Mother Earth News Blogs >

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

Use Mulch to Reduce Weeds, Save Water and Feed Your Plants

Organic mulches have a number of advantages:

• Because mulches prevent light from reaching the top layer of soil, they suppress weeds.
• Mulches protect soil from the severe weather, such as the compacting effects of heavy rain.
• Mulches help to prevent evaporation, so soil remains moist for longer.
• Organic mulches help to improve the soil as they rot down.
• Mulches provide a great habitat for beneficial garden predators, such as spiders and ground beetles.

Use trimmings from the garden as mulch. Thin layers of grass clippings can be used on your vegetable beds. Shredded woody prunings or shredded bark can be spread around fruit trees and bushes, or used as pathways between beds. Straw or hay can be laid thickly around fruits, such as strawberries and zucchinis, to keep them off the soil and prevent rotting.

Remove any perennial weeds before mulching. If the weather is dry, water the soil first or wait until it has rained before mulching.

Most mulches should be applied at least 1-2 inches thick, but hay and straw can be laid much thicker. Grass clippings, on the other hand, should be added thinly at regular intervals to prevent it turning into a wet and smelly mat.
Bare soil can be mulched using layers of thick brown cardboard to suppress weeds. Overlap the sheets by at least a foot, and weigh it down using bricks or stones. Paper mulches suppress weeds and help to retain moisture. To plant through it, just cut a cross shape in the paper, dig a hole and plant.

Learn more about mulching in this video.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Shiitake Mushrooms: Non-Traditional Forest Products, Part 2

11329806_998654383480633_461721270739443695_n (1)

In Part 1 of this series, we told you how we got involved cultivating shiitake mushrooms through our Agricultural Cooperative Extension Agency. This is how our farm became "The Mushroom Hut @ Fox Farms". Read Part 1 for guidance on choosing the right logs and when to inoculate them. In this post, we'll show you how to get started with the inoculation and cultivating of shiitakes.

Equipment and Supplies

• Drill
• Drill bit (suggested 12 mm) — Field & Forest has these for $13.00 each
• Wax (Cheese wax suggested) — Expect to pay about $15.00 for 5 pounds. The non-paraffin is more expensive but better for organic growers.
• Inoculator (thumb-style brass) — Field & Forest has this for $33.00.
• You can use a kitchen baster brush (natural bristle with no plastic) or you can purchase wax daubers — you can get packages of four for $1.00.
• Spawn can also be purchased from Field & Forest, Fungi Perfecti, and elsewhere. If interested in the project through Cooperative Extension, contact your local extension office for more info.
• You may contact local loggers regarding logs that are too small for lumber as sometimes they sell this for firewood. If you have it available, you can cut your own.
• If you decide to soak your logs, you will need a container large enough to fit the size of log you have cut. There are livestock water troughs for larger logs and Wal-Mart has plastic "totes" that would service smaller logs and are priced reasonably.

Setup to Inoculate Mushroom Logs

I suggest to have a work area (station) for each task:

1. Find a location that will be suitable for an electric drill (if you’re in a remote area make sure you have extra batteries). Have an area where you can set up your drill to make the holes in the logs.

2. It is recommended to space the holes 6 to 8 inches apart in rows along the length with 2 to 4 in between rows. The holes should look like a staggered diamond pattern. (Closer spacings increase the rate of colonization and more rapid production but, the spawn doesn’t go as far). Use your own judgement.

3. Have an area you can put your log to inoculate with the spawn. Make sure the drilled hole is completely “full” of the spawn. Using your thumb inoculator, punch it down into the bag of spawn until the inoculator is full then, put it over the hole in the log and using your thumb press a couple of times to release the spawn into the hole.

4. Have an area for your waxing station. You can have the wax slowly melting (on low) while you are doing 1 and 2. Make sure the wax never gets too hot. Use a natural bristle brush or wax dauber to apply the wax completely covering the spawn/hole, and make sure there are no air bubbles. Go over it a couple of times if you need to. Be careful not to drop wax on your skin.


