Organic Gardening

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

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

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

Beware of 'Killer Compost'

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

Grow Crops for Composting

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

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

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


Onions in dehydrator

Sliced onions in dehydrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dried onions

Dried onions

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

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

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


 Canning peaches

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

3 Essential Tools for Home Canning

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

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

Canning Resources

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

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

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


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

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

What to Plant in Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

pelleted seed

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

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

broccoli starts

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

soaker hose

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

broccoli in straw mulch

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

remay insect barrier

Using Row Cover in the Fall Garden

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

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

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

Read about Douglas' Recycled Log Cabin.


September garden


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

Harvesting Herbs

Garden herbs

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

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

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

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

Napa cabbage

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

Caring For New Seeds and Transplants

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

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

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

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


Zucchini plant

Zucchini plant in bloom

Ah, zucchini. One of the first summer veggies to fruit. You know summer is officially here when your zukes are flowering and producing nice long fruits. By mid-summer, the novelty has worn off. By August, you can't give the things away! I even saw a box in my local hardware store with free zucchinis.

So, what's a gardener to do with all that excess bounty? Well, you can donate them to a food pantry, you can preserve them in a few different ways, or you can use them in ways I'd never even thought of!

How to Preserve Zucchini Harvests

For preserving, you can freeze them, can them or dry them. I don’t care for canning zucchini as they are not acidic enough to just use a water bath; the full pressure canner set up is required. You could pickle them, lowering the pH enough to use a water bath. There are all kinds of fun pickling recipes out there. Adding peppers is a way to add zing to an otherwise bland taste. Just make sure you follow the recipe exactly as the proper pH is critical to safe canning.

I am exploring the freeze and dry methods. For freezing, first slice them, lay them on a cookie sheet and freeze them. After they are frozen, you can put them in a freezer bag. When you need a few, they are easy to get out of the bag. If you put them into the freezer bag fresh, they will freeze together. I am trying a few frozen whole. With a sharp blade, I can slice them when I need them, kind of like frozen cookie dough.

For drying, slice and either use a dehydrator, the sun or your oven. Zucchini has a great deal of moisture so it will take a while to completely dehydrate. You can speed the process by salting, squeezing out the excess (cookie sheet weighted down on top of another cookie sheet is an easy way to do this) for about 15 minutes, then either popping into the oven, setting them out in the sun or placing in a dehydrator for a couple of hours should do it. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn if you are using an oven. Recommended temp for drying is 120-200 degrees F max.

Using Zucchini in the Kitchen

I ran across some recipes in Capper’s magazine that looked tasty: zucchini spaghetti and meat balls, stuffed baked zucchini, and zucchini parmesan. I have tried a variation on the baked zucchini and the zucchini parmesan and both were quite good.

They have this nifty little gadget called a spiralizer that you put a zucchini in and it will make nice long spaghetti noodles. You can use them just like spaghetti but with no carbs or gluten. Cool, huh? Just toss with your favorite sauce and serve.

Grilled zucchini is tasty with sea salt and olive oil. It is one of our standbys. Just be sure to not heat your olive oil above 340 degrees F; the smoke point of this delicious, nutritious oil.

Frying Zucchini

There is also fried zucchini. It is easy to make. Just whip up 3 eggs with a little milk. Mix together 1/2 cup of cornmeal with a 1/4 cup of flour, salt and seasonings to taste. Dip the zucchini slices first in the egg batter then in the dry meal. Place in 350-375 degree F oil and fry until golden. If you are going to eat by itself, using a Cajun season salt adds a welcome zing of flavor.

For any extras you have, you can freeze them, too. Just put a single layer on a cookie sheet and let freeze through. Then, put all the pieces into a freezer bag. You can pull out any time you have a craving for fried zucchini! Just thaw and warm up in the oven.

Baked Zucchini

The baked zucchini was good. Take a large zucchini, cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Stuff with your favorite meat stuffing recipe and bake until the zucchini is tender at 350 degrees F. Mine took about an hour and a half to become tender. Top with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese and put bake in the oven until cheese is golden and bubbly.

