Organic Gardening

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2015 Tater harvest

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Mother Nature and her plant kingdom are hearty, pervasive, and persistent. While I wasn’t planning on planting potatoes this year, it turns out that last year’s crop (or those not consumed over the winter) made a different decision for me.

I love having our own homegrown potatoes, especially for ThanksGaia (the holiday we celebrate the third Thursday in November). I tend to grow potatoes in enough abundance so they last at least until then. During the past growing season, we had a bumper crop that nourished us through the whole winter. The stragglers felt the strong calls of spring though and started sprouting. This past week they really took off (see center photo “I” at the bottom of the page).

In the above photo are partial harvests of our 'Strawberry Paw' (A), 'Yukon Gold' (B), and 'Gold Rush' (C) potatoes from last year. I absolutely adore growing potatoes because they take so little effort for such a fun treasure to dig at the end of their season — and, they taste so amazing when they come from your own garden.

My biggest chore becomes beetle-picking through the summer, but the payout for keeping these beautiful taters clean is more than worth it.

Planting Potatoes from Sprouts

Back to my science experiment: I had yet to decide what to plant where the corn was last year and knew that I wanted to amend that newer bed by adding more compost and soil.

It seemed to me an obvious area to discover what these goofy tater volunteers would produce. If nothing comes of it, I’m not out anything since I wanted to amend the bed anyway. If the potatoes decide to bless me with the usual treasure, I’ll have learned something and we’ll have some great meals ahead come fall. I find it pays to be flexible when gardening, there are less disappointments that way.

Tater bed preparation

The first step (see photo D) was to remove the fabric from under last year’s straw mulch. You can see the white parts showing through in the photo.

The next shot (E) shows the bed with all the fabric removed and horizontal trenches being dug near the top of the photo. I laid the potatoes carefully in the trenches and draped the sturdier eye vines across the mounds in-between (see bottom set of photos, H) after having picked off the weaker vines.

Add Good Compost

Then I took some of that wonderful compost retrieved awhile back and crumbled it carefully around the eye tendrils, taking care not to tamp down the soil and damage the fragile vines. I proceeded to cover the trenches with a couple of inches of soil and barely covered the vines in the center. On top of this I layered several inches of straw (F and G). Side note: All the lovely creatures living in the compost were still alive and well after a few months in the basement. The pill bugs numbers remained high so hopefully they’ll do the work of removing heavy metals from the bed, should there be any, and leave the potato vines alone.

Normally, trenching and mulching is the same routine I follow when planting my potatoes, minus the vine treatment obviously. The eyes usually have the smallest of buds started when I’m using seed potatoes. That’s because the “seeds” come to me from storage places that have temperature control and air circulation to impede early sprouting. I won’t likely ever have my own area for such things and my Dutch heritage kept me from simply tossing all these volunteers, hence the botany adventure.

I was surprised to see what appear to be baby potatoes forming on a couple of the larger potatoes (photo K). As I mentioned, I have no idea what will come from this experiment. At the very least, I have added compost and straw and my friends the woodlice have cleaned up a small patch of planet. If any plants poke through, I will continue adding layers as the season continues and the bed will become even richer.

Stay tuned for more news as this curious undertaking continues. I’ll keep you updated on my progress, successful or not. I’ll be interested in seeing which parts of Mother Nature’s hearty, pervasive, and persistent personality win out.

Planting taters

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Previous articles in this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)  told how nature works with plants and soil microbes to create soil from atmospheric carbon. We’ve seen how to follow nature’s example, by using cover crops and compost, to create organic soil and nutritious food. In this article, I’ll discuss one more way of working with nature by using compost tea.

What is Compost Tea?

This tea is an aerobically prepared solution that contains both the microbes and nutrition necessary for healthy soil and healthy plants. The process of making compost tea greatly multiplies the number of microbes present and puts them in a soluble form for easy application.

What Are the Benefits of Compost Tea?

1. Unlike compost, compost tea is a liquid and can therefore soak into the ground where it is most effective.

2. Compost tea is easy to apply from a watering can or a sprayer.

3. Making compost tea is an inexpensive way to quickly multiply microbes. A small amount of compost becomes compost tea that can nurture many plants. One teaspoon of soil contains about a billion bacteria but one teaspoon of compost tea contains about four billion bacteria!

