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

The Sun2Soil Employment and Crop Starter System


Explore the “Sun2Soil R&D Network” - including,, and Willi Paul Studio /

The Sun2Soil employment and crop starter system is asking for your support to fund agricultural testing and on-site research. Our goal is to test and produce the recipe for the membrane for small community farmers and food forests. Please check-out the campaign site for project goals and rewards for contributing to Sun2Soil at (7/12 – 8/31/17).

A companion site in the Sun2Soil R&D Network is the Regeneration Hub, a project that connects project holders, individuals, funders and communities to solve global challenges through regenerative practices. This is a long-term collaboration.

We are also networking with, an open-source digital platform where you and other changemakers can share skills, knowledge of community organizations and projects to help regenerate the world.

Finally, please view the project video and read about the “Sun2Soil - Dissolving Nutri-Membrane (SSDNM) - A Perm-Tech Innovation” vision (below) from Willi Paul Studio /

Sun2Soil R&D Network appreciates early stage support from:

Benjamin Faher, Top Leaf Farms
Peter Ruddock, California Food Policy Council
Charlotte Anthony, Hands on Permaculture
Jan Zellmann, Evergreen Labs

For more information about the Network, please contact: willipaul1 at

The Sun2Soil Story

Sun2Soil is a light weight, ultra-thin, photo-sensitive and nutrient rich membrane composed of processed organic compost, seeds and soil enhancing nutrients. The SSDNM technology creates green jobs as workers are needed to combine and manufacture the collected compost and soil enhancing nutrients into a membrane for use on organic farms and home gardens.

Employment is also planned at a second production stage in the field when the Nutri-Membrane is placed on top of the newly planted field and slowly dissolves naturally with sun and water, helping to keep the moisture levels high underneath the membrane until the seedlings break-through the soil and emerge into the open air.

Some ingredients in the membrane are also directly absorbed by the leaves of the seedlings.

At this stage, the membrane breaks apart from the shoots and falls into surrounding soil, releasing the remaining life nutrients from the Sun2Soil membrane. SSDNM works naturally with any crop.

After the last fall harvest, the accumulated organic compost is ground and mixed with locally produced microbes to produce the pre-membrane material. After cooking down into a semi-moist consistency, seeds are added and the membrane is then molded by recycled metal roofing panels into 40-foot x 8-inch x 1 in strips and then allowed to hardened, then rolled for transport. A variety of seeds and food plants are possible. Potential sources for seeds are the farmers market, permaculture guild or the local seed bank.

The Sun2Soil Dissolving Nutri-Membrane technology is especially scaled for 20 family (50 person) neighborhood permaculture grow projects, urban gardeners and family food production that supports community, jobs and Nature. The vision is to achieve a sustainable, on-site closed-loop perm-tech solution. The process is especially geared to assist struggling populations in Africa and has many correlated educational and research upsides.

Sun2Soil is a no-till grow operation. There are no gas-powered tractors to buy and maintain. Hand labor is deployed to make furrows and rows for the seed-laden membranes. Research has shown that microbes can contribute to weed control. Water can be collected and dispersed by using an on-site rain catchment system. There is nothing needed off-site but it is envisioned that growers will barter Sun2Soil for food and goods at their local farmers market or permaculture guild meetings.

Key challenges for seed funding include selecting and sourcing the right nutrients for the membrane recipe and achieving a steady reservoir of on-site organic compost.

Membrane Ingredients (TBD)

Pulverized organic food and garden compost
On-site grown and minced organic soil microbes
Organic binder (?) - Binders are liquid or dough-like substances that harden by a chemical or physical process and bind fibers, filler powder and other particles added into it. Organic binders, designed to disintegrate by heat during baking, are used in sintering.

Membrane Recipe (TBD) 

Mix, heat then pour liquid membrane into form (recycled 8” metal proofing panels)
Add seeds every ~ 4” (TBD)
Cool then peel away from form and use or roll-up to store

Membrane Characteristics 1.0


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.

Mildew, Rot, and Environment: 3 of the Most Common Garden Problems and How to Correct Them

Replicating nature’s seemingly effortless “green thumb” isn’t always simple. Along with rich soil, sunlight, and water, gardeners need to be attentive and patient or else their garden may succumb to a variety of issues. Choosing resilient plants and planting during the appropriate seasons improve the chances of a healthy garden, but natural problems can arise nonetheless.

