Organic Gardening

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

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It’s not surprising that more and more young people have become enchanted with the idea of growing food.  Cultivating a livelihood through aligning oneself to the natural rhythms of this world serves as medicine for a soul who has lost contact with its source.  Young people these days grow up in an age of connectivity in contrast with severe disconnection.  Our wires and communications stretch the globe while our hands are rarely gestured to enter the forest or to press a seed into the Earth. 

The virtues of a simple life, lived out in such a way that both the wildlands and human communities prosper, has a beckoning that nourishes those who seek to do good.  This way of life not only preserves the incredible heritage of the people who came before, but also protects small pieces of our vanishing natural world.  It is dreamlike and idyllic, and yet rendered almost impossible by the innumerable sacrifices the modern day farmer must make to get by.

With 63 percent of farmland on the cusp of transition to the next generation, it is more important than ever to support and nurture the budding interest young people have in growing food for a living.  Soaring land and equipment costs, a difficult and biased marketplace, limited income, and the physical and mental stress of managing a working farm make the end goal of being a farmer seem all but unattainable.  Individuals who are interested in this way of life come by it to serve their communities and this Earth, to make an honest living and bring harmony between humans and their landscapes.  The financial rewards are so limited and burdens so many that we as a society must choose to support these brave individuals with our local economies and through local and national policy.

Public-Service Loan Forgiveness Program

In 2007, the United States Government deployed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program aimed to reduce the financial hardship of individuals paying off student loans with Public-Service-Job income.  The program has been made to forgive the remaining student loan debt of doctors, teachers, public-interest attorneys, nurses, nonprofit professionals, and government employees who have paid on their loans for 10 years or more.  This program is designed to lighten the load for those who are helping society the most and at the same time encourage more youth to pursue jobs in these fields.

Farming Is a Public Service

With the number of beginning farmers having decreased 20 percent from 2007 to 2012 and with only 6 percent of farmers today under the age of 35, the National Young Farmer Coalition wants to know why farmers are not included on the list of public service jobs scheduled to receive debt relief. 

The National Young Farmer Coalition is an organization that aims to support young and beginning farmers through representation, mobilization, and engagement both in the practical needs of the modern day farmer and through the monitoring of political policies that affect the farmers’ everyday lives as well as their ability to make a living. 

Through a nationwide network of farmers, consumers, and advocates, the coalition provides resources that give those who work the land the power to stand up for themselves and gives them a voice on Capitol Hill.  The Coalition recognizes farming as a public service for three specific reasons:  Farmers meet the population’s most basic need, the need to eat, they steward almost a billion acres of land in the United States, and they provide jobs for locals in rural areas.   After surveying 700 members and supporters, the Coalition found that on average, the student loan debt carried by each person to be $35,000.  With 30 percent of these individuals not even able to farm due to their monthly student loan payments. 

Act Now to Help Young Farmers

So how can you give your support to this important cause?  The National Young Farmer Coalition has worked tirelessly to prepare a report to include farmers in the list of jobs associated with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. They have put together an easy to use online messaging system that will deliver a thorough and well written message concerning farmers’ inclusion in the Program  to your local representatives.

If you are a farmer, you may complete a survey to indicate how much student loans have affected your ability to make a living as a farmer.  Along with a collection of other resources concerning the management of student loans and an awesome T-Shirt, the Coalition has given farmers, advocates, and consumers the opportunity to support the future of local food.

If you believe that farmers are providing a public service, make your voice heard.  Spend your dollars at the farmers market and tell your representatives that you value what your local farmers do for your family, community, and local economy.  Become a Member of the National Young Farmer Coalition and add your name to the list of individuals willing to stand up for the preservation of farmers and farmland alike.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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. 


The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.  Read Part 1 of the Vibrant Valley Farm profile.

Now two years into their farm, both women admit it’s been a challenge, but both also express complete happiness with their decision.

“It’s hard, but I love this life,” Elaine said. “You eat what you grow. It’s very creative. It’s outside. I’m my own boss. It’s really nice to come up with our own schedule. We have so much fun working together. We take time off to make sure it’s still fun, but we just laugh a lot. The best job I’ve had thus far, for sure.”