4. Compost tea helps control plant diseases. Spray it on the underside of leaves where plants have openings (stomata) for CO2 and O2. Because the stomata are most susceptible to bacterial and fungal diseases, the “good microbes” in the tea actually help prevent disease. Here’s a testimonial on growing heirloom Heinz tomato plants with and without compost tea! In our garden, this variety routinely contacted a fungal disease by late August. Since using compost tea, the plants grow much larger, never show signs of disease and keep producing until heavy frosts.

5. During this spring season, I am now totally dependent on compost tea to feed the garden seedlings that were begun as seeds in our sun-room. Seeds have adequate nutrition for emerging seedlings until plants get their secondary leaves. Compost tea then provides the microbes and nutrition that seedlings need both to grow and to establish a relationship with soil microbes.

6. Compost tea can be made with the simple recipe, below, or you can continually learn more to modify how you feed your garden plants or orchard. Lowenfels’ and Lewis’s book, Teaming with Microbes, is a good place to get the basics.

Materials for Making Compost Tea in a 5-Gallon Pail

• 4 cups compost or vermicompost    
• 2 tbsp unsulfured molasses
• 2 tbsp liquid kelp
• 3 tbsp liquid fish
• Unchlorinated water (If you don’t have access to unchlorinated water, oxygenate the water for two hours before adding other ingredients, or use a charcoal filter).

How to Make Compost Tea

Getting your equipment and ingredients together the first time is a bit of a hassle, but then it’s easy to continually produce compost tea throughout the growing cycle.

You’ll need a clean 5-gallon bucket. A lid is helpful to keep out light, but you can instead place a towel over the top of the bucket while the tea is brewing.

equipment for compost tea

A pet store will provide some of the necessary equipment. You’ll need an aquarium pump large enough to run two sets of air stones, about eight feet of air tubing and air stones. (See photo). This equipment is essential because brewing compost tea is an aerobic process. A garden store can then provide both liquid kelp and liquid fish.

If you don’t have good compost available, vermiculture, or “worm compost,” can be used instead to make compost tea.

It’s most convenient to place the compost, along with the two smaller air-stones, in something that serves as a “tea bag.” That way, you won’t have to strain the tea before using it in a sprayer or a watering can. Pantyhose are recommended, but we use inexpensive paint-strainer bags found at hardware stores.

In addition to using this sketch to assemble your equipment (see photo, below), here are a couple suggestions you’ll find helpful. Keep the pump higher than the air tubing at all times so water doesn’t back up into the pump. Place the small stones and tubing at the bottom of your “tea bag” before adding the four cups of compost. After that, tie the bag shut and suspend it by that string to the handle of the bucket. Holes can be drilled in the bucket and lid for the string and tubing to go through, but it works fine to have them come over the lip of the bucket with a cover placed lightly on top.

compost tea #1

Compost Tea Caveats

• Make compost tea at room temperature and out of direct sunlight.
• In making compost tea, you are dealing with living organisms and an aerobic process. Bubble oxygen through the mixture from 24 to 48 hours. Longer than that and the microbes will run out of food.
• Use the tea within a few hours of completion so the microbes won’t run out of oxygen.
• Don’t apply the compost tea to plants in direct sunlight—the microbes in the tea won’t survive.
• You’re not “foliar feeding” plants by spraying leaves, you are offering protection from “bad” bacteria and fungi. Foliar feeding actually breaks the synergistic relationship between plants and the living soil.
• You cannot apply too much compost tea. Go ahead and keep using it through the growing season.

I don’t believe human technology can come close to what nature has devised to nurture healthy plants, produce, soil and planet. By working with nature and using cover crops, compost and compost tea, we can be a successful part of nature’s plan.

Cross-section sketch.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Different Types of Composters

Clockwise from top left: a 5-gallon bucket composter, a tumbling composter, a leaf-mold composting bin made from chicken wire, a worm composting system, or vermicompost, an uncontained heap on the ground piling the material together and finally a pallet composter. 

