Organic Gardening

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

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Seed harvest season is starting. Today was our first 2014 harvest of tomatoes and watermelon for seed. Things will start slowly, and by about the second week of August we will be swamped with tomatoes, muskmelons, watermelons and cucumbers.

I’ve been growing seeds at Twin Oaks for six years now, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of the harvest season, which for us runs from early August to late October.

This year though we have added a major new focus to our operation: variety trials, and lots of them. Last November I applied for a SARE grant to trial cucumber, muskmelon and winter squash, with a focus on Cucurbit Downy Mildew resistance, and we got the grant. We grow a lot of cucurbit family crops, and Downy Mildew has been the #1 problem we’ve encountered. This was especially true in 2013, when DM showed up on our farm in June. Downy Mildew overwinters in Florida, and blows north on the wind each year, thriving when the weather is wet. It starts with yellow spots on the leaves. The spots grow and turn brown and the leaf dies. DM can easily defoliate an entire field of a susceptible variety of cucumber, muskmelon, squash or gourds. Most commonly grown varieties are susceptible to current strains of DM. Our smaller observation trials in 2013 found that only a few varieties out of 35 muskmelons and 35 cucumbers were able to produce a crop under heavy DM pressure. Read more about Downy Mildew and about our 2013 trials here.

Our Winter Squash Trial (on July 22nd 2014):


If you live on the eastern US (especially the Southeast and Mid Atlantic) or in the eastern part of the Midwest, Downy Mildew is likely a significant problem for your cucumber, muskmelon and squash crops, at least in a high pressure year. If you live elsewhere in the US, Downy Mildew may be of academic interest but is probably not directly relevant to your garden.

So heres what we’re doing. This winter I did a lot of research on potentially Downy Mildew resistant varieties. I chose 45 winter squash, 35 muskmelon and 55 cucumber varieties to include in our trials. We planted late, because some years Downy Mildew doesn’t arrive here until August.

Most of the entries in these trials are replicated, which means we plant each variety in several places throughout the field. If the trial is successful this will provide results that can be statistically verified and can’t be attributed to natural variation of the field. We will be observing Downy Mildew on the leaves, and evaluating fruit quality and productivity (which DM can strongly impact if pressure is high). We hope to find varieties that have high DM resistance and high quality fruits. We also hope to find varieties that can be used in breeding projects.

Variety trials are an essential part of quality seed systems. We need to know how different varieties and seedstocks perform in relation to each other in order to do further work with them. Variety trials are the basis by which we can recommend or choose to work with one variety over another. It is important that this kind of evaluation be done on a regional and local basis. Organic Seed Alliance has an excellent publication about how to set up on-farm variety trials.

We planted the cucumbers on July 12th, the muskmelons on June 28th, the winter squash on June 10th and the tropical pumpkins (long season winter squash) on May 20th. We’ve been busy cultivating and hoeing, setting up irrigation, training the winter squash vines (different entries shouldn’t grow into each other),and checking on what the first winter squash fruits look like.

The winter squash trial especially, which has the biggest plants, looks really good. Its going to be a job to keep the varieties separated, even at 12 foot row spacing. I’m hoping that many of the entries will soon start looking a lot less good soon! and that the Downy Mildew will finally get here (I've been regularly checking the Downy Mildew forecast website). Variety trials can make you think opposite from most growers.

Stay tuned for the results! There will be preliminary results by September, and final or near-final results in November. Reports and updates will be available on our website , and I will post updates on this blog as well.


To have correct and well taken care of gardening tools is a great place to start any gardening endeavor. Here at Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead we only use hand tools (non-powered) in our gardens since we find that we can get the job done easier and more efficiently with a more correct impact on the soil and less impact on our bodies than we would with any machines.

A good gardening tool is lightweight, ergonomically correct and has a positive impact on the soil. In most of our garden area the top soil is deep and light after years of building it with natural amendments such as seaweed, oak leaves and manure and very little disturbance is needed. We use tools that air and lift the soil and break up clumps and very rarely is there any need for turning or deep digging. Here are my 5 favorite gardening tools:

broadforkBroadfork This tall two handled fork usually comes with a 30 inch, 7 tines wide head. It's pushed into the ground by stepping on the flat upper part of the head and the handles are used as leverages to lift the soil without turning or excessively breaking it up. The large area covered by the broad head makes it time efficient and lessen the impact of gardener since fewer lift/bend movements is needed to cover the same space. The tall handles allows for a more upright position than a standard digging fork and the leverage aids to lessen the human power needed.

