I am often asked, “What are the best homesteading and gardening books for beginners?”
Like most homesteaders, gardeners, or folks who are still in the dreaming and planning stage for their first homestead, I devour all the garden and farm books I can get my hands on.
I’m a sucker for any shiny new book with bright photographs of vegetables on the cover, even though I can usually tell at a glance if it won’t be very helpful to me. After so many years as a desert gardener, I learned to sift through the information in books more geared to “Normal Places,” and to seek out more detailed books once I had gained enough from the “Beginners.”
This is not to say that I still don’t thoroughly enjoy the beginners’ books, too. They’re often bursting with enthusiasm and encouragement, which every gardener needs from time to time. And it never fails that I will pick up at least one brilliant tip in an otherwise unenlightening book. (Like planting peas thickly in a gutter, then sliding them into a trench when they’re mature enough. I gleaned this gem from a book written by Huw Richards in Wales—an environment so different from mine in Las Vegas that there was little else that applied to me).
Last year brought me a handful of particularly good “homesteady” books, some new on the market and some just new to me. I was feverishly preparing for the Big Move to our new homestead in Southwest Colorado, so this stack was never far from me.
Here are my five favorite homesteading books.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs by Joel Salatin. Not at all the guide to raising pigs that I thought I was buying, this older work of Joel Salatin, the “Lunatic Farmer,” is an absolute must-read for any person with even a fleeting interest in our relationship to food. Written in Joel’s journalist-turned-farmer whimsical, humorous, and deadly serious tone, Pigness will make you ponder the subject of food deeper than you ever have before. He shares openly the struggle of living in the divide between two worlds that seem to oppose each other at every turn: that of the “left-leaning tree huggers” and the “scoffing Christian evangelicals” who have historically been too quick to vilify anyone who questions the mainstream modern factory food complex. With love, gentleness, and piercing insights, Joel invites the two sides to consider (deeply and honestly) the truth and goodness to be found in the other’s camp. If this doesn’t shake your worldview—no matter your starting point—I don’t know what will. I recommend the audio version on Audible, as Joel’s voice is now quite familiar to us and it’s possible to sift your compost while listening.
Polyface Micro: Success With Livestock on a Homestead Scale is another highly enjoyable book by Joel Salatin. I needed a thorough guide on all aspects of starting a homestead, and Polyface Micro did not disappoint! Deliberately avoiding details that have been shared in multiple other well-known sources, Joel seeks to bring to the sustainability table fresh ideas and eminently practical solutions. This is one of his newer books, released in 2021. It’s a prime example of how a balance of reverence for the “old ways,” coupled with a healthy use of modern technology can result in a highly productive, disease-free homestead that respects God’s design. Want to know the best practices for raising pigs? In the book. Chickens? Yep. Rabbits…wait, CAN you put rabbits in a rabbit tractor? Of course. This will be my go-to reference for all things sanitation, fencing, grazing development, milking cows, and how best to harvest rainwater. Paired with the gigantic Polyface Designs, which I turned over to my carpenter-Dad to pick out his favorite projects, owning this book makes me feel invincible as a new homesteader.
The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon (with Erica Reinheimer). When I first heard that Steve Solomon had recanted on some of the concepts of his earlier works, namely Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, I was instantly curious. Growing Food has been a favorite reference for serious food producers for decades—just not me. Why? Because of the despair I felt upon reaching the last page, only to read that his methods would work for anyone, anywhere—except the desert. If Steve was saying, “I was wrong,” I wanted to know why. When I cracked open The Intelligent Gardener, I began to think I wasn’t actually going to know why, because folks, this stuff is waaaayyyy over my head. Charts, chemistry… MATH?! Shudder. I forged ahead anyway after Steve assured the reader that he’d break everything down into simple terms. The premise of the book is a little surprising to the organic gardening world: he challenges the notion that growing organically, with little external inputs, will automatically result in food that is better for you. If his own organically-grown food (which was the bulk of his diet) was so healthy, why were his teeth loose and his energy levels so low? His quest to discover what practices can truly result in nutrient-dense food led to a deep-dive into mineralization, complex chemical processes, and the simple discovery that if you don’t want to be part of the “Shit Method of Agriculture (SaMOA)”, you’ll pay 30 bucks for a real soil test. Well, I don’t want to be a “SaMOA” grower, so of course I got the test as soon as I could sneak onto the property that was not yet ours on paper. I would hand this book to any serious gardener, along with a few plastic bags and a clean trowel to dig up a sample.
The First-Time Homesteader: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Starting and Loving Your New Homestead by Jessica Sowards. Who doesn’t want to spend more time with Jess?! Delivering the same gentle, encouraging spirit that thousands have come to know and love from her wildly popular YouTube channel, Roots and Refuge, Jess makes us all believe that we CAN grow food (and “something lovely”). With gorgeous photos on every page, Jess first defines what a homesteader is (hint: you don’t have to have any land), then takes you by the hand to rekindle a desire you might not have known you had. If you once were drawn to the beauty and peace and simplicity of a sustainable life, but somehow lost your way, just grab this book. “Turn your waiting room into a classroom,” “Do it afraid,” “Fear pushes, but wisdom leads,” and “Store-bought tomatoes taste like disappointment” will soon be regular phrases in your vernacular, and you’ll be on your way.
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. Confession: I am only halfway through this one. Published by Storey, a well-respected name in the animal husbandry and gardening world, this fits in the “indexed, glossaried, and cumbersome” category on my shelves. You can’t enjoy this book with a cat in your lap, because you’ll want to take notes. By teaching the WORD system (Wide rows, Organic methods, Raised beds, Deep soil), Ed lays out a plan for gardening that takes a novice all the way to advanced techniques for a productive harvest. I can’t look at a shovel today without “judging its merits,” or read a label on a pesticide without recalling that there “isn’t such a thing as a pesticide.”
If your spring is anything like mine, with many false starts and “afterthought” snow flurries, you’ll find this a good time to finish up your winter reading list. Because if you can’t actually be growing stuff, the next best thing is to read about growing stuff.