Organic Gardening

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

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It’s Sunday morning, May Day, a pause in the week and the month. For right now, the world is perfect.

The solar panels are reving up for another Personal Best day of production (we have only had them through the dark times of winter); everything that can be transplanted  has been; the winter cabbage seed has been planted; I have finally trimmed the camellia, which always needs to be done after every other tree in the yard because of bloom time.

Both bee hives are bustling and the swarm hive is no longer holding camp outs on the hive box because of lack of room inside. All of the laundry is done and dancing on the lines in a morning breeze. The woad is blooming.


These days are rare. Between work, vegetable gardening, bee keeping, meetings, potlucks and art retreats, Cat Worship, and trying to take some long walks somewhere other than in town, my life is full and scheduled.

I usually see all that has to be done — the mowing and trimming, the paint bubbles, the dirty floor, the fence that needs repairing after the ancient willow came down – rather than what has been accomplished. I feel more like every action requires a judgment, a list of pros and cons, rather than a simple yes, we can do that, right now.

Although I love my life, in all of its complexity, sunny Sunday mornings with a cup of tea are a rare gift to be celebrated.


One of the chickens has laid an egg, as she does almost every day. All three are cheering — loudly — at this accomplishment. Maybe I need to be more like chickens, celebrating every day small accomplishments — hey, we mowed the lawn! — rather than looking towards the future of work every moment of the day.

So today, Labor Day in much of the world, I will sit back and enjoy the fruits of all of my labors, rather than making a long list of chores to be done. It is, after all, May.

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 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.


Chickens Working IN Compost 

On our self-sustaining, 13-acre mountain retreat, it is a priority to maintain a self-contained, resourceful, and organic homestead. When we incorporated chickens into the mix, we were pleased not just with the daily egg production and Mr. Rooster waking us up every morning, but we discovered the usefulness of them as our compost helpers.

If you have backyard chickens and you are not using them as composters and you have a garden, you are missing a valuable resource right at your fingertips. There are so many benefits to using your chickens, and it’s such a natural process for composting.

Benefits of Composting with Chickens

We save tons of money on chicken feed. Our hens are feasting on high-protein bugs, microbes, fresh sprouts daily from the pile. The quality of our egg production has increased, and the health of our chickens is exceptional.

They also love working on the compost, and it keeps them busy during the day. In the winter, the pile provides added heat to their area.

We also find that the compost decomposes more quickly because their continued efforts facilitate the composting process. They scratch and tear and work at the pile all day long. While doing so, they also add their own droppings to the pile, which is an additional bonus.

Getting Started Composting with Chickens

1. Create a composting area. We started our compost pile right in the center of the chicken coop run area. It was convenient for us and the chickens. Keeping in mind ease of access is key. You want a place you can easily dump your organic material.

Additionally, you want to ensure ease of removal. If you keep your hens in a fenced-in area, pick a spot that allows you to easily remove the organic compost when it is done. If you free-range your chickens, simply place the compost pile as close to the source you will be using it for (such as the garden).

2. Add organic material to compost. It is still imperative to pay attention to your mix of organic materials. This means you want a balance of carbon and nitrogen ratio which involves mixing browns and greens. Diversity helps develop the variety of microorganisms at work in your pile and increases your chances of achieving nutrient-rich compost.

High-carbon browns will include, but are not limited to, leaves, shredded newspaper, pine needles, sawdust, straw, fruit scraps, shredded twigs, branches, and corn stalks. Greens will include alfalfa, coffee grounds, garden waste, kitchen scraps, clover, grass clippings, hay, and manure.

Don’t worry about mixing the pile — your chickens will tear into this naturally and do the work for you.

3. Compost with chickens. After you obtain your base organic materials (we brought in piles of leaves, sawdust, pine needles, and some straw), heap it into a pile and work on adding your kitchen scraps. As we added daily to the pile, the chickens quite instinctively headed for the pile and began working it.

Some gardeners will cover the pile and "heat it up" before releasing the chickens to do their laborious task. You will have to experiment in this area. For us, we had exceptional results with the hens working the pile without it being heated up.

3. Cleaning the coop. Also, remember that when cleaning your coop, you no longer need to haul the droppings away. You can now just dump them into the compost pile, and again, the hens will assist in mixing all that wonderful, free organic fertilizer right into the pile.

Composting With Chickens In Garden

When will Compost be Ready to Use?