We use the broadfork as a way to “fluff” the soil up in the spring prior to planting but as the years go by and the quality of our soil improve we find the need for it to be less and less and that we often can skip this step in the garden preparation.

Slicing hoe I use the slicing hoe as my main way of weeding. I can stand up straight and lightly scritch-scratch between plants, in the paths or around the garden perimeter. The hoe head is a narrow blade about an inch wide and 6 inches broad. It cuts the weeds at the base and stirs up weed seeds to prevent them from germinating. slicing hoe

Dibble Each year we plant a couple of thousands allium plants (garlic, leeks, onion) and a simple wooden dibble is a great way to create the holes where to put the seeds and seedlings in. We use wooden pegs left over after building our timber framed buildings. Any stick that is easy and smooth on the hand and can make a hole 4 inches deep and wide enough for a garlic clove will do. The dibble makes it to my favorite-tool list since it's the ultimate low-tech solution for how we go about planting our biggest crops.

Wheelbarrow I often quietly acknowledge the instrumental role the wheelbarrow plays in my life as a homesteader. From the creation of our gardens to the building of our house, the driveway and the garden soil, to providing firewood, creating orchards and hauling water, the wheelbarrow is the tool we reach for. We use a Jackman wheelbarrow with a heavy duty metal tray and a tough tire that we keep well filled with air. Be aware though that a wheelbarrow is only as useful as the garden design allows for. The paths and gates need to be broad enough and narrow, sharp turns avoided. Any obstacles such as steps or steep slopes quickly renders the wheelbarrow useless, or at the very least, turns it into a challenge instead of an aid.

digging knifeJapanese digging knife My Tomita Japanese digging knife, a hand held tool, is a multi-functional tool with a stainless steal blade with a pointed end, one serrated edge and marked inches. I use it to I pull weeds with long tap roots, cut stems, dig holes for transplants and measure the correct distance for where to put the seedlings. This kind has a slim, lightweight handle which allows me to use it for a whole day without tiring my wrist or my hand.


Dancing Carrot

Ever try growing carrots, only to have them lost in weeds? Or you harvest tiny little strings because you didn’t thin them? I would sit for hours and try to move along my row, determining the miniscule carrot greens from other fuzzy little weeds. No surprise we stopped growing carrots for our CSA.

There are reasons growing carrots organically is challenging. Carrots germinate slowly. Weeds germinate fast. What if you could plant the carrots into the weed-free soil after they are already germinated with green tops? They would be weeks ahead of the weeds yet to germinate. It’d be like a five mile head start in a marathon.

Carrots are delicate. Their foliage is delicate, and early on it is barely discernible from the weeds. By the time the tiny lacy greenery is substantial enough to see, the weeds are taller and bigger.  Weeding them is painstaking.

Carrot seeds are tiny. They easily wash away in the rain. They are nearly impossible to plant in three inch spacing, and then aggravating if there are big gaps where the one seed didn’t germinate. So people usually plant the seeds heavier and then thin. But you are in for painstaking thinning along with your painstaking weeding. In summary, I find growing carrots painstaking.

What to do? There are expensive seeds that are coated with vegetable matter so they are bigger and have some weight to them. It’s a solution to over-seeding, making less thinning possible. But it won’t help you win the marathon with the weeds.

Phils Dancing Carrots

Partners in a Dance

We found a counter-culture solution (our favorite kind). We transplant carrots. What? Transplant carrots? Isn’t that against the rules? It is true that transplanting carrots is not recommended in gardening books, but we thought we’d give it a try anyway.

Now, we pop little carrot seedling blocks of soil into the ground, pre-thinned, not washed away, and germinated weeks ahead of the weeds in the row. We did discover the likely reason you are instructed not to transplant carrots. They grow multiple tap roots early.

You get twisty, four-rooted, gnarly, bendy carrots. You get Phil’s Dancing Carrots! They wrap around each other, partners in a dance. They are fun. They are carrots with arms and legs. They are Phil’s dancing carrots.

