Organic Gardening

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

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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.


Rainbow Carrots

There are as many reasons as varieties of vegetables and herbs for successive plantings. A short definition of succession planting is the resourceful use of time and space in your garden. An example of efficient use of space is that your garden is 8x10. You plant the basics, tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, and maybe lettuce. Once the plants have finished producing the garden is done. That wonderful space that had lettuce and onions you harvested earlier in the season can be used to plant carrots or beets and beans. An example of time restriction is you cannot plant another type of vegetable because it will not mature before frost. A little bit of research on vegetables and problem solved. Timing can be everything in the garden. These are just basic ideas but let’s take this successive planting idea a few steps further.

People that preserve the garden harvest can plant to complement their endeavors. Plan your garden so that when you harvest lettuce, plant cilantro for salsa. The cilantro will be ready to use when the tomatoes ripen, and your beautiful aromatic coriander won’t become coriander.

Successive planting throughout the gardening season will also provide late blooming nutrition for pollinating friends. Many times I have been in my garden and observed pollinators on late peas.

How many times have you looked at a seed catalogue and wanted to plant something different, but there isn’t any space. Now, you do. There is plenty of time to plant shorter season transplants and seeds for your garden.

Many times we have planted zucchini and all the plants become lunch for the squash beetles. I don’t like to use any type of insecticides in my garden. Because I use compost, I do not want chemicals leeching into my black gold and killing all the good microbes in the soil. We solved this problem by planting zucchini from seed on July the fourth. The beetles have run their course and I have a wonderful zucchini harvest when no one else does.

Living in zone 5, we have had to fight the elements. Deer and other critters to inclement weather, such as flooding and even the occasional Memorial Day freeze. We have had to learn to adapt. Covering transplants does not always work and it is labor intensive. Learning to work with the seasons and natural methods ensures the needed time for a plentiful garden.

These are just a few of the vegetables and herbs that you might consider for your successive plantings:

Bush and Pole Beans - Purple, yellow and green. Beans can be planted at any time during the growing season, because most beans mature in approximately 65 days or less, depending upon weather conditions. They just cannot take a frost. Plant beginning of July for harvest at the end of August.

Beets And Carrots - All types of colors and sizes. Can plant at any time during growing season and can take more than an occasional frost. The Rainbow carrot blends are great for serving fresh or a nice visual for pickled carrots in jars. ‘Boldor’ yellow beets keep their color when cooked.

Broccoli - Grown from transplants. Plant beginning of August, in light shade so the plants won’t bolt. Broccoli will need to be watered on a daily basis so it will not wilt. A purple broccoli, ‘Purple Peacock’ and the heirloom ‘DiCiccio’ have performed well in our garden.

Cauliflower - Grown form transplants. Plant beginning of August in light shade. Water daily to keep the plants from wilting. ‘Snow Crown’ is a very dependable variety with a good yield.

Kohlrabi - Plant throughout the summer. We like to plant small amounts of kohlrabi because they do grow very quickly, approximately 40 days from transplant.

Peas - Any peas, Snow, Snap or Shelling do very well with successive planting. Planting peas late summer from transplants work well.

Pac Choi - We have planted this in early Spring and Fall. This oriental green prefers to be grown from seed and in cooler climates. We have even grown it is light shade. ‘Shiro’ is a variety that matures quickly and is perfect for succession seed planting.

Greens - Lettuces, spinach, Swiss chard and kale all do well in cooler weather. Depending on the variety they can be direct seeded or grown from transplants. We like to see the lettuce varieties in flats two weeks apart, then transplant to a small pot until they are at least three inches tall and then transplant. Interval planting ensures that we have a constant supply of lettuce. Planting in two week intervals also keeps the larger, established plants from over shadowing the smaller transplants. Plant lettuce in a partially shaded spot in the summer to prevent bolting. All these varieties can take a frost. There are quite a few varieties available. The colored varieties will definitely turn your garden into a work of art. Check your seed catalog for the many varieties of seasonal greens.

Basil - Basil is going to wear out as the growing season progresses. Basil can be grown in a container or the ground. Try one of the purple or unusual flavored varieties to make beautiful vinegar for your pantry or for a harvest gift. Plant basil transplants in mid June and you will have a steady supply of basil for salsas and sauces until frost. Leave a couple of plants from the first planting to go to flower. The bees will gladly visit your garden.

