Organic Gardening

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


When you attend a farmers market where garlic is being sold, you may see the bulbs being marketed as ‘Gourmet Garlic’, but does that label actually mean anything? Perhaps surprising to some, ‘Gourmet Garlic’ isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Although not every bulb labeled gourmet is authentic as such, there are definite differences between gourmet garlic and the standard garlic you purchase at the supermarket.

Gourmet garlic begins with exceptional planting stock. Each clove selected for planting should be plump, firm and, above all, healthy (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 2: Choosing Which Bulbs to Plant, Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 4: Cracking and Clove Selection). The soil in which the garlic is to be planted must also be healthy, nutrient-rich and well-prepared (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 3: When to Plant and Soil Preparation). Careful attention must also be pGarlic1aid to the method of planting. Stock intended for a gourmet market is normally planted by hand and spaced further apart than the more intensively farmed garlic often used in processing. Planting by hand minimizes clove damage and the extra space allows the plants more room to grow larger bulbs. We plant our cloves at least 6 in. to 8 in. apart (Growing Gourmet Garlic Part 5: Spacing, Planting, and Mulching), and we have noticed that it really does make a difference in the overall size of our bulbs, although some cultivars are naturally larger than others.

Gourmet garlic should also be grown naturally, without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Although this means we spend weeks each year on our hands and knees keeping the beds clear, we really do find that having weed-free rows positively influences garlic growth. Garlic is a poor competitor when it is small, so any help it can be given goes a long way. Another measure to help ensure that your garlic will produce the biggest bulbs possible is the timely removal of the scapes from the hardneck varieties. Although this makes a greater difference to some cultivars then others, removing the flowering stalk encourages the garlic to put more energy into producing a fatter gourmet bulb.

Hand-harvesting, as opposed to mechanical means, is the norm for gourmet garlic. Harvesting garlic by hand helps minimize damage, such as nicks or bruising, to the bulbs and also provides the opportunity for an initial round of culling of any bulbs that may be diseased or otherwise compromised. Damaged bulbs are then disposed of appropriately, reducing the risk that other bulbs may become contaminated. At Calling Quail we undercut and lift the garlic beds (those roots can be long!) and then pick up each bulb by hand for examination before it is placed in the harvest boxes. The harvest boxes are placed in storage after each bed has been pulled, minimizing the exposure of the bulbs to the sun.

Once in from the field, gourmet garlic is cleaned and clipped by hand. Each of our bulbs has the stalk cut to 1 in. and the roots trimmed to approximately 1/2 in. This length of stalk not only provides a sturdy handle, but also helps the bulb remain tightly wrapped in as many layers of skin as possible. The layers of outside skin help prolong storage capability, in part by preventing moisture, insects, and disease-causing organisms to enter and spoil the bulb.

We cut the stalks and roots of our bulbs using a modified band saw. The speed and sharpness of the saw enables us to get a quick, clean and even cut, which not only looks neat, but also prevents any sharp edges that may damage neighboring bulbs in storage and transit. Processing the garlic by hand this way prevents bruising and mechanical damage, and also gives us a chance to double-check the integrity of each bulb. We also make sure to remove any lingering clumps of dirt from the roots, since this will add extra moisture and, well, dirt to the storage space.

While being cut, the bulbs are also sorted into different size groups.Market bags Gourmet garlic should consist of bulbs that are uniform, large and heavy for that particular cultivar. Our very large bulbs from each type we save for seed, and we have seen an increase in the average size of our bulbs over the last few years. Our normal large-sized and average sized bulbs for each cultivar are either sold wholesale or put into our market bags, and our smallish average and small-size bulbs are saved back to be processed into a variety of products, or consumed by us.

Before we pack up a shipment for wholesale or put together bags for market, the designated bulbs are checked for firmness, and any loose or damaged skins are removed. The bulbs are also brushed to make sure that only a minimal amount of dirt still clings to the root area. Our storage area is monitored for appropriate temperature and humidity, and we leave the garlic in storage until just before an order needs to go out. Only then is the garlic packed accordingly into airy boxes which hold no more than 20lbs of garlic each.

