Organic Gardening

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

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My wife and I took some risks moving down to Klamath Falls, Oregon, from Olympia, Washington, but no change comes with absolute certainty and thus every decision means some degree of risk. We wanted to be near the 20 acres of land we bought for our homestead last year. The first tangible piece of our dream. We came here to be away from the traffic, the noise and pollution, to get back to nature and to be together with our brother and sister-in-law to create the “it takes a village to raise a child” scene we wanted around when we begin our own family. First things first though and we needed to start somewhere, what better way than in the garden.


Planning the New Garden

In moving into my brother-in-law's house in Klamath Falls until our home is constructed, our big dreams of big gardens needed to get reined in a bit. Not only is there lots of landscaping to do first being that most of the lot is overgrown juniper bushes, but it is a totally different climate. We went from one of the rainiest parts of the country to one in a level 3 drought. We went from sea level to 4,000 feet in elevation.

Lots of different approaches will need to be tried (and most likely failed) before we get it right. And one way to do it is to start is small. They say you can yield more from a smaller and properly managed garden than a big one that is overwhelming and mostly neglected. You can always add more growing space as time goes on.

I decided on a bed that was five feet by about eighteen feet. Big enough to grow some crops but small enough to incorporate a hoop tunnel. In deciding whether to do raised beds or dig into the dirt, I thought about the pros and cons of both. The raised bed is good for drainage which worked great in a rainy climate, but now I’m in a drier one. On top of that the more exposed the soil is to the elements (i.e. the sides of the raised bed) the more susceptible it is to temperature changes. In high desert Klamath Falls you can go from mid-70s to below zero and back again daily. With these thoughts in mind I decided to dig into the dirt for my bed.

The Deep Bed Method

The depth of the bed is important in many ways. The closer the roots are near the surface, the more exposed to the elements they are. If you have intense heat and a dry climate, even for short periods, the top few inches of soil can be a devastatingly harsh place to live. Constantly getting dried out and over-heated followed by heavy watering can be stressful on roots. And what’s bad for the roots is bad for the plants health. Mediterranean plants are more drought tolerant after established not necessarily just because they need less water, but because their roots had had time to delve deep into the soil where water is found.

The other benefit of a ‘deep bed’, according to John Seymour in his book The Self-Sufficient Gardener, is that you can plant crops closer together given that the roots have more room to search for nutrients deeper in the soil rather than spreading out horizontally. The Chinese and French also learned that deep beds enabled you to grow more crops in little space which was what was needed when trying to sustain their growing population back in the nineteenth century. John Seymour had heard claims that this method consistently yielded four times the amount compared to conventional gardening and spent five weeks searching every example of it in California. He found the figure to be pretty accurate.

I didn’t follow his method exactly but I took it as inspiration. The soil I am working in is extremely hard compacted clay. I dug out 12 inches and loosened the subsoil even further. This would allow better drainage and pockets of air for soil respiration, and tunnels for soil life to crawl around in. The 12 inches I had dug out would be filled not with the big clay dirt clods, but by another practice called ‘sheet mulching’.

Building Soil on a Budget

I first heard about sheet mulching from Permaculture. This is a fast soil building method that is very forgiving and very effective though to be honest, it’s basically just composting in place. You layer soil amendments, manure or some other high nitrogen material, and bulk mulch material. Each layer you add on you soak thoroughly since decomposition needs water as well as air to get the job done. 

I wanted to incorporate a mini-hugelkultur method as well. This technique uses wood branches or brush mounded under compostable materials and finally topped off with dirt. As the wood decomposes it soaks up water like a sponge, raises soil temperature to boost plant growth and slowly releases nutrients. This practice doesn’t need much fertilizer or irrigation compared to conventional beds. I thought since I had some branches and twigs lying around the yard anyway, I’d toss them in. Never waste anything.

Given that the branches and straw I added in the bottom of the bed needed a good nitrogen layer, I added the manure down first, mixed in with some soil and bone meal for phosphorus.

I wetted this layer down sufficiently before adding about three-to-five inches of straw and wet this as well. I then added the rest of the manure and more soil followed by wetting. Next went on the last layer of straw and wetted this thoroughly. You would be surprised at how much water this method can soak up but it’s important to wet after every layer.

The soil I had dug out I used to add a top layer above the straw. Since it is mostly clay it is also rich in minerals I didn’t want to deprive my bed of. To get it down into the bed I wet it down and the minerals ‘melted’ down into the straw and manure.

By the time early spring comes around I should have plenty of compost made to add to the bed and plant my first crops.