“It is fun, but it’s also important to be able to be okay with the lonely time,” explained Kara. “I mean if you come from the city and you’ve got a lot of energy, you have to be able to step back and realize that the lonely time is a beautiful thing. And our culture has none of that… it’s like, next screen, next screen, next screen… it’s so intense. This helps you shed a lot of that. And another thing the farm teaches you is letting go. I’m getting into some philosophy over here, but it’s true. It teaches you about your life. Your relationship with yourself. Your relationship with everyone else. Your relationship with the land, and that you cannot be attached to anything.”

Elaine continues, “We always talk about the mandala of it. You work so hard to create this patchwork quilt of food… this artwork basically. And then it’s turned into the ground. It doesn’t disappear, of course, but you have to start all over. But each year is a fresh start, and you’re ready because by Spring, you miss the smell of the dirt and that righteous tiredness that comes with all the Spring preparation. You’re excited to get back at it. And that’s why we take winters off, which is super important for us. I think people who do year-round farming are badasses, but for me, I know that would mean burnout if I didn’t have winter off.”

“Being able to make that choice is nice,” adds Kara. “I mean there are people all over the world who do this type of work and don’t have a choice about taking time off. But I don’t have to worry about making sure my village has broccoli. I just have to make sure a couple people have broccoli. And we’re getting our farm systems perfected, so we don’t have any problem getting that broccoli or whatever to our customers.”

Both Kara and Elaine are clear about their goals, which remain the same from the day they started two years ago. Make the farm work first, then build in the educational component. Making the farm work means they had to begin as a CSA farm because it allowed them to begin farming even though they had extremely limited start-up capital. However, since launching their CSA, which they continue to grow, Vibrant Valley has begun acquiring additional customers from both the restaurant and grocery store ranks. Kara credits these gains to their outgoing personalities.

“We’re good at going out and meeting people and pushing our products,” explained Kara. “That’s our strength. I mean we could sit here and feel sorry for ourselves because we’re not selling enough, or we could say I’m tired and I want chocolate but instead I’m going to go hustle shishito peppers because we’ve got a ton of them. So we’re actively out selling our product, and at the same time we’re perfecting our systems, determining what works and what doesn’t, and figuring out what’s sustainable.”

Both women agree that when they started, it was farm management they were least confident about. But the business gains they’ve made with their farm have brought them to a point where they will be comfortable as they begin to expand their vision.

“A big part of our original goal was to teach,” said Elaine. “But we didn’t want to start that program without a viable business. Bringing ten to twenty young people out here simply would not work if we don’t know what we were doing. But now we’re at the point where we can begin serious talks about how to add in education, so we’re working on incorporating that element of it.”

Step one will be figuring out what the community needs and how Vibrant Valley would play into that. And they will need to determine what demographic to work with. Being city kids, they feel especially connected to urban youth, so that’s a distinct possibility. But their travels and experiences have made Elaine and Kara aware of food system injustices throughout society, so they anticipate looking at underserved populations everywhere, which could take them in a variety of different directions.

They anticipate that their search for educational partners will begin in Portland, and an area where Kara has extensive experience and relationships with a variety of schools and organizations.

“Once we determine who our allies are and who we can work with, then we figure out how our farm can fit with therapy or job training or whatever we decide to focus on,” explained Elaine. “Because based on our experience, we’ve seen how a farm can be everything. Beyond growing plants, farming teaches marketing, accounting, even floral design or event planning. There’s so much that fits in a farm, and as educators, we use this as our stage. But the final program will depend on the age and background of the population we’re working with.”

Lofty plans. But will they work? The combination of energy, pragmatism, and passion are difficult to bet against.

“It’s important to not get caught up in the idealistic young farmer mentality of just needing to do something and not worrying about making money,” said Kara. “You can definitely make money, and, in fact, you have to in order to keep it going. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that looks like. And part of that is letting go of what doesn’t work and embracing what does. And we can’t just run ourselves into the ground. That’s the martyrdom thing you have to avoid. In order to farm or teach well, you have to stay fresh. That’s the only way it will work.”

