Organic Gardening

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

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MusroomsA woman called me for some gardening advice a couple of weeks ago. She talked about various projects... fruit and vegetables, trees and shrubs... ...and then she said something so horrible I stopped in my tracks. "I have mushrooms growing all over the place," she related. "They're everywhere!" "Really?" I replied, "That's great!" "GREAT? Seriously? I hate them! I've been pulling them all and throwing them over the fence!"

Oh, the horror! The horror! I've heard this before, particularly with meticulous gardeners. Mushrooms pop up in the middle of a green lawn and they're immediately hunted down and destroyed. Does that describe you, oh enlightened reader of Mother Earth News? I hope not!

The average gardener sees mushrooms as if they were individual plants. He spots them in the yard and assumes they're simply a single organism, or a group of organisms in a ring or a cluster. Rarely does he stop and wonder how deep their mycelium run. The truth of the matter is that mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of a creature that may be much larger than it appears at first, second or third glance. Their deep underground network may have been around long before you arrived on the scene.

Have you ever turned over a log or some mulch and seen wispy white fibers running through the wood? That's the main body of the mushrooms, i.e. NOT the part getting thrown over the fence. In your garden, or better yet, your food forest, mushrooms and other fungi are tireless creators of soil and recyclers of hard-to-compost organic matter such as roots, logs and tough vegetable material. They digest rocks and release nutrition that plants can only dream of accessing.


Some mushrooms even have beneficial relationships with your plants. A tree can photosynthesize and create sugars mushrooms in a way mushrooms can't. They trade these sugars to mycorrhizal species of fungi and in turn are rewarded with minerals often carried to their roots from far beyond the tree's reach.

Innovators like Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running and other books, are now spreading the word. Entrepreneurial companies are even selling living fungal cultures you can add to the soil when you plant trees, giving them a leg up (or a "root" up) on the competition. Many of these products have been shown to help; however, you don't need to resort to buying fungi to get them running happily through your soil and enriching your homestead.

For the last few years I've been dropping tree company mulch, logs, leaves and other scrounged organic matter around my front yard food forest garden. When I go on walks I seek out mushrooms in fruit and bring them home, burying them and spreading their spores here and there. 

(My wife realized how badly I had fungi fever last week on the drive home from church. In an empty field by the highway, I saw a big fairy ring of large mushrooms and pulled a U-turn to pick a few. Turns out they were the lovely [and unfortunately inedible] Chlorophyllum molybdites. To my wife's slight irritation [she was faking... I think], I pressed three good specimens into her hands and said "Don't let them get damaged! I need to spore print these!")


We've had a good wet summer this year and as fall approaches the sheer number of mushrooms in our front yard has been marvelous. We're talking at least 30+ species that I've seen thus far, all on a half-acre. I took a bunch of photos and posted them on my blog - you can see the beauty here.

Since adding wood chips and gaining the resultant fungi I've seen a lot of improvement in plant growth. Plus I get to look at beautiful mushrooms. One of these days I'll start deliberately cultivating edible varieties... but that's a topic for another day.

Now if I can just convince my lawn-loving neighbors to chuck their mushrooms over my fence, I'll be all set.

David Goodman is an avid naturalist, gardener, writer and teacher as well as being the creator of, a daily gardening resource for people serious about growing food in tough times while still taking time to enjoy creation in all its abundance.


josh aliciaWhen it comes to solution based ideas about self sufficiency and what each of us can do in our own back yards, the closed loop system is high on the list. With grocery stores making it effortless to get unseasonal produce and convenience foods lined up throughout dozens of aisles and stacked on hundreds of shelves, its no wonder why humans have lost their connection with food. Luckily there are many young farmers hoping to change our reliance on overpriced and over-packaged foods loaded with chemical preservatives and artificial ingredients. New farms are popping up all over the world. Innovative food growing methods being put into practice every day. From vertical gardens to rooftop gardens; from aquaponics to aeroponics, young farmers are setting roots in their own communities worldwide, helping to localize food systems and circulate funds back into the local economy.

