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Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

What the Hay: Plant It Anyway!

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Here on the farm, we have been trying to utilize everything in some way. We want to make use of all organic matter and to reuse any farm waste to keep it out of landfill. Alan grows and puts up hay for our livestock. Sometimes if the weather has been wet and some of the hay doesn't dry out as well or gets wet afterwards this will develop some mold issues. We don't want to feed this to our goats. So we plant in it!
If using rolled hay, they need to be upright. If the roll falls onto its side it doesn't take on rainwater as good and the plants will need to be monitored for watering. The hay works best if it has aged at least a year. You can still use the hay but you may need to add a scoop of soil/compost with your plant to give it a good start.

We have used squash plants and the yields are very good.  We find there is less pest and mildew problems when planted in hay. We also use these hay bales for growing potatoes.  The potatoes are very clean when harvested.

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Photo of potato plants starting to bloom.

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These bales can be used for several years this way.  When the hay begins to break down into compost this can now be added to raised beds and/or hugelkulturs.

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We will be experimenting with growing strawberries in a frame on top of the haybale and potatoes tucked into the sides of the haybales.

Make the most of your resources and your growing spaces!

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Read all of Susan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Beating the Blues and Blight

It is raining. Again. For us at the northern Oregon coast our days this winter season have been either crystal-clear-blue-gem-sky days with temperatures down into the 20s and 30s, or a firmament of variations on the gray theme that dumps a deluge. Some days it really has been raining sideways. Yes, we normally get a good amount of rain here; something like an average of 68 inches a year (the landscape is green for a reason!). However, the rain doesn’t usually stop me from puttering around outside. But torrential rains? No thanks. Frozen ground? Pass. Besides, if you muck around your garden when the soil is water logged you will mess up its structure.

Admittedly, I am having a pity-party. This last year has happened to be one of the roughest in my life. Adding insult to injury, the garden is my therapist and the therapist has been out! Mother Earth has been either too soggy or too frozen. The grass crunches under foot or feels like a giant, wet, spongy slip-n-slide and it is only a matter of time before I end up horizontal. Not really very therapeutic and I find as I age I worry about breaking hips and things. Doting over my houseplants isn’t cutting it. Beautiful seed catalogs entice me only temporarily.

Thinking organizing my computer files might be a good idea (I didn’t day fun), I ran across pictures of my gardens from last year. This reminiscing triggered daydreaming. Then daydreaming’s fuzzy path led me to thoughts of spring, renewal, new beginnings - and as corny as it sounds, hopefulness started to slowly bubble up from within me. As there was a break in the weather, I decided to go for a walk in the yard.

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Daffodils pushing through the frozen ground.

To my amazement there are signs of life! The daffodils have bravely pushed tips of foliage through the intermittently frozen and sloshy earth. My star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is showing off her silvery buds. I do love the intricate, creamy white flowers those buds are hiding inside and sweet-yet-delicate perfume that comes with their early spring debut. Then I spy the lemony-yellow flowered Camelia japonica that is budding up right on time. It will open a stunning complex yellow flower that eventually fades to a soft buttercream. The more I walk the more I see the beginnings of spring. Tiny reddish buds of Viburnum davidii nestled amongst dark, leathery leaves. Little blips of bumps letting me know my blueberry bushes are waking up despite the crazy weather and my dampened mood.

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I meander my way to the site of last year’s main vegetable garden. There are a few carrots left in the ground. The strawberry patch looks ragged but I know it is only a temporary winter wardrobe. My gardener’s mind now shifts easily to planning mode and begins to envision what will go where and when. “Oh! I need to start my tomato plants” interrupts my stream of thoughts. Then came the flashbacks. End of summer 2016 was the Late Tomato Blight calamity. The stars, and subsequent victims of this tragedy, were two Early Girl plants. These ladies were huge! To the point they looked like twice as many plants and were absolutely loaded with tasty tomatoey globes of deliciousness.

