Organic Gardening

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

Add to My MSN


Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter

“We showed up at a client’s home, and they had pulled every one of their pea plants out of the ground. So we asked them where the pea plants went, and they told us they were looking for peas. They thought they were in the roots, and we were like, holy cow, you don’t know what peas are? So we told them they should go to the grocery store and look at the produce and figure out what all these vegetables actually look like," says Robyn Streeter.

“People don’t know these things, you know. They know what food looks like when you eat it… usually. They go to a restaurant and maybe they get this great Swiss chard dish, and they know what that looks like, but they don’t know what Swiss chard looks like in the dirt. So we realized that we needed to teach some more on that.”

Robyn isn’t making fun of her clients when she tells these stories, although she does laugh a lot while she’s doing the telling. It’s just her way of commenting on the fact that people today are disconnected from their food. Her business partner, Donna Smith, the more talkative half of this agricultural team, has even more stories.

“Sometimes when I’ve worked with kids I’ll ask them where carrots come from,” says Donna. “And they look at me like I’m crazy and say… ‘from the store.’ And I tell them, ‘no, carrots don’t come from the store, they come from somewhere else and then someone takes them to the store.’

“And then you take those kids through the process of growing carrots and when they finally pull one up, they’re so excited because that’s their own personal carrot and they clean the dirt off and take a bite. Then they understand where carrots come from.”

Donna is clearly compassionate and understanding as she conveys that people simply don’t know much about their food. For most people, food comes bundled with a rubber band around it. It’s clean, and there are no bugs and no holes in the leaves. And that’s the small amount of real food that people buy… you know, the stuff that’s not in a box.

One of the goals for Robyn and Donna is to stay with their clients long enough to show them real food. Teach them from the beginning of the growing season all the way through. Even though it may take more than a single year, by the end, their customers truly understand and can even teach their neighbors how to put a tomato into the ground. And therein lies one of the many underlying benefits that Donna and Robyn bring to urban agriculture. They’re not only growing food… they’re also spreading information as much as they can.

Your Backyard Farmer CSA cabbages

Donna and Robyn met while attending the horticulture program at Clackamas Community College. Robyn recalls, “We met the first day of school and became friends pretty quickly. As we got closer to graduation, we liked the idea of doing something together, but we couldn’t settle on what that was going to be. Eventually we decided to start a CSA so we started looking for property, but we kept running into problems.”

When Robyn graduated a semester early, they still had found no land to farm, so she returned to her home in Idaho until something materialized. It was then Donna had her epiphany.

“It was one of those moments in life when you say, hey, why are we beating our head against the wall looking for land when everywhere we look, there’s land all around us. So we just came up with a variation on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Usually, a farm produces and delivers a box of food. We eliminated the box. We just took ourselves right to the customer… to that family or group of families who own the food they hire us to put in the ground and harvest for them.”

Donna started putting up flyers and immediately began receiving inquiries, so she called Robyn, who remembers it like this… “She called me and said ‘hey are you in, because I’m getting phone calls from this.’ So I said, I’m in.”

Donna continues… “Two days later she’s back from Idaho and we’ve already sold our first farm. The Oregonian got hold of that and wrote a two-page spread on us, which was really beautiful, and the day it came out we got over a hundred emails. Within six weeks we had 25 farms.”

So these two urban farmers hit the ground running in 2006 when they launched Your Backyard Farmer, and they’ve farmed at least 25 yards every year since.

According to Donna, they learned a lot during that first year about a whole lot more than just how to grow food. Turns out that urban farming was so new, the State of Oregon wasn’t sure there was such a thing. Running a business that had no legal definition turned into a challenge.

“We fought with the state about a lot of things, but in the end we managed to define what a farmer is and isn’t. That definition didn’t exist prior to us working through this process. Our problem was that even though we fell within federal guidelines, Oregon had no definition of what constituted a farm or a farmer.”

Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter harvesting produce

In essence, by struggling through that process, Donna and Robyn were able to legally protect themselves, and all other urban farming businesses, moving forward. Their pioneering effort did not go unnoticed, either here or abroad. As early as their second year in business they began receiving inquiries from people all over the world.

Robyn says, “We had people come visit us from Australia and from Spain. They actually came to Portland to hang out with us here, and we taught them what we do so they could take it back and do it wherever they were from. We’ve also helped people in the U.S., from California, Washington, other places. I think a lot of them are still at it.”

