Organic Gardening

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

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Ever wonder why we need added vitamins and minerals beyond what we get through our food? Over the decades, the food we eat has gone down in nutritional value as the soil has gone down in fertility. Truly, we are what we eat. The nutritional value of what we grow is part the type of vegetable it is and a whole lot of what the plant is “fed” from the soil in which it grows.

It really all starts with the soil. Plants grow to the lowest constraint. Like people, plants need a balanced diet with beneficial microbes, minerals and nutrition.

Saying all a vibrant, robust vegetable plant needs is NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) is like saying all a person needs is carbs, fat, and protein. Those things are needed to survive, but you need much more to thrive. Life is much more complex than three compounds!

When we think of the bouquet of the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy, where do we think this comes from? We can’t get it from osmosis! We have to get these from what we consume.

I read a book recently by Steve Solomon and Erica Reinheimer called The Intelligent Gardener; Growing Nutrient-Dense Food that does a nice job of giving all the details about how minerals affect the tilth of the soil and the ability of the soil to support healthy, robust plants. Steve is the guy that founded Territorial Seed Company.

The minerals and nutrients we should be concerned about are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), sodium (Na), phosphorous (P), sulfur (S), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), manganese (Mn), boron (B), Zinc (Zn), cobalt (Co), selenium (Se), silicon (Si) and molybdenum (Mo). There are also other trace minerals that plants and our body needs. It is a good idea to include Azomite or kelp to your garden each year to supply the additional trace minerals.

Steve recommends getting a detailed soil analysis at the get-go. For those just beginning to work with re-mineralization of the soil, he recommends Logan Labs for the testing. You can get all the information you need on collecting the sample and sending them off to Logan Labs. Steve recommends the standard sample test. At the moment the cost is $25.

When you get the results, Steve has posted a soil worksheet that you put your results from Logan Labs and it calculates for you what you need for amendments to get your soil super charged for growth and nutrition. It uses an acre as the basis. For those of us doing small space gardening, just divide the number of square feet in your garden by 43,560. This will give you the pounds you need to add to your garden for each mineral on the spreadsheet.

It gives a summary of how to put your soil in balance with a worksheet at the end to enter the results from Logan Labs to calculate exactly what you need to add to your garden to get minerals at optimum levels. He recommends going slow so as to not get any minerals in excess in your garden. It is a lot easier to add minerals than take them away!

I also liked this spreadsheet for general vegetable growing guidelines from Logan Labs that gives information about each vegetable type's mineral needs. This can be handy if you are focused on one type of crop that you want to maximize your yield.

For most of us backyard/flower bed veggie gardeners that grow a variety, Steve’s spreadsheet is the way to go. You can also do side dressings of amendments specific to certain veggies to give them a boost. I do this for my fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

If the whole spreadsheet thing is just more complicated than you want to worry about, Logan Labs provides a service for giving you what you need to add to your garden. There is also a listing on the Soil Analyst web page. You can use an online calculator from Erica that costs $9.50/year, unlimited usage. All you have to do is input the numbers from Logan Labs and it spits out the amendments you need.

As you prepare your bed in the spring, you should add fertilizer. For a balanced organic fertilizer, here is what Steve recommends from his book for 100 square feet of garden space:

• 2 quarts oil seed meal (soybean, cottonseed, or canola seed meal)
• 1 pint feather meal
• 1 pint fish meal
• 1 quart soft/collodial rock phosphate or bonemeal
• 1 quart kelp meal or 1 pint Azomite
• 1 quart agricultural gypsum

Once you get your soil in balance, you can keep it that way by recycling back what you take out by composting and using a balanced fertilizer.

We get a NutrEval test done yearly that gives a report where your body’s nutritional deficits are. After getting our garden soil supercharged for peak production and optimum nutritional value, I’ll be tracking my NutraEval results to see the improvement in my body's overall nutrition.