I originally had termed last summer as “The One with All the Garden Pests.” However, staying strong and stalwart in my battles against my slug and bug foes was paying off. My garden was beautiful and productive with plenty of fresh veggies for my table and extras for friends. Then came the rains after an unseasonably long dry season and soon after…dun dun dun…THE BLIGHT.

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That was a very sad day here on Walton’s Mountain. Fraught with blood, sweat, and tears (no clue how I managed to cut myself) as I removed and bagged up my tomato plants and their gazillion blighted fruits of all sizes and shades of ripening. I put aside some of the few still viable maters; a mere drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds now discarded. The disease had literally spread like proverbial wild fire – fast, furious, lethal.

At first notice of something gone amiss in my veggie jungle I thought (hoped) it was tomato leaf spot Septoria lycopersici that was affecting my monstrous Early Girl plants. Leaf spot looks unsightly but is limited to the leaves and thus the wonderful red globes are left untouched. Numerous brown spots had seemingly appeared on my plants overnight. The tell-tale yellow halos of chlorosis quickly became evident and nearly in tears, I knew I was wrong. Tomato blight was the culprit and my crazily prolific plants doomed.

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Tomato blight is one of many fungal diseases that can take away a tomato lover’s dreams of dancing amongst bushel baskets over flowing with those tasty bites of heaven called tomatoes. Late blight, the Phytophthora infestans, also causes devastation in potatoes and was the culprit of the Irish Potato Famine. Late blight spreads as spores ride the winds. They can also be carried on the hands and tools of the gardener. After plant removal I sanitized my garden implements, tossed my gloves, and showered.

The clean-up did not include two smaller heirloom plants that were a few feet away. They were late comers to the garden and had just started to set fruit. Neither had signs of blight so I opted to tempt fate and just observe. Although not nearly as productive as the massive Early Girl plants, these two did not get infected and lived on to produce until the first hard frost in early November!

My usual gardening practice is to mulch the vegetable garden with straw and water the ground and not the plants. This helps prevent blight. Copper products are also used in organic gardening to combat blight. However, I worry about build-up in my soil and subsequent peril to beneficial insects. There are biofungicides safe for our veggies and environment but really are best used as a preventative measure as once late blight appears it is pretty much too late.

I am going to try to mitigate a rerun of 2016’s tomato tragedy by starting all my own seedlings with heirloom varieties that are described as blight resistant and planting in a different area of my garden. Stay tuned! Now where are those seed catalogs...?

Happy dreaming, Susan


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Deciding When To Plant

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You are working on your garden plan, ordering seeds, and making a garden map and suddenly realize you don’t know the timing of your crops. How soon can you get started in the spring? Your tomatoes are to go in after the last spring frost, but when is that? Often crops are planned for according to the last expected frost in the spring and the first expected frost in the fall. If you don’t know what those dates are for your area, ask local gardeners, consult your county Cooperative Extension Service, or take a look at plantmaps.com. You will find USDA Hardiness Zone maps for 1990 and the 2012 update. Notice how the climate has changed in your area.

Here in Virginia in Zone 7 I use April 25 as my spring date. October 15 is the fall date I use to calculate back from to know the latest in the summer I can plant and still get a harvest. In reality, our first fall frost is usually later in October, but I will never forget the frost on October 9 one year, so I plan with caution. Likewise, in April I use the 25th as my planning date, but look ahead to what the weather is likely to do in the next week or two before I plant frost sensitive transplants or seeds, remembering the killing frost one May 1.

Virginia Cooperative Extension Service’s publication 426-331, Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates, is a general planting guide for gardeners showing  the plant and harvest windows for vegetable crops. I thought that every state would have a publication like that, but my limited search showed otherwise. Knowing my readers are not all in Virginia, I sought a website where they could access a similar calendar specific for their area. Several gardening sites have a garden planner that you can use for free for 7 days, and then you have to pay for it. The Old Farmers Almanac has a general planting calendar for 30 vegetables that you can access for free. Of course, they also have the 7-day-free garden planner offer.