I often get asked questions like "How easy is it to compost stuff?" and "How can I do it?” The answer is that composting is easy, it just takes time, and yes, you can compost, too.

There are many types of composting methods available for the urban homesteader or gardening enthusiast — from fermentation bins called Bokashi systems that allow you to compost cooked foods, fish, dairy and meat, to vermicomposting, or worm composting systems, and everything in between.

How Easy Can Composting Be Incorporated into My Family's Routine?

What works for my family is having a lidded bucket in the kitchen that the compostable waste goes into. We used to have a large bowl, but we go through a lot of vegetable scraps. We would make several trips out to the heap if I was making soup.

Think about how much kitchen waste you typically generate and how often you are willing to go empty the crock or bucket — this will help you decide what type of waste container you want. In our house, it's once a week so we have a large bucket.

By keeping the container for scraps in the kitchen, it will help remind other family members that kitchen waste goes into the compost bin.

Does Compost Smell?

Keeping a container in the kitchen for composting does seem a bit daunting, but you won't actually be composting material in the kitchen.

As long as you empty the container regularly and rinse it out (put the rinse water and stuff in the heap, too) it shouldn't smell. Some of the kitchen crocks in the market have odor filters to reduce or eliminate any odors as well.

I add a layer of shredded paper from document clean ups, newspaper and certain types of junk mail after I place some kitchen waste into the bucket, and this has been quite effective at reducing odor when I lift the lid to add more.

I keep a bag of shredded paper right next to the bucket to help remind the family to put a handful in each time.

What Can I Compost?

If you have a search through the internet of how to compost, a plethora of information is available and a lot of it is confusing to beginner gardeners, so I will do my best to keep it simple.

You can compost pretty much anything that has lived, just depending on how recently it was living depends on how long it will take to break down.

Most people split waste for composting into two groups: greens and browns, also known as nitrogens and carbons.


Items that fall into this category are the fresh materials — those rich in nitrogen and if in large quantities on their own will make the heap smell. This is commonly seen when large amounts of grass clippings are added to a pile and a black, sludgy,stinky mess happens. Don't be put off by this, though — it's an easy fix.

Nitrogen Rich Green Composting Material 

Green materials include:

Flowers (from arrangements and bouquets as well as dead-heading from the garden)
Fresh leaves
Fallen fruit
Bolted brassicas (cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers)  and salad leaves
Coffee grounds
Tea leaves
Fruit peels and cores
Vegetable off cuts
Corn husks
Manure (not cat or dog poop)
Dried seaweed
Fresh, rinsed seaweed
Lees or trub from home brewing
Weeds: problem perennial weeds should be drowned in water for a week or two first, other more noxious weeds may be better burnt or have special removal requirements like Japanese knotweed. (If in doubt, check your local extension office or municipal waste department at the town council.)


Items that fall into this category are the dry, fibrous materials that contain a lot of carbon that require high levels of nitrogen to break them down.

These materials are best shredded or put through the chipper to break them down and increase their surface area to speed up decomposition.

Composting Brown Materials 

Brown materials include:

Dried leaves
Coffee filters
Dust from the vacuum
Pet hair
Shredded paper
Pruning waste
Toilet paper inners
100% cotton clothing

On top of these green and brown materials, you can also add crushed eggshells and crushed seafood shells, biochar and a little wood ash to the heap as well as rockdust to remineralize the compost and the subsequent soil.

Too much wood ash with raise the pH, making soil alkaline, whilst too many citrus fruits can lower the pH, making it too acidic.

What Can’t I Compost?

In a traditional compost heap meat, fish, bones and items like grain, bread, cooked foods and popcorn are likely to attract vermin or bears and are best placed in a Bokashi system instead where bran inoculated with microbes ferment the waste first.

How Do I Compost?

Simply place the material into the compost bin or heap. You can layer the material in as you get it or mix it before you add it to the heap.

There are many types of composting receptacles available on the market to suit your needs or you can make one.

If you have large quantities of material, such as grass clippings, it is better to mix them with some shredded paper or cardboard material to help it compost evenly and stop the sludgy mess.  If you are placing lots of browns in the heap, wet them first to help break them down quicker.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Once your pile has built up a bit, turn it over, moving the outside layer to the middle and the middle to the outside. I find it is best to use a gardening fork to turn the material.