Donna continues, “Seattle Urban Farms is doing it. Farmscapes in L.A. is doing it. Most of the people we’ve taught are still active. Green City Growers in Boston is doing very well. Then when we started getting calls from Barcelona, Spain and Hobart, Australia and these other places and we actually had people flying in and Robyn and I were like…”

Robyn: “What’s going on?”
Donna: “This is really bizarre!”
Robyn: “And remember the Spanish magazine they put us in?”
Donna: “No, it was Italian.”
Robyn: “Was it Italian?”
Donna: “It was Italian.”
Robyn: “Italian magazine… it was like their main scientific agriculture organization and they flew two guys in to interview us and take pictures.”
Donna: “And we’re in the UK’s urban planning guide about how you can bring your food right into your cities. It was bizarre to be propelled into the spotlight when we’re both people who like to stay in the background, but we definitely have had a lot of fun with it. We still teach people, but we teach them in the off-season now, and a lot of the overseas people have seasons opposite what we do anyway. So we teach people to do this in the off-season rather than during our craziness.”
Robyn: “Now, most of our time is spent farming rather than teaching.”Donna: “And we like spending time with our hands in the soil better than anything else anyway.”

Exchanges like that are not uncommon when talking with this pair. Robyn’s natural reticence momentarily fades and a bit of jocular chatter rises to meet Donna word for word. But soon her quiet smile returns and she sits back in her chair, content to simply take it all in.

Donna remains sitting forward, however, always willing to lead the conversation. In this case, she speculates on why so few urban farmers are able to duplicate and maintain what she and Robyn are doing.

To be continued...

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter. Donna and Robyn originally created the company Your Backyard Farmer and began CSA farming operations in the backyards of their clients because they were having trouble accessing land to start their farm.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Your Backyard Farmer uses organic methods to grow vegetables of all types. Plus, they can train homeowners to grow their own food.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Donna and Robyn harvesting for CSA clients.

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.


Starting Rice 

Rice is the quintessential food plant around the world and it provides a significant amount of brown biomass for composting, esp. in a biointensive system. Yet people who grow grains in the home garden (and they are already an elite crew) tend to choose more cold hardy crops such as barley, wheat, rye, triticale, or oats. Rice is only beginning to catch on as a home garden crop.

Rice caught my interest because it is something my family eats on a daily basis and I am always seeking to reach higher levels of self-reliance for food production. It is also an interesting challenge because the seasons really ought to be too short here in Corvallis, Oregon and the nights too cool with summer time night temperatures rarely reaching 60 degrees. For me, this was going to be fun because growing seemingly mal-adapted crops is a specialty of mine.

Choose Between Upland Rice and Lowland Rice Varieties

I first decided to grow rice in 2013. With a little research, I soon found that there are a couple of important sub-categories of rice that need to be taken into consideration. Rice is either an upland type with a greater tolerance to dryer and cooler conditions or it is a lowland “paddy” type.

Upland types can easily be grown on dry land without flooding, but the lowland types need lots of water and are commonly flooded in a paddy. In this case, I needed an upland type. There is also an issue with day length sensitivity. Some varieties are only short-day and some varieties are day neutral. If a short day rice is grown too far from the equator, it will flower at the wrong time after the frosts have already come. This issue of day length sensitivity is easily gotten around because all rice successfully grown at high latitude will be day length neutral. I would define high latitudes as anything above the states of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Southern California.

Where to Buy Rice Seed

Back in 2013, I scoured the internet for sources of rice seed that met my specifications. I pretty much came up empty. There was the ‘Carolina Gold’ heirloom variety but this is a paddy rice. I also found the ‘Blue Bonnet’ variety offered by Baker’s Creek Seeds in Missouri. It seemed to me that Missouri might be far enough north to avoid the day length issue but I wasn’t sure, and the seed description said that it was upland.  I grew this variety that first year. It seemed to grow well at first and it got quite bushy, but by the time the killing frosts came, it had not produced even the vestiges of a flowering stalk. I am not 100% certain what happened, but it does seem likely that there was a day length issue after all.