I learned to plan my garden before computers were in homes and still like to put pencil to paper to do it. I’ll have to admit, though, that I have some of my garden records on Excel and have had fun with that. However, the garden maps with the planting dates and rotations are always done by hand. I want to encourage others to understand which vegetables grow when and not depend on a computerized garden planner to tell them that. Find more information about all this at Homeplace Earth.

Once you know when things are planted, you will need to know how long they will be in the ground. The spinach and lettuce you plant in early spring will be done and that space ready for another crop as summer is getting started. For that kind of planning you need to know the days to maturity, which I addressed in this post, and succession planting that I wrote about here.

This planning will come easier the more you do it; but no matter how much you know, Mother Nature does her best to keep us on our toes. We need to stay mindful of what is happening right in front us in our gardens, no matter what we arranged for in our plans.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Alpine Strawberries Have a Sweet History

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Alpine strawberries have captivated our taste buds for a very long time. They are tiny yet highly aromatic and hugely flavorful ancestors of our common strawberry. Archeological excavations have shown Stone Age people in Denmark and Switzerland enjoyed them immensely, as shown from the evidence of seeds in those sites.

Early History

What we would recognize as alpine strawberries were first domestically cultivated in ancient Persia, where they were considered delicacies fit only for royalty. As often happens, seeds made their way both east and west through trade along the Silk Road route, becoming widely grown and loved.

The Roman poet Virgil named the strawberry in works about country life, associating it with other wild fruits and citing the beauties of the fields in his third Ecologue. During the same period Ovid mentions the mountain strawberry in his description of the Golden Age in book one and again in book thirteen of his Metamorphoses narrative. Pliny is considered the last of the ancients to write of the strawberry, listing “Fraga”, the strawberry fruit, as one of the natural products of Italy in the twenty first book of his Natural History series.

 From the 10th century until the early 19th, alpine strawberries were hugely profitable, highly regarded and very well known. After suffering from some mis-informed bad publicity in the mid-1100s, alpine strawberries became quite popular in religious paintings beginning in the late 1300s – often associated with Mary and the Baby Jesus in illuminated manuscripts and paintings. The Catholic Church and royal families from Italy, France, England and Germany were responsible for much of the promotion of the alpine strawberry as they tasted and fell in love with it.

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A few excellent examples are located in the School of Cologne in Germany. “The Madonna of the Roses”, “The Garden of Paradise” and the “Madonna among the Strawberries” all portray the Madonna as a young girl in a closed garden with the infant Jesus in her lap. She is surrounded by roses, thistles, carnations, lily of the valley, iris, primrose and the entire plants of the alpine strawberry, showing its tiny, prolific red fruit and white five petal flowers along with its toothy leaves. The alpine strawberries are painted botanically correct and are exact, perfect replicas of what we see today. They are always portrayed in a place of honor and importance, reflecting the standing they held in elevated society of the day.

By the late 1300s the alpine strawberry was in widespread cultivation throughout Europe as more of the working classes began transplanting the alpine strawberry from the woods and wilderness to their gardens. Street vendors were selling the fruit to Londoners in 1430 when John Lidgate wrote the song “London Lickpenny” which mentions ripe strawberries and cherries for sale in London.

All strawberries up until the mid-1700s were all of the alpine or wood type; being very small, highly aromatic and having much more flavor than would be thought possible for their size. These characteristics are what made them so remarkable, along with their intense sweetness. Another interesting fact is not all of these strawberries were red; there were white and yellow varieties which were just as highly regarded as the red ones, having different flavors of their own.

This begin to change with the world exploration of the early 1700s, with plant and animal samples brought back to Europe from all over the world.