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.


Padrón peppersThere are never enough hours in the day to get everything done. I've been saying this sort of thing my entire adult life. But it took working on the farm to really appreciate how true it can be. So sometimes you bring a little work home. Like five gallons of Padrón peppers to de-seed.

Saving seeds from peppers is easy, not the worse thing to bring home. Especially when you get to keep all the meat from the peppers to eat, freeze, or otherwise incorporate into the pantry. The quirky perks of working on a farm. It all starts with busting open a pepper: dig your fingers in and rip off the top. If possible, remove the seed cluster with the top. Then rip open the rest of the pepper to get to any remaining seeds. Scrape all the seeds into a pot with enough water to ensure plenty of space for them to separate by sinking and floating. Mature seeds sink. Immature, poor quality seeds float. Simple.

When all the seeds have settled, start pouring off the floaters. Refill and pour off a few times; be sure to let the seeds settle for about twenty seconds before pouring. I tend to pour the floaters through a mesh colander because sometimes I’ll do a second round of separating with these. Just to make sure I got all the mature seed.

Sinkers and floatersWhen all you have is mostly sinkers, spread them out on a screen and give them good airflow. At the farm we have a walk-in drying booth: a series of 4-foot screens shelved in front of a wall of fans. At home, I just use another mesh colander and a single box fan. However you do it, make sure the seeds are spread in as thin a layer as possible. Let them dry for at least a couple days.

For the record: Padrón are hot peppers. Not the hottest we have in inventory but definitely delivering a firm kick to the palate. And any exposed skin. The smart thing to do is to wear gloves when you process the peppers and seeds. Or be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Immediately. Definitely be sure to not touch your eyes or nose or armpits or other parts of your body after touching Padrón seeds. It burns. For days. Ambushing you from your fingernails and other hidden crevices on your hands. For days, people. Days.

Or so I’ve heard…

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 also a writer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He writes regularly 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.


Bright lights chard

Chard is a wonderful green, chock full of vitamins. It can be eaten when small in salads. The large leaves can be harvested for steamed/cooked greens. The stems can be steamed or braised as a substitute for celery. Chard has been around for centuries. It hails from Sicily and was known as sicula. No one is quite sure how it became known as Swiss Chard.

It is also ornamental if you pick one of the many beautiful colored ribs-shades of red, orange, pink, yellow. They grow tall when planted in the ground so make a great focus in the back of the garden bed. Chard in pot

It is a perennial in our Midwest garden. It grows in all seasons. Only the coldest weather kills it back to the ground, if not covered. It is one of the first things to sprout in the spring.

Chard can grow in about any condition or soil, even shade. For the mildest taste, plant chard in fertile soil and do not let it get water stressed. It appreciates shade in the hottest time of summer; heat stress can cause it to take on a bitter taste. As it gets warmer, the white ribbed chard in our flower bed, perpetual spinach, remains mild in taste.

Chard handles the summer heat. Like most greens, the more you harvest it, the longer before it bolts. Even with seed heads, the taste does not become too strong when steamed. You should harvest the outer, lower leaves frequently to stimulate new center leave growth. For the most succulent leaves, harvest in the morning or right after a rain.

Perpetual chard

Chard is a power house of nutrients. It is an excellent source of vitamins B6, thiamine, C, E, K; contains fiber, carotenes, chlorophyll, and several minerals-potassium, iron, manganese, calcium, selenium, zinc, niacin, folic acid and even protein. To top it off, chard is very alkalizing for the body and considered one of the most potent anti-cancer foods.

For more tips on organic small space and container gardening, visit Melodie's blog.



Chaya shrubWith chaya and I it was love at first taste. I'm not usually a huge fan of cooked greens but there's something about the hearty, somewhat sweet taste of boiled chaya greens that keeps me reloading my plate.

In my recent post on growing Chinese Water Chestnuts, I told you that I'd be back with a look at other good perennial vegetables for the home garden. Today we'll look at chaya. The Latin name of chaya is Cnidoscolus chayamansa and it's also known colloquially as Mexican Tree Spinach. Some varieties have stinging hairs (my cultivar does not), some have deeply lobed leaves, and others have broad leaves (like the main type I grow) that vaguely resemble maple.

A few years ago my permaculture-minded friend Craig Hepworth gave me a couple of cuttings and I popped them in the ground. I was interested but not all that excited about a new green vegetable (I like roots and fruits!). About six months later my chaya plants had grown to about 4' tall and I figured they could spare some leaves for the table. Since chaya, like its cousin cassava, is slightly toxic raw, I fired up a pot full of water and threw in a fistful of freshly cut greens. I didn't expect much when I pulled a limp mess of steaming greens from the pot and transferred them to my plate. But wow... they were good. Now I'd never go without at least a few chaya plants in my yard.