Elaine sums the conversation up with a look into the future. “I think I will always work with food, in one way or another. Food is everywhere. It could be on this land, on this farm. Or it could be elsewhere. I simply can’t guarantee where. But for me personally, I want to work with young people and food, no matter what.”

Get your copy of Planting a Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

Author note: Since being interviewed for this profile, Kara and Elaine have relocated their farm to Sauvie’s Island, an agricultural community located just north of Portland, Ore.

Photo credit: All photos by Lisa D. Holmes. (Top) Vibrant Valley Farm owners Elaine Walker and Kara Gilbert. (Middle) At the head of rows of squash, basil and peppers sits Vibrant Valleys operations building. (Bottom) Elaine and Kara have successfully diversified their crops and now focus a great deal of energy on growing flowers for both retailers and CSA members.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.


At the Seven Springs MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, I used my table-top model to show people how to string-weave tomatoes. As the photo shows, I had #2 pencils as stakes and pieces of pink tinsel Christmas tree up-cycled as model tomato plants. I’ll bring the model to Kansas next. This is a good time of year to plan a new approach.

String-weaving (also known as Florida string weaving and basket-weaving) is an easy way to support lots of tomato plants. If you have long rows, this method is ideal. All you have to store over the winter are the stakes. No bulky cages or heavy cattle panels or bulky rolls of wire mesh. This system also works for growing peppers and peas. We have used it for large determinates (Roma), heirloom tomatoes, and indeterminates.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production includes a comparison of different tomato training and support systems. You can also see this on the extension page, Training Systems and Pruning in Organic Tomato Production.

String-weaving comes equal-best or second best in almost all categories: earliness, fruit size, yield, quality, protection from sunburn and pest control. It is worst as far as labor cost, although the labor is spread out through the season, so it doesn’t seem so bad. Trellising (a high wire between posts, and strings dropped down to wind each plant around) comes out best for earliness, fruit size and pest control (but worst for cracking, and thus not so good for marketable yield). Cages are best for marketable yield (so people who only grow relatively few plants could choose that method). But caged tomatoes do poorly on earliness and fruit size. The cheapest support system is no support at all – letting the plants sprawl on the ground. But the fruit quality and quantity is poor, (pests, rotting, cracking and sunburn reduce potential yields).

Tools for String Weaving Tomatoes

Put tomato stakes in soon after planting, while the soil is still soft, and you can see where the drip tape is (and which side the roots are, if you planted in diagonal trenches). We use 6-foot (1.8 m) steel T-posts, with rows up to 150 feet (45.6 m) long without any extra bracing at the ends. Some people put an extra stake at an angle tied to the end stakes as a brace. Set one T-post after every two plants along the row.

Our stringing tool made is a 2-foot (30 cm) length of wood, with a hole drilled through near each end. Twine is threaded through one hole and back out the other. A length of plastic pipe could also be used (pipe doesn’t need holes drilled through, as the twine can be threaded down through the pipe). The twine is not tied to the tool, but moves through it freely. The tool serves as an extension of the worker’s arm, to get the twine over tall stakes, and you can give it a quarter turn to pull the twine tight. (Pulling twine tight against your hand for several hours can cut through your skin.) For maximum efficiency, keep the tool in your hand all the time.

Our variation on string-weaving looks quite like the drawing from the Extension Service. We have a couple of tweaks that make string-weaving work even better. Our first trick is to park the bale of twine in a bucket at the beginning of the row and leave it there. No need to lug it with you! (We have long rows!)

Putting the bale of twine in a bucket makes it easy to carry and provides a space to store scissors and gloves. Stand between the working end of the twine and the slack being pulled out of the bucket - get yourself inside the loop when you start, to avoid tangles. That is, the spare twine will be running out behind you as you work the first side of the row. You’ll use it for the return journey.

Tomato String Weaving Step-by-Step

1. When the plants are 12 inches (30cm) tall, tie the twine onto an end stake, about 8-10 inches (20-25 cm) above the ground.


The tool functions as an extension of the worker’s arm, to get the twine over tall stakes, and also prevents “twine burns” to the hands.

2. Pass the twine in front of two plants and the next stake and wrap the twine around the back of the stake, pull it tight, and twist the tool to help tighten it.

