Organic Gardening

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

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You can cultivate a thriving garden even if your space is limited.  The number of vegetables and herbs you can grow in pots and containers is almost boundless, and they’ll produce an excellent harvest for you with proper care.


Those starting container gardens often turn to herbs first.  Even if you have a full vegetable garden, sometimes you’ll appreciate growing your culinary herbs in pots that can be kept close to the kitchen and moved indoors during the winter months.  Plants like Rosemary and Lavender won’t overwinter in harsh climates, but growing them in a planter means you can move them inside where it is warm as soon as frost starts to threaten

A number of classic culinary and medicinal herbs are hardy and spread quickly in an open garden, so keeping them contained will prevent them from taking over an area of your garden.  Some of the easiest to grow herbs include mint, chives, parsley, thyme, and basil. Plants like these are perfect for growing near your kitchen, once they are healthy and established you can clip a pinch off for a recipe whenever you need to.  


Depending on the herb, occasional fertilization is needed for container plants along with regular watering. The first challenge with any container garden is making sure you keep your plants happy with enough water.  All plants need water, but plants growing outdoors in the earth will reach their long taproots down to get all the moisture they can from out of the deep soil.  Plants grown in pots cannot reach deeper for more water, so make sure you keep them watered on a regular schedule.

A surprising abundance of vegetables can be grow in containers.  Some unexpected successes include carrots and squash, which just need a deep enough container to spread their roots.  Classic, easy to grow potted vegetables include tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and lettuce.


As with herbs, make sure you are watering and fertilizing your vegetable plants consistently according to their requirements.  Check that your pots have proper drainage (many pots come with small holes in the bottom, or holes can be created with a small drill bit) so that the plants will not become waterlogged.  

Use potting mix for your soil, not soil directly from the earth.  Potting mixes are combined to retain moisture and also will often contain some fertilizers in them, which help potted plants thrive.  Use the largest pots you have available to allow your vegetable’s roots to spread, which will reflect in larger plants and higher fruit yields.   Also, make sure to place your containers where they will get plenty of sunlight - most vegetables prefer at least six hours of sunlight per day.


Tomatoes are a classic container garden favorite and will often produce high yields when grown in pots.  Zucchinis and cucumbers are also quick to flourish.  It is important to leave your plants enough space to grow once they have started to leaf out.  Sometimes when planting seedlings in a container or raised bed, it can feel like they’ll be tiny forever.  Remember they’ll often grow many times their size as seedlings, and especially plants like zucchinis need plenty of room for their vines to spread.

A gardener with limited space can often yield as full of a harvest as those with a planted bed, as long as they properly care for their plants and pay attention to each individual plant’s needs.  With enough room for roots, almost any vegetable or herb can be grown in a planter.  And the advantages to planting in containers isn’t limited to the space you’ll save, you can also move your plants easily and keep them in convenient spots for easy harvesting.  

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog 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.


There are always crops which keep me humble, which raise questions of timing, fertilization, and care, which do not come out as I intended. One year it was beans, another year, winter squash. My 'Russian Banana' fingerling potatoes were the crop this year.

I planted them from one year’s saved seed on March 21st. They grew gloriously, flowered during an early warm spell in mid-April, and died down by early July, which felt a bit early until I counted back to the planting date. I pulled them from the ground because I needed the bed for some fall crops. After harvest, I was struck by the small size of most of the potatoes. I had raised a crop of tiny tubers. Why?

I did some research. After being frustrated with online sources, I came across the book Advances in Potato Pest Biology and Management, which I studied avidly.

Crop Rotation Considerations for Potato Planting

Sources recommend planting only new, certified clean seed potatoes every year to avoid soil diseases, which can wipe out entire crops. This can be true — I leave gardeners to determine this for themselves — but the original potato farmers, in the Andes, did not start each year with fresh seed. How did they keep their harvests strong year after year, for hundreds of years?

According to David Thurston in Andean Potato Culture: 5,000 Years of Experience with Sustainable Agriculture, they rotated their fields, leaving them fallow for 2 or 3 years and growing other crops for several years as well, before replanting potatoes. When the Europeans arrived, they saw “wasted” fields, not being used for crops, and used this as an argument to take the land.

