Organic Gardening

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

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Read previous parts in this series here.

For the suburbanite who has paid for a load of compost but instead received a pile of manure, let’s begin by defining compost: Compost is a mixture of decayed organic materials. It is what continually happens in nature as plants and animals