In 2014, I buckled down and tried even harder. I found some alternative sources of rice seed that I had not found the first year. Sourcepoint Seeds in Hotchkiss Co. sells several different types of rice. Although most of them are distinctly tropical varieties, one variety stood out as northern adapted: ‘Duborskian.’ I ended up buying ‘Duborskian’ seeds off of the Seed Saver’s Exchange from a member in Vermont with the identifier “VT DA S.” I later found that Fedco seeds had just started offerieng ‘Duborskian’ for the first time, and a search of the internet today shows that another seed company, Sherck’s Hierloom Vegetables, has gotten into the act.

Old Landraces and New Varieties

In addition to these sources, I also turned to the USDA collections. It is possible to get seed from them if one has research or educational purposes. I am a professional plant breeder and I intend to make crosses and develop new varieties that are adapted to northern climates, so I had a pitch to make to the USDA and they sent me the seeds in return. (I am doing this breeding work on a very small scale in my own gardens.) When I reviewed the several thousand varieties – a.k.a. accessions – in the USDA collection, I looked for old landraces or new varieties that were grown and developed at high latitudes. I picked out 7 varieties from Mongolia, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Poland. Specifically, they were ‘Amaura’ PI439617, ‘Nigrescens’ PI439629, ‘Kyzyl Shala’ PI439686, ‘Daido’ GSOR310077, ‘Kon Suito’ GSOR310079, ‘Zerawchanica’ GSOR310208, and another ‘Amaura’ GSOR311320.

When I finally got these USDA seeds plus the ‘Duborskian’ type planted in little pots for later transplanting, it was already the beginning of June. This brought up the whole issue of when to plant rice in the garden. It is actually a complicated question. There isn’t much information out there for North American gardeners. The one resource that I have is a Grow Biointensive working paper on growing grains (mini-series #33, December 2008) that is sold by Bountiful Gardens on the internet. It doesn’t say much about rice, but it does state that rice should be direct seeded on approximately June 1 and that maturity takes about 4 and a half months with a seed spacing of about 5 inches. The statistical first frost at my location according to the Victory Seeds chart on the internet is 10/8 and the statistical last frost is May 11. With the first frost on October 8, it would be difficult getting a mature crop by starting on June 1.

Consider Starting Rice Indoors

In hindsight, I think it would be best to plant rice indoors 6 weeks before the last statistical frost along with the tomatoes and peppers. Rice is commonly transplanted all over the world, including the tropics, so transplanting it should not be considered bad.

My 8 varieties of rice in 2014 grew quite well in the garden after I transplanted them into a heavily fertilized raised bed with a high organic content in the soil. I forgot to notate exactly when I transplanted them but I think it was the end of June. I ended up watering them heavily because they tended to wilt fairly easily.

Successes and Failures

The ‘Kon Suito’ variety stood out for its vigor, although it got some of the worst rust disease (an orange colored fungal discoloration of the leaves) of all the rice varieties planted. The least vigorous was probably ‘Daido’. One plant of ‘Zerawchanica’ stood out as the most vigorous plant of the entire plot. In the end, there really wasn’t enough time for a mature crop. All the varieties flowered except for ‘Daido’ and ‘Kyzyl shala’, but almost none of the flowers produced mature grains. Nearly all the seed heads by the end of the season had immature and non-viable seeds with empty seed heads or very light weight seeds.

Only two individual plants actually produced mature, heavy seeds that were viable. Let me say that these rice varieties are not absolutely genetically uniform, and not all the individual plants responded the same.  Of course, these differences of response are just as likely environmental differences (soil etc.) as genetic differences, but I was willing to take the chance.

In short, I had one plant of ‘Zerawchanica’ and one plant of ‘Kon Suito’ that beat the odds and produced actual grain despite the cool nights, the short season, and all the rest of it. I was elated because I was trying to develop more cold hardy, short season rice varieties and I had two plants that might perhaps be genetically superior in my climate barring confounding environmental effects.

This spring, I planted the same 8 varieties of rice indoors in organic potting soil with 12 seeds planted in a grid in each 4 inch pot on about 3/12. I have a fancy grow tent and mulit-spectrum LED grow light to start my vegetables indoors and also to grow vegetables year round indoors. It is important to plant the same varieties all over again and even to plant separate rows of the same variety in the garden to better assess the true differences between the varieties because seemingly small differences in soil, shading, watering, insect damage, or rust damage can give the false appearance of a genetic difference between the varieties. I also planted seeds on 3/21 from the two plants that survived last season, which I intend to plant in the garden to assess once more their performance and also to cross them to develop new varieties.

