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The Sussmans' vegetable patch: ho ho with a hoe

It was Barbara's turn to drive. Good thing, too, for I was seized by uncontrollable laughter. I hadn't enjoyed such a laugh for some time, and I was to enjoy several more before the long drive back from Florida was over.

My wife and I regularly do this on trips: read aloud from magazines and books when the subject matter interests both of us. It helps the time glide by more rapidly even than the miles. This time I was reading from Vic Sussman's ''Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips'' (Rodale Press, $12.95, $8.95 soft cover).

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The book came my way months ago. It's about intensive gardening and self-sufficiency in the suburbs, I was told; in other words, a personal account. Such books can interest me, but then I generally put them aside for those rare occasions when I have time to spare. Such an opportunity came on a recent trip to Florida.

The book was indeed interesting (that much I expected). It was also howlingly funny in places (quite unexpected). And it was filled with sound advice, some of it illusion-shattering, for the gardener or would-be homesteader seeking a measure of self-sufficiency (I'd have read the book a whole lot sooner had I appreciated its practicality from the start).

Simply, Mr. Sussman sought both to entertain and be helpful - and he succeeded.

Now, I occasionally see a humorous side in situations that my wife suggests I have no right whatever to see. Perhaps my sense of humor is more easily tickled than some. But whenever I laughed uproariously at a Sussman comment or aside, Barbara, at least, chuckled warmly. And on two occasions her laughter exceeded mine by a decibel or two. The point is, most readers should enjoy the book, even allowing for the suspected poetic license the writer has used in the pursuit of humor.

But there is no exaggerating the comments on the wide-bed, double-dig, intensive gardening he describes. The Sussman success with these techniques enables the family of four to virtually feed itself entirely on just two acres of land within sight of the housing tracts of suburban Washington, and with the bulldozers carving the fields on either side of them into still newer subdivisions.

Such abundant harvests demand a disciplined devotion to canning and freezing that prove arduous. This is where some of the conceptions of contentment and simplicity, usually associated with the ''simple life,'' are shown to be exaggerated.

As Mr. Sussman puts it: ''The summer kitchen is where you pay your dues for self-reliance. Any notions of homesteading as a romantic life rise and disappear with the steam.'' But, he adds, ''we never have any doubts about the worth of what we are doing.''

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The Sussmans, college-educated and high-salaried, ''made it,'' as the saying goes, early in married life. They were the ultimate consumers, living in one of the plushest neighborhoods in Washington. They were, as they coined the term, ''videots'' - folks who spent much of their nonworking time (how about 7 hours a day?) in front of a TV screen.

This book chronicles their move from total dependence on the ''system,'' to partial dependence, and on to the almost total independence they now enjoy on the outskirts of the nation's capital.

Betsy Sussman's love of goats (and the milk and cheese they give them) gave the book its title. But the heart of the family's food supply is the vegetable garden, using the system introduced to America by the late Alan Chadwick, a one-time English actor and trained horticulturist who adapted his double-dig system from Chinese methods of 2,000 years ago and French intensive gardeners of the last century.

Using these methods, Mr. Sussman says of his garden: ''With each year's gardening the soil improves. And it changes much faster than in a traditional garden. 'Coffee grounds.' That's what someone called the texture of my soil.It does have that pelletized, crumbly appearance, the result of worms at work more than anything else.''

He tells, too, of a friend who adopted the method. ''He dug as far as he could into the subsoil and then filled the beds with a mixture of leafmold, sand , compost, and various organic soil amendments, like seaweed, rock phosphate, and dried manure. The harvests he got the first year were far better than either of us expected. He didn't feed his family out of the garden - there wasn't enough space for that - but he made a noticeable dent in his food bill and had a wonderful time doing it.''

The Sussman book isn't the definitive textbook on double-dig gardening. ''How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine,'' by John Jeavons (Ten-Speed Press, $5.95), fills that slot. Another outstanding and exquisitely illustrated book on the same subject is ''The Self-Sufficient Gardener,'' by John Seymour (Doubleday, $15.95).

Both books have a prominent place on my bookshelf and, I have discovered, in the Sussman library as well.

Either or both of these books would make worthy gifts at this time of the year. So would ''Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips.''

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