So you can understand why, with all this careful work, that we designate certain garlic as gourmet. But, there is more to it than that. Gourmet garlic simply tastes better. Generations of cultivation have produced thriving plants whose taste and flavor is stronger, richer, and more complex than the bleached, irradiated garlic for sale in a regular supermarket. The aroma is more pungent, the aftertaste lingers longer on the tongue, and the texture is firmer, plumper and juicier. You can select cultivars that are ideally suited to your individual taste and recipe, whether you prefer your garlic sweet, creamy and mild, or spicy enough to bring tears to your eyes.

And yes, gourmet garlic is more expensive than regular garlic – but knowing all this, don’t you think it’s worth it?


Jaime Hines

Legacy is defined as something that is received from or transmitted by a predecessor.

When it comes to the word legacy, many of us might think of what we wish to leave behind once we are gone. After losing a dear friend a few days ago, I have pondered the word legacy and have a new found understanding of its meaning and symbolism. I wrote a blog post last summer titled, Children in the Garden in honor of my vibrant friend who was battling cancer. Jaime Hines was a remarkable woman and a wonderful mother. She dedicated her life to teaching others about sustainability. Throughout her 5 year battle with cancer, Jaime lived, loved and inspired more than most will do in a lifetime. She was a wild hearted woman with a heart of gold, a gentle spirit and a brilliant mind. She taught hundreds of children how to grow their own food and has inspired thousands of individuals throughout her journey. She did some very special work during her time on earth. Her family and friends will continue her life's work through every future sustainable endeavor we take part in from here on. Everyone who knew her adored her. She was sweet, loving, and compassionate. She will be forever heavy on the hearts and in the minds of all those who were honored to know her. She truly made this world a better place. She left the world with the howling wind on a full moon just after midnight on March 16th. Her legacy will be carried out by all those dear to her. My husband and I wrote a simple song for Jaime.

From this point forward I will continue to be an advocate for the Earth, to help protect the land and the living organisms, to create a living legacy through my own intrinsic moral obligation to the earth as well as to ensure that Jaime’s legacy will be carried on through seeds of hope.

The person Jaime was inspired everyone around her to be a little more like her as they walk this journey on earth.

In attempt to be more like the virtuous woman she was, I have prepared this mantra:

Live out your legacy.Jaime Hines light
Be the greatest you.
Discover your passions and make them a part of your daily life.
Tread a little lighter.
Live with gratitude.
Shine a little brighter.
Let sorrow drift with the wind.
Be steadfast with the seasons of change.
Be optimistic, hopeful and joyful…no matter the obstacle.
Be kind and gentle to everyone.
Love stronger.
Be a catalyst for optimism.
Plant more seeds, more flowers, more gardens, more trees.
Be flexible and open to the winds of change.
Honor the earth and all of its components.
Be genuine.
Live out your legacy.


Hi, fruit gardeners. I'm Sam Benowitz. I've operated Raintree Nursery for 40 years — though often it seems like 50. My partner in blogging is Tara Bittler, who is much younger than me. She is a talented writer, editor and web designer, but she is also a beginning gardener. Well, she is not even a beginning gardener — she is a super-newbie beginning gardener. Tara loves to cook and make delicious dishes with fruits, and she and her husband make delicious ciders and beers although she has no idea how to grow anything.

Since we are writing a blog post each week, we have agreed to have four major topics that we repeat each month. If there is a fifth week, in the month, we will give notice that we’ll open the floor for questions from you, the reader.

Week one: This will be the most insightful because we will look at the big picture and talk about why fruit gardening is so important for you, other species on earth, the future of humankind and stuff like that.

Week two: We will talk about things needing to be done and observed in the home fruit garden that month. There will be a lot to do because you have just wasted the first week wrestling with important philosophical questions and contemplating your navel (oranges that is).

Week three: Underappreciated plants. I've spent 40 years collecting and offering wonderful fruiting plants at Raintree Nursery, but there are many wonderful fruit cultivars that are not fully appreciated. Perhaps they are not fully appreciated because we, like writers of other catalogs, have a poor command of the English language and we describe each variety as very delicious or excellent and very flavorful leaving the reader to try to read between the lines to determine if the "very flavorful" variety is a better choice than the "delicious and excellent" cultivar.

You might ask if he has failed in the catalog to adequately distinguish among the 900 or so cultivars Raintree offers in the catalog and website...why should we believe he will be able to do so in this blog? Maybe some testimonials from fruit gardeners who have succeeded or failed with certain cultivars would be very useful here. I am attempting to push the burden of proof off here on you readers...