Stacking the Logs

After you have finished with your logs it is time to “stack” your logs and wait for fruiting. Fruiting time can be anywhere from 6-12 months from time of inoculation.

1. You can just “low stack” the logs which is just leaving them on the ground but, it is re-commended to lay the logs on top of a pallet or cinderblocks to keep ground fungi from
invading the logs.

2. You can stack in “crib style” stacking logs on top of each other (horizontal layers of logs laid perpendicular to each other).

3. Then, there is the “lean to” where the logs are just leaned up against a fencing, rail, or wire.

During this time make sure the bark/logs do not dry out. If it is unusually dry you can use an overhead sprinkling system, watering hose or soak in a container. If soaking in a container it is recommended to soak between 24 to 78 hours. This can also be done to “force” fruiting.

Know your water source! Very important: Do not use water from a creek, branch, or river that has horses upstream of your mushrooms. E-coli has been found in water from this type of source.


When to Harvest?

Logs can fruit anywhere from 6 to 12 months from inoculation due to moisture content in logs, strain of mushroom, air temp, humidity, rainfall and light. When you see the logs begin to fruit you can help the fruiting by watering or soaking. It can take about 3 days for the mushroom to be large enough for harvest. Look under the cap of the mushroom for bugs/snails and brush off with a “mushroom” brush or baster or plain paper towel.

Collect mushrooms in box, basket or stainless steel container. Store in refrigerator or cool area immediately to preserve freshness.

How to Treat Logs After Harvest

Put the logs in a designated area where you will know these logs have fruited. It is good to keep notes on a calendar as to when you have a fruiting so you can keep up with forcing of these logs. It is recommended only to force logs every 6 to 10 weeks. You can look on your calendar.

If these logs have not started to fruit again, you can put them in containers to soak and force another fruiting. After soaking it is recommended to “shock” the log with a rubber mallet. To do this just strike the ends of the logs several times. This helps to stimulate the mycelium.

Pest and Insects

Try to keep leaves raked away from your log stacks. This is a good hiding place for snails and other bugs that love to eat on the mushroom. You can put out snail baits (saucers of beer) for the snails to drown in. Otherwise, you have to pick most of the other bugs off the mushrooms as being picked. There are beetles that like to eat into the wax to spawn, so watch for this. Squirrels may be a problem in some places.

Most logs will produce at least two crops per year. Depending on the strain those crops may be Spring and Early Fall with some sporadic fruiting through the summer. There are other ways to produce mushrooms such as using basements, fruiting houses, etc., but that can lead to more equipment and expense for checking humidity, etc. I suggest trying a simple route with less expense and then, if you decide to go bigger search out the other methods.

Good luck in your ventures!

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.

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

Compost Meat, Fish, and Dairy with the Bokashi Composting Method

Bokashi composting allows you to compost much more waste generated in your home which ordinarily, would not be suitable for the compost heap.  It is a composting method which uses anaerobic bacteria (those which live in low oxygen environments) to ferment (or pickle) the waste and is small enough to fit in a kitchen, making it ideal for urban homes.


This is my Bokashi Composting system produced by Vermitek.

How Does Bokashi Composting Work?

The beneficial microbes are on rice bran which work in a low oxygen system to ferment the waste added to the bin.


This is the bran where the effective microbes (EM) are located. The bran is sprinkled on the waste in layers.

You can compost a lot more kitchen waste in these systems than you can in a vermicomposting or worm farm system including items which would normally attract vermin or predators to your heap. Bokashi systems are a two-fold process to get all the benefits of composting. The first is the fermentation or pickling, the second is actually composting the fermented waste.

What You Can Compost

The great thing about this method of composting is the fact you can add meat, fish and dairy waste and it can be composted. In this type of system you can add the following:

• Prepared foods
• Cooked foods
• Dairy
• Cooked meat
• Raw meat
• Cooked Fish
• Raw fish
• Eggs
• Bread, grains, cereals, pasta
• Fruit peelings, cores and pits
• Vegetable stems, peels, off cuts or trimmings
• Teabags, coffee grinds
• Small bones
• Deadheaded flowers


This is inside my Bokashi bin, you can see the chicken bones, egg shells, teabags, fruit and vegetable peelings.