The point at which the compost is ready varies. Generally, compost is ready when it's rich, dark crumbly and smells like earth. We noticed that, by using our chickens, the decomposition rate of our organic material appeared to be faster than the cool pile we had by the garden that we managed ourselves.

Patience is a virtue. You will notice the pile shrinking as it decomposes — the original, larger items will no longer be recognizable. Granted, there may be some twigs and branches that are still present, but that’s acceptable.

Chickens! The benefit of these creatures, as you see, are many. Don’t overlook what these gals can do for your homestead. Gather them up, and get the troops working today!

Starry Hilder and her husband, Mark, live off-grid on a 13-acre self-sustaining ­homestead in the stunning mountains of Northern Idaho. Unique in their approach to homesteading, they rely on working with nature and utilizing their skills and knowledge with a back-to-basic outlook. From hunting and fishing, to gardening, composting, canning, and trail running, paddling, and hiking, there is never a dull moment on their property. Starry enjoys sharing her journey and all their  life skills on their YouTube channel.
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.


Hops jelly

The decision for us to grow hops on our farm is probably not what you think. It actually came about because of what we wanted our farm to stand for. That was Tradition and Heritage of crops — we are native to the mountains of Western North Carolina and want to be teachers as well as farmers.

I found copies of Agricultural Census for our families and counties and hops was listed as one of the crops!

Some refer to the growing of hops as a new idea, even suggesting it as a new "Specialty Crop". Well, to some it may be new, but for those of us native to this area, we know differently. Some people who are not "in the know" question the suitability of growing hops. While others say that North Carolina has the right growing climate to produce hops in abundance.

I remember hearing stories of the "good ole boys" making homebrew, and I also remember such sayings as, "that's growing as thick as hops". So, what happened? Why did hops just disappear and the memory with it?

Well, I did some research and found out it was pretty much the same as what happened to the tobacco crops of the 1970s: Mold and mildew wiped out crops, making it a financially unstable crop. One good thing is that there has been a lot of research of late into the growing and harvesting of the crop. We now know that the plants need a lot of breathing space.

Hops have not been recognized for their full potential! I often ask people, "do you know what hops are?" I always get the same response, "it's what people use to make beer, isn't it?" Well, yes, but they are much more than that.

Simple and Small-Scale Hops Growing

With any new venture or project, we always suggest going small until you see where the project is going to take you. If there are a lot of environmental issues or other obstacles present, then learn how to deal with those before going bigger, otherwise you can run into a lot of work, money and heartache! Hops, for the most part, is a wonderful plant to grow — it is prolific!!

Starting with one plant: You can have a bounty of plants for your next season just from one plant. Plants can be planted in the fall if lightly mulched or temps don't stay at freezing for too long during the winter. Most people plant and/or divide their rhizomes in the early Spring — depending on the temps in the Spring. You can usually start planting in March but, watch the temps — if they fall too low and you have young growth, cover lightly. Make sure that if you cover your plants when temp gets high or sun is strong on the plant, uncover the plant or it can be killed from heat.

Hops have rhizomes. Not only do they "run" above ground, they "run" below ground. This is good when it comes to getting "new" plants from your one plant. In the early Spring when ground temps are warm enough (60 degrees should be OK), you can start digging up some of the rhizomes that have developed from last season's growth.

When digging, you can see shoots that are starting on the rhizomes, almost like "eyes" on potatoes. You can cut pieces that have at least three shoots, or "eyes" — these pieces may be as small as an inch. You can take the pieces you collect and immediately set them out wherever you've chosen for your "hops" spot, or you can pot these pieces in topsoil, soil from your garden, or wooded areas — they are not too choosy about their dirt. You just need to make sure they do not dry out— keep watered when slightly dry.

You can also take "cuttings" from the vines and put them in water and usually within 5-7 days, you can see fibrous roots. When roots are established, these can be set out or potted.

Hops do need some type of "vining" system, because in order to produce well and resist some of the diseases that affect the hops (such as the mold and mildew), they need to be aerial. Simple trellising using existing an trellis built for beans or tomatoes works well for this. You can leave them in containers and allow the plant to vine into trees, other standing structures, or a "May Pole" type of construction.

Trellised hops

Growing: The plants do this fine on their own!! If too heavy with foliage and there are hot rainy days, the plants may develop mildew or other types of fungus. Try to make sure they get plenty of air. One of the things that can be done, similar to what we do with tomato plants, is cut off the bottom leaves to allow breathing. Also water/rain doesn’t splash up on leaves.

