Organic Gardening

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

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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.


A nest of eggs

I’m the kind of human who carefully captures spiders in the house and escorts them outside away from playful indoor cats. I try my best to step lightly upon the planet, rejoicing in the wildlife around me as I watch them go about their daily lives. I literally cringe when I drive by butchered trees along the side of the road or see downed trees after big storms. Imagine my dismay when I came across the sight above as I was weeding my wildly overgrown carrot bed.

Had I been weeding in front of me rather than reaching around behind in my lazy efficiency, I might have discovered the nest before I’d removed too much ground cover. I would have mulled over a different set of ethical questions at that point. However, as it happened I discovered this lovely, well-built nest after it was already half-exposed and one egg had fallen out (though I didn’t notice that right away).

What to do? We use our carrots a lot and I don’t have a ready replacement bed, so I decided to temporarily move the nest to a safe spot. I would finish my weeding chore, then replace the nest along with some sort of shelter while hoping that the mama bird might return if I moved my activities to a different part of the garden.

I’ll warn you now, there isn’t a “rest of the story” yet. I’ll have to fill you in at a future time, but I remain ever hopeful because it’s part of my nature. I don’t have to get back into the carrot bed for a couple of weeks — so, if the transition for mama bird succeeds, we may have photos of baby birds. I’m fairly certain these are Carolina Wren eggs as the size and appearance are a decent match.

I haven’t had any birds nest in my carrot bed before, but I usually don’t leave it so long before weeding. I definitely see how this particular spot was so inviting (see upper left photo in the collage below). There was a lush bunch of green cover growing under the safety of some chain link (temporarily pulled back in the photo). I imagined how the babies would have hatched in what seemed like a forest with flowers on the trees and light breezes blowing through.

weeding and amending the carrot bed

After moving the nest to the corner of an adjacent bed, I sheltered it from the sun and wind with a piece of aluminum left over from when our house was re-sided 17 years ago. Then I got back to work, moving a bit more quickly.

I finished pulling the weeds, turned over the bed with my shovel, worked in a bit of that wonderful compost, covered the whole bed with straw, then set about replacing the nest. As I was working I mulled over the things I felt necessary to help recreate the original site of the nest.

I decided to use the piece of aluminum to create a shelter over the top of the nest. I put two small bamboo poles into the dirt on the left side to help hold it in place. I made sure to leave a little bit of the top open on the brick end so that air could flow through. I knew the chain link fencing would keep it from lifting out of place as long as I had those poles.

I topped the whole thing with some of the pulled weeds. I figured even though they will die off quickly, in the near term the mother bird might decide it looked similar enough that she would see if her eggs were still there. I also thought the organic mat would quiet any rain that comes along this week. I know how loud the rain can sound on the metal roof of our house. I have plenty more weeding to do so if it seems like I need to replenish the matting it won’t be a problem.

Providing Safe Critter Spaces

Animals are great at finding safe places to raise their young. I’m thinking that I need to figure out better ways to learn on the fly as I can’t always drop what I’m doing and run to Google. This is the third time I’ve been surprised by unexpected babies in my garden. The first time, over a decade ago, baby bunnies were living under a trellis of gourds. The second surprise was a family of baby ringneck snakes living in my potatoes. I was able to leave the bunnies where they were, but I was harvesting the potatoes when I found the snakes so I carefully relocated them.

Here’s hoping that these latest surprise babies will be nurtured and nourished until they fledge out of my carrot bed. I’ll definitely be weeding that bed earlier next year. I can always depend on my garden to offer up questions of ethics and morals. Digging through the dirt, weeding and otherwise tending to my plants and trees reminds me that I’m not at all alone. In fact, it sometimes seems that I share this small patch of earth with thousands of other creatures.

For photos of some of our wildlife friends, visit this page on my website.

size and location of the nest

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, 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.


I have been growing my own varieties of fruits and vegetables for years. They taste marvelous to me. Before saving seeds, I taste the crops to make sure that they taste good to me. I didn't start out to intentionally breed for great tasting vegetables, it happened mostly by chance as tastes, textures, smells, and colors that I find most pleasing have come to predominate in my varieties.

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending an open house at the home of a man that has been my friend since childhood. There was a beautiful spread of vegetables that looked glorious, but tasted nothing like the vegetables from my garden. The experience triggered the train of thought that lead to writing this blog.

Industrialized cantaloupe

Industrialized Food

Last fall, I was invited to the capitol, for a week, where I was wined and dined on the finest food that industrialized agriculture has to offer. On more than a few occasions, I put a forkful of food into my mouth that I thought I recognized, but the taste or texture was so off-putting, that I spit it out for fear that I had inadvertently put a non-food item into my mouth.

