Organic Gardening

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

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Lithuanian Market Woman with Carved RadishesPlayful! I took this photograph of a woman selling radishes in the farmers market in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the late 1990s.

The carved radishes were decorations on top of the scale.

What is there really to say? This woman clearly brings her personality to her vegetable stand. As a bonus, her carved radishes differentiate her stand from others in the market and bring cheer to the shoppers.


Bowl of newly picked tomatoes

It is peak tomato season! There are so many recipes that fresh tomatoes can be used in-salsa, salads, bruschetta, cucumber/tomato/onion salad, on burgers, on sandwiches, on pasta, the list goes on. So, what to do when you are eating tomatoes at every meal and still have them coming? It is time to preserve them!

I freeze, dry and can my excess tomatoes. Be sure to put the date and description on each freezer bag and quart jar. Use the oldest first and all within a year.

Right now, I prefer to freeze them because it is so hot that I don’t want to turn on any heat generators inside the house. For cherry type tomatoes, I just half them and throw them in a quart freezer bag and put in the freezer. For larger tomatoes, I slice then put them in freezer bags. They thaw much quicker this way. They will have a fresh taste when thawed and used for salsa, sauces, or chili.

When it cools, I start drying and canning. I just love “sun-dried” tomatoes right out of my own dehydrator. You can also dry on a cookie sheet at low temperatures in the oven.  You store your dried tomatoes in a quart jar to use until next year.

Tomato sauce in Weck's jars

Only a water bath is needed for canning tomatoes because they are acidic. I use Weck’s canning jars. They are all glass so no worries about what is lining the lid. And they are a really pretty shape.  Make sure you follow a sauce recipe exactly as it is critical for keeping to the right acid level.

I throw the entire tomato (de-stemmed) into the food processor. Most recipes say to remove the peel and seeds so you don’t have a bitter taste, but I have not noticed any issue with bitterness.

Tomato Paste Recipe

Here is the recipe from Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving for tomato paste:

9 cups pureed tomatoes
1½ cups chopped sweet bell peppers
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt
1 clove of garlic

I put it all into a large pot and let simmer until it is the consistency and taste I like, about 2.5 hours. Remove the bay leaves and garlic. Boil the jars, lids, and seals as the sauce is close to done. Add 3 tsp of lemon juice to each hot pint jar, fill with the hot tomato sauce to within ½ inch of the top, and seal the lid, following the instructions for the type of jar you are using. Place all the filled jars in a large pot, insuring they are fully covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 45 minutes. Remove from canner. Let cool. Test the seal after the jar is completely cool. It should not lift off. That’s it!

Other high-acid foods you can using a water bath are jams, jellies, condiments, salsas, pickles, and relishes. Consult with a canning book for more tips.

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


Summer garden

The dog days of summer see thriving warm season crops-tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, sweet potatoes, peppers and Mediterranean herbs. To keep your harvests at their peak, there are few simple things you can do for your garden.

7 Summer Garden Tips

1. Harvest frequently! Plants are in the business of reproducing. Their entire life is dedicated to giving the best chance possible of maintaining more plants for the future. The more you harvest, the more babies the plant will produce. I have noticed that my cucumber plant can only support one large cucumber on each vine. As soon as I pick the big one, you can see one of the small ones jump in size by the very next day! Harvest in the morning for peak juiciness.

2. Mulch your beds. The mulch keeps the moisture from evaporating, allowing more infrequent watering. It also moderates the temperature of the soil so it doesn’t get baking hot. I use mulch in both my garden beds and pots.

3. Water consistently. The cause of cracked fruits is inconsistent water. The plant gets used to very little water and when deluged the fruit’s skin can’t expand fast enough and the fruit cracks. Over watering can also be a problem. Too much water will cause your fruits to be tasteless and mushy. If in the ground, your plants need either a good soaking rain each week or a good watering. I use soaker hoses in my mulched garden beds. Do not water the foliage of your nightshade plants! They are very susceptible to fungal diseases and water on their leaves encourages fungal growth. It is best to water in the morning; you get maximum absorption (biggest bang for your water buck). For pots, you will likely need to water 3 times per week during the height of summer heat. I like pots with a water reservoir built in the bottom.

4. Fertilize monthly with side dressing of compost. It is also a good idea to add minerals to the soil. You can purchase minerals just for gardening. You can also use kelp or seaweed as a fertilizer that also adds other nutrients. If your plants have more minerals, their fruits will, too!

