Organic Gardening

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

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Using hose to outline bed

Making a new garden bed can seem like a monumental, labor intensive task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are several minimal labor ways to make a new bed. My favorite begins with a hose and old newspaper and/or cardboard.

The best place to put a vegetable garden is close to the house where there is good sun, ideally a spot that gets southern exposure. Check out where the sun falls throughout a sunny day to see where the best locations are in your yard. Don’t be concerned if your garden spot gets some shade each day. Fruiting vegetables need the most sun, 6-8 hours.

Producing garden bed

Root vegetables require less and leafy vegetables require the least. Leafy vegetables appreciate getting afternoon shade in the hot days of summer.  I have a spot on the northeast side of the house that I like to put leafy greens.  It gets the morning sun, but the cool afternoon shade.  This allows us to grow lettuce through the summer.

Once you have picked out a spot, you can use a hose to lay out what you want the bed to look like. We then use a spray can of landscaping paint to paint out the edges of the bed.

The easiest next step is to cut the grass inside your new bed as short as possible. Then lay several layers of newspaper or cardboard over the top of the closely sheared grass and cover with compost then mulch. Now, just let the bed lay until the grass dies. The grass and its roots adds organic matter to the soil as well.  Test the soil before planting to see what nutrients you need to add.  Use a balanced fertilizer when you plant.

New garden bed

Another option is after mowing close to the ground and laying the newspaper/cardboard, dump garden soil over it all, add compost, fertilize and plant immediately. Just be careful to not cut through the newspaper or you will get grass growing in your new garden bed.

We have also used a sod cutter, cutting up the sod in our new bed. Then, turning it upside down, covering with newspaper/cardboard, a couple of inches of compost, mulch, and plant.  This is definitely more work, but you have less chance of having to pull stray grass if you want to plant immediately.

If you don’t need your garden bed to be “pretty”, a quick way to plant is to simply poke holes in bags of garden soil, put the perforated side down, cut open the top side of the bag and plant away. The plastic underneath will keep the grass from growing through. The downside is that your veggie plant roots won’t be able to grow down as well either. But if you don’t have time, this is a good way to get started. You can edge around the bags and removed them the following year, adding compost and have a ready made bed for the following year.

You can also go the raised bed route. There are many do it yourself, pre-cut raised bed kits that you can purchase. Use the same techniques above to make sure the grass won’t grow up through into your veggies. Newspaper and cardboard works great for this. Fill with good soil, compost, an all natural fertilizer and you are ready to plant.

The pros of raised beds is that they warm up quicker in the spring and you control the soil that you are growing in. The cons, the temperature is not as constant as if in the ground and they will need to be watered more often.

You can also opt to have your garden in pots.  This is a great way to start small and quickly.  It is amazing how many varieties of any veggie you love have been developed to grow in containers.

Eggplant in pot with petunias

There are several options to getting your garden bed in place that don’t require a ton of time or hard labor. Now is the time to choose one and get your spring garden growing!

For more tips on gardening in small spaces and containers, visit Melodie's blog at



eat localEating locally is a vitally important way each of us can contribute to a more sustainable community and food shed. Based on the Permaculture Zone Principles, charted in a bull’s eye pattern, each circle represents sustainable ways to access food in our own communities. According to these principles, it is best to grow our own food in our own backyard first. What we can’t grow ourselves, we can acquire at local community gardens and small farms or by supporting local farmers markets. We can then support area businesses which are purveyors of local foods. Finally, only when we simply have utilized all of our local resources, then we visit the chain supermarket to complete our food needs. This mindset offers a creative insight into how our thoughts about food need to shift a little in order to truly be invested in the local foods movement.