As an example, there was a dish of small thin snap beans that looked so young and tender that on my farm, I would have expected them to melt in my mouth. At the restaurant, they had the consistency of a bean stem. In a blind taste test, I would have considered them too fibrous to be edible. I was served fruits that looked like tomatoes or strawberries, but the texture and taste was more akin to eating Styrofoam packing peanuts with a bit of added food coloring.

I've heard some of my patrons use the term “cardboard tomatoes” to disparage tomatoes that are trucked in from far away. I had the opportunity to taste some of them. I have included a photo of an industrialized cantaloupe (above). I sure wouldn't want to eat that!

High carotene sweet corn

Localized Food

The experience last fall helped me to realize that I have been localizing the taste of my food to my own body and my own community. When I plant genetically diverse crops, and allow them to promiscuously pollinate, they are creating lots of variation in taste, texture, color, and odor. When I save seeds from specific plants that taste best to me, I am moving the population in the direction of what tastes best to me.

I view myself as a thoroughly average human primate. So I think that when I select for varieties that taste great to me, I am tending to select for crops that taste great to my community. That is, borne out at the farmer's market, where some of my varieties have developed a following. People that look forward every year to my muskmelons, sweet corn, squash, or tomatoes. Sure, I might lose 20% of my fruit crops to bruising before I can get them to the farmer's market. But what survives is a joy to the mouth, nose, and eyes.

I have included a photo comparing a high carotene version of my sweet corn with normal sweet corn (above). Mmm. Mmm. Mmm.

Better Smelling Food

When I first started growing melons, I called them cantaloupes, because that's what the seed packets called them. Over the years, as I saved the melons that tasted best to me, they started to become sweeter and sweeter, and they got smelly. Not just a little smelly, they became odoriferous, and fragrant. I can't put a basket of them in the cab of the truck with me unless I roll down the window, and even that is pushing it.

The smell from a single melon on the dinner table is glorious. A couple baskets in a closed up truck creates an overwhelming odor. Therefore, these days I call them muskmelons, because their musky smell is one of their defining characteristics.

High carotene butternut squash

Higher Nutrition

Another melon trait has developed to please my taste buds. My muskmelons are deep orange due to high carotenes. I love the taste of carotenes in my food. So as I have been selecting for great taste, I have also been inadvertently selecting for higher carotene content and more brilliant color. I have noticed a similar trend in other crops such as squash, and sweet corn.

It seems to me that as I select for great taste, I am also selecting for more nutritious crops with higher levels of vitamins, anti-oxidants, and phytonutrients which are often brightly colored. My fruits and vegetables look great, and they taste great. I'm coming to believe that our bodies are not simple black boxes that take in any purported food and give any output. The more involved I become in saving seeds for better tasting food, the more I am convinced that foods taste better to our bodies when they have more of the nutrients that a body needs.

I've included a photo of my butternut squash. My, how orange!


When I plant genetically diverse crops, and allow them to promiscuously pollinate, they are creating lots of variation in taste, texture, color, and odor. When I save seeds from specific plants that taste best to me, I am moving the population in the direction of what tastes best to me and to my community. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively. Read all of his 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.


For those of you who are not familiar with biodynamics, let me set the scene for you: It is a method of agriculture that originated from the scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. The method was created to address farming problems with monoculture (growing of one crop on the same land year after year) and livestock yields resulting from health and fertility troubles of the land.

Biodynamic growing can be thought of as the next step up from organic growing, as many of the principles of organic growing are followed in biodynamics. The biggest difference in biodynamics is that everything starts with the soil and the alignment of the sun and the moon in the cosmos for planting, harvesting and tending to types of plants.

In biodynamic growing and agriculture, there are several preparations which are used on the soil and the plants to build fertility and fend off problems such as pests and disease. These preparations are diluted down in water and could be considered as "homeopathic treatments for the land" given the dilution factors used.  Biodynamics is often described as a holistic growing method.

Biodynamic growers use a planting calendar which shows fruit, root, leaf and flower days these correspond to the cultivating of certain plants, for example, broccoli is a flower plant along with roses, hops and petunias. Root plants include beets, onions and carrots; beans, squash, chili and peaches are all fruiting plants whilst lettuce, cabbage, leeks, sage and rosemary are leaf plants.

I am no expert at this method, but I have experimented frequently with biodynamic gardening and have had many successes with reduced pests and diseases, more flavorful crops and good yields in comparison to conventional organic growing. The biggest difference I noticed was with the soil in the biodynamic area of the garden — I had a greater population of earthworms in these areas versus the organic plot as well as much better water retention. 

current soil

In my current garden, I have minimal earthworm activity, sandy soil with little humus (see image above) and no idea how the previous owners cared for the land which means to me, that I need to take steps to address those issues. Biodynamic growing appeals to the scientific part of me which loves to experiment with new techniques and finding solutions to problems in the garden.