For more idea's on small space and container gardening, check out Melodie's blog, Victory Garden On the Golf Course.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Gulland Forge Broadfork At Mother Earth News FairAs with almost any gardener, I have a few tried-and-true favorite garden tools. My love of garden tools is so well-known among my friends and family, that my husband and I received a hoe and a hand-weeding tool for our wedding. (Yes, I know, I have great friends.) Below is a short collection of some of the tools I own and use, and can recommend whole-heartedly for those lucky green thumbs on your holiday shopping list who could use a new toy tool in their gardening supply kit. All of these tools are made by small, family-owned companies in the U.S.

Broadfork. These tools are essential for loosening garden beds without destroying the soil structure. My personal favorite comes from Gulland Forge, where the broadforks are handmade with ash handles and welded metal tines. You can choose from three sizes, depending on your needs and preferences. Mine is the original size, and I’ve been putting it to the test for three garden seasons so far — it shows no sign of wear or tear. Larry Cooper, the owner of Gulland Forge, provides excellent customer service, too (see photo). Price: $185 to $225 (plus shipping).

Shovel. I don’t have the body weight to easily sink a shovel blade into the ground, so a nice, weighty shovel that can keep a sharp edge through several sessions of use is important for my garden efficiency and digging satisfaction. The shovel that’s stolen my heart is a “D” handled shovel with a rounded blade that came from The American Garden Tool Co. The shovel is rust-resistant and has a 5-year guarantee against breakage.  You’ll find other shovels of the same caliber from this family-owned tool company, along with a variety of other quality garden products, including some nifty ratcheting pruners.  Price: $81 (plus shipping).

Hoe. I keep an array of garden hoes around for various weeding and bed-prep chores throughout the season. I found all three of my favorites from Rogue Hoe. A family operation out of Missouri, each hoe is handmade with heads crafted from recycled agricultural disc blades. Of special note: the 65VW, which has a triangle blade on one end of the head and a solid, three-pronged rake on the other; the 75G for weeding in delicate spaces, such as around just-sprouted seedlings; and the 55F, for when you have some serious bed- or row-shaping to get done. Price: $35 to $40 (plus shipping).

Photo of Larry Cooper of Gulland Forge and me, holding a new model of my broadfork from his company at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Pa.

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. When she's not working at her desk, she's likely digging in her garden, whipping up a treat in her kitchen, or pounding down the local running trails. Connect with Jennifer by leaving a comment below.


Zucchini Blight In The Garden 

Let's face it. Blight on our beloved plants is a bad thing. Every year gardens suffer from the "blight effect" on tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. This fungal infection sits in the soil, but soon makes itself evident in the wilted and miscolored leaves and fruit. If left alone, the disease can prevent plants from flowering and maturing altogether.

Instead of spending next summer doctoring sick plants, what if you were to take a few preventive steps now? What if you could save those juicy tomatoes for sauce and forget about tossing them out to rot? Here are 5 easy steps I encourage everyone to take before next year's garden even begins to sprout.

5 Steps to Preventing Blight in Your GardenPepper With Blight In Garden

Invest in soaker hoses. Blight thrives in wet, humid conditions and can spread quickly through excessive watering. Overwatering our plants from above is like asking for trouble. When a mixture of moisture and dirt have made contact with the leaves, the bacteria seems to grow overnight. Invest now in soaker hoses or drip irrigation to keep foliage dry and direct the water to the roots instead.

Keep a journal. It's important to always journal what you planted where. Crop rotation is key when it comes to fighting blight. If you've had blight in the past, the disease can remain in the soil. You will not want to grow new veggies of the nightshade family in the infected place for 3 – 4 years if possible. Other vegetables that are not affected by blight, however, should grow fine there. Just rotate the rest.

Take notes before, during, and after each growing season. Design your layout strategically. Plan for plenty of space between plants, so they can breathe and dry appropriately.  Study companion planting books, like Carrots Love Tomatoes, during these winter months. It's one of my favorites. Now's the time to plan ahead. By next spring then, you'll be ready to start sowing immediately.