You want to avoid large bone pieces because these will take too long to breakdown and avoid large quantities of liquid as this will just run through the false bottom or screen in a commercially bought Bokashi composting system and will not be in contact with the microorganisms which do the work.

Benefits of Bokashi

Aside from the ability to compost almost anything, Bokashi systems are low odor and the odor which does occur smells a little like vinegar, pickling or winemaking. 

The system does not attract bugs like fruit flies in the area it is held (which is a bonus if you collect the waste in the kitchen or somewhere inside the house).

Bokashi composting doesn’t attract vermin like rodents and larger predators are less like to be attracted too. It is thought this is due to the acidity of the waste once it is fermented.

More beneficial bacteria for the soil. A greater diversity of bacteria means your plants are more likely to have more nutrients available to them which in turn means they will be healthier and able to tolerate heat stress better, resist diseases, cope better with pests and be better for you with higher nutrient content.

The process is fast and efficient. Fermentation takes 1 to 2 weeks and composting takes about 2 weeks in summer. With the exception of bones and large hard pits or stems from produce the material is composted within 2 weeks.

During the fermentation stage, a liquid is produced like in a worm composting bin which can be diluted to make a tea or liquid fertilizer for fruit, vegetables, trees, herbaceous shrubs and perennials, flowers, container plants and house plants. You can even use the Bokashi juice or leachate undiluted to help prevent drain clogs!  I add it to my compost heap to help provide a kickstart to the pile.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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

‘Solidago caesia’: A Non-Allergenic and Shade-Loving Goldenrod


Solidago caesia happens to be one of my very favorite autumn-blooming perennials. The bright, Primrose-yellow brilliance of its unusual zig-zag, axillary, long-lasting flower heads never fails to garner praise from garden visitors.


One of the most commonly asked questions, (after I answer the "Wow...what is that?" question) is "Doesn't it make you sneeze?"

Poor, poor Goldenrod, taking the heat for Ambrosia artemisiifolia just because it coincidentally shares the same window of time in flowering. Ambrosia artemisiifolia is the dreaded allergen "ragweed"! Goldenrod pollen DOES NOT cause an allergic reaction.

Native and Shade-Loving

Solidago caesia is native to 32 states in the continental US —USDA Map — from Maine to Texas and three Canadian provinces. That said, I would think it to be hardy just about anywhere. 

Although its native habitat is shade, it can handle part sun. Moisture requirements are not high and I've grown it successfully in average to dry-ish soil. Plant height is 18 to 36 inches if erect, but it so often assumes a graceful arching habit.

Pest Resistance

The gargantuan populations of deer that roam these mountains and valleys have never even raised an eyebrow at this plant. (Do deer even have eyebrows?)

So yes, this is a "Goldenrod" — not a weedy Goldenrod, but an extremely desirable one — and I highly recommend it for just about any garden. Be it a native, natural, wild or formal garden, there's a place for Solidago caesia. I've been building a good stock of Solidago caesia to share with you and now is a good time to plant them.

Barry Glick founded Sunshine Farm and Gardens in 1972 on 60 acres in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. His plant collection now numbers more than 10,000 taxa, many unknown to cultivation. Several of these plants have been introduced to gardening in recent years. Barry exchanges seeds and plants with people at arboretums, botanic gardens, nurseries and private gardens in virtually every country in the world. Peruse Barry’s speakers series here and read the rave reviews hereIf you have any questions, would like to chat about any plants that Barry offers, send an email to his personal email addressRead all of Barry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

Cooperative Neighborhood Composting

When I started composting in 5-gallon buckets a year ago, I never could have imagined just how much composting could bring to my life. I'm sure you are all thinking to yourselves, "Really? How much can you possibly benefit from composting?"

Besides the obvious benefit to the environment from reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills and providing your garden with "black gold", what if I told you that composting has created and strengthened my relationships with my neighbors? What if I told you that it provides me with a weekly workout? What if I told you that I can barter with it? Are you listening now?