5. Pick insects off daily. Keep a close eye on your plants to you can stop an infestation before it gets started. I pick off bugs daily. If I do get an really bad infestation, I will use diacotomus earth. It is organic and not a chemical. Some people even eat it! It works by scratching the exoskeleton of the insects which leads to dehydration and death. Be careful, though, as it will kill good bugs too. I use it very sparingly and only if desperate. A few bugs don’t eat much. Another option is the use of light covers to keep the bugs from your plants.

6. Keep any diseased leaves groomed from your plants and do not compost them. Diseases can be killed if your compost pile is hot enough. I haven’t progressed far enough yet in my composting skills to trust I am getting the pile hot enough and I don’t want to spread diseases to all my plants.

7. Compost. For all the trimmings from the garden and the kitchen, start a compost pile or get an indoor composter. I have both. My husband built me a fencing ring outside that I throw the big stuff. I have an indoor Naturemill electric composter in the garage for all the kitchen scraps.

For more small space and container gardening tips, visit Melodie's blog at


Lavender plant

Lavender has a large fan club for good reason. It has many uses-a spice for sweet and savory dishes, an ingredient in Herbes de Provence, potpourri, moth deterrent, aromatic ingredient in cleaners and candles, added to beauty and health products for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, a calming fragrance, and a beautiful addition to any garden.

Lavender is in the mint family, originated from the Old World, and has been cultivated since Biblical times. It is typically a short lived perennial. There are several different types of lavender available by seed. The most common that you find in stores is English lavender (lavandula angustifolia formally lavandula officinalis).

Growing Lavender

Lavender has become a weed in Australia as they have the perfect conditions for growing lavender: dry, well drained soil in full sun with good air circulation. Lavender is susceptible to root rot so keep mulch away from the crown of the plant and make sure they get good drainage. All lavenders need little to no fertilizer and prefer alkaline soil. They are carefree plants if planted in the right place in your garden. Most lavenders are not hardy in the colder zones (Zone 4 or below). Be sure to check out the hardiness of a variety before purchasing. You can always grow them as annuals. Lavenders do not like to be transplanted. Some report difficulty in growing from seed. I have grown several from seed with no issue. Lavenders come in various shades of white, blue and purple and heights from 6” to 6 feet. The strength of fragrance varies as well. English lavender is considered to be of the highest quality.

Cooking With Lavender

Lavender ice cubes

In the culinary world, lavender is fun to use as an edible and aromatic addition to many different kinds of dishes. Here are some ideas:

Lavender sugar: Just add a teaspoon to 1/2 cup of sugar and mix well.

Lavender cream: Add 6 stalks of lavender to 1 cup of cream. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator, strain and whip. Use some of the buds as decoration in the cream. They’re edible!

Lavender syrup: Boil 6 stalks of lavender in 2 cups of water and 1 1/2 cup of sugar at a simmer for 15 minutes. Let sit in refrigerator overnight, strain into bottle and keep refrigerated. You can use the lavender syrup in many things. For lavender lemonade, just add one ounce of syrup with 2 ounces of lemon juice in each serving. Add syrup to your hot tea or iced coffee. Drizzle over pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurt or cake. Use it in an adult beverage.

Lavender-infused balsamic or white vinegar: Place lavender stalks in vinegar and allow to steep in a cool dark place. 4 weeks later you will have lavender vinegar. Yum!

Doesn’t a lavender gin sour sound fun? Just add an ounce to the ounce of fresh lemon juice and 2 ounces of gin. Use a stalk for garnish.

The flowers themselves can be used as decoration on cakes, pies, drinks, ice cubes. Bundle them to place in drawers and closets for a beautiful fragrance throughout the house. An additional benefit is that many find lavender to be calming. I use dried lavender and chervil for my body oil. Smells wonderful and I get the added benefit of their medicinal properties.

Fall is a great time to plant perennials so you can get a much larger lavender plant and blooms for next spring!

For more ideas for small space and container gardening organically, see Melodie's blog at


harvested chervil

It’s now that point in the year when we live up to our name on the farm and all of our efforts come to fruition. Plants are going to seed. Time to harvest. Time to get all these little embryonic plants ready to put into packets for someone else’s garden.

Cleaning Dry-Seeded Vs. Wet-Seeded Crops

Seeds are different in this regard. Our process for harvesting and cleaning depends on whether the crop is dry-seeded or wet-seeded. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are examples of wet seeds; beans, lettuce, and basil are examples of dry. Chervil is an herb that successfully overwintered. Which means it's one of the very first to go to seed. Chervil is a dry-seeded crop and was allowed to dry in the field.

