Organic Gardening

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

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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.


Field Tilling 

If you are planning to set up a garden with a surface that is bigger than 300 m2, a tiller will help you save a lot of time and energy. Its sharp heavy blades might be a little intimidating for first-time users, but with a little practice, you will get the hang of it.

Usage and Functionality

A tiller is a motorized machine that works with gasoline or diesel powered engines. Wither it is for weeding, hoeing, plowing or crumbling, this multifunctional tool is commonly used to work the land and get the soil ready for planting. By breaking the soil into smaller pieces, tillers prevent weed growth and improves soil aeration and oxidation.

Tillers also loosen the ground to allow crop roots to develop quickly and increase the permeability of the earth to water. Further down the line, the tiller is very useful to make compost or fertilizer mixtures as it can chew up materials and turn them into mulch.

Timing and Preparation of the Soil

Autumn and spring are the most favorable seasons to get your tiller out of the shed. Avoid using it if the land is too soggy as this could result in compact clods when the soil dries. For best results, wait a day or two after the rain until the soil is semidry. If a handful of soil crumbles in your hand when you squeeze it, it should be fine.

If it hasn’t rained in a while, you can also water the land a few days prior to tilling to make the work easier. You should also beware of using this machine too often as it could cause soil depletion. It is important to consider all these elements to make good use of your tiller and enjoy all the advantages it has to offer.

Operating and Handling a Tiller

When using a tiller, it's important to avoid digging too deeply too quickly, especially if the soil hasn't been tilled for some time. If the ground is hard, consider two passes in different directions rather than pressing strongly on the machine in one pass. Use the shallow depth regulator settings (only an inch or two deep) for the first passes through the garden area and adjust the depth regulator to dig an inch or two deeper with each succeeding pass.

Your tiller is designed to propel itself forward naturally so you do not need to put too much pressure on the handlebar. Simply keep the machine steadily balanced at the right angle and let it move forward under its own weight. Slightly moving the handlebar from side-to-side can allow for better propulsion.

Tiller Safety and Security Guidelines

The tiller is a powerful motorized machine with sharp tools and it is essential to comply with the precautions of use. Make sure to read the service manual and familiarize yourself with the different controls and safety clutches. If specified by the manufacturer, wear eye protection, boots and any other gear.

Even though a tiler will make plowing considerably easier, you still need to be in good physical condition. Handling the machine can be tiring as it requires vigilance. Never operate your tiller without good visibility or light and when driving the machine, pay attention not to put your hands or feet near the rotating parts.

Always be sure of your footing and keep a firm hold on the handles. Remember to cut the engine off as soon as you leave the machine and one last thing: before you even start, check that no pets or children are around.

Tiller Maintenance

To service the tiller, always verify the secure mounting of the units and check that the safety features are operational. In addition, cleaning the internal and external parts of the machine is strongly recommended. The blades should be cleaned with a hose after each use. Inspect the spark plug regularly, clean light deposits with a wire brush every six months or change it if required.

Regarding the wheels, wash them after each monoculture session with a good spray of water to remove mud and dirt clods. During each maintenance session, make sure to have a clean air filter and undamaged, inflated wheels. Finally remember to drain your tiller before storing it during the off season.

Buying vs. Renting a Tiller

The purchase of a new tiller will make you the owner of a machine free from mechanical problems or body damage. But if buying a tool that will only be used occasionally represents too big of an investment, there is also the possibility of renting a tiller at your local hardware store.

This option will save you from maintenance and storage issues. At Agriaffaires, we also provide you with the alternative of buying a second-hand tiller online. This eco-friendly solution represents a very good compromise for those who wish to enjoy all the advantages of owning a tiller but at a reduced price.

Charles Spencer is freelance journalist specializing in farm machinery and crop production. He works for various magazines across the world and provides the writing for the technical, advertising and marketing needs of farm equipment companies. Read more from him on the Agriaffaires Blog.

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.


Fall is garlic planting time and that was evident at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR at Seven Springs in Pennsylvania last weekend. It was in plentiful supply at some of the vendor booths. If you missed the Fair, you could probably still order some from BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm (OH), Botanical Interests (CO), Enon Valley Garlic (PA), Fruition Seeds (NY), High Mowing Seeds (VT), Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (VA), Sow True Seed (NC), and Turtle Tree Seeds (NY—garlic shipped from Nebraska). When the soil in your garden cools to about 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) it will be ready for garlic.

Garlic is a great crop. Plant it 2 inches deep at about 6 inches apart, cover it with a mulch of leaves, and let it go. It will grow up through the mulch. The mulch keeps the bed weed-free, leaving little for you to do until harvest time, which here in Zone 7 is early June. Just like with other crops, you will find varieties that mature at different rates, spreading the harvest over several weeks if you planted them all.


Before planting I amend the garlic bed with compost and any organic amendments it may need that would be evident from a soil test. I plant garlic on 6-inch centers in an hexagonal pattern. I know farmers who have made a dibble board that is as wide as their garden bed and has pieces of dowels screwed into it every 6 inches, or whatever spacing they are using. It might have several rows marked that way.

By pressing the board to the ground they could put indentations in the soil at each spot, and just as deep as, a garlic clove should go. You could also accomplish this task with a rolling dibble to pull down your bed, marking the planting spots. It makes the actual planting go faster and ensures accuracy if you have inexperienced help.

I met someone years ago who had a custom-made aluminum dibble that marked multiple rows across the bed at the same time. This farmer wanted adequate space for the plants in the middle of the rows and had carefully worked out the spacing so the garlic was 6 inches apart on the outside rows of his 4-foot wide bed and 8 inches apart in the middle.

Plant Individual Cloves

Garlic is sold as bulbs which you divide into individual cloves for planting. Each clove grows into a bulb. Softneck garlic, which is what you most often see in the grocery store, has 10-12 cloves. If you planted only one head’s worth of garlic this fall, say 10 cloves, next year you would have 10 heads of garlic. You could eat half of your harvest and still have 5 heads to plant—about 50 cloves. If all goes well, the following year you would harvest 50 heads! Save your largest heads for cloves to plant back in the fall.

Health Benefits of Garlic

You don’t have to look far to find the health benefits of garlic. I have listed some at Home Earth, using The Green Pharmacy by Dr. James Duke as my reference. I remember reading years ago, although I don’t remember where, that during World War l the British soldiers carried a clove of garlic in their pocket to apply to wounds because of its ability to stop infections. I see that mentioned at Garlic Shaker. At Superstitions, Folklore and Fact, military use of garlic for treating wounds during World War I is mentioned as a fact, but by the Russian Army.

As for my own testimonial, last fall I was staying in a house with several other people while we attended Seed School. One of our housemates came down with a terrible cold. We had good homegrown garlic available, brought by one of the housemates to contribute to communal meals. We readily started our day eating cloves of garlic and no one else became sick. Chewing raw garlic cloves for breakfast might not be on your agenda, but you could eat pickled garlic. If you are already into fermenting vegetables, throw garlic into the crock. You can keep a jar of pickled cloves in the fridge to munch on regularly.

I hope this has encouraged you to make garlic a part of your life, starting with planting it this fall.

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

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging 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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