Organic Gardening

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

Add to My MSN



Sweet potatoes are a straight-forward but frost-tender crop - they thrive in hot conditions and are drought-resistant once established. They don't need high soil fertility levels or a lot of organic matter. Field planting comes later than most spring crops, leaving you free to deal with other transplants first. Likewise, after the vines cover the ground they need little attention during the summer (apart from watering) until harvest.

Sweet potatoes are often called yams, but this is inaccurate! They are related to morning glories. Sweet potatoes are roots, not tubers, and will not even cross with yams. True yams are tropical tubers, not morning glory cousins. Enough about yams!

A good introduction can be found in the ATTRA publication Sweetpotato: Organic Production. One baked sweet potato of 114gm (4oz) has 185% the RDA of vitamin A, 28% the RDA of Vitamin C, 100% of vitamin E, lots of anti-oxidants, and 160 calories, none from fat.

Deer are the main pests of sweet potatoes. The main successful ways to deal with deer are guns, dogs and fences, although we have success with motion-sensor water sprinklers too.

Sweet Potato Varieties

Modern varieties such as 'Georgia Jet' can grow to a good size in only 90 days, so sweet potatoes are not just for the South! As well as the traditional orange kinds, there are purple, yellow and white ones. There are ornamental kinds used for city beautification. Some have fancy-cut or heart-shaped leaves. There is the 'Bunch Porto Rico' which has short vines, ideal for those with not much space.

We grow 'Beauregard', 'Georgia Jet' and a white variety we don’t know the name of. It is less sweet than the orange varieties, and could be an alternative to “Irish” potatoes for people seeking food self-reliance in the south, where Irish potatoes are prone to diseases, and it is not recommended to replant ones you’ve grown.

Sweet Potato Crop Requirements

You need sunshine and warmth to grow good sweet potatoes. It is not simply the number of days since planting, or your winter hardiness plant zone that create heavy yields, but the growing degree days (GDD, accumulated heat units).

According to Sandhill Preservation Society, fast-maturing sweet potatoes need about 1200 GDD (calculated on a base temperature of 55 degrees F) to produce a good yield. Black plastic mulch, row cover or a hoophouse can help increase the GDD. Daytime temperatures of 90 degrees F, with 70 degrees F nights are ideal.

Planting Out Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are usually planted out about 2 weeks after the last frost. The soil temperature should reach 65 degrees F at 4 inches deep on 4 consecutive days. For us, that’s around May 12, although we were 3 weeks later than that this year, due to cold rainy weather.

I prefer to wait for the slips to grow four leaves or more in the greenhouse before planting out, rather than rush them out. For big potatoes, just plant the slip vertically. For average-sized roots but larger total yields, plant the slips horizontally 2-3 inches deep. Have 3-5 leaf nodes underground and only the tips above the ground – this also gives the plants a second chance if frost strikes.

If, on the other hand, you are planting in hot dry weather, water the soil first, and keep the roots enclosed in damp compost as you plant. Sweet potatoes are often hilled to minimize flood damage. Hills can be made before planting. In colder areas, black plastic mulch can be used to warm the pre-formed ridges for about three weeks before you plant, and increase both the rate of growth and the yield.

We used to plant on the flat in bare soil, with overhead irrigation. We sometimes had bad weeds. We now use drip tape for irrigation — fewer weeds! After a wet year, we tried ridging before planting, to reduce flood losses. It was a bit hard to keep the drip tape on the ridges — we planted on alternate sides of the tape, so it couldn’t slide sown.

Nowadays we use ridges, drip tape and biodegradable plastic mulch (even fewer weeds!). We run the drip tape while planting, and nudge it over to be where we want it, relative to the plants.

Using Biodegradable Plastic Mulch


I wrote a blog post for Mother Earth News entitled How to Lay Biodegradable Plastic Mulch by Hand. In my blog, I've written about it, too. I researched the two main kinds of biodegradable plastic, and wrote about that in my blog Qualified Praise for Biodegradable Plastic Mulch on May 21, 2014.

We like biodegradable plastic mulch because it warms the soil, and we get higher yields. After keeping the weeds down for a few months, it biodegrades, so we don't have to remove it and cause heaps of agricultural plastic trash. It's especially suitable for vining crops like sweet potatoes and watermelons, because the vines cover the ground as the plastic disintegrates, and weeds have little chance of growing.