The Modern Strawberry

The modern domesticated large fruited strawberry got its start from these collecting expeditions, with a few strawberry plants brought back from a mapping trip to Chile by Amédée-François Frézier, a French naval engineer who noticed and enjoyed the tremendously large strawberries growing along the Chilean coast in 1712. He wrote the fruit were commonly as large as a walnut; almost three times the size of the alpine strawberry of the day. He brought back plants which were installed in the royal gardens and in Brittany, which grew well but did not set any fruit. It was later discovered the Chilean strawberries have male and female plants, and Frézier had only brought back female plants.

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It wasn’t until 30 years later when someone brought back male strawberry plants from Virginia that the Chilean strawberries began to produce fruit, creating the first hybrid strawberry. This new variety is the foundation of all domestic strawberries grown today with the large and familiar heart-shaped fruit.

As would be expected, alpine strawberries began a decline in popularity as their larger sized and heavier producing cousins gained recognition, both in Europe and America.

Alpine strawberries returned to their former, more exclusive roots, being highly valued by pastry and dessert chefs in France and across Europe for their highly concentrated flavors, balanced sweetness and heady aroma that would perfume a room. Eventually, French and Viennese pastry chefs would raise the use of “Fraises des Bois” to a high art form, competing with each other to make the most visually stunning, aromatic and delicious pastries and desserts possible.

Today, alpine strawberries are almost nonexistent in grocery or specialty stores, but are imported from Europe as ingredients in gourmet jams, sauces, liqueurs and as a coloring agent in cosmetics.  The best way to experience these flavors and scents – often described as “ambrosia” – for yourself is to grow them in your garden.

While alpine strawberries may not be as productive in weight as their domestic cousins, what they lack in quantity is more than made up for in quality. Given fertile soil, proper conditions and some care, they can be very productive. Enough so that some caterers, confectioners and resorts are buying from local growers specializing in alpine strawberries.

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Besides a good quality, fertile and well-drained soil, alpine strawberries need a good amount of sun. In hot areas, they will benefit from partial or afternoon shade. Consistent soil moisture is a key factor in encouraging production, along with a good layer of mulch along their roots to keep them moist. Another benefit is they readily grow true from seed, unlike domestic strawberries which must be started from vegetative propagation. 

They don’t send out runners, instead concentrating their energies in flowering and fruiting. They will slowly increase their crowns and gradually grow into mounds about a foot in both diameter and height. They will often flower the first year, but normally won’t set fruit until the second year and will continue producing for several years if well kept. Because of their growth habits, alpine strawberries make for great border plantings as well as edging along a garden walkway or in larger patio containers. They are perennial and can be very cold tolerant if their crowns are heavily mulched to about eight inches before the first hard freeze.

With a little planning and care in planting and tending your plants, you can experience firsthand why mankind has had such an intense love affair with strawberries for so long. You get to taste the same explosion of flavors and be captivated by those intense aromas which Persian kings and European royalty enjoyed so long ago, right there in your home garden.

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this! Read all of Stephen and Cindy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Chemical-Free Home Orchards, Part 2, Holistic Sprays

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If we want healthy fruit trees and beautiful, abundant fruit—all without chemicals—then holistic sprays are the answer. Routinely using holistic sprays results in much less disease and way-more fruit.

My first experience with anything similar to “holistic sprays” was when making cheddar cheese from our Dutch Belted cows’ milk. After pressing the curds, there remains an abundance of whey which contains sugar (lactose) and live bacteria (lactobacilli). There are many uses for this healthy combination, but the summer I poured whey on tomato plants was the summer I woke up to the potential of holistic sprays. The tomatoes doubled in size and number and no longer were bothered by fungal disease.

Excited to see what this sugar and bacteria combination could do, I began making compost tea. Learn how to make your own here. Wow! Vegetables and flowers got much bigger and stayed healthy until the first heavy frost.

You could say I was a convert before ever reading Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard book and his instructions for holistic fruit tree sprays. His book can be purchased here. After five years of using this mixture on our fruit trees, I was again amazed by the results. Without the use of any chemicals, we now have beautiful fruit and healthy trees. Our only problem now is what to do with all the fruit!