If you have a bin or container for the pile, it is best to empty it out or lift the container off, mix up the material then place the material back into the container.

Turning the pile introduces oxygen, which helps the microbes and insects to break down the material into compost. Leave it for a couple of weeks then turn it again.

How Long Does Compost Take?

Making compost can take a few weeks to a few months depending on the volume of material and the temperature. Typical composting time is usually 6 months for an average garden.

Some composting methods, such as worm composting, can take as little as 3 months to produce compost.


Sometimes, problems do occur in composting. Here are some fixes.

Problem: Bad smell
Likely Causes: Not enough air and/or too much green matter
Fix: Add paper/fibrous material and turn to introduce oxygen

Problem: Pile is dry in the middle
Likely Causes: Not enough green matter and/or too dry
Fix: Water the pile and add more green matter or high nitrogen material

Problem: Material not decomposing
Likely cause: Material too large
Fix: Chop or shred material to increase surface area

Problem: Attracts vermin
Likely Causes: Cooked food, meat, dairy or oils added
Fix: Remove these sources and don’t add them to the heap / try a rodent-proof bin

Problem: Layers are not breaking down
Likely Causes: Compaction and/or not enough air
Fix: Mix the material to introduce air, and split up the compacted layers

Problem: Pile is very wet and sludge
Likely Causes: Too much water
Fix: Cover the pile to reduce rain access or change to an enclosed bin, open up the bin on sunny days to dry out the heap.

Composting is very important to a gardener, as my Granny said to me “Get the soil right and the rest will work out in the end”.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening.
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.


Chipped, fried, sautéed, boiled, baked, or mashed—potatoes are one vegetable we simply couldn’t do without. But what type and variety of potato should you be growing? Read on and watch our video to find out about the different potatoes types so you can choose the best potato varieties to meet your needs.

freshly dug potatoes
Photo by Fotolia/vm2002.

Culinary Uses for Potatoes

Choose potato varieties that suit their end use. Starchy potatoes are great at absorbing liquids, causing the potato to break apart in cooking. These types are great for making baked potatoes, mashing, or cutting into wedges and roasting.

Waxy potatoes hold together better. They are ideal for cooking in soups and stews, and for making potato salads.

Look closely at the descriptions of different varieties and make sure you pick one that’s suitable for how you want to cook it.

Time to Harvest

Early potatoes are ready as soon as the start of summer and “second earlies” follow on a couple of weeks later.

Maincrop potatoes are ready to dig up and enjoy anytime from mid- to late-summer and onward.

Growing Potatoes

Grow potatoes in moist, fertile, and well-draining soil. Early potatoes can be planted in rows just 1foot apart, while maincrop potatoes need at least 1.5 feet between rows.

Our Garden Planner is a useful tool for choosing varieties suitable for your location and working out how many plants you can fit into the space you have for optimal harvest. When you drag out a row or block of plants, the Garden Planner will calculate how many plants will fit in the space you have.

If space is tight, try growing early potatoes in containers.

Disease Resistance

Potatoes are commonly affected by blight, scurf and scab. Select varieties described as displaying resistance or tolerance to these and other common diseases. Early varieties are less likely to be affected by blight.

Learn more about potato types and varieties—and their best uses—in this video.

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on growing food and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.


last year's arugula 

I’m chomping at the bit to play in the dirt when the first warm, dry days of spring come. I check the soil for moisture, because I can’t dig in mud, and the weather report to see if it’s time to dig. When it’s finally time to dig and plant, I’m as happy as a five-year-old in a Bounce Castle!

This year, I thought the time was the week of March 19th. I started in bed #4 out of 5 raised beds in my backyard. I turned the precious organic soil I slaved over during the first year of gardening in Baltimore, and then shoved it through my homemade dirt sifter to get ready for planting greens.

Choosing the Right Lettuce Varieties

I don’t just plant lettuce. No, I plant up to ten kinds of greens in one or two of my beds. The more the merrier. I planted the second round of seeds in bed #3 on March 26th that featured: beets, two kinds of carrots, Chadwick’s Rodan lettuce, and SloBolt cilantro. Things are looking great for late April and early May.

