Organic Gardening

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

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potatoesThe actual footprint of a garden is only one of many factors for how much food that can be produced there. I often get the question if the size of our garden (8,000 sq feet) is what's needed to feed two people for 12 months. That is a hard question to give an easy answer to since there are so many factors involved. The quality of the soil, the amount of sun and water, the different crop varieties and also, how the space is used. Over the years I'm developing ways of planning my garden so that I can plant in successions and get two or more crops grown and harvested from the same beds without row covers or other plastic materials. It allows me to use all the available space throughout the entire season instead of leaving some open in the early summer to plant my fall crop in and to not use space that opens up as the season progresses.

So in the middle of everything there is to do in August, here at the Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead, I'm already busy planning for the fall garden. As some of the major crops are being harvested – the garlic, the onions and the early potatoes – new space is opening up that can be utilized for fall crops such as Chinese cabbage, rutabagas, turnips and radish.

Succession Planning Examples

Some series of succession planting looks like this:

Bed #1 Early April – lettuce; Early July – the lettuce bolts and Chinese cabbage seeds are planted; Early August- the garlic is harvested and the Chinese cabbage seedlings can be transplanted to this new space.

Bed #2 Early April – Fava Beans; Late July – The fava beans are harvested and collard seeds planted; August – As we harvest the early potatoes room opens up to transplant the collards to.

Bed#3 Mid April – Onion seedlings; Mid-August – The onions are harvested and radish and turnips planted; Bed#4 Mid to late March – cold frames with brassica seedlings.

Early July – the brassicas are transplanted, the cold frames taken away and rutabaga seeds planted. Early August – rutabagas transplanted and the cold frames are put back out and planted with winter greens such as kale and spinach.

Space-Saving Garden Ideas


Here are some of my favorite ways of making as much use of our garden space as possible:

Build the soil. The same square feet patch can produce vastly different quantities depending on the soil. We use liberate amounts of local and natural materials such as seaweed, horse manure and our own compost as fertilizer and especially so in the beds that grow several crops throughout the season. Both garlic and brassicas are heavy feeder and for that succession to give maximum yield the soil needs to be replenished.

Mulch will keep the ground moist and the weed pressure down and aid the crops in using the energy to produce food.

The fence is already there, right, so why not use it as a trellis for beans, cucumbers and climbing flowers. I also grow my tomatoes along the fence instead of taking up room for cages in the garden beds.

The old-time way of growing winter squash and corn in the same patch works really good, with a few considerations. Corn grows fast once established so it's well advised to give the squash a little bit of head start so it doesn't get too shaded by the corn. Some winter squash are more suitable for this kind of planting, like pumpkins that can tolerate quite a bit of shade. Up here in Maine some squash are already compromised by the short and cool season and will struggle if also shaded by corn.

Winter squash can also be planted along the edges of the garden and trained to grow outwards through the fence. As long as the deer or other animals will eat the crop, this will save a considerable amount of space.

Favor crops that can be stored. At the peak of summer we have so much fresh food ready to eat all at once so when I plan my garden, I plan for some early varieties, like short seasoned carrots, but the bulk of the garden to be varieties that can be stored. For example to grow less celery and much more celeriac that can be stored in the root cellar until next spring.  

So the answer to the question whether 8,000 square feet is what it takes to feed two people year round is that it's all about what you make out of it. We grow a vast surplus every year, food that is put towards the Hostel dinners, given to friends or traded for. To see our garden at this amazing season of 2014 and all the food that will come from it gives me the answer that it will feed not only two people, but many more, over the next 12 months.

Photos by Dennis Carter and Anneli Carter-Sundqvist.


St Paul city garden

Sometimes we country folks take for granted the right to grow vegetables and having enough space to do so. A recent trip to St. Paul, Minn., reminded me that not everyone can just plop a row of tomato plants in the ground.

Those ingenious Minnesotans, however, found ways to grow their own fresh veggies right smack in the middle of a big, bustling city. Surprisingly, they were not limited to growing vegetables in containers.

At first, as I strolled around the residential neighborhood near St. Catherine University, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. After all, we are so accustomed to only flowers and decorative greenery lining sidewalks that I almost missed noticing the zucchini and raspberries growing there.

Potted tomatoes

On the 10-block walk to a wonderful used book store, I encountered enough incognito front-yard vegetable gardens to warrant going back to my daughter’s apartment for my camera. I saw squash of all sorts, a variety of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, chard, rhubarb (which grows to positively monstrous sizes in the North Country), herbs, onions, peas, beans and beets. I suspect now that some of those sunflowers and nasturtium were doing more than beautifying lawns.

