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PirateBen’s Self-Sufficiency Reading List.

You don’t have to be aiming for self-sufficiency to want to grow at least a small part of your own fruit and veg.

This reading list / resources guide is designed to be as practical as possible, but to leave plenty room for dreaming.

It is supposed to be pretty much in priority order of usefulness, but everything is opinionated, so feel free to disagree!

Comments and suggestions please via Instagram -

Read your Seed Packets

On the back of every seed packet, you will find literally everything you need to know about how to grow the delicious fruit-or-vegetable-to-be in your hand. Where to sow (in heat, under glass, straight into the ground), when to sow (which month), when to thin the seedlings, how often to water them, when to plant the developing little plants into their final positions and when to harvest them.

On the front of the packet, there will be a photo of the perfect specimen. This is what they look like when it’s time to harvest them.

If you read the seed packet and do what it says, you will go from seed to perfect edible plants in your first year and you are already an expert food gardener. If you go ahead and learn what you read on the packets, and can tell other people, you are an acknowledged expert in the field. (bad pun intended!)

Dream bigger

The first book on anyone’s list is The New Complete Book Of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour. If you are planning a few tomatoes in a sunny spot inside, and a row of lettuces in a window box, that’s great. But growing food is addictive, and it doesn’t hurt to dream from the outset.

Seymour died in the 90s, but his “bible of self-sufficiency” has never been out of print since it was first written. It kicked the publishing house, Dorling Kindersley, into a completely new orbit.

It’s subtitle, “The classic guide for realists and dreamers” says it all. Get the new edition. They have removed all references to DDT, the use of peat, and other practices which are no longer considered sustainable, ethical or organic. It also has a nice preface and new foreword.

Mostly, though, it really is a guide to everything in the self sufficient lifestyle.

The second book for dreamers is The Heligan Vegetable Bible by Tim Smit and Philip McMillan Browse. It’s low on actual advice, but huge on inspiration. If you are the sort of person who gets inspired by endless photos of beautiful, weird, strange and exotic-looking vegetables.

I firmly believe you can’t do this out of necessity. You have to do it out of conviction. A beautiful and inspirational coffee-table book like this goes a long way.

Learning the Trade

Putting seeds in the ground according to the packet is all you need to be able to grow delicious, nutritious food from seed. The next logical step beyond this is to learn all that proper horticultural stuff that they would have taught you at gardening school. All the many different ways of non-seed propagation - the myriad techniques for taking cuttings, grafting stock, pruning fruit trees, and much, much more. As you get more into productive gardening, you’re going to want to learn all this stuff as well. Any book you can find on this is going to be useful. The very best that I have found is The Royal Horticultural Society’s Step-by-Step Gardening Techniques, Editor in Chief, Christopher Brickell. It’s an amazing, fully illustrated, set-by-step guide to, well, everything and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I love it.

The Wisdom of the Ancients

My next suggestion is rather more vague.

Go to second-hand booksellers and buy old gardening guides.

After the second world war, food supplies were short and national governments put a lot of effort into convincing people to grow some of their own food, with a corresponding increase in the democratisation of the skills required. Or in other words, lots of books. I have a substantial collection of these, and they all contain gems of information from pre-petro-chemical agriculture.

I can’t possibly expect any of these to be still available, but their titles, and their authors' names, evoke a certain resilient charm of days gone by. Recognising that the current renewing interest in growing food for personal consumption also has a grounding in the fear of collapsing supply routes, I offer a list of some of my favourites here.

  • The ABC of Fruit Growing - 1938 - W.E.Shewell-Cooper NDH, FLS, FRSA, FRHS, Dip Hort

  • Practical Gardening and Food Production in Pictures - 1940 - Richard Sudell, FILA

  • The Gourmet’s Garden - 1968 - Douglas Bartrum

  • The Good Gardener’s Encyclopedia, month by month in the garden - 1964 - Stanley B. Whitehead

Rather More Esoteric Stuff

There is a mind-boggling amount of quasi-religious, doctrinal, and hippy writing about gardening. Some of it is interesting. Much of it is thrown around as truth. My personal recommendation is to learn about seeds and soil and insects and horticultural techniques, develop the gardening technique which works for you, the time you have, and the garden you want, and leave the new-age stuff alone.

But, at some point you’re going to want to learn about Rudoph Steiner and “permaculture” and the like.\

I don’t have a single book to recommend on this, but I do use a Moon Almanac. The best I have found is French and called Jardinez avec la lune 2020 by Celeste and edited by Therese Tredoult. In English is it called The Moon Gardeners Almanac 2020. What I think about “moon planting” I might write elsewhere, but this book is an amazingly well organised “gardening calendar” even if you have no interest in the moon stuff at all.

If you want to get into growing medicines, there are any number of books on this. I don’t have one to recommend on how to grow herbs (plot spoiler - same as vegetables, but even easier), but in my opinion, the best single volume for non specialists on what herbs you might actually want to grow is the Dorling Kindersley “Eyewitness Companions” series book Herbal Remedies by Andrew Chevallier.

Proper Hippy Stuff

The Story of Findhorn.

It’s crazy, but I kinda love it.

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1 Comment

Aug 08, 2022

Great stuff here. Thanks for spending time documenting your info.

Kind Regards,

Sue from Pui Hardy

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