The plant is hairy and they "prick", so be careful and use gloves when working with this plant, especially if you have sensitive skin! This is the plants way to vine and "hold on".

Pests: These plants are notorious for saddleback and pack-saddle caterpillars — these do sting and can cause severe allergic reactions. These little creatures will often hide on the underside of the leaves. The hops will usually have aphids as well. We do not treat for disease or insects, because we are a no chemical farm!

Flowers/Fruit: You will see small "flowers" on the young plant, and then that will develop into the cone-shaped fruit that you are waiting for! When the cone starts to feel dry and open a little so you can see the yellow inulin, it is time to harvest the hops.

Harvesting: Each hops will mature at different times, so make sure your hops are "papery" (dry). If they feel damp or wet, they are too young. When harvesting, you can use immediately. Some call this "wet" or "green" hops. If they are dry completely, you can package for sale or later use. Make sure they do not get damp or too hot, or they can develop mold.

Fresh hops

To dry: You can use a dehydrator on the same level as you use for herbs (100/110 degrees Fahrenheit). The hops will become "crumbly" when rubbed after they are dry enough. This is different times depending on dehydrator, 2 or 3 hours.

You can sun/air dry, but you must make sure they are completely dry when taking up — don't let the evening dew or rain hit them. You can use old screens, but make sure you sanitize before using them. (I prefer not to go this route in case of leaching from the metal of the screen).

You can also use a "warm" oven like you would for drying herbs, no hotter than 110 (preferably 100 degrees) until dry.

Packaging: I prefer brown bags with closure or biodegradable sealed bags. Keep out of direct sunlight — the same as you would treat your herbs.

Note: Directly after harvesting, I put a cupful of hops at a time in a fine sieve or strainer and tap gently to try to remove any aphids that wanted to hitch a ride!

Uses for Hops are Many

In bygone days, women would use hops to make "yeast" cakes. Of course, this didn't resemble our store-bought yeast of today, but it was better than nothing!

Making simple hops yeast: Place hops in a container (usually a handful is suggested for these old recipes). Pour water over them until they are 2/3 covered. Bring to a boil, and let boil 2 to 3 minutes — enough to draw out the "essence" of the hops. Drain off liquid and while it is still hot, stir into the liquid cornmeal enough to thicken. Then, spread this mixture on a cloth or board and let dry. Note: Don't let this mixture mold! Finally, cut into "cakes" and used when baking.

You can make a simple homemade beer to use in bread baking or use it for brining your homemade cheeses.

Simple Hops Beer


• 2 ounces of hops
• 1 pound sugar
• 4 quarts cold water


1. Steep 2 ounces hops in 2 quarts hot water for 15 minutes.

2. Then strain and dissolve 1 pound of sugar in liquid.

3. Add 4 quarts cold water to this.

4. Allow to stand for 12 hours in a warm place and it should be ready to bottle.

I just make enough at a time to be used as I need it.

Hops brined cheese

Medicinal uses: Hops can be used as a sleep aid in an infusion or tea. This is also considered a good remedy for arthritis. This also makes use of the leaves of the hops plant so that nothing is wasted. It’s also being looked into for treatment of diabetes and for a type of “silage” feed for animals. The “binds,” or vines, can be used for making baskets — I suggest using gloves!

We have developed our own Hops Jelly. Hops are a great anti-bacterial, so we incorporate the hops infusion and put the plant into our soaps.

Soap made with hops

So, the uses are as endless as your creativity. What are you waiting for? Get "Hopping"!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, 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.


Where would we be without our trusty gardening tools? With a little tender loving care, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last for many years. You can easily maintain your gardening tools to keep them as good as new. Keep the following tips in mind.

gardening shears
Photo by Fotolia/Pixavril.

Blast mud off your digging tools with a jet of water or scrub with a wire brush. If dirt has hardened, soak metal parts first before wiping clean with an old rag. Then apply a vegetable-based oil using a clean cloth.

Sharpen digging tools and hoes using a metal file. Keep the angle shallow and work your way along both the front and the back of the blade. Use a vice to clamp the tool still while you work if you have one. Finish by oiling the blade.

Clean wooden handles then smooth off with sandpaper before polishing with a natural, protective oil, such as teak oil.

Clean pruning tools using a wire brush or wire wool if necessary, and then wash them in soapy water and dry them well before storing them.