The Stages of Sweet Potato Plant Development

Your plants won’t seem to be growing much during the first month after transplanting. Don't worry - this is the root development stage. Roots can dive 8’ deep in 40 days. Give an inch of water per week as needed, and pull weeds.

The second month or so is the vine growth stage. The roots begin to store starch and sugar close to the base of the stem. After the vines cover the ground very few weeds will grow. We often do one walkthrough to pull or clip pigweed. Don't worry if the vines root along the length sporadically - it does not reduce yield, even though you may have heard otherwise.

During the third and fourth month of growth, the potatoes grow and the vining slows down. Unlike white potatoes, which come to a natural end when the tops die, sweet potatoes have no pre-destined end date, so you can decide when to dig them up, before cold weather. The longer you wait, the bigger the potatoes, but you are gambling with the weather. Make sure you get them up before the soil temperature gets down to 55°F, or they will be permanently damaged.

Photos and photo credits: Sweet Potatoes Closeup Photo by Nina Gentle; Sweet Corn and Sweet Potatoes Photo by Bridget Aleshire; Sweet Potatoes on Bioplastic Photo by Britany Lewis

Pam Dawling manages the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Pam's blog is on her website and on Facebook. Read all of Pam'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.


Some of you may have heard that this April 15th I gave a speech in England at the invitation of HRH Prince Charles. The event was a celebration of the gardens and farm he has been developing for 35 years.

Highgrove Gardens is a fabulous demonstration center the Prince has built to embody the best of energy efficiency, endangered species restoration, rare breed conservation and many other aspects of sustainability.

The Garden was opened to visitors and high-profile speakers volunteered their time to help raise funds for the Prince’s Charities. Many of them were BBC TV program hosts. Because this was a charity event, there was no compensation. So we went to Go Fund Me to host a crowd funded campaign (details and posts, here) to gather the funds that were needed for the trip. 130 friends and family donated over $8,000 to make the trip possible.

'The Alchemy of Composting'

The speech was titled The Alchemy of Composting- How 2=2=9, if you let it. The 35 people who almost filled the room were very pleased and enthusiastic about the message. Section 2 of the speech is included below. The full text of the speech is here.

The second of these alchemies is amazing versatility.

Our bacterial friends are busy these days. Though our use of them goes back as far as the history of fermentation, today we are utilizing our knowledge of composting organisms in amazing ways. From turning corn stalks into automotive fuel to cleaning up toxic waste, one of the hottest trends on the planet is the use of bacteria.

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, co-authors of The Hidden Half of Nature, call the knowledge revolution happening now the ascendancy of the micro-biome of the soil and of the gut, the most profound scientific change since we learned that the earth revolves around the sun.

Composting could mean saving food scraps and feeding a bin full of worms. This is not a silly idea. One cubic yard of worm castings sells for $1,400.

Composting and Animal Agriculture

It could be the processing of mortalities from animal agriculture. A large chicken facility with 30,000 chickens can easily have 200 mortalities a day. Wood chips are laid in a 2-foot-high pile then a 1-foot-high layer of dead chickens, followed by a foot of wood chips. I tell you folks in about three days you have the best, slow-roasted.

No really, in three weeks you have nothing but a few beaks and claws. The same process is used for pigs, cows and horses. It features no water or air pollution and compost ready for the using at the end of the process.

In Dodge City, Kansas, the packing plants slaughter 6,000 cattle per day. Every cow has bushel of paunch manure in the intestines. This material is half way through the process of digestion and has characteristics of both wet grass and manure. The answer to this massive problem, of course, is composting.

It could be using bacteria to digest the contents of spray paint cans - propane propellant and hydrocarbon paint or a semi-trailer load of spoiled Pizza dough. Imagine a semi-trailer and three black SUVs pull into the compost facility. Black-suited agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with bulletproof vests stand guard while workers slowly open and pour out bottle after bottle of over-age Chevas-Regal scotch. It’s a scene to make a grown man cry, but our bacterial buddies are up to the challenge.

Compost Tea and Beneficial Bacteria

Compost can neutralize both strong alkaline or acidic feedstocks and leave a neutral pH. It contains enzymes to separate the strong inorganic bonds and organic ions that render them harmless.

Compost teas are a powerful way to influence crops. Spraying a mixture of a compost tea and molasses is a tried and true technique in organic farming. Very specialized strains of bacterial inoculants are even capable of giving a crop a systemically acquired resistance to a pest.