The closed loop system is an idea that I have been intrigued by for many years. The closed loop system has been popularized recently through stories of individuals and families turning their backyard swimming pool into a full functioning aquaponics garden. Green Finned Hippy Farm is changing that in their community in Pocahontas IL. They run an aquaponics farm.


Aquaponics involves utilizing the closed loop system for both fish and food production. The closed loop or closed cycle system is essentially aquaponics which combines hydroponics and aquaculture to achieve both fish as a food source and a free nutrient rich fertilizer siphoned from fish waste solids to feed the plants. There is virtually no waste in this process.


Green Finned Hippy Inc. started in 2010 as a licensed tilapia hatchery in Belleville, Illinois by Josh and Alicia Davis. A few years later, they moved to a 10 acre farm in Pocahontas IL, where they stay on the cusp of new and innovative sustainable farming techniques.

According to Alicia, co-owner, they operate an Aquaponics barn where over 3,800 gallons of water flows to 12 grow beds. The tilapia fish are bred on site and are grown in fresh water tanks. The water in the tanks is pumped into the grow beds, providing natural fertilizer for the plants. The plants are grown in rock grow beds which eliminates the need for dirt or pesticides. Green Finned Hippy Farm also produces over 1,500 pasture raised broilers per season for Nathalie’s Restaurant (owned by Overlook Farms) in St. Louis, MO. Using the Joel Salatin pasture raised poultry method, the broiler chickens live outdoors and are moved to fresh grass everyday using mobile chicken tractors. “Following in line with our All Natural theme, our flock of laying hens also spends their days roaming our pastures. Our fresh eggs cannot be beat with their rich orange yolks and health benefits that surpass any store bought egg! Haven’t heard why pasture raised eggs are the best? Check out this article!”, says Alicia.

Free Tours: Even with all of their projects, they make time to teach the public about what “Naturally Grown” really means. According to Alicia, “It’s our mission to teach people what it means to Put a Face Back on Food! We always welcome people come to our farm to see how we grow everything, and then we recommend they watch food documentaries such as Food Inc. to see what the Industry Standard is for where their supermarket food comes from. It’s an eye opening experience and we encourage everyone to take the challenge of thinking twice about WHERE and HOW their food was produced!”

One stop shop for simple clean eating. They feel going straight to the farm should not be seen as “inconvenient.” They offer a diverse array of products to supplement the Locavores diet:

Aquaponic Produce (Basil and Kale – all year round!)
Fresh Ground Peanut Butter
Freshly Baked Breads
Pesticide Free Produce
Fresh Goats Milk
Instruction on How to Pickle Produce
Instruction on How to Build Solar Panels

In their quest to become a sustainable farm, they also added two goats to provide the farm with milk and weed control! Since Aquaponics is how it all started on their farm, they offer consultation services to help others get their own aquaponic systems up and running. Their past consultations include Overlook Farms in Clarksville Mo, and Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

Visit their face book page or website to learn more.

It is young pioneering farmers like Josh and Alicia Davis who are reshaping the future of food in the United Sates. Folks like these surely do inspire others to think differently about their food.



cornstalks and macheteThe vegetable gardening season is coming to a close, or soon will be, for many gardeners. I look at this time, not as an ending of the season, but as a transition. For me, there is always a gardening season. The summer annual crops that have not yet finished their cycle will soon succumb to the first hard frost. I have seen gardens that were left in that state all through the winter—a mass of tangled and spent plants with cold-tolerant weeds popping up as soon as the depths of winter have passed. On the other hand, I have seen gardens (mine) that are green and vibrant all winter, planted to cover crops that will provide food for the soil and for the compost pile through the next year.

You already have the makings of a compost pile with the spent crops from this year’s garden. Harvest them for your compost pile as you do your fall clean-up. You can chop the stalks of corn and sunflowers into lengths appropriate for your pile with a machete to facilitate your work. My machete is shown in the photo with the cornstalks I used it on.