The first step in treating a sick person is to identify the symptoms in order to categorize their ailment. From there, doctors can apply the appropriate treatment; hopefully before the sickness worsens. Similar to people, gardeners need to watch for symptoms of sickness in their gardens so they can identify what’s wrong and treat accordingly. The number one rule in coaxing plants back from ill-health: the earlier the treatment, the stronger the resolution.

Unfortunately, there are many problems that can arise in a garden. Some are openly visible, some can’t be helped due to the environment, and some are caused by poor garden maintenance. The following are some common plant problems and treatment options that every gardener should know.

Powdery Mildew

Easy to recognize, powdery mildew is a common fungus that invades any garden. It appears as white or gray abnormalities on leaves caused by a combination of reduced soil moisture and humidity. As the fungus advances, the leaves will turn brown, shrivel, and eventually die. It prefers younger leaves, so it’s particularly important to watch for during the early stages of plant development. Powdery mildew is also dangerous because it can travel from plant to plant via the wind and insects. Because of its ability to spread, treatment requires the fungus to be completely eradicated from the garden.

Vegetables such as tomatoes, pumpkins, and squash are especially susceptible to powdery mildew because their growth minimizes air circulation. Gardeners can use stakes or latticework to support the plants as they grow, increasing air flow to the plant and minimizing the chance for fungus growth. Adding a layer of mulch also inhibits any mildew spores in the soil from floating up onto the leaves. If powdery mildew is already present, prune the affected areas and remove from the garden entirely. For those who want to guarantee it powdery mildew is completely eradicated, destroy the plants once they have gone through their life cycle instead of reusing them in compost.


(img. courtesy of Root Simple)

Blossom Rot

Inconsistent watering, a lack of calcium, or high salt levels may result in this garden disease. Blossom rot can ruin an entire plant’s harvest, and is especially harmful to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Gardeners who are worried about blossom rot can look for brown, sunken spots on the fruit’s bottom. Fortunately, blossom rot can’t travel to other plants because it isn’t a fungus. However, most treatment is preventative and removal is the only option if the fruit is already compromised.

To prevent blossom rot, keep soil consistently moist. This means watering evenly throughout the garden and avoiding soil dryness. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways from using traditional watering cans to sprinklers. If you’re someone who is on the run or likes to ‘fool-proof’ things, a garden watering system is what you’re looking for. Additionally, adding water soluble calcium to the soil prior to planting can inhibit the effects of blossom rot along with a layer of mulch to maintain soil moisture. Blossom rot can be easily prevented, but if it does occur, remove the affected fruit and keep a close eye on the remaining produce.


(img courtesy of GardenInMinutes)

Environmental Injuries

Besides the threat of disease and fungus, gardeners must be wary of damage caused by extremes in the environment. The best advice? Protect your garden from extremes! Whether it be temperature or rain, gardens suffer from radical changes from the norm. They thrive in regimented, controlled environments that promote growth instead of stress.

Cold temperatures will cause stunted growth, cracks in the stem, and leaf loss. If these symptoms begin to appear coupled with cold weather, add a layer of mulch to insulate the soil. Covering the plants with a sheet can also help maintain warmth, ensuring the garden’s survival.

Hot temperatures will scorch the plants, rendering them incapable of growing. Symptoms caused by extreme heat include discoloration, dry soil, and crisp leaves. To combat these detrimental effects, gardeners can shade their gardens and increase the watering frequency. Keeping the soil moist up to two inches of depth or more is a good gardening tip to remember during the hot summer months.

Key Take-Away

Mildews, rot, and environmental factors are common problems every gardener should be familiar with. Proactive, preventative treatment is the best method of protecting a garden, but nothing is foolproof. The key to a successful garden is vigilant observance and a rapid response before the issue can grow further.

Wiley Geren III and Bryan Traficante. Bryan co-founded in 2013, a family-owned venture focused on making it easier to start a quality garden. GardenInMinutes is home to tool-free, cedar raised garden bed kits and the Garden Grid watering system - the only planting guide and garden irrigation system, in one. Along with unique gardening solutions, Bryan provides time saving gardening insights on their blog and social media pages. Find Bryan and GardenInMinutes on Facebook,  Instagram, and 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.

Organic Gardening the Easy Way, Part 1: Bean Arches

This flower arch is made from recycled fencing and pvc pipe. 

