Organic Gardening

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

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As I was completing my newest book, Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people, I photographed seed screens for one of the color pages in the book. This book, published by New Society Publishers, will be on the shelves in the bookstores about February 1. You can pre-order it now from New Society at a discount or buy it from me through my website when I get copies (no discount, but I will sign it). However, you don’t have to wait until then to see my seed screen photos. One photo is here showing the most basic of seed screens that you probably already have in your kitchen—regular colanders and strainers. You can see the other photos at Homeplace Earth.

collection of colanders and strainers

Threshing Seeds

There is a lot to know about seed saving. You are familiar with the seeds of things like tomatoes and squash since you encounter the seeds when you eat them. You never see the seeds of carrots and kale when you eat those vegetables. Knowing when to harvest the seeds (sometimes the following year) is information you need to know. Assuming you have brought your plants all the way to mature seeds—now what? You will need to free the seeds from their pods in a process called threshing; which could be accomplished by rubbing the seed pods in your hands or putting them in an old pillowcase and beating it with a stick. Now you have seeds and chaff mixed together.

Winnowing Seeds

Next is winnowing, which is separating the seeds from the loose chaff. That’s where seed screens are helpful. Often you can put everything in a bowl and give it a shake. The seed will fall to the bottom and you can remove the big chaff by hand. Pour what is left through something with holes and you can remove more chaff from the seeds. The more closely the holes are to the size of the seed, while freely letting the seeds pass through, the cleaner the seeds will be. You will have chaff smaller than the seeds. To remove that, find a screen with holes a little smaller than the seeds. The dusty chaff will fall through, while your seeds stay on the screen.

As you can see, having more than one screen for one kind of seed is an advantage. The seeds of different crops are different sizes, requiring even more sizes of screens. You could purchase a set of eight professional quality seed screens for about $190, but don’t break open your piggybank yet. The colanders and strainers you already have in your kitchen, as shown in the photo, have holes. Different items have different size holes. You can use these to get started. You might find that this is all you will ever need.

Make Your Own Seed Screens

You could make your own screens using hardware cloth. Hardware cloth with half inch and quarter inch spaces are easy enough to find in hardware and building supply stores. Brushy Mountain Bee Farm sells hardware cloth with eight squares to the inch and five squares to the inch. Indian grocery stores sell a set of four screens for a cost of less than $15. They are used as I would use strainers in my kitchen and are handy when working with small seeds.

When you are first getting started, learn all you can about the seeds you are saving before you spend money on supplies. If you have a small amount of seeds, you may just shake them in a shallow bowl to get them to the bottom and blow away the dusty chaff with your breath. Have fun!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at


Yellow leavesI am going to take another detour from discussing the various types of gourmet garlic, this time to talk about harvesting, processing, and curing garlic. Harvesting garlic is nearly upon us, and every year I receive questions from growers regarding when is the best time to harvest their garlic. There is not always an easy answer, since the weather, usage and cultivar will all influence timing. For example, garlic matures at different rates in different climates. Hot climates prompt garlic to mature faster, resulting in an earlier harvest season compared with cooler climates in which the garlic matures more slowly.


We generally begin to harvest in mid-July. Approximately two weeks before our prospective start date, we begin to tinker with our soil moisture. The idea is to strike a balance between having enough moisture to keep the roots damp, allowing the bulb to continue sizing up, and having enough dryness above the root level to prevent the decaying outer skins of the garlic from attracting pathogens which may compromise the bulb. For those prior two weeks, we try to keep the soil moisture around 25-30%.

Allowing the soil to partially dry makes removal of the bulbs more straightforward. Bulbs are also easier to clean since drier dirt can often be simply shaken or brushed off. Finally, a dry soil will give you a head start on the curing process, making post-harvest storage less risky and variable. Be wary, however, of allowing your soil to dry out too much or too soon, since overly-dry soil forces garlic to early maturity, resulting in smaller bulbs and less overall yield. When unsure, always err on the side of moisture.

Ideally you will be able to control your ground moisture, but unfortunately, the weather does not always cooperate, especially in regions that are less arid. Rainfall, although helpful earlier in the season, can cause havoc near harvesting time. Wet soil makes the bulbs difficult to lift, and the threat of rot is ever-present, especially when combined with high heat. If possible, you should delay your harvest until the soil has partially dried. This is, of course, not always practical, especially if you have a large area to harvest. It is better to harvest in moist conditions than risk leaving the garlic in the ground where it is susceptible to rot and over-maturing.