There were potatoes in this bed last year — should I watch my rotations more carefully? Rotation of crops is difficult in a home garden which consists of ten raised beds. But, if I grew four types of potatoes and restrained myself to two beds each year, and maybe grew dried beans for a year occasionally, I could rotate through each bed once every 5 years. That could help.

Seed Saving and Waning Productivity

Experts discourage saving your own potatoes, because of disease and a waning productivity. I carefully studied the illustrations and descriptions of all of the diseases which impact potatoes — and there are many. None of them described what I was seeing, which was a remarkably clean but small potato, coming from very healthy vines. These potatoes were not diseased.

I have certainly seen the decline in productivity over 3 or 4 years of saved seed potatoes, so I buy fresh seed every other year. When the productivity goes down in my garden, however, it has meant fewer potatoes overall, not many, many small potatoes.

I saw this pattern again this year, when I harvested the 'Kennebecs'. There were fewer potatoes, but the distribution of size was normal. It was as if the crop of fingerlings was set and then did not grow out.  Maybe fingerling potatoes lose productivity more quickly?

Other research suggested a delicate balance between not enough fertilization and too much. Like tomatoes, potatoes may grow a lovely drop of foliage and not set a great deal of fruit if there is too much nitrogen in the soil. The Andean farmers used copious amounts of compost and animal manures in their garden beds.

I toss handfuls of Down to Earth’s Biofish fertilizer underneath the rows before I plant. This, combined with the winter’s coat of leaves and a month of the Chicken Tractor, has always provided sufficient nutrients and organic matter for the potatoes.

The fingerlings looked good, but not falsely lush, while they were growing. The cucumbers at the end of the bed were thriving in the same soil, with the same water. All of the other potatoes had the same care and they were fine. I don’t think it was a fertilization issue.

Timing and Weather Considerations

I am wondering about timing and the heat wave we had in late April, just when the plants were flowering. The crop reminded me of my plum tree last year. Last spring was dry and warm early on — very unusual in the Pacific Northwest — just when the tree was flowering. It set at least twice, if not three times, as many fruits as it usually does, triggered, I believe, by the weather. The tree was covered in fruit, but it was all small, with larger pits.

This year, the weather was more normal during flowering and we had a normal amount of larger, plumper plums.  The potatoes were setting tubers just when the heat wave hit. Temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees above normal for over a week.

Did the plants trigger a “lots of seeds, not much to eat” response, like the plums a year before? Maybe. If so, I might new some shade cloth to cover beds during early heat waves in the future.

Fortunately, I believe in crop diversity. Like the Andean farmers, I planted five types of potatoes, in three different beds. (I could not adjust for altitude like they did, however.) The others went in several weeks later and missed the heat wave’s impact. When I pulled them, harvests were excellent. Gardening is, at its heart, an Art and a Mystery, as well as a science. There are things we can know, and control, and things that we cannot. And I am constantly learning the difference.

Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn'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.


Zucchini Winner

As a teenager, I raised rabbits for 4-H. Every year we would enter them in the local county fair. They would be judged and I would receive ribbons and trophies. I still remember the “Best Opposite Sex” and “Best Doe and Litter” trophies I won. I learned many lessons by showing my bunnies.

One is that you can’t display your ribbons on the cage’s outside as the rabbits will eat them (munch munch munch). Second, rabbits moved to a new strange home with lots of people and animals will get stressed and bite (right on the fleshy area between the thumb and pointer finger). Lastly, and most importantly, competition helps you to strive to be better.

A few years ago, we decided to enter some of our produce into our local fair. The Portage County Ohio fair (also known as the Randolph Fair, because that’s the township/city where the grounds are) is pretty standard as far as fairs go. There are demolition derbies, country/western concerts, tractor pulls, 4-H exhibits, fair food (which is really unfair if you are trying to eat healthy), and local vendor displays.

Of course, entering vegetables, canned goods, and photos does feel a little childish but these are in adult categories, so maybe not. And with the adult entries is prize money (enough to pay for your $5 admission to see whether you won or not).

It’s Better to Look Good Than Feel Good

Most judging is done on how the entries look. Some canned goods and baked goods will be taste tested but vegetables will not. So how do they determine who’s the best? By what I call the “supermarket test”: If your entries look like you bought them from the store, then you’ll win. Just don’t enter purchased produce. That’s called “cheating” (I’m sure you’ve heard of it).