We upcycled pvc pipe and old yard fencing for this striking homemade flower arch, a focal point in the garden. Doesn't hurt that pollinators find it inviting, too. Photo by Ron Wynn.

Gardening is fulfilling work, especially when you garden organically. It’s good exercise, it guarantees a good strong dose of vitamin D, it provides green goodness all season long—and maybe even all year. But every gardener knows gardening is also hard work. Who wouldn’t want to make it easier?

I’m all about making things easy, and over the years I’ve learned a few diy and other tricks to make gardening not only easier, but neater and more visually appealing in the process. This article is the first in a series of easy gardening tips I've picked up by trial and error.

Today’s tip happens to be my personal favorite. Grow up! As in vertical. My preferred vegetable for this purpose is beans. My husband and I tried growing bush beans one year. We thought that would be the easy way—no wasting time building tepees or other structures. Well, anyone who’s ever spent a day hunched over picking beans knows it can be backbreaking work. It only took one year for us to decide we’d grow only pole beans from then on. At the time, we had no idea what a good decision we'd made.

Build an Arch to Last

Our first attempt at keeping bean plants upright was to wind twine around them, attaching the twine to poles at each end of the rows. Pretty ineffective. The twine was no match for the tall, heavy-laden plants. Then we discovered the idea of arches. Again, with our penchant for making gardening easier, we wanted ours to be sturdy enough to hold their own for years. (Bonus tip: make things to last, even if it takes a little longer the first time. It’s worth it to not have to keep repairing and replacing.)

We opted for cattle panels, that robust fencing that comes in a 16 foot x 50 inch size with the wires spaced perfectly for sticking hands through to pick on the other side of the panel. (Don't be discouraged if you don't have a super big trailer. The panels were much longer than our small utility trailer, so we arched them right then and there. With a few tie-downs, they traveled just fine.) Cattle panels can be found at any farmers’ supply center.

How to Make a Cattle Panel Arch

Our twenty-four-foot-long raised beds hold six panels, each arched from the outside of one three-foot-wide bed across a two-foot-wide walking path to the outside of the adjacent bed. That makes the arch about eight feet wide with a middle height of about six and a half feet, perfect for us. Just by reaching our arms to the side and over our heads, we can pick baskets full of beans with no strain at all. Our happy backs thank us every gardening day.


Our six-panel cattle arch is ready. All that's left to do is plant the beans. The space we save by growing vertically can be used to grow other vegetables. Here, we have a few kale plants under row cover. Photo by Carole Coates

To make our arch even sturdier, we attached each panel to its neighbors with cable ties every few feet. Unlike more flimsy supports, our secure arch easily stands up to both the weight of mature plants and the high winds so common in our neck of the woods.


Beans are filling in the arch. Photo by Carole Coates.

In season, Christmas limas, Fortex (stringless, so that’s nice), Trail of Tears (our favorite heirloom), and scarlet runners create a magical, shady garden arbor, full of pretty bean flowers that give off a lovely aroma. A real treat for the senses.


Easy pickings. Photo by Ron Wynn

We make full use of our bean arch by planting shade-tolerant vegetables in the remaining raised bed space, especially chard, kale, and salad greens. We’ve even had good luck with sun-loving radishes by planting them early in the season at the ends of the rows where they get more daylight. Their season is over well before the beans grow high enough to block the light.

Other Options for Growing Vertically

As much as we love our cattle panel bean arches, we’ve used other kinds of supports to create arches and trellises for growing vertically. There are all sorts of possibilities out there. Be creative.


We got these ornamental wrought-iron shutters for a song at a local auction, wired them together, and Voila!, a year-round eye-appealing trellis. Photo by Carole Coates.


Covered with edible flowers, and sometimes gourds, our wrought-iron trellis is barely visible. Photo by Carole Coates


We turned this discarded A-frame store display unit into a portable arch for cucumbers. Perfect match. Photo by Carole Coates.