To support local farmers means that you are actually helping a farmer and his family to survive. Perhaps you are helping to pay the operating costs of his farming operation; maybe you are helping their children go to college; perhaps your money is buying seeds. Whatever the case may be, knowing that you are supporting the livelihood of an honest hardworking entrepreneur is more satisfying and more human than lining the pockets of CEO’s of major corporations. The support of farmers first shows the dedication to immediate community. This act of supporting local is actually helping to strengthen the economy within a specific radius. Also, Young farm families are true stewards of the earth. They care about the soil, the air and the water.

eat local 2

Ways to help support small family farms

Join a CSA Farm: CSA Farms (Community Supported Agriculture Farms) operate as a subscription farm. Shareholders or members pay up front to help the small farmer with seed and operating costs. Members then receive a weekly share of the seasonal harvest grown throughout an allotted period of time, typically 26 weeks. The shareholders share in both the risks and the benefits with the farmer.

Shop at your local farmers market: Farmers Markets offer weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) opportunity to purchase fresh, locally grown produce at reasonable yet fair prices for the farmers. Fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets are typically harvested within a few days of purchase and are at their peak flavor and freshness. Typically the farmers who grow the produce are the ones selling it at the market so it gives customers an opportunity to meet and shake hands with those who grow their food. Farmers markets offer the opportunity to purchase pasture raised meats and fresh eggs.

Support local businesses which source from local farmers

eat localWays to help localize the food shed: Learn about Permaculture as a global solution to the environmental/social/economical issues relating to food. Permaculture Gardens utilize the existing landscape and produce food in harmony with each specific ecosystem. Permaculture gardens focus on no till methods with an emphasis on soil health, water preservation, companion planting, and permaculture food forests.

Start your own container garden or square foot garden to ease you into the art of growing food. Container Gardening is easy and affordable and offers a basic introduction to backyard gardening. Container gardening requires very little space and is low maintenance. Container gardening is perfect for busy individuals who wish to grow their own food.

Start your own backyard garden . Backyard gardening is easy and requires only a small amount of time and energy, especially when creating raised beds which require very little weeding. Wicking beds offer a low maintenance alternative. Wicking beds are low cost low maintenance garden beds which are composed of reclaimed materials. Backyard gardens attract pollinators and offer food for the entire family.

Start a food revolution in your neighborhood. Talk you the neighbors on your block about starting front yard gardens. This concept allows a highly sustainable food shed within your square block. The food is then shared between neighbors, offering a diverse array of fresh vegetables. This idea builds community and creates safer, more vibrant neighborhoods. Check out for inspiration.

Start/join a community garden. Community Gardens offer an amazing opportunity for a diverse group of individuals from the community come together for the unified vision of growing healthy fresh food. Most community garden plots are either free or require a small annual fee. According to the American Community Garden Association, “There are an Estimated 18,000 Community Gardens throughout the United States and Canada alone.” Community gardens, worldwide, each offer excellent models for education and outreach. Community gardens are beautiful examples of how individuals from all walks of life living in the same community can come together and bring a vision to fruition with love and support.

Organize a "Crop Mob". Know a small family farmer who could use some help? Organize a volunteer work day and spend the day pulling weeds or helping with harvest at a farm in your town. Farmers could always use volunteers!



Some discounted startsI’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. My sister thinks I’m a great gardener when in fact, I’m pretty lousy at it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get things to grow. I just never get the garden I’ve always wanted. But, I have learned some tricks that I’ll pass onto you.

Summertime Veggie Sales

My attempt at growing seedlings ended with one of my Alaskan Malamutes bringing the container of dirt and dropping it at my feet. The seedlings were gone and my Malamute was looking for more. I gave up for a while, thinking that maybe buying starts was a good idea.

It is, to a certain degree, but it can become a very expensive garden if you buy full price. The best thing to do is to join the email list of a local nursery and keep an eye out for summer vegetable sales. You see, most people by this time have already put in their garden and the nurseries and farmer’s markets will usually have excessive vegetable starts. At this point, the nursery and market stands will most likely have a sale.

By keeping an eye out for the sales, I was able to get my vegetable starts from a local nursery for half off their normal prices. I was also able to score some zucchini plants from the farmer’s market for a buck a plant. What’s more, these vegetables are usually more mature and are further along than the ones you buy in the springtime.