In this picture of me pointing to my zucchini, you can see the fruits are “professional” quality. I think people get too hung up on size (bigger is better). If I have five nearly identical potatoes and my competition has one or two giants and several others that don’t match, I’m going to win. Unless the category is “Biggest Pumpkin” or “Largest Tomato” — just make sure your veggies are good enough to buy and eat.

This excerpt from the Portage County Fair Book says it best:

“Judging is performed and ribbons awarded based on but not limited to the entry’s uniformity, market quality, neatness, freshness, cleanliness, and if the entry qualifies for its section and class.”

Read the Fair Book and Know the Rules

As soon as it’s available, pick up or download the official current year “Fair Book”. It will have all the rules, deadlines, and categories listed in detail.

One piece of information you might find interesting is if you have to live in the fair’s county to enter. None of ours have that rule (that I know of), so if that’s the case in your area, go for it. Personally, that sounds like a lot of work.

Also, make special note of the date when your entry paperwork is due and when you must bring in your stuff. Miss these deadlines and you will find out life is unfair (see what I did there?).

Potato First Place

More is Better

One important part of the fair book is the entry categories. These tell you all the items you can enter into the fair. Read them all — you might find a few surprises. For instance, I discovered special men’s categories for canning and baking. Last year, I entered my canned dilly beans in the “Men’s Canning - Bean” category and won first place (against no competition).

It didn’t occur to me that I could have entered three jars of dilly beans — one in the men’s and others in canned bean and canned pickle categories. I also entered two sets of purple fingerling potatoes — one in the purple potato group and a second in the fingerling group. Using a technique of “volume entering”, I ended up with a whole bunch of first and second place ribbons.

Fair Time

When the fair is held will determine which one’s you should enter. For example, the Summit County fair (one county over and the fair where I had all my rabbit trophy glory) is held in late July every year. My local fair is held in late August. Many more veggies will be ready for picking in a month’s time.

When you make your entries, you’ll need to make judgements about what your garden will be producing at the time of the fair. You might not have a lot of tomatoes now, but you might in a few weeks. If in doubt, sign up for the category. If you don’t have something to enter at fair time, no big deal.

Who’s Been Touching My Stuff?

After the fair is over, you can get your produce back. Do you really want produce that people have been touching all week? Obviously canned goods should be fine, but make sure to wash any veggies you are keeping. Also, remember your entries might not be in climate controlled conditions, so they may decay faster.

Have Fun and Brag (But Not Too Much)

The most important fair rule is to have fun. You are pretty much doing all this for bragging rights. Of course, some people may not want to hear you talk about your “award-winning vegetables” over and over. Oh well, they’ll just have to get used to it.

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don'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.


Take your next camping or hiking trip to a new level by growing microgreens while you are are enjoying the great outdoors. Microgreens are a power-packed specialty food increasing in popularity across the globe. Many higher-end restaurants serve microgreens as a garnish on dishes as it makes a pleasant addition of colors and textures, not to mention flavors. Microgreens provide a method to the great pleasure of growing and eating your own food.

No need to interrupt growing your microgreens just because you are leaving for an extended hike or camping trip. In fact, taking growing trays along with you will enhance your outdoor experience and increase your nutritional intake. Growing microgreens is very easy. In a few simple steps you can be on your way to eating fresh greens all year long wherever you are.

Growing and Harvesting Microgreens

Microgreens are harvested when the first leaves have fully developed but before whats called the true leaves have emerged. It’s a natural way to increase a menu’s nutritional value while adding culinary bling at the same time. Some of the most common microgreens are grown right in the cafe or restaurant’s kitchen.

Microgreens are an excellent addition to camping food as well. You may choose to grow mustard, cabbage, radish, or spinach microgreens. They have the advantage over mature greens because of their higher concentrations of bioactive elements like vitamins and antioxidants.

Microgreens are more nutritious than full-grown greens, however, they are usually eaten in smaller quantities which is a good thing considering the cost. Some stores are known to price their microgreens at more than $25 a pound! We found it unnecessary to pay these prices once we learned how to grow our own microgreens. Our microgreens are ready to eat in just a week or two and can be snipped for garnish or harvested for the main green in a salad.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a survey lead by Agriculture Research Service verified “microgreens contain considerably higher levels of vitamins and carotenoids—about five times greater—than their mature plant counterparts.” You can read more about this research in the January 2014 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Sprouts vs. Microgreens. Sprouts are harvested before the 1st leaves have developed, whereas, microgreens are cut just after 1st leaves have developed.

