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

Supercharge Your Soil For Spring!

 

Now’s the ideal time to enrich your soil for the coming growing season. The best way to do that is to add organic matter to improve soil structure, increase fertility, and feed the essential microbial life that lives in the soil.

A thick layer of organic matter — for instance, compost, animal manure or leafmold — can be spread on the soil surface then forked or tilled in to the top 6-12 inches of soil.

Alternatively, spread organic matter as a 2- 3-inch thick mulch. Earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms will work the mulch into the soil for you. This is the best way to improve soil around perennial plants such as fruit trees and bushes, or around overwintering vegetable crops. Mulching with organic matter also helps to lock in soil moisture by reducing evaporation, which means less watering is needed.

Regular mulching is a key part of the no-dig growing method. Avoiding tilling the soil encourages a healthy soil ecosystem, which can enhance growth. No-dig beds should be narrow enough that all cultivation can be carried out from the sides, as this avoids the risk of compaction. Soil that’s not compacted shouldn’t need to be dug!

Many overwintering annual weeds and self-sown salads (such as mache, or corn salad) will form mats of foliage and, just like a cover crop, help to protect the soil from erosion and nutrient leaching. Leave these annual weeds in place until spring, and then hoe them off before they set seed. They can be left on the soil surface, dug into the soil, or composted.

Comfrey has long roots that draw minerals up into the plant from deep within the soil. When its large leaves are cut they can be used for feeding your soil and plants. Lay them around hungry plants as mulch, or dig them into the soil. You can also make liquid fertilizer from comfrey, which is great for fruiting crops such as peppers, tomatoes and squashes. Look out for the variety ‘Bocking 14’, which won’t spread like other varieties. It’s a useful plant to grow next to your compost heap.

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.

Homage Gardening

Homage1

With the recent passing of my aunt, memories of creating my spiral herb garden flooded back to me. This garden is an homage to her brother and each of the fathers in my life— my birth father, stepfather, and father-in-law. Every time I look at, pass by, or harvest one of my herbs becomes all the more sweet and tender as I dwell on the good times when each of these amazing men were kickin' around this planet.

If you haven't channeled creativity to help you through the passing of someone special, I highly recommend it. The physical work and thoughtful effort that it took to incorporate my connection with each of these wonderful fathers into my garden helped immeasurably through the first weeks after the last one passed. Since then, because I put so much love, intention, and thought into creating the garden, every time I pass by the spiral it's like my dads are still with me.

The page about building this garden shows a photo array of the process. Most of the construction took two full days, but the filling and planting has been a longer process. I have several perennials in this garden, but each spring I switch out the annuals. I end up interacting with the spiral nearly every day during the spring, summer, and fall—each time I feel connection or recall some loving memory of one of my fathers. Every time, I walk away with a smile.

Though he wasn’t originally in the energies when building my spiral, I credit my maternal grandfather with my veggie gardening thumb—in a way, he’s spread throughout my whole garden. I grew up with stories and my mother’s memories of his Victory Gardens. My mother’s own green thumb turned toward flowers, containers full that never cease to bring beauty wherever she tends them. I’m eternally grateful to have inherited green thumbs on both hands.

Homage2

Of course, once I created the Dads’ Spiral I felt that tinge of guilt that the moms didn’t have something as well. It was a bit tougher to create with the same spirit as two of my mothers were (and are) still living. However, I drew on my fondest memories and created an altar commemorating the strongly individual women that I call mom.

Not surprisingly, this garden features flowers. To the left of the altar, I have added a smattering of special irises that a dear friend gave me when she thinned her crowd. These balance out the annuals that fill the pots and field tile each season. Two of my sculptures are also present as my birth mother is definitely represented in my arting genes. Once all of my moms have passed, I plan on adding to this garden. Thankfully, I still have time for chatting and catching up with them before that time comes.

The creative process is different for each of us—in my opinion, there is no one right way. I tend to follow my intuition and feelings so it’s easy for me to sit with my imagination and the bits and pieces I have in my stash while they find their way into whatever I am creating. Others may want to use more direct and linear approaches.

Whatever your method, it can be very cathartic to feel the strong, melding connection to your loved ones as you build something in their memory within your garden. I can attest that it also feels wonderful to have the feeling of their presence whenever seeing that memorial throughout the seasons.