Illegal Gardens in the News

Not only were the undercover edibles rooted discreetly in pots and window boxes, they were openly growing in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and street. This is especially pleasing to us who have followed Mother Earth News’ shocking forbidden-food-growing stories. Here is a list of “illegal garden” news compiled by Mother Earth News staff.

In 2013, Mother Earth News assistant editor Kale Roberts wrote of two Des Moines, Iowa, residents complaining to the city council about separate front-yard vegetable gardens they considered less attractive than grass. Also, beginning in 2012, Roberts wrote of Jason and Jennifer Helvenston, an Orlando, Fla., couple facing fines of $500 per day for growing vegetables where grass “should have been.” In both instances, thanks in part to heavy public pressure, the issues were eventually dropped. The municipalities deemed it could be an invasion of property rights for a city to mandate what can be planted on lawns.

From Lawn to Food Production in St. Paul

St Paul sidewalkAs I wandered about St. Paul taking photos, I encountered one yard completely devoid of lawn. The entire front yard along busy Randolph Avenue is a perennial wildflower garden without a blade of grass to mow or water. Wildflowers are naturally more drought resistant than domesticated grasses.

At another front yard alive with all manner of vegetables, the homeowners were, of course, sitting on their front step. Where else? Before I even had a chance to tell them what I was up to with my camera, they waved me over for a chat. Nearly every square inch of their yard was filled with delicious-looking fruit and vegetables. Only one slim grassy path cuts across the front yard ― as a convenience for the mailman, they said.

“When you live in Minnesota, you don’t walk, but RUN outside and start planting in spring,” the woman of the house laughed.

St Paul street

When I asked how it all started, the friendly couple said they bought the house 10 years ago and nonchalantly planted a row of red raspberry bushes along one side. When no one complained about that, they kept adding more growing beds each year. Rather than protesting, their neighbors admire and frequently thank them for their lovely gardens.

The couple said they are unaware of city ordinances prohibiting front-yard vegetable gardens, but have not asked, “just in case.” Based on the number of up-front kitchen gardens I saw on my short walk, I guessed St. Paul encourages residents to plant “patriot gardens.” I was correct, later finding a Twin Cities Boulevard Gardening Guide prepared by Sustainable Resources Center’s Urban Lands Program that addresses how to properly plant along Minneapolis and St. Paul streets. So, not only does St. Paul invite front-yard planting, it promotes planting on the boulevard — that grass strip we always think of belonging to the city.

St Paul squash

Even businesses got in on the movement. I found herbs growing outside a dentist office, yoga academy and therapeutic massage studio. Beside one apartment building, a resident planted peppers, squash and cucumbers in hay bales. Nearby, Swiss chard and kale grew in flower pots. All the plants were lively and producing fruit.

To learn more about growing food in the city, be sure to check out fellow Mother Earth News blogger Mike Lieberman’s article about his patio garden in Los Angeles that details how you can grow food in your city. For more pictures of St. Paul’s front-yard gardens, see our blog, Hooray for St. Paul, Minnesota Boulevard Gardens.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.


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

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

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

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

Warm Weather Crops

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

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

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

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis

Cool Weather Spring and Fall Crops

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

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

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

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

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

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

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

Cold-Hardy Crops To Grow Over Winter

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

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


Rack2Once your garlic has been harvested, it needs to be ‘cured’ to prepare it for storage. Since this process takes weeks to complete, you’ll be glad to know that it began while your bulbs were still in the ground! Curing is essentially a more formal term for drying. If you are consuming your garlic right away, then curing it isn’t really necessary. If you want to store it for any length of time, however, then proper curing is essential to prevent that garlic you worked so hard all year to grow, from becoming moldy, shriveled, or otherwise compromised. The goal of curing is get the outer wrapper and clove skins of the garlic completely dry, while maintaining the lovely, fleshy oiliness of the cloves themselves.

Once harvested, garlic takes approximately three to six weeks to fully cure, depending on conditions including temperature, humidity, air circulation, amount of green material left on the bulbs, and the size and type of bulbs. As you would expect, larger bulbs and those with more green material take longer to cure, so softnecks tend to require a longer curing period than hardnecks. High humidity and poor air circulation will also increase the length of time for curing, and a longer drying time increases the risk of mould and other pathogens and, subsequently, decreased storage capability. Likewise, don’t be tempted to rush the process, since this can result in dry, shriveled bulbs that also store poorly.

Garlic Bulb Curing Methods

There are different ways to cure your bulbs based on the amount of garlic to be cured and the space in which to cure it. Two commonly used methods include hanging the garlic in bunches, or stacking the bulbs in vented boxes. Whichever method you choose, remember that garlic should never be cured in the sun, in order to prevent discoloration and softening.