We even built a traditional tepee-style bean arch for showy scarlet runners, seen here through the cattle panel bean arch. Note the variety of shade-tolerant veggies filling in all the space we saved by growing our beans vertically. Photo by Carole Coates

Advantages of Growing Pole Beans

Aside from the ease of gardening with arches, pole beans offer other benefits. Growing vertically is a big space-saver, very important if your gardening area is limited. Pole beans are also much more prolific than their bushy cousins. Not only do you get a higher yield per plant, but as long as you keep picking, they’ll keep producing—great for season-long fresh eating. Without even trying, we’ve been able to can and freeze enough beans to feed ourselves until the next year's bean harvest rolls around, to donate beans to our local food pantry, and to give plenty of fresh and home-canned beans to friends and family. And we still have enough to put up lots of jars of our favorite dilly beans.

Pole beans are less susceptible to soil-borne diseases than the bush variety, too. The birds and bees love our bean arch, and that’s just fine with me—anything to encourage pollinators and natural pest control gets a big thumbs up from this gardener.

Is there a Downside?

If there’s a disadvantage to using cattle panels in the garden, it’s the very permanence that makes arches so desirable in the first place. It’s best to rotate garden crops from one year to the next, but you’re not going to want to move those heavy panels. The best option is to have two or three shorter lengths of arches. While you’re growing beans in one, plant other vertical-loving plants such as winter squash and cucumbers in the others. Then just move each one over to a different arch the next year.

Go for It!

I encourage you to give bean arches, especially the cattle panel variety, a try. I suspect you’ll fall in love. You may even want to bring a good book and a lawn chair to your arch. It makes a delightful little hideaway when you need to get away from it all.


A cool spot for a break from gardening work. Photo by Carole Coates.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal, where she blogs about her take on life, including modern homesteading, gardening lore and how-to, food preparation and preservation, as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography. Read all of Carole’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.

Flax to Linen Workshop

group listening to Cassie in the morning - BLOG

My husband and I hosted a Flax to Linen workshop at our home in June. It involved having a dozen participants here on an evening and all the next day and having the instructor and her husband as overnight guests. The purpose of the workshop was to instruct and lead the participants through the process of turning retted flax into linen thread, as well as educate them about the history of linen and introduce them to linen textiles. The workshop was sponsored by the handspinning group I am a member of.

Learning a new skill alone can be daunting. Attending a workshop with others exposes you to more information in a shorter time, allows you to learn from an expert in the field, and gives you the companionship of others involved in the same interest you are. I was excited about this event so that more of my friends could have hands-on experience with flax and learn more of what I have been working on the past two years. To make it happen, however, took some planning.

Cassie with retted flax3 - BLOG

A suggestion was presented at one of our meetings last winter that we have Cassie Dickson (shown in the photo) come to do a workshop on Flax to Linen. It had been a long time since the guild had done something like this. Cassie teaches the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School each year and three of us had taken her class there over the years. I thought it was a wonderful idea and, since I knew her from the Folk School, offered to plan it. Someone can do something well and be considered an expert, however they may not have the ability to teach it to others. I have attended some conference presentations where the speaker’s ability to relate what they knew to the audience did not measure up to their expertise in their field. It was because several of us had had such a good experience with Cassie as a teacher that the group voted to have the workshop.

Planning involved contacting Cassie in January to see if she was interested in coming and to find out what it would take to get her here. I offered to have it at my place to save money from renting a facility and because my place was the most appropriate venue. We needed an indoor space for the two hour Friday evening presentation, and an outdoor space for working with the flax all day on Saturday. A bonus to having it here was that I had flax growing in my garden. Money was a consideration, of course. The guild did not have the funds to cover any unmet expenses, so I would need to make sure they were covered by what we charged the participants. We would need twelve people to sign up. We could have had less, but then we would have needed to charge more. You will find details of the workshop, including photos, at Homeplace Earth.

When I taught at the community college I helped bring two authors, Jessica Prentice in 2006 and Sandor Katz in 2007, to the college for an evening program. Since the program was at the college I didn’t have to worry about having a clean facility with enough chairs for the crowd, lighted parking, and restrooms. The college paid for travel and an honorarium, and the authors had the opportunity to sell their books. I did have to worry about getting the word out to the community, who could attend the programs for free. I hosted both authors at my home overnight. That was a plus for me since it was an opportunity to get to know them better. When you bring in a speaker, not all may be comfortable spending the night in someone’s home and may require hotel accommodations. If the college had not covered what it did, we would have had to rent somewhere and charge admission for the programs.

The Flax to Linen workshop was different than those public programs. It was to teach a specific skill to a limited amount of people and the instructor was bringing materials for each person to work with. To turn flax into linen you need to have equipment. Cassie brought some and those of us who had flax brakes, scutching boards, and hackles added ours for the group to use.

