A reader pretty much knows what they’re getting when they buy a manual. There’s an expectation of shared knowledge and wisdom being passed down; but with self-sufficiency, there are dozens of manuals on the shelves, covering all there is to know on the subject, and each of them broadly in agreement with each other on the rights and wrongs. With the flood of tomes available, how can a new one stand out? For me, the key is to adopt an interesting but accessible manner - and that’s exactly where Alison Candlin’s The Self-Sufficiency Manual succeeds.
In her foreword, Candlin suggests the book’s aim is to help those who ‘wish to approach the “good life” gently and gradually’, as well as those with greater ambitions. Its aim of being both broad and precise is actually pretty useful, as readers can take what they need as and when they come to it. The Self-Sufficiency Manual starts off with the growing plot, investigating all the possibilities for different sized gardens. Candlin stresses the importance of groundwork, such as sketching out the area dedicated to growing (though her idea of a small garden could do with being downsized a bit), as well as examining the soil type, through to practical ideas for solving things like drainage issues. There is also a useful calendar of jobs to do throughout the year.
Then it’s on to examining the main vegetable crop types to grow - there’s nothing out of the ordinary here thanks to the slant towards amateurs as well as experts - but it covers all the necessary bases, from legumes to brassicas and growing in pots, right down to greenhouse management. Each section contains a clear, easy-to-follow table, which is in itself an excellent guide to cultivation of plants. This moves nicely into growing fruit, covering all the main areas from pruning to when to plant, as well as discussing some of the more interesting crop types. Pests and diseases, one of the great hindrances to success, are examined in detail. What was particularly good was the discussion of prevention as well as cure - buying the best plants from good suppliers, giving plants plenty of space, and encouraging certain beneficial species into the garden. Though it does expand upon fungicides and pesticides, it’s worth noting there was no discussion of the organic alternatives.
The section on livestock was rather broad and general, and I suspect that those who are looking for more than an introduction and outline of the process would probably look for further books to supplement their knowledge. That said, The Self-Sufficiency Manual does give first-timers a good idea of what they need to think about before getting involved when thinking of introducing chickens or goats to their land. Foraging is discussed, as well as hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, wine-making and preserving - all potential subjects are discussed, even if they are not given as much space as the core elements of the book, which are mostly concerned with growing crops. Finally, and admirably, there’s a section on water and energy conservation and setting up renewable energy in the home. It is, of course, not as in-depth as many books on the subject, but Candlin gives readers a quick introduction to the concepts involved.
The one disappointment I had with the book - and this really is nit-picking – is that it doesn’t recommend any suppliers or local community schemes with which people can involve themselves. Rather, it equips people with a broad knowledge of the essentials and encourages them to go and do things themselves. Which is, perhaps, what self-sufficiency is all about, but lending a helping-hand to first-timers while promoting good suppliers would do no harm.
That should not detract from Candlin’s sensible, clear and easy-to-use book. There are hundreds of topics covered by Candlin’s manual, and for anyone wishing to dabble in the arts of self-sufficiency, I’d say this book is as good as any general reference book out there. Returning to the point about presentation and standing out from other manuals, it’s really worth saying how beautifully presented the book is. Time has clearly been taken oven the selection of the photos - each one has been thoughtfully considered, particularly those of livestock. In a way, these photos themselves do a wonderful job of advertising the self-sufficiency dream.
The Self-Sufficiency Manual: A Complete Practical Guide to Living Off the Land by Alison Candlin (£14.99, A & C Black Publishers Ltd) is available from Amazon
Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN
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