If you do have to harvest in moist conditions, ensure you store the harvested bulbs in a dry place, with good air circulation so that the surface of the skins dry as soon as possible. Never expose the bulbs to direct sunlight for any significant period of time, since this can cause discoloration of the bulb skins.

When to Harvest Garlic

So, you’ve got your moisture levels right. When can you harvest your bulbs? This is a tricky question, since harvesting too soon prevents the flavors of the garlic from reaching their full maturity, but too late and the bulb skins will dry out and split, exposing the cloves to pathogens, thus reducing their storage capability and making them unattractive for market sales.

Perhaps the easiest and most reliable method of determining when to harvest is the number or percentage of green leaves left on the plant. As garlic matures, the older outer leaves dry out and die, becoming yellow-brown and brittle. When the garlic is harvested these layers will be non-existent, having either come away from the bulb or being in the process of doing so. The remaining green leaves will provide the bulb skins. Generally, if you wish to sell your bulbs as gourmet, you want to harvest when the flavor of the garlic is mature, but there are still enough skins to provide a product that both looks good and will store adequately. If you are planning to store your garlic only for a short time for eating and/or seed, then you can leave the garlic in the ground longer, allowing the flavor to mature further. If you do choose the latter, make sure that you regularly dig away the soil around a test bulb, to confirm that the skins are not splitting as the garlic over-matures.

We tend to harvest the majority of our garlic when there are approximately five, or 50-60 percent of green leaves left. The garlic is mature at this point and this method allows for the loss of one to two skins to cleaning and curing, resulting in a marketable product that can also be stored for months.

There are, of course, always exceptions. Asiatic and Turban varieties, for example, should be harvested when only one to two of the true leaves have gone brown. They mature the earliest of all the garlic types, and have a tendency to split very early and easily, especially in dry climates. We usually harvest these types first, generally followed by the softneck cultivars. Finally, the rest of the hardnecks are harvested based on the leaf coloring of individual cultivars. This order may vary from year to year due to variability in climate and plant vitality.


How to Harvest Garlic

How you harvest depends mainly on how much garlic you have. If you have a relatively small amount, it is easy to harvest by hand. Rather than simply pulling the garlic out, however, loosen the soil around the bulbs with a shovel, then gently pull on the stalk to free them. Since we have a large number of bulbs to harvest, we rely on a combination of customized mechanization and hand work to do it efficiently.

We harvest a single bed at a time. We begin with a wide blade that cuts off the garlic stalks approximately two inches from the bulbs. The stalks are then raked from the beds by hand. Bulbs are subsequently undercut and lifted with a modified potato digger, which cuts the roots at two to three inches, sweeps the bulbs up out of the soil, lightly jiggles them down a belt and then deposits them onto the top of the bed where they are gathered by hand. This both makes the bulbs easier to locate and retrieve, and also removes a portion of the dirt clinging to the roots. The harvested garlic is immediately placed in a cool, dry storage room equipped with forced air circulation, to begin curing while waiting to be trimmed for sale. Even with this level of mechanization, it still takes us at least two weeks to clear our fields.

Whatever the method you use to harvest, do so in small batches so that you do not have to leave the exposed bulbs baking in the sun. Next post I will discuss the curing and trimming process, which will help you get your bulbs both market and storage ready!


Cucumber mint water

Plain water is just that-plain. So many people go to sodas or other sweetened, store-bought drinks for refreshment. There are tasty home grown options!

Flavored Water Recipes

For these infusions, place ingredients in a half gallon of water and allow to meld overnight. Shake, then strain into serving container. Chill for a refreshing, tasty water!

• Lemongrass, mint and vanilla-1 large stalk of lemongrass, chopped and crushed, 1/4 cup fresh peppermint coarsely chopped, and 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.

• Cardamom, orange and vanilla-1 large sliced orange, 1 tablespoon crushed cardamom pods, 1/2 large vanilla bean or 1 teas vanilla extract.

• Blackberry, rose and vanilla-3/4 cup blackberries, 1/4 cup rose petals, 1/2 large vanilla bean.

• Refreshing cucumber mint-1/2 cup chopped and crushed mint with half a sliced cucumber.

