Organic Gardening

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

Add to My MSN


firs and clouds 

Here in the Willamette Valley, the entire planet balances on the point of fir trees for the two weeks around the Winter Solstice. The sun rises a little before 8 a.m. and is down again by 4:15 p.m. It often does not even appear, but remains buried in layers of cloud and fog. The world is dark and dank. Nothing moves.

The gardens are all asleep, tucked up under piles of leaves and cold frames. A few hardy collard and kale plants provide greens; the parsnips, leeks, and beets wait for harvest; the garlic and overwintering onions put down deep roots. A few cabbages loiter in the fields, waiting to be harvested for coleslaw and gratins. Nothing grows. There is not enough light. One or two garden catalogs appear in the mail, but I tuck them away for the seed orgy of New Year’s Day. Trees do not need to be prune. All of the possible repairs and changes have been made for the season. The gardens pause and balance, waiting for the light.

The pantry is full. All of the summer fruits have been canned or dried or jammed; the storage onions and squashes are in the larder; wheat and oatmeal fill the metal tins. Eating is good in December. Even if the leafy greens are nipped back by a heavy frost, there is a wide variety of food for dinner. Meal planning is quick; I do not have to discover four dinners around mustard greens and old potatoes. We buy little treats for the holidays — fruitcakes and cookies, long-distance cheeses and spreads. We revel in the variety of food the earth has provided, and spend long winter nights by the fire, waiting for the warmth to return to our northern world.

The woods and fields are quiet. With no long project lists hanging over us, we head for the hills that surround us. The woodland juncos and the field robins have moved into town for the winter and poke around in the back yard, looking for lunch. Douglas firs stand tall against the clouds when we walk the old logging roads. The swamp maple and alder leaves tangle in the blackberry vines in the valleys. For a few weeks, the only thing that grows is the moss on the trees. We watch for the blooming hazelnut catkins, the first food for the bees in the backyard.

Our world turns inward for a few weeks. We pause — the gardens, our lives, the woods and farmlands that surround our home. Nothing will grow until the sun tips and turns back towards us. And so, we wait.        

Check out Julia's blog to read more about the Twenty First Street Homestead. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to her website,, 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. 



Today I'm sharing stories about the successes and failures of this growing season. Sorry that it's been so long since I posted. I allowed a slow personal economy and a series of family troubles to distract me from writing.

Vigorous Carrots and Parsnips

In Racing the Weeds I suggested that it would be nice to select among the carrots and parsnips for seedlings that grow vigorously so that they can out-compete the weeds. I am content to say that was a stunning success this growing season! A patch of carrots was grown without weeding or thinning. They didn't grow as big or produce as abundantly as the patch that was weeded and thinned only one time, but both patches produced food for the table and roots to be grown for seed next year. The parsnips were also grown without weeding. They are still in the ground. The smaller plants can be culled in the spring before the patch flowers. The surviving carrots and parsnips have shown that they can handle the weeds. The photo of a recently weeded carrot row shows the huge differences in growth that can exist between strains. I don't see the value in keeping the slow growing plants. They would continue to grow slowly for the entire growing season.

Selecting carrots for vigor

Skunks Attack Corn!

Skunks ate 2-3/4 patches of sweet corn. My corn varieties were developed in fields that are not bothered by skunks, so when planted into a new field they were decimated by a new pest. No worries. A quarter of the plants in one variety passed the survival-of-the-fittest test and overcame the skunk predation. They had stronger stalks, or higher cobs, or other traits that kept them from being eaten. I'll replant the survivors into the same field next year with the goal of developing a skunk-proof, or at least skunk-resistant, sweet corn.

Tomatoes Getting Frisky

Open tomato flower

Great progress was made on the project to develop Promiscuously Pollinated Tomatoes. A number of varieties were identified that have loose or open flowers. The shorter season specimens were combined into a new grex. Then F1 hybrids were created between them and my earliest tomato. The hybrids are currently growing indoors under lights in hopes that they'll produce F2 seed to plant in the spring. The second generation after a cross is the most exciting. That is where the most diversity shows up.

Melons & Squash vs. the Rain

Mixta Squash

We had unusually long and repeated monsoonal rains this summer. The muskmelons and watermelons suffered. Ripening was delayed. Plenty of muskmelons were left in the field – or turned into wine – because they popped from absorbing too much water. There was mildew on the squash leaves! Out here in the desert we mostly forget that mildew even exists. Nevertheless, the squash produced abundantly, including about 9 different types of mixta squash. The total harvest of mixta squash in the previous 5 years of trying was one fruit. I am really looking forward to growing the mixta squash next year.