I started with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: 'Rocky Top' blend, 'Petite Rouge', 'May Queen', and arugula. The 'Rocky Top' blend is one of my favorites as it’s easy to sow and grow. They don’t disclose exactly what the blend is, but it seems to be about five different types of lettuces that do well in planting Zone 7 where I live. In the summer, my lettuce crop doesn’t do well, so I like to plant in early spring and September.

This year, I planted a bit early, and frost may get some or my entire first crop. I’ll gladly take the chance. But here’s the thing to consider: Lettuce seed is cheap, and after months without fresh lettuce from my garden, it’s worth the risk. The worst that can happen is I will need to re-seed and start over. The best that can happen is I’ll be picking fresh greens the last week of April instead of mid-May.

last years greens

Last year's greens.

By trying the four different types of greens, chances are good most of it will survive and thrive. I’ll pick a few leaves at first and thin whole plants for the best salad greens ever — while my neighbors eat grocery store greens that have made a perilous cross-country voyage wilting on the way.

When June comes around, I start pulling up entire lettuce and arugula plants to make room for cucumbers, peppers, beans, eggplant and tomatoes. At that point, I have way more than I need and go door-to-door gifting bags of mixed greens to my closest neighbors. Half the fun of gardening is giving away the beautiful bounty we gardeners fret over.

Harvesting Salad Greens

I’ve learned over the course of four years that growing greens in the Mid-Atlantic it’s best to pick in the early morning. I have the process down to a science.

First, I clean both sides of my kitchen sink and fill one side with ice water. I pick the greens and bring them into the kitchen. The next step is rinsing the greens in the empty sink then immersing them in the ice water. I swirl them around several times then set them in the empty sink. I refill the big side of the two sinks with ice water and repeat the swirling and then shake the water off.

Next step is to spin the leaves in the salad spinner and bag the clean-dry leaves. After this treatment, I’ve had my greens last up to ten days or more. This taught me that the grocery store greens I had been buying all these years must have had a long trip before they ended up in my kitchen where they might stay fresh for three days at best!

Once you grow your own organic greens, it’s hard to go back to grocery store crap. The good news is greens are easy to grow in a multitude of environments. If you are short on space, try building a salad tray and grow your own greens on a patios or balcony. If you have a small patch of ground, do what I did and install a raised bed.

My 3x6 foot beds are easy to work and allowed me to import special soil. This is a good option if you have a lawn. Put in some raised beds and get rid of that green American carpet so many home owners are obsessed with. Or, just cut out a space in your lawn and grow your own right there in the dirt. Whichever way you choose, it’s great to have options to suit most situations.

Eating Salad Greens

When it’s time to start picking the first few leaves and thin the seedlings, you will have a great salad, wrap, or sandwich to look forward to. So get out and grow some greens this spring!

To get you in the right frame of mind, I’ll share my AAA Sandwich recipe link with you for your first crop of arugula. As a trained chef with over 40 years of cooking experience, I look forward to sharing recipes developed in my home kitchen. Quite often, these recipes are inspired by produce from my organic garden. You, too, can cook fast, easy and healthy foods following my lead.

 ingredients for sandwich

The simple ingredients for the AAA Sandwich.

 AAA Sandwich

AAA Sandwich full of green goodness.

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


young brassica seedlings

Spring is coming.  I keep telling myself that, despite the squalls of snow and the slushy roads.  Spring is coming, despite the frozen ground in the morning and the frost spiraling on the walls of the high tunnel.  The days are lengthening, new birds are returning each day, and the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse echoes through the farm like the sound of a distant motor starting.

But cold snaps in April are common here.  The old adage is to wait on planting warm-loving crops until Memorial weekend, which still often holds true.  The short growing season means that day-length sensitive plants (once it is safe for them to grow outside) shoot up with amazing speed, showing noticeable maturity from day to day.  Ever seen what happens when you waited maybe just six hours too long to go pick the zucchini?