Homage3

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Hoop-House Intercropping in Spring

­­In our hoop house (high tunnel) in central Virginia we have three distinct vegetable crop seasons, with a couple of overlapping crops like February snap peas (harvested late April to late May), and peppers which span from April to November:

Winter crops planted in September, October, and the first week of November. We harvest these from November to April (some spinach to May)

Early warm weather crops planted in March and early April, which we harvest from June to late July

High summer crops which we plant in July and harvest from August to October.

Here I will write about our spring hoop house transition from Season 1 to Season 2, interplanting tomatoes and other early warm weather crops (peppers, squash, cucumbers) among the remaining winter greens. When we are preparing for our fall plantings we clear the beds, add compost, broadfork and rake. But when we make the transition from winter crops to early spring crops in our high tunnel, we don’t clear whole beds. We like to keep the greens producing as long as possible, covering the Hungry Gap - the time before new spring plantings start to produce. In this case the new greens will be outdoors where it's cooler. Intercropping (also known as interplanting and relay planting) is a good way to maximize food production from a given amount of space. And space in a hoop house is prime real estate, because growing vegetables in a hoop house is so productive!

Six steps to make the transition from winter greens to early warm weather crops, while getting lots of produce every day.

To prepare space for the incoming transplants, we harvest out the greens down the middle of the bed, leaving the rows on the sides of the beds.

The center of this hoop house chard patch has been cleared and measured out for spring tomato transplants. Photo by Wren Vile

Next we measure and dig holes every two feet and put a shovelful of compost in each hole.

Then we set out the transplants, which may be dwarfed by the giant chard or kale on either side of them. This is not a problem for a short time. It may even help shade the new transplants and prevent wilting.

Soon we will make a last harvest of the salad mix to the south of these tomatoes. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Within the next two weeks after transplanting the tomatoes (or peppers, squash or cucumbers), we terminally harvest the greens directly to the south of each transplant, to let some more light reach the new plants.

To the north of these young squash plants are beet greens and scallions. To the south can be seen dried-up leaves of harvested beets. Photo by Wren Vile

Next we remove the rest of the greens on the south side of the bed, so they don't block light from the warm weather crop.

Large plants like these chard need to be cleared from the south of the new crops sooner than short crops like lettuce mix or spinach. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

When the greens on the south side are all gone, we harvest the ones on the north side.

We "normally" aim to transplant our hoop house tomatoes March 15, but this year we delayed a week due to a very cold snap. We keep the tomato transplants in pots in our greenhouse, which stays warmer at night than our double-layer plastic hoop house. The greenhouse has a solid blockwork north wall and double-glazed windows (repurposed patio doors). We can keep the transplants in the greenhouse warmer at night with rowcover. We use the same sequential cropping method for our cucumbers, yellow squash and peppers, usually transplanted 4/1. We do have rowcover ready in the hoop house for frosty nights after transplanting.

I have previously written about outdoor intercropping in various seasons for this blog:

1. Intercropping: Companion Planting that Really Works 3/7/2015

2. Intercropping Vegetables in Late Spring and Early Summer  6/17/2015

3. Late Summer and Fall Intercropping of Cover Crops in Vegetable Crops 7/8/2015

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at www.sustainablemarketfarming.com, Pam's blog is on her website and also on facebook.com/SustainableMarketFarming.


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New Kind of Worm Bedding

Fresh hardwood pellets added  

Strips of newspaper have been a staple for worm composters for many years. They are readily available, absorb moisture and eventually are incorporated into the finished product. Unfortunately they also don’t really absorb much moisture and can mat down and take a long time to be eaten. Large scale vermicomposting doesn’t use newspaper, either.

I’ve recently applied a tip I learned from large-scale food waste composting to bedding for worms. The large scale food waste units are designed to take food waste only. This feed stock is over 90% water and can get too damp quickly. To balance their Carbon to Nitrogen mixture, they use hardwood stove pellets in a ratio of one part pellets to 6 parts food waste. The pellets are made of hardwood sawdust glued under pressure with starch. They take up a minimum of space in the reactor and absorb a maximum of moisture. A plus is that they digest readily.

Guess what, they do the same for worm composting. Using the hardwood woodstove pellets over this winter has been a dream. Once they puff up (like a cheeto), they’ve absorbed a lot of moisture and seem to melt right into the mass. A final plus is that they are readily available and cheap. (40 lbs for $5.00) Give them a try and let me know what you think.

In the first photo I’ve just added a double handful of pellets into a very moist section of this colony. There is actual liquid visible and a danger of the bottom going anaerobic.

In the second photo, the pellets have expanded and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stirring the bottom layer into the upper layers and adding more pellets resolved the issue.