Beware of 'Killer Compost'

Spent garden plants and weeds have long been part of compost piles, but gardeners generally need to bring in more materials to produce a larger quantity of compost or to use as mulch. However, bringing in materials from outside sources can be disastrous to your garden. In the 21st century, there are some herbicides that are used in the landscape and agricultural industries that don’t break down in the composting process. It used to be that organic gardeners could gather any leaves, straw, or hay to put on their gardens and it was safe, even if it hadn’t been grown organically. The thought was that by the time it composted there would be no danger from the chemicals, if any, that had been used to grow it. It turns out that these new herbicides are still active in the resulting compost and can be detrimental to your vegetable plants. I wrote a blog post about killer compost in 2011. Google “killer compost” and you will find many more informative articles, some from Mother Earth News, with updated information.

Grow Crops for Composting

Rather than worry about these outside inputs, you can grow crops specific for compost making—enough to provide all your compost needs. Cover crops that you plant now will keep your garden vibrant all winter and will be harvested in the spring and summer. The good news is that you don’t need a tiller to manage them. Let them grow to maturity, or almost to maturity, to give you the full benefit of all the biomass they have to offer (including the quantity of roots they will leave in the soil). These crops can be cut with a sickle, so no matter how small your garden might be, you can fit cover crops into the rotation. Common cover crops planted in the fall include winter rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas. Winter rye can be felled with a sickle when it is shedding pollen and left right in the garden bed to become mulch for the next planting. Or it can be grown to seed, with the resulting straw as mulch for your garden or carbon for the compost pile. Wheat can be grown for the same purpose. Leave it grow to seed and you can have your own homegrown grain, plus straw.

You will find tips on growing cover/compost crops at Homeplace Earth. Knowing which crops to plant when, and how to harvest them, may take some study and some planning. If you haven’t grown cover crops before, or tried them and just didn’t have the timing or the crop right for your situation, keep an open mind and please try again. Your garden will love you for it!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to at


Onions in dehydrator

Sliced onions in dehydrator

Love Vidalia onions, but are bummed that the season to buy them is so short? Love zucchini, but by mid-summer have them coming out your ears? Wondering what to do with all those luscious sun ripened tomatoes? Dehydrating or sun drying is a great option!

There are many options for purchasing an electric dehydrator in any price range. You can also use screen material to dehydrate your extra veggies in the sun. Just be sure to cover them so flies can’t get to them.

There are also DIY sun dehydrators that you can build fairly inexpensively that speeds up the drying process. I saw one on Mother Earth News this week.

For dehydrating, just slice your veggies in even widths and place on your tray. Set to the recommended temperature (135-155 degrees F) and let the dehydrator do its thing. In a day or two, you will have dried veggies that you can store in pretty containers for display on shelves or in canning jars.

You can also use your oven if the temperature will go low enough. Mine goes down to 170 degrees F. You can dry veggies at temps as high as 200 but you will have to keep a close eye on them to make sure they don't brown versus dry. You can crack your oven open to help keep your veggies from burning, but that can get pretty toasty in the summer kitchen!

For onions and peppers, I like them really dry so I can make them into powder. I dry Pablanos and Anchos for chili powder. Two pepper plants give us enough dried peppers that we never have to buy chili powder from the store! My husband loves Vidalia onions so we buy them up and dry them so we can use them on burgers year round. 10 pounds of fresh onions provides all we need for the year dried.

Drying concentrates the sugars in your vegetables so you will get an intensity of flavor using the dried veggie in recipes. You can also re-hydrate your veggies to use in recipes through out the winter.

Dried onions

Dried onions

The really cool thing about dried veggies is that no refrigeration is needed! Just store in a cool, dark place until you are ready to use them. If you want to rehydrate your veggie, just place in a bowl of cool water for 30-60 minutes. The water will have lots of nutrients in it so use in your next recipe, to make stock or in your next smoothie. Don't let any of all that goodness go to waste.

We are planning to dry our extra zucchini to rehydrate and grill this winter, we dry onions and sprinkle them on our burger, dried tomatoes are great in salads. The list goes on!