I will keep you posted on how it turns out. The picture shows my seedlings right now inside my grow tent. I think they are a little too big and perhaps in the future I will plant them a little later indoors so that they are a more appropriate size for transplanting as it gets warmer.

Photos by Maricel Wallace

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.


Productive Garden

To maximize the production in your garden space, there are few things you can do to make the most of your time, energy, garden space and money. Even if you have oodles of space, maximizing your production per square foot saves time and money. Less to weed, less to fertilize, less to mulch.

5 Tips for a Productive Garden

1. Healthy soil.It all starts with the soil. You need nutrient and microbe rich soil. Chemical herbicide, pesticides and fertilizers all kill microbes and worms scatter when chemicals are applied. For alive soil, use organic, natural fertilizers and compost. Apply both in early spring so the nutrition can seep into the soil, ready to nourish the seeds and plants you put in the ground. For more details on creating healthy soil, see this blog: next step in garden production.

2. Smart garden plan. You can maximize the production of the plants you put in your garden with a well thought out plan. Divide out what you like to eat into the seasons they thrive in. Plant your veggies in the right season and you will be rewarded with healthy plants and bountiful harvests. Before you plant, check the heights and sun requirements. Plant the tallest plants in the back so they don’t shade out the shorter sun loving plants. Using trellis for vertical gardening of cucumbers, beans, and peas is a great use of space at the back of the garden bed. For those that appreciate some shade, interplant between taller varieties. Look for those that help each other out. This is called companion planting. For more information on companion planting, see this blog: companion planting.

3. Choose wisely. Choose the most productive varieties to maximize the production per square foot of space. Dwarfs are a great choice for small spaces and containers. You can get the same production from many dwarfs as you can the full size varieties. Look for those that have “abundant”, “prolific”, and “heavy yields” in the descriptions. Some great choices are cucumbers, pole beans and peas, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and many varieties of greens.

4. Think for season gardening. Use as much of all four seasons as possible. Start seeds indoors in late winter to get an early start on spring and summer. You can plant out as soon as the weather is willing. Help heat up the soil so your plants or seeds get a jump start when planted. You can put down plastic or cloches where you want to plant to help get the soil warm. Your seedlings will appreciate it! You can also cover your seedlings with a row cover or cloche after planting to keep the warmth of the sun past sundown. Be careful with cloche’s as they can get really hot and fry your plants. A good choice is one with vents. Also look for varieties that are adapted to the season. There are tomatoes adapted to cooler temperatures to get a jump on summer and lettuces that are heat tolerant so you can continue to have salads into summer. For more on four-season gardening, see this blog: garden year round.

5. Eliminate competition. Weeds and pests take away from the vigor of your veggies. Use mulch to keep weeds suppressed. Mulch does triple duty as a fresh coat of mulch in the spring can help warm the soil, helps keep moisture from evaporating during the summer, adds organic matter while suppressing weeds. There are good bugs and bad bugs. Attract the good bugs by interplanting your veggies with flowers like marigolds and calendula. Good bugs help pollinate your veggies, increasing yields. They also eat bad bugs. Be careful using sprays as a spray doesn’t know a good bug from a bad bug. If you are just starting your organic garden, it may take a couple of seasons for the garden to come in balance. For more on pests, see this blog: controlling bugs naturally.

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.


Urban Garden City Balcony

If you’ve ever tried to grow anything in your garden you’ve probably had your share of unrealized visions. In your rookie year perhaps the tomatoes never turned red or the strawberries got munched by bugs. If those mishaps didn't deflate you enough to replace the whole yard with a bocce court, you probably rebooted your spade and tried some different approaches before the next growing season. You may have moved the tomatoes to a sunnier spot and planted some dandelion to see if it would attract ladybugs with an appetite for your unwelcome strawberry-eating visitors.

As the tomatoes got a wee bit tastier and you celebrated your first strawberry (stolen by a finch, of course!), you got inspired and started thinking a bit broader. Perhaps you planted an apple tree and added a bee hive to your garden. You got more curious about soil and water, and started experimenting with compost and catchment bins. The more attention you paid to all the individual residents — both macro and micro — the more visible the interrelatedness between them became.