Plan ahead and order seeds or wait till the end of the season when the seeds go on sale. Keep your seed in a dry area till you are ready to plant them. Remember when growing from seed to include the germination time for later season successive plantings. Check with local greenhouses for availability of transplants, if you don’t have time to start them. There might be a minimum amount that has to be purchased. Just get some of your friends together to buy a flat. It will be well worth the effort.

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.



When we were gifted with a seed library in the summer of 2014 I was amazed at the amount and diversity of the collection. Since then we have been able to participate in two seed swaps and passed several  items into our community. Some of the seeds were collected or packaged several years ago so I will be testing their viability and, with some luck planting, growing and collecting fresh seed and plants to share.

The first attempt will be North American Mountain Arnica, collected in 1990

Arnica Montana has a long use a medicinal herb in salves and lotions. Recommended for bruises and sprains Arnica is very soothing and has anti inflammatory properties. In North America the part of the plant most often used are the flowers.

This perennial plant prefers moist, acidic soil and full sun. It spreads easily and will make an attractive mound of small, yellow, daisy like flowers.

Upon opening the packet I was amazed at the amount of seeds it contained! The seeds are small and resemble marigold and calendula seeds.


To check viability you do not need fancy equipment. Simply dampen a paper towel and gently place the seeds on  it. Put in a sealed sandwich bag, labeled with the name of the plant and date of the trial. If the towel seems to dry out dampen it again.

Some seeds prefer darkness while others need light to germinate so do a bit of research and plan accordingly. A shelf near the window or a dark desk drawer will work.

I placed 20 seeds on the damp towel. If 10 germinate we have a 50 percent viability. This will give some indication of how many seeds to plant.

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.


Tumbler composter

Having problems with your compost pile? Here are some common issues and tips for getting ‘em fixed and back on the road to beautiful black gold for the organic garden. What can be better than recycling all the nutrients from kitchen scraps right back into the garden to feed your next crops?

My Compost Pile Never Heats Up

Is it dry? Sprinkle some water over it.
Is it really wet and smelly? See bad smells below.
Is it really cold outside? For the tumbler types, put a hot water bottle or two in the heap to get it jump started. Next time you take out some compost, make sure to leave some behind.  Your finished compost has all the good microbes in it to keep the compost a comin’. In winter, it is good to have your composter out of the wind and where it can get good sun.

I Have Maggots!

Is it really wet? Add some “browns” like wood pellets, dried leaves, or sawdust and mix well to get your pile at the right moisture level. If it is cold outside, you can add a hot water bottle to get the heap cooking again.
Is the pile chilly? See above.

I Am Growing Mushrooms. Is This Okay?

Mushrooms are a natural occurrence. No need to worry.

I Have Big Lumps

Your scraps are too wet. Add “browns," break up the clumps, and mix well.

My Compost Pile Smells Like Ammonia. Phew!

The pH of your heap is too high. Add browns and mix well.

Compost pile

It Smells Like Something Is Dead In There

Scraps are too wet or there is too little “browns”. Add more “browns” and mix well.

It Smells Like Cheese or Acidy

Not enough air getting in to let the microbes do their thing. Can be caused by stuffing too much in your composter. Remove some material, add “browns” and mix well. If you are using the heap method, add browns and mix well.
Scraps are too wet. Add “browns” and mix well.
If a new batch of scraps, add some finished compost or compost starter and mix well.

How Can I Tell If My Compost Has the Right Moisture In It?

If you squeeze a handful together and it doesn’t stick, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and nasty liquid runs between your fingers, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and you can only wring out a few drops of liquid out, it is just right.

Electric, indoor composter

Browns are dried leaves, hay, straw, wood shavings, grains, crackers, corn chips, bread, wood pellets, sawdust or coir. Greens are the rest - manure, food scraps, fresh grass clippings, fresh plant trimmings, coffee grinds, meat, fish bones, cheese, eggs. For good nitrogen, if you don’t have manure, meats or coffee grinds, add another organic nitrogen source like blood meal.

If you are using wood pellets, you should have about 1 cup of pellets to 10 cups of food scraps. Sawdust or coir should be used in a ratio of 1 cup of coir to 3 cups of food scraps or other green materials.

For more on composters, see my earlier blog: Composting is possible in small spaces or even indoors.

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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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.