Of course, there is always the old-fashioned favorite! Lemonade or limeade: simply squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice into water. one-eighth to one-quarter teaspoon of stevia can be added to any of the above for added sweetness with no sugar or carbs. Too much stevia can impart a bitter taste; a little goes a long way! Stevia is an herb high in antioxidants that is very easy to grow. You can find them almost anywhere that herbal plants are sold. Dry the leaves and use to sweeten anything. Stevia can also be purchased at the store. I would stick with the whole herb to get all the antioxidant benefits. I bought a book called "Stevia naturally sweet recipes for desserts, drinks and more!" by Rita DePuydt that has great ideas for using stevia to cut down or eliminate sugar and carbs in many sweetened foods and drinks.

Making your own vanilla is easy, too. Just buy vanilla beans, slit them open and place 4 of them in 1 cup (8 ounces) of premium vodka and allow to infuse for 4-6 months. If you want to speed up the process, shake weekly and it will be ready to use in 8 weeks. As you use it, you can just re-top. Very inexpensive way to have real vanilla.

Make Your Own Sodas at Home

Blueberry and raspberry soda

For a fruit-flavored soda, use 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of sugar (more or less depending on how sweet the fruit is that you are using), 1 cup apple cider vinegar. Heat the sliced fruit, 1/2 cup of sugar, and vinegar over high heat until it boils. Reduce and simmer until fruit is soft and sugar dissolved. Add more sugar if too tart. When cool, mash the fruit and strain liquid into a jar. Store in fridge for up to 2 weeks. For a homemade soda, add 3 tablespoons of syrup into 8 ounces of carbonated cold water.

If you want to go the sugar-free route, substitute 1/2 teaspoon powdered stevia extract for the sugar. Again, be careful in not overdoing the stevia; too much imparts a bitter taste. You can use a combo of stevia with agave nectar, sugar or honey to find a sweetness you like. The less sugar you use, the better for your health.

For a homemade ginger ale, slice 1/4 cup of ginger root and 1/2 lemon or lime, 4 cups of water, simmer in pan for 20 minutes, strain into a glass jar, add 1/2 teaspoon of powdered stevia extract. Add equal amounts of ginger liquid and sparkling water.

You can do the same thing with mint, basil, rosemary, lemon verbena, cilantro, or dill. These syrups can be used in sodas or in adult beverages like the mint julep, margaritas, daiquiris, martinis, gin/vodka gimlets, gin and tonics, sangrias. Let your imagination run herb wild!

There are relatively inexpensive carbonators available nowadays as well. If you drink a lot of soda, this is a very cost effective, nutritious approach.

For more on organic gardening in small spaces and containers, see Melodie's blog at


MOSES farmer of the year

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) is seeking nominations for the “2015 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year” award, which will be presented at the 26th annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wis., Feb. 26 to 28, 2015.

The award recognizes an organic farmer or farm family with a history of outstanding land management, resource conservation, and farming innovation. These exemplary farmers also are committed to spreading the organic message in their communities. This is the 13th year for the award program, which comes with a prize package that includes full admission to the 2015 MOSES Conference.

North Dakota seed and grain farmers, David, Ginger, Dan and Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Farm and Seed in Fullerton, ND, received the 2014 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year award. Their farm story and other recipients’ stories are online at the MOSES website under the “Projects” tab.

Anyone can nominate a farmer for this award. Nomination forms are available on the MOSES website, or by calling the MOSES office at 715-778-5775. Nominations are due by Sept. 15, 2014.

This prestigious award comes with a number of prizes including a cash award, lodging, a bookstore gift certificate and full admission to the Organic Farming Conference, the nation’s largest gathering of organic farmers. 

MOSES is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and education to farmers to encourage sustainable and organic agriculture. To learn more, visit the MOSES website.

This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.


Varieties Of PotatoesPotatoes are the heart of our garden. They fill two and a half raised beds (ten feet by four) every year, five varieties. We raise enough to be potato independent; we are eating the last few spuds, rubbing off the spooky long tendrils in late June, and then scrabbling under the plants for potato salad for the Fourth of July. Maybe it is my Irish roots, maybe my working class dinner background of meat, potatoes, and frozen veggies, or maybe it is just the gorgeous variety of shapes and colors that emerge from the ground like buried treasure in early August, but I love growing our own potatoes.

Potato growing is a balancing act. I want to plant them early enough so that they do not need too much supplemental water, but not so early that they rot or destroy the soil structure. Last year, that meant the last week in March; this year, because it was a dry spring, I was able to plant by Saint Patrick’s Day, which felt oddly appropriate. I plant densely — five rows in a four-foot-wide bed, with a generous handful of bio-fish fertilizer underneath and a layer of straw mulch over the soaker hoses. Because of the fertility of the soil and the steady spring rains, the system works.