First, Answer These Questions

Building a bed biodynamically isn’t any more difficult than building a “normal” organic vegetable bed — the same planning questions need to be answered before you begin:

1. Where do I want to put the bed?

2. How much sun will the bed receive throughout the day?

3. Will it be raised or in the ground?

4. How much compost or soil amendments do I have available?

5. Will it be watered by the sprinklers or does it need watering by hand?

6. Will the sprinklers be in the way?

7. Will this be for annual crops or perennials?

Once you have decided on the site of the bed and whether it will be a raised bed or one dug in the ground the bed building can begin.

Building A Non-Raised Garden Bed, Step by Step

Step 1: Mark Out The Area

 Mark Out The Bed Area

Mark out the bed area, I tend to eye-ball it using a shovel but you can use chalk or flour to mark out where to dig.

Step 2: Remove Turf

 Renove Turf

Remove the turf, weeds, and roots in the area that will be your new bed.  The turf can be put to use on bare areas of the garden or placed grass side down in the compost heap to rot.

Step 3: Dig Over & Add Organic Matter

Dig over ground 

You can see in the image above the stones and sandy soil that I contend with in my garden which makes digging extremely labor intensive. 

Digging over the bed is optional, you can just lay compost or manure on top however, I dug everything over then added compost I had sprayed with the biodynamic preparation prior to digging then worked that into the bed with a garden fork.  The reason I did this was to distribute the humus rich compost and organic matter throughout the soil to help with moisture and nutrient retention as the plants grew bigger.

 Rake the bed level

Finally rake to level the bed. As far as making a vegetable bed goes, you can go ahead and plant it up or sow your seeds now however, for biodynamics we need to use the biodynamic preparations.

Steps to Using Biodynamic Preparations

Whenever I start a new set of sowings or work with new ground, there are two biodynamic preparations that I use on the soil or compost: valerian (biodynamic preparation 507) and horn manure (biodynamic preparation 500). These may not be in line with other biodynamic growers but this has worked well for me over the last two years.

According to the information I received with my biodynamic preparations from Josephine Porter Institute, valerian stimulates soil and compost so that phosphorus may be utilized properly by the soil and horn manure promotes root activity, as well as stimulating microbial growth and numbers of beneficial bacterial in the soil and stimulates seed germination.

I always use the valerian preparation first then the horn manure preparation.

Step 1: Prepare the Water

Measure out approximately 1 gallon of water for each preparation and leave to stand overnight if the water is chlorinated.  If your water isn’t chlorinated you can use it right away.

Step 2: Make the Valerian Spray Solution

 adding valerian

Add the vial of valerian (if purchased or about 30 drops of valerian preparation) to the water and stir.  I'm using a homemade biodynamic valerian preparation here.

stirring the water 

Stirring the preparation is done in a unique way; the water is stirred clockwise ensuring a vortex is created then when the swirling has stopped, it is stirred anticlockwise to create a vortex. This stirring technique is done for about 10 minutes and usually by one person.

stopping of swirling

You may notice that the water viscosity changes and less stirs are needed in each direction to create the vortex, this is normal.  If it doesn't change, don't worry it is still ok to use.

Step 3: Spray the Soil

Once the time for stirring is completed, transfer the solution into a clean garden sprayer.

spraying compost added

Spray the area with the preparation including any compost and soil amendments such as manure.  Typical usage directions of the preparation is that a gallon is sufficient for 1 acre.  You can use less preparation and/or less water for your space; I use enough of the spray solution to dampen the soil and compost then I spray the rest into the compost heap.

Step 4: Make the Horn Manure Spray Solution

There is some different information about how long you should wait before moving on and spraying with the horn manure preparation, I generally only have weekends in the garden so I spray straight after the valerian so I can get as much done in the time I have available which I then follow on with planting and seed sowing.

 horn manure amount

I use about ¼ teaspoon of pre-potentized horn manure to a gallon of water.

 stirring horn manure

The preparation is stirred in the same manner as the valerian with the clockwise and anticlockwise vortex being created.  For this preparation however, the stirring is continued for 1 hour.  I find that listening to music helps the time pass or simply using stirring the preparation as a relaxation exercise in itself; it is quite hypnotic watching the water swirling around!

spray area

Once stirring is complete, transfer to a garden sprayer and spray the bed and the soil amendments which will be added to the bed.

Once the spraying has been finished, you can sow your seeds and transplant your seedlings according to the biodynamic calendar.

 planted bed

It was a fruit day and this particular bed was planted up with elderberry, black currant, a grape vine, a filbert (hazelnut) and several varieties of strawberries. The bed will then be mulched with conventional woodchip mulch made from pruning waste from the garden or grass clippings to help retain moisture.

Part 2 will cover how to build a raised vegetable bed biodynamically.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening, 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.