Life Lessons Learned in the Garden

After watching and listening to your new garden community for a few seasons, you realized that the best way for any individual member to thrive with as little upkeep, energy, water, or pest control as possible, the overall design had to befit and benefit everyone else proportional to their needs and capabilities. You may have moved your daily attention-grabbing strawberries closer to the house and the more resilient dandelion further away. Perhaps you acquired some chickens for their eggs, just to discover that they could also be put to work tilling the topsoil and picking weeds and bugs.

Layer by layer, you cultivated a web of life that could sustain itself on the collective strength of all its threads, making maximum use of the natural climate, soil, and vegetation surrounding your home. In the process, you may have been comparing notes with other gardeners and reading books about this kind of holistic approach to farming. You may even have started calling it permaculture, but really, all you were doing was being patient and paying careful attention to your environment and its natural rhythms.

Homegrown Tomato City Garden

Chances are none of this is shockingly new to you if you're a regular reader of Mother Earth News. In fact, there is probably very little I could tell you about cultivating your personal plot, as I am the tenant of a small second floor apartment in the dense urban jungle of San Francisco, with a landlady who would be rather annoyed if I practiced my green thumb by rearranging her potted plants. However, the reason I am invoking the power of a whole systems view of our immediate environment is to build a mental bridge to the biggest things we build — cities.

Cities’ Role in Global Agriculture

In the age of rapid global resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and increasing occurrences of extreme floods and droughts caused by the burning of fossil fuels that power our energy-intensive and pollution-prone industrialized infrastructures, re-imagining our cities as living breathing organisms is no longer just a boutique thought experiment but a matter of necessity and survival.

Parking Lot 

The number of cities worldwide with over 750,000 inhabitants has quadrupled over the last 50 years. Over 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gases are generated in cities. And by 2050, almost three out of every four people on the planet are projected to live in urban areas. We're rapidly pushing up against the Earth’s carrying capacity, and the lion's share of our rapacious appetite for resources is originating from poorly designed metropolises covering but 3 percent of the planet's surface.

To put it bluntly: if we don't fix our cities, we can forget about the gardens.

This is not to say that our gardens aren't important. In fact, the opposite is the case: the way we interact with the land around us is more important than ever. It's just that those among us who have developed a deep relationship with the natural mechanisms of their personal plots are now called upon to stretch themselves even further and become change agents of the larger, human-built plots we inhabit — our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Equipped with the insights gained from the soil, few are better suited to become architects of ecocities and ecovillages than the small farmers of the world.

Building ‘Ecocities’

Shifting our built environments from the current linear blocks of car-centric urban sprawl to more integrated human-scale and life-sustaining organisms is not much different in principle than turning a concrete yard into a permaculture plot. We have to think in terms of arrangement of vital nodes, distance between interdependent threads, paths of least resistance, utilizing existing natural conditions, and maximizing water, energy and food sources.

For example, if a city dweller is forced to operate 4,000 pounds of automobile to buy a gallon of milk at a nearby store, it is no different than a farmer having to constantly drench her vegetable beds because her soil does not contain enough organic matter to hold the water. The whole systems solution to the short-distance shopping dilemma, therefore, is not to build a bigger parking lot but to create better and safer walking and biking paths.

Urban Beekeeping

Admittedly, creating healthy urban ecosystems is not something that can be done easily or by any one individual. In addition to air, water, and soil, we are dealing with buildings, roads, industries, and most intriguingly, people. Moving your beehive into a more ecologically sensible place in your backyard is without doubt a lot easier than convincing a human household to do the same. As Richard Register, who first coined the term “ecocity" over 30 years ago, describes the challenge, "it's relatively easy to experiment with permaculture. All you need is a piece of land and you're ready to go. Cities are more difficult — you don't own them and you have to work with the most difficult natural condition in the world: humans."

And yet, if we are to survive and thrive as a species on this planet, those of us tuned in to the regenerative powers of a diverse natural environment have no choice but to expand our knowledge and reach to the built environment, and by extension, the most challenging of all terrain — the mental environment. Making comprehensive change in a human settlement more than anything requires skills that resonate with the human heart and mind — from dialog and creative expression to reason and foresight.

Ecocity-aspiring models and examples of ecovillages are in plain sight already. But to scale up the efforts and build the critical mass needed to replant the world's urban seeds, more horticulturists need to take their knowledge of the land to cities and towns and expand their vocabulary from sheet mulching and rainwater harvesting to include zoning and land use, planning and development, policy and politics, culture and history, economy and equity.

That, and turn abandoned lots into urban gardens.