Curing garlic by hanging it in bunches is a method preferred by small-scale growers, and can be used for both hard and softneck varieties. The garlic is not trimmed, but rather gathered into small bundles of six to twenty-four bulbs, which are tied with twine or string and hung from wall racks or nails. Although the leaves and stalk are not trimmed, the scape usually is, since it retains a high level of moisture. The bundles should be tied securely, and balanced with the bulbs angling downward. Ensure that the bundles are hung someplace dry and cool, with moderate humidity and good air circulation.

If you are growing garlic on a scale too large to permit you to hang bundles, vented boxes or racks can be used to efficiently cure your garlic, although this method can be somewhat risky and requires proper management. Ideally, the bulbs, whether you are using vented boxes or racks, would be dried in a single layer. Rarely is this possible due to space constraints, so alternatively, the bulbs can be layered to a maximum of 3-4 deep per box or rack, with the boxes and racks then stacked upon each other. There should be a minimum of two inches of space between the top layer of bulbs and the lower layer of the box above, to guarantee adequate air circulation.

Keep Cool and Dry

Boxed or racked garlic must also be kept someplace cool and dry, with good air circulation and moderate humidity. Managing these elements is more challenging with this method, as a large number of bulbs will release a significant amount of moisture into the air, drastically increasing the humidity of the storage room and making rot and mould a constant threat. To achieve successful curing, proper air circulation is essential, including a quick way to release large amounts of moisture if necessary. In our shed, for example, we use a combination of vented floors and industrial fans to keep cool air constantly circulating in and around the garlic, and the humidity is carefully monitored by constant measurement. The shed is also equipped with a large sliding door, which we can open if the air moisture level should rise above 50%.

Your garlic is finished curing when the skins feel completely dry and papery. The cloves should still be firm and plump. If, on breaking open a sample bulb, all the outer layers of skins are dry, and the clove skins are thin, tight and dry, then your bulbs are likely ready for storage. Garlic will continue to cure as long as it is stored properly, so that even garlic that is not completely cured at the time of storage should keep for months.



Romanian Farmer Woman

This photograph, which I took in Deva, Romania, always makes me happy. Spring. Travel. The surprise of the unexpected. We entered the farmhouse courtyard of this Romanian subsistence farmer through a door in a wall. One never knows what these private spaces will reveal. In this case, the courtyard was dominated by the glowing personality of the country woman whose farm it was. I asked to be shown her kitchen garden. It was a step back in time. In addition to the plants being grown for food were the plants staked for seed saving. I recall in particular a row of staked bolting lettuce. As country people tend not to waste time, while showing me the garden my host took the opportunity to harvest an immense kohlrabi for her afternoon meal. She carried the kohlrabi out of the garden to a chopping stump where she trimmed it with a hatchet and then, in what was virtually a single movement, tossed the trimmings over the chicken coop fence. I can still recall the sense of awakening as I saw the kohlrabi leaves dropping down into the coop. Here were whole systems, simple, elegant, ancient.

From the coop we went to see the bread oven. It was located in the barn. Small, rudimentary in the extreme, it was made of crude bricks with no insulation. Like the chipped plate in the photograph on which she is offering me fruit, the oven was a sign of the material poverty in which she and her husband lived. I took photographs of the oven and was then taken back outside and sat down on a chair in the shade of a tree. My host returned a short time later, smiling, with the berries and flowers you see in the photograph. Her husband poured a round of plum alcohol and we drank to friendship.

While the grinding work of a Romanian subsistence farm isn’t anything that I would choose for myself, there are aspects of the life that are attractive. In particular, the practices that I think of as the circles of life — eating food one has grown oneself, saving seeds, feeding poultry with garden scraps, and then eating their eggs (or them), and preserving a fruit harvest to cement friendships with strangers.

Having no choice in life is awful. Having to depend entirely on the food one raises to eat because one has no other choice is not an appealing life. Young people have fled the Romanian countryside. But having virtually infinite choices has its problems, too. My own urban vegetable plot ebbs and flows in productivity depending on my life, but as a rule, there is always at least something that can be harvested. I find it fundamentally reassuring when the answer to the question of what salad there is for dinner is simply the lettuce growing in the garden. And when it bolts (selecting the plants that bolt last), stake them and either gather the seed for replanting before they blow away or let the seeds scatter in the wind to become garden volunteers.


Fall garden

August is a fairly hot month throughout the United States. Don’t let that deter you from planting a fall garden. There is still time to have fresh homegrown produce for fall. Most fall crops are started from seed in May, June and July. In August, if you haven’t already started seeds for fall, it is best to buy established plant starts. Most plant nurseries sell plant starts for fall gardening.