Named the Beans

This year the dry bean landrace was well enough adapted to my garden and way of doing things that it was given a name. It is consistently performing very well these days and not changing much, it seemed like it was time for a name. We watch for naturally occurring bean hybrids. They get trialed for a year or two. The best get added to the landrace. The rest get eaten. The new additions are about 10 percent or less per year.

Grew Some Trees

To continue the Fruit and Nut Trees From Seed Project, a few hundred hazelnut seeds were planted. About a dozen plants survived without being weeded. A half dozen pecan trees were grown from seed. Some of the more promising walnuts were identified for transplant into a slightly colder micro-climate. Scions from feral fruit and nut trees and friends yard's were grafted into existing trees. My grafting skills could definitely use some refinement.

Sunroots Get Award for Most Improved

The sunroot landrace showed remarkable improvement this growing season. Last year the feral sunroots were crossed with a commercial clone. The seeds were replanted. About 40 percent of them grew vigorously and survived the growing conditions and the farmers. Half of the plants were not agronomically pleasing and were culled. The others produced vigorous plants with pretty, easy to harvest tubers, and high productivity. They have been replanted into a seed-production and trail bed.

Steady As She Goes for Potatoes and Popcorn

The potatoes and popcorn continue on each year with a little bit of refinement here and there. A few nice cultivars among the potato seedlings were added to next year's seed crop. The popcorn is refined each year for better popping ability, easier shelling, and taste that is more pleasing to me. Popcorn hybrids were made to add more colors and more carotenes. I figure that more colors equals higher nutrition. Slow and steady is the working meme for these crops.

New Garlic Varieties

The project to produce true pollinated garlic seeds, and thus new varieties of garlic, produced 26 pollinated garlic seeds, and 9 new varieties of garlic. I'm intending to post on that topic this winter.

Other New Crops

In order to assure Food Security Through Biodiversity, work continued on adapting new species to our growing conditions. I felt inspired by William Woys Weaver's blog post so I grew and ate dahlias this summer. They need some work, but there's lots of potential there. Respectable amounts of favas and garbanzos were harvested. I've only been working with them one or two years, so they are still in a rough draft stage. This was the third year of working on an okra landrace. The first year the plants grew to just above my ankle and 99 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test by not producing seed. The second year a few plants reached knee high and only 95 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test. One of the plants survived the first fall frosts. This year one of the survival-of-the-fittest tests was performed in the greenhouse by selecting for vigorous growth of seedlings. About 80 percent of the seeds were culled before setting out. This year one of the successful plants grew taller than the farmer, and there was an abundant enough harvest to share okra at the farmer's market. Some of the plants were still producing food when I tilled them under 52 days after the start of our fall frosty season. The third year of a landrace development project often seems magical to me. Frost tolerant okra grown in my cold mountain valley? How clever.


In spite of the complete neglect that some crops suffered, they nevertheless provided food for my people. They produced offspring that seem very capable of providing food next time there are economic or family problems. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

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.


Allow me to point out the obvious: to save seeds you first have to remove them from whatever vegetable, fruit, flower or herb you want to save. But how you effectively and efficiently remove seed isn’t always obvious. Or easy. Sometimes you have to get a bit creative. Eggplant is a perfect example.

Removing seed from eggplant is not an easy thing to do by hand, not like peppers or tomatoes. The seeds are tiny and imbedded in the thick flesh. Could you do it manually? Sure. Is a mechanical process better for efficiency and sanity? Oh yes. As long as it doesn’t damage the seed in the process.

This is the key consideration when harvesting any type of seed. You just have to pay attention when getting creative.

Seeds can be incredibly durable when mature. This is actually one way we tell the difference between mature and immature seeds with eggplants. Mature eggplant seed is rock hard when pinched between two fingernails; immature seed is soft, dents easily, and often pops like a little zit.

But mature dry beans are incredibly durable, too. And it required a bit of trial and error to keep them from getting cracked and damaged when threshing with the wood chipper. (Yup, threshing with a wood chipper.) One batch of Orcas went through beautifully. But the next batch of the very same bean got beat up really bad; we had to adjust the chipper in terms of speed and time-in-the-flails to minimize the damage.

Our solution for getting the seed out of the eggplants was a little hand-cranked food mill. Absolutely nothing fancy. And absolutely nothing originally designed for harvesting seeds. It took a fair bit of jiggering to figure out the best way to use the thing but once we had a system down, it made short work of the eggplant. No damage at all to the seeds. The resulting heap of eggplant pulp was dumped in a bucket of water, letting the mature seed sink and pouring off the rest. Just like with peppers and tomatoes.

The hand-cranked food mill is one of many creative solutions we’ve used to efficiently extract seed. And just one more example of the cool stuff we get to do on a small seed farm.

You can see videos of our seed extraction solutions – including the wood chipper as thresher – by visiting the original post at Boonie Adjacent.