New City Garden Growing

Photos by Sven Eberlein

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.


This is the second half of this month’s series dedicated to women farming in honor of Women’s History Month. This series pulls excerpts from my book, The Color of Food, specifically the chapter dedicated to women entitled “Fierce Farming Women.”


Today, we meet Nelida Martinez, owner and operator of Pure Nelida Farms in Skagit Valley, Washington. Her friends at Viva Farms, an incubator farm program where she started her organic farm and where she still grows some of her produce, call her La Estrella, the star. And she is becoming quite the star, recently featured in this Civil Eats post, among others, for her amazing work.

Her story is powerful. Having migrated up from Oaxaca, Mexico to California then Washington, picking berries and working for conventional farms at the age of sixteen, she is now an organic farm owner. She’s left the toxic environment of farm work behind for the health of her family. This excerpt is from Nelida’s chapter entitled “A Farm of Her Own”:

I arrive at the farm and meet Nelida and Sarita under the shelter of the washing area while it drizzles around us. Sarita helps translate our bilingual conversation. For Nelida, Spanish is a second language, with Mixteca as her first. We sit next to boxes of cucumbers and there are a few flies buzzing around us. But what I feel buzzing in the air is the strength and power radiating off of these two women I sit in a circle with.

It is raining and gray in late August, bringing the lushness of the Skagit Valley to life. Skagit Valley is named after the Skagit River, which derives its own name from the Native Skagit tribe who called the valley home for thousands of years. Skagit Valley is the richest agricultural area in the Western Hemisphere, with some of the best soil in the world. This is why a diversity of crops are grown, and the economy is hugely impacted by agricultural production. Known for large-scale berry, apple, tulip and dairy farms, the agricultural industry in the Valley brings in tens of thousands of migrant workers, primarily from Mexico.

“We [Latino farmworkers] are the majority…but we come here and it’s a lot of humiliation for us…many of us never think about having our own farm because we feel degraded by the work…And we don’t have the money for land. But it is possible. First there has to be communication about what is possible and what you want to do as a family... But sometimes you just get that knock…the knock for me was when my son was diagnosed with leukemia…

A lot of the farms I worked on would tell us that when we wash our clothes, we shouldn’t mix our work clothes with our regular clothes because the chemicals will penetrate our clothes and our children’s clothes and will be contaminated. So I really started seeing that the environment where I was working was really bad for us, and it causes us to contract diseases and sickness. They are conscious of what they are putting on those plants and that they’re putting us in danger…

When my son got sick with leukemia, I really started thinking about the chemicals I worked with and how I wanted to have a healthier life for my family. I wanted to grow my own food organically and know where it was coming from and work in a healthy environment. I didn’t want to put up with it anymore. Sometimes you just get a knock that makes you realize you need to change your life, and when my son got sick that was my knock, and it caused me to start my own farm.”

Of course, starting a farm is not easy. Accessing land and resources is difficult for most beginning farmers, but for immigrant farmers or transitioning farm workers the task is far more daunting. Nelida, however, not only had the strength and skills to make her vision a reality, but she also had the opportunity to take advantage of a unique model that gives beginning farmers the head start they need.

Nelida rents two acres at Viva Farms, a farm business incubator on 33 acres of certified organic land. Incubator farms have been cropping up all over the country and can be great ways to provide hands-on learning for new farmers or minimize prohibitive costs for start-up farm businesses. Many incubators provide land, infrastructure and machinery at low rental rates that eliminates some of the most expensive startup costs for farmers. Viva leases organic land at half the market rate, provides irrigation infrastructure and maintenance, machinery, cold storage, washing facilities and a business center for invoicing and labeling. They also have a large farm stand where the farmers, like Nelida, can sell their produce.

“I’ve been farming here at Viva for four or five years…I was living in the San Jose apartments (a subsidized farmworker housing community) when I met Leah, the childcare coordinator there, and she knew my situation with my son Danny…she knew that I wanted to create income for my household because my husband was the only one working at the time while I took care of Danny. I told her I needed to do something but wanted it to be something good and healthy this time. She told me about a community garden I could use to grow food and maybe sell at market. I got a plot there and started growing, but after a short time, I already wanted to grow more!