In California, Ray Helland was making special blends of bacterially active topsoil for playing fields. The weather forced him to leave some of his special soil on an asphalt parking lot for 6 months. When he returned to remove the compost, the bacteria had eaten all the asphalt, leaving the just the clean rocks. He collected some of the bottom layer of the compost and started culturing compost tea from it.

From the initial 5,600 species of bacteria, he mixed 12 strains into an affordable compost tea spray. 300 species in his blend are previously unknown to science. 5 species in his blend have DNA so strange that they can’t even be placed in a phylum. His product was tested against the anti-nematode products from agro-chemical giants, Monsanto and Syngenta.

One thousand strawberries plants were treated in each plot. Both the agro-giants plots lost 600 of the 1,000 to nematode pests. Our hero’s plot lost six plants out of 1,000 to the nematodes.

Though these strains of bacteria are naturally occurring, it’s finders-keepers when it comes to the most promising products, with fortunes in the balance for the finders. To date, this gentleman has built a robust business selling his product and has turned down some very large offers to sell out.

Natur-Tech compost system in operation. Photo by Jim McNelly.

Future Compost Trends

Even the way we compost is changing greatly. My friend Jim McNelly, a fouder of the US Compost Council, has invented the Natur-Tech composting system based on shipping containers. He loads the containers with a special mix of materials, computer controls the oxygen and temperature levels and uses finished compost to absorb the odors as a biofilter.

He can process completed batches in only a few weeks with no turning necessary. With precise control of the ingredients and the process, Jim makes “designer compost” to meet his client’s standards. He was the first to produce enriched compost with an NPK analysis of 4-1-1. Normal compost has an analysis of 1-1-1 and is not considered a fertilizer.

The intended effect of the speech is to let people know that we have the tools we need to reverse climate change, restore diversity and health to our ecosystems and ourselves…and that it amounts to going into a respectful partnership with the creatures of Middle Earth-the bacteria and friends who inhabit the soil beneath our feet and the chambers of our intestines.

The full text of this speech is on my website, Compost Education.

Stan Slaughter is a presenter providing waste reduction/composting programs in schools and for adults in cities, counties and states. He has visited more than 1,000 schools and 100,000 students in Kansas. He is also active in the U.S. Composting Council, presenting workshops entitled Best Practices in Compost Education at the annual conference. He was the first winner of the Missouri Environmental Educator of the Year award in 1995. Read all of Stan’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.



lettuces growing on hugulkultur bed

A journal entry from my pre-gardening days reads as follows:

I just returned from the farmers’ market with two pounds of apricots, half a pound of ground cherries, a bag each of arugula, radishes, pepper cress and kale. One of the farmers gave me a peach spray, which now brightens my kitchen.

I’m grateful to these family farmers who till the land, and then bring their produce and other wonderful foods to the city. Hard work, I imagine, and not particularly lucrative. Still, I hope I’m not romanticizing their life when I dream of working the land and depending less on others to grow and raise my food.

Living in the city, I do what I can to support organic, local, biodynamic farming. I shop at the farmers’ market and food coop, have a sideline as a food educator at CSAs, prepare most of my meals from scratch. Yet, in my life, the farm-to-table cycle remains incomplete. With the exception of a few potted herbs on the windowsill, I have little chance to grow or raise what I eat. Sometimes I bring fruit and vegetable scraps to the food scrap collection site in the park. Other times I toss them in the trash. In either situation, I miss out on the pleasure of returning them to nature myself and in so doing nourishing soil and soul.

Now, four years into growing much of the produce we eat, I realize that garden farming connects me even more deeply than I had imagined to the earth, the life cycle, my body and food. It is also more difficult not only physically, but mentally as well. Had I known more from the start, no doubt it would have been easier and more effective. It is in this spirit that I am sharing some of what I’ve learned.

I make no claims to expertise. Certainly, there are professional gardeners, farmers and agricultural scientists who know much more than I do. Still, my hope is that those newer than I to growing their own food may benefit from these tips.

1. Plant Edible Woody Perennials First

Edible woody perennials include fruit trees, berry bushes and grapevines. Since these perennials take several years to mature, the sooner you plant them the sooner they bear fruit. I resisted at first. Planting fourteen fruit trees by hand is labor intensive. And since we had no source of free cultivars, buying the trees also made a dent in our wallet. Fortunately, my wife prevailed. Now, four springs later, apple, cherry, peach, plum and pear blossoms dot our trees. Our Chinese apricot tree is laden with tiny hard fruit.