Backpacks and Back-bags. There are backpacks and back-bags where you can grow and harvest microgreens while you hike. If you have ever tried this successfully or not, please reply to this blog. We’d love to hear about your experience.

Using Microgreens 

Microgreens are germinated seeds of edible herbs and vegetables and are rising in popularity as the new culinary trend. They are small in size but strong in flavor and nutrition. Their intense flavor and rich colors, can be emphasized in a meal as the focal point or simply add to a dish for extra crunch and texture.

Microgreens can be used as a garnish by simply clipping a small amount with scissors. Some microgreens are very colorful and can really liven up a dish or add appeal to a creamy soup. Some of the choices for more color are beets, red mustard, amaranth, red cabbage, and kohlrabi. They can be used in place of lettuce for sandwiches or salads.

As a fantastic alternative to beansprouts, microgreens add a delightful texture to pita sandwiches or burgers. Add chopped tomato, avocado and cucumber to a bowl of microgreens and you have a delicious salad. Micro greens are fine without dressing but a light dressing of oil and balsamic vinegar is superb.

A Note on Allergies

I grow our microgreens in our greenhouse that we made from an unused dog kennel. (To learn more about making a greenhouse from an unused dog kennel, click here.) I am allergic to the entire brassica family, which is the family where broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages belong.

Because starches and oils are not yet developed in microgreens, I am able to eat broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage microgreens with no problem.

If you have any food allergy, please check with your doctor before experimenting with eating microgreens of your allergy plants.

Hydroponically Grown Microgreens

I’ve only grown our microgreens hydroponically. I like the no-soil process because it is cleaner so no rinsing off of soil is necessary before eating. Some folks enjoy the soil-based microgreens and even claim the availability of more seed choices such as sunflower and buckwheat being easier to grow in soil versus hydroponically.

I highly recommend purchasing a microgreen kit from They have a wide variety of seeds and their kits are complete with everything you will need as a beginner or experienced microgreen grower.

Growing microgreens is a fun hobby or you can turn it into a cottage industry as they are always in high demand, especially at more refined restaurants and country cafes.

Microgreens are germinated in the dark, requiring them to become strong right from the start and to strive for the light, making them active growers. Warmth is definitely a requirement for micro greens.

We use a heat mat made for plants. It’s advised not to use a home heating pad as they are not designed to be subjected to damp or wet conditions. Since we grow our micro greens in our greenhouse that we made from our unused dog kennel, we use the plant heat mats to keep an even temperature of about 70 to 80 degrees. In the heat of the summer, we do not need the heat mat on, so we’ll just unplug it and leave it in place for unexpected cooler days or nights.

Camping and Hiking

When you are camping chances are you will have warmer days and maybe cool nights. Taking microgreens camping with you to be able to enjoy the freshness of these greens with their high nutrition works well even with cooler nights.

Simply start the seeds a week to a week and a half before you plan to leave for your camping trip. By the time you leave for camping or hiking, your microgreens should be near ready to clip and eat.

At your campsite, locate a sunny spot to place your microgreens tray. You can move it around as the sun moves to take advantage of the warmest spots for your trays.

Growing microgreens is a great way to get kids involved in learning the planting, germination, and harvesting process. Learning about where food comes from focuses their attention on farming and permaculture. Growing microgreens gives kids a chance to get their hands dirty and really understand how food is grown and how they can help care for the earth.

Temperature for Microgreens

If your weather will be around 60 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 70-80, stick with the seeds that thrive in the cooler weather, such as lettuce, dill, onion, peas, and most brassicas. Experiment with growing multiple seed varieties in the same tray. You can grow up to four or five varieties in one tray giving you a good salad variety to take camping with you.

With hydroponics, there is no soil to spill in your car on the way to your campsite. The little bit of water, in the form of moisture, will keep the greens fresh until you arrive at your campsite when you can refresh the greens with a good watering.

Once the germination period is complete and the dark cover is removed, the greens will need as much light as possible and warmth will be critical.

Leave No Trace: Remember, when you are camping or hiking, leave no trace. Plan ahead and be prepared. Dispose of waste properly. You know what they say, pack it in, pack it out.