If you want to plan a workshop on a subject that interests you, a good place to find a potential speaker is to meet them where they are already presenting, such as a conference or the Mother Earth News Fair. Or, you might choose someone you have already enjoyed learning from through their DVDs or books. Some organizations maintain lists of available speakers. Alternatively, you can find contact information from the websites of potential presenters. I know people turn to YouTube these days for their information, but there is nothing like the person-to-person connection that results from a workshop.

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.

Photos by Stephanie Conner.

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.

Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects

Borage Under Garden Plants

Insectary circle including borage. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We plant selected flowers among our vegetables to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects into our garden. Farmscaping is the name for this practice on a big scale: see the ATTRA publication Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control – CT065. The download costs 99 cents unless you are a subscriber, or if the cost is beyond your means. Oregon State Extension has a 40-page, Year 2000 version online.

After studying the literature, I made a plan and chose some flowers to deal with several garden pests and the need for pollinators. I haven’t run a trial to see whether our flowers do attract more beneficial insects than we had previously, but we do enjoy seeing the flowers. Diversity of species generally helps the ecosystem. Organic pest control improves your crop yields without harming the environment.


In spring, we plant sweet alyssum with spring cabbage and broccoli to attract insects that eat aphids. We transplant one alyssum per eight broccoli or cabbage plants down the middle of the bed, between the two rows of brassicas.

We sow the alyssum in our greenhouse in early March, on the same date as we sow replacement cabbage and broccoli. We transplant in mid-April when we replace any cabbage and broccoli casualties, 2 or 3 weeks after originally transplanting the brassicas. This works very well. We do explain carefully to our helpers not to pull them out when weeding, or smother them with mulch when we top up the hay mulch.

We also grow some repellent flowers (nasturtiums, French marigolds) and some trap crop flowers (cleome for harlequin bugs) but that's a whole other topic.

Small, flat ,open flowers, like alyssum, borage, buckwheat, cosmos, dill, sunflowers and yarrow can attract useful insects like aphid parasites, braconid wasps, damsel bugs, lacewings, ladybugs, rove beetles, spined soldier beetles and syrphid flies. Sunflower heads are a collection of small disc flowers surrounded by ray flowers. You can simply plant out a mixture of these and watch what happens.

Or if you have a particular pest, read the ATTRA publication and make a specific plan. Ladybugs are good general helpers because their larvae eat the eggs of many different pest bugs.

 Cosmos Insectary Flower June 2017

Cosmos in an insectary circle. Photo by Pam Dawling

Cindy Conner pointed out a way to get early insectary flowers (if your climate is suitable) – leave your parsley or celery to overwinter. If it survives it will regrow, flower and set seed, with no extra effort on your part. Another way to have earlier flowers is to use buckwheat as a cover crop once the spring frosts are over.

At the end of April, we sow several plug flats of different flowers to plant out in Insectary. Circles at the ends of our raised beds. We include borage, calendula, cosmos, dill, sunflowers, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) and zinnias in that sowing, to plant out in mid-late May, after the big push to transplant all our tender food crops. We used to sow earlier, but we were too busy to get them transplanted at the right time, so it’s better for us to hold off and sow later.

For suitable places to transplant our insectary circles we choose beds where the crop will be growing until the frost date. This includes chard, eggplant, leeks, okra and tomatoes.  Our focus is on food crops and we are always so busy that we have developed a method that saves time and reduces the chances of bad things happening.

As mentioned already, we get a lot of help in our garden from visitors, so we need to make sure the flowers are obvious to prevent over-enthusiastic weeding. We take old plastic buckets and cut hoops from them. (Yay! A use for cracked buckets!) We set the hoops in the soil and plant the flowers very close together inside the hoops. This flags them as something important. I plant about seven plants in each bucket hoop. It works just fine to have the flowers be just 2 to 3 inches apart.

Small Sunflowers Growing IN Garden

Insectary flowers in a bucket circle.Photo by Pam Dawling

The ideal day for transplanting insectary flowers is one when rain is expected at night, as otherwise it’s a fussy little job to visit all the circles with a watering can every day. I load up a wheelbarrow, with flats leaning out the sides like wings. The hoops go on the wheelbarrow handles, and the empty watering can does, too.

