Organic Gardening

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Index Card Seed Varieties

It’s early winter, 15 degrees outside with two inches of snow on the ground. I bundle up and walk to the mailbox, lamenting my gardens. I grab the mail, and suddenly I realize that I have the promise of Spring in my hands — the first seed catalogue for 2015 has arrived!

As I turn the pages, excited at all the new varieties, I realize that it’s time to plan for spring.

An uncomplicated way of collecting and organizing your information during those long winter days is to get some index cards, scissors and tape. Cut out the plant varieties from catalogues that you find interesting, with the pertinent information such as soil recommendations, zone, height and light requirements. Tape this information to the index card. Then in the spring, take this information when you go to your local greenhouse or nursery in search of your plants. It’s difficult talking about a plant when you say “It’s about this tall and has little white flowers”. That leaves quite an array of plants and confusion. These index cards can be invaluable to you and your garden. You will have all your information and can write down observations about your plants over time.

When you get to your gardening destination find your plant. Read the plant tags. Tags can be useful as plant markers in your garden but very limited on information. They are great reminders in the following year of what you planted. An excellent plant example of utilizing tags is the Balloon Flower. This plant is very slow to make its appearance in the spring. All your other plants will be growing nicely. Without a tag you might be inclined to believe it did not survive the winter. A tag is a simple reminder to be patient and give the plant a chance before digging it up and replanting it.

If you have any problems locating your plant, approach your nursery person and show them your index card. They might not have your plant but will be able to assist you in your search. Talk to them; do not be afraid to ask questions when purchasing your plants. Knowledgeable nursery persons appreciate talking about plants and will gladly give you even more information about your plants. Nursery persons want you to have a successful garden and a favorable experience at their nursery. They want you to come back to their establishment. The more you know about your plants the better your garden will thrive.

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.


We are amazed at how incredibly productive our hoop house is, infinitely better than a cold frame! The rate of growth of cold-weather crops is much faster inside; the crop quality, especially leafy greens, is superb. Plants can tolerate lower temperatures than outdoors, as they have the pleasant daytime conditions in which to recover. Salad greens in a hoop house can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14 degrees Fahrenheit (–10 degrees Celsius). Winter gardening in a hoophouse is much more pleasant than dealing with frozen row covers and hoops outdoors.

Hoophouse winter lettuce mix

Hoop House Winter Veggies

We grow mainly salad crops, cooking greens, turnips, radishes, scallions and bare root transplants for setting outdoors in February and March. We aim to harvest greens from the hoophouse after the outdoor crops slow down, and the turnips after the stored outdoor fall turnips have all been eaten, or as an occasional delectable alternative.

Daily Hoop House Tasks In Winter

We reckon on two hours work each day in winter in our 96- by 30-foot-high tunnel. Aim to keep the temperature in the 65 degrees Fahrenheit – 80 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius – 27 degrees Celsius) range during the day, opening the windows and doors as needed. If the sun is shining we usually open the windows around 9 am and close them around 2:30 pm (a few hours before dark) to store some of the warmth. Even in cold weather, plants need fresh air! High-density cropping can really use up the carbon dioxide in a closed hoophouse very quickly. When this happens, photosynthesis crashes and plant growth becomes limited. Soil high in organic matter contains high levels of organisms that produce carbon dioxide, which helps. Dense plant canopies can trap this near soil level, where it is most useful.

Our main task each day is harvesting. In the winter of 2009–2010, we had frozen soil or snow on the ground outside for a month (very unusual in central Virginia). Despite this we were able to keep a hundred people in fresh salad and cooking greens (with turnips and scallions for variety) for the whole month. Aside from harvesting, jobs include planting new crops, clearing old ones, spreading compost, hoeing, hand weeding and supplying water as needed. We have drip irrigation. In the middle of winter, not much water is needed, and we try to only water when a relatively mild night is forecast.


Persephone Days And Scheduling Winter Hoophouse Crops

To harvest in the darkest days of winter you’ll need a good supply of mature crops to take you through. What has already grown before this period will provide most of your harvests. When the daylight is shorter than 10 hours a day not much growth happens. In Central Virginia, latitude 38 degrees North, this period lasts from November 21 to January 21. Soil temperature also affects growth rate. For us, December 15 to February 15 is the slowest growing time. For most of the winter, our hoophouse plants are actively growing, not merely being stored for harvest (as happens in colder climate zones and outdoors), so we can continue sowing new hoophouse crops even in December.

