Organic Gardening

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

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Gardens are wonderful places. We can feed ourselves from them, but they can produce so much more. I have grown cotton in my garden and have learned to spin and weave it. My personal challenge for 2016 is to grow flax to produce linen. I have to plan for that now, however, so that the garden beds are ready for the cotton and flax when it is time. I manage my cover crops with hand tools, planning ahead so that the cover crop is in a stage for transition when I want the next crop to go in. If I managed the garden with a tiller, I wouldn’t have to be so careful about my cover crop choices now, since I could just till them in at the appropriate time.


Flax will be planted in early spring. A preceding cover crop that has winterkilled would be appropriate here, such as radish or oats, but it is too late to be planting that now. Mulching the bed with leaves would be good. The bed will be weed-free come spring and will be warmed up if you pull off the leaves two weeks ahead of planting to allow the sun to reach the soil.


There is much to learn when turning flax fiber into linen and I’ll be writing about that in the coming year. The days to maturity for flax is 90-100 days from planting, so be prepared for a summer harvest. Then it will need to be rippled (seeds pulled off), retted (soaked in water or laid out in the dew), broken, scutched, hackled, and spun. For the most part, I’ll be making my own tools for those jobs, however I found a hackle in an antique mall recently. A hackle is a board with very sharp spikes sticking up from it and, from what I’ve read, three sizes are needed; each size having the spikes at different spacings. Hackling prepares the long flax fibers for spinning. I’ll let you know how that goes.


Cotton doesn’t need so many tools to go from seed to fabric, however, it does need hot weather. Not all climates are suitable, but if you have a long hot growing season you should give it a try. Plant it after the last spring frost when you put in tomatoes. It will take the whole growing season, with the bolls not opening until near frost in the fall. A suitable cover crop before cotton would be winter rye mixed with a legume, such as hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas. The crop would be cut and left in place as mulch when the rye is flowering (about the time the farmers are taking their first cutting of hay). Wait two weeks for the roots to settle before putting in the cotton transplants. For a little earlier planting, but still after the last spring frost, cotton can go in after Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, or crimson clover, without waiting an additional two weeks after the cover crop is cut.

I have spun cotton right off the seed, but sometimes it needs to be carded first, which could be accomplished with dog brushes. Learn more about cotton and flax in your garden at Homeplace Earth.

Learning to grow and process these fibers has meaning beyond the potential to produce your own textiles. I hope it gets you thinking about how the textiles already in the marketplace are produced. Start to pay attention to stories about the working conditions and environmental damage due to textile production—stories such as the garment factory fire in Bangladesh and the advantages of organic cotton over conventional cotton.

Every dollar we spend is a vote for how we want the world to be. Just by how we choose to live can make a difference, whether we are growing our own textiles or purchasing them from responsible sources.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at

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. 



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. 


Autumn is finally here and soon it will be bringing much cooler temperatures (much appreciated after a long toasty summer) and plenty of falling leaves. If you happen to have trees such as Chinese Pistache, Liquidambar, Ash, Crape Myrtle and many others that grow well in the High Desert, you’ll have the added bonus of spectacular fall colors before the leaves drop to the ground. When the leaves do finally drop, think about recycling them into mulch or compost rather than putting them in the trash.


Leaves can be a great benefit to gardens and landscapes because they hold a number of nutrients that can be released back into the soil for plant use, thus reducing the need for added fertilizers. According to Compost Guide, “the leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of fertilizers and humus. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure.”

Using the leaves as mulch or compost not only adds the additional nutrients to the soil for use by plants, they also help to keep the soil warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, helps the soil to retain moisture so you don’t have to water as often, and shades the ground preventing many weeds from growing. If you happen to be using needles from pines (or the leaves from oaks), you can get the added benefit of adding a little acidity to the soil for plantings that struggle with the High Desert’s alkaline soil.

There are a number of ways to collect the fallen leaves — leaf vacuums, blowers, mowers, and if you want to be “green," the old-fashioned rake. You can also help out your neighbors and collect their leaves as well. The leaves release their nutrients and break down best if they are ground up or shredded, so running them through a mulching mower or chipper-shredder does the trick.


Once the leaves have been shredded, you can place the leaves directly on the ground around your plantings as a protective mulch. Or better yet, since the leaves are more likely to blow away here in the High Desert, you can place these high-carbon leaves in a compost pile or bin and mix with some green garden or kitchen scraps (vegetables, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, etc.), manure, blood meal, cottonseed meal, grass clippings or nitrogen fertilizer, add some water and stir or turn periodically and have a nice batch of nutrient-rich compost for your spring garden. If the pile is not heating up, you might need a little more nitrogen-containing ingredients. For additional help in getting the pile to heat up, especially in the cooler months, you can cover the pile with clear plastic sheeting.

Now you know you can enjoy the leaves of your trees all year long — from the beautiful new spring growth to the great shade they provide during the summer heat, from the incredible fall colors to the nutrient-rich compost and mulch made from the fallen leaves.

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.

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