Finding Potato Varieties that WorkPlanting Potatoes In Rows

We grow five varieties of potatoes. I spend several hours browsing the Irish Eyes catalog, not only because they specialize in early season crops and potatoes that will grow in the Pacific Northwest, but also because they have some excellent charts. I want tough, heavy producing plants. I always plant a fingerling — ‘Ruby Crescent’ has done well for the past few years. It’s a nice knobby plant that keeps for months in the root cellar.

All blue potatoes are really blue all the way through and retain the color when cooked, which is a bonus. ‘Yukon Gold’ is tasty mashed with cabbage in the winter and bakes well, too. ‘Desiree’ produces huge bakers and has a nice red skin, and the ‘Kennebec’ is well rounded, and reminds me of home in New England.  Every few years, I trade out a variety when I purchase new seed, but most years, seed potatoes are set aside during the weighing in process.

The plants are looking good this year. They rose to the sky and flowered in June and  have now flopped over the edges of the beds, sprawling everywhere. I flopped them back in a few days ago when I needed to trim and mow, but they are strong-minded plants, and they are back in the aisles again. It’s ok. I went out last night and dug around, searching for new potatoes for dinner, choosing a few from each bed. Mixed with garden celery and on a bed of fresh lettuce, they made a fine hot night supper.

There is still growth going on underground. And I think that is what I love most about potatoes — the humble vines on the surface, dying back and losing color, and the buried treasure in the dirt.


Water Chestnut/Planting water chestnuts

I've always liked Chinese food, but I was never really a fan of Chinese water chestnuts ... that is, until I grew my own and tasted them fresh.

The tasteless white discs in cheap takeout are only a pale shadow of the fresh vegetable.

Known in Latin as Eleocharis dulcis, Chinese water chestnuts are NOT the same as the invasive "water chestnut" that's invaded our native wetlands. Chinese water chestnuts are a member of the sedge family and look like a 2-3' tubular grass. At the base of the reedy growth, under a mat of roots, you'll find the edible corms, or "chestnuts."

These roots have a crisp, nutty flavor that's delicious. Unfortunately, most Americans have never tasted them.

Experimenting with Chinese Water Chestnuts

It took me three years to find my first Chinese water chestnut corms and another spring, summer and fall before my first crop was ready to eat. I wasn't really all that sure how to grow them, so I just planted six corms in a recycled bathtub with about 6" of muck in the bottom and another 6" of water over that.

The growth surprised me. Those six initial roots multiplied into a thick mat of roots and reeds that absolutely filled the bathtub. Out of that tub, I harvested at least a gallon of water chestnuts. I would have harvested more - and larger - corms if the tub wasn't so crowded with plants by the end of the season. One little plant can spread to fill up a 6' x 6' water garden in a season. My kind of vegetable!

This spring I decided to grow them in kiddie pools and share a few roots with some of my readers so they could take a shot at growing their own water chestnuts. Thus far, the kiddie pools are working excellently. I have three of them filled with plants, plus I added a second bathtub and a small in-ground pond to the mix. All of them are growing plenty of happy water chestnuts. To grow them in kiddie pools, I fill the pools most of the way to the top with garden soil, then water until it's sopping muck. Chinese water chestnuts don't need to be covered in water; all they need is to be in boggy conditions.

Though Chinese water chestnuts are technically a tropical plant, I've had them come back happily after frosty nights down in the teens. My guess is that you can grow them as a perennial in USDA Growing Zones 8 south, but with protection or a covered pond, they'd likely work further north than that.

Note: if you have Oriental markets locally, you might have luck finding fresh Chinese water chestnuts in the produce section. Plant them and most of them should grow into plants, provided they haven't dried out. (You can also get plants in limited quantities from my little family plant nursery, but it would be totally self-serving to mention that here, so I won't. Oh shoot! I just did! #evilcapitalist)

Chinese Water Chestnuts in a Tub/Young water chestnut plants

Growing Tips

To grow Chinese water chestnuts, plant corms a couple of inches deep in mucky soil or at the edge of a pond and stand back. They grow quickly and will rapidly spread to fill whatever space you give them. Let them grow until the tops start to yellow and die back, then start digging. Be gentle as you harvest: the skins on Chinese water chestnuts are somewhat easy to damage and the roots won't keep as long if they're scratched. As for storage, you can put the corms in a container of water or moist paper towels and refrigerate them until you need them... they keep quite well. Peel, slice and eat them raw or cooked. They keep their crunch even after cooking, adding a great texture to stir-fries and other dishes.