When harvested, we hung it in the mill to dry even further. Until the leaves and stems were brown and as close to feeling like ancient, fragile paper as possible. Then we threshed the chervil. There really is quite a bit of finesse involved with threshing. It’s not just whacking dead plants with a stick (or whiffle ball bat). If you bludgeon instead of thresh, you’ll create way more chaff than necessary. Which will just make cleaning harder.  Threshing the chervil with a stick is just as much a stroking motion as hitting. And listening is incredibly important: you can hear when more chaff than seed is falling on the tarp.

Cleaning Out the Chaff

When threshing was done, we gathered all of the detritus on the tarp to screen it. This is the first step to cleaning out the chaff. We have screens with openings of all different sizes and shapes because we have seeds of all different sizes and shapes. You want to find the screen that’s just right; that lets mostly seed fall through the openings. Until you’re familiar with every seed, it’s a bit of trial and error. Once screened, the cleaning continues with the use of fans. Two boxes fans, actually, one positioned right in front of the other on a table. Two fans are used because, in combination, the airflow is less turbulent and can be fine-tuned with greater precision.

clean chervilImmediately in front of and below the fans are two bins, side by side so that one bin is closer to the fans than the other. The detritus is poured through the airflow of the fans. Because seed and chaff are different weights, they separate in the breeze; mature seed is heavier and will fall closer to the fans, while chaff and immature seeds are lighter and will drift more. This means mature seed – the stuff we want – falls into the bin closest to the fans and the chaff blows into the second bin. Or off into the mill. Like screening, there’s a bit of experimenting to find the right strength of airflow to make this happen.

We often clean the same batch of seed several times in this way, both to ensure the maximum amount of mature seed is kept and the maximum amount of chaff isn’t. And when we are done, we’re left with clean chervil seed. Or kale seed. Or radish seed. Or whatever dry-seeded crop we’re working on. The seed is then bagged in a cloth bag, labeled, and put in the cooler. To wait patiently until we’re ready to start filling packets. To wait patiently while we continue with the harvest.

You can see photos of every step in the process by visiting the original post.

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


seed cabinet

I have spent the past year studying seed libraries; researching every one I could find in the US and Canada in the process of writing Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People. Published by New Society, the release date is February 1, 2015. These local seed-sharing efforts have sprouted in response to the grassroots movement of people wanting to be closer to the source of their food. In saving seeds and sharing them with others they are truly investing in their community’s future and celebrating its past. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that a new seed library in Pennsylvania was told that by operating as most other seed libraries were doing, they were violating the Pennsylvania seed laws. You can read their story here.

How Do Seed Libraries Work?

It is too bad that happened, but at the same time, things like that show that there needs to be more understanding about the issues involved. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture felt that any distribution of seeds should be regulated according to their seed laws, which were put in place to protect consumers from unscrupulous seed companies. However, there is no money involved when seeds change hands through a seed library. Patrons are free to take seeds or not. In fact, they often count their seeds out themselves, so they are their own inspector of what they are getting.

People in the seed library world are wondering if other seed libraries will be challenged. I imagine if they are, the issue will eventually end up in court. The Simpson Seed Library in Pennsylvania is still operating on the condition that they only supply seeds that are commercially packaged for the current year. One of the attractions of seed libraries is that you might find something not easily available commercially—something that grows especially well in your region, but not everywhere. Another attraction is that you can find seeds that have been grown by someone in your neighborhood. It is that personal connection that makes the difference. The Simpson Seed Library encourages their patrons to save seeds themselves and share them through a seed swap that will be held at the library. Apparently seed swaps are still legal.

Seed Swaps

Seed swaps are great. In fact, I think that if a public library was considering starting a seed library, but was hesitant to delve into storing and packaging seeds themselves; hosting annual or seasonal seed swaps would be the way to go. Regular seed swaps could evolve into having seeds permanently at a library with the replenishment coming from seeds donated from the swaps. Seed swaps can be anywhere and combine with other community activities. Besides the how-to of starting a seed library, my book also covers seed swaps.

If you were interested in promoting seed saving and sharing there are lots of things you can do that don’t actually involve seeds being exchanged. I’ve talked about some of those possibilities at Homeplace Earth and in my book. Anything we can do as communities to celebrate seeds and inform the public will help to create better understanding for all. We can read, sing, and dance about them. We can draw and photograph them and watch them grow in gardens. The more we have seed related activities in public, the more the public will be aware of the importance of seeds and recognize the difference between things such as a seed library and a seed company. People traded seeds long before there were seed companies and governments that regulated them. I invite you to make seed saving and sharing a part of your life.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to at


The first half of August is our last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. The second half of August is when we sow most of our winter crops. Depending on your climate zone, your dates might need to be earlier or later than ours. We're in cold-hardiness zone 7, and our average first frost date is October 14.  In August 2012 I wrote in my blog about Last Chance Sowings. Act now or very soon to provide fresh harvests, storage crops and, in the right climates, some crops to overwinter.