Week four: It's time for Tara's newbie questions. She wishes to grow fruit in pots in a limited space on her patio, which is fortunate because so do most other American gardeners nowadays. (If she lived in the crater of Mount St. Helens and wanted to know what she should do in her specific conditions it wouldn't be near as useful to other gardeners — though she might be more likely to have a blast while gardening.)

Hello, gardeners! My name’s Tara Bittler, and I want to learn gardening for several reasons — self-sustainability, environmental impact, the global impact and last, but not least, the actual quality of the food I purchase in stores. Why do I have such easy access to out-of-season fruits and vegetables? Where did they come from? Who grew it? What pesticides were used on it?

I’ve attempted the art of gardening a few times, but failed each and every time. The wealth of information is incredibly overwhelming, and without a clear starting point, I’m just lost.

I’m hoping that my contribution to this blog will help other newbie gardeners out there by having someone else to follow along with on their journey.

On a side note, I hope you enjoy Sam’s puns as much as I have and do.

Photo by Fotolia/Hayati Kayhan


April showers bring May flowers, fruits, herbs and vegetables. Now is the perfect time to get serious on getting your spring garden planted!

Spring Small Space Garden

Crops To Plant in April

Early April is a perfect time to plant cold season crops like Brussels sprouts, fava beans, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collards, kale, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, shallots, spinach, strawberries, Swiss chard and turnips.

We still get frosts in April so you want to hold off on planting warm season crops outdoors like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and squash.

The last frost date in our area is around April 20. This is important to know if you are planting seeds. The packet tells you when to plant in relation to your last frost date. You will get the best results following the packet instructions.

Planting early is not always a good strategy as different seeds need different soil temperatures before they will germinate. Plant too early and they can rot before they have a chance to sprout.

Pots will warm up quicker, but will also chill down faster. You can put them in a sheltered spot to get a jump on spring. I love planting greens in large self watering pots that I keep on the patio, making it handy for picking a fresh salad for dinner.

What size pot do you need for a container veggie garden? Any varieties listed for a smaller pot will be happy in a larger pot, too. There are many more varieties out there than listed below. Just look at the seed packet for terms like patio, compact, or dwarf.

For containers 8 inches wide by 6 to 8 inches deep:

Carrots-Thumbelina, Parmex, Tonda di Parigi

Greens-arugula, corn salad, cress, small pac choi like Tatsoi, purslane

Lettuce or Kale-any type that you are going to continually harvest and not grow into full heads.

Cabbage in a pot

For containers 10 inches wide by 10 inches deep or larger, these will grow well:

Carrots-Atlas, Little Finger, Adelaide, Short n Sweet

Dwarf cabbage-5 Day Golden Cross (grew these last year and they did great in pots!), Parel, Caraflex

Eggplant with small fruits-Bambino, Casper, Fairytale, Neon, Patio Mohican, Slim Jim, White Egg

Greens-French sorrel, salad burnet, spinach

Herbs-any.  Mediterranean herbs love having dry feet.

Lettuce-Little Gem, Tennis Ball, Tom Thumb if growing to full heads

Peppers, compact types-Blushing Beauty, Chili Pepper Krakatoa, Habanero, Hungarian Yellow Wax, Sweet Pepper Ingrid, Prairie Fire, Red Delicious, Sweet Pickle, Zavory

Radishes-Amethyst, Cherry Bell, Pink Slipper, Poloneza, Red Head, Rudi

Pepper plant in pot

For containers 14 to 16 inches wide and 10 inches deep or larger:

Beans-compact bush types , Runner Beans
Broccoli raab
Cucumber, compact bush types-Lemon, Little Leaf, Suyo, Salad Bush, Fanfare, Sweet Success
All types of eggplant
Okra-Little Lucy
Onions-Apache, Pompeii or the perennial Egyptian Onion
Peas-dwarf bush types
All types of peppers (sweet peppers tend to be more productive in the ground)
Tomatoes, compact types-BushSteak, Celebrity, Daybreak, Johnny’s 361, Legend, Patio Princess, Sweet Baby Girl, Sweet n Neat
Summer squash, compact bush types-Gold Rush, Midnight, Venus, Patio Star

Egyptian walking onion in a pot

Containers 20 inches wide by 16 inches deep:

Beans-any bush type, more compact pole types (look for the ones have vines 6’ or less or you can pinch off the longer types)
Lettuce-all varieties
Peas-all bush types and more compact pole types (look for ones that vine 6’ or less)
Pumpkins-miniature Shallots Sweet potatoes
Winter squash, compact bush types-Butterbush Butternut

For large containers on the scale of a half whiskey or wine barrel:

Beans-all pole beans
Carrots-all varieties
Cucumbers-bush and vining types
Summer squash-Bush Baby, Space Miser, Egg Ball, Papaya Pear
Winter squash-Honey Bear, Carnival, Discus Bush Buttercup

Lettuce and Greens in an Earthbox

When growing veggies in containers, they will require more watering and more liquid fertilizer than if they were in the ground. In the summer, you may have to water some water lovers every day. To reduce watering, purchase or make pots that have a water reservoir in the bottom. A couple on the market today are “Earthbox” and “Grow Box”. With these type of pots, you can water weekly. They are easy to make out of 5 gallon buckets or other plastic containers.

For more tips, visit my blog at


We began producing certified organic vegetable transplants 23 years ago at The Natural Gardening Company with very little experience under our belt. Since the early days we have produced well over a half million seedlings, learning by trial and error. I have no doubt there is more to learn, but this blog will provide you with a summary of our seed starting technique. Where we learned from mistakes, you can have the benefit of our two+ decades of experience.

Our Soil Mix

We’ve fiddled around with our seed starting mix over the years. In the beginning we used a classic formulation: 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 organic material (usually compost or aged steer manure). These are readily available materials and they work well, with one shortcoming. When seeds using this formula are planted in plug trays and placed in a sunny location, direct sunlight and high heat can cause mold to grow on the surface. This mold eventually becomes a crust. This crusty layer impedes the penetration of water from above and suppresses the upward development of the seed from below. The crust does not completely inhibit the development of seeds in the tray, but it greatly reduces the rate of germination.

By chance, there was a shortage in the perlite supply one season. This forced us to turn to alternative materials. We chose vermiculite, and what a difference it has made. Vermiculite absorbs moisture and keeps the soil materials evenly damp so no crust forms, even under hot, sunny conditions. This moisture retaining property also enhances seed germination, as the most common cause of failure when starting seeds is desiccation – drying out.

Then we simplified our formula further, eliminating the organic material. Seeds carry a layer of starch in the cotyledon and can nourish themselves in the first phase of development. We were already fertilizing our seeds after they germinated with a liquid fertilizer, a combination of fish and kelp, so we stopped using the compost/manure. This left us with a simple, light, easy-to-mix soil formula of equal parts peat moss and vermiculite. This is the mix we use today. If you don’t want to mix it yourself you can find our seed-starting mix on our website.

Our Propagation Trays

seed starting

If you’re seriously interested in success with seeds, and you respect the time and materials you put into this process, there’s only one way to go when you buy your propagation trays: use the trays professionals use when they start seeds. Commercial trays work better, last longer and offer more options than anything you will find at your local garden center. They cost only a fraction more but are much more durable and will last longer.

We start our seeds in 128 and 288 cell trays both because of the volume of our production and space limitations of our greenhouses. You may be more comfortable using 72 or 128 cell trays. The larger the cells (the cells in a 72-cell tray are substantially larger than the cells in a 288 cell tray) the longer the transplants can be held before they need to be moved.

Our Sowing Technique

We have a vacuum seeder that lets us plant whole trays in seconds, but we also do a fair amount of hand seedling. We fill our trays to the top, level the soil with a brush of our hands, and sow our seeds into dry soil. Instead of covering the seeds with a light layer of soil, a common recommendation, we lightly press each into the soil surface so there is good contact between the seed and the soil. You can see the indentation from the tip of our fingers in the soil surface. You can often still see the seed, pressed into the soil.

Thoroughly saturate with a mister

Water Conscientiously

The most important additive to initiate germination is water and the most common cause of seed failure is drying out caused by inconsistent watering. After sowing the seeds, we water using a brass seedling nozzle which sprays a fine mist. It takes a while for the soil to absorb the water. We usually make at least three passes at five minute intervals to insure the soil is sufficiently moist. When you pick up an adequately watered tray you will feel the weight of the water.