Even with our incredibly long summer days, the shortness of the growing season as a whole is a disadvantage to many crops.  That means fibbing with nature and starting plants inside to get ahead of the setbacks.  This way, months of establishing roots and growing stocky shoots that can withstand a little cold has already taken place before exposure to outside weather.  But there’s definitely work involved.

First, we start the seeds inside the aquaponics greenhouse (much like any other baby plant being prepared for the system), but that space only lasts about two weeks before the plants are vying for sunlight and root space.  At that point, it’s time to break up the party and move the seedlings into a larger growing venue.  In the greenhouse, this means breaking the cells apart carefully and “planting” them into a raft tray or a media bed.  But for plants destined for the garden, it’s still too cold out. 

That’s when it’s time to start making transplant pots.  Of course, there are plenty of nice products you can buy (like peat pots) for this purpose, but when you’re transplanting hundreds of seedlings, this can be an expensive proposition.  I’m always interested in repurposing everyday items once they’ve served their original purpose, and transplanting season is one of those times where this upcycling transformation occurs.

We use a simple, wooden, two-part tool called a “pot maker” for creating our own biodegradable transplant pots.  First, I cut the newspaper into strips about five or six inches wide, then taking one strip at a time, roll it up on the pot maker (not too tight, or they’ll never come off!!!), fold the excess paper on the bottom to close off the end, and crush it against the second pieces of wood with a twisting motion that presses the memory of the shape into the paper.  Pull off the new little pot, grab another piece of newspaper, and repeat.  On a slow day at Farmstead Creamery, I might make a few hundred of these before wrist fatigue sets in.

Meanwhile, I’ve made a trip out to the compost pile to find some well-decomposed humus and the dirt pile for some topsoil set aside from a construction project.  I scoop the earthy mix into five-gallon buckets and bring them inside the farmhouse to warm up.  Life is cozy and warm in the greenhouse.  If those little seedlings are moved into chilly soils, they can go into shock that can either kill them or stunt their growth for the rest of the season. 

Babying Seedlings Through the Cold Spring Weather 

Last spring, I was transplanting on the picnic tables outside, with the sun shining and a teasing spring breeze.  But since the broccoli and cauliflower couldn’t wait any longer without a bit more elbow room, and the snow was swirling outside, I dropped an old blanket down on the farmhouse kitchen floor and started the tedious but rewarding process of introducing these little plants to their first mini home in soil.

First, I mix the topsoil and compost in a tub, adding water if the mix is too dry.  Then taking up a cup, I fill about two-thirds full of the soil mix, carefully place the seedling on top with its grow cube, then sprinkle more around the sides and on top, finishing with a careful tamping press to firm up the support for the plant. 

I have a tray going where the little pots snug up against each other like little green soldiers.  At first, the paper pots are stiff and dry, but with watering they soften, and eventually the roots of the seedlings grow through the slowly disintegrating paper until there is just enough substance left to hold it all together in time go into the ground in the gardens.  By then, we’ll be thinking about how spring is starting to turn towards summer!

Now it’s looking like the tomato seedlings are ready for the move into pots as well, so there’s three more buckets of compost and soil warming up in the farmhouse kitchen.  The little brassicas are doing great—I could swear they’ve doubled in size already.  Hopefully soon the nights will be warm enough that they can move out to the walkways of the high tunnel, where the cheery little first leaves of radishes and spinach are popping up in eager anticipation of the season.

brassica transplanted into the garden

There’s something unmistakably joyous about beginning the growing season.  The weeds haven’t crowded in yet, or the gnats.  I’ve temporarily forgotten how blistering the sun can be when you’re out working for hours, wondering why on earth you planted so many cucumbers!  And the memory of picking endless potato beetles is so far off that, in the moment, my only thought is how happy these new little plants will be.  Soon they’ll have a bit more room for their roots to grow and their leaves to stretch.  That means happy plants and yummy produce to come.

Transplanting is another one of those precious rights of springtime on the farm.  There’s always work involved, but it’s also always worth it to be an active part of the unfolding of a new season.  I better be getting to those tomatoes.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo Credit: Baby brassica plants ready for transplanting. (photo by intern LeeAra Scott). Older brassica plants on their first day transition from transplant pots to life in the garden—a scene yet to come but not too far off. (photo by intern Garett Egeland)

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Read previous parts in this series here.

