Organic Gardening

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

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Your Edible Landscape NaturallyAre you planning to put in an orchard next spring, or re-design your landscape with more edible plants? Robert Kouriks’ “Your Edible Landscape Naturally” will guide you through each step of the design process.

Make a Drawing

A good starting point in landscape design is to make a drawing of your landscape, including the hard-scape (buildings, paths, other structures, or the drain field) and existing plants; to scale would be the best. From this drawing you can figure out where your possible growing spaces are and how big they are. Also note where North and South are, areas shaded by structures or other plants and how long those areas receive direct sun (especially from July to September). It is also valuable to note any microclimate locations or other exceptions to what you generally find in your landscape. For example: spots that stay wet into or through the summer, or dry into or through the winter, or vice versa; spots that tend to be particularly hot in the summer or cold and windy in the winter, or vice versa; spots that are in shade year round or are always in full sun; or spots in which the soil is different from the rest of your land.

Do a pH and nutrient (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) test in various possible planting locations so you know what you are starting with. Remember to use distilled water for the test, tap or well water may affect the results.

Soil Type

Determine if you have sand, silt, or clay soil, and what kind of drainage you have. Moisten some soil and rub it between your fingers. If it feels very smooth and sticky, there is a lot of clay in your soil, if it feels gritty there is a lot of sand, in between would indicate a more silty soil. Dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water drains out right away you have fast drainage, if it takes more than a couple of hours your drainage is very slow.Keep in mind that the slope of the land does not affect drainage within the soil profile, only how well water drains off the surface. The goal is to have a good understanding of what you have.

Make a wish list of what you want to grow. Maybe you know of a specific named fruit variety, or perhaps you have a good idea of the type of fruit, harvest time, plant size, or foliage color you are interested in.

Once you have an idea of where you want them, you can prepare the ground for spring planting of fruit and berry plants now. Remove weeds, loosen soil, and mulch the surface with leaves or straw.

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Silverskin garlicOne of the most popular and appealing products at farmers markets and garlic festivals is the garlic braid. If you have ever tried to braid garlic, you are well aware that successful braids are achieved only by using softneck varieties. Although there is some argument whether Silverskin or Artichoke types are best, Silverskins seem to be the preferential choice. Some of the more common Silverskin cultivars found in braids include Nookta Rose, Rose du Var and Western Rose.


Silverskin garlic straddles the line between hardneck and softneck. As it requires only a short vernalization period, it is one of the few garlics that you can plant in the spring (rather than the usual time in the fall), and still receive good-sized bulbs at harvest. Silverskins can be grown in most climate conditions, however, if grown in southerly climates with mild winters, the cultivars will grow as softnecks. Those strains grown in colder, more northerly regions will often bolt, producing a scape and umbel or several large bulbils within the neck of the plant, just above the bulb. Any scapes produced will droop rather than curl.

The blue-green leaves of Silverskin garlic are narrow, tough and sturdy, hence their appeal for braiding. Those that do end up producing scapes won’t work nearly as well and should be substituted with plants of the Artichoke variety. Silverkskins are late-maturing, which is an added bonus if you are intending to braid, since you can get the rest of the harvest out of the way first!


All cultivars of the Silversking type will produce large, slightly flattened tear-shaped bulbs. Like Artichokes, they have multiple layers of cloves, with each layer segmented by a separate skin. Cloves, on average, number between 10 and 24, but may have more or less depending on the cultivar. The large number of cloves in each bulb subsequently influences the size and shape of the cloves, which will be small and slender in the center of the bulb, and become squatter and rounder as they radiate outwards. The clove skins are pale and range from white to tan, some with a delicate pink blush. The bulbs skins are white, and will sometimes be subtly striped with a warm bronze.Silverskin garlic


Silverskin cultivars tend to have a better flavor when they are cooked before being eaten. In their raw form they tend to have a very assertive, almost sulfuric taste. Cooking will temper this bitter flavor and the cloves will become more garlicky and nuttier in taste. Heat varies between cultivars, and can range from the mild to the very hot.

Due to the tight wrappers around the multiple layers of cloves, Silverskin garlic usually has an excellent storage life of six months to over a year, meaning you’ll still have plenty of gourmet garlic to enjoy long after your other varieties are gone!