To sharpen pruning tools, hold the tool firmly in position. Only sharpen the cutting blade itself, working the sharpening stone, file, or whetstone in the same direction as the bevel. Smaller blades may need to be worked in a circular motion. Two to five passes of the sharpening stone should be enough.

After the tool is clean, tighten up any loose bolts on moving parts. Check blades, springs, and handles, repairing or replacing parts when necessary. Finish by spraying with a tool lubricant.

Learn more about how to maintain and properly sharpen your gardening tools in this video.

More Gardening Resources

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

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

More Videos

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

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


JFX Farmer's Market

When I moved to Maryland from Colorado, I suspected the vegetable growing possibilities would be great. The weather and growing season were significantly better for tomatoes, peppers, okra and more. All that was needed was some time, effort, and a whole lot of education.

I had some experience as a child planting and growing a small 10-by-10-foot garden in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. Most of that was under the watchful eye of my father and grandfather and the lessons learned were mostly forgotten over the years.

I also had the pleasure of helping my roommate in Alaska grow peas, broccoli, cabbage, and potatoes in the 1990s. These cold-weather crops did well, as long as the moose didn’t get into the garden. The problem was most of that experience wasn’t useful in my new territory.

Time for a Real Garden

The first year and a half, we lived in a rental town home until a suitable house could be found. Once it was found, we moved and I started planning for a real garden. I would soon be growing veggies in three raised beds purchased from an online garden company, plus I had two Earthbox® planters I brought over from the back deck of the town home.

I ordered a truckload of topsoil, instead of using the local red dirt-clay soil on our land. I killed the grass by covering it with newspaper for a couple of weeks, installed the raised bed frames and shoved, by hand, a whole lot of dirt through my homemade sifter into my raised beds. I mixed store-bought compost into the soil and had some beautiful soil when the time came to plant. Now what was missing was an education.

 my bed 5

Being a learn-as-you-go kind of guy, I didn’t do much research, but I did have the local university extension service, called Grow-It-Eat-It, to help with questions and I had a bunch. Back then, I didn’t know a good bug from a bad bug, and half the time, I didn’t know if those cute little green sprouts coming up were weeds or the seeds I planted.

It turned out that an amazing quantity and variety of tiny seeds hitchhiked with the load of dirt I ordered and I pulled a lot of weeds in the first couple of months. That first year of growing veggies and herbs in my raised beds and Earthbox® planters saw mostly good results. I was thrilled to be growing so much of my own produce, but I was just scratching the surface.

Consider Being a Volunteer

Over the next three years, my learning was growing in leaps and bounds. One of the biggest reasons for my jump in learning was being accepted as a volunteer at a local organic farm, Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, just fifteen minutes from my home. I had been buying some produce items from them and after getting to know Bill and Melissa that run Wilbur’s, I asked if I could volunteer.

I had selfish motives of picking their brains so I could grow veggies as well as they did. The farm took all their time and they were happy to have me play in their dirt. I’d help with picking, planting, and my favorite task was getting out my machete and weed whacking the old fashion way. There is nothing like taking out frustrations on a row of four foot tall weeds with a large blade in hand.

After my first year, they even let me plant a row of heirloom Strawberry Popcorn seed. No way did I have enough room at my home with its small back yard so it was quite a gift to be able to use some of their land.

 Wilburs Farm

This will be my third year volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm, and I highly recommend this method of education if you want to learn more about growing your own veggies. If you are picky about purity and sustainability like me, look for a farm using no chemicals for pest management and fertilizing. Most of you will have a small organic farm, or no-spry farm within driving distance that would be happy for some extra help.

Quite often, as a reward you will go home with some great produce you just picked. And maybe they will let you grow something on their land if you don’t have the space at home? As long as you provide cheerful, useful help you will probably get more out of the experience than you give. This is knowledge that will last a lifetime and help you become more independent.

There is nothing like growing your own veggies and canning the excess. A good place to start your search is your local farmer’s market. Ask one of the veggie farmers if you can come out and help on their farm and see where it goes from there. All it takes is a couple hours every week or two to learn the basics. Then you, too, can join the ranks of backyard farmers.

You will be amazed at the quality of your own home grown produce. The produce at your local grocery store can’t compete with just-picked, home grown goodness! With a good crop you might even have enough to start canning so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor throughout the year. Buy some seeds, or nursery stock  and get started soon. You will be glad you did.