When Phil first saw them, he said “they are demented.” I said, “No, they are dancing.” It’s all in how you market it. Now of course, Phil’s Dancing Carrots are not (yet) marketable in stores. But for CSA members, they work! Kids pick out their favorite twisty combos. The crazier the dancers, the better. They all still taste great. And for CSA or your home garden: functional, tasty carrots are what matter most. Sometimes it takes an explanation about how things grow, but explanations about how things are grown is what CSA is all about. So that’s just fine by me.

If you avoid growing carrots, you might consider growing some dancing carrots by transplanting a tray. Get em going for a late fall crop of carrots or plan for the spring.

See my post about Growing Early Corn. It’s another crazy transplanting story!

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News  and, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to


Honeybees are drawn to lavender

Few plants can match the all-around versatility of lavender.  Full in flower, beautiful in form, fragrant, long-lasting, bee-friendly, deer resistant and drought tolerant, it is high on my list of desirable landscape plants. Yet in many part of the United State lavender is hard to obtain. You can order it mail order or you can grow it yourself. Growing it from seed is notoriously difficult – if you can find the seeds. The variety I prize most highly, Lavender intermedia, also known as “Provence” is not available by seed. If you want to grow it you need to learn how to propagate it by taking cuttings. That’s what we’re going to examine in this blog.

Timing is Important

In Northern California lavender grows actively during the six warmest months of the year, April through September. It is green (blue-grey, actually) year ‘round, but this is deceptive because during the coldest months of the year with the shortest daylight hours, lavender is essentially dormant. Cutting season is right now, during the period of active growth because this is when it forms roots most readily and growing conditions are best. You might be able to take cuttings as early as April, but this would deprive you of the flowers which bloom in late spring and early summer. We wait until now, mid-summer, when the blooms have past their prime, to take our cuttings. Note that it’s best not to wait too long after the flowers begin to decline, because it can take 6-8 weeks for lavender to root well enough to transplant, and by then the days are growing shorter and cooler.

Where to Cut

Remove the flower spikes to get to the leaf clusters, as pieces of the leaf clusters are your cutting material. Depending on how many lavender plants you have, and therefore how much cutting material you have available, you may take longer or shorter sections of the leaf clusters. The bare minimum is two nodes, one node to root in your medium and one to remain above. This meager amount doesn’t always generate the best results, as the resulting rooted cuttings have very little foliage and take considerable time to develop. Better, if you have enough material to take four nodes total, two for rooting and two for foliage growth above the growing medium.A full tray of cuttings

In the image to the right, a bunch of cuttings with stalks still attached. 

A nice cutting

When choosing your cutting material, choose the soft, new growth, not the hard growth from previous years. After taking your cutting, cleanly remove the leaves to where they join the stem using sharp scissors. Scissors with a needle tip are great for this task. You want the node exposed to your growing medium and moisture to encourage root growth.

You need to expose the lower nodes.

In the image to the right, a fresh cutting, flower stalk removed. Note the bottom set of leaves has also been removed to aid rooting.

Healing the Cut

At this stage of the process your lavender cuttings are vulnerable to drying out and dying: they have a lot of leaf area and no roots whatsoever, just an open wound where you exposed the nodes. To prevent loss of your fresh cuttings you need to plunge them immediately into a moist medium where the lower nodes stay wet at all times. We carry a tray at our side filled with damp vermiculite about 2” deep (note: the tray drains at the bottom to prevent too much saturation of the cuttings which would cause them to suffocate and rot from lack of oxygen). After filling our tray with cuttings we move it to a bench with a wire surface beneath shade clothe where it receives regular overhead watering throughout the day.  

Cuttings in vermiculite

Lavender requires good air circulation for optimum growth. We have learned from experience that storing our cuttings in a greenhouse risks loss due to rotting because of the high moisture level in the greenhouse. This is another good reason to find a shady outside location to heal your cuttings.

About three weeks after taking your cuttings, test them to see if they are developing roots at their base. A simple, gentle tug on the cutting will tell you what you need to know. If the cutting is taking root it will resist the tug because new roots are holding the growing medium. If it pulls free it may be slow to root or not rooting at all. White roots are a sign that all is well. A brown lower stem is a sign that your cutting is failing.

Moving Your Cutting to Soil

After your cuttings have well developed roots, about 1” long, it is time to move them to soil. The pots containing the soil don’t need to be large. We use square transplant pots 2-1/2” in diameter. We use a standard transplant mix composed of 1/3 peat, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 compost. We fill a tray with the pots, moisten the soil well, and begin transplanting, gently removing the cuttings from their medium and transferring to the pots. Sometimes the medium clings to the roots. If you can’t remove all of it don’t worry, it is better not to damage th

e roots than to have them thoroughly cleaned of the rooting medium.

