Book Review: “No Guff Vegetable Gardening”

Sarah and Helen tag-team for a She Said/She Said review of No Guff Vegetable Gardening by Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs (all illustrations used here are © Mariko McCrae).

Sarah: My first impression was, Wow, I love these illustrations! The graphic designer in me really appreciated Mariko McCrae’s fun, whimsical drawings. It sets a friendly tone that made me want to dive in right away. The masked bunny is charming and that’s the cutest fungus gnat I’ve ever seen. Plus the colours are just vibrant, and the watercolours in the charts were quite lovely.

Fungus Gnat with larvae bundle

Helen: Yeah, the illustrations definitely give the book a fun personality. And the authors follow it up with interesting ways to present dry information – like when they suggest that soil mycorrhizae, the tiny fungi that colonize on plant roots, are like the plant’s pets. It’s a cute conceit that illustrates the relationship between the two quite graphically.

Sarah: The actual info is very solid, yet with heaping dollops of humour. I liked they way they summarize each topic with a two-voice He Said, She Said approach. They acknowledge that different gardeners choose different methods, depending on their garden set-ups and personal preferences. As Stewart Smalley would say, That’s OK.

You might like the science experimenty fun of saving your tomato seeds, like Steven, for example. Or, like Donna, you just might prefer the less-icky method of buying seeds each year. The anecdotal structure also points to the truth that there’s sometimes no perfect expert answer. Or that answers are forever debatable.

Helen: On the other hand, I can see how that it might be a bit confusing for a beginning gardener who’s looking for absolutes.

Sarah: But that’s how the book starts – by debunking some of those gardening “truths”—what they call “guff.” They emphasize that there is no one answer to gardening problems or techniques. You can break the rules, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad gardener. I think that beginning gardeners especially, would benefit by the encouragement of Donna and Steven’s flexible approach.

Helen: Provided people do read from the beginning and aren’t tempted by the cute pictures to skip and skim. But you’re right. One of the “common truths” these days is that there are no absolute answers. So much of gardening success depends on things beyond our control, like the weather this season.


Sarah: Being a soil nerd myself, I liked the way the book starts with the soil, getting into the scientific nitty gritty of what makes a good soil. Bacteria and fungi and soil inhabitants get a good going over here.

Helen: Yes, this section is a great example of how the authors’ conversational tone and fun graphics make information easier to digest. The book would be good for parents to introduce gardening to very young gardeners. Their Recipe for Yummy Soil and comparing organic matter to eggs in baking – they’re useful, concrete yet novel analogies. At the same time, I found plenty to appreciate as an experienced gardener.

Sarah: As far as actual graphic design goes, the book verges on the kooky.

Helen: Verges?

Sarah: Okay, it’s completely kooky. It’s outside the box and breaks a few design rules. While I enjoyed the funky freewheeling design—it makes a nice change—at times it could have been a bit more restrained. I found some sections confusing.

Helen: I agree, and if the book has a fault this is it. The landscape format works against them at times, putting a lot of competing stuff on the page. It might be hard to find your way back to refer to it again.

Sarah: Although there is an index in the back. Putting on my book designer hat: I liked the fun, funky, friendly typography. It matched the illustrations. However, they used so many fonts, sometimes it was a challenge to know where you should start reading or what went with what. And in the He Said/She Said portions, the X chromosome lost out, as Donna’s opinions in the fine script font were much harder to read.

Helen: So besides the illustrations, the accessible language and the neat explanations, what did we like?

Sarah: I liked the creative lists, like Early Growers, Must Haves, Harvest After Frost, Posh Squash and Veggies to Make Guests Say Wow. They’re helpful ways to make your vegetable selections. Plus I liked their opinions about whether certain veggies are worth it. Some plants are just easier to grow, and they offer substitutions for the fussier ones.

One they both say Nay to is corn. Donna says, Waste of Space and Steve says, A Non Starter in the Raccoon Republic of Toronto. That got a rueful laugh from me. Oh, how we (don’t) love raccoons here. Forgot to mention, that in addition to the illustrations, the book has many photographs as well of vegetables, gardens and insects.

Fun illustration detail from Pests and Diseases

Helen: I liked the at-a-glance tables, like how to plan succession crops, or their sweet versus not-so-sweet methods of staking tomatoes.

Sarah: The authors include a weblink for more details, a great way to add value to the book. You can download an ebook preview there, and get more info about the content and authors.

In sum, I think this book belongs in any gardener’s library. It provides an excellent overview of the key principles of vegetable gardening, with tips on growing specific veggies. It felt like a long, enjoyable chat with two experienced gardeners who have a wealth of knowledge and humour to spare.

Helen: What she said.


  1. No raccoons here, but sweetcorn's still a no no as we have badgers on the allotment. They tear the stalks apart and generally trash the place.

    A great review – the illustrations look lovely. Just right to encourage someone into gardening. It's refreshing to hear 2 experts saying there aren't absolute answers re gardening. As you say this might put some beginners off, but hopefully will encourage others to experiment a little more and find what works for them.

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