3. Next, here’s our second trick: use the thumb or forefinger of your other (non-tool-holding) hand on the crossover to keep it tight, and loop the twine around the stake again, making sure that the second loop ends up below the first. This locks the twine so that if you let go, or later on a groundhog chews through your twine, the whole row doesn’t slacken.


The second wrap of twine crosses the first one and locks it in place.

4. Continue along the row to the end, then take the tool round to the other side wrapping the twine round the end post.


Coming back down the other side of the row, fasten the twine at the same level as the first side.

5. Weave back along the other side of the same row, putting a row of twine at the same level as on the first side. You will need to flip the twine that was behind you on the first side over to your new working side as you need it. Once you reach the end, tie off the twine and cut it.

6. You’ll see that you never actually wrap twine around a tomato plant, so there is never any injury from tight twine. The plants are simply held between two walls of twine that you “build” by making a new round once-a-week as the plants grow (every 8 inches (20 cm) up the stakes).


Add a round of twine every week or every 8 inches (20 cm). You can measure using your hand. 

7. At the end of the season, cut the twine each side of each post, and pull it out, then remove the stakes and till in the tomato plants.

Laughing Stalk Farm in Missouri has posted a video of this method on YouTube. 


Photo credit Diagram by Lewis Jett, University of West Virginia; Author photo by Ingrid Witvoet; String weaving photos by Kathryn Simmons

Pam Dawling manages the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at Sustainable Market Farming, Pam's blog is on her website and also on Facebook.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.



Seed saving has been going on for thousands of years. Seed saving is easy. Always save the seed from the best vegetable you grew! Or the tastiest you buy at the farmers market or store.  

Pick the fruit or plant that has the characteristics you want to grow next year. The one that was the biggest or had the best taste or produced the most or produced the longest or gave you harvests the earliest or was the most drought or pest resistant or the one that was most pest resistant. You chose what characteristics you want in the veggies you plant in next year’s garden.

One caveat: You cannot get true to parent plants from hybrids. If they grow, they will often be totally different than the parent or could get weaker with each generation. You need “open pollinated” or heirloom vegetables for the seed to produce a baby like the parent.

Peppers. I love these small sweet peppers I get from the grocery store so I saved the seeds over the winter and planted out a couple of each color. I only had one plant that came up true to the parent. This is the one I am saving seed from this year.

There was also another pepper plant that produced prolifically small bell peppers. I am also going to save the seed from this plant because it produced so much that I want to grow them again next year. It doesn't cost a thing to save seeds from store bought veggies or fruits you like and you can end up with some great plants for your garden!

Garlic. For garlic, you save the best, biggest cloves. You divide up the garlic head into individual cloves and plant them in the fall when it cools off-typically, end of September or beginning of October. Most store garlic has been treated to prevent them from sprouting so you may or may not have luck using the ones from the grocery store.  Your farmers market is a great place to get garlic well suited for your area.

In our garden, seeds can be saved now from tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce, broccoli, cilantro, dill, celery, borage, salad burnet, garlic, Egyptian walking onions (bulblets), basil. For peppers, squash and tomatoes, just scoop out the seeds, lay them on a paper towel on a plate and let them dry. Some suggest for tomato seed to put them in water and let them ferment a bit. The ones that sink are the ones you want to keep for planting, not the ones that float.

Greens. Many greens, like chard, parsley, lettuce, broccoli, will shoot a large stalk up then flower. This is called "bolting." The easiest thing to do is to let the seeds form, cut the stalk, then put the stalks with seed heads attached into a paper bag.  Let them dry thoroughly, then shake the seeds out. Some may require that you roll the seed heads between your fingers to free the seed.

You can actually re-sow seeds from cool season crops like lettuce, cilantro, parsley, chard, chives and get a second fall/winter harvest! I put my dried seeds in labeled ziplock bags and store them in the crisper. The seeds last for years this way!

For more tips on organic and heirloom gardening in small spaces and containers, see Melodie’s blog at Victory Garden on the Golf Course.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.


Grow Your Own 

“What are the ingredients for a healthy life?” I ask this question to young children, college students, women’s groups and other audiences I address. I first assumed that people’s expectations would be physical needs like food and shelter.

