Organic Gardening

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

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An heirloom can be defined as a traditional or heritage plant variety that is preserved generation after generation through small scale agricultural practices. Throughout history, small-scale family farmers and gardeners have taken pride in preserving plant heritage through seed saving. Preserving heirloom plants is vital to the future of safe food. Fortuitously, there are plenty of food revolutionaries who are playing major roles in heirloom seed preservation including Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, deemed by the New York Times as “The Indiana Jones of Seeds”. We can all do our part in our own gardens by saving our seeds and growing them year after year, sharing our harvests and sharing our seeds with our neighbors. Seed saving is one of the single most important things a backyard organic gardener can do for the future of food.

History of Garlic

The origin of garlic can be traced back to Central Asia. Garlic’s illustrious history includes reverence in a vast array of ancient cultures and has been traced back to use in Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations and is mentioned throughout Ayurvedic medicine. It has been considered sacred by many civilizations that used garlic not only for its culinary charm but also for its highly medicinal properties. Garlic is the earliest documented plant used by humans. Garlic is a natural antibiotic which has been used in many cultures to prevent and treat a plethora of diseases. Garlic is loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

According to the extensive research done on garlic collections around the world by Dr. Gayle Volk, Cryobotanist with the USDA in Ft. Collins, Colo., the varieties of garlic worldwide have been narrowed down to 10 distinct varietal groups. Five varieties are hard-necked including Rocambole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, and Marbled Purple Stripe. Three are bolting hard-necked varieties that may produce softnecks including Asiatic, Creole and Turban. Two are soft-necked varieties which include Silverskin and Artichoke.

There are many stories of garlic being recovered from ditches, swamps, abandoned farms and the like. According to David Stern, founding director of the Garlic Seed Foundation, “stories like these prove the tenacity of garlic. Garlic has an enormous presence of life, meaning that it is highly adaptable and incredibly strong”. David states that American scientists discovered garlic growing and thriving in unbelievable growing conditions in the Ural Mountains which borders Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and China. This garlic was found growing at high altitude in almost no topsoil, exposed to harsh elements including strong winds and extremely cold temperatures. David highlights that garlic is one of the few plant species that has three separate means of reproduction: vegetative via the bulbil (clonal daughter), vegetative via the cloves in the bulb, and sexually above 4,000 feet via flowering.

Gateway Garlic Urban Farm



St. Louis, Mo., is home to a recovered lost heirloom garlic that has been hiding out at an abandoned farm for over 70 years. The discovery was made by the founder and owner of the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm, Mark “Carondelet Garlic” Brown, who truly understands the importance of garlic.

Mark became intrigued after finding out that between 25 percent to 30 percent of heirlooms are recovered by individuals who have found them still growing at abandoned farmsteads. He immediately began his quest to find lost heirlooms in the river city region. In 2011, Mark found a series of farmsteads and went door to door asking if he could search for crop remnants on their land. He first located the original foundation and searched the perimeter. He searched many farmsteads and discovered nine separate garlic varieties. From those 9 varieties, he collected 50-100 samples of each and transplanted them into berms he built at the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm with the intention of saving the seed stock. He sent those nine separate varieties off to an organization in New Zealand to have them tested.

According to the tests, one of those varieties was said had its own genetic drift, which means that it meets the criteria to qualify as its own variety. This variety, merely scallion size, was found on an abandoned farmstead that had trees growing through the original farmhouse foundation. The garlic was growing around the foundation and even under the forest canopy. This land had not been farmed for over 70 years. This garlic variety recovered is a member of the Rocambole family with the origin being traced back to Eastern Central Europe. Mark says, “This makes since because it was found on a farm that was settled by German immigrants”. The recovered heirloom is a hardneck type of garlic that is closely related to the German Red Garlic variety.

After Mark discovered the importance of this lost variety, he went back to the site where it was found and asked permission to collect the remaining plants. He dug up over 40,000 garlic plants and transplanted them into the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm. He grew this variety in raised berms of pulverized clay with a top dressing of compost.