Holistic sprays work by boosting the immune response of trees and increasing the growth of both trees and their fruit. Let’s look at all their ingredients to better understand how they support fruit trees. After that, I’ll include Phillips’ recipe and spraying schedule for fruit trees. Phillips’ book is an excellent reference, but he’s quite the philosopher and I find it helpful to have the information in the following condensed form:

Ingredients for holistic spray:

Pure Neem Oil: (Dyna-Gro): 1) Deters pests and interrupts their life-cycle, 2) Stimulates trees’ immune system

Soap: any biodegradable soap will serve to emulsify neem oil

Fish Emulsion: (Organic Neptune’s Harvest): Feeds the soil and trees’ food -web

Liquid Seaweed, “kelp”: (Sea Crop): Promotes growth and helps fruit trees’ adoption to stress

Unsulfured Black Strap Molasses: 1) Provides nutrients for beneficial microbes, 2) Helps “stick” introduced microbes to leaf surfaces, 3) Increases the BRIX (sugar content) and thus nutrient level of fruit

Mother Culture: (SCD Probiotics or TeraGanix): Provides beneficial bacteria and fungi that work synergistically with trees to fight disease and promote fruit growth

Up to this past year I’ve ordered these ingredients in bulk and individually. They create quite cluttered corner in our sun-room!

As an attempt to have our farm more sustainable by not buying so much online, I began making compost tea instead of purchasing mother culture. This cuts cost and also assures me that I am using the microbes when they’re at their peak condition. Another recent option is purchasing ingredients as a single order from Fedco, which you can find here.

Basic Four-Gallon Recipe for Holistic Spray

Ingredients

5 oz. neem oil (double for first spray)
1 teaspoon soap (double for first spray)
10 oz. liquid fish (double for first spray)
3 to 4 tablespoons molasses
3 tablespoons mother culture
5 tablespoons liquid kelp or 0.5 oz of dry seaweed extract
Add enough water to create a four gallon mixture

Schedule for Holistic Sprays

Springtime Sprays

1. Week of quarter-inch green: (fruit buds are green from tip to ½-way down bud). Choose a warmer day and thoroughly wet branches, trunk and ground.

2. Week of “early pink”: (fruit buds first show pink—never spray on open flowers).

3. Petal fall: spray to point of run-off.

4. First cover: This occurs 7 to 10 days following third spray.

 Single Autumn Spray: When 40 percent to 60 percent of leaves have fallen. Liquid kelp can be omitted.

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Spraying hints

• Springtime is a very busy time for all of us who have a garden or farm animals, so do the best you can with getting the four sprays completed. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t get all four done.
• Fruit trees and their buds are not in the same stage at the same time. At our farm, we have to “average” out their development and spray them at the same time, or we would never get done.
• Avoid windy or wet days. But if you do get caught downwind of the spray, you won’t be poisoned—just a bit sticky and smelling of fish!
• Liquefy the neem oil by placing its container in warm water shortly before mixing the spray.
• Always strain the mixture before putting it into sprayer. Not having to repeatedly unclog the nozzle is a great time-saver.
• Be generous with spraying the soil too. Remember that adding bacteria and fungi increases the health of your soil which transmits more nutrients to your fruit.

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For those of you whose fruit trees have been slow to get growing and producing the fruit you hoped for, I think you’ll find the holistic sprays worth their bother and almost magical in their results. Enjoy!

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair helps preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

The Gardens of Snarky Acres

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Summertime backyard at Snarky Acres

By this time, you are probably curious what the gardens are like at Snarky Acres. To be blunt, they are not your normal idyllic gardens you see in magazines. Sure, there are plenty of edible plants growing at my urban homestead, but they are wilder than most people are used to seeing. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, weeds are a normal occurrence in my plot, but not in an “outcompete my vegetables” sort of way. I value diversity in my garden and make use of my “marginal” plants. In Chapter 2, I mention Asian dayflowers and Creeping Charlie as members of my example guild. Both of those just showed up, as weeds often do. I could go out of my way (and expend unnecessary resources) removing them. Instead, both are technically edible, with Asian dayflowers being quite tasty as a salad green.