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Grow Cotton In Your Garden

cotton-brown-openboll-BLOG

Cotton is a wonderful plant. Not only does it look great in your garden, but it produces fiber that you can spin for thread or yarn and make clothes with. You will need a long growing season, fertile soil, and adequate moisture, plus plenty of heat, particularly later in the season. Start your seeds about 6 weeks ahead of your transplanting time, and set the cotton plants out in your garden after the last frost. If the last frost date has arrived, but the weather for the next week or so looks to be unseasonably cool, hold off until it warms up again.

It will take two months or more before you see your first bloom, which starts as white, then turns pink. The cooler your garden is, the longer before your plants will start blooming. Besides fertility, moisture, and sun, cotton depends on heat. Sunny days are not always hot days. The heat units needed for cotton are measured as DD60s, which is the average temperature for the day in Fahrenheit (maximum + minimum / 2) less 60. The more DD60s you have, the sooner your cotton bolls will mature and open. Climates with hot days and nights certainly have an advantage, but then, cotton is a tropical plant. Learn more about cotton’s need for DD60s from Texas A&M’s Development and Growth Monitoring of the Cotton Plant.

Just because you don’t live in the tropics, doesn’t mean you can’t grow cotton. Without the heat it needs, cotton will take longer to mature. If the bolls are not open when frost arrives, you can pick them off and bring them inside.  Put them in a warm place, often that means behind the woodstove at my house, and forget about them. Some will continue to open. I have also put them in my solar food dryers in the fall to encourage them to open. Understanding cotton’s need for heat, you could plant it in a greenhouse or other relatively warmer place. Cotton can be planted in pots and brought inside if your season is shorter than desired.

I set my cotton transplants out on 12” centers in 4’ wide beds, but I have seen recommendations that give the plants more room. In 2013 I experimented with 24” spacing and was disappointed with that, but then, 2013 was not a good cotton growing year anyway, so I am open to trying it again. If you live in a state that has commercial cotton production, you may need to have a permit to grow cotton, due to the watch for boll weevils. Contact your Cooperative Extension agent for more information. Learn more about cotton in your garden at Homeplace Earth.

We don’t need to clothe the masses from our gardens, just grow enough to enjoy for ourselves. It is a wonder to grow cotton, pull it out of the boll, and spin it into usable thread. If you want to make a garment, and I hope you do, and your harvest is meager, you could save it up each year until you have enough—great things come to those who are patient. Or, you could also grow flax for linen and combine the two. I’m planning a project with a cotton warp and linen weft.  I will be helping you along the way this year with more posts about cotton and flax/linen. I hope you join the fun!

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.

Peat Moss: An Environmentally Poor Choice for Gardeners

Photo by bernswaelz

For many years, gardeners have been incorporating peat moss into their beds. It fluffs up the soil, helps to retain moisture and adds organic matter. So what is the problem with it? The environmental impact — the peat that we use has been decimating the beds that it comes from.

Environmental Impact of Peat Mining

Peat moss is mostly the decomposed remains of sphagnum moss. Peat bogs, where this moss is located, are part of Nature's water purifiers. They filter approximately 10% of our planetary drinking water. Potable water is quickly becoming a vanishing resource and we need to protect any and all of it that we can. Wetlands like these bogs are also currently the most highly threatened ecosystems on Earth. To rebuild them, some estimate that it would take at least 10,000 years.

Peat bogs are also considered “Earth coolers.” This is because they actually absorb carbon dioxide. When they are mined, this carbon goes back into the atmosphere. Certainly, our planet is now at a point where it can use all of the cooling that it can get. Record temperatures continue upward at a pace thought impossible a few short decades ago. Some believe that the peat bogs store 10% of all of the fixed carbon on the Earth.

The slow natural pace of decay in these bogs makes them a valuable resource for historical activity. Wooden artifacts used by our ancient ancestors have been retrieved from them, as well as some of their bones. They also provide a great deal of flora and fauna specific to their ecosystems. Nesting spots and migratory resting places for birds are an additional benefit.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program, in 2013, the U.S. used (in thousand metric tons): 1,420 horticulturally, 18,300 as fuel, and 4,290 unspecified. That's an awful lot of peat.

Alternatives to Peat Moss in the Garden

Yet, there are alternatives. Compost, dried alfalfa and cocoa-shell can all help to build garden soil. But perhaps the closest to peat is coconut coir. This is the extracted outer shell of the coconut. It's a 100% natural byproduct of harvesting coconut, is completely renewable, and was formerly considered waste.