The second spring we planted a variety of bushes including raspberry, gooseberry, choke cherry, goji berry, service berry, sea buckthorn berry, nero aronia, and currant. We planted elderberry, hazelnut and persimmon trees. We also planted grapes.

These botanical treasures contribute to making us feel rooted in our homestead. They also contribute to self-reliance by feeding us well. As for finances, already they’ve more than paid us back.

2. Plant Edible Herbaceous Perennials Next

I wish I’d learned this tip sooner. Come early spring, it’s such a pleasure to see sorrel leaves poking through the snow. Soon after the rhubarb, lovage, dandelion, walking onions, and asparagus appear. Our perennial roots and herbs include garlic chives, culinary lavender, oregano, thyme, horseradish, hyssop, and sage. (Rosemary, which we hoped would be perennial, turned out not to be in our zone four climate, and so we plant it anew each year.)

Once planted, perennial edibles provide good food early in the season with little work. And some (including sorrel, horseradish, hyssop, oregano, and thyme) have another benefit as well: they do a wonderful job of keeping grass and other weeds at bay.

3. Grow What You Love (and What You Can)

Midwinter when it’s minus twenty and snow drifts cover the porch, we enjoy sitting by the fire planning our garden. It’s easy that time of year to get carried away. Yes, we’d enjoy a walnut tree. But we lack the climate, soil constitution, and acreage (not to mention the energy) to grow everything we’d like. Easy to rule out in our zone four climate are heat-loving trees such as avocado and lime. And as much as we’d like to have blueberries, the pH of our soil would make growing these a daunting task.

So how do we decide? First, we eliminate what we cannot grow. Then we decide what we like. We also experiment. Over the years, we’ve learned, for instance, that although we adore broccoli, it tends not to flourish in our garden. So much planting, watering and weeding all for a few buggy florets.

Potatoes, on the other hand, thrive. So do sunchokes, lettuces, arugula, radishes, chard, cress, parsnips, nasturtiums and many other species of edible plants. Our raspberry bushes produce so well and with so little effort that each summer we invite neighbors to pick from our patch.

We’ve tweaked our choices based on what we’ve learned about our land, climate and preferences. Tomatoes are a winner. Not only do we adore them, but they’re easy to bottle, dry or freeze. Come January, it’s such a pleasure to reconstitute sun-dried tomatoes for a sandwich or side dish.

Garlic has more than earned its place in our garden. Two autumns ago, we planted one hundred fifty cloves (at no expense, since we used the garlic we’d grown the previous year), and ended up last summer with one hundred fifty-two heads of garlic. We harvested them in July and they lasted until March. Each June we enjoy several meals of sautéed garlic scapes.

So how do you know what to grow? Learn from cooperative extension sites. Learn from neighbors and friends. Learn from Mother Earth News. But then take that knowledge and adapt it to your circumstances and tastes. To do so will contribute not only to sustainable farming, but to a sustainable experience too.

4. Learn about Companion Planting

Planting two (or more) crops in the same bed (either together or one following the other) can have certain advantages including contributing to biodiversity and reducing plant disease. Depending on the crops, it may also discourage pests. Yet, not all plants work well together. Before learning this, we planted onions and peas in the same bed to the detriment of both. On the other hand, tomatoes and basil get along well. Radishes serve as a trap crop for cucumbers protecting them from certain pests. For other examples, see An In-Depth Companion Planting Guide (Sarah Israel, Mother Earth News, May/June 1981).

Planting two crops together that mature at different times is also a way of making good use of limited space. We’ve been doing this with onions and lettuce.

5. Keep Red Wiggler Composting Worms

Composting worms produce castings, which are often referred to with good reason as black gold. We tried planting heirloom tomato seeds indoors both with and without castings. The difference in growth rates was significant. Especially in colder climates with short growing seasons for tomatoes and other annual plants, this can make the difference between having and not having a crop.

Castings have other benefits as well including improving soil structure, promoting microbial activity and producing tastier vegetables and fruit.

We keep a worm bin in our basement. To be honest, I resisted this practice too. Visions whirled in my head of little red wigglers wiggling out of the bin and into the house. This has not happened. After nearly three years, nary a worm has escaped. And though I’m still squeamish about handling the critters ungloved, I’m wholly convinced of their benefits. So much so that I’d keep them even if my gloves disappeared.