Some greens, like amaranth and Ethiopian kale, can handle some of the heat of summer: chaya thrives in it. Chaya's problem comes in the winter. This plant originated in the tropics and simply can't stand freezing. Since I live in North Florida, I worried about losing it in the cold the first year I grew it, particularly when the frosts came and I saw my plants wilt and the stems brown out. The next spring, though, they were back - and happier than ever. New growth popped up in April and rapidly grew. At this time of year I have plants that are about 6' - and we've been harvesting leaves since June.

And that's another thing - chaya produces greens like crazy. It's considered to be one of the most productive leaf crops in cultivation. If you live further north than its natural range, chaya can be successfully grown in a pot and brought indoors as a house plant during freezing weather.

I've found these guys to be quite tolerant of a wide range of conditions and soil. I've grown them in shade and in sun; in poor soil and in rich. They're not picky. I've also cut stems and had them continue to live and even bud while lying in my greenhouse unplanted for months. That's my kind of plant.

The best place to find chaya is to ask around among your friends for cuttings. If that doesn't work, you can buy chaya cuttings here or search the web. Prices and varieties vary from site to site and this isn't really a plant that you'll find in local nurseries, so thank God for the internet! 

Chaya leaf

Something else that's wonderful about chaya: the butterflies love the tiny white flowers it produces. We have a chaya bush off the side of our back porch and it's constantly being visited by a procession of zebra longwings. I don't know what they find so attractive, but they're always there.

As a part of the landscaping, chaya is an attractive tropical-looking plant with an interesting growth habit that I think would fit into almost any garden plan. I grow kale, collards, turnips, beets and lettuce through the winter... but chaya gets us through the summer and early fall.

Try a taste sometime and I think you'll fall in love just like I did.

For more daily gardening inspiration, plant profiles, rare edibles and homesteading, check out David's website 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.


RoseCreole garlics are a resilient type of hardneck whose demure white wrappers hide a lush, vibrant interior. Believed to originate in Spain, Creole cultivars are highly regarded by garlic aficionados for both their delicious taste and their long storage capability. Creole cultivars commonly seen in North America include Creole Red, Rose de Lautrec (photo), and Ajo Rojo.


Creoles thrive in hot, drier climates in which most other hardneck garlics typically struggle. They tend to be highly adaptable, with successive generations of plants acclimatizing to their specific growing conditions. Conversely, they are heavily influenced by yearly climate fluctuations, which can make them difficult to grow, especially if you are looking for a consistent product year-to-year.

The plants are usually tall, with leaves that vary between cultivars and climate from a pale lime to deep green. Normally modest bolters, Creoles do tend to bolt more heavily in regions with a moderate climate. The scapes of some cultivars will produce gentle curls; others will merely exhibit a graceful droop. Umbels are narrow and long, and contain between five and thirty small to medium-sized umbels. The scapes must be harvested in a timely manner, otherwise bulbs size will be significantly reduced. The bulbs themselves are comparatively late to mature, and so are harvested later in the season. Garlic2


The bulbs produced by Creole cultivars are somewhat petite although they often increase in size through successive generations and optimal growing conditions. Although small, the bulbs are plump and round with lustrous white outer wrappers. Peeling back these creamy skins often reveals the most vibrant clove skins of any garlic type: deep, vibrant, glossy reds and purples. Clove size varies between cultivars, as those that contain fewer cloves tend to be more rounded and plump, while those containing greater numbers are somewhat thinner and more elongated.

Cultivars produce cloves that are medium to large in size, with average numbers ranging between four and twelve per bulb. The majority are arranged in a single layer around the central stem, like other hardnecks, but some cultivars will also produce small inner cloves which subsequently results in the cloves becoming more irregular in size, shape, and number.


Creole cultivars are highly prized for their rich flavor. Even though individual palates differ widely and the taste of different garlic types and cultivars can be very subjective, when described, words such as ‘earthy’, ‘musky’, and ‘sweet’ tend to be consistently be used to describe the Creole group. While most of the Creole cultivars hold these characteristics in common, the heat and pungency of each tend to vary from the delicate to the robust, making this type of garlic one that, although good when cooked, is especially enjoyable and versatile when consumed raw.