Instead, I learned that primary concerns are things like: friends, family, laughter, and spiritual support. The place where I got to know this most vividly is in my work leading Grow Your Own!, The Ecology Center’s school garden support program.

Grow Your Own!

Grow Your Own! was born in 2012 to address a problem: Local teachers and parents were building school gardens that were lying empty from disuse. The mission of GYO! thus became support for school gardens and their leaders through guidance, curriculum, and resources to foster gardens that were at the same time beautiful, educational, and functional.

This grassroots movement has evolved beyond every expectation thanks to hearing local leaders’ needs, and has grown from 3 schools in 2012 to 20 schools in 2014, reaching over 12,000 individuals. Based on a mentorship model, our staff regularly visits each school, offering help and know-how with anything from planning a garden space to teaching a cooking class.

We partner with local high schools to offer a Garden Mentor program where older students teach gardening to younger ones. This year we launched a new website to more widely distribute our lessons and resources.

The past three years have shown what makes or breaks a school garden program, and that is people. It’s easy enough to build a garden and inspire kids through visits. The challenge for adults lies in building a network of teachers, parents, and administrators who feel connected enough to tend the plants, use the space, and do the small recurring tasks of maintenance.

We all face unprecedented demands on our time but the same time, people of all ages seem hungry to connect to causes or to a community that feels deeply real and authentic. The opportunities are right here in front of us.

Teach Kids To Grow A Garden

The Benefits of a Garden

Many of us are familiar with the old African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Where is the village in our modern lives? Portland architect, community designer and TED speaker, Mark Lakeman shares my belief that part of the answer lies in the school garden:

“School gardens are certainly the most accessible places for anyone's re-introduction to the broadest possible spectrum of ideas and issues that affect humanity and the natural world…School gardens are literally a multi-functional form of commons, and in this way they naturally are a context for the reintegration of parts and pieces of our lives that must add up to a greater whole if we are to survive and thrive. This is the common ground that inspires people to use their bodies again, to come home in the deepest sense, and restore our most essential connection to the ground we stand upon…”

Because children spend up to 10 hours of their days in schools, the school garden can provide the most immediate, even singular, ecosystem that they will connect to in their childhood. Although kids’ time outdoors and access to open space is diminishing, experts are finding that green environments are essential to human health.[1]

The complex environment of a garden provides opportunities for a wide range of learning fields, from nourishing our bodies through food growing, acquiring empathy through interaction with wildlife, learning pattern recognition through weather and elements, and developing social skills through collaborative work.

At this time, educators see that workplaces are changing, and the kinds of skills required for good jobs or even survival seem to be evolving faster than we can grasp. New curriculum and initiatives like Common Core and Project-Based Learning (PBL) focus on building holistic intelligence and capacity in children through open investigation and problem solving. These are similar to techniques that traditional cultures have been using to educate children for thousands of years.

A growing body of research is proving scientifically what our ancestors knew through practice- that outdoor spaces like school gardens hold essential developmental micronutrients not easily obtained indoors. School gardens can help reduce obesity and provide exercise.[2]

On the nutrition front, hands-on gardening seems to improve students’ eating habits and fruit and vegetable consumption better than classroom education alone.[3] Research also shows that time spent outdoors by children is central to the development of creativity, social and emotional skills, and an ecological mindset in adults.[4]

Planting School Gardens With Students

Gardens and Healthy Community

The benefits of school gardens extend beyond our children. Meaningful work is an essential ingredient of adult health and is abundant in the garden. Warren Brush, founder of the education center Quail Springs Permaculture, for instance cautions us never to eliminate the physical hand-work of weeding, fixing bikes, weaving baskets, etc. regardless of how high we progress in our career ladders. In his experience, these types of repetitive bodily work create the time and space to engage in the important conversations for which many of us today feel we have so little time.

The garden at Huntington Beach High School is a model of a school garden functioning as a community hub. In teacher Greg Goran’s class, teens earn income and gain social experience by raising vegetables and fish through aquaponics. The garden supplies organic produce to nearby restaurants, enriching the local economy and food web. Students share their expertise by hosting monthly tours for other schools and community groups.