Purchasing Microgreen seeds

Seed tastes vary with each type of seed. For instance, amaranth microgreens have a slightly earthy taste. While radish micro greens are slightly spicy. It is good to experiment with a variety of seeds before your camping trip in order to choose one or two seeds for the trip that you know work for you in ease, taste, and growth rate.

When you purchase your microgreen seeds, they should be untreated seeds, organic or not. The untreated seeds allow for proper germination and safer ingestion of clean greens. 

Click here for a downloadable, printable version of the above chart.

How to Grow Microgreens

Step 1: Prepare your tray or container

Decide whether you want to use the soil method or the hydroponic method. For the purpose of this blog, we will be using the soil-free hydroponic method. Place a hydroponic felt or mat in the tray.

Pouring about two cups of water evenly over the surface tipping the tray to distribute the water getting it to reach all four corners. Make sure the mat is saturated but only use up to two cups of water as any more will cause the seeds to stand in water promoting mold.

I purchased my first microgreen supplies from The beginners kit I ordered contained everything I needed to begin growing my own microgreens. From there, I have since purchased bulk seeds and more supplies, as well as microgreen books to further my overall knowledge.

For a quick tray to take camping look for Mustard seeds as this is a quick and easy grower. Red mustard will add color to your salad and a little kick of spice to your palate.

• Most varieties of lettuce are very tasty as well as attractive for a garnish on soup or alone as a salad.
• Cress is a quick growing seed with a little spice. Sesame germinates rapidly so might be a good one to try for camping.
• Turnip seeds germinate and grow quick microgreens. They taste much like a turnip itself.
• Radish and cabbages, my all time favorites, are quick and tasty.

Step 2: Sow your seeds

I normally use two trays, one tray of radish for instance and one of cabbage seeds. Broadcast the seeds evenly and very sparingly on the moist hydroponic felt. Be careful not to spread the seeds too densely, as this will increase the chance for mold ruining your whole crop.

Give each seed its own space barrier for breathing room. As a rule of thumb, if using larger seeds such as radish, you may need up to a quarter cup of seeds in a typical 10-inch-by-20-inch tray and maybe three tablespoons if the seeds are smaller such as lettuce.

Generally a hydroponic felt or mat is of a light material so any seed is easy to see which assists you in accurately broadcasting the seeds. This is one reason to grow hydroponically since with a soil-based system, seeds are difficult to see on the dark soil and you may not have adequate water at your campsite to thoroughly rinse any soil off of soil-based grown microgreens before eating them.

Step 3: Spray and cover container

Spray plain water on the seeds lightly, for instance only a dozen sprays for the whole tray just to moisten the seeds. I use another dark tray inverted as the top. Spray a few sprays of water inside the inverted tray to create humidity for your seeds.

You will need to spray the seeds like this daily for 4 or 5 days until you see the first sets of leaves emerge. Then, remove the dark cover from the tray and from then on, only water by lifting up a corner of the mat and pouring in a small amount of water, enough to keep the mat damp. The seeds should never be allowed to sit in water as this will rot the seeds.


Step 4: Uncover the container

Your seeds should be germinated and ready to grow without the dark cover after 4 or 5 days. When you see the baby leaves, the cotyledon leaves, first appear you are one day away from being able to uncover your tray. Remember to check and water your seeds daily by pulling up a corner of the growing mat.

The tray should be very damp but not more than half way up the channels that run the length of the tray. If you are using your own containers this is no more than an eighth of an inch deep.

Never water your microgreens from the top, always from under the mat and never spray your microgreen leaves from the time you remove the dark cover.


Step 5: Time to Harvest

Your microgreens should be ready to cut or harvest in less than two weeks unless they were subjected to cooler conditions then they may take a little longer (see lead photo). However, I have noticed if I’m growing microgreens in cooler temperatures and they take longer than two weeks, my crops are never the plush healthy greens they are when grown in cozy warmth.

Keep in mind there are always exceptions to any of these growing and harvest times. Check the Internet for specific times and conditions needed for various seeds. Before you harvest your microgreens, move the tray or container to a cool, shady place to avoid causing the tender leaves to wilt. If harvested in the cool of the early morning or later evening your microgreens will stay crisp and fresh longer.