When stored properly, Creole garlics have a long storage time of approximately six to nine months, with some cultivars keeping in good condition for up to a year. Their flavor also tends to deepen and mature as they store, making them well worth keeping while you enjoy your less storage-prone varieties first!

Rose de Lautrec' - photo courtesy of Bart Nagel, Bulbs of Fire.


Farmer Uses Manure The use of animal manure in organic farming has been significant in the sustainable agriculture movement. Manure is a great source of many crop nutrients, including both micronutrients and macronutrients. Nitrogen is typically the nutrient with the most value, as well as the greatest potential for soil and water pollution. Quality and potential for contamination are both factors when learning how to use manure and selecting a manure source. Similarly, there are concerns with food safety when applying manure, and specific application guidelines have been designed to reduce the risk of pathogen contamination.

Nutrients are essential to proper growth of all plants, and farmers carefully plan to provide them, including finding the best source of manure for their nitrogen needs. Different animals produce manure with variable nutrient content, and some manure sources are more readily available and cost effective than others.

Manure from layer poultry, for example, provides nearly four times the nitrogen per ton as that from lactating cows. It also contains upwards of 12 times the potassium and phosphorus content of dairy manure. However, poultry manure is more costly than dairy manure — sometimes running twice the price. Poultry manure can also burn plants because of the large quantity of nitrogen it contains, so it’s generally composted or aged before being applied to a garden or farm. Another option is to apply it to a fallow field months before planting, so the soil microorganisms can break down the nutrients and make them more available to the plant. Whatever method is used, it’s important to note that under the best conditions only about half to three-quarters of the nitrogen in the manure is available to the crop in the year it’s applied. The remaining nitrogen will become available over a period of years. That’s why it’s important to regularly sample the soil to determine nutrient needs for the year. It’s also key to monitor crop nitrogen needs so that manure isn’t over-applied, contributing to contamination of water by ammonia, organic matter, nutrients and bacteria.

Another factor to consider when selecting a manure source is potential contaminants. Some contaminants, such as heavy metals, can be avoided by requesting a laboratory analysis. Heavy metals are a concern in manure, since there can be high potential content and farmers may also use high application rates. Heavy metals present in manure may include cadmium, lead, zinc and arsenic. Poultry manure is particularly at high risk for arsenic contamination, because nonorganic chickens are often fed arsenic to promote growth and weight gain. For this reason, poultry manure from organic sources is popular.

Another way to avoid heavy metals in manure is to select an Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) Listed manure product. OMRI requires heavy metals to be below a certain threshold before listing the product for use in organic production. Although other contaminants are present in manure, heavy metals are the easiest to avoid. Contaminants such as hormones and antimicrobials are difficult to even identify because they are so pervasive in the conventional manure supply, and there are no guidelines in place to control this contamination. Finding an organic source of manure is therefore the best way to avoid many potential hazards.

The application of manure also has implications for food safety. Pathogens such as Salmonella and fecal coliform are the main concerns when applying manure to edible crops. The USDA organic regulations require that a harvest interval be followed after applying manure, where crops in contact with soil (carrots, potatoes, lettuce) may be harvested only after 120 days, and crops not in contact with soil (blueberries, apples, peppers) may be harvested after 90 days. The logic behind this harvest interval is that pathogens will likely be rendered unviable by soil microorganisms after a certain time period, and will no longer pose a threat to food safety.

Another way to avoid pathogens from manure is to compost it first. One can purchase raw manure and compost it, or it can be purchased already composted. Both methods are effective at reducing the risk of pathogen contamination when applying these materials to an organic farm. However, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a purchased compost product may pose a contamination hazard. The organic standards require a specific time period and temperature for composting, in order to ensure that any pathogens are, in fact, eliminated. Compost that does not meet these requirements is considered to be the same as raw manure, which means that application rates must meet the 90/120-day harvest interval requirements listed above. OMRI Listed products may fall into either category, so it can be helpful to research compost products on the OMRI Products List. OMRI’s restriction text will indicate whether the harvest interval periods must be observed.

Anaerobic digestion is a new technology that has been used to process manure into a composted product. The use of anaerobic digestion is especially growing on conventional livestock farms, where large amounts of manure are produced and increasing regulations require proper disposal. Typically, manure is gathered in a lagoon or tank, where microbes break it down in an oxygen-free environment. Some anaerobic digesters have external heating systems to achieve pathogen reduction, similar to traditional composts. Although anaerobic digestion is similar to composting, it must achieve the same time and temperature requirements in order to be used without a harvest interval. Before using an anaerobic digestion product, one should verify whether it was heated to at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit for three or more days. If not, the harvest interval must be observed. The resulting components of the digestion process include a liquid effluent rich in nutrients, and dry matter that is great as a soil amendment or even as biodegradable planting pots. Methane is captured as a by-product and used as a renewable energy source, instead of being emitted into the environment as a greenhouse gas.