Rudy from Cats Paw Farm

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. Find him online at Fast and Furious Cook and Taste of Travel 2, and read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Advantages and Costs of Mulching

In spring we plant several crops into hay mulch to help control weeds, including reducing the "weed seed bank," (the "deposit" of weed seeds in the soil that will grow in the future). "One year's seeding, seven years weeding." Few weeds other than perennial grasses will come up through a 4” layer of hay. Mulches of natural materials keep the soil damper, which can mean higher yields and less need to water.

Organic mulches keep temperatures lower in summer, an advantage for cool-weather crops. (Plastic mulches raise soil temperature, an advantage for crops that like warm weather). To avoid cooling the soil when using organic mulches for warm weather crops, it is often best to wait for a month after planting out, remove one round of weeds, then roll out the mulch. Mulches also reduce rain splash, which helps prevent fungal diseases.

Organic mulches improve soil structure and add some organic matter. The earthworm count at the end of the season can be twice as high as under plastic mulch.

Broccoli transplant one week after planting into hay mulch

Broccoli one week after transplanting into hay mulch. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

It is possible to spread hay or straw over a double layer of newspaper. Only half as much hay or straw is needed, compared to mulching with straw alone, and the final result is only half as deep. This is an advantage when transplanting small plants, which can get lost in deep organic mulch. We avoid using glossy paper with colored inks, because of concerns about toxicity of the inks and the paper coatings. I believe the colored inks used on regular newsprint are not toxic.

Some people warn against the dangers of organic mulches “locking-up” nitrogen from the soil. This may happen in soils which are short on organic matter and micro-organisms, or if high-carbon sources are worked into the soil. In my experience, surface mulches have not caused nitrogen shortages to the crops they mulch.

Possibly our soil is very fertile, and the regular use of mulch has encouraged soil micro-organisms to steadily increase in numbers, so that they can readily digest it. The long-term effect of high-carbon soil mulches can be an increase in soil nitrogen when the micro-organisms feeding on the carbon die and decompose.

We grow our own hay, so we know it is unsprayed – there is a danger from pyridine carboxylic acids, a class of broadleaf herbicides which persist through composting and even through the digestive systems of livestock, and can kill or seriously damage food crops and flowers. Grazon is one brand; picloram is the plant growth regulator it contains.

Broccoli transplants waiting in our cold frame

Healthy broccoli transplants ready to plant out. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Mulching With Our Homegrown Hay

Our hay does have some weed seeds, so it's not the perfect mulch. Unsprayed straw would be better than hay, but we don't live in a grain-growing area, so there is no straw for sale.

We bale into the big round bales, which we move with the forks or a rear bale spike (spear) on the tractor. We plan our rows to be 5-5½ feet apart (tomatoes) and our beds to be 5 feet apart on centers. We prepare our beds and get the hay delivered to the uphill end (even a small difference in altitude is helpful!). We don't mulch around our plants, but transplant into rolled out hay, which is much quicker, easier and more effective.

When we plant garlic, we unroll the bales over the top of the freshly-planted garlic as soon as we’ve covered the cloves with soil. For transplants we do what we call "making nests" in the hay.

We remove the twine (sometimes it has already rotted and fallen off) and study the end of the bale to determine which way it will unroll. This can be surprisingly hard to determine, so we might just try it and see. If we have to turn the bale, or maneuver it to line up, we sometimes apply three people.

Once we get it rolling, it's a two person job (or a solo job once it's half-rolled). We always have to spend some time with wheelbarrows moving hay from the very thick places to the thin spots. This is partly because the hay we use for mulch is not the best, but often the bales from the field edges.

Making Nests in Hay Mulch

Two people work across from each other, as we plant two rows of broccoli (or cabbage, chard, celery) in each bed. One of the pair has an 18-inch stick and measures the spacing center-to-center. The other person doesn't measure, but matches the pattern to make a zig-zag, staggering their row compared to the measurer's row. Both people try to stay 16 inches (less than a stick) from the edge of the bed, so the rows are evenly spaced. Using both hands, they tease an opening in the hay, down to soil level.

The diameter of the "nest" is about 4 inches. We make all the nests before we start planting, to minimize the time the transplants are out in the field still in the flat.

Transplanting into Mulch Nests

We’re busy transplanting our spring broccoli, which you can read about on my blog, It’s been a challenging “broccoli-planting season” with two very cold nights (20 degrees F and 22 degrees) since we started, some high winds (very cold and drying, hard to keep the rowcovers in place).