Growing Greens And The Hazards Of Nitrate Accumulation

During periods of short daylight length, there is a health risk associated with nitrate accumulation in leafy greens. Nitrates are converted in the body into toxic nitrites, which reduce the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Also, nitrites can form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Plants make nitrates during the night, and convert them into leaf material during the day. It takes about six hours of sunlight to use up a night’s worth of nitrates. In winter, a small handful of leafy vegetables can exceed the acceptable daily intake level of nitrate for an adult, unless special efforts have been made to reduce the levels. Spinach, mustard greens and collards contain about twice as much as lettuce; radishes, kale and beets often have two and a half times as much. Turnip greens are especially high, at 3 times lettuce levels.

Bright Lights chard

How To Keep Nitrate Levels As Low As Possible:

• Grow varieties best suited for winter.
• Avoid fertilizing with animal-based fertilizers; use organic compost.
• Ensure soil has enough Phosphorous, Potassium, Magnesium and Molybdenum.
• Water enough but not excessively.
• Provide fresh air as soon as temperatures reach 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), so that carbon dioxide levels are high enough.
• Harvest after at least four (preferably six) hours of bright sunlight in winter.
• Avoid harvesting on very overcast days.
• Avoid over-mature crops and discard the outer leaves. Harvest crops a little under-mature.
• Refrigerate immediately after harvest, store harvested greens at temperatures close to freezing; use crops soon after harvest.
• Mix your salads; don’t just eat turnip greens.

When We Harvest Winter Hoophouse Crops (In Central Virginia)

November: spinach, lettuce leaves, mizuna, arugula, beet greens, tatsoi and brassica mix for salad, radishes and scallions.
• From December: baby lettuce mix, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh, chard, kale and turnips. Kale grows whenever it is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius).
January till mid-March; the bigger greens, including Senposai, pak choy, Chinese cabbage and Yukina Savoy

How to Harvest Winter Vegetables

Don’t harvest frozen crops - wait till they thaw. With fall-sown crops the aim is often to keep the same plants alive through the winter. November-January is not a good time to sow replacements.

With leafy vegetables, highest productivity is from “Cut and Come Again” crops: cut the tops of the plants above the growing point with scissors or shears every 10 to 35 days. Leaf-by-leaf is the method we use for kale, collards, chard and spinach. Never remove more than 40 percent of the total leaf area: less than half of the leaves, with a safety margin. We say “Leave eight for later.”

Once spinach plants start to look a bit past their peak, we “crew-cut” or buzz-cut them. Initially we harvest lettuce by the leaf, leaving the center to keep growing, and switch to harvesting the heads in late January, when growth begins to pick up. Whole plant harvesting works well for small plants like tatsoi and corn salad. A direct-seeded row can be thinned over time by harvesting out the biggest plants on each visit.

Pam Dawling is the garden manager at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at Sustainable Market Farming. Pam blogs on her website and also on Sustainable Market Farming Facebook Page.

Photo by Twin Oaks Community, Wren Vile, Ethan Hirsh, Pam Dawling.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Seed Libraries cover

Seed libraries are seed sharing programs that help to keep the seeds in the hands of the people so they don’t have to depend on corporations to keep their gardens growing. Members receive seeds—a small amount, usually not enough for their whole garden—and grow them out to seed themselves. A portion of these saved seeds are donated back to the seed library to be shared with others. Gradually the library will build a supply of seeds that grow well in that specific community. It is all about locally grown and seeds are pretty good at adapting to local conditions. If they don’t adapt, they don’t thrive enough to be saved. All of this leads to resilient seeds and resilient communities.

I have written a book about seed libraries and other seed share programs. Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People will be released by New Society around the beginning of February. It is at the printers now. I will have signed copies available through Homeplace Earth where you can pre-order Seed Libraries beginning January 1. It will be shipped as soon as it is available, possibly the first of February. In celebration of this newest book, Homeplace Earth is offering free shipping on all book and DVD orders placed in January 2015.

Public libraries have begun to add seeds to their offerings and you will find more seed libraries as part of public library programs than any other venue. I devote a chapter to the Role of Public Libraries. However, seed sharing can take place between friends, in informal gatherings, and as organized seed swaps. It is all in the book. Besides information of why you should save seeds, the book details how to go about organizing a seed library program and how to keep it going. Keeping it going is often the sticking point.