I work my way along the main paths, locating suitable beds. I set the hoop on the ground and dig around outside it, putting the soil into the hoop and "sawing" the hoop down into the ground. Then I choose a selection from the flats, usually a mix of tall and short plants, transplant, water and move on. I hope to find a suitable spot every 25 feet or so.

If it doesn’t rain, I hand-water daily until each circle has had a good soaking from night-time sprinklers or rain, and it is clear the plants aren't wilting.


All summer, whenever we sow another row of beans, we drop a sunflower seed in the furrow every 10 feet. Picking beans takes a long time and we like to have landmarks to indicate where different people started picking. The only thing worse than spending a long time picking beans is spending longer picking the same section twice!

Years ago, our seed order arrived with some split packets. Beans, sweet corn and sunflowers were mixed. We thought we had sorted them out, but accidentally got sunflowers in our bean rows. We liked the results so much that we now plant them deliberately. It also means we can point to the sunflowers in the distance and say "the beans to pick are there, where the sunflowers are."

Sunflower Insectary In Field

Sunflower in an insectary planting. Photo by Pam Dawling

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Find Pam’s book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, read her blog on her website, and connect with her on Facebook. Read all Pam’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.

Learning the Art and Science of Scything: How to Beat a Weed Whacker

NC Wyeth The Scythers Painting

The Scythers by N.C. Wyeth (public domain)

There's been quite a bit of buzz about sycthes and mowing lately. People may want to get outside more, burn less oil, do things by hand, and spend less money but they still need to mow lawns, make hay, and harvest what they grow. If you're one of those, you might be interested in a new book about the European tradition of using scythes.

Ian Miller wrote The Scything Handbook, based on experience that began with a two-year stint on a biodynamic farm in Austria where he learned to mow, peen, and sharpen. While developing a 20-acre, scythe-based homestead near Decorah, Iowa, where he grows grain for bread and makes hay by hand, and after studying historic German scything texts, he decided to write a book to try and make it easier for folks to learn about this marvelous tool.

(Full disclosure: I have known Ian since he translated a book I wrote into German, and was honored to write the forward for his — Ian and I will be teaching a one-day class after the Oregon fair. More about that below.)

When I moved to the country and suddenly had more space to tend outside than inside, there was no way I was going to spend a lot of money on a lawn mower that would require more money every time I used it — and I had a lot of blackberries to deal with, and they weren't going to succumb to any grass-cutting machine that I might be able to afford.

Finding the Right Scythe

So when I read a brief piece in Mother Earth News about mowing with a European-style scythe, I was intrigued. I'd always admired those long blades and curvaceous handles, and had even borrowed one from a friend, but it didn't seem to work — or I just failed to get the technique. The author of the Mother Earth News article, however, Elliott Fishbein of ScytheSupply, said the European blade was lighter, sharper, easier to use. Hmmm.

I called the number, steeling myself against the hard sell, to see if I could learn anything useful before I decided to buy.

Elliot was not a salesman — he was a fine carpenter who had fallen in love with a new/old tool, and started the business in order to share the joy of a different kind of handwork. By the end of our (rather long) conversation, Elliot had convinced me not to buy his longest blade (longer does not equal better). Instead, he sold me an 18-inch ditch blade — which he assured me would suit all my needs. That conversation transformed mere shopping into an act of faith and friendship.

Trying Out a Scythe for the First Time

When the scythe arrived, and despite my utter lack of experience and knowledge, it worked fully as well as promised. I was hooked, sold, convinced — and happy!

Joyfully, I mowed my patches of grass, and easily took out swaths of blackberry — unscathed! After a few hours of practice, I was eager to challenge my neighbor's noisy, gas-powered weed-whacker with the deadly whispers of my ditch blade. I eagerly read about sharpening and peening.

brought me into a long tradition of hand-mowing.When Elliot died in a car wreck, his wife Carol took over the business, and his correspondence. I have since visited Scythe Supply in Maine, and Carol and I still write — and not just about scythes.

Join a Scything Workshop

Oregon Mother Earth News Fair. While I learned to mow mostly by mowing alone, it is a social activity, and best learned in the company of others — and while the scythe is not so complicated that "the blind" can't "lead the blind," it is much better to learn from someone who has more experience than you do. Fortunately, that is getting easier. One of the places you can learn is at the Oregon Mother Earth News Fair, August 5-6, 2017, in Albany, where Ian will be speaking and demonstrating.