Use scissors to cut microgreen tops for your meal or uproot the entire plant to enjoy more taste variance and texture. It’s always a good idea to rinse and dry your microgreens before eating them. Your microgreens can be stored in the refrigerator for several days if they are dried after rinsing. When the entire tray has been harvested, compost the mat and start another tray!

Mary Ann Reese is a certified mentor in designing, building, and operating food bank farms. She has also been certified to teach cooking classes to low-income families. As an organic grower, Mary has owned a mini-farm, greenhouse, chickens, ducks, and geese raised from eggs in an incubator and is happy to share years of wiser living advice with her readers. 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.


Yukon golds and Strawberry paws

I spent 3 hours digging potatoes and two hours washing them this past weekend. So far, my experiment of planting the wildly exuberant potato volunteers in my basement has proven to be a success — especially since we now have fresh tubers to eat when I hadn’t planned on growing any this year at all. If you need a reminder about the beginning of this experiment, you can read this blog from April and this one from June.

I could have let some of this year’s crop sit longer in the ground, but our weather has been so hot and humid I figured they would probably last longer in my basement. Rather than continuing to tempt fate with them in the ground, I took advantage of a respite in the weather and dug away. The photo above is actually from two different harvests. I collected the Yukons a couple of weeks ago. There may still be a few of each of these varieties in the ground, but I won’t know until I dig the other two varieties still growing.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I adore the Christmas morning pleasure of digging my taters. I never know what I’ll find until I play in the soil. Finding each and every potato feels like discovering a gold nugget. Taken all together, the cumulative collection is truly a treasure that keeps filling our bellies and triggering my creative mind in the kitchen.

Stages of tater die off

The above photo shows the stages of waning potato plants. On the left, the vines are no longer discernible. In the center, only the green vines remain. To the right, the plants with leaves are still growing above the ground and producing tubers below. My weekend dig included the rows in the ready-to-dig area and some of the close-enough area.

Because I love the surprise of the potato harvest so much, I hadn’t checked my records to see which variety I would be digging. I knew it would be either Strawberry paw or Gold rush. I’m thrilled to have gotten nearly a bushel basket full of the Strawberry paws (see top photo).

Digging taters is fairly easy but can be tough on the body since you’re either bending from a stool or digging on all fours. I don’t use tools because every time I do I end up skewering potatoes beyond use. I don’t like losing even one gold nugget. Also, due to the layering used when growing potatoes, the digging is very easy.

Looking at the photo directly below, you can see just how easily the taters are revealed. Simply lifting off the straw shows some of them at the surface, and brushing off the top layer of soil reveals even more. Also pictured here is how the potatoes form on the plant. Coming off the main stalk, below the surface of the ground, are root tendrils that sprout the tubers. If the leaves above the ground grow long enough to keep the plant healthy and vibrant, the tubers continue to plump and fill out.

Pests, disease, and unfriendly weather are three things that can consort to keep you from decent production. The plant as captured in the photo below (bottom left) shows that the tubers barely had enough time to begin, much less mature.

Digging taters

Because of my experiment this year, I also have a couple of mysteries to solve along with some fascinating science to study. In the past, I’ve come across decaying and composting bits of tater that I assumed were remnants of the seed potatoes. While that may be what is happening, this year produced some oddities. Mixed in with both the Yukon Golds and Strawberry Paw potatoes were a few mutants that obviously didn’t belong. I’m wondering if they might have been throwbacks to whatever potatoes they were originally bred from since they were so obviously not the kind they were among. They aren’t edible and seem to rot very quickly, as seen in the photo below.

I also came across a potato in the Strawberry Paws that seems to be a cross between that breed and the Yukon Golds. Here’s the mystery on that: These types of potato do not flower and therefore cannot crossbreed. This begs the question, is this simply a tater that got its coloring wrong, or is it also a throwback to a former parent plant?

The flower pictured is from my TPS (True Potato Seed) Thunder Row potatoes. I grew these last year from seeds (not seed potatoes) that are even smaller in size than basil seeds. I harvested a lovely amount from the one plant that made it through the season. That plant never produced any flowers.

When the leftover Thunder Row potatoes sprouted alongside the others, I decided to plant those as well. These plants did flower. Unfortunately, the weather and bugs conspired to prevent any fruits from forming, so I won’t have seeds to start the cycle over again.