After transplanting we water the immature plants well, one more time. Then we return them to the shady outdoor area with good air circulation. At this stage in the process water management is of critical importance. Too little water and the roots don’t grow into the surrounding soil. Too much water and the plants will rot. A sure sign of rot is blackened leaves at the base of the transplant, or even worse, a blackened stem at the base where it meets the soil. When you see that you need to scale back your watering. In general, the best approach is to let the soil dry between watering, which means you may water every other day or every third day. Pay close attention during this stage of the process!

Transplanting into the Garden

A one-year old hedge.

Once the lavender has developed enough roots to bind together the soil in the pot, it is time to move it into your garden or landscape. Ideal locations for lavender have excellent drainage, full exposure to sun, and good air circulation. Late summer and early fall are ideal for transplanting lavender in locations with moderate winter temperatures. The gentle, gradual cooling of the air as the days slip into fall put less stress on the new plantings. When late fall rains arrive they have had time to settle in; the rains help them extend their roots further, establishing a good base for spring grow

th. Early to mid-spring is better in areas with severe winters. If you’re in a marginal area, planting on the sunny side of a south-facing wall that will absorb heat and protect from excessive exposure to wind can improve the plants’ chances of success. Best of all, when you find the right spot, you’ll find that your lavender returns and looks glorious year after year with almost no effort whatsoever.

Ripe Ones

The apex of tomato growing season is just weeks away. Wherever you live, let us know about your first ripe tomato. Here’s a link to a section of our website where we post our customers’ success stories:

I’ll be traveling in England the next three weeks. Who knows what interesting garden-related experience I might have in a land where the interest in gardening is legendary.

Check back in August, when we'll look at another hands-on gardening project.


As I was completing my newest book, Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people, I photographed seed screens for one of the color pages in the book. This book, published by New Society Publishers, will be on the shelves in the bookstores about February 1. You can pre-order it now from New Society at a discount or buy it from me through my website when I get copies (no discount, but I will sign it). However, you don’t have to wait until then to see my seed screen photos. One photo is here showing the most basic of seed screens that you probably already have in your kitchen—regular colanders and strainers. You can see the other photos at Homeplace Earth.

collection of colanders and strainers

Threshing Seeds

There is a lot to know about seed saving. You are familiar with the seeds of things like tomatoes and squash since you encounter the seeds when you eat them. You never see the seeds of carrots and kale when you eat those vegetables. Knowing when to harvest the seeds (sometimes the following year) is information you need to know. Assuming you have brought your plants all the way to mature seeds—now what? You will need to free the seeds from their pods in a process called threshing; which could be accomplished by rubbing the seed pods in your hands or putting them in an old pillowcase and beating it with a stick. Now you have seeds and chaff mixed together.

Winnowing Seeds

Next is winnowing, which is separating the seeds from the loose chaff. That’s where seed screens are helpful. Often you can put everything in a bowl and give it a shake. The seed will fall to the bottom and you can remove the big chaff by hand. Pour what is left through something with holes and you can remove more chaff from the seeds. The more closely the holes are to the size of the seed, while freely letting the seeds pass through, the cleaner the seeds will be. You will have chaff smaller than the seeds. To remove that, find a screen with holes a little smaller than the seeds. The dusty chaff will fall through, while your seeds stay on the screen.

As you can see, having more than one screen for one kind of seed is an advantage. The seeds of different crops are different sizes, requiring even more sizes of screens. You could purchase a set of eight professional quality seed screens for about $190, but don’t break open your piggybank yet. The colanders and strainers you already have in your kitchen, as shown in the photo, have holes. Different items have different size holes. You can use these to get started. You might find that this is all you will ever need.

Make Your Own Seed Screens

You could make your own screens using hardware cloth. Hardware cloth with half inch and quarter inch spaces are easy enough to find in hardware and building supply stores. Brushy Mountain Bee Farm sells hardware cloth with eight squares to the inch and five squares to the inch. Indian grocery stores sell a set of four screens for a cost of less than $15. They are used as I would use strainers in my kitchen and are handy when working with small seeds.

