Organic Gardening

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

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Chicken on the loose

For the past 12 years, we have run chicken tractors over our gardens all winter long. We have a small flock — between two and five ladies at any given time — and the system has worked excellently well for our intensively gardened space. 

The benefits of a chicken tractor are great. First, the chicken poop, mixed in with their straw bedding and the layer of leaves we lay over each bed in the fall, creates excellent organic matter. The nitrogen of the droppings balances the carbon of the bedding and the whole mass breaks down quickly into a deep seedbed which holds water well into the summer. I have not had to add soil to the raised beds since we added the chicken tractor to our design. The droppings become fertilizer for vegetables and our crops thrive. Chickens also provide considerable insect control. We first considered adding a flock to the back yard because it was the only way to control the pill bugs that were chomping down the squash seedlings.   The ladies eat the pillbugs, as well as other insects in the garden beds, although they prefer to root through the compost pile for their live protein. They have helped with slug control, not by eating the slugs, but by digging through the leaves and grass where the eggs are resting and exposing them to the air. And, yes, we like the eggs.

Our chicken tractor is based upon an old MOTHER EARTH NEWS design. It is an A frame, four feet wide by five feet long, that sits directly on the four by ten foot constructed raised beds. Our beds are not just deeply dug mounds; they are framed by lumber for improved drainage. The ridge runs across the beds. There is a nest box/night roost in the peak of the coop, with a drop down door for access from the yard. We have added doors on both sides of the coop so that we can let the chickens out into the yard or onto the rest of the garden bed, depending upon the day and season. The coop holds three chickens comfortably, even on rainy days, and five if they have access to at least the rest of the bed during the day. Some years we have constructed runs over the entire ten foot bed. Other years, when the flock is smaller, we simply move the coop from one end of the bed to the other. We worked on making the entire structure as light as possible while still providing protection. There are two handles about waist high so that we can carry it around the garden. (See my blog for detailed photos!)

The tractor moves every month throughout the winter, following a strict crop rotation system. There are ten garden beds and I try to tractor at least eight of them from September through May. The first bed to be tractored is the garlic bed, because it is the first harvested and it is on the edge of the garden. The coop sits on the bed, but the chickens still have access to their entire far back yard and compost pile summer run. Then the coop moves west, towards the house, through the beds. Each bed does not represent a specific crop, but a specific planting date. So, we have a spring bed, which is planted in mid-March, and holds peas, greens, radishes, and some early broccoli. There is a summer bed for summer greens, beets, carrots, etc. that is planted out in April, three beds of potatoes, a bed of squashes planted in May, another bed of various beans that is direct seeded after the snow melts in the mountains, and a late bed of fall and winter crops. Because the planting is organized by planting date, the coop can still be moving through the garden as planting is happening. We just have to be creative about fencing!

In June, the tractor run is completed and the coop is tucked under the laurel trees for the summer. We lay out the fencing that keeps the ladies on the back third of the yard near the compost pile and the watering pool, and let them run all over for a few months, until the garlic is pulled and it is time for them to go back to work.

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

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. 


drought pod 2015-1

The black pod was installed last year, and it is mostly food waste, the green pod is a mixture of composted wood chips with sheep manure. There was compost around the outside of these two barrels to the approximate depth of 8 inches into which I planted 10 tomato plants around the outside of the barrel. These plants received tap water when first planted, and then two other waterings. From then on, they were reliant on the wetness of the compost, both in and out of the barrel. They did receive a heavy dose of compost tea as well.

The tomatoes were planted on April 16, 2014 and I was enjoying tomatoes within about 45 days. From the time of the initial waterings, they were never watered from the tap for the rest of the summer, produced very well and the tomatoes were beautiful and flavorful.

The update thus far is the new white drought pod is filled with composted wood chips with sheep manure. Each of these pods are basically 40 gallon plastic compost tumblers that were discarded by friends. I drilled thumb size holes in the bottom of each of these barrels so that worms and moisture can migrate easily.

I have increased the depth of the wood chip/manure compost around the drought pods to a depth of approximately 12 inches, followed by a big dose of compost tea and then squares of wheat straw hay that were soaked in the rain last summer (and never dried out in 7 months). The squares are very thick and tightly packed around the pod. Again, the tomato plants will be placed directly beside the barrels with the heavy mulch left throughout the summer. I will plant about 20 tomato plants around these 3 drought pods.