What a fun and exciting experiment this has been! Not only do we have a surprise harvest to feast on for months to come, but I also have puzzles to solve about potato genetics — and these taters will undoubtedly add to the recipes in my cookbook. Stay tuned!

Tater strangeness 

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.

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.

Harvesting Garlic

One September afternoon about 4 years ago, we were in the grocery store searching for garlic. We had no interest in powdered garlic, dried garlic or minced garlic in oil. Nor did we want imported garlic or garlic cloves already peeled. What we wanted was a bulb of garlic, organic and locally grown. We returned home with none.

The next weekend, we roamed though the gardeners’ market in town. Several farmers had garlic for sale. We purchased a bulb for a dollar, a fair price, we thought. But the cloves were the size of peas.

Since we were in the process of establishing a garden on our northern Utah homestead, we wondered if we could grow the allium ourselves. Being new to gardening, we doubted it. If the established farmers at the gardeners’ market failed to grow ample bulbs, perhaps the soil or climate forbade it. Still, we decided to try.

Choosing Garlic Varieties

We consulted with an organic seed and bulb catalogue about which types to plant. Since we live in a Zone 4 climate, we chose hardneck varieties with a penchant for cold. These included 'German Extra Hardy' and 'Russian Red'. We also chose 'Italian Music' for its beauty and name.

Planting Garlic

The catalogue company mailed us the bulbs in mid-October and we planted them soon after that. (In warmer climates, garlic should be planted later in autumn or even in winter.) All three varieties grew well. Now, four seasons later we continue to grow them. Here’s what we do.

We decide on a sunny patch in the garden, and preferably one where we haven’t grown onions, leeks or other alliums for two or 3 years. (We have grown garlic in the same bed two years in a row without any issues, but some farmers recommend against it.)

In late October, we prepare the bed by loosening the soil with a broad fork and removing weeds. Then we work a layer of compost into the soil.

Next, we divide the bulbs into cloves. We plant the cloves, blunt (root) end down, about two to three inches deep and half a foot apart. We water the bed, and then cover it with a thick mulch of straw and leaves. This keeps it warm for the winter. In the meantime, we keep ourselves warm too. The garlic is on its own until spring.

Tending Garlic

Toward the end of March, we remove the mulch by hand so as not to disturb the sprouts. We keep the mulch off for about a month until the soil has warmed. Then we replace it everywhere on the bed except on the sprouts. This practice encourages earthworms and discourages weeds.

When the snow has melted and the irrigation water becomes available in early May, we water the bed once a week. Later in the season, we water it twice a week. Even in our dry climate, the water needs of garlic are low.

In June, long curly stalks known as scapes appear on hardneck garlic. Most farmers recommend removing the scapes so that the plants put more energy into producing larger bulbs. This has been our experience. Using kitchen shears, we cut off most of the scape.

Sautéed, roasted or pickled, scapes make a delightful treat. They’re also a promise of the bulbs to come.

Harvesting Garlic

When the leaves on the stalks droop and turn yellowish-brown, we stop watering. A week later, we harvest. Where we live, this happens in late July. Using a shovel, we dig out the bulbs carefully so as not to damage them. Then we brush off the soil but otherwise leave the roots and stalk intact.

At this point in the process, we feel grateful for our bounty. But we also ask ourselves why we planted so much. Did we doubt it all would grow? Did we really plan to eat a hundred bulbs of garlic? Of course, the real reason we ask this question is that harvesting garlic for four or five hours in 90 degrees makes us wonder if we’re just a tad odd.

Curing Garlic

We try to eat any damaged bulbs right away. The remainder we cure. Garlic cures best in a dry, well-ventilated place that’s dim or dark. When the wrapper around the bulb and cloves becomes thoroughly dry, the garlic is cured. This process can take anywhere from three to six weeks depending on such factors as variety, size, degree of dryness at time of harvest, and humidity level.

We live in a dry climate, which works well for curing garlic. Here’s how we do it. In a seldom-used room, we open the window, close the shades and cover the floor with a large cotton quilt. Then we lay the garlic in rows on the quilt. Sometimes we have so much garlic that it doesn’t fit so we cross-hatch it on a table or in boxes. Regardless of configuration, we leave enough room between bulbs for the air to circulate. We rotate the garlic about half way through the curing process.

In humid climates, it may be better to cure garlic on screens or by hanging it bulb-down so air circulates more effectively. Some farmers use fans.