Build Relationships with Your Neighbors

We moved into our house a little under a year ago. After 6 months, I had met a couple of our neighbors, but there were still a few others I didn't know very well. What I did know was that one of them had just gotten a horse. Having an organic garden, I couldn't help myself from thinking how awesome it would be if I could compost horse manure to use for amending my garden beds.

On a random encounter with this neighbor, I inquired what they were doing with their horse manure. She indicated they were actually bagging it in small bags for the trash. I offered that they could dispose of it directly in my compost bin (which is very accessible to them), and they have been making weekly "deposits" ever since!

I make sure to take them some fresh produce from the garden every now and then (like when I was overrun with yellow squash). It's a win-win situation and now we are way more comfortable talking to each other. She even brought the horse over into our backyard once for the kids to check out and pet!

Horse manure resized

Would you like to get to know your neighbors better? Maybe they don't have a horse, but perhaps they keep chickens. Or maybe they have grass clippings or leaves to dispose of. If your compost bin is convenient for them, maybe they even want to be more sustainable and toss their kitchen scraps in there without having to build their own compost bin. You never know, but it can be a way to strike up a conversation.

Bartering with Compost

I'm not sure if this is technically "barter," but I found another interesting mutual benefit between myself and another neighbor. Every week, when I turn my compost pile (my Saturday morning homesteading workout!), I pick out tons of grubs. I do not want the grubs in my compost, because if they make it into my garden beds, I'll have rodents and birds digging through the beds destroying my young plants. I had been tossing these grubs out onto the dirt in my backyard and hoping for birds to get them.

Recently, I discovered through the research I have been doing on having backyard chickens that grubs are great snacks for chickens! While I don't have chickens yet, one neighbor has both chickens and ducks. So the kids and I went over and offered to feed their chickens and ducks every week with the grubs that I pick out of the compost. They told us to go ahead and then to also pick out and keep any of the eggs we find in the coop.

Backyard chicken eating grubs

Again, WIN-WIN! Another way you can barter with your compost is to offer some compost to neighbors who garden in exchange for some tasty fruits or vegetables that you may not be growing yourself.

Cooperative Composting

I titled this article "Cooperative Composting" because I want to highlight the community building and benefiting that occurs from sustainable homesteading activities. People can get so carried away in the "self-sufficiency" aspect of homesteading that they fail to realize how amazing and great it can be to come together as a community and support each other.

From my cooperative composting examples above to garden swaps and also just supporting each other through difficult times, strong communities are essential for people to thrive. I look forward to many more shared experiences with my physical neighbors as well as my online community.

Rachel Stutts began yearning for a simpler lifestyle more rooted in family and community after having two children and continuing in the corporate rat race.  Following conversations with her husband over drinks one date-night, they agreed to search for a new property where they now work toward some serious gardening and "lite homesteading" pursuits.  Connect with Rachel at her Amber Burst blog.  Read all of Rachel's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

It's a Bug-Eat-Bug World: Controlling Tomato Hornworms with Braconidae Wasps

The Green Invader is coming. During the first two years of growing my red delicious orbs I would declare war when the first hornworm of the season showed its extended green self in one of my prized heirloom tomato plants.

I would gladly give it a swim in a special glass jar with a water and soap mixture for offending bugs. I called this my Swimming Pool of Death. Dozens of Japanese beetles and a few hornworms went for a dip in this noxious fluid never to decorate and defile a tomato plant again.


Hornworm with wasp eggs

Tomato Hornworms and Their Natural Enemy

One day when I was researching the University of Maryland’s Grow-It-Eat-It website’s insect section, I learned many things about bugs. Hornworms eat more than tomato plants. They also will eat other plants from the solanaceae family like eggplant, peppers, moonflower, tobacco, and potato plants.

I came across a photo of a hornworm with a pearly-white adornment on its back. I had seen a couple of these types of hornworms and plunged them in the pool of death despite their wearing attractive pearly jewelry. What a mistake I had been making. Those pearly white bits of hornworm jewelry were Braconidae Wasp eggs.