There’s no doubt that learning how to use manure and applying it amply is one of the best steps toward providing nutrients in a well-managed organic farm or garden. Animal manure has many positives that make it worth the trouble of seeking out the best source and applying it with care. Manure use also contributes to the recycling of resources, which further reduces the environmental impact of livestock production in general. So, the next time you bite into an organic tomato, pepper or ear of sweet corn, be sure to also thank the animals that provided the nutrients used to grow your delicious food.

Photo by Fotolia/Jack: An organic farmer works with manure in a field.

Thank you to OMRI Technical Director Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador for providing this guest blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. She holds a B.S. from Oregon State University in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. from University of Florida in Geography. She has more than 10 years of work experience on both conventional and organic farms.


Stages of growth

Garlic is rich in lore. It has been reputed to repel vampires, clear the blood, cure baldness, aid digestion over the ages. Today’s studies have shown is garlic antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral. And, it tastes great! Garlic has been around for thousands of years. It originated in Asia, was cultivated in Egypt and has been a Mediterranean staple for centuries.It is easy to grow and has few pest issues. All you do is throw them in the ground in the fall in late September/early October in our Zone 6 garden and by early summer, they are ready to harvest.

The clove puts out roots in the fall. Depending on how warm the winter is, there can be green shoots showing through the cold months. Garlic will be some of the first to start growing. The stems resemble onion greens. The garlic flower, or scape, has a cute little curl in it. It grows on hard neck varieties. They are great in salads. Harvesting them also gives you bigger bulbs.

You should choose the biggest cloves to plant. The bigger the clove, the bigger the harvest! Cloves like other root vegetables like loose soil, compost and steady fertilizer. Like carrots, radishes and beets, you can add sand to give a looser soil structure in your garlic bed. Compost and mulch well in the fall before cold weather sets in. Plant the cloves root side down, 1-2” deep, and 4-6” apart. For planting by the cycle of the moon, garlic should be planted during the waning cycle of the moon. For our Zone 6 garden, this is September 9-23 and October 9-22. After the greens sprout to 6”, add compost or fertilizer as a side dressing. Garlic does not need a lot of nitrogen so compost is a good choice.

Harvesting GarlicGarlic Ready To Harvest

Garlic is ready to harvest then the tops fall over and die off. They are ready to harvest about a week later. Typically this is mid-summer.

Be careful when you go to harvest. If you cut the bulb, it will not keep and needs to eaten soon. The garlic should be left in dry shade for 2-3 weeks or brought inside and stored in a cool, dry location with good air circulation. They can be hung or placed in a perforated bin to dry and store. Store-bought garlic has been treated with chemicals to keep them from sprouting so they are not a great choice for growing your own. A great option is to buy cloves from your local farmers market. You know they grew well in your area. Just separate out the bulb(s) into individual cloves and plant the biggest ones.

Distinguishing Different Types of Garlic

Garlic can be mild or hot. Elephant garlic is very mild and not really true garlic at all. It is a type of leek. It has a great garlic flavor and produces huge bulbs. The ones I am growing this year are from the previous year’s harvest. 

You can tell the difference in the two by looking at the flowers. Leeks and soft neck garlic have a onion type flower while garlic has a curly scape flower. There is soft and hard necked garlic. For storing, soft neck garlic is the ticket. It is also the strongest flavored. Hard necked is milder, easier to peel, more cold hardy and the first to mature.Leek And Soft Necked Garlic

Everyone knows of garlic in sauces and on cheese bread. A couple of years ago, we tried roasted garlic. It dramatically mellows the flavor. I just put a few heads in a small baking dish, add chicken stock to just about level to the cut heads, and let bake covered at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until soft. It is a great spread on French bread!

If your garlic dries up over the winter, I grind it into garlic powder. If you have great tasting garlic that doesn’t store well or you have a bountiful crop, another preservation option is pickled garlic. Just peel and cover your fresh garlic cloves in organic apple cider vinegar. You can add a couple of hot peppers if you want to add some extra zing!

Of course, you can also add garlic to the tomato sauce, pickles or peppers you are going to can. You can flavor vinegars or oils by popping crushed garlic into them. Many options for utilizing your garlic harvest!

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