Start your own seeds. This one may be a little easier for me since I work around seeds all day anyway, but you can start your own seeds too. It's not hard and it's very rewarding.  Plus, this way you guarantee the seeds have come from a reliable source you trust. The health of your plants will rely on you and you'll be able to grow and monitor them in organic conditions.

Clean out the garden. Last year's debris will be next year's haven for feeding bad diseases and bugs. Any infected plants you had this season will need to be removed and preferably burned. Don't toss them in the compost pile or you will breed the bacteria there as well.

Feed the soil. Because the root of the problem lies in the foundation, so does the solution. Every time I have forgotten this step, I've paid the price. The Ozark hill I live on is famous for its rocky, clay soil.  That's why I've had to learn the necessity of composting and adding organic matter to supplement every plot. Feed the soil first. Then reap from it next year.

Don't let blight beat you. It can be prevented, I promise you. Follow these simple steps now and save a complete harvest later.

Learn more about Savanna Kaiser and her family's seed company at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Peppers Growing In The Garden

Despite the invigorating air outside and the warmth of the woodstove inside, it’s sad to see the last leaves and needles drop from our trees. Yesterday, I picked the end of the peppers – a handful of red cherries and jalapenos. The plants are done, yellow, and tired. 

I shouldn’t complain. The chill here in Boise, Idaho, is less then our neighbors to the north are experiencing and has come far later than in a normal year where we can see frost on the pumpkins as early as mid-October. Nonetheless, winter points a shivering finger to the months ahead and I already miss my sweet chocolate cherry tomatoes, ripe and warm from the late August sun.

As squirrels skitter in the crisp leaves in the backyard, it’s a good time to survey the summer’s garden, taking note of what worked well and what I might change in the year ahead. It won’t be long before it’s time to start seeds again. And this year, I am wintering over lush pots of rosemary and parsley. In future blog posts, I’ll let you know how they’re doing.

Do you have a sunny, southeast facing window? If you still have herbs growing in the garden, why not try gently digging them out of the ground and potting them up?

As for end-of-the-season vegetables, the Mother Earth News website is full of recipes and ideas on ways to prepare, preserve or freeze them. I plan to pickle the peppers I picked yesterday. There’s nothing like canning fruits and vegetables to help carry summer through the cold months ahead.

In my next Mother Earth News blog post, I’ll include the simple pickled pepper recipe I’ve been using for several decades. Simple, delicious and packed with the sweet memory of summer.

Garden Harvest Of Fresh Jalapenos 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The Food is Free Project was started with just a handful of seeds in one front yard in Austin, Texas. It began after founder John VanDeusen Edwards read a line in a gardening book that said something to the effect that sharing the knowledge was a vital step in gardening. He resonated strongly with that line and it inspired him to take a leap of faith and start a front-yard free garden. Within one year, over half of the houses on his street had Food is Free garden beds in their front yard. John sparked a food revolution in Austin, Texas, teaching people of all walks of life how to grow and share food. It instantly became a cog for motivation for friends, neighbors and aspiring green thumbs.  The project has reached over 190 cities around the globe. It has become an open sourced idea free for the taking because of the profound inspiration it has given to thousands of individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities all around the world. Their presence on social media is growing everyday, reaching more and more people around the globe. The concept behind the Food is Free Project is simple: build a raised-bed front-yard garden with reclaimed materials such as heat treated pallets. Paint a sign on the box that says Food is Free. Fill it with soil and plant it with seeds and transplants. Share the harvest with friends, neighbors, strangers and passersby. Repeat the process time and time again.