When planning a garden we’re often warned about areas to avoid: shade, wind tunnels, frost pockets—you know the sorts of things. But what some growers don’t realize is that you can harness the power of different microclimates to their benefit. Here are some tips on taking advantage of areas that can positively help your growing.

celery in wooden planter 

Grow heat-loving crops, such as tomatoes and chillies, against hard surfaces, such as walls, fences, and even big rocks to encourage them to ripen more quickly and evenly. Build a lean-to greenhouse or cold frame against a sun-facing wall to enable you to start seedlings two to three weeks earlier than you’d be able to with outdoor sowings.

Conditions in a suntrap can be a week or two ahead of less-sheltered areas in spring. Grow vegetables in pots, troughs, and hanging baskets on sun-drenched patios. Don’t forget to water more often.

In hotter climates, shady areas of the garden enable cool-season crops, such as lettuces and peas, to grow well even in midsummer. Shade is especially helpful in the midday and afternoon heat. Use shade netting to create temporary shading for young seedlings and plants.

Rooftop and balcony gardens benefit from their position high up away from frost pockets on the ground. With a few carefully placed screens, a balcony can become a sheltered garden ideal for growing more tender crops in containers.

Garden beds raised above soil level—whether within a framed raised bed or on a natural mound—warm up earlier in spring. Orient beds to face the midday sun to enhance this effect. Cover raised beds with a row cover to extend the growing season even further. Early crops, such as carrots, especially benefit from these improved conditions.

Learn more about creating different gardening microclimates 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.

Photo by Fotolia/donnasuddes.

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.


2015 Tater harvest

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Mother Nature and her plant kingdom are hearty, pervasive, and persistent. While I wasn’t planning on planting potatoes this year, it turns out that last year’s crop (or those not consumed over the winter) made a different decision for me.

I love having our own homegrown potatoes, especially for ThanksGaia (the holiday we celebrate the third Thursday in November). I tend to grow potatoes in enough abundance so they last at least until then. During the past growing season, we had a bumper crop that nourished us through the whole winter. The stragglers felt the strong calls of spring though and started sprouting. This past week they really took off (see center photo “I” at the bottom of the page).

In the above photo are partial harvests of our 'Strawberry Paw' (A), 'Yukon Gold' (B), and 'Gold Rush' (C) potatoes from last year. I absolutely adore growing potatoes because they take so little effort for such a fun treasure to dig at the end of their season — and, they taste so amazing when they come from your own garden.

My biggest chore becomes beetle-picking through the summer, but the payout for keeping these beautiful taters clean is more than worth it.

Planting Potatoes from Sprouts

Back to my science experiment: I had yet to decide what to plant where the corn was last year and knew that I wanted to amend that newer bed by adding more compost and soil.

It seemed to me an obvious area to discover what these goofy tater volunteers would produce. If nothing comes of it, I’m not out anything since I wanted to amend the bed anyway. If the potatoes decide to bless me with the usual treasure, I’ll have learned something and we’ll have some great meals ahead come fall. I find it pays to be flexible when gardening, there are less disappointments that way.

Tater bed preparation

The first step (see photo D) was to remove the fabric from under last year’s straw mulch. You can see the white parts showing through in the photo.

The next shot (E) shows the bed with all the fabric removed and horizontal trenches being dug near the top of the photo. I laid the potatoes carefully in the trenches and draped the sturdier eye vines across the mounds in-between (see bottom set of photos, H) after having picked off the weaker vines.

Add Good Compost

Then I took some of that wonderful compost retrieved awhile back and crumbled it carefully around the eye tendrils, taking care not to tamp down the soil and damage the fragile vines. I proceeded to cover the trenches with a couple of inches of soil and barely covered the vines in the center. On top of this I layered several inches of straw (F and G). Side note: All the lovely creatures living in the compost were still alive and well after a few months in the basement. The pill bugs numbers remained high so hopefully they’ll do the work of removing heavy metals from the bed, should there be any, and leave the potato vines alone.

Normally, trenching and mulching is the same routine I follow when planting my potatoes, minus the vine treatment obviously. The eyes usually have the smallest of buds started when I’m using seed potatoes. That’s because the “seeds” come to me from storage places that have temperature control and air circulation to impede early sprouting. I won’t likely ever have my own area for such things and my Dutch heritage kept me from simply tossing all these volunteers, hence the botany adventure.

I was surprised to see what appear to be baby potatoes forming on a couple of the larger potatoes (photo K). As I mentioned, I have no idea what will come from this experiment. At the very least, I have added compost and straw and my friends the woodlice have cleaned up a small patch of planet. If any plants poke through, I will continue adding layers as the season continues and the bed will become even richer.

Stay tuned for more news as this curious undertaking continues. I’ll keep you updated on my progress, successful or not. I’ll be interested in seeing which parts of Mother Nature’s hearty, pervasive, and persistent personality win out.

Planting taters

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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