Consider planting these three categories of vegetable crops during late summer and fall:

Warm weather crops that will die with frost.
Cool weather crops that grow well in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in your summer.
Cold-hardy crops to grow over the winter and get off to a fast start in early spring.

Planning and timing are critical – you may not get a second chance with that vegetable, if germination fails the first time. The flip-flop challenge with fall crops is sowing in hot weather, followed by keeping the crop happy in cold weather. 

Warm Weather Crops

Don’t give up too soon! But be realistic about your chance of success. For crops that need to be harvested before killing frosts arrive, the formula for the last sowing date of frost-tender crops is:

Number of days from planting outdoors until harvest (read the catalog or seed packet)
+ Number of days from seeding to transplant if growing your own transplants
+ Number of days you want to harvest from that planting
+ 14 days “Fall Factor” to allow for the slowing down of growth rate as the weather cools
+ 14 days from your average first fall frost date (safety margin in case you get an early frost)
= Days to count back from your average first fall frost date, to find your last sowing date

With rowcover to throw over on chilly nights, you can risk later sowings. For example, yellow squash takes 50 days from sowing to harvest, and our last planting is 8/5, a whole month later than the above calculation suggests. Towards the frost date, you are just keeping the developing fruits growing, so you don’t need to worry that rowcover prevents pollination – you don’t need to get more flowers pollinated. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. (Unless you’ve reached the exhaustion point we call “Praying for a Killing Frost.”) It’s easy to get harvests for a whole extra month from mature plants you have still alive.

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis

Cool Weather Spring and Fall Crops

This group includes beets, carrots, chard, spinach, lettuce, scallions, peas, potatoes, Asian greens and other leafy brassicas, turnips, rutabagas and radishes. Fall gives you a second chance to enjoy these crops. The flavor of crops produced during warm late summer days and cool nights can be a delicious combination of succulent crunch and sweetness.

The above formula for calculating last sowing dates for frost-tender crops can be modified for hardier vegetables too. Here's an example: Early White Vienna Kohlrabi needs 58 days from sowing to harvest (line 1). You can direct sow, so line 2 = 0. You can harvest it all at once and store it in your cooler, so line 3 is 1 day. Assuming you don’t want to use rowcover for this, line 4 = 14. Line 5 = 14 also. That all adds up to 87 days. Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F. The temperature at our farm is not likely to drop to 15°F before the end of November, so counting 31 days in October, 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October, or sow in late August and harvest late November.

We sow fall carrots along with some "indicator beets," and run overhead irrigation at night about every other night until they come up. When we see the indicator beets starting to germinate, we flame-weed the carrot beds. Next day there are hazy rows of green - germinated carrots!

We made ourselves a chart of sowing dates for fall harvest crops so that we don’t have to calculate each time. It helps us ensure we don’t sow too late to get a decent harvest. We made this for brassica crops, but you can use the general method to chart later into the fall or winter for other crops.

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

Days to   Harvest Harvest Harvest
Harvest   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul
80d   7-Jun 27-Jun 12-Jul
90d   28-May 17-Jun 2-Jul
100d   18-May 7-Jun 22-Jun
110d   8-May 28-May 12-Jun
120d   28-Apr 18-May 2-Jun
130d   18-Apr 8-May 23-May

We don't sow spinach till September, so we're not behind on that yet! Because spinach germinates poorly in warm soil, we wait for temperatures to drop. This "summer" has been extremely cool, but we're in no hurry to start spinach earlier than usual, because of all the other tasks. This year it would probably work. I saw fall dead nettle germinating on 8/4. That's a phenology sign that the soil is cool enough for spinach. I've been recording phenology data here since 2003. 8/4 is the earliest date I have for dead nettle, by a margin of 11 days! It has been as late as 9/1 (2004). I also saw chickweed on 8/18. Fall is coming early this year!

Cold-Hardy Crops To Grow Over Winter

I covered this topic in detail in Growing for Market magazine in September 2010, and in my slideshow Cold-hardy winter vegetables. The gist is “Before taking the plunge, know your climate, know your resources, know your market, know your crops, and when you don’t know, experiment on a small scale.” Useful information includes the winter-kill temperature of the crop you want to grow. Choose hardy varieties, and be clear about whether you intend to harvest outdoors all winter (kale, spinach, leeks, parsnips, collards for us), or whether you want to have small crops going into winter so you can rest during the winter and be first out the gate in early spring, with crops waiting for you.

Flame Weeding photo credit: Brittany  Lewis; row crop credit Kathryn Simmons

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