For the suburbanite who has paid for a load of compost but instead received a pile of manure, let’s begin by defining compost: Compost is a mixture of decayed organic materials. It is what continually happens in nature as plants and animals die and are turned into soil by a multitude of microbes.

To have superb soil, we want to learn how to compost wastes from the kitchen, lawn, garden, farm animals and animal bedding. We want compost to smell “earthy,” look black and crumbly and have the consistency of a damp, not wet, sponge.

compost from animal bedding

Making compost is a bit like cooking: in the kitchen, some of us prefer to follow a recipe and others (me!) like to take basic ingredients and then follow their intuition. This article gives you the option of either path for making great compost.

Basic Compost Ingredients

1. Organic material, although strictly defined means “made of carbon,” it includes everything from kitchen scraps to manure to lawn clippings to old plants from the garden. The key to good compost is to have a lot more of the “brown” materials (straw, autumn leaves, wood chips) than “green” (grass clippings, kitchen scraps). The ratio of brown to green is actually 25 or 30:1.

backyard compost tumbler

2. Air is necessary for composting to be an aerobic process. Lack of air can lead to the proliferation of harmful bacteria. Our backyard compost tumbler has screened openings for air and its instructions admonish us to give it three full turns daily. The compost piles in the meadow get turned with the tractor when they stop steaming, and one recipe says it should be turned when the temperature gets to 160 degrees (Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis).

3. Water allows the necessary chemical reactions to take place in compost and keeps microbes alive. Some people build their compost pile around a perforated drainage tile so they can water the pile through the tile during dry times. Others water their pile when they turn it. Your composting material might need water if it appears dry, no longer heats up and crumbles apart rather than having the consistency of a damp sponge. Compost that’s too wet can be diagnosed by a bad smell because air can’t permeate the compressed material. You will also be able to squeeze water out of composting material when it is too wet.

4. Heat comes mainly from the chemical reactions taking place within the compost as it decomposes. Warmer ambient temperatures do make a difference though, and that’s why compost tumblers are painted dark colors and composting occurs faster in summer.

5. Microbes that assist with composting include everything from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and protozoa. Some are available in manure, and most are available in the leaves, grass old garden plants and garden produce. Microbes multiply quickly in a healthy compost pile.

Composting Caveats

1. Make sure manure doesn’t come from animals that have been treated with antibiotics. You don’t want the precious soil bacteria killed.

2. Know the source of any grass or straw to avoid insecticides, fungicides or glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup) which will kill soil microbes.

3. Shred materials to speed up the composting action. Just as the soil microbes shred organic material to make it break-down more quickly, you can shred leaves with a lawn mower before placing them in a pile. Since we’ve run our cows’ straw bedding through a manure spreader as it goes into the compost pile, the entire composting process takes closer to two years than three years, as it did before.

4. Kitchen scraps alone won’t make good compost—they are inevitably too wet. Add straw, wood chips or dried leaves until you get the consistency you want.

5. According to J.I. Rodale (see below), manure by itself does not make good compost for the following reasons: It’s slow to decompose, has unbalanced nutrition, the nitrogen is lost during the compost process, it takes too much energy from the soil to break down and it is acidic.

6. Using just compost to build good soil still releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere as it breaks down. Consider coupling compost with cover crops.

Rodale’s Compost Recipe

For those of those who want to begin composting with a precise recipe, I want to share that given by J.I. Rodale in his difficult to find, 1945 book, Pay Dirt, Farming and Gardening with Compost:

Compost pile can be any length, but make the width 5 feet to 12 feet. To build the pile, keep repeating these layers: 6-inch-high green material, 2 inches to 3 inches manure, 1/8th inch good soil plus limestone or wood ashes.

Build to a 5-foot-tall taper and water to “wet sponge” consistency. Monitor temperature, and don’t allow it to get hotter than 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn pile to reduce temperature to 90 degrees.

You’ll probably not get a blue ribbon for creating this great compost, but you will be rewarded with healthy, thriving plants and flavor food that is packed with nutrition. Compost tea provides one more way of working with nature to give healthy produce. I’ll discuss that in the next article.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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