The goal is to have as much organic mass inside and outside the barrels as possible. The mass holds the nutrients, moisture, worms and keep the temperature of the soil/roots cooler than the summer air. The contents of the barrel should be wetter than the compost around the barrel, and this is to encourage the root systems to seek the wetter nutrient based contents. After the initial planting, I only water through the barrel to pull nutrients down into the contents around the barrel.

hydro trays 2015

These two reclaimed hydroponic trays were kept from the trash truck by a friend. They are fiberglass, 20-feet-by-3-feet, and I installed them for a raised bed, fall/winter garden for this upcoming season. In the corner of my yard you will notice hoops that will be used to make a low tunnel hoop house. They are filled with composted wood chips with sheep manure. I will use them to grow winter greens, beets, carrots, etc.

I hope this update continues to be interesting for you. My next experiment is learning how to make Biochar.

Happy gardening.

Read Ron's previous post about Drought-Pods, How to Construct a Drought-Pod.

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.


Allegheny Spurge 

In many cases, I've discovered the Asian counterpart of our native plants to be much showier, more robust and in many instances more floriferous than our native species. Take Claytonia, for example. Our native Claytonia virginica and Claytonia caroliniana are very early, beautiful little plants. But, although their flowers are lovely, they're very small and the entire plant is extremely ephemeral. On the other hand, Claytonia Sibirica has thicker, more deeply veined foliage and flowers for months.

One major exception to this rule is Pachysandra procumbens. P.p. is an East Coast member of the Buxaceae (Boxwood) family and is commonly referred to as "Allegheny Spurge". It's superior to the more commonly used (Asian) Pachysandra terminalis in virtually every respect.

The Asian Pachysandra terminalis is a very aggressive, stoloniferous thug in the garden. And although this can be a benefit if you want to fill in a very large area super fast, its well behaved American cousin, P. procumbens, is a clump forming groundcover that fills in an area slowly, but much more elegantly.

P. procumbens is hardy in most areas of the US, probably into zone 4, maybe even 3. In  zones 7-10 or during mild Winters elsewhere,  it stays evergreen. In colder areas it will be a herbaceous perennial.

In the early spring, P.p. shoots up really cool spikes of pink and white fragrant flowers that last for a week or two. Soon after the flowers have set seed, the first vegetative shoots poke their heads through the soil and their dark green leaves begin to unfold. In deep shade, the foliage remains a dark, luxurious green all summer. The more sun that the plants get, the lighter their leaves are. I planted a row in full sun as an experiment to test the plants extremes. The plants in the sun were healthy and productive, but the leaves were paler in color, some with an almost chloritic appearance. This is definitely a dappled to deep shade plant.

In the late summer to early fall, P.p. reminds us of the approaching Autumnal equinox by "opening its windows to let in more light". This effect takes its form as beautiful silvery mottling on the leaves that I can only compare to snowflakes in the respect that no two leaves are alike. Oh the joy of jumping around on the ground like a frog from plant to plant, trying to select the most striking patterns. In the end, they're all brilliant and unique.

P.p. is a very easy, but slow plant to propagate. You can take stem/leaf cuttings in the early spring, but rhizome divisions are quicker and easier. On a mature rhizome, there many "joints.” If you make a complete cut at each joint, leaving the plant above it with a few good roots intact, you will have several 2-4-inch pieces that you can pot up or lay out in a flat and cover with about a 1/2 inches of soil. Root pieces taken in the early spring, while the plants are still dormant, will produce new plants ready for planting the same season.

All in all, it's difficult to find a better, all around, more useful, adaptable ground cover plant than Pachysandra procumbens.

Barry Glick, the self-proclaimed “King of Helleborus,” grew up in Philadelphia in the ’60s, a mecca of horticulture. Barry cut high school classes to hitchhike to Longwood Gardens before he was old enough to drive. In 1972, he realized there was just not enough room for him and his plants in the big-city environment, so he bought 60 acres on a mountaintop in Greenbrier County, W.V., where he gave birth to Sunshine Farm & Gardens, a mail-order plant nursery. Barry grows more than 10,000 different plants and specializes in native plants and hellebores. He can be reached at 304.497.2208 or

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.


 wood flats

The weather will soon give way to temperatures warm enough to plant in our gardens and we need to have transplants ready, which means starting the seeds ahead of time. Although I start most of my seeds in the cold frame, rather than in flats, I thought I’d share what I did when I used flats. If you feel you don’t need to worry about flats because you have plenty of plastic food containers coming into your home that you can use, you might want to rethink that. What are you buying in those plastic containers? If your diet consisted of mostly whole foods prepared at home, those containers wouldn’t be a resource for you.