She connected me with someone who let me use a quarter acre of his land, and I started planting tomatoes, jalapeños, cucumbers and a little of everything. I was growing for my family but also selling a little. I started meeting a lot of people this way at the markets, and I began making enough money to then lease an acre of land to grow more. I started planting strawberries and blueberries and have kept growing little by little. Then I met Sarita [co-founder of Viva Farms} and learned about Viva Farms… then started growing here. Now I sell my produce and berries here at the Viva farm stand and at farmers markets on Saturdays where I also sell ready-made foods.”

Nelida now has two acres at Viva Farms and two acres of her own. She is known as La Estrella because, as Sarita notes, “she is awesome at farmers markets.” Nelida makes fresh tortillas, pressing the tortillas and grilling them right there at the market. Customers can buy a stack to go or buy her fresh quesadillas that she makes with squash blossoms, herbs and peppers from her farm...Nelida saw the opportunity to harness her culinary skills and the food culture she brings from Oaxaca to create added-value products to sustain her business. But, she says, “No soy tortillera, I’m not a tortilla maker, I’m a farmer.”

Fierce Farming Women In Gardens 

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.


 compost thermometer in coldframe

This time of year gardeners are anxious to plant their seeds. I know because even in the dead of winter I would run into gardeners who told me they could hardly wait. But, wait you must, until the soil is warm enough. Otherwise, it is like sending your children into the cold without their jackets. They might not die (the seeds or the children) but the cold shock will set their health back. Actually, in the case of peas, beans, or corn, if the soil is too wet and cold the seeds could die, which is why you might see those seeds coated with fungicide in garden supply stores. You do not want or need fungicide treated seeds. When you plant under the right conditions, the seeds will sprout readily and grow healthy plants. You can find more information about soil temperature for specific seeds at Homeplace Earth.

The date of the last expected frost in your area is often a guide as to when to plant — either at that time or so many weeks before or after that date. A couple weeks before that date you will probably experience an upward spike in air temperature. It will get warmer, even hot, tempting many gardeners to put seeds and transplants for their warm weather crops into the ground early. However, more cold will be on the way before the weather settles, so be careful. Also, it takes longer for the soil to warm up than it does for the air to warm.

The year 2012 messed with everyone’s garden. There didn’t seem to be any real winter and very little spring before summer was upon us. If you had a planting schedule worked out you had to take another look to see if that was really what you wanted to do. My small grains, wheat and rye, were ready to cut early, both for mulch and for grain. I needed to go by the signs the plants were giving me, not the date on the calendar. Nature gives us such signs all the time. The study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather is called phenology. Some gardeners keep their own records from year to year about when things bloom and other observations.

Even when you’ve thought you have taken everything into account, the weather could still throw a wrench into your plans. I remember one year when gardeners were complaining about their tomatoes having blossom end rot and mine did, too. We knew we had waited to plant until after our “safe date” and that our soils had enough calcium and not too much or too little water. It turned out that we had a short spell of colder than normal weather after the tomatoes were in. It wasn’t cold enough to kill them, but it did set them back. After that first flush, the rest of the tomatoes were fine.

So, you never know. Do the best you can and be ready to roll with whatever nature throws at you. Save your main plantings for when all the signs are good, however, if you are adventurous and have seeds and plants to spare, you could plant outside what is considered their normal comfort zone. If you just really want to plant early, put up a high or low tunnel to warm the soil. Remember, there are no mistakes to be made, only learning experiences.

Cindy Conner is 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.


Raised Beds with Veggies 

Vegetable gardening is a way of life for me – has been for as long as I can remember. My vegetable gardens are always evolving. What I call the “upper garden area” started out as ground that was simply roto-tilled and amended with lots of homemade compost and peat moss (to help give the native desert sand some water-holding capability and lower the pH). It was about 12 feet by 25 feet. The following year, I extended it about 35 feet in length, which lasted about four years.

Then, I acquired my first chickens — rescued from neighbors that were moving (if we didn’t want them, they would be barbecued) — and their coop. Free-range chickens in the yard meant my veggie garden needed a fence to keep the ever-hungry birds from eating everything. Up went a quick and easy chicken-wire fence, which wasn’t very attractive, but it was effective.

The following winter, I decided more chickens were in order so I ordered a dozen baby chicks and two ducklings for early spring arrival. This meant I needed a space to keep them after they were out of the brooder – the old chicken coop was not big enough to handle more birds. I decided to construct a new coop at the east end of the veggie garden and extend the garden length on the west end. The result was a garden area that was 10 feet wide by 32 feet long.