6. Raise Hens

If you’re a bit of a hedonist, as I am, free-range eggs meet a need. Mornings, I sauté homegrown garlic, and then add eggs from our hens. Few meals prove more delightful. Building (or buying) a coop involves an investment of labor and cost. But once done, hens are easy to maintain. And the more time they range freely, the less they cost to feed.

In addition to providing eggs, free-range hens do a wonderful job of controlling garden pests. (Be careful though when and where you allow them to range since they enjoy greens too.) They also provide manure, which once composted (do so for at least a year) nourishes the soil. Here, too, is another way to increase self-reliance. Skip the store-bought compost. Use your own instead.

As for hens that stop laying, several options exist. You can run a retirement community for old chickens, you can harvest them for food or you can give them away. One day we hope to avail ourselves of the second option. In the meantime, we give them to someone who does.

7. Compost in and Near Your Garden

The first year we gardened, we put vegetable scraps, leaves, coffee grounds and other organic matter in a compost area far from the garden. This worked well except that conveying the compost to the garden beds became yet another project. Now, often we use a method of composting known in permaculture as chop and drop. Quite simply, it involves placing a mixture of (chopped) green and brown organic matter on the garden bed and leaving it to compost. This works particularly well in our hugelkultur beds where we add organic matter to the areas in which we’re building the soil.

At some point last year we must have added potato and garlic scraps to the hugelkultur bed. This spring, we had the pleasant surprise of potatoes and garlic, a free composting gift.

A separate composting area (preferably, close to the garden) has the benefit of permitting the addition of fresh manure. It also allows for a more controlled ratio of green to brown organic matter. Once the compost is ready, you can add it to your garden as needed.

True to my pre-gardening vision, I find composting a deeply satisfying endeavor. Not only does it contribute to the farm-to-table cycle, but it also gives me an excuse in any weather to head out of doors for a while.          

8. Make Your Peace with Sharing

It can be deeply satisfying to share your harvest with family and friends. People seem to enjoy receiving a bottle of tomatoes, a braid of garlic, a jar of raspberry jam. But I’m referring here not to people, with whom we have a choice of whether or not to share, but to critters and pests, with which often we don’t. We’re committed to organic farming. We also value self-reliance, which means we try to limit our dependence on consumer products even if they are organic.

Still, even within these parameters, methods exist to discourage critters. Some we’ve found helpful include crop rotation, companion planting (including the use of trap crops), and handpicking. (Disclaimer: My wife is in charge of this task. She picks slugs off leaves, and then squashes the critters. My task is to applaud her.)

For more information on the topic, I’d suggest Barbara Pleasant’s article “Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t” (Mother Earth News, June/July 2011).

I’d also suggest making peace with sharing. Not all. Hopefully, very little. But a bit. We’d like to think we have a tacit agreement with the birds. They eat the cherries from the top of the trees. We eat those from the bottom. Occasionally, a worm nibbles on one. We’ve made our peace with the arrangement. In exchange, we get fruit that’s organic and sweet.          

9. Preserve Your Bounty

Come winter, there’s such joy in opening a jar of homegrown tomatoes or peaches. But even if you lack the time or inclination to bottle, you can preserve your bounty by drying or freezing. Curing garlic, onions, and potatoes is simple. We line the garlic on a quilt in the basement where it remains cool in the summer and leave it there for six weeks. Then we trim it and place it in the food storage pantry under the basement stairs. That’s it. It lasts six to eight months.

Onions require only about two weeks to cure. So do potatoes. But since the latter require dark, we lay them out in the food storage pantry. Winter squash cures on the kitchen counter where it’s warm. Two weeks later we move it to the food storage pantry. Depending on the variety, it usually lasts until the end of the year.

Tomatoes are easy to dry in a dehydrator or in the sun. We’ve also dried melon, grapes, currants, ground cherries and green beans to good effect. We tried summer squash, but found we didn’t like it as much.

Herbs are easy. And pleasant. We bundle and tie them with cooking twine, and then hang them with clothespins from twine in a fairly dark room. When the herbs crumble they’re ready. It’s that simple. We’ve had success with lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme, oregano (including the flowers, which make a nice bouquet), hyssop (also including the flowers) and sage.