The downside is that sometimes beggars can’t be choosers here. If you’re looking for a special plant that is very popular, it’s unlikely you’ll find it at this time. However, you might find some real gems. I was able to pick up maturing dragon’s tongue beans at half price, a small marjoram plant for a mere 50 cents, and if I had been looking for tomatoes, I could’ve found some awesome plants. As it stands, I have four tomato plants that will work as well as enough other vegetable plants that are happily growing in my container gardens.

Seed Banks

One thing I discovered is that there is a local seed library that is available for anyone who wants to grow a garden. People save seeds and exchange them, which makes it a cheap way to start a garden. All they ask is that you donate some seeds to the cause at the end of the season.

I discovered this seed library late in the season but decided to take advantage of it anyway. I took a packet of each of edible crops so that I can start them in my mini greenhouse for late summer and fall plantings. My first batch was appaloosa beans, kale, carrots, orach, arugula, and dragon’s tongue (that I had from a couple of years ago). My next batch will be more lettuce and other interesting cool weather plants.

Sharing Seeds

If you don’t have a seed bank near you, you can always start your own seed savers group. All you need are some like-minded friends and postage. Come up with packages of seeds you’ve saved and a list of people who want seeds for the price of postage. Put your name and address at the bottom of the list. Mail your package with different seeds to a friend along with your list. Your friend should take whichever seeds he or she wants and add a like amount of seeds in the package. Your friend then mails it to the next person on the list. That person does the same thing. By the time you have your seed returned, chances are you have a whole new set of seeds to try out. Not a bad deal.

M.H. (Maggie) Bonham is the publisher of Sky Warrior Books and lives in the mountains of Montana with goats, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, Alaskan Malamutes, cats, a patient husband and an ornery llama.  Visit her blog Eating Wild Montana.


Homestead Creek Waterfall

Although I am partially in the shade, it is still hot enough that my skin is clammy and my clothing damp. I dig the hoe into the ground again, chopping at the saplings and weeds that are growing up amongst my newly sprouted pumpkin plants. This ground has not been worked in at least fifty years, perhaps longer. Although my husband has cleared it, persistent new growth emerges from the root system of long overgrown trees.

Something in the ground I have dug catches my eye. It is another piece of broken china. This one is white with a tiny, delicate floral pattern. I put down the hoe and pick up the china. The pattern is in a soft, almost romantic green colour. Immediately, I am intrigued with thoughts of Ireland.  Hands sore with calluses, hot and tired with the relentless work of roughing out a garden in overgrown bush, this new discovery is coaxing me to sit and daydream for a moment. At the edge of the garden is a small waterfall, fifteen feet from where I stand. The cascading water calls to me. With hoe laid down and broken piece of china in my sore hand, I sit on a rock by the waterfall and begin to be swept away by the intoxication of the moment.

My husband was born in this area and I moved here as a child, both of us growing up here. We have deep roots to this area and knew this farm and the family that lived here. The very same original family that received this land in 1871 as a land grant from Queen Victoria. Back then settlers were encouraged to come from the old country — England, Scotland & Ireland — to open up the Canadian wilderness in this part of Ontario. If they could clear a patch of land, build a log dwelling and scrape up a subsistent living in the first year, the Queen provided the new settler with 100-acre parcel of land, known as a land grant, usually free of charge, or for a nominal fee. The land we are on remained in the same family all these years until we were fortunate enough to purchase the almost 300-acre parcel in 2005.

Potato Patch On Old Farm

Many of the first gardens had been forgotten over the years, as times changed, family members began to work off the farm, and age took its toll on the remaining members of the family. Since moving here, we revitalized the garden right beside the farm house. We then moved on to other areas of the property where we suspected gardens may have been by the terrain, all the while looking for the best garden area. One of these was the potato patch by the first log home on the property, known to us as the “old farm.” We soon discovered shards of china and pottery throughout this garden area. Captivated by the assortment and beauty of the pieces we would find, it would always give us a reason to pause and wonder.