Matt Kelly currently works with Fruition Seeds helping to sow, grow, harvest, pack and sell seed that is open pollinated, organically grown, and regionally adapted. He is a writer living in the Finger Lakes of New York, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He writes regularly at Boonie Adjacent.

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.


Soil is a major component of the Earth's ecosystem, and without it we simply would not exist!

A newly acquired garden or an over-spent allotment can have poor-quality soil, making it more difficult to manage and use. Leading to potential problems for those wishing to grow a lush green lawn or plant some daffodils, crocus or hyacinth bulbs in the spring.

It’s not as difficult as you think to restore the soil to make it productive again.

Clear the Area

Cutting bushes and small trees back to the fence line is the first job on the list. It is vital that you don’t give the bushes and plants the chance to grow accustom with the soil. Each bush and tree is part of the cycle and prepares the soil for the next stage – stopping this happening will ensure the soil keep holds of all its goodness.

Shears should work fine on most bushes and shrubs, cut small growth straight across and as close to the ground as possible. For more stubborn branches, roots or trees either pull them out of the ground or hire/borrow a chain-saw, other standard gardening tools can assist you should you get into difficulty.

Rocks can hinder grow and mowing so it’s best to walk around your area and remove the larger visible stones from the area. Larger rocks might need more than just human strength to be removed so if you find large rocks pull out the spade and get digging.

Green Manure

Manure crops should be planted where you want your garden to be, even if you don’t plan on using your area for food, planting manure crops helps stimulate the soil making it easier for grass, food and plants to grow.

Some of the best Green Manures for all year round are rye, cowpeas, mustard, oats, alfalfa, clover, winter peas, and timothy. These return nitrogen to the soil along with organic material, and are a good choice for long-term soil development.

You must allow at least two to three weeks between ploughing under and planting. Green manure decays after being ploughed under; it returns to the soil all the nutrients it used while growing, adding vital organic matter, so all types of soil, from sand to clay, respond positively to this treatment.

Unfortunately this isn't a one-time project for those of you with a vast amount of clay or sand in your soil. You must continue with this process to ensure the decaying process continues. For the most toughest of soils it can take up to five years to prime!

By reclaiming your soil you should be able to grow anything in less than optimum conditions. Even for those growing foods, strong soil can produce quality produce!

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.


 Messy Compost Pile

Tired of tumblers, piles and turning? Composting doesn't have to be hard. It doesn't require any infrastructure. It's a simple, natural recycling method. If you hate rules and ratios... this post is for you.Easy composting only has two steps.

Ready? Let's compost!

Step 1: Find Some Organic Matter

An avocado skin? Great. Moldy baked beans? Wonderful. Old bills and non-glossy junk mail? Sure. Eggshells, tea bags, cardboard, citrus peels? Yep. It makes sense to keep a small trash can with a tight lid in my kitchen. Anything compostable goes in there. But kitchen scraps aren't everything: there's a pile of ways you can grab more materials to compost. For instance, when you’re pruning trees or dealing with fallen oak limbs in the yard, don’t drag them to the side of the road for disposal or burn them in a pile.

If you have a picnic in the yard with the children, use uncoated paper plates. Then save them… along with whatever uneaten food the toddler leaves behind. If you feel like working a little harder to gather organic matter, you’ll find opportunities everywhere. When you have a potluck dinner at church, help clean up at the end and throw all the napkins and food scraps into one container you can then take home. Check with your local coffee shop and see if you can pick up grounds from them. See if you can get boxes of expired produce from your local grocery store or farm stand. Gather cardboard from alleyways.

Ask your local feed store if you can sweep up the straw and alfalfa that falls to the ground from their bales. (I’ve gathered a lot of material this way.) Ask your neighbors to dump their yard waste at your place. Collect shredded documents from work. Pick up bags of leaves by the side of the road in fall. Ask local tree companies if they’ll drop their fresh-chipped “waste” in your yard.

If you want maximum fertility on your little piece of the earth, collect everything organic you can find. All the time. And then, my anarchist friend, move on to step 2.

Step 2: Throw It On The Ground

Once a week or more, take your kitchen-scrap trash can to a place that needs fertility, then dump it. Do the same with your yard waste, dragging it to wherever the soil looks a bit sad and throwing it on the ground.

What’s this look like in practice?

Well, fruit trees and shrubs need fertilizing, right? Normally you’d give them a hit of chemical fertilizer now and again through the year. Instead of doing that, just drop organic matter on the ground around them. Pretend the tree’s root zone is a big, rough compost pile. Chop up some sticks, throw down some paper plates, spatter rotten salad greens, throw some spoiled fruit… it’s easy and fun. You can also put hunks of logs near the bases of your trees and along the edge of pathways and gardens to act as bunkers for fungi and other beneficial organisms.