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garden-2008-Ashland MarketI have finished the 10-Day Local Food Challenge and it has been an enjoyable experience. My transition to a local/homegrown diet began many years ago. Besides growing food for my family, in 1992 I began selling to two local restaurants. Lettuce was my biggest seller, but I also sold eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables. I had a small CSA in 1997 and 1998 and in 1999 helped start the Ashland Farmers Market. It is with the farmers markets that the public has an opportunity to meet local farmers and make further connections to buy in quantity or out of season, if possible. The Ashland Farmers Market requires that what is sold there be grown within a 35 mile radius of Ashland, Virginia and the person doing the selling must also be involved in the growing. 2001 was my last year to sell produce and eggs. I stepped away from the markets to focus my energy on teaching at the community college and on researching growing and eating a homegrown diet through my work to maintain certification as a GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-farming teacher through Ecology Action. By doing that, I was able to direct more knowledgeable consumers and producers to the markets.

As you can imagine, my experience with the 10-Day Challenge would be vastly different than someone who has a very small garden, if any, and depends on the marketplace for their food. You can find out what I ate during the challenge at Homeplace Earth. I can remember a time when eating locally and organically meant that the food had to come from our own farm or I had to know someone personally to buy it from. There were some local farm stands around and one farmers market in Richmond, Virginia, but the food wasn’t organic and maybe it wasn’t even grown by the person doing the selling. Sometimes the vendors would buy boxes of produce from elsewhere to resell. This 10-Day Challenge didn’t specify organic, but that’s what I look for, whether it is certified or not.

Things certainly have changed. The Ashland Farmers Market is only four miles from my home and has expanded its offerings since its humble beginnings in 1999. Even with the strict guidelines of what is to be sold and who can sell it, the market continues to grow. This is the first place I go to purchase food to supplement what we grow in our garden. Consumers know they will find food there and the person behind the counter can answer their questions as to the origin, variety, etc. It is a much different experience than walking into a “farmers market” to find that it more resembles a craft show or a bake sale than something having to do with farmers.

Farmers markets and other venues offering locally grown food have been popping up everywhere in this new century. More restaurants have locally grown food on their menus and more grocery stores are stocking it. It took a lot over the years to make that happen. Now that is a reality, we need to fine-tune what is being offered. What is missing from your diet that you can’t find at the market, but could be locally grown? By my last year of growing for the markets I started to focus more on potatoes, winter squash, onions, and garlic. I could see that they were necessary to fill out a diet. There was plenty of lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers available.

If I was still selling I would also be sure to offer cabbage and other vegetables with the directions to ferment them, along with information about the health benefits of sauerkraut and kimchi. As a grower, you can make changes in the markets by what you offer and where you choose to sell. As a consumer, you can bring changes by what you buy and by making reasonable requests. Our food systems are evolving. We still have a way to go, but if you take a look back, we’ve come pretty far already. Embrace these changing times and take on a local food challenge of your own!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at

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Savory in foreground, thyme on left, edible day lilies in background

You can make your own teas from common herbs growing in your garden or to spice up store bought teas. A few common herbs you may have growing in your garden for your own home grown tea-bergamot, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, sage, stevia for sweetening, thyme. (Left image: Savory in foreground, thyme on left, edible day lilies in background.)

Bergamot, or bee balm, has a scent reminiscent of Italian bergamot orange. You can dry or use fresh, steeped for 10 minutes by itself or add to store bought black tea to give it the same type of flavor as Earl Gray tea. Bergamot was used as a tea substitute in the colonies after the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Its flowers are also a great bee attractor and come in white or numerous shades of red and purple. Native Americans used it as spice for fowl and medicinally for its antiseptic properties, headaches, fever, and upset tummies. Bergamot is of the mint family so can be aggressive in the garden. M. didyma contains the highest concentration of oil.

Chamomile is used in potpourri for its scent, in supplements, tonics and teas for its calming properties, in facial steams/hand soaks to soften and whiten skin. Use the flowers fresh or dried for tea.