I would like to encourage you to make your own seed starting flats from wood. When I made the switch to wood flats I used scrap wood we already had, cutting it to the dimensions I needed on our table saw. If you don’t have a table saw, or a ready supply of scrap wood, you might be able to acquire a pallet or two to take apart. It would be nice if the boards on the pallet were the same as the height of the sides you want on your flats. However, unless you need everything to be the same size, you can work with some variation. I had old 1/2-inch plywood that I used for the bottoms, but you can put multiple narrow strips (such as pallet boards) for the bottom, if that is what you have to work with. Plywood does not work as well for the sides. It tends to come apart.

If you are working with many flats, it is nice if the footprint is the same — the length and width. If your flats are large, having some half that size would work--two would fill the same footprint. It makes it easier when using and when storing. Having flats of varying depths, however, can be handy. If you are starting seeds that won’t be in the flats too long, a shallow depth, say 2 inches, would suffice. If your seeds will be in the flat longer, or if you want flats to transplant into, you will need deeper flats — maybe as deep as 6 inches.

I built a three-tiered stand with lights to hold the flats when starting seeds. The shelves were made from ¾-inch plywood that was coated with the type of polyurethane you would use on boats. Wood flats will be damp, but I did not have trouble with them leaking water, unless I over-watered, of course. I put the wood flats directly on the plywood shelves. Depending on the surface you will be using, you might want to cover it with plastic, at least until you know the amount of moisture you will have under the flats.

I followed the guidelines in New Organic Grower and in How To Grow More Vegetables for my early wood flats. You can read about that experience at Homeplace Earth. It was great to use the directions in those two books as a starting point for building my own. I learned what I liked about the size of both designs and would have worked more toward building a quantity to the dimensions that suited me the best if I had not stopped using flats for most of my seedlings. I discovered that I could plant seeds directly in the cold frames to start and didn’t need to bother with the flats at all.

No matter what, there are always new things to learn and experiment with. I hope you give wood flats a try. They will last a long time and you won’t have a build-up of plastic trash in your garden shed. No doubt, you will find other uses for your wood flats when they are not holding soil and seedlings.

Cindy Conner is the 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.


There are many articles about pollinator friendly flowers, but what about herbs? Herbs have many uses medicinal, culinary and even ornamental. They can be grown in containers, draping over walls and planted in drought tolerant landscapes and in the shade. Herbs are excellent choice for planting on hillsides to keep weeds smothered. Unfortunately, they are not usually considered to be part of the flower garden or landscape for our pollinating friends. With the many new varieties and old favorites available there is an herb out there for any use to beautify your garden.

Monarda or Bee Balm is a full sun perennial that most gardeners are familiar with. The bright red flowers of this plant are iconic. Though with recent introductions, there is a myriad of colors available. There are varieties such as ‘Lilac Lollipop’, with soft lilac colored blooms to ‘Coral Reef’ that has a mellowed orange hue. These new introductions can grow to approximately 24” in height depending on the variety, enjoying the same conditions as the parent plant. Deadheading will keep this plant producing blooms thought the growing season.


Hyssop is a very hardy, ancient herb mentioned in the Bible, “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean,” verse 7 Psalm 51. It is a shrubby perennial that grows to 20 inches tall. This perennial is not really particular about soil and prefers full sun to partial shade. The lovely little blue flowers are a pollinator favorite.

Sage is a wonderful addition to the pollinator garden. There are so many scents, leaf variations and flower colors to this plant. Sage is a plant that prefers full sun and a basic soil. Two of my favorite’s sages are ‘Honey Melon’ and ‘White’. ‘Honey Melon’ is annual, bushy plant that has small red flowers that continuously blooms throughout the summer months. It has a pleasant tropical scent. It is used for culinary purposes. ‘White’ sage has attractive soft, white foliage with white flowers. Not only will the bees appreciate this plant, but so will the nocturnal pollinators.