Broken Pottery In A Garden

Today, I am working on a garden close to the 1890s farmhouse that we now live in. It is a new area for us to try and by its growth we knew it had been cleared many, many years ago for either a garden or livestock. A small creek runs directly behind the farmhouse and tumbles over the limestone into an enchanted waterfall right beside where I have been turning up the soil. Tim, my husband, cleared the area of its overgrown brush, tilled up the soil and spread our sheep’s natural manure throughout. He then planted his potatoes. I worked up the bottom half of the area planting my favourite crop, pumpkins. It didn’t take long to realize how useful the waterfall is for watering this garden. Along the cedar rail fence we discovered a much neglected damson tree and a tame gooseberry bush. We unearthed a very old cultivator blade and then came the china.  The china and pottery was a telltale sign that a garden did exist here.

Fascinated by these mysterious pieces of the past, I of course wondered why they were put in the garden. After much searching I discovered many people were intrigued by also finding broken bits of china in very old gardens throughout the UK, Australia, US and Canada…perhaps other places. There were varied reasons for this, many seemingly frivolous. But after much thought, I speculated there had to be a very good reason. I believe the Victorians put their broken china and pottery in the garden, not just as a way to dispose of the ruined item, but to also amend the soil in the process. Bone china and many ceramics are comprised of animal bone ash. Bone ash contains nitrogen and phosphorus, excellent natural fertilizers. It made perfect sense to me and these gardens seem to really flourish.

I am satisfied I have found an answer to the mystery of the broken china, but it is still captivating each time I find a piece. Did it come from the old country? Did the piece hold a special meaning? Was someone heart broken when it was shattered? I look fondly at the green floral piece in my hand, it is beautiful. Then I place it back in the soil where I found it and smile; this will be the best garden.


Karen And Colin Archipley

The Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program was created by Colin and Karen Archipleywith one goal: helping their fellow veterans by lending a supportive hand. This program not only teaches agribusiness to our veterans but also provides them with a new start. Since 2006, this program has grown to over 200 graduates with over 50% of them going on to start their own agriculture business.

We here at Archi’s Acres are truly proud of our graduates success, such as Green Bee Farms in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, ran by married graduates Thomas and Mirka Marlowe. Thomas and Mirka graduated from the VSAT program in the summer of 2011 and now run their own hydroponic farm with some of their products, such as okra, heirloom tomatoes, mint and sprouts, already being sold in supermarkets.

With Colin and Karen’s driven passion, Archi’s Acres looks forward to reaching out and inspiring more lives. Learn more at Archi's Acres.

Photo by Archi’s Acres


corn fieldStart planting sweet corn early. When to plant sweet corn? Rowcover can be used to pre-warm soils (and then keep cold temperatures and birds off the germinating seeds). Clear plastic mulch can increase soil temperature and germination rate, and conserve moisture, producing earlier harvests. Spread the plastic over the seeded beds and slit it when the seedlings emerge. Cut and remove it thirty days after emergence. Weed-free seedbeds are needed for this method to work organically, and plastics disposal is an issue.

Transplanting Sweet Corn

Direct sowing is the usual way of planting sweet corn, but transplanting can also be successful. It is important to transplant before the plant gets too big and the taproot takes off. 2-3” (5–7.5-cm) plants seem OK. Corn has no tolerance to frost. Escape from a late spring frost is possible if the seedlings are less than two weeks old and not yet very tall, as the growing point may still be underground. Thus, in a spring that promises to be warm and dry, you can risk an early planting as much as 2–3 weeks before the last frost date. Having some transplant plugs for a backup helps reduce the risk level. We usually prepare some plugs the same day we sow our first corn outdoors and use these to fill gaps at the first cultivation. We use 200-cell Styrofoam Speedling flats (1", 2.5 cm cells). We float these in a tank of water until we set them out. Some vegetable seedlings would drown if continuously in water, but corn does not. The plugs transplant easily using butter knives.