Lavender leaves or flowers can lend a floral note to teas. Lavender tea is used to sooth nerves, headaches, and dizziness. Its use as a potpourri is legendary. It is also great to put in closets to not only provide great scent, but also protect clothes from moths. It is also used as an antiseptic tonic for acne or to speed facial cell renewal. Lavender is also a typical ingredient in Herbes de Provence.Lavender plant

You can also make a syrup from lavender to add to desserts, adult beverages, homemade sodas, and teas. Boil 6 stalks of lavender in 2 cups of water and 1-1/2 cup of sugar at a simmer for 15 minutes. Let sit in refrigerator overnight, strain into bottle and keep refrigerated.

Mint comes in many flavors-grapefruit, pear, pineapple, lemon, lime, and orange. There is even a chocolate mint! Mint will take over a garden if left to its own devices. Either put a ring around it at least 3 inches deep to keep it from spreading underground, cull runners frequently or put in a pot. Mint loses much of its flavor when dried so fresh is your best bet. Bees love mint flowers!

Other herbs that impart a citrus note are pineapple sage, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and lemon grass. Pineapple sage is used for depression and anxiety, to aid digestion, and is antiseptic and anti-fungal. Lemon balm tea is commonly used for cold relief and to relieve tension and depression. Fresh leaves have the best flavor. Lemon verbena is also used for cold relief, upset stomach, and is mildly sedative. It is a wonderful addition to potpourri and is grown as an annual. Lemon grass is a tropical plant which any part of the stem can be used as a tea. It is considered revitalizing and antiseptic.

I have not found a rosemary that survives the winter here in our Zone 6, but I keep trying. ARP and Barbeque are two types that are rated down to Zone 5 that I am growing this year. I am going to add some extra straw cover in early winter to give them more protection. I just love the scent of this herb and as an addition for cooking. Rosemary is thought to aid in digestion and joint pain. Use fresh or dried.

Thyme is thought to be beneficial for hangovers, digestion, coughs and colds, along with being one of the staple culinary herbs. Teas can be made with fresh or dried leaves. English wild thyme is the strongest for medicinal qualities, but any can be used. Thyme also comes in lemon, lime, and orange as well.

Multicolor sage plant

You can also add a fruit to your tea for a new twist. A neighbor recently shared that she had some blackberry sage tea that was heavenly. You can easily make this yourself! Use dried sage (left image) and either fresh or thawed frozen berries. Simply crush the berries for a teaspoon of juice and add to your steeping sage tea. Yum!

The only limits to homemade tea from homegrown ingredients is your imagination! Herbs have so many healthful properties. It just makes great sense to take advantage of their benefits and taste in warming teas. A beautiful finishing touch would be to add edible flowers or a sprig of the herb as a garnish.

Stevia is a recent arrival to the US herb scene, but has come on strong in popularity. It is a super sweet, super antioxidant, with zero carbs, and zero calories. Stevia is native to tropical regions; it is well suited to container growing. The trick with stevia is a little goes a long way. Add too much and it goes from sweet tasting to bitter.

If you want real tea, you can grow tea plants in pots. They are easy to grow. Otherwise, there are great herbal options!

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

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



The ripening time of a particular fruit varies from one location to another and from year to year, though the order in which varieties ripen stays roughly the same.

In this first part of our three-part series on fruit processing, we’ll focus on figs, sea berries, shipova and cornus mas. Part two will talk about aronia, grapes, kiwi, nuts and paw paw. Part three will be about apples and pears.


Figs Aren’t Just for Cookies

Figs are ready when the fruit fully droops from its own weight and is soft. The breba crop (over-wintering crop) typically ripens in August. In September the alpha (spring initiating) crop starts expanding and ripens in areas with hot summers, in October or November.

In the Pacific Northwest, our cool fall temperatures prevent the fruit from maturing. If this is your experience, you may be able to hasten the ripening in the fall, and pick that second crop, by applying a bloom fertilizer when the fruits are about nickel size late August or early September.

Bloom fertilizers are high in phosphorous, which supports growth of the reproductive parts of the plant. A fig fruit is an ovary, and the bloom fertilizer encourages it to start and keep expanding. Use a water soluble fertilizer, so the phosphorous is immediately available. Desert King is particularly rich tasting if you wait until the skin takes on a brown gnarly look.