It’s easy to explain the importance of eating locally-grown food. But as lead of The Ecology Center’s Grow Your Own! program, I am eager to show that ecologically it can be just as important to host a potluck or help a teacher lead a class in the garden. These small daily acts are the base of creating community — what I believe is the golden survival skill of this century. Whether by growing meals, saving seeds or harvesting rainwater, the garden is where we can learn to work together again.

We are not just designing a garden, we are designing a culture. When people come to our school gardens, I want them to envision a new way to live.


[1] Kuo, F. E. (2010). Parks and other green environments: essential components of a healthy human habitat: National Recreation and Park Association.

[2] Kimbro, R. T., Brooks-Gunn, J., & McLanahan, S. (2011). Young Children in Urban Areas: Links Among Neighborhood Characteristics, Weight Status, Outdoor Play, and Television-Watching. Social Science & Medicine.

[3] McAleese, J. D., & Rankin, L. L. (2007). Garden-based nutrition education affects fruit and vegetable consumption in sixth-grade adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107, 662-665.

[4] Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children - Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives Of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159(1), 46-50.As we experiment with cultivating a greater agrarian connection, it’s time for us to revisit the age-old wisdom of the root cellar. Traditionally, root cellars were underground structures used to store vegetables, fruits, and other foods. Because the earth’s mean temperature hovers around 60 degrees, a root cellar serves as the perfect natural refrigerator

Photos by Scott Sporleder

Grow Your Own! is made possible by the generous contribution of the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

Meg Hiesinger works with community leaders and students of all ages to create meaningful hands-on experiences in ecological and cultural sustainability and currently oversees Grow Your Own! and other educational programs at The Ecology Center.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.


I became interested in what would be grown in an heirloom Sicilian garden after my mom, cousin and sister’s trip to Sicily this summer. My grandpa immigrated as a child from Termini, Sicily. He loved cooking with his mom in the kitchen and kept the Sicilian cooking traditions alive in the family. Although we are no longer blessed with him in person, we have many memories and recipes that keep his memory alive.

Sicily is a unique blend of many cultures having been conquered by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and finally unified with Italy in 1860 and was given the status of an autonomous region of Italy in 1946.

Greek influences include olives, broad beans, and pistachios. From the Arabs came apricots, citrus, sweet melons, pine nuts, aromatic herbs like saffron, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, raisins, and sugar. They also introduced tuna fishing. The Spanish introduced New World natives like chocolate, corn, tomatoes, and peppers.  Being an island, fresh fish is a intricate part of the food, particularly anchovies and sardines.

Even with the diverse background of many cultures having made Sicily home through the ages, Sicilian cuisine preparation is simple with just a few ingredients, letting the flavors of each shine through. Fresh vegetables are used prominently.

An organic Italian kitchen garden is called l’orto biologico. For the heirloom varieties, I did a lot of searching on the internet and Sicilian cookbooks. It was hard to find! A great resource was Slow Food’s Ark of Taste and Presidio. Slow Food actually originated in Italy to preserve food traditions that were being lost in our modern times.

As with all Italian gardens, Mediterranean herbs play a big role. Thyme, Salina and Pantelleria capers, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, basil, wild fennel, garlic, sage, bay, geranium, lemon verbena, lavender, parsley (Gigante D’Italia, Castalogno) and mint, particularly spearmint, have featured prominently in Sicilian gardens for centuries. Ispica sesame seeds are also a local heirloom.


Sicilian Heirloom Fruits

Apples-Cipudda, Cirino, and Cola
Bitter Orange
Wild black cherry (Prunus cerasus)
Fig trees (can get hardy figs that can withstand our Midwest winters)
Grapes-Pantelleria Zibibbo
Lemons-Messina Interdonato and Verdello
Mandarin-Ciaculli late-winter
Melons-Alcamo Purceddu and Paceco Cartucciaro
Orange-Ribera Vanilla
Peaches-Bivona, late-harvest Leonforte, and Etna Tabacchiera
White plum-Monreale
Prickly pear
Ragusa Carrubo fruit
Strawberries-Maletto, Sciacca, and Ribera strawberries

Sicilians are big on collecting wild greens which you can also easily grow in your garden. These include arugula, asparagus, calamint, plantain, chickweed, Good King Henry, borage, wild mustards (mazzareddi, cavolicelli di vigna, senapa), purslane, dandelions, salad burnet, bitter cress (sparacelli amari), sorrel, shepherds purce, wild chicory, chard (salachi), mallow and wood sorrel (agriduci), and amaranth.