In order to have as long a broccoli harvest period as possible, we use several varieties with different days-to-maturity, and do two sowing dates. This gives us the longest possible harvest period before it gets plain too hot and the broccoli tastes bitter

Cabbages and Brussels sprouts planted into hay mulch

Cabbage and Brussels sprouts growing in hay mulch. Photo by McCune Porter

We use carts to take the flats and tools out to the field. Each person works along a row, transplanting into the soil revealed in the nests, firming the plants in and watering from a can every 10-20 plants (depending how hot or windy it is). One person wrangles the hose and wand up and down the aisles and gives all the plants a second watering. Then we "tuck the plants in" by pulling the hay around the stems at ground level.

Having the plants "untucked" is the signal to the Hose Wrangler that the plants need water.  Once they are tucked, it is the signal to those spreading the row cover to go ahead and cover. We like systems that indicate the next task needed.

Pam Dawling manages the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Find her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, in our online store. Pam's blog is on her website and 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.

Photo 1 Before

 Baby peaches before thinning are too close together, which will result is smaller fruits with less sweetness.

Photo 2 After

Baby peaches after thinning allows room for the remaining fruits to become bigger and sweeter. 

My fruit and nut trees — peaches, pears, apples and almonds — are looking like they will be absolutely loaded with fruit this year! We did not experience a late cold snap, which can kill the blossoms, and the bees did a great job with pollination. This is great news, but it meant a bit more work to ensure quality, large-sized fruit rather than getting lots of inferior small-sized fruit.

9 Reasons to Thin Fruit

Thinning the fruit is the best way to get larger-sized fruits. There are also a number of other reasons for thinning fruit. The following are a few points to consider:

Fruit Size: If you thin, you can get good-sized fruit. If you don't, you'll get undersized fruit. Perhaps you will have a greater number of fruit if you fail to thin, but you will probably not like the ratio of pulp to pit. Here's a handy two-part rule: When it comes to larger fruits such as peaches or apples, if you can touch two fruits with one hand, you are allowing your tree to bear too much fruit. By following this rule, the plant will produce the largest fruit possible up to its genetic potential.

Sweetness: The tree is best able to develop the necessary sugars and therefore sweetness, by putting its energy into a smaller number of fruit. Although you will get fewer individual fruits per tree, they will be of much higher quality.

To avoid limb breakage: Limbs overloaded with fruit often break and fall onto the ground. They do so in a random and uncontrolled way that usually tears bark, thus exposing the tree to disease and insect attacks. If the limb can't bear the weight of the fruit, thin the fruit. Don't prop up the limb, which hurts the tree in the long run.

To avoid disease: If wind and air can't go through the tree and circulate between the fruit you have an increased potential for disease.

To reduce a tendency toward alternate bearing: A tree puts a lot of energy into producing and ripening fruit. Heavy fruit set demands a heavy expenditure of energy, and the tree will need to recuperate from this. For instance, a pear tree left unthinned during a heavy-bearing year might produce a big number of small-to-medium-sized fruit, then next year, none at all. By thinning out the very heavy fruit sets, you can avoid this problem. An exception is that some varieties are genetically programmed to be alternate bearing.

To avoid weakening younger trees: Allowing a very young tree to produce fruit retards its growth. It is better to remove all the fruit for the first couple of years to allow the tree to put its energy into becoming established.

To control fruit drop: Fruit trees tend to drop fruit spontaneously. If the fruit set is not thinned, they might drop all, or at least most of their fruit. This happens to my almond tree if I don't thin the nuts soon enough.

To stagger the fruit-ripening process: If you look at fruit set on most trees, you will see little green nubbins of varying sizes, indicating differing stages of development. If you thin fruit so that some remain in each of the various stages of development, you will be able to spread ripening over a much longer period. That is, the more developed fruits remaining will ripen first, the others, later. Or, you can select all fruits of the same stage of development so that they will all ripen at nearly the same time, which is good if you are canning or freezing them for use throughout the year.

To improve the appearance of the fruit: Some fruit should be thinned on the outside of the tree, which applies to fruit that is easily sun scalded such as persimmons or loquats. Other types of fruit, such as peaches and some varieties of apples, should be thinned on the inside of the tree because they need exposure to sunlight to color up.

Micki Brown is a pruning expert and avid gardener based in California. Find her online at High Desert Gardener, and read all of Micki'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.

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