This specialized wasp of Lilliputian stature can bring down the dreaded hornworm on a slow road to death. Considered a friend of the tomato grower it’s a mere half inch or so in length and while deadly to the hornworm it’s harmless to humans. Once I figured this out I’d let the Braconidae eggs go through their dance steps on the backs of hapless hornworms. The little wasps go through the pupate stage into the cool looking white egg sacs we see. Later on they feed on their host until ready to fly away and search for more yummy hornworms. The end result is a dead hornworm and several happy little wasps. What a cool little winged critter those wasps are.

But Wait, a Stay of Execution Has Been Granted

I figured I’d be a hornworm hater forever until visiting the master gardener table at the Baltimore Farmer’s market this spring. I love to chat with those experts of massive plant and garden knowledge and usually have a question or three. On this occasion, I spoke of my dislike for hornworms and the master gardener said hornworms need love, too.

It turns out if hornworms dodge Braconidae Wasps and crazed tomato growers like me they morph into a lovely Sphinx Moth. Because I love butterflies and most large moths I decided it wasn’t too late for me to show a little compassion for one of Mother Nature’s pieces of the puzzle we humans haven’t figured out. So starting this year when I found hornworms in my prized tomatoes I would pluck off about eight inches of tomato branch and give the hornworm a ride to the nearest maple tree where they could ponder their choice of tomato patch.

 very large Juliet

A very happy 'Juliet' tomato plant

Now that I’m a recovering hornworm hater/killer I must be accumulating Karma points, good for who knows what. Perhaps a Sphinx Moth will show up on a day when I need a bit of good cheer and I can say, “I probably saved your life so you could go forth and repeat the cycle.”

Maybe you, too, can show some compassion and save one or two? If not there’s always the swimming pool of death. Your tomato plant will be spared and you won’t go to jail for killing a hornworm. That’s almost a happy ending.

tomatoes from my garden

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, Read all of Kurt'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.

DIY Root Cellars for Storing Carrots, Beets, Potatoes, and More

Our ancestors didn't have supermarkets. They had to grow and store all of their own food. In order to do so, root cellars were a necessity. While no longer an absolute necessity, root cellars are still pretty cool. And, they are not particularly difficult to build.

My husband built our root cellar when we put an addition on our house. He dug down to the ledge, built up the sides with concrete blocks and poured a cement floor. He then continued on with the addition, putting a trap door in the floor.

late fall 015

Root Cellaring Basics

Not planning to build an addition soon? No problem. If you have a basement, you are already almost there. If your basement stays cool, but doesn't freeze, all you have to do is make a critter-free space. If your basement is heated, there needs to be a little more planning.

Pick a corner far away from the heat source that has earth on the outside of the walls. Build a room using these two walls and adding two more. Put some insulation on the inside of the new walls. Insert a door and create some shelves. And you are in business!

Beets, carrots, turnips and potatoes are ideal candidates for a root cellar. Potatoes need to be dry so set them in the Sun or on a porch for about twenty minutes.


Don't leave them in the sun for too long as they will turn green and become inedible.


Sort through them and remove any that are dinged, cut or partially eaten to be used first.


Brush the rest off gently and place in a milk crate. These can then go directly into the root cellar. Just be careful not to pile them too high. The weight can mush the ones on the bottom, starting a rot that will eventually spoil them all.

Beets, carrots and turnips should also be dry. Dig them up, remove most of the top (all but about an inch) and set them out for about twenty minutes.


Again, don't leave them in the sun for too long — carrots will turn green and become inedible. Sometimes carrots have a green top from pushing up out of the ground when growing. These can still be stored, just don't eat the green parts when using them. Put aside the ones that aren't perfect to be eaten soon. Dust the rest gently.

Take a clean 5-gallon bucket and place a layer of wood shavings on the bottom. Spritz very lightly. Place the veggies on top, not touching each other.


Cover with wood chips and repeat until the bucket is full. Put on a lid and move it into the root cellar.

Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her 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.