The nuts that are popular in Sicily include Noto almonds (you can get Midwest hardy almond trees) and Bronte pistachios (there are varieties hardy down to Zone 4).

Vegetables Grown in a Sicilian Kitchen Garden

Artichokes and Cardoons-Violetta (hardy to Zone 6 per Territorial Seed Co.) and Monfi Spiny
Broad beans-Sweet Lorane, Windsor, Modica Cottoia, Leonforte
Green Beans-Romano, Roma (bush and pole) like Burro d’Ingegnoli, Garrafal Oro, Trionfo Violetta
Shelling beans-Borletto, Cannelloni types, Polizzi Badda, Scicli Cosaruciaru
Broccoli- Broccoli di Rape (cime di rape), Haloan Green Sprouting, Calabrese, De Coco, Purple Sprouting, Purple broccoli
Carrots-parsnips used to be the standard
Cauliflower-Sicilian violet
Chard-Argentocta, White stem
Chicories-Radicchio, Endive, Red Treviso, Grumolo, including dandelions
Eggplant-Violetta Lunga, Rosa Bianca, White Italian, Listada de Gandia.  A Sicilian favorite is Tunisian eggplant with its thin skin.
Fennel-Romy, Bronze
Garlic-Nubia Red, Chet’s Italian, White Italian, Early Red Italian, Italian Late
Greens-Broccoli di rape, Rosolini (similar to collard greens), endives
Kale-Lucinato (grown in Tuscany for centuries)
Kohlrabi-Aci trunzu
Lentils-Ustica and Villalba
Lettuce-Romaine, Butterhead, Lolla Rossa, Lollo Biondo, Lolla Rossa, Resisto
Olive-Minuta (not hardy for Midwest winters)
Onions-Cippolini, Italian Red Torpedo, Breme Red, Cipudda Portannisa, Giarratana (large, sweet onion).  Sicily is in a short day onion area.
Peppers-Spicy varieties like Cayenne, De Arbol, Rosso di Sicilia a Mazzetti, and Piccante Calabrese (cherry type).  Sweet varieties like Marconi Giallo, Rosso Dolce Appendere, Corno di Toro (shaped like a bull horn)
Spinach-many varieties, Italian Summer
Squash-Zuchetta or Zucchino Rampicante, Trombocino, Zucchini
Tomatoes-First tomatoes to reach Sicily were yellow and round.  This is where the nickname pomodori (“golden apples”) comes from.  Sicilian Saucer,  Ciliegino cherry tomato, Inciardi (oxheart type) Licatese medium size, Pachino, Bilici Valley Siccagno.  Prinicipe Borghese and Belmonte are favorites in Sicily from the Italian mainland.
Wheat-Timilia durum

For seasoning, you can try Trapani sea salt or a sheep's cheese. Sheep are much better suited to the island than cows. A commonly used cheese in Sicily that is not hard to find in the US is pecorino. Slow Food Ark of Taste Sicilian cheese include Piacentino, Ragusano, Modicana, Madonic Provola, Belice Vastedda, Maiorchino, Nebrodi Provola, Ricotta Moscia, or Sicilian Canestrato.

Types in italics are listed in Slow Food Ark of Taste and/or Presidio for being rare and heirloom to Sicily.

For more tips on organic and heirloom gardening in small spaces and containers, see Melodie’s blog at Victory Garden on the Golf Course.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.



Pulling weeds may currently occupy many of the precious free hours of your time. Watching a crab grass penetrate the root crown of a freshly planted baby basil plant can be  irksome.  Incessantly, we pull out unwanted plants only to disturb the soil, thereby creating the very conditions that allow them to outcompete our cultivated seedlings. Between lawn mowing and weed pulling, our nation seriously mismanages our time and labor.

How can we overcome this ferris wheel of weeding? If this interests you, read on.