'Honey Melon' Sage

Rosemary is a culinary plant that has numerous varieties from the prostrate ‘Irene’ to the culinary, woody stemmed ‘Barbeque’. Unfortunately, living in zone five, I did consider rosemary to be an annual. Happily, all that has changed with the introduction of cold hardy varieties such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’ and ‘Salem’. Rosemary requires full sun, average soil and not a lot of water. Rosemary is a good choice for a container plant.

Winter Savory is a wonderful, perennial, pollinator friendly plant that is complementary to the garden as well as the palate. Hardy zones 5 through 11, it requires full sun and well drained soil. This plant will be covered in white flowers, attracting all the beneficial pollinators while repelling unwanted pests. It has a nice flavor in cooking, and can be used as a salt substitute.

Thyme is another herb with many varieties to choose from. Thyme is a great plant for rock gardens, ground cover or difficult drought tolerant situations. Depending on the variety the flower color can range from white to magenta. The variegation and textures of the leaves can complement the flowers in your garden. The scents can vary as well- lemon, caraway and orange.

Borage is an annual herb easily grown from seed. Once established it will seed itself. It is long blooming plant, which makes it a wonderful food source for the bees when other flowering plants have become scarce. It grows in full sun to part shade and likes a fertile, well drained soil. Borage flowers are blue or white and are edible.

When growing herbs for medicinal or culinary uses please do your research. Just because it is oregano, it does not mean that it is for human consumption. Need more information on the plants mentioned in this blog? Like us on Facebook.

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.


Crop rotation is an important factor of organic gardening. It’s just as important as composting and cover crops. By not following these simple steps of crop rotation the soil will require more input from the gardener. Soil-borne pests and diseases, low-to-no vegetable yields, and a reliance on store-bought products can all become a reality inside the vegetable garden. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The good news is this garden is organic and the reliance is on the self. Here is how and why to rotate your vegetable crops to rely on your Self.

How to Rotate Vegetable Crops

Our yard is tiny, 43-by-21 feet tiny, not all of it is in the sun, and we have two female boxers who like to think it belongs to them. Therefore, our space is limited for gardening. We do have four, 8-by-4-foot vegetable plots located in the sunniest area. This is perfect for this simple form of organic crop rotation we found in the Encyclopedia of Gardening published by the American Horticultural Society.

The easiest way to follow crop rotation is to have four distinct areas in the garden. Each area will be home to one family of crops each growing season. By making a garden plan at the start of the season, it will be easy (and only become even easier) to know exactly where each crop will be planted at any time of the year.

Four Important Crop Families

Brassicas (Cabbage Family). Brassicas include everything from broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, and rutabagas to radishes, turnips, bok choi, oriental mustards, and mizuna greens to name a few. Given our one, 8-by-4 foot plot for brassica we like to keep it simple. After multiple failures growing romanesco, we have decided to grow spring and fall harvests of dwarf broccoli and kale this upcoming season.

Legumes and Pod Crops. Legumes and pod crops include all the many beans and peas and also okra. After multiple seasons of growing beans we have decided to switch it up this season by growing spring and fall harvests of two types of peas.

Alliums (Onion Family). Alliums include all the types of onions and also garlic. Bulb onions, pickling onions, welsh onions, oriental bunching onions, leeks, scallions, and shallots. And any other type of onion one can think of. This is where I am the least experienced. In fall we planted garlic and we have yellow onion seeds that just arrived in the mail.

Root, Solanaceous and Tuberous Crops. Roots, solanaceous, and tuberous crops include potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, also eggplant, celery, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and taro to name some. To simplify things inside my own head I like to refer to this plot as only roots. That is because we enjoy growing potatoes and carrots so much.

Now with a general idea of the four crop families and what specific crop falls into each family, the only thing left to explain is how to move these four families from one garden plot, or section of the garden, to the next. This is easy. In the exact order I have mentioned them in.

I even came up with an acronym for simple crop rotation - BLAR. Brassicas, legumes, alliums, and roots. Each garden season every family of crops is rotated clockwise to a new plot. Brassicas are moved to last season’s legume plot. Legumes are moved to last season’s allium plot. Alliums are moved to last season’s root plot. And roots are moved to last season’s brassica plot.