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


 Canning peaches

Oregon State University is the state agricultural college, and I live in an old neighborhood full of bungalows, where professors raised their children and planted fruit trees—plums, pears, apples, cherries, and one glorious fig—in the back yards. The professors have moved up into the hills, seeking quiet and larger houses, but the old trees remain, still producing fruit. I have a map of these trees in my head and in late summer mornings harvest the produce and preserve it for winter. Other mornings, I bring back the excess from Sunbow Farm and spend an afternoon roasting and canning tomatoes or pickling cucumbers and red cabbage. I am an opportunistic canner; I take what is about to go to waste and save it, rather than working from a series of pre-planned recipes. There are three essential tools in an opportunistic canner’s basement that make such quick action possible.

3 Essential Tools for Home Canning

First, I have a steam canner from Territorial Seeds. Rather than filling the huge canning pot with water and waiting forty minutes for it to boil, I can prepare my applesauce or grape juice and can it immediately, using about a quart of water and a fraction of the time.  The timing is the same as a boiling water canner and it works on the same sorts of preserves—pickles, jams, juices, fruit in syrup, and tomatoes. This means that I can preserve a small batch of something, like three jars of pickled red cabbage, without feeling guilty about energy use.

Second, I have a large collection of jars. Some of them are old; I have quart jars with Bicentennial designs on them, and others read “Magic Mason” or “Mother’s Canning Jar.” I scour thrift shops for cheap jars in January. My partner’s mother ships jars to me from Tennessee and friends pass jars my way when they have too many.  I buy the lids in bulk, string the reuseable rings on thick pieces of Christmas yarn, and I am ready to go when a bushel of cider apples appears in the back yard, gleaned from the tree down the street.

Canning Resources

Finally, I have two books —The Joy of Pickling and The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.  Both are comprehensive, accurate, and detailed, discussing the general theories of preserving as well as giving specific recipes for a huge variety of vegetables and fruits. When I had a pile of very ripe cucumbers last year, I made senfgurken, which required tough-skinned fruits. Every year, I find new recipes in the books because I have new vegetables to work with.

I don’t can all of our winter’s produce; we eat more dried fruit than canned because of the sugar content and we prefer fresh kale to months old green beans. But, the last few weeks of August, just before school starts, are devoted to preserving whatever harvest comes my way. Like Greg Brown’s grandmother, I  “put summer in jars” for the long winter nights.

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog at To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to and


If you think garden season starts in the spring and ends at the first frost, think again! When the tomatoes are all gone and summer squash is but a memory, you will truly appreciate the taste of fresh, green vegetables coming to you right from the garden.

Depending on your climate, you can be harvesting from your garden all year long, including through the winter months! Here in Tennessee, we begin planting our fall crops in late August/early September, starting with winter greens.

What to Plant in Fall

Greens (kale, collards, spinach)
Cole (broccoli, cabbage)
Root vegetables (beets, carrots, garlic) 

Many fall plants have extremely small seeds, so it is very easy to plant them too thick. This means you'll need to thin, removing the extra seedlings. You can start out leaving a plant every six inches, then as they grow larger, thinning again a few weeks later with a plant every foot to 16 inches.

This kale needs thinning!
These young kale seedlings need to be thinned!

kale and collard greens
Kale and collard greens thinned to every 6 inches.

You may even be able to transfer some of your thinnings to new rows or fill in gaps in a row. Just don't be surprised if at first your transplants go completely limp and look like they have died. Your plants have simply gone into "shock" from the disturbance to their roots. Simply water them in and keep them well watered. By the next day, maybe two, you will find the transplants have rebounded and come back to life.

Transplants will often go into "shock" and appear limp and dying, before rebounding back to life. To help you in planting these super small seeds, some companies now offer "pelleted" seeds. Each individual seed has been coated in clay or a similar inert material, encasing the seed in a hard shell that dissolves when wet. This makes it much easier to space plants properly, either by hand or using a walk-behind planter. You also save yourself time and tedious effort, eliminating the need to do any thinning. You will find that pelleted seeds are the perfect solution for carrots. Lettuce seeds spaced to produce large heads are infinitely easier to sow. Other seeds available in pelleted form include beets, parsnips, many types of flowers, onions, herbs such as basil, celery, and Swiss chard.

pelleted seed

Tiny seeds can be purchased coated in an inert materials with a hard shell that dissolve when wet, making them much easier to plant at the proper spacing.