Seed Libraries has lots of ideas of how to celebrate seeds besides saving them and passing them on to others. You may have heard about some seed libraries being challenged by their state department of agriculture. Although it made the headlines, there are plenty of other seed libraries operating freely, so don’t let that deter your project. There are seed library forces at work to change the laws to exempt seed libraries from the laws that govern seed companies. Those laws are great to protect consumers from unscrupulous seed dealers, but seed libraries are something different entirely. If you suspect that your project will be challenged, or you really want to champion seed saving and sharing but are not ready to manage seeds, you will enjoy the ideas in the book that go beyond handling seeds.

Learn more about Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People at Homeplace Earth. This book doesn’t tell you how to save seeds, but it covers caring for seeds and making them available to others. We are Living in Exciting Times! (title of the last chapter) and have the opportunity to take an active part in the cultural shift happening in the world today. A new way of thinking and living is evolving right before our eyes. Seed libraries are part of that shift. Seed sharing programs are evolving so fast that it was hard to write about them. They will continue to change, but you have to begin somewhere. Begin with this book and become part of the transformation of our society.

Find out more about Cindy Conner and what she’s 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.


In my next series of posts, I will discuss various diseases that infect garlic, and different ways to treat them. In this post, I will consider white rot, perhaps the most severe allium disease. White rot is an insidious fungus that can render soil unusable for garlic for decades. Also known as Sclerotica cepivorum, it occurs in many parts of the world, affecting alliums such as onions and garlic. This disease is a particular nightmare for organic growers, since the fungus is nearly impossible to remove effectively once a field has been infected.


White rot is generally introduced into a field through contaminated plant material or soil, hence why it is so important both to purchase seed stock confirmed to be disease-free, and to quarantine new seed away from known healthy stock. The same rules apply when you are buying soil or compost. Once even a small area of a field is infected, white rot is easily spread to healthy soil and plants from physical contact with contaminated ones. It can also be spread by machinery and flood water that were previously in contact with diseased material.

The spread of white rot is accomplished not by spores, but through the sclerotic -- hard, black beads that live both in the soil and on infected plants. White rot sclerotica persist in the soil for decades, surviving through cold winter temperatures. They are at their most active in cooler temperatures, ideally below 20-24 degrees Celsius (68-76 degrees Fahrenheit). Higher temperatures will inhibit growth of the fungus, and heat over 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) will kill it. White rot sclerotic will remain dormant in the soil until they come within less than a centimeter of an allium, wherein the exudate from the plant will encourage the fungus to germinate.


White rot can be difficult to differentiate from other diseases above ground. It usually affects patches of plants, rather than individuals. Growers may first notice stunted plant growth, followed by the early yellowing and death first of the outer leaves, then the rest of the leaves and the central stem. If allowed to progress, there will also be an obvious rotting of the stem above the bulb.

The disease is much more apparent on the bulb itself. White rot fungus manifests as a fluffy white growth on the roots and root plate, eventually spreading upwards over the outer skin of the bulb. Infected plants must be immediately removed, along with the surrounding soil, and burned.


White rot is feared by many garlic growers because it is so difficult to control. Although there are a number of methods to treat white rot once it has occurred, their effectiveness is not reliable. Since any remaining sclerotica can remain dormant in soil for decades, the fungus can render a field uninhabitable for alliums, effectively ending the growth of garlic in that field.

This being the case, prevention is the best way to avoid a white rot infection. Besides carefully monitoring seed and soil introduced to a field, crop rotation of three to four years is essential. It is also advantageous to remove harvest waste from the field and disposing of it by either burning or segregated composting.

Garlic With White Rot Disease

Some growers prevent the fungus being introduced by decontaminating their seed stock. Alcohol, bleach and hot water are all used to bathe garlic seed prior to planting. Although this method is usually effective, if the treatment is too prolonged or performed at too high a temperature, the garlic can die.

Once infected, there are a number of organic options for minimizing the he spread of the fungus through a field, although these methods are not always successful. For infections that occur in only small patches, one method is to simply remove the affected plants and the surrounding soil. The diseased material is then disposed of, usually through burning.

If the infection is more widespread, ceasing irrigation of the field during the growing season will dry the fungus out. This method will only minimize the infection, and the remaining sclerotica make the chance of reinfection likely. Conversely, the affected field can also be flooded with water for a number of months, although the practicality and effectiveness of this method are often negligible.

Solarizing is another option for organic growers. Transparent polyethylene is laid over the infected soil during the hottest months, increasing the temperature and killing the white rot. This method is problematic for those growers with larger fields, however, as the soil must be turned over repeatedly down through at least two feet, to ensure as much of the fungus as possible is exposed to the heat. The process is time-consuming and tedious, and often not adequately successful.