When you are first getting started, learn all you can about the seeds you are saving before you spend money on supplies. If you have a small amount of seeds, you may just shake them in a shallow bowl to get them to the bottom and blow away the dusty chaff with your breath. Have fun!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at


Yellow leavesI am going to take another detour from discussing the various types of gourmet garlic, this time to talk about harvesting, processing, and curing garlic. Harvesting garlic is nearly upon us, and every year I receive questions from growers regarding when is the best time to harvest their garlic. There is not always an easy answer, since the weather, usage and cultivar will all influence timing. For example, garlic matures at different rates in different climates. Hot climates prompt garlic to mature faster, resulting in an earlier harvest season compared with cooler climates in which the garlic matures more slowly.


We generally begin to harvest in mid-July. Approximately two weeks before our prospective start date, we begin to tinker with our soil moisture. The idea is to strike a balance between having enough moisture to keep the roots damp, allowing the bulb to continue sizing up, and having enough dryness above the root level to prevent the decaying outer skins of the garlic from attracting pathogens which may compromise the bulb. For those prior two weeks, we try to keep the soil moisture around 25-30%.

Allowing the soil to partially dry makes removal of the bulbs more straightforward. Bulbs are also easier to clean since drier dirt can often be simply shaken or brushed off. Finally, a dry soil will give you a head start on the curing process, making post-harvest storage less risky and variable. Be wary, however, of allowing your soil to dry out too much or too soon, since overly-dry soil forces garlic to early maturity, resulting in smaller bulbs and less overall yield. When unsure, always err on the side of moisture.

Ideally you will be able to control your ground moisture, but unfortunately, the weather does not always cooperate, especially in regions that are less arid. Rainfall, although helpful earlier in the season, can cause havoc near harvesting time. Wet soil makes the bulbs difficult to lift, and the threat of rot is ever-present, especially when combined with high heat. If possible, you should delay your harvest until the soil has partially dried. This is, of course, not always practical, especially if you have a large area to harvest. It is better to harvest in moist conditions than risk leaving the garlic in the ground where it is susceptible to rot and over-maturing.

If you do have to harvest in moist conditions, ensure you store the harvested bulbs in a dry place, with good air circulation so that the surface of the skins dry as soon as possible. Never expose the bulbs to direct sunlight for any significant period of time, since this can cause discoloration of the bulb skins.

When to Harvest Garlic

So, you’ve got your moisture levels right. When can you harvest your bulbs? This is a tricky question, since harvesting too soon prevents the flavors of the garlic from reaching their full maturity, but too late and the bulb skins will dry out and split, exposing the cloves to pathogens, thus reducing their storage capability and making them unattractive for market sales.

Perhaps the easiest and most reliable method of determining when to harvest is the number or percentage of green leaves left on the plant. As garlic matures, the older outer leaves dry out and die, becoming yellow-brown and brittle. When the garlic is harvested these layers will be non-existent, having either come away from the bulb or being in the process of doing so. The remaining green leaves will provide the bulb skins. Generally, if you wish to sell your bulbs as gourmet, you want to harvest when the flavor of the garlic is mature, but there are still enough skins to provide a product that both looks good and will store adequately. If you are planning to store your garlic only for a short time for eating and/or seed, then you can leave the garlic in the ground longer, allowing the flavor to mature further. If you do choose the latter, make sure that you regularly dig away the soil around a test bulb, to confirm that the skins are not splitting as the garlic over-matures.

We tend to harvest the majority of our garlic when there are approximately five, or 50-60 percent of green leaves left. The garlic is mature at this point and this method allows for the loss of one to two skins to cleaning and curing, resulting in a marketable product that can also be stored for months.

There are, of course, always exceptions. Asiatic and Turban varieties, for example, should be harvested when only one to two of the true leaves have gone brown. They mature the earliest of all the garlic types, and have a tendency to split very early and easily, especially in dry climates. We usually harvest these types first, generally followed by the softneck cultivars. Finally, the rest of the hardnecks are harvested based on the leaf coloring of individual cultivars. This order may vary from year to year due to variability in climate and plant vitality.


How to Harvest Garlic

How you harvest depends mainly on how much garlic you have. If you have a relatively small amount, it is easy to harvest by hand. Rather than simply pulling the garlic out, however, loosen the soil around the bulbs with a shovel, then gently pull on the stalk to free them. Since we have a large number of bulbs to harvest, we rely on a combination of customized mechanization and hand work to do it efficiently.