Scythe Workshop. And if you want a more in-depth introduction, as well as a chance to get your hands on a sharp scythe, Ian and I will be teaching a full-day class in Forest Grove, Oregon, August 7, 2017.

Whether you are interested in mowing the lawn, haying a meadow, or harvesting grains, this hands-on workshop will cover what you need to know to use this wonderful tool, including how to:

• customize the tool to your body, and assemble the parts so they work
• perform the nearly fortless mowing stroke
• hone the blade with a whetstone
• work safely
• mow tight areas like trees and pavement
• sharpen and maintain the blade (including how to hammer, or "peen")
• make hay and harvest grains

We will be practicing scything in the fields at Nana Cardoon, in Forest Grove, Oregon, where we will also share a delicious farm-fresh lunch around the table, as well as knowledge and friendship — which are, after all, the basis of all technology and culture.

You can register here.

Kiko Denzer is the author of Build Your Own Earth Oven and Dig Your Hands in the Dirt. He is a leader in the natural building community with more than 25 years experience building earthen structures. Find Kiko on Hand Print Press and read all his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Using a Climate Battery or GAHT System to Heat and Cool a Greenhouse Year-round

It’s a little-known fact: Most year-round greenhouses are energy guzzlers. To grow a variety of crops through the off-season, in most climates, a standard greenhouse needs large amounts of heating – usually propane or natural gas. This makes greenhouses costly to operate year-round for many growers, and not all that green. One study found growing tomatoes locally in New York year-round created more CO2 emissions than shipping tomatoes from far-away states like Florida.

Fortunately, there are easy and affordable solutions to this challenge, allowing growers to create a lush, abundant year-round garden with a variety of crops. Using passive solar design, greenhouses can dramatically reduce energy costs by maximizing the use of free solar energy.

Glazing for Passive Solar Greenhouses

Instead of a completely plastic or glass structure, passive solar greenhouses balance the area of glazing (glass or plastic) and insulation. In the Northern hemisphere, the North wall is insulated much like a standard wall of a home. This reduces heat loss at night, and the need for fossil-fuel heating.

To compensate for the smaller area glazing area, passive solar greenhouses use glazing strategically: They are oriented so the majority of glazing faces the sun, at the right angle. Further principles include insulating underground to couple the structure to the stable temperatures of the soil, and incorporating sufficient natural ventilation for passive cooling. (For more on the principles of passive solar greenhouse design, see the book The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse, or our summary blog How to Design a Year-Round Solar Greenhouse.)


Though passive solar greenhouse design goes a long way to reducing energy costs and enabling year-round growing, some climate control is usually still needed. (The amount and cost depends on what you are trying to grow and your climate.) Fortunately, there are many sustainable options to heat and cool a greenhouse year-round. Most of them can be described with the not-so-sexy name of “thermal storage.”

Thermal storage rely on a simple fact: Greenhouses normally collect excessive amounts of heat during the day, due to the large area of glazing (glass or plastics). For example, on a sunny winter day, a greenhouse can easily reach temperatures over 100 F if it is not ventilated. As a result, most growers continually ventilate the structure on winter days, flushing that heat outside with exhaust fans.

The problem is that after the sun goes down, the greenhouse almost immediately overcools. Glazing materials are extremely poor insulators; they conduct heat very easily, and thus the greenhouse cools down immediately. The challenge with regulating a greenhouse’s temperature, therefore, is not so much the total amount of heat, but simply timing.

Instead of venting all the greenhouse’s heat out during the day, a smart self-heating greenhouse stores this heat for when it is needed. It takes advantage of the natural greenhouse effect during the day, using this free heat to warm the greenhouse at night.

How to Store Thermal Energy in a Solar Greenhouse

There are several ways to store thermal energy. Incorporating thermal mass materials, like water, is the most common. Stacking several large barrels of water in a greenhouse creates a water wall, which will passively absorb heat during the day and re-radiate this at night. While simple, water walls come with some practical challenges. First, they are bulky. You need a lot of the material to get a significant effect, and this takes up room in the greenhouse. Secondly, thermal mass relies on direct sunshine in order to have a major effect, which is not always available in locations with cloudy winters. (More tips on using water as thermal mass here.)

