for you.

My friend Arturo of Clean Food Solutions, just published this aquaponics manual.  Its a great guide to getting started, with specific regional information for Texas.


Vermicomposting and Backyard Aquaponics

I contributed a chapter on composting worms and aquaponics.  As you may already know, composting worms are great for helping to maintain a diverse, healthy bacterial community in the soil.  And, versatile creatures that they are, can be added to aquaponic systems.

Worms provide additional minerals, as well as plant growth and fruiting hormones.

I also believe (I dont have any hard data on this) that worms can help keep an aquaponics system more stable by increasing the diversity of the bacterial community.  Is there a graduate student in the house?

Post any questions you have about backyard aquaponics  in the comments below.  If I cant answer it, Ive got lots of aquaponic friends who can.