Don’t get me wrong: there are weeds I will remove. These are mostly from the grass family—crabgrass and the like. Again, I don’t go overboard trying to totally eliminate them, but I pull them whenever I see them, especially if they are going to seed. As I mentioned in Chapter 3, protected soil is better than bare, even when covered with less desirable plants. When I put in a bed of beans or potatoes, I will pull out all the weed cover (in the form of Creeping Charlie and quickweed) beforehand. After all, I have to give my domesticated vegetables a fighting chance to get started as they co-evolved with us taking care of them.

Weeds have been the bane of gardeners and farmers for millennia. Maybe it’s time we all embraced the wilder parts of our garden. Some weeds were brought to the New World with a purpose. A common “invasive” weed in the woods next to my house is garlic mustard (discussed in Chapters 5 and 6), brought over to the New World to use as an herb. Every year for Earth Day (April 22), I make a point of cooking up batches of garlic mustard pesto and share it with everyone who cannot get away fast enough. Other weeds, like lamb’s quarters and violets, are native but not appreciated for their resilience and edibility. Incorporating weeds into your garden design is supported by permaculture principles 5 (Use and Value Renewable Resources), 10 (Use and Value Diversity), and 11 (Use Edges and Value the Marginal). What’s more renewable, diverse, or marginal than common garden weeds?

Like many permaculture sites, perennials are featured here at Snarky Acres. In nature, these come back year after year, ensuring survival of the species. Annuals, on the other hand, must produce lots and lots of seed to continue on existing. Since I’m a renter, I don’t go full tilt with trees and bushes, but I utilize perennials where I can. My favorites are sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), Egyptian walking onions, strawberries, oregano, lemon balm (mostly as an insect repellent), chives, peppermint, sage, thyme, rosemary, wild blackberries, Goji berries, and apples from two past-their-prime trees on the property. It’s extremely satisfying to “obtain a yield” every year without the effort of digging, sowing, planting, and watering as perennials tend to take care of themselves once established.

Snarky Acres’ first permaculture plot was built around the principles of observe and interact (1), obtain a yield (3), small and slow solutions (9) and edge (11). I observed that a small section (3 feet by 10 feet) at the front of my house only received one hour of direct sunlight around noon. Otherwise, it was in complete shade from the house or received dappled and indirect light until sunset. I did some Internet research and discovered a nice list of perennial herbs that could thrive in the shade. From this list, I choose lemon balm, chocolate mint, orange thyme, and both regular and garlic chives.

After the initial year, the mint dominated the site but the others also did fine. In addition, I’ve planted shade-tolerant annuals to supplement the yield including turnips, kale, and Swiss chard. I rip out the mint like I do with Creeping Charlie (which has also infiltrated the bed—it’s everywhere!) and then sow or transplant, like I do in my primary backyard garden. This edge, like my garden fencing, is self-mulching with westerly winds and a big oak tree doing all the work every fall.

As for my annuals at Snarky Acres, my tendency is to cultivate the ones at the top of my FREE downloadable Veggie Growing List (yes, yet another plug). As of this writing, the top ten annuals on my list are green beans, zucchini, garlic, potatoes, radishes, turnips, mustard, yellow squash, tomatoes, and ground cherries. One spring, I designed a new garden plot around the fact that it had been lawn the year before. My landlord tilled up the site for me (one of my few exceptions to my “no-till” rule), but the soil was compacted and full of clay nonetheless. I planted potatoes (known for conditioning clay soil), tomatoes, zucchini, garlic (planted the previous fall), mustard, turnips, ground cherries, and peppers. All did well despite a deluge in June and a moderate drought the rest of the year.