Cover with Plastic Wrap

For years our planting process ended at the step above. Last year we tried something new with miraculous results. Like many of you, we’d grown accustomed to spotty germination with pepper and eggplant seeds. Unlike many of you, we have a commercial incentive to maximize results so we don’t waste time and space when both are at a premium. Faced with several unsuccessful rounds of peppers early in the season, we decided to experiment by covering our trays with a layer of plastic wrap. Wow, what a difference. Our germination rate increased from an average of 50 percent to 90 percent and sometimes as high as 99 percent. Trays that had previously been spotty were thick with sprouted seeds.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap

After our trays are sown and covered with plastic wrap, we move them to a professional incubation chamber to initiate the germination process. This chamber is about the size of a refrigerator with trays inside like an oven. At the bottom is a stainless steel basin that we fill with water. Inside the basin there is a water heater element which is controlled by an external thermostat which we usually set at 70 degrees. You may not have a germination chamber, but you should consider trying a location where you can keep your seeds in warmth and in complete darkness for several days. You may find this speeds up the germination process. Our incubation chamber allows us to germinate tomato seeds in three days and pepper and eggplant seeds in 6-7 days. If you don’t have access to a germination chamber, hermetically sealed heat mats that maintain a constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit are tried and true and make a big difference to success with seeds.

Next time we’ll take a look at how we transplant and care for our seedlings until they’re ready to transplant into the garden. See you in two weeks!


Seeds! A word pretty much every gardener loves to hear. Happily browsing your garden seed catalogs and hauling out your existing vegetable seed stash signals that spring is near — or already here. It’s a time of planning, dreaming, mapping and imagining the homegrown harvests to come.

Watch this video to get some basic tips about garden seeds, such as organizing seeds by month so you can easily find what you need to sow as the growing season progresses. You’ll also get tips on understanding some of the terms you’ll come across in your garden seed catalogs. Knowing the common designations for seeds can help you tailor your seed order to best fit your needs and goals for the year.

The video also provides a handy chart on how long seeds of various crops generally stay viable. Germination rates will decrease over time, and some seeds will last longer than others and still achieve good germination, while with other crops — such as lettuce — you will likely have better luck replacing older seed with fresh seed.

Get More Tips With These Great Gardening Resources

The tool mentioned in the video — 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.

Try our gardening apps, including our When to Plant App, Garden Insects Guide and Food Gardening Guide, for lots of essential garden know-how.

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

Happy gardening!

Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and .


How Much To Grow

Garden planning usually takes the form of making a garden map and deciding where each crop goes, considering rotations, succession plantings, and companion planting. Deciding how much of everything to grow is sometimes a balancing act. Knowing how much of each crop your family consumes in a year might be a good place to begin your planning. The worksheet that you see part of in the picture is in Chapter 4 of my book Grow a Sustainable Diet: planning and growing to feed ourselves and the earth. There is a link in the book that takes you to PDFs for all the worksheets that are in the book so you can print them. If you work through the calculations you will have a better idea of how much of your needs could be met with your available space. You can design your own worksheet, adding columns for things you want to compare with each crop. Be sure to have a space for comments, such as what your best yield was, how many squash per vine you can expect, how many cups a pound of dried beans cooks up to, etc.

First you need to know how much you eat. You could weigh produce in the grocery store to determine how much you might consume at a meal, then multiply that by the number of meals per week that food provides. When you eat a seasonal diet, you wouldn’t be eating the same thing all 52 weeks of the year. On the other hand, if you are preserving your food, you may want some things each week. If you have carefully archived your Mother Earth News magazines, you can find the article I wrote for the October/November 2012 issue called A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency that is about this very thing. It contains charts that give you an idea of how many servings you can get per pound of food as it comes from the garden. If what you are considering is on those charts, you don’t have to bother measuring anything. If you can’t find that MEN issue, click on the title of that article in this post and it will take you to the online version. The charts are there—just follow the links.

When I developed this worksheet for the book and showed it to my daughter, she said that is exactly how she decided how much she would grow for the small CSA she had when she lived in Arkansas. It is the method I used when I planned for my CSA in 1997 and also when I grew to sell at the farmers market a couple years later. If you know how much is needed, you can proceed to deciding how much you will harvest from the space you have available. You’ll find help with that at Homeplace Earth. Once you establish your garden and are comfortable growing your own food, you can begin to fine-tune your growing by keeping records of yields. Knowing better what to expect will help you plan to feed your family and your community.

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

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