I think there's potential for this easy-to-grow root to be a good staple crop. With enough kiddie pools, anything is possible!

There's a real joy in growing and tasting new plants. In coming weeks, I'm going to share more on a few other overlooked perennial vegetables that are worth trying in your garden or food forest project... stay tuned.

Until then, save some takeout for me. I can dress it up.

For more daily gardening inspiration, plant profiles, rare edibles and homesteading, check out David's website at


eat local

Eating locally is a vitally important way each of us can contribute to a more sustainable community and food shed. Based on the Permaculture Zone Principles, charted in a bull’s eye pattern, each circle represents sustainable ways to access food in our own communities. According to these principles, it is best to grow our own food in our own backyard first. What we can’t grow ourselves, we can acquire at local community gardens and small farms or by supporting local farmers markets. We can then support area businesses which are purveyors of local foods. Finally, only when we simply have utilized all of our local resources, then we visit the chain supermarket to complete our food needs. This mindset offers a creative insight into how our thoughts about food need to shift a little in order to truly be invested in the local foods movement.

To support local farmers means that you are actually helping a farmer and his family to survive. Perhaps you are helping to pay the operating costs of his farming operation; maybe you are helping their children go to college; perhaps your money is buying seeds. Whatever the case may be, knowing that you are supporting the livelihood of an honest hardworking entrepreneur is more satisfying and more human than lining the pockets of CEO’s of major corporations. The support of farmers first shows the dedication to immediate community. This act of supporting local is actually helping to strengthen the economy within a specific radius. Also, Young farm families are true stewards of the earth. They care about the soil, the air and the water.

eat local 2

Ways to Support Small Family Farms

Join a CSA Farm: CSA Farms (Community Supported Agriculture Farms) operate as a subscription farm. Shareholders or members pay up front to help the small farmer with seed and operating costs. Members then receive a weekly share of the seasonal harvest grown throughout an allotted period of time, typically 26 weeks. The shareholders share in both the risks and the benefits with the farmer.

Shop at your local farmers market: Farmers Markets offer weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) opportunity to purchase fresh, locally grown produce at reasonable yet fair prices for the farmers. Fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets are typically harvested within a few days of purchase and are at their peak flavor and freshness. Typically the farmers who grow the produce are the ones selling it at the market so it gives customers an opportunity to meet and shake hands with those who grow their food. Farmers markets offer the opportunity to purchase pasture raised meats and fresh eggs.

Support local businesses which source from local farmers

eat local

Ways to help localize the food shed: Learn about Permaculture as a global solution to the environmental/social/economical issues relating to food. Permaculture Gardens utilize the existing landscape and produce food in harmony with each specific ecosystem. Permaculture gardens focus on no till methods with an emphasis on soil health, water preservation, companion planting, and permaculture food forests.

Start your own container garden or square foot garden to ease you into the art of growing food. Container Gardening is easy and affordable and offers a basic introduction to backyard gardening. Container gardening requires very little space and is low maintenance. Container gardening is perfect for busy individuals who wish to grow their own food.

Start your own backyard garden. Backyard gardening is easy and requires only a small amount of time and energy, especially when creating raised beds which require very little weeding. Wicking beds offer a low maintenance alternative. Wicking beds are low cost low maintenance garden beds which are composed of reclaimed materials. Backyard gardens attract pollinators and offer food for the entire family.

Start a food revolution in your neighborhood. Talk you the neighbors on your block about starting front yard gardens. This concept allows a highly sustainable food shed within your square block. The food is then shared between neighbors, offering a diverse array of fresh vegetables. This idea builds community and creates safer, more vibrant neighborhoods. Check out for inspiration.

Start/join a community garden. Community Gardens offer an amazing opportunity for a diverse group of individuals from the community come together for the unified vision of growing healthy fresh food. Most community garden plots are either free or require a small annual fee. According to the American Community Garden Association, “There are an Estimated 18,000 Community Gardens throughout the United States and Canada alone.” Community gardens, worldwide, each offer excellent models for education and outreach. Community gardens are beautiful examples of how individuals from all walks of life living in the same community can come together and bring a vision to fruition with love and support.

Organize a "Crop Mob." Know a small family farmer who could use some help? Organize a volunteer work day and spend the day pulling weeds or helping with harvest at a farm in your town. Farmers could always use volunteers!

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