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The perfect thermal storage medium is low-cost, space-efficient, and has a large heat capacity (i.e. there is lots of it). Fortunately, every greenhouse already has one of these — the soil underground. The soil can be used to regulate a greenhouse’s temperature, just like water. But in contrast to water, there is an immense amount of it already underneath the greenhouse, conveniently out of the way.

Using a Climate Battery

A ground to air heat exchanger, often called climate battery, allows the greenhouse to tap into this natural reserve of thermal mass. It uses the soil to heat, cool and dehumidify the greenhouse – three critical functions all in one. Here’s how it works: when the greenhouse heats up during the day, fans automatically turn on and move hot air from the greenhouse through a network of pipes buried in the soil underground. As the hot air is circulated underground, heat is slowly transferred to the soil. After moving through the pipes, the air is then exhausted back into the greenhouse, cooler and drier. In this way, the system cools the greenhouse by transferring heat to the soil.

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When the greenhouse gets too cold (at night or on cold days), the system provides heating as well. When the air drops below a threshold temperature, the fans automatically turn on and circulate air underground. This time, the soil is warmer than the air, and heat is transferred back to the air. (For further explanation, a video shows how a climate battery works.)

In addition to a heater / cooler, a climate battery is also a de-humidifier. During the day, the air in the greenhouse is usually hot and humid. As it moves underground it cools, reaches the dew point and condenses. Water droplets then percolate into the soil through small perforations in the pipes. In effect, the system takes water out of the air and drops it into the soil, where it’s available to plants roots. (The phase change from water vapor to liquid is also a major driver of the cooling power during the day, making it a vital part of the system functioning.)

A climate battery partly works by storing excess heat from the greenhouse in the soil. It also relies on the stable temperatures of the soil deep underground. Throughout most of the US, the soil remains roughly 40-50F a few feet below ground, despite much more extreme air temperatures). Though 50F is not hot, during the coldest parts of the year, this moderate temperature air is usually much warmer than the outside, helping prevent freezing in the greenhouse.

Though climate batteries use the stable temperature of the earth, they are different than geothermal heat pumps, often simply called ‘geothermal systems’. Heat pumps involve a refrigeration cycle (circulating a fluid underground), making them much more complicated and expensive. Climate batteries, in contrast, circulate air. The only required components are fans, thermostats and drain pipe buried underground. Pipes of a climate battery are also buried at a comparatively shallow depth – usually 2 to 5 ft. underground. Thus, these systems are vastly cheaper and simpler to install compared to geothermal heat pumps – the reason some people call them ‘geothermal lite’ or ‘the poor man’s geothermal.’

Ground to air heat exchangers have been given several other names as well, due to a long history of development with many actors. John Cruickshank coined the term ‘climate battery’ when installing one at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) in Colorado, where Jerome Osentowski now grows in permaculture greenhouses. (You can read more about their greenhouse and climate batteries in The Forest Garden Greenhouse.)

What is a Ground-to-Air Heat Transfer System?

Ceres Greenhouse Solutions altered the system slightly to increase and called the design a Ground to Air Heat Transfer (GAHT) system. (You can read more about GAHT systems in The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse.) ‘Earth Tubes’ are another name that gets thrown in the mix. They are significantly different due to the fact that they are one-way airflow systems, sucking air from the outside and exhausting it inside, usually in conjunction with an earth ship home. Climate batteries and GAHT systems, in contrast, return air to the greenhouse as closed-loop systems. 

The concept of using the stable temperatures and thermal mass of the soil pre-dates all of the above monikers. The first installation of a similar ground to air heat exchanger was in the 1940s. Currently, they are still rare in greenhouse applications. That is changing, though, as people discover the incredible benefits of greenhouses’ immense thermal energy potential, and the soil’s capacity to store heat over long periods. Some growers may need to incorporate back-up heating for the coldest parts of the winter, but largely a climate battery allows the greenhouse to regulate its temperature using its own naturally generated heat. The result is a naturally abundant and self-reliant greenhouse, able to grow much more year-round without fossil fuels.


For more on how to install a climate battery system, resources include:

Lindsey Schiller is a greenhouse designer and co-founder of Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, which researches, designs and builds energy-efficient year-round greenhouses. She is also co-author, along with Marc Plinke, of The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse: How to Design and Build a Net-Zero Energy Greenhouse. Read all of Lindsey’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.