Feed Your Soil

As I mentioned in my last Article How to Grow your Soil with Mycorrhizae and Beneficial Bacteria, the soil is very much alive. The microbes that convert latent nutrients into accessible nutrition for your plants are working night and day below the surface. By providing the right conditions, we can foster that microbial growth by 1) prolonging the wet period of the soil, 2) reducing weed penetration and 3) slow releasing nutrients. All three of these benefits can be achieved through sheet mulching.

Many permaculture blogs will claim that one can simply slap sheet mulch atop a former lawn and this will magically transform the “Rhizosphere,” or root zone into a fertile food-growing zone. In my experience, transforming over fifty lawns into productive and diverse gardens, this is NOT the case. The first step is to properly remove the lawn’s root zone. This can best be done the old fashion way with elbow grease. On a broader scale, this can be done initially with a rototiller. The lawn’s aggressive roots must be removed prior to sheet mulching, so as to start with a clean palate and give your young plants the best chance to thrive.

Innoculate the Soil

Once the land has been prepped, rake the soil into level.  Then is the opportunity to broadcast innoculants and soil conditioners. I prefer to utilize the Down to Earth product, BioLive. This product comes laden with Endo-mycorrhizae and trace minerals which will work under the sheet mulch when wetted to begin to foster microbial life immediately.

I also like to utilize a light broadcast of bone meal, kelp meal and volcanic rock ash for this purpose as well, depending on soil needs. To find out what your soil may need, it can be worth investing in a soil test. For around $70 you can get a thorough lab analysis. I like Wallace labs, which can be done in a one week turnaround.

For those of you who wish to stay “in-house” with your amendments, simply spread one inch of home-made, finished compost under your sheet mulch.

Mulching with Cardboard

Now that you have removed the lawn’s roots and broadcasted your innoculants, you are ready to sheet mulch. In large installs, I utilize commercial cardboard rolls.  This post-consumer recycled product can easily be rolled out like carpet and tacked down with 1/2-inch irrigation stakes. I find this to be much faster to cover a work area.

For those of you DIYers, you can collect large cardboard from bike shops and appliance stores. Simply break them down flat and stake all corners. Note: Be sure to overlap the edges, as seams are where the weeds will attempt to sprout. It is important to plant closely following the card boarding, as the cardboard is susceptible to tearing if moistened without the protective cover of mulch.

If you are planting directly into the newly card boarded area, cut a large circle out of the cardboard with a box cutter and dig your hole. I like to amend each hole with ~50% native soil, ~40 percent planting mix, 5 percent compost and 5 percent worm castings. 


After your plants are planted, follow up with wood chip mulch. I recommend 3-4 inches of mulch, being sure to not bury the root crown of each plant, as this is a common way that leads to rot and disease. The mulch will act as a sealant as moisture enters the rhizosphere.

The sheet mulch with also slow release nutrients during each watering. For shorter-lived annuals, I recommend mulching with coco coir. This organic matter’s small particles break down much faster than wood chips. While my broccoli grows, for example, the coco mulch shields the roots from the hot sun. After I am finished harvesting my broccoli, I turn this coco coir mulch into the soil. This helps build tilth, as the coco is fluffy and becomes quickly inoculated with microbes.


Leave Some Areas Bare for Native Bees

As the sheet mulch will drastically reduce weed sprouting, I recommend raking out one meter circles that are left bare. Into these circles I seed wildflower mixes, such as California Poppy eschscholzia californica, Lupine lupinus albifrons, and Yarrow achillea millefolium. These bare zones can foster native insectories, in the form of pollen as well as leaving some ground bare for ground nesting native bees. For more information on ground nesting bee habitat, check out this website

With sheet mulching, you do more of the hard work upfront to create ideal conditions. While this makes the start-up more arduous, you will rest assured that the bulk of your ongoing garden maintenance will go towards the planting and harvesting of your food crops, not toward Saturdays of weed pulling and lawn mowing. Give sheet mulching a try and see if it helps your garden yields while freeing up time for increased garden capacity.

Want to rethink your relationship to weeds? Check out the new book written by a fellow permaculture designer, writer and friend Tao Orion entitled Beyond the War on Invasives published this year by Chelsea Green.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and 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.

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