10. Take Time to Relax

Just as food tastes better when we’re hungry, relaxation feels better after work. How wonderful it is to stroll through the garden admiring the fruits (as well as vegetables and flowers) of our labor. How pleasant it is to savor the aroma of lavender in our kitchen or bath. How joyous it is to relax on the porch savoring a meal from our garden.

Felicia Rose lives and works on a small homestead in northern Utah. 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.



Facebook post: Should I let my chickens run freely through my garden? I really like the way they eat bugs while I am working.

At last count: 24 against, none in favor.

For the first few years, we allowed our chickens to free range the entire backyard, fencing off just the garden in full summer. It was charming. Two black-and-white Barred Rock hens roaming around, pecking in the dirt, finding a dust bath.

And then they discovered the back doorstep, or, as Mark calls it, the Big Coop. They spent comfortable hours there, chatting, digging through the sweepings, and pooping on the doormat. When they were not on the doorstep to the Big Coop, they were cruising under the picnic table, brushing again our bare legs looking for dinner crumbs. Again, charming, until George joined us on the table one evening and explored our plates for tidbits.

The entire backyard became a barefoot hazard zone. The last straw came, however, one spring day when I was gloating over the germination of my third planting out of carrots. They were tall and proud — and gone in one swoop of Myrtle’s  leg. I did not mind losing an occasional leaf of kale or a bean to a chicken — they needed greens, too — but those carrots: the last straw.

We built a fence and relegated the ladies to the back third of the yard, around the compost heaps. They had grass, bushes, and compost. Everything a chicken could want, except total freedom.

The chicken wire fence all around the backyard worked fine for George and Myrtle, our older, plumper Barred Rocks, but when we acquired Gracie the Escape Artist, stronger measures were called for.

Although our yard is clearly the best and greenest forage in the neighborhood, the dust is always better in the back alley. I came home to several notes on my door reading “Your chickens were out, but we herded them back in again.” Great for building community, but not so safe for chickens.

We had just dismantled a fence, so we used the old boards to create a barrier around the far back yard, five feet high and closed to view. Chickens have small brains and little imagination. They do not try to escape to driveways and alleys they cannot see.

I made a low spot in the fence so the little girl who visited her grandparents next door could still see in and called it good.  This had the added advantage of hiding the flock from free-ranging dogs, who got into the flock one afternoon while I was away.

We still let the ladies free range in the wintertime. Their coop is set on the raised garden beds and travels from bed to bed as we harvest the last of the fall crops.

Starting in October, there is not much damage they can do and I am willing to erect a flexible fence around one or two beds which still hold kale and cabbage. They spend their days rooting around the garden soil which has been covered in leaves. Their strong legs and claws shred the leaf and straw mulches; their poop adds much needed nutrients to the mixture.

On days when I arrive home before dark, I let them out for an hour or so. They run towards the Big Coop, flapping their wings madly. They dig around the doorstep for sweepings treats and then wander the rest of the space. The constant winter rains wash away the poop. By the time they have made the rounds — back door, under the rabbit hutch, the compost pile — the afternoon is ending and they wander home to roost. The days are too short to get in trouble. Just the way we like it.

Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.

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.


Kitchen Knives

Here is a great repurpose that saves money: Our favorite planting tools on the farm are kitchen knives and masonry trowels. Garden trowels are specialty items that can get pricey when you need many for volunteers on the farm.

Instead, we gather everyday kitchen knives from yard sales and donations. They are often about a dime a knife. Kitchen knives are perfect for planting seedlings from our 72-cell trays. Seedlings slide out with the guidance of a kitchen knife, then the knife is used to dig a hole and cover the seedling with soil.

We use steak knives for harvesting crops that need to be cut flat at ground level, like lettuce or napa cabbage. Although we buy the harvesting steak knives new, a box of steak knives is still a savings as compared to garden tools.

Masonry trowels are $3.50 at a hardware store as compared to $8.00 for a transplanting trowel in the garden department. Masonry trowels seem like they were made for planting from 4-inch pots, they match in size so well.

We like the straight edges of masonry trowels for making perfectly rectangular holes in the soil for seedlings shaped out of 4-inch pots. We grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and squashes in 4-inch pots and transplant them out to the field, using these trowels.

Of course, masonry trowels weren’t made for planting anything at all, but the sizing is just right for it. They are also heavy-duty, made for mixing heavy cement, so they last a long time.

Cement trowel as planting tool

With kitchen knives as well as masonry trowels, we put the tool into the soil as deep as the seedling’s length. Move it back and forth once, making a rectangular hole for the seedling. The seedling can be dropped right into the hole and covered with a bit of soil.