Instead of just moving the chicken-wire fence, I decided to construct a more permanent and more attractive fence to keep the chickens and ducks out of the tasty salad bar. That fence was constructed from treated 4-inch-by-4-inch posts connected with two-by-fours. Attached to this structure is black plastic mesh fencing — lightweight, inexpensive, easy to use, and effective.

Use Shade Cloth for Desert Gardening

Raised Beds 

The next thing added was an overhead shade cloth structure. High Desert summers can be quite hot — so hot that plant growth stops. A lot of veggies such as squash, tomatoes, peppers and such thrive in warm temperatures, but it can actually get too warm. Optimal temperatures are around 75 to 85 degrees F Pollination stops around 90 degrees F and growth stops at 95 degrees F — the High Desert’s summer temperatures can get much warmer than that. Shade cloth helps by reducing the sun’s intensity and reducing the temperature by as much as 20 degrees. I used 40-percent shade cloth, which is the percentage recommended by Greenhouse Megastore for bedding plants, herbs, Iris, lilies and vegetables. I purchased a 12-foot-by-32-foot shade cloth with reinforcing tape and grommets on the outside edges. I built the overhead structure from 2-by-4s and attached the shade cloth with screws and washers at each of the grommets. This was very effective at helping the plants grow better through the summer heat, and helping me stay more comfortable while gardening.

Next, I added the fencing material between the top of the fence structure and the overhead shade structure. I had decided to add a couple of turkeys to my flock of birds and quickly found out that a four-foot high fence is not enough to keep turkeys out of the garden. I got more of the same black plastic fencing material and attached it all the way around. A couple of benefits that I hadn’t initially thought of became evident – it keeps the population of feral cats in my yard from using my veggie garden as their litter box, and keeps wild birds from eating my crops.

Raised Beds for Square-Foot Gardening

The final addition to that part of the garden is raised beds. I decided to make my gardening experience a bit easier, both in maintenance and in harvesting. Based on the given space I had to work with, I decided to construct six raised beds, each four-feet-by six-feet and one foot deep. This allowed for one foot of space between each bed and a two-foot path around the beds. The book All New Square-Foot Gardening recommends making the beds only six-inches deep, however, I decided to make my beds a foot deep because I like to grow root crops such as carrots and beets, and I wanted to give them plenty of room to grow. Also, because I rotate where my crops are planted from year to year, any place I plant those crops will be deep enough in coming years. The reason for the four-foot dimension is that it is a good width to be able to reach into the middle and not have to step on and compact the soil. The six-foot width is what fit into my given space.

It is usually recommended to use wood such as cedar or redwood because they are more resistant to rot than standard construction-grade wood, but I decided to go the less expensive route so I could put the money toward better soil. I also chose not to use any anti-rot wood treatments because I prefer to not use chemicals. I may have to replace some of the boards every few years or so. A friend suggested that I line the inside of the beds with plastic to help keep the soil from drying out, but I didn’t want to add that element to the area either – and the soil mix that I created will help retain the moisture. The bottom of each of the beds is lined with plain brown corrugated cardboard as a weed barrier and then topped with 24 cubic feet (more or less) of soil mix.

Materials List for a 4-by-6-Foot Raised Bed

• Wood of choice
• Six 8-foot 2x6 boards cut into four 4-foot sections, and four 6-foot sections
• One 8-foot 2x2 board, cut into 11-inch pieces
• 32 3-inch wood screws
• One 4-by 6-foot piece of chicken wire or hardware cloth to attach to the bottom if gophers are a problem

The pathways around and between the beds include a weed barrier fabric topped with a blend of shredded wood mulch and wood shavings.

For the soil, I decided to create my own mix from bagged materials. It is less expensive to purchase soil mix by the scoop from a nursery or other source, but I was concerned about weed seeds being blown into the piles of soil while they were still at the nursery. I wanted to start my new beds out as weed-free as possible. I have had enough issues with weeds over the years — I garden organically and do not use herbicides such as Roundup or other harmful chemicals. With the soil mix added, the beds were ready for planting.

Micki’s Soil Mix Recipe

The soil mix below will fill one of the garden beds discussed above:

• 15 cf Kellogg All-Natural Garden Soil
• 3 cf peat moss
• 2 cf coco peat
• 1 cf vermiculite
• 1 cf perlite
• Amend with compost as needed

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.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.