Since the fungus is stimulated by allium exudate, a last organic method is to seed a field with allium (preferably garlic) juice solution or powder. The presence of allium material will cause the sclerotica to germinate, but because there is no garlic actually present, the fungus will starve and die. This process can be repeated several times if necessary. Like the previous methods used, this route is time-consuming, and renders the field unusable for at least a season. Even then, there is no guarantee the fungus has been completely eliminated.

Non-organic growers have only a slightly easier time destroying the disease. There are currently three fungicides used to treat white rot: tebuconazole, fludioxonil and boscalid. These chemicals can be tilled into the soil in which the garlic is going to be planted, and also applied into the furrows at the time of planting. Unfortunately, even these fungicides are not 100 percent effective, making prevention the best defense against a fungus as intrepid as white rot.

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.


Tomato Chooser appThe best tools are those that provide straightforward solutions to complex queries. In the homesteading and gardening world, a common conundrum may be deciding which crop varieties to grow, especially when considering a crop — such as tomatoes — that’s available in hundreds of diverse varieties.

Variety selection, after all, can be about so many factors. Be it taste, appearance, adaptability to one’s climate, disease resistance, or when a variety will mature, all kinds of traits play into what will be the best choices for your garden or farm.

We are beyond thrilled to announce the release of a snazzy new tool that brings clarity — and a whole lot of fun! — to the process of narrowing down which tomatoes to grow. Our new Tomato Chooser app profiles 333 tomato varieties, and, even better, allows you to sort and filter all of these varieties by exactly the characteristics you’re looking for. Within the app, you can filter by any (or all) of these traits:

• Open-pollinated vs. hybrid
• Growth habit (determinate, semi-determinate or indeterminate)
• Color
• Size
• Disease resistances
• Good for hot or cold climates
• Yield
• Days to maturity (early, main season or late)
• Best storage methods (canning, drying, etc.)

Finally, you can even filter by which varieties have been rated as having exceptional flavor by one of our tomato experts. We drew on five experts — Amy Goldman, Carolyn Male, Craig LeHoullier, William Woys Weaver and Gary Ibsen — and the books they’ve written about tomatoes to gather our flavor ratings, along with several descriptive quotes about many of the varieties.

While the app’s ability to filter the tomato varieties is ultra-cool and useful, you can use the app in other ways, too. If you simply want to browse the descriptions and color photos — and have a blast discovering new varieties you’ve never heard of, from heirloom gems to modern releases — you can view all 333 tomato profiles in an alphabetical list.

Anytime you find a tomato you know you want to grow in the future — or that you have grown before and loved — you can mark it as a favorite within the app to easily come back to later.

I can honestly say that playing around with this app has made me more excited than I’ve ever been for seed-starting season to come around this spring. I’m especially eager to try some of the flavorful varieties I’d never even heard of before, such as "Ferris Wheel," "Manyel" and "Soldacki."

The Tomato Chooser app is available on the Apple App Store for $1.99. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Please leave a comment here if you try any of the varieties from the Chooser, and let us all know what you thought of them. Happy growing!

Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.


Ants guarding aphids on a pear leaf.

Now that frost has melted your squash plants into a puddle of goo and the last tomato has been picked from your vines, it's a good time to think back over the garden year past. If you're like me, one of the biggest problems you faced was keeping vegetables happy without chemicals when pesky vine borers, hornworms, or aphids came to call. To that end, here are ten tips for keeping your garden bug-free...naturally!

1. Learn the bad bugs. New gardeners may be surprised to discover that most of the insects they find in the garden aren't dining on their daikons. If you're new to bug-identification and would like to learn to identify the bad bugs on sight, I recommend books like Garden Insects of North America, websites like, or a visit to your local extension agent.

A praying mantis on some buggy beans.

2. Learn the good bugs. I'm tempted to say that any bug who isn't obviously bad is a garden ally, but you should work especially hard to protect invertebrates who improve your soil, pollinate your crops, and control problematic insects.

3. Attract beneficials. Once you know which insects are good for your garden, you can start attracting these beneficials by providing year-round nectar sources, watering holes, nesting sites, puddling habitat, and untilled soil. In general, letting the area around your garden go wild can serve nearly all of these purposes at once

A phoebe perches on a pear tree, looking for garden insects.

4. Add other insect-eaters to your garden ecosystem. A variety of larger animals, ranging from shrews and lizards to snakes and birds, team up with predatory insects to keep pest-insect populations in check. As with beneficial insects, you'll need to give beneficial vertebrates the habitat they crave in order to survive year-round in your garden or nearby.