I am not sure why garden trowels are always curved. That can be useful when scooping soil like a handheld shovel, but for transplanting, I find straight edges to match the shape of seedlings best. It just so happens that these straight edge tools — kitchen knives and masonry trowels — are perfect for the job, a money-saving repurpose for gardeners.

What other tools do you cross over to use on the farm or in the garden, in disguise as garden tools?

Planting with Kitchen Knife

As you may observe from the photos, we use woven landscape cloth as mulch, so we are planting into a designated size hole. My husband, Phil, adapted a disposable plastic mulch layer to lay and re-roll woven landscape cloth so that one roll of cloth can be re-used for many years. You can learn more about our mulching story, leading up to our use of woven landscape cloth, and watch a video about the mulch layer.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life on the farm's Facebook Page. For more about House in the Woods Farm, go to the House in the Woods website, and read all of Ilene'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.


Flowery weeds and volunteers

I’m sure most of you have heard some version of the old adage, “A weed is simply any plant growing in an unwanted place.” When combined with “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” you can sometimes have eye-opening conversations (especially with neighbors).

I doubt many would argue that the photo array above departs from beauty, at least in the state of the plants when photographed. With the exception of the bee balm (monarda fistulosa), each is a volunteer in my garden. I included the latter because it has spread mercilessly (sometimes with my help).

I found the wild geranium (geranium maculatum) in my vegetable garden during last year’s spring weeding. It seemed to be something I might want to see as it matured so I moved it to an area more to my liking. I’d almost forgotten about it until it bloomed. A quick internet search helped me identify this delicate-bloomed plant. I was thrilled that I’d kept it.

The yarrow (achillea millefolium) showed up near the house itself when we stopped mowing every square inch of lawn a few years ago. Whether it was brought in by birds or the poor thing simply sprang free of being mowed down every year will remain a mystery. Happily, it continues to spread and I will try to transplant it throughout the garden. I love the bright flowers it brings as do the bees and butterflies.

Weeds or Medicinal Herbs?

Only recently did I educate myself about the prickly lettuce (lactuca serriola). I decided to attack the weeds growing on our bank. This tallish, dandelion-like beast was prolifically volunteering all over the embankment. Thankfully, it’s a relatively painless plant to pull—the prickly part isn’t painful and the roots are quite shallow. However, my interest was piqued enough for me to identify it. Once again, Google came through and informed me that this “weed” had some fascinating medicinal qualities.

At this point in my gardening, I wasn’t surprised to find out there might be healthful uses for a former mystery plant. As a person who loves trying natural remedies whenever possible, being introduced to this one was most intriguing. I pulled the leaves off of a few younger plants for drying. I’ll experiment with them at a later date.

I’ll add a major qualifier here: I am not now, nor have I ever been a medical doctor. Any information I share here that seems like medical advice should be taken ONLY as personal anecdotal information. I highly advise everyone to seek medical attention for injury or illness as necessary.

That being said, a great many herbs and plants have qualities that can help with some injuries and illness. The next photo brings us to my own favorite volunteer in our yard. I have both narrow leaf plantain (plantago laceolata) and broad leaf plantain (plantago major). Most of you likely have one or both of these “weeds” in your grass or garden.

Before you roll your eyes too far back into your head and curse the memories of ridding your property of this pervasive plant, let me tell you a few of the reasons I cherish and celebrate it.

Broad and narrow leafed plantain

A couple of years ago I was bit by a feral cat, my fault… I pushed her further than I should have. I cleaned the wound and started watching it. The next day it looked a bit more red and puffy than I thought it should so I soaked it in epsom salts. The following day, the telltale red streak of sepsis started to creep away from the wound and up my arm. I immediately upped my treatment to include drinking an abundance of pau d’arco tea (a blood purifier) and kept freshly chopped compresses of plantain on the wound for the next 24 hours. All the while, I was monitoring my body for signs of worsening sepsis. By the next day, the red streak was gone, the red puffiness was diminished nearly to nothing, and the wound felt much better. I continued treatment for another day or so for added measure.

I want to reiterate, sepsis (or blood poisoning, as it used to be called) is nothing to mess with. I actually know someone who died of this particular complication from a cat bite. I definitely had a couple of friends urging me to go to the emergency room. Again, I know myself and my body extremely well by now and would have sought medical attention as soon as I felt it was warranted. I would urge anyone reading this to responsibly err on the safe side.