Zucchini lasagna

Zucchini lasagna

Zucchini Parmesan

There was a recipe in the magazine for zucchini parmesan. Basically, you layer sauce, sliced Italian sausage, breaded and fried zucchini to fill a baking dish, then top with mozzarella cheese and bake at 350 degrees F until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese golden and melted.

We didn’t have any Italian sausage, so I made up a stuffing mix which is below. I just then layered sauce, then breaded and fried zucchini, then meat stuffing until the baking pan was full. For my pan, it was 3 layers of each. Then top with mozzarella and parmesan and into the oven at 350 degrees F until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted.

I was amazed at how delicious the zucchini lasagna was. It is low carb, gluten free, full of just harvested veggies and a great way to utilize the bounty from the garden!

Here is a meat stuffing mix I really like: 1 small diced onion, 3 eggs, 1 piece of whole wheat toast crumbled, 2 teaspoons of ground garlic, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper, 2 teaspoons of dried mixed herbs from the garden, and a half pound of burger (bison, grass fed beef or venison). Just mush it all together by hand. When combined, use to stuff the zucchini or layer as part of the zucchini lasagna dish.

Classic Zucchini Bread

Then there is the ever classic zucchini bread. Recipes abound on the internet and cookbooks for this perennial favorite.

Now you have several ideas for fully utilizing all your wonderful zucchini besides the compost pile : )  

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


SakuraNow that we’ve got harvesting, trimming and curing under control for the season, I’ll return to discussing the various types of garlic. In this post, I’ll take a closer look at the Asiatic variety. Asiatic garlic tends to mature earlier than other types, making it an excellent addition to any garlic-lovers’ garden, or a good choice for growers who want to make the most of early market sales. Although not as popular as certain types, such as Rocamboles and Porcelains, and thus not as readily available, some popular Asiatic cultivars that you may find locally include ‘Sakura’, ‘Pyongyang’ and ‘Asian Tempest’.


In my experience, Asiatics are generally easy growers. The plants tend to be rather squat, with their broad, yellowish-green leaves drooping softly away from the central stem. Asiatics produce a scape, like all hardneck varieties, however, the umbels have a very distinctive elongated appearance. These umbels contain few bulbils, usually less than ten, but what they lack in number they more than make for in size. The huge bulbils are a great way to increase your planting stock, as you can often get a differentiated, albeit small, bulb in the first year or two.Bubils

The scapes on Asiatic garlics do not curl tightly like many other hardneck types, but do so in a rather lazy curl. Also unlike other hardnecks, the scapes of Asiatic cultivars do not need to be cut prior to harvest, since removing them has no significant effect on final bulb size.

In general, Asiatics mature significantly faster than other garlic types. Often, they are ready to harvest up to several weeks ahead of other varieties, making them a good option for both green and early market sales. They can also help you to resist the temptation to harvest and eat your other bulbs too soon! The early maturity of Asiatics means that the plants have to be watched carefully, and harvested when only a single leaf has gone brown. If they are left in the ground any longer than this, the outer skins, which tend to be quite fragile, become prone to splitting.


The appearance of Asiatics can vary significantly between cultivars. Sakura, for example, has white bulb wrappers and a somewhat squat shape, while others such as Asian Tempest and Pyongyang, have a smooth, slightly flattened teardrop shape and degrees of purple striping. Cloves skins also vary between cultivars, ranging through pale purple-gold to violet-rose, to dark purple. The number of cloves also varies, with bulbs containing from four to ten cloves arranged in a single layer around the central stalk. The cloves of most cultivars tend to be elongated and curved, however, the cloves of Sakura are comparatively stocky and fat.


The taste between Asiatic cultivars is as varied as their appearance. When raw, they can exhibit a heat that ranges from the mild to the intense. Strength of flavor also diverges from a delicate mild garlic taste to those that are increasingly flavorful and robust. These differences aside, all Asiatic garlics have in common a rich, rounded flavor that tends to become even more developed with cooking. So, although these cultivars may be more difficult to find than Rocamboles and Porcelains, their flavor – and the fact that they have a storage life of four to six months – makes them definitely worth keeping an eye out for!

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