But don’t plant corn too early! Sweet corn needs warm soil. 50°F (10°C) is the absolute minimum, and applies to treated seed and OP or (su) varieties only. 60°F (15.5°C) is better for most, and 65°F (18°C) or higher is required by some varieties. Common phenology signs for the season being advanced enough to sow corn are that oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears and that ragweed is germinating. For us the first corn sowing date is usually around April 26, which is also our average last frost date. Either pre-warm the soil, use transplants, or wait for warm soil.

sweet corn

Avoid mixing types of corn. There’s a confusing aspect of hybrid corn varieties: There are several genotypes, and if you inadvertently plant a mixture of different types, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden. Ignore those cryptic catalog notes at your peril!

Normal sugary (su or ns) types have old-fashioned corn flavor but are sweeter than open pollinated varieties, although the sweetness disappears fairly rapidly after harvest. Not a problem for home gardeners who can cook the corn they harvested earlier that day. Most can germinate well in cool soil. Sugary-enhanced (se) and sugary enhanced homozygous (se+ or se-se) types are more tender, and usually sweeter, than (su), and slower to become starchy after harvest. Triplesweet sugary enhanced (se-se-se) were created to be sweeter than se-se. We grow these first three types, and avoid the newer types below – sweet and simple!

Synergistic (se-se-se-sh2) types are combinations of genetics from several genotypes. Each ear has 75 percent (se) kernels and 25 percent (sh2) kernels. They do not require strict isolation from other corn types. They are flavorful, tender and sweet, but only when they are ripe. If picked too soon, they are a watery disappointment. 

The Super Sweet (sh2) varieties, also known as shrunken, are very sweet and slow to become starchy. They have very poor cold soil germination. The kernels are smaller than other corns, giving this type its name. “Augmented shrunken” types contain the sh2 gene and some of the tenderness from the se types. Cross-pollination with other corn groups will produce the dominant genetics of field corn, that is, starch not sugar. Don’t mix Super Sweet sh2 types with any other corn.

Plant corn in blocks, not single rows. Corn is wind pollinated (although you will find plenty of bees collecting pollen). For well-filled ears, plant in patches at least four rows wide. Inadequate pollination leads to ears with flat undeveloped patches among the kernels.

Water corn wisely and remove weeds. Corn seed must have moisture to germinate. If you use a push seeder, irrigate after sowing. Because we sow small areas of many different varieties, and because people love to plant corn, we sow by hand. We measure and make furrows (drills). Then we flood the drills with water from a hose, then hand sow into the mud. After covering the seed and tamping the soil, we ignore the patch until the seed germinates. The watering in the furrow reliably provides enough moisture to get the plants up out of the ground. Our method delivers water right where the seed needs it. If you use drip tape, you might set out the tape, turn on the water for long enough to mark the soil with damp spots, then sow those spots with a jab planter.

The most important times for watering are silking (when the silks first become visible outside the husks) and ear-filling. Generally, corn needs cultivating at least twice: once two weeks after sowing and once at four weeks. Corn plants closer than 8” will compete with each other, so be sure to thin.

silver queenPlant several corn varieties each time. Here’s some we like:

Bodacious, 77-day (se) yellow, great flavor for one this early
Kandy Korn, 89-day (se) yellow workhorse
Silver Queen (see image), 96-day (su) white longtime favorite with some drought tolerance and insect resistance
Luscious, 77-day (se-se-se) bicolor (organically grown, good cold soil emergence)
Tuxedo, 80-day (se) yellow (tightly-wrapped, earworm resistant)
Sugar Pearl, 72-day (se+) white (very early, on short plants)
Argent, 86-day (se) white (tasty with tight earworm-defeating husks)
Spring Treat, 66-day (se+) yellow, one of the earliest yellow sweet corns with good cold soil tolerance
Sparkler, 78 day synergistic (se-se-se-sh2?) bicolor, high-yielding, big ears, good husk protection, strong plants.