Sea Berries Make Great Jelly and Syrup

sea berries

Sea Berries are ready to harvest when the fruit starts to soften and you no longer taste the astringency. The ripe fruit will have a combination of sweetness and acidity.

The fruit can be harvested by cutting whole branches and then working the fruit off the branches into a bowl. Or pick the fruits from the plant if your bush is young.

Use the juice to make jellies, syrups, or to mix with other juices. The raw fruit and juice are not recommended for fresh consumption in large quantity, as the high vitamin C content can cause nausea.

Dry or Can Shipova for Best Results

Shipova, a natural cross between European pear and mountain ash, benefit from being harvested before they are fully ripe, similar to the pear. Look for color change in the portion of the fruit facing away from the sun, from green to yellow. Cut a few fruit open, and check to see that the seeds are mature, deep brown or black. Shipova have a pear flavor when fully ripe, high sugar content, and firm flesh. They dry very well, and can also be canned.


Cornus Mas: Sweet Berries Are Best for Cooking

Cornus mas are ripe when the fruits readily drop from the tree or are soft and no longer astringent. Yellow fruited cornus mas will be translucent and incredibly sweet when ready to eat.

The fruit tends to ripen unevenly, so check your bush regularly to harvest them fully ripe. Laying a ground cloth down and shaking the bush to loosen the ready fruit can work. Or harvest the berries at the firm ripe stage when they have turned from orange to red (or from white to yellow in the case of the yellow fruited), but are still firm; they will finish ripening off the bush at room temperature.

Process berries that are soft when harvested right away—they don’t store well. The red varieties vary in flavor, and are usually preferred for cooking, rather than fresh eating.
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tomatoesApples, tomatoes and potatoes, Oh My!  How is it October?  Where did summer go? I honestly felt very busy and productive during the season of making hay while the sun shines. Yet here we are, beautiful comforting slowing Fall. In our area of North Central Idaho the leaves are turning, the days golden, and the nights comfortably star filled.

After our late September county fair, I annually feel we are on the work of living downhill slide. Peaches line the pantry shelves and my blackberry abused fingers begin to heal. Applesauce simmers scenting the weekends with cinnamon. This is our first full calendar year on our homestead, and I am realizing that October is not for rest.

Our six discovered homestead apple trees are bursting with yellow and fluorescent red globes of free sustenance. The wild turkeys meander daily across the yard. A third of the potatoes are stored in a garbage can between layers of newspaper, the remaining rows still upright and green with life. I have spinach sprouting in my birthday gift cold frame (rough cut timber and a re-purposed double pane sliding glass door.) The tomatoes are ripening for dear life in face of the cold nights, 15 pounds last weekend alone. 12 gallons of wild blackberries stacked like antioxidant bricks in the deep freeze.apples

My weekly list includes apple and pear picking forays to now wild trees around the county, my apple hoard now 6 large boxes. I have wanted a cider press for years, searching classifieds and yard sales alike. Thanks to social media and good fortune, friends from Peck, Idaho offered their turn of the century model free for the taking. The Elsbury family was kind enough to let us drag the behemoth out of their hayloft where the press and cast iron grinder was placed by tractor five years ago. They felt the press was akin to a quilt, meant to be used.

So the apple picking race is on, there isn't a tree within 30 miles safe from my cider desires. Armed with Jenna Woginrich's hard cider recipe and bees still churning out honey, Apple Jack is imminent. I can't say I don't have moments where the list seems too long and it's contents too perishable to be possible. But ten feet up in an apple tree with audible wing strokes as a hawk flies above on a fine October Sunday soothes my urgency, and reminds me that the gift of this life, of this sustenance making journey, is as sweet as Fall cider.

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


Egyptian walking onion in a pot

In America, there are wild Alliums known as wild garlic or ramps. The onions we cultivate in our gardens today likely originated from a wild Asian onion, but has been grown so long, the road back to the original is lost. Two thousand years ago, there were many varieties that we would recognize today. There were round onions, white onions, red onions, flat onions, long onions, keeper onions, sweet onions, spicy onions. Onions have been important for their perceived health benefits in times gone past and proven health benefits today as well as the fabulous taste they add to an array of dishes.