Fall Garden Vegetables

The following plant starts can be planted now for a late fall harvest: scallions, squash, cucumber, broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, and pumpkins.

The following greens do well when planted now from seed for fall: spinach, kale, chard and lettuce.

The following root crops can be planted now for a late fall harvest: carrots, beets and turnips.

Radishes can be planted now as well and are typically ready to harvest in 30 days. What we plant now in the Midwest for next years harvest: Garlic can be planted in late October of this year to be ready for early July Harvest. Carrots and spinach can also be planted in October for an early spring harvest next year.


Head lettuces and other hardy greens will overwinter well. Perennial herbs can be planted now. The following annual herbs can still be planted to enjoy in late summer/early fall: parsley (actually a biennial), cilantro, basil and dill. Because of the hot weather in August, be sure to either use drip irrigation, or water regularly. Straw bales work well to mulch vegetable crops.

Sheet mulching, or lasagna gardening, is an excellent way to keep your garden bed weed-free. Sheet mulching is essentially layering compost, leaf mulch, grass clippings, newspaper, more compost, and straw or mulch around each of your garden plants to help suppress weeds, add nutrients and retain moisture. Compost is a gardener’s best friend! A simple compost bin can be made using reclaimed materials such as pallets or an old wire fence panel. Pallets make excellent garden beds.


Provider bush beansWhen you look at the details of seed varieties, one of the bits of information you will find is “days to maturity.” That is the expected time it will take from planting the seed or transplant in the ground until you can expect a harvest. In my garden planning DVD and in my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, I advise you to use that number of days when determining when you might expect to begin harvesting the crops you are planting. You could record that information on a Plant/Harvest Schedule so you know what to expect throughout the season. Until you have more experience with the specific varieties you are growing, that is a good way to begin. If you keep even the most minimum of records, such as writing on a calendar when you planted something and when the harvest started, you will begin to have a more accurate guide for your garden planning.

My mind was on days to maturity this summer when I had to plan to grow the snap beans for our son’s August 2 wedding. You can find out more about that wedding planning at HomeplaceEarth. I usually grow Provider bush beans to can. It is quick maturing (42 days in my garden) and reliable. I am comfortable with the two week harvest window and pick four times during those two weeks. The harvest is a little lighter on the first and last pickings, but not significantly. When I worked things out on the Plant/Harvest Schedule, I realized that I would have to plant these beans as soon as we returned from a week-long trip. Knowing things can pop up unexpectedly that might delay planting at that time, I wanted to put the beans in the ground before we left. I needed to find a bean that would mature a week later.

The seed catalogs list Provider at 50 days. I decided upon Jade and Gold Rush to grow for the wedding feast. They were both listed at 55 days. Since Provider beans are actually ready to harvest at my place after 42 days, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the first picking of Jade and Gold Rush happened on 47 days after planting. The seed catalog had listed them as maturing five days later. What I wasn’t prepared for was quantity of Gold Rush beans I would have that first picking — two thirds of what would be the total harvest was ready that day! The following week, on day 54, the harvest yielded two thirds of what would be the total harvest for the Jade beans. I suppose if you were used to growing these varieties, you would look forward to, and plan for, a bulk harvest such as this. For me, I’ll go back to growing Provider beans.

I think I will grow yellow beans again, though. I used to grow them long ago and don’t know why I stopped. I liked to can them with some of the green beans. I remember yellow beans as maturing later than the green beans I was growing in my market garden. I could can the green and yellow beans separately whenever they come in, but it would be fun to can them together. In that case, I would want to make sure the harvests overlap. If I planted Provider and Gold Rush at the same time, the bulk of the Gold Rush harvest would come in the middle of the Provider harvest window. Another variety may have a harvest that would be more spread out. Gold Rush had straight pods that I wanted for the wedding, since the beans would be cooked whole. For canning they would be cut up, so curled beans would be fine if a curled variety would better meet the harvest times. If I found a yellow variety that would have a two week harvest, with amounts the same as Provider, I would pay attention to the days to maturity. If they matured a week later, I could plant them a week before Provider beans and be picking both varieties at the same time.

When you begin gardening, the particular varieties may not be as important to you. A harvest of any kind of snap beans would be welcome. Once you notice all the nuances of each variety, life can get more interesting. My focus here was the harvest window and days to maturity. Other things to pay attention to would be taste, color, and shape. Sometimes it is a memory that drives you to grow a certain variety. If wonderful memories of your grandmother handing you a ripe tomato in her garden when you were young pop into your mind when you encounter tomatoes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the variety you would choose for your garden.

Learn more about what Cindy Conner is up to at

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