The Food is Free Project was founded by John VanDeusen Edwards (center in photo), who transformed his front and backyard into a teaching farm and resource center. The Food is Free Project is home to three aquaponic systems, twelve chickens, a rooster, two mini pet pigs, a fish pond, a hugelkultur spiral garden, an outdoor kitchen, community composting, a tool sharing program, and free workshops and classes on cooking, preserving. Food is Free Project raised beds are built onsite with the help of families, friends and volunteers. Children love coming to the farm to see the animals, witness how food is grown, and playing with worms in the compost pile. The Food is Free Project has installed several Food is Free beds throughout their community, including one for Habitat for Humanity. They encourage community involvement, the mentoring of children, engaging in conversations with neighbors and bringing life back to neighborhoods.

Recently, an unexpected hefty cash offer was made to the landlord of the property that John and the Food is Free Project Teaching Farm reside at. Those making the offer would demolish the farm, pave over it and develop condos. John and everyone at Food is Free Project is devastated and heartbroken. They have spent 2 years building the soil, planting perennials and fruit trees and inspiring the community in so many ways. They need our help. They have launched a crowd-funding campaign and are asking for community support to establish a new permanent location for the Food-Is-Free Project Open Source Teaching Farm

Their visions for their future site include hosting international visitors and training leaders from all over the world to engage and inspire their own communities. They plan to film the progress of the evolution of The Food is Free Project which would include sharing blueprints, how to videos and gardening tutorials on their website.

Photos courtesy of Food is Free Project

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


We recently hosted a Free Permaculture Workshop at La Vista Farm. The topic was Hugelkultur Pollinator Garden. The farmers at La Vista Farm partnered with Maxine Pohlman of the the La Vista Ecological Learning Center the Oblate Fathers of The Oblate Ecological Initiative and several dedicated volunteers including fellow Mother Earth News Blogger Annie Kelley. The group was  concerned about the dwindling population of monarch butterflies and honey bees and wanted to build a pollinator garden that would offer both food and habitat for pollinators. We built the beds on an already existing terraced garden. Hugelkultur beds are made to retain moisture, serve as a living bed and support various root structures of a number of different plant species. The basic concepts behind hugelkultur are to utilize existing materials to form living raised beds which promote healthy ecosystems for animals and insects. These beds are low maintenance as the branches act like a sponge to retain water and vital soil nutrients. The beds can be built at any height and typically the sod layer in the bed space is removed with a sod removing tool and placed upside down on top of the final bed and planted directly into. We chose to not go with this method because we were battling with invasive Johnson grass.

The first step was to weed the terraced beds, which was done by hand by a group of dedicated volunteers prior to the day of the workshop.


After terrace2

On the morning of the workshop, the group helped to gather organic materials from around the property (all materials were gathered from within the radius of about one acre). We gathered fallen oak and pine tree limbs and branches and cut them into manageable sections. We raked leaves into one pile and pine needles into another. We scraped and gathered detritus leaf litter mixed with other organic matter from a nearby abandoned driveway. We used spoiled hay bales leftover from Halloween.


We then created 1-foot-wide by 1-foot-deep trenches on three of the four beds. Hugelkultur trenches are typically larger for vegetable and fruit gardens. 

We placed the fallen limbs and branches into the trenches. We then layered leaves, pine needles, spoiled straw, and other organic materials. We topped it with wet chip mulch to ensure the leaves didn't blow away.

limbs and branches final

The beds will be topped and folded in with food scraps and red wriggler worms throughout the winter to speed up the decomposition process.

We have recently collected seed heads from a nearby prairie which we will plant in our high tunnel soon to overwinter. In the spring, the beds will have decomposed enough. We will add a layer of topsoil mixed with compost and will plant native pollinator attracting transplants both from seed as well as plants dug up from around the property.

We have also been collecting swamp milkweed seeds that we will eventually be planted in the hugelkultur beds.  Swamp milkweed is on the endangered plants list in our region and we hope to do our part by increasing the population within the next few years.