The first year, he saved most of the seed stock and planted it in the fall. He sorted through thousands of cloves, only selecting the largest ones to be planted so that the final outcome would be a larger bulb of garlic. He donated 40 lbs of the smaller cloves of garlic to Mutual Aid, a local food pantry. Mark spent over 2 years reconditioning these plants. Mark stated that, “Garlic becomes highly adapted to its environment, reseeding itself as the bulbils drop to the ground, meaning this garlic has been replicating itself for over 70 years”. After 3 years of nurturing this resilient variety of garlic in historic Carondelet at the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm, he decided to name the garlic Carondelet. According to Mark, the Carondelet variety of garlic is unique in that it is highly adaptable; it withstands the bitter cold winter temperatures in the Midwest and is also drought tolerant. According to Mark, “the Carondelet variety of garlic endured this past winter like a champion compared to the Creole and Mediterranean varieties” The flavor is moderately tangy and spicy. It is fairly easy to peel, especially with the technique that requires shaking garlic between two metal bowls.

Mark comes from a long line of farmers in the Northern Illinois and Wisconsin regions. Some of his earliest childhood memories are of harvesting and eating raw sunflower seeds with his siblings and helping his parents harvest peas at the 2 lot urban farm he grew up on in Chicago. His parents were victory gardeners. His paternal grandfather was a ploughman at the turn of the century. Growing food is a part of his heritage. Mark Brown, a Saint Louis transplant has been farming in Missouri for 13 years and has been active in Urban Farming in St. Louis since 2005. In 2007, he founded the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm in the Carondelet Neighborhood, which now has 10 members and 15 allied growers. Mark also spearheads The St. Louis Garlic Fest, which began as a private event with friends enjoying garlic dishes together over a decade ago. The St. Louis Garlic Fest is now in its 6th season and has drawn a crowd of over 3,500 individuals in recent years.

A Network of Organic Growers


Mark Brown is a member of The Missouri Organic Association. Mark is passionate about building a network of allied farmers, sharing resources between organic growers, educating others including the youth about organic farming and sharing the harvest with local food banks. He has helped start many urban farms in the St. Louis area including Tarry There Gardens, a small urban permaculture farm. Mark recently built a 12 x 40 ft poly tunnel using 100% recycled and reclaimed materials where he demonstrates bioponic, aquaponic and hydroponic growing methods. The poly-tunnel and the farm are used as an outdoor education center for the Oak Scouts. Gateway Garlic Farm has open free plots for beginning urban farmers who wish to learn how to grow their own food or sell food at markets. The Gateway Garlic Urban Farm centers on community involvement, outreach and education. They work closely with local food banks such as Mutual Aid and Haven Street. They donate produce on a regular basis to these and other area food banks. Mark owns and grows food on several lots throughout South St. Louis from Dutchtown to Carondelet. He sells produce to several restaurants in St. Louis and shares it with neighbors and friends.

In light of the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Mark and a group of friends, farmers, organic food activists, social activists and volunteers mobilized in Ferguson, Mo. bringing with them the harvest from their fields and donated nonperishable food items. According to Mark, “they created a mobile free food oasis to counter the food desert that was already existing there. They gave away free organic produce and taught healthy eating habits to Ferguson residents”

“It's small farmers who will help end hunger in our world while simultaneously teaching it to be more sustainable.” – Mark Brown

Planting Garlic This Fall

Simply place the unpeeled garlic (flat side down) in a small furrow 6-8 inches apart. Slightly cover with soil so that you can still see the tip of each clove. Mulch the entire patch of planted garlic heavily with straw (a layer that is 6-10 inches thick). The straw helps to suppress the weeds but the garlic stalk is able to emerge through the straw in the spring. For a larger garlic bulb, cut the garlic scapes as soon as they emerge. Harvest bulbs in early July. To harvest, tug the stalk gently out of the ground with both hands from the base of the plant. Peel the outer dirt layer and hang in a cool dry area until they have cured for about 2-3 weeks. The curing process allows the volatile oils to go into the bulbs.Garlic bulbs (heads of garlic) can be broken apart and the unpeeled individual garlic cloves can be planted in prepared loose soil this fall (typically late October) to be harvested next July.

Find out more at Follow Mark's blog at Follow them on Facebook at

Photo by Kari Pillow. To see more photos from the event, check out Kari's Facebook photo album.


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

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