Every fourth gardening season you will be right back where you started. This is how it only becomes easier and easier to remember what goes where each year. Even organizing many varieties and planting successions of crops becomes easier. But other than ease, why is it so important to rotate vegetable crops from season-to-season?

Why Rotate Vegetable Crops?

By following these simple crop rotation methods any potential build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases will be filtered out and the need to rely on non-organic herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides will never be necessary. The Encyclopedia of Gardening lists nematodes, clubroot, and onion white rot as some examples of soil-borne pests and diseases that will build-up if proper crop rotation is not followed.

Some other benefits of crop rotation are improved yields and workability of the soil, a reduction in soil crusting and erosion, and the recycling of plant nutrients, according to the USDA.

Potatoes cover the soil allowing few weeds to grow. When you plant onions after potatoes less weeding takes place. Peas and beans have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Brassicas require high amounts of nitrogen to grow. When you plant broccoli after peas, the broccoli thrives from the extra nitrogen leftover in the soil.

Different plants require different amounts and types of nutrients. If broccoli is planted in the same location year after year the soil will require high inputs of nitrogen brought in from outside sources. More and more nitrogen will be needed. Eventually clubroot will become a major problem and chemicals will be required to combat that. Now nitrogen and chemicals become necessary. Next thing that happens is a reduction in broccoli yields. As you can see, not rotating vegetable crops will result in catastrophe.

This means one thing to me. An increased sense of self-reliance properly balanced with a decreased reliance on marketed, non-locally produced, store-bought items. Nature works if you work with her. If you push her, she’ll push you back. By practicing crop rotation, by composting, and by planting cover crops nature will know harmony and you will too. With that comes bountiful harvests and joy to share.

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. 


Father and kids feeding ducks 

When I testify at hearings on proposed backyard chicken ordinances, the opposition always brings up, as one of the arguments against hens, the notion that chickens spread disease. In the past, I’ve scoffed at this because they don’t spread disease—any more than any other animal.

Now, things have changed. And, it’s up to us, as thoughtful hen keepers, to do what we can to help abate the spread of Avian Influenza.


Five states, located in the Pacific Flyway (where wild waterfowl migrate) have had recent incidences of waterfowl and/or backyard chickens testing positive for Avian Influenza. Those states include, California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Idaho. The other states in the Flyway, that have so far dodged this bullet are, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In my home state of Idaho, the Department of Agriculture recently confirmed the H5N2 strain of the Avian Influenza virus in three falcons from a private, non-commercial flock outside of Boise. The falcons were exposed to the virus after contact with a wild duck. Additionally, a small backyard poultry flock in in the same area was identified as having chickens positive for H5N2. That flock was immediately put under quarantine and the birds were depopulated. Ultimately, the state quarantined a six-square mile area in two counties until the threat passed and no new cases arose.

The bottom line is: if you free range your chickens and migratory waterfowl have access to your property/yard, your flock is at risk for Avian Flu. “If backyard hen keepers would take steps to prevent wild ducks from intermingling with their backyard chickens, it would significantly decrease the spread of the avian flu among domesticated flocks,” said Dr. Bill Barton, Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Wild waterfowl—specifically ducks, are vectors (meaning they carry the virus, but don’t succumb to it) pass along the virus. They do this through their dropping and their secretions (eyes, nose and mouth).

Wild wood duck 

Flocks that free-range in areas where migratory waterfowl have access are at highest risk. Cautious backyard chicken keepers should construct some sort of barrier between backyard flocks and wild duck populations. Also, if you live in an area where wild ducks gather, such as along neighborhood walking paths or in neighborhood ponds, practice biosecurity measures with your walking shoes. Don’t tread where your hens tread, if you’ve walked where ducks have walked. The risk is too great. Also, it’s absolutely necessary to practice thorough hand sanitation when handling backyard flocks.

Fortunately, at this writing, the outbreak doesn't pose risk to humans practicing sound hygiene. For your flock’s sake, KNOW THE SYMPTOMS: (including but are not limited to), coughing, sneezing, respiratory distress, decreased egg production, swelling of the head, comb and wattles and sudden death. For more information on the H5N2 virus contact your state Department of Agriculture.

Ithaca Chickens Free Range 

Photo of wood duck by Bob Young

Pacific Flyway photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

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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