Dedicated groups of Eco-conscious individuals who hold earth stewardship as a moral imperative truly do help to make this world a better place. I am honored to be a part of a community with so many of those individuals.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Fall garden bed

Want a worry-free, weed-free, organic-matter-rich vegetable garden bed? Wow! That just sounds fabulous and a little too good to be true. Actually, it is doable and fall is the best time to put it in action. How? Mulch.

Mulch is an amazing thing. Think about how nature works on its own. Every fall, trees shed their leaves, blanketing the ground. The leaves break down over the winter, providing nutrients back into the soil in time for spring when the trees need to power back up again. And these trees grow to massive heights and widths!

Using mulch, wood chips, and fallen leaves for your vegetable garden beds provide the same benefits; returning nutrients back to the soil that your vegetable plants need to produce their tasty leaves and fruits during the growing season.

Mulch also keeps in moisture and absorbs water, significantly reducing your watering needs. It protects the soil from the winds blowing it away. To top it off, it keeps the weeds from sprouting and causing you to have to spend hours each week pulling the little suckers. What’s not to love about that!

A system where you don’t have to bring in outside resources to replenish your garden bed health is referred to as sustainable permaculture. In town, I think we need to look at this as utilizing the resources within our communities. Many communities have mulch free for the taking. In some areas, tree removers would be thrilled to give you wood chips for free to get it off of their hands.

When I started our garden bed at our house on the golf course, we were forced to get creative. I couldn’t plow up the backyard like my grandparents could on their farm; the landscape “police” frowned on that type of thing on the 15th green. It was my grandmother’s full time spring, summer and fall job to care for the garden. I already had a full time job.

The solution? Expand our mulched flower beds and plant veggies and fruiting plants among the flowers and use decorative containers on the patio.

To make the new vegetable/flower beds, we used a sod cutter to cut all the sod. We then turned the sod upside down, put newspaper over the top and then a three-inch thick layer of mulch on top. We have since learned through experience, the whole sod cutting thing wasn't necessary. There is a much easier way.

Potted pepper plant

New Beds

Fall is the best time to start your new beds. It gives the entire winter for the grass and mulch to break down into the nutrients your veggie and fruit plants will need for the growing season.

Our soil was a nice orange color when we first dug the new beds, indicative of the clay soils in the Midwest. Five years later, it is a beautiful black color full of earthworms and organic matter.

I can’t say enough good things about mulch! We don’t have to water nearly as often. There are very few weeds to pull, and those that do sprout are easier to pull. And it is a great way to add organic matter and nutrients at the same time.

What have I learned from experience that I would do differently to accelerate the process for a new fall garden bed?

First, make sure you get a soil test to see what nutrients you are deficient in. The typical that are tested are nitrogen (for green leafy growth), phosphorous (for flowers and fruits), and potassium (for overall plant vigor). Apply an organic source of the nutrients needed before applying the mulch.

Second, you don’t really need to use the sod cutter.

Third, I try to use cardboard instead of newspaper. Make sure it isn’t shiny with chemical ink. Earthworms love cardboard. You’ll attract more to your garden bed.

Fourth, I would add a three-inch layer of compost on top of the cardboard and an organic all around fertilizer before the mulch. I found out that nitrogen will leach into the air if not covered. You lose about 50 percent of it if you just lay it on top of the ground so you need twice as much for the same benefit.

Fifth, I would have done more like a six-inch layer of mulch in the fall. I would also recommend mulch that is from the whole tree (not just bark mulch) and is finer. Big chunks just take longer to break down and you want that nutrition in your soil as soon as you can get it!

This year, we are going to suck up all the leaves and grass in the mower bagger and apply a six-to-eight-inch layer over all the beds at the lake house. Then top with a layer of mulch either later this fall or early in the spring. For a house with homeowner covenants, you may have to do a half-and-half approach. Four inches of leaves and grass covered with four inches of nice black organic mulch this fall. Over the winter, it should decompose down to a nice thick four-inch layer of protection.