Don’t worry about making everything neat and tidy – nature doesn’t! If it really bothers you to have things looking a bit rough for a while, keep a little pile of mulch on hand. When you dump coffee filters or office papers and other ugly debris, cover it with mulch so it can decompose without offending your eyes (or the eyes of the fascists at Code Enforcement.)

If you'd like compost to end up in your vegetable garden, just dig a trench and bury it or throw organic matter on a bed you'll be using next year. I did that with a couple of my beds and it worked great. The next year you just rake the non-decomposed material off the top and plant. 

Compost bed

Organic matter and the soil: that's all it takes to make easy compost. Sure... it's messy. But so is dear Mother Nature.

Where was I? Ah yes. Easy composting. The anarchist "method" of composting works, it's simple, and it's natural. Now get out there and start chucking stuff on the ground!

David Goodman is an avid naturalist, gardener, writer and teacher as well as being the creator of, a daily gardening site. Want the most food for the least work? Then click the link and start reading - and for more seriously crazy composting and off-grid gardening tips, grab a copy David's survival gardening audiobook, Survival Gardening Secrets.

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.


Threshing Carrot Seeds

Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, newly formed in 2014, held a six-day Seed School at Onsen Farm in Buhl, Idaho the first week of November. I attended as both a student and as a presenter on seed libraries. While we talked about seed libraries, Neil Thapar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center joined us through Skype to give an update on what is happening between seed libraries and state departments of agriculture that want to regulate them as they would seed companies. The seed library movement wants to be proactive on this front and he is working on wording for potential legislation that would clearly separate seed libraries from the state and federal seed laws.

Much happened during the week. What I don’t cover here you can find at Homeplace Earth. We had some hands-on seed threshing and I was happy that Casey O’Leary of Earthly Delights Farm had brought carrot seeds for us to thresh and winnow. I had some carrot seed to thresh back home and was wondering about the best way to do it. Casey had a lot more seed heads than I did and you can see in the photo that we used the stomping-the-seed-heads-in-a-tub method. I’ll put mine in a crock and use my sauerkraut stomper for that job, or I could just rub the seed heads between my hands. Once threshed, carrot seed needs to be separated from all the chaff that accompanies it. It is amazing how much you can clean it up using screens of various sizes. Winnowing in front of a fan helps finish the job. When first threshed, carrot seeds appear to be surrounded by little hairs. Abrasion, such as rubbing it with your hands or putting it into a container with rubber balls and shaking it, will remove that. We rubbed some with our hands, but not extensively, and I see that the carrot seeds that I gleaned from that project are relatively smooth. For home use, you don’t have to worry about that extra step. If you were selling seeds or putting them through a seeder, it might be a consideration.

Although there was plenty of time in the classroom, we were outside another day to harvest Glass Gem corn grown by neighbor Wayne Marshall. It was interesting to see the variety of colors that showed up on those ears. We were not very efficient pickers, but we had a lot of fun. It is rather slow going when you take the time to strip off each husk to admire what you’ve found. Wayne also has a blue flour corn project going on and we enjoyed seeing the genetic diversity he had in those ears. Genetics, selection, and breeding were among the topics discussed in the classroom.

Saving seeds is something anyone can do. You can be as exact as you want to avoid cross pollination, or you can let things cross just to see what happens or to seriously work with the resulting diversity to breed something unique to your garden. Through Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Bill McDorman and Belle Starr teach one-day and six-day versions of Seed School and in 2015 they will be embarking on a teacher training program. If you aren’t already, I hope you become a seed saver. Learn all you can wherever you can and share what you know with others.

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

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.


If you think it's important to prevent Monsanto and other corporate giants from controlling the seed supply, you may want to consider donating to Organic Seed Alliance. Here is a short video about the work they do.

Organic Seed Alliance is a 501 (c)(3) that advances the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. We believe seed is part of our common cultural heritage – a living, natural resource that demands careful management to meet food needs now and into the future. We accomplish our mission through research, education, and advocacy.

The seed industry has quickly consolidated. Intellectual property practices (e.g., patents on seed) stand out as the leading cause, where much of our commercial seed is now owned and managed in the hands of a few transnational firms. This control has stifled innovation in plant breeding, and creates barriers to improving the availability, quality, and integrity of organic seed.

OSA works to address consolidation through regional seed networks that result in transformative change at the national level. Our collaborative research emphasizes diversity, ecology, and shared benefits. Our education builds the base of knowledge necessary for stewarding seed and enhancing diversity through on-farm innovation. And our advocacy promotes the benefits of organic seed while simultaneously confronting threats.

Today, OSA has a ten-year track record that establishes itself as the leading organic seed institution in the U.S. Each year we educate thousands of farmers and other agricultural community members, conduct professional organic plant breeding and seed production research, and advocate for national policies that strengthen organic seed systems.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

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.