As you can see, I have embraced the 10th principle (“Use and Value Diversity”) by planting a wide variety of vegetables. In any given year, the environment (rain, clouds, sun, temperatures, pests, and storms) will vary from seasons before. My overarching goal for my property is to produce plenty of edible goodness. If it means too many tomatoes and potatoes one year and an abundance of Swiss chard, zucchini, and cucumbers the next, so be it. It’s also why I have a variety of “weeds” in my garden (see Chapter 6). Those will thrive when our more refined domesticated veggies with wither and die. I still remember the dry summer where I primarily had only purslane (a succulent weed) to eat until we started getting rain in July.

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Potatoes and tomatoes growing in the new plot

After learning how to “Observe and Interact” through my permaculture design certification course,

I came to realize my main backyard garden is at the top of a ridge. This means water will flow down to a low point two neighbors’ yards over. Every time we have a large rain event, the neighbor’s valley fills with water, creating a temporary pond with ducks and everything. Through my training, I understood my garden design needed to slow water down in order to spread and percolate it for later use by my plants. Fortunately, my established garden was already set up that way. My new plot, the one with all the easy-to-grow annuals, is adjacent to the old one, so it has the same sloping issue. I purposely dug trenches as I mounded dirt up onto the potatoes, knowing these holes would hold water (and sometimes trip me up—stupid holes).

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Four hugelkultur mounds cover cropped with spinach and turnips

Another technique I employed to slow down water flow and store it for future use (Permaculture Principle 2 - Catch and Store Energy) is called hugelkultur. Hugelkultur is the German term for garden beds made with buried wood. The wood breaks down over time, providing garden vegetables with nutrients and moisture (as in you don’t have to fertilize and water as much, if at all). The wood does not have to be brand new, since rotted wood is actually. This is wonderful way to “Use and Value Renewable Resources,” permaculture principle number 5.

I implemented this technique by building four 8 foot (long) by 4 foot (wide) by 3 feet (high) raised beds. In general, raised beds are beneficial; they warm up earlier in the spring, keep humans (but not my dog River) from compacting soil, and allow plants better drainage. Usually raised beds are built with a frame around the soil, but my beds have no borders. After completing each bed, I cover cropped with turnips, spinach and clover to minimize winter soil exposure and loss. Hugelkultur beds are also a great place to grow cucurbits like squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

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Butternut tree north of Swiss chard. Nitrogen fixing green beans helped the tree to grow up healthy.

Another permaculture system I’ve put into place is to let saplings grow amongst the vegetables. Permaculture is all about succession; nature’s innate ability to go from barren soil to forest in a few short years (at least, in my part of the world). The squirrels and wind have planted several varieties of native trees in my garden, especially along the fence edge. Maples, walnuts, and honey locusts have grown up throughout the garden. Most sane gardeners would remove them either by tilling or digging, but you have to be a little crazy to practice permaculture. We have plans to someday move from this rented land and purchase a larger permanent property. Guess who’s coming with us? These free trees with several years of growth.

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Maples and tomatoes growing side by side

Note: this is Chapter 7 from my book The Snarky Gardener's Veggie Growing Guide: Create Organic Abundance By Embracing Your Garden's Wild Side. If you need permaculture primer, here's my Permaculture Awkwardly Explained

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. Don is the author of The Snarky Gardener’s Veggie Growing Guide: Create Organic Abundance By Embracing Your Garden’s Wild Side. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Chemical-Free Home Orchards

By planting our own fruit trees, most of us hope to have beautiful, nutritious and chemical-free fruit. But there are so many diseases and “bad bugs,” how can we grow organically and not end up with worm-infested fruit? I counted 26 viruses, eight bacteria, and 26 fungi that could damage our trees or fruit. And that wasn’t including the “pests:” maggots, moths, beetles, caterpillars, maggots and borers!