Let’s talk about the basics of what plants need. In general, plants need the same things we do: oxygen, food and water. Their food includes the standard nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium we all hear about, but they need much more than that. It is kind of like saying all we need are vitamins and minerals so a multivitamin is all we need to eat each day.

Like us, fruits and vegetables need a wide range of nutrients to be the healthiest and strongest. It is so true that you are what you eat. Same principle applies to what your plants “eat.” And if your fruits and veggies are getting a wide range of nutrients, this means that they will provide you with food chock full of nutrients as well!

That thick layer of mulch, wood chips and leaves every fall gives the organic material a chance to break down over the winter into nutrients that supporting microbes and earthworms need to multiply to give the best support to the plants growth in the spring.

A strong population of earthworms does two key things you need in a garden-they are nature’s rototiller, loosening the soil for veggie roots to easily expand and grow in to, and nature’s fertilizer, making lots of vermicompost right in your garden bed. The other key thing a layer of organic matter does is prevent the weed seeds that are laying on top of the ground from sprouting, eliminating the need for weeding or chemical herbicides. What can be better than that?!

Microbes thrive where there is an abundance of organic matter. These microbes nourish plant roots which feed the plant. You do not want to disturb this flourishing web of life-supporting microbes by tilling up the ground after you have done such a nice job of developing them into a strong support system for your spring plants. Tilling destroys your microbes. With a healthy population of earthworms, nature will take care of producing the light, crumbly soil your plants will thrive in.

Worms avoid areas that have pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. It is common sense that anything that has been designed to kill living things is not beneficial to other living things. I have seen when round up has been used, earthworms will not get onto the area that has been sprayed.

New spring garden bed

I recently listened to an interview with Paul Gautschi, who gets 14 inches of rain a year on his farm in Oregon. He hasn’t fertilized or watered his fruit orchard for over 30 years or his vegetable garden in more than 15 years. His secret: he looked at his surroundings with new eyes and replicated what nature does. He started using wood chips, which is basically what mulch is. The wood chips he uses include all the leaves and limbs chopped up. You need more than just the tree bark in your mulch. Paul likes to quote the Bible and George Washington Carver for his inspiration on gardening. As George Washington Carver said, “If it is simple, it must be right.”

He also applies a layer of dirt he gets from his chicken pen which he feeds only organic and as much fresh vegetable scraps as possible. We can get the same effect by the application of compost and an all-around organic fertilizer (the one we buy is based on composted chicken manure, Re-Vita).

A recent soil test in Paul’s garden revealed these results:

“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines – the desired level that you want, and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is I didn’t do anything!”

When you plant seeds in the spring, be sure to move the mulch out of the way. The mulch’s hard top crust is impossible for seedlings to break through. Once they have sprouted, you can pull the mulch back around the plant.

The other thing about healthy plants is that they are not bothered by insects. If you have a plant that is being attacked, the plant itself is likely not healthy. Nature is telling us that we have a “sick” plant or a bio system that is not in balance. If you are just moving to an organic approach with no pesticides, it may take a season or two for the “good” and “bad” bugs to come into balance.

Think very hard before you start spraying the “bad” bugs; those pesticides/insecticides don’t know the difference between a beneficial insect (like bees) and a “bad” bug (like grasshoppers). I put on gloves and go bug hunting for the “bad” bugs. I pick them off and squish them. If that is too harsh for you, you can pick them off and throw them in a bowl with soapy water.

Having trees and bushes near by also encourages birds to look for bug snacks in your garden. Birds don’t usually eat vegetables. They do love berries, though! You can put a light net over your berries to protect them. Fall is a great time to plant trees and bushes. Gives them the entire winter to establish a robust root system.

This fall, I am planning on accelerating the process in the new garden beds we put in this summer by doing a layer of leaves and wood chips at least eight inches thick. This should give our garden a significantly thicker layer of black soil, rich in organic matter by next spring. I hope to cut the time in half to get to black soil as deep as I can dig.

For more tips on organic small space and container gardening, see Melodie's blog at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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