5. Monitor pest-insect populations. Once you decide that the natural ecosystem isn't doing a good enough job of dealing with bad bugs on its own, your first step should be to carefully monitor populations of the insects you want to eradicate. Many bad bugs show up regularly at certain times of the year, so you can mark your calendar and know when the first Japanese beetles, for example, are likely to arrive.

A brussels sprout

6. Time your crops to beat bugs. Early or late plantings and succession planting can all be effective ways to deal with pesky insects like cabbageworms and squash vine borers.

7. Choose resistant plant species and varieties. Many of the most common fruit and vegetable varieties require constant chemical sprays to keep bugs at bay. On the other hand, if you know which bugs are most problematic in your neighborhood and then carefully select fruits and vegetables with those insects in mind, you may be able to cut your work load in half while harvesting delicious, beautiful fruits.

Flea beetles

8. Block out pests with row covers. If all else fails, you can provide a physical barrier between plants and pests with a row cover. Just be sure to erect the row cover before any nibblers come to call, and hand-pollinate flowers as necessary.

9. Hand-pick at the first sign of damage. If you catch pest populations right when they start, hand-picking can be an effective method of control. Work in the early morning when insects are moving slowly and be sure to pick at least three times a week for best results.

A diverse vegetable garden.
10. Learn to eat blemished fruits and vegetables. Although the produce coming out of your garden might not look quite like the perfect, shiny offerings at the grocery store, you'll soon discover that real apples taste ten times better...even if you have to cut out a wormy spot.

To learn more about how to work with your garden ecosystem to minimize pests, check out my ebook The Naturally Bug-Free Garden...currently on sale for 99 cents!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The State of Oregon is home for a large and ever-increasing community of farmers and farm supporters who are committed to sustainable farming. It’s no wonder that’s the case when one considers that organizations like Oregon Tilth and Organically Grown Company were getting their start here back in the late 1970s, and have since grown to become major influencers in this now surging movement.

Planting A Future

As a Portland-based writer and dedicated organic gardener, I was anxious to find a way to become an active participant in the community of folks who endeavor to grow, distribute, and eat healthy, local food. So when I was co-authoring a book featuring a group of Oregon winemakers, it occurred to me that a collection of more in-depth profiles of Oregon’s sustainable farmers could be an effective way to share their stories and let the world know how sustainable food production has become integral to our culture.

My new book, Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement, is the result of my efforts. And I’m very happy to be able to share these profiles with the readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Profiling Oregon Local Farms

As a new blogger on this site, I will be posting all 18 of the profiles contained in Planting A Future, as well as sharing other news and developments in sustainable farming from Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

Though my book was recently published, I am not new to farming. In fact, I was introduced to small-scale family farming by my parents as soon as I could walk around the barnyard. This photo of my parents shows what family farming in central Kansas looked like around the time I was born, which was 1951. It’s an image that could have been captured today on any number of small organic farms.

Tractor In A Field John Clark Vincent

Actually, it was about the time I started learning about farming that traditional small-scale farming began its dramatic shift toward the industrial methods being touted by post-war chemical companies and land grant universities. Fortunately, my father was slow to adopt many of the new ideas, so I had the opportunity to experience things like saving seed wheat for next year’s planting and allowing our hogs to freely roam the woods and pastures.

But as farms gradually changed or were purchased by larger industrial concerns, and small towns began to fade away, I, too, began a life apart from the earth, focusing on an urban career and learning to eat food packaged in boxes and plastic bags. All I can say is thank goodness the pioneers of organic agriculture who participated in the back-to-the-land movement had the vision and the will to persevere and carve out a path that led to the multi-billion-dollar organic food industry we have today.

Beautiful Small Farm Landscape

A number of those pioneers can be found in Oregon. People like Jack Gray, Mary Jo Wade, and Wali and Jabrila Via who turned an early homestead near Noti, Ore., into Winter Green Farm, one of our state’s leading biodynamic farms. And Dr. Alan Kapuler, an original co-founder of Seeds of Change, who has dedicated his life to public-domain seed breeding, and continues that work with his family at Peace Seeds near Corvallis, Ore.

In the coming weeks, I will be sharing the profiles of people like these who were featured in Planting A Future. In addition to providing these book excerpts, I’ll be writing about a wide array of new developments in sustainable agriculture coming out of Oregon. I’m looking forward to it.

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

Photos by Lisa D. Holmes

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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