Coir can hold moisture in dry soils, help to expel moisture in wet ones, and it has a completely neutral pH. Over time, it adds organic matter to the soil. It looks very similar to peat.

In the photo, the coir on the left was a little damper than the peat moss on the right.

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.

Yellowjackets are Beneficial Insects

yellow jacket

Before you go and grab a can of insecticide to kill those pesky yellow jackets have you considered the fact that they eat aphids, flies, caterpillars and grasshoppers? In many ways they are beneficial. Their omnivorous nature lends itself well to eating the soft bodied structure of the dreaded aphid for example. They also help to sanitize outdoor animal processing stations, eat rotting fruit and they help take care of carrion in general. Yellow jackets are amazing beneficial insects if you can stand them!

Yellowjacket Life Cycle 

Yellow jackets are a type of social wasp that lives in colonies. fertilized queens are the only ones that will overwinter and in late spring they emerge from hibernation and feed and build nests in order to lay their eggs. Most of the time, but not always, yellowjackets look for ground based nesting sites using plant fibers, woody or pulp like material. The queen lays eggs, the workers are born, in turn, they protect the queen and nest, they collect and bring back food for their up and coming larvae mates. The colony grows and by fall a new crop of queens and workers are born, the old breed dies and the cycle repeats.

Beneficial or Harmful?

There is no doubt that many variables must be considered that determine the difference between living in harmony with yellow jackets and wanting them to all die a quick death! If someone in the family is highly allergic to the venom and would likely endure anaphalactic shock then the answer is pretty clear. You’re probably going to get rid of them to the maximum extent possible. If you have honey bees and the yellow jackets are terrorizing and destroying hives then it’s understandable to significantly reduce their numbers. It’s a delicate balance between being a beneficial insect and the desire not to have them around. Keep in mind that pest management is a more realistic goal than pest control. In other words, if you don’t want yellow jackets around then reducing their numbers is a more realistic goal instead of “eradication.”

Create a Naturally Balanced System

On our homestead we live with yellow jackets, paper wasps and many other “pests.” Our basic strategy is to try and create a naturally balanced system where the table has not been set for any single pest or disease. In this way we hope to achieve some kind of equilibrium between beneficial and harmful insects and we set a pretty high threshold for losses. We accept that we will lose a certain amount of plants each year. We also know that in some cases the pest pressure will get high before beneficial insects are attracted to the area. Again, we accept this in order to reduce inputs and mimic nature.

Helpful Partners at a Distance 

We do not let any kind of wasp nests be built on our structures or in key, high traffic areas. In late spring we frequently inspect structures and knock down nests before they get a chance to build. We also stay on the lookout for ground nests that are in precarious areas and take care of them as soon as we find them. Other than that, we leave them alone. They are our helpful partners in controlling pests and helping to sanitize our animal processing areas. Due to the yellow jacket life cycle they are especially numerous in fall so watch out!

Yellowjacket Queen

Over winter we grow many types of plants indoor: trees, bushes, herbs and vegetables. This year we had a decidedly bad aphid problem in our grow room. As we considered our options of Neem oil, insecticidal soaps and other organic type remedies a curious thing happened. Out of no where, or out of hibernation to be precise a yellow jacket queen showed up eating aphids off of our plants. Where was she hibernating? We don’t know but it could have been an attic or vent area. We know that she likely was somewhere in our structure because we are still in deep winter here in North Idaho and the likelihood of her coming out of hibernation outside is very slim.

She Stays!

Our first instinct was that we DID NOT want a wasp in our home and how this would be a great opportunity to get rid of a queen and reduce (not eradicate) the wasp population this year. But, the more and more we watched her we realized that she is in a post-hibernation ravenous eating stage and we decided that she gets to stay! The tricky part about this is timing. We want her to continue to be an aphid eating machine but we don’t want her to make a nest, lay eggs and grow workers. We are watching her closely and when she is laying her eggs it will be time for her to go! We will toss her outside and she may or may not make it due to the timing of our seasons.

This is a very small example of looking at a yellow jacket in a different light.

Sean and Monica Mitzel are the proprietors of Huckleberry Mountain Homestead & Breakfast a Bed & Breakfast with a homestead twist. They homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and methods for the property. The homestead is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise dairy goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted food forests, guilds and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. Sean and Monica can often be found speaking and teaching at different events. Listen to the podcast and to learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

Check out our online community for great content! Sean and Monica are available for consulting work regarding property analysis & design, and speaking engagements.


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.