Storing Garlic

Once the garlic is cured, we remove the stalks and trim the roots. Then we place the bulbs in cardboard boxes in a cool pantry away from humidity and light. (In a separate box, we set aside the largest bulbs, which we plant a month or two later.)

Cured and stored in this way, our garlic lasts for 6 to 7 months. After that, we can still use some of the cloves. The remainder we tuck into the hugelkultur bed. For the past several years, this process has gifted us with volunteer garlic.

Reasons of the Process

The day after harvesting and processing the garlic, we have the answer to why we toil in 90 degrees. It has to do with the health of the land, our bodies, our soul. It has to do with the satisfaction of physical activity in the service of sustaining ourselves. It has to do with reducing our exploitation of others. It has to do with the beauty of our garden and the aroma of the earth. It has to do with fostering connection to the cycle of life. It has to do with cost. It has to do with knowing the quality and source of our food.

But it also has to do with the garlic omelet we enjoyed for breakfast, the bruschetta we’re enjoying for lunch, and the myriad garlicky meals we’ll enjoy for much of the year.

Drying Garlic on Quilt

 Drying Garlic on Table

Felicia Rose lives and works on a small homestead in northern Utah. Read all her MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.

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


The invasion of tomatoes! Trust me, I don't mind!

Years ago, if anyone would have told me I would be playing around in a vegetable garden I would have laughed at them. Not because I was too good or too stuck up to be doing that, but I kind of stink at making things grow. My brown thumb is so bad I’m positive I could kill a cactus with it.

But last summer, I got the itch to try my hand at growing some herbs. Mr. Homesteader supported my idea and took me all over God’s creation looking for what I needed and wanted to start growing my seedlings.

We got home and I quickly opened the box the our mini-grow light. I wasn’t trying to grow tomato plants, so going small was an okay deal. I got my light set up, added some potting soil to my pots, watered them a bit and then plopped some seeds in them.

I did go a little overboard here. Ahem! I didn’t know you were only to plant a few seeds, I thought you had to plan the entire packet. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when my herbs grew into bushes.

Outside Gardening Poses Different Challenges

But I did so well growing my herbs indoors that I wanted to try my hand at outdoor gardening. Right from the get-go I said I was doomed. All I have to do is look at a plant and it’ll wither up and die.

I didn’t let that stop me, though, and I jumped in hands-first to dig up all the grass, weeds and rocks before Mr. Homesteader tilled the garden. Yes, I even convinced him to buy a rototiller, because I’m determined to be good at this.

Once the garden was all set, we began digging our holes to put our seeds and already grown plants in. With each plant, I rolled my eyes and huffed because I was sure I was wasting my time. I was so sure that this wouldn’t work that I actually went a few days without watering my plants at all or even checking on them. But a few days later, I went out and sure enough, my tomato plants were busting at the seams.

Building on Garden Success

We have so many tomatoes that I’m not sure we’ll need to go to the farmer’s market for canning. Or at the very least, we won’t need to buy much. My green peppers have produced about 15 peppers so far, the strawberries were eaten by some critter, and my cabbage looks like it’s dead.

The best part about this is, my green beans that I did nothing to take care of have given me so many beans I don’t know what to do with them all. We don’t have a deep freezer, so freezer space in limited. I’m sure my family will love me when we eat beans every night this week for dinner! I really didn’t have a brown thumb, I just didn’t educate myself.

The brown thumb I used to have is gone. I have a green thumb and every day I learn more and more about gardening, composting, succession planting, companion planting and container gardening. Which just makes my thumb a little greener.

Sometimes it’s not us that is the problem when it comes to caring for a garden. Weather conditions are a huge culprit as are squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks. But there are ways to protect your plants form outside threats.

Chicken wire will keep most animals away. Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather, but if you hear it’s going to frost after you already planted, covering your garden in plastic will keep them warm.

Sometimes you get a bad batch of seeds. I bought seeds at the dollar store this year and none of them sprouted. When I went to a home and garden store and bought them from there, my garden grew just fine.

Don’t be so hard on yourself — keep trying, reading and learning. That’s the best way to turn that brown thumb into a green one!

Becca Moore is an aspiring homesteader and gardener in Pennsylvania who runsSimply Quaint Homestead. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Read all of Becca’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.

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