We harvest a single bed at a time. We begin with a wide blade that cuts off the garlic stalks approximately two inches from the bulbs. The stalks are then raked from the beds by hand. Bulbs are subsequently undercut and lifted with a modified potato digger, which cuts the roots at two to three inches, sweeps the bulbs up out of the soil, lightly jiggles them down a belt and then deposits them onto the top of the bed where they are gathered by hand. This both makes the bulbs easier to locate and retrieve, and also removes a portion of the dirt clinging to the roots. The harvested garlic is immediately placed in a cool, dry storage room equipped with forced air circulation, to begin curing while waiting to be trimmed for sale. Even with this level of mechanization, it still takes us at least two weeks to clear our fields.

Whatever the method you use to harvest, do so in small batches so that you do not have to leave the exposed bulbs baking in the sun. Next post I will discuss the curing and trimming process, which will help you get your bulbs both market and storage ready!


Cucumber mint water

Plain water is just that-plain. So many people go to sodas or other sweetened, store-bought drinks for refreshment. There are tasty home grown options!

Flavored Water Recipes

For these infusions, place ingredients in a half gallon of water and allow to meld overnight. Shake, then strain into serving container. Chill for a refreshing, tasty water!

• Lemongrass, mint and vanilla-1 large stalk of lemongrass, chopped and crushed, 1/4 cup fresh peppermint coarsely chopped, and 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.

• Cardamom, orange and vanilla-1 large sliced orange, 1 tablespoon crushed cardamom pods, 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.

• Blackberry, rose and vanilla-3/4 cup blackberries, 1/4 cup rose petals, 1/2 large vanilla bean.

• Refreshing cucumber mint-1/2 cup chopped and crushed mint with half a sliced cucumber.

Of course, there is always the old-fashioned favorite! Lemonade or limeade: simply squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice into water. one-eighth to one-quarter teaspoon of stevia can be added to any of the above for added sweetness with no sugar or carbs. Too much stevia can impart a bitter taste; a little goes a long way! Stevia is an herb high in antioxidants that is very easy to grow. You can find them almost anywhere that herbal plants are sold. Dry the leaves and use to sweeten anything. Stevia can also be purchased at the store. I would stick with the whole herb to get all the antioxidant benefits. I bought a book called "Stevia naturally sweet recipes for desserts, drinks and more!" by Rita DePuydt that has great ideas for using stevia to cut down or eliminate sugar and carbs in many sweetened foods and drinks.

Making your own vanilla is easy, too. Just buy vanilla beans, slit them open and place 4 of them in 1 cup (8 ounces) of premium vodka and allow to infuse for 4-6 months. If you want to speed up the process, shake weekly and it will be ready to use in 8 weeks. As you use it, you can just re-top. Very inexpensive way to have real vanilla.

Make Your Own Sodas at Home

Blueberry and raspberry soda

For a fruit-flavored soda, use 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of sugar (more or less depending on how sweet the fruit is that you are using), 1 cup apple cider vinegar. Heat the sliced fruit, 1/2 cup of sugar, and vinegar over high heat until it boils. Reduce and simmer until fruit is soft and sugar dissolved. Add more sugar if too tart. When cool, mash the fruit and strain liquid into a jar. Store in fridge for up to 2 weeks. For a homemade soda, add 3 tablespoons of syrup into 8 ounces of carbonated cold water.

If you want to go the sugar-free route, substitute 1/2 teaspoon powdered stevia extract for the sugar. Again, be careful in not overdoing the stevia; too much imparts a bitter taste. You can use a combo of stevia with agave nectar, sugar or honey to find a sweetness you like. The less sugar you use, the better for your health.

For a homemade ginger ale, slice 1/4 cup of ginger root and 1/2 lemon or lime, 4 cups of water, simmer in pan for 20 minutes, strain into a glass jar, add 1/2 teaspoon of powdered stevia extract. Add equal amounts of ginger liquid and sparkling water.

You can do the same thing with mint, basil, rosemary, lemon verbena, cilantro, or dill. These syrups can be used in sodas or in adult beverages like the mint julep, margaritas, daiquiris, martinis, gin/vodka gimlets, gin and tonics, sangrias. Let your imagination run herb wild!

There are relatively inexpensive carbonators available nowadays as well. If you drink a lot of soda, this is a very cost effective, nutritious approach.

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

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