For an even supply, sow several different varieties, with differing days to maturity, on the same date. We often use Bodacious, Kandy Korn and Silver Queen together, to get over two weeks of harvests.

Plant Successions

To have a continuous supply of sweet corn all summer, a bit of planning and record keeping is called for. The easy and approximate method of getting a good supply is to sow more corn when the previous sowing has three or four leaves or is one to two inches (2.5–5 cm) tall.

To fine-tune to get the most continuous supply, nothing beats real information about what happened, written at the time it happened. We write down actual sowing dates as well as harvest start and finish dates. Having graphs of sowing and harvest dates for each crop has been very useful for planning effective planting dates. You can read more about this in my book Sustainable Market Farming, or see my slideshow on – search for my name and then click on Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests. The slide show is also on my blog.

We make six plantings to provide fresh eating every two weeks: April 26, May 19, June 6, June 24, July 7 and July 16. The planting intervals are 23, 18, 18, 13 and 9 days. Because we plant three varieties, new corn comes in three times during each two weeks.

Don't Stop Too Soon

To calculate the last worthwhile sweet corn sowing date, add the number of days to maturity and the length of the harvest window (7–14 days) and subtract this number from your average first frost date. For our October 14 frost date, using an 80-day corn as an example, 80 + 7 = 87 days, which brings us back to July 19 for our final sowing date.

We’re looking forward to plenty of sweet corn this year – we’re off to a good start!


As a new blogger for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I thought it might be a good idea for me to introduce myself and share a little bit of my unique story with you.

Douglas Stevenson and Deborah Flowers

In the early 70’s my high school sweetheart and I picked up the first issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and became part of the back to the land movement. We dove in head first and never looked back.

Mother Earth News No 1

In the aftermath of the turbulent 60’s, it became apparent that change would not come to the world through politics. Our goal became not to take over the government, but to take over the government’s function, taking care of ourselves in every way we could. This meant getting land, growing our own food, building our own home, caring for our medical needs, and becoming as independent as possible.

At the same time, we saw that the life of a homesteader can be a very isolated existence. We wanted to be close to nature, but still involved in influencing society at large. We did not want to give up social interaction with friends, the joy of music, and the richness of life found through community.

In 1973, at the age of 19 and newly married, my sweetheart/now wife and I became part of one of the most dynamic and successful experiments in a back-to-the-land lifestyle, known simply as The Farm. We joined up with several hundred others of our generation on 1,700 acres in the backwoods of Tennessee to carry forward our vision of a better way for humanity to live in harmony and lightly on the earth. Now some forty years later, we are still here.

weeding crew on The Farm

Here at The Farm, we have learned a lot about growing food, building green, stewarding land, and most of all, the leverage to be gained when people work together. I will be blogging about all of this in the coming months.

The Farm Community was featured in Mother Earth News articles several times in the early days. 

Stephen Gaskin and The Farm, May 1977

Communal Life: A Look at The Farm in Summertown TN, March 1980

Those were quite some time ago and over the decades there have been many changes. Our current incarnation as a community is more relevant today than ever, with many different aspects that may resonate with you. I wanted to use this forum to share with you a little bit about the community as it is today and pass on what we’ve learned to this current wave of people seeking a more sustainable life, what we call “like minded folks.” The Farm’s mission has always been to serve as a model for what is possible and to inspire others to follow their dreams. A BIG THANKS to MEN for giving me this opportunity to communicate with you!

To learn more about The Farm, as well as my personal story, consider picking up a copy of my book, Out to Change the World, the evolution of The Farm Community.

Out to Change the World

My second book takes a deeper look at the building blocks of community, including our government, how we earn a living, our community health care, growing food, ecovillages, permaculture and more.

The Farm Then and Now

I will be speaking and giving a slide show presentation about my life at The Farm at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, PA, September 12-14

and in Topeka, Kansas, October 25-26

I hope to meet you there! More to come! Questions? Comments? Feel free to write to me at

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