I find vegetables like broccoli and cabbage easier to grow by setting out plants. Ideally we'll start our own plants from seed, but when life gets busy, I often find it more convenient to pick up a few trays of starts from my local garden center.

broccoli starts

The plants have been staggered to give each one more room as they grow to full size.

soaker hose

Before mulching I lay down soaker hose. This allows me to water as needed. The soil stays moist the underneath the mulch and does not dry out when exposed to the hot sun of late summer.

broccoli in straw mulch

Next I mulch my broccoli transplant with straw to eliminate weeds and hold in moisture.

remay insect barrier

Using Row Cover in the Fall Garden

The last step is to cover the plants with an insect barrier made from polyester cloth called "remay." Fall insects have had all summer to grow and develop an appetite. Remay offers protection without resorting to pesticides! Remay is sold in various weights or thicknesses, offering frost protection as well. As temperatures turn colder you can replace the remay with clear plastic, which offers even more protection. If power is available, on extremely cold nights you can place an electric, incandescent light under the plastic. The heat from the bulb will be enough to protect your plants from even very hard freezes.

Don't miss out on this most rewarding times to garden! You taste buds will thank you!

Join Douglas at the upcoming MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Penn., where he’ll will be speaking on Friday afternoon about growing food, green building, and his life at The Farm Community, one of the largest and most successful ecovillages in the world. For more about The Farm, check out Douglas’s two books, Out to Change the World: The Evolution of The Farm Community and The Farm Then and Now. You can also see it all firsthand by attending one of his Farm Experience Weekends at The Farm in Summertown, Tenn.

Read about Douglas' Recycled Log Cabin.


September garden


End of summer is a great time to tidy garden beds and harvest herbs. Herbs have a tendency to take a walk on the wild side. As the days get shorter, growth slows and before long the sun cannot support all the greenery from summer.

Harvesting Herbs

Garden herbs

This is the perfect time to harvest your herbs. You can cut them back so they remain lush, improving the tidiness of your garden, and providing herbs for the winter ahead. When you harvest your herbs, you will have enough for at least 5 families! They make wonderful gifts. For soft herbs like chives and garlic chives, I cut around the outside. You can either then dry or freeze your cuttings. For rosemary, I trim back as I would a tree, cutting off he lower limbs. I have not been successful in finding a rosemary that survives outside in my Zone 6 region.

Before winter, I will harvest all the limbs so I don't waste any of that great flavor. Rosemary is perfect with lamb, on potatoes, or on cheese bread. For sage, savory, and thyme, I simply trim them into a pleasing, healthy shape. For basil, oregano and marjoram, I remove about half of the top growth. Basil also will not survive even a frost. So when they call for frost, I harvest all that is left on the plant.

I dry my herbs to preserve them. I put loosely in a paper bag in a dry, warm area out of the sun and let dry naturally. Loose is the key here so they get good air circulation and do not mold. They should be completely dry in about 3-4 weeks. I like putting them in clothes closets to dry as they release such great fragrance. Once dried, remove the leaves from woody herbs and store in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. With a soft herb like chives, you can just crumble into the airtight container. I use wide mouth canning jars for herb storage.

If the winter is not a bad one, most perennial herbs like chives, oregano, sage, savory, and thyme can be harvested year-round straight from the garden.

Napa cabbage

In September, plant more greens, carrots, and radishes. October is the month to plant garlic for next year’s harvest. You can pick up transplants like broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kale, as well as herbs at many big box stores and nurseries since gardening has become so popular.

Caring For New Seeds and Transplants

Like in the spring, newly sown seeds need moisture to sprout. Keep seeds and transplants moist until they get their first real set of leaves and are well established. Then water as needed.

Many crops you can harvest into December and beyond, depending on how cold fall is. Some get sweeter with some frost, like carrots, chard, and lettuce. With cover, you can harvest all the way through winter!

A quick reminder, save the seeds from your best performers to plant next year. You can replant seeds from any heirlooms or open pollinated plants. Not only does it save you money, but it also gives you the plants that do the best under your garden and zone conditions.

For more tips on small space and container gardening, check out Melodie's blog at

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