I have successfully treated two cat bites in this manner. Recently, I have treated far less serious incidents with plantain. My husband had an insect bite, and I had a teeny spot of poison ivy. Both seem to have abated symptoms with the application of plantain. Understand, I’m highly allergic to the poison ivy we have—if left untreated, it literally seems to melt my skin off. However, after four serious bouts last year (and the subsequent treatments of steroids), I’m going to try the plantain route of drawing out poisons and toxins this year. So far, so good.

A quick search about this amazing plant will give you more ideas of its benefits. Whether using it topically or consuming it through salad or tea, I think you’ll be surprised about its qualities. Just maybe, you’ll let a little patch of it grow to maturity in your own yard.

The last photo collage shows another medicinal invasive, ground ivy (glechoma hederacea). So far, I’ve left this one to the bees—at least, when it’s not in my vegetable beds. Yes, I do pull a lot of “weeds” when they wander in and threaten to steal nutrition or space from the plants I want to thrive. However, I also want my garden to be as wildlife-friendly as possible and understand that the bees need all the help they can get these days.

The other three photos in this group are grass-looking plants, though they are not actually classified as grasses. I rediscovered the rush when I was weeding my bank. I had forgotten about planting it last year so it was almost like finding a wonderful volunteer hidden amongst the prickly lettuce. The hop sedge was hiding nearby. Last year, I moved the flatsedge from a neighbor’s yard (with his permission) before he killed the rest of these weeds. While these plants aren’t necessarily medicinal, they certainly add interest and are lovely natives that will benefit the flyers around my garden.

Yes, one person’s weed can definitely be another person’s treasure. I highly recommend doing a little research on the volunteers you have growing around your garden. You just may turn some of your weeds into cherished friends.

non-grass ground covers

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.


The more tomato varieties you grow – especially if you delve into the wonderful world of heirlooms – the more you realize that not all tomato plants look alike. Look closely at the leaves and you will find lots of variations; once you become familiar with a particularly favorite variety, you may even be able to distinguish it early on just by its leaves. Of course, that may also indicate that you are so deep into the obsession that you need help (hand raised!).

The vast majority of tomato varieties have leaves that have teeth – serrations – on the edges, which is referred to as “regular leaf” foliage. This is the dominant trait. It doesn’t infer any particular quality or health factor. It just is what the genes in the variety dictate. Some commonly grown varieties with regular leaf foliage are Sun Gold, German Johnson, Roma, Big Beef and Kellogg’s Breakfast.

Here are two tomatoes with regular leaf foliage.

Regular leaf foliage

A small percentage of tomatoes are produced on plants whose leaves are smooth at the edge. Because of the strong similarity to potato plant foliage, these varieties are called “potato leaf” – a recessive trait.

Perhaps 5 percent of heirloom tomatoes or less carry this gene, but it makes for a strikingly beautiful tomato plant. Some very popular, wonderful heirlooms have this foliage type. Among them are 'Brandywine', 'Green Giant', 'Lucky Cross' and 'Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom'.

Tomato or Potato?

These plants exhibit potato leaf foliage very well.

Potato leaf foliage

Tomatoes that are part of the relatively rare category called dwarf have darker green leaves that are nearly crinkly in texture – this is known as “rugose” foliage.

There are dwarf tomatoes with regular leaf and potato leaf foliage, as shown below. Before the dwarf tomato breeding project (which I co-lead) came along, dwarf tomatoes were very rare indeed. Examples of regular leaf dwarf varieties are 'Dwarf Champion', 'Dwarf Kelly Green' and 'Rosella Purple'. A few potato leaf dwarf varieties are 'TastyWine', 'Dwarf Sweet Sue' and 'Dwarf Emerald Giant'.

Dwarf foliage rugose

Three very unique tomato foliage types are shown below. In the first case the plant resembles a carrot as much as a tomato; this is a Russian variety known as 'Silvery Fir Tree'.

 Carrot like foliage

Second is a variety with green and white variegated foliage, called not very creatively 'Variegated'.

Variegated foliage

Finally, comes the most odd tomato of all, with foliage held tight in clusters up the stem (I call it the “poodle” tomato). First appearing as a mutation in the 1950s, it is called 'Stick'.

Stick tomato

Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. He is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato breeding project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his 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.

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

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here