Before giving up or arming ourselves with dozens of chemicals, let me reassure you that it is possible to have healthy trees and beautiful fruit without poisoning our environment and our bodies. I’ll first explain why most “Integrated Pest Management” or even many “organics” won’t result in our chemical-free goal. I’ll then discuss two successful methods that work with nature to avoid chemicals; one method is reducing the level of disease and the other is boosting our fruit trees’ immunity.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM is not an integral part of growing organically, but instead is used to reduce the amount of chemicals used. Commercial apples have 47 pesticide residues per USDA’s pesticide data program, (https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/index.php), so reducing chemicals remains a worthy goal for commercial fruit. But IPM doesn’t get us much closer to having chemical-free fruit.

An example of IPM is the use of phernome traps. These traps alert the orchardist when certain pests arrive so spraying can be done at that specific time instead of randomly. That reduces the amount of chemicals used and is an improvement for the environment, but not good enough for us and our families.

Growing disease-resistant cultivars of fruit trees should be helpful, but in the 15 years of growing both heirloom and disease-resistant fruit trees using methods listed below, I have not seen any advantage to the disease-resistant varieties.

Organic Insecticides

Just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it’s harmless. “Pyrethrum” is a chemical derived from chrysanthemums and can be used on certified-organic farms. It works by paralyzing insects. We keep beehives in our orchard as a constant reminder that honey bees are insects too, and we don’t want to kill them! Another chemical which is certified for organic orchards is copper sulfate. It is used for fungal and some bacterial infections, but is “highly lethal” to bees.

If something is labeled “insecticide,” it will kill pollinator bees, beneficial wasps and butterflies — even if it is also labeled “organic.”

Sometime pests are overwhelming but can be handled in ways that don’t affect other animals. A few years ago Japanese beetles were doing extensive damage to fully-ripened fruit. I spent many early summer mornings and evenings--when coolness made it more difficult for beetles to fly--knocking Japanese beetles into a bucket of soapy water. This diminished their numbers, but what also helped was “Milky Spore.” It is sold under the same name as the bacterium from which it’s derived. By staying underground, it kills the grub-stage of the Japanese beetle without harming beneficial insects or other animals. The product costs about $30 a can but is only put into the soil one time where it then multiplies itself.

Reducing the Amount of Disease and Pests Without Chemicals

If IPM and organic insecticides don’t allow us to grow chemical-free, what other things can we do?

We stay healthy by doing basic things like washing our hands and avoiding sick people. Likewise, if we want our fruit trees to stay healthy, we’ll reduce their exposure to disease.

Barriers are a simple method of keeping pests from damaging our trees without the use of chemicals. This includes tree guards around trunks that keep rodents from chewing bark and allowing other pathogens to enter. Nets over cherry trees keep birds from getting our harvest, electric fences keep out deer and even disposable shoe-store socks keep insects off our precious peaches! Placing these “footies” on early in a fruit’s development eliminates all pest damage.

sock Small

Reducing the amount of disease your fruit trees are exposed to can also be accomplished by removing diseased wood, leaves and fruit from the orchard. At the end of each season, be sure to remove old fruit from fruit trees and the ground to keep disease-levels low.

old apples

Allow nature to help you reduce pests in your orchard by encouraging beneficials like songbirds and beneficial insects. There’s no better way to do this than by establishing a variety of plants which provide habitat for other creatures. To increase habitat, our orchard grass includes comfrey and clover and the orchard is surrounded by blackberries and hazelnuts.

Songbirds feed dozens of caterpillar to their young according to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Having more wildlife to enjoy is a delightful way to decrease insect damage. Working with nature to restore balance in our environment also allows our fruit trees to better withstand disease.

Improving our fruit trees’ immune system is the second major way we can have healthy trees and fruit without using chemicals. Boosting their immune systems includes some of the things discussed in previous blogs such as proper pruning and improving fruit trees’ soil.

In the next blog I will discuss holistic sprays that will further improve your fruit trees’ immune systems and help them produce abundant and beautiful fruit.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.