Onions are easy to grow, have little to no pest problems and are a perennial to boot! Onions have shallow roots, like to be moist, but can’t stand being waterlogged. You should enrich the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. As common sense would tell us, they also like loose soil. Organic matter helps this along. Onions can be grown in the ground or in pots. My perennial Egyptian walking onion has been growing in its pot for 8 years.

In the Midwest, seeds can be started indoors in early February and transplanted outdoors in March. Transplanting should be done 4-6 weeks before the last spring freeze for spring planting. Since onions are perennials you can also plant in the fall, October for our Zone 6/7 garden. For multiplier type onions or Egyptian walking onions, fall planting will provide a bigger harvest next spring and summer.

The more popular method of starting onions is planting “sets.”  Young onions that are put out in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked, just as the daffodils begin to fade. Bulbing onion in flower

You can place them close together and pull for scallions until the bulbing onions are 5-6 inches apart. As the bulb reaches full size, you can pull the soil away from the top of the onion to help the bulb and neck cure for harvest.

You can also plant the bottoms of store bought onions. If you get enough of the bottom, the onion will take root and give you an onion next season.

Onions tell you when they are ready to harvest, when half of their tops fall over. What can be easier than that? Like garlic, they should be lifted rather than pulled from the ground and leave them in shade for about a week to harden. I use a trowel to dig under the bulb and pop them out. You don’t want to nick them or they will not store well. If you do, keep them in the fridge and use them first.

So, how do you choose which onions to plant? The best bet is to talk to your local nursery to see which grow the best in your area for the ones that thrive in your climate.

Bulbing Onions

There are 3 types of bulbing onions: short day, intermediate day, and long day onions. Intermediate and long day varieties have been around for a long time. Short day onions are relatively newcomers. Onions are sensitive to daylight hours. They start forming bulbs when daylight hours hit a minimum. For long day onions, it is 15 hours. For intermediate, it is 12-13 hours. Short day onions are 9 to 10 hours.

I would have thought long day onions would be for further south, but this is wrong. The north gets the really long summer days (think of Alaska in June with no darkness). Long day onions should be planted in states north of the Oklahoma/Kansas border (approximately 36 degrees latitude). Long day onions are planted in states in the northern part of the US. Intermediate in the middle and short in the South. Short day onions are planted in the fall and form bulbs in the spring. Intermediate and long day onions are typically planted in the spring as sets, not seeds. Seeds require sprouting indoors and transplanting. So, if you want a sweet onion and live in the Midwest, Vidalias are not the best bet since it is a short day type. A better choice is a Walla Walla or a Sweet Spanish.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, like wine, onions pick up the terroir they are grown in. You can grow the exact same onion as you buy in the store or at a farmers market but have a different taste because of the differences in your soil.

There are many fun onions to grow besides the round ones. There are the flat disk like Borrettana Cipollini or the Red Baron onion that is a red scallion type onion. Of course, there is the onion made famous in French cooking, the shallot-French, Gray or Sante are well known varieties. Then, there are onions for keeping over the winter like Rossa Di Milano, Early Yellow Globe, Sweet Sandwich, and Granex Yellow.

Onions will also keep over another year. When onions I planted last spring did not get to decent size, I left them over the winter. They gave nice bulbs in the summer.

Another type of onion is the Egyptian walking onion. It is a perennial that you can pull year round. They do not form bulbs. They are about the size of a large scallion or leek, getting an inch or two wide and 3” long bulb. They also grow great in a pot. When they get their bulblets, they remind me of Medusa. Really cool.  You just snap off the bulblets and plant them for more onions next year.  They also multiply underground year after year. They are one of my must haves in the garden since they can be harvested year round. Their bulb is great as a cooking onion and their greens as a chive.

Onions are a great addition to the garden. They are perennials, easy to grow and have little to no pest problems. I really like the perennial type onions, the Egyptian walking onions and multiplier onions like potato onions. The Egyptian you can just leave in place and harvest from year round. The multiplier potato onion has a very long shelf life indoors for a storage onion. When you harvest it, just leave behind the smaller onions and they will multiply again for next year’s harvest.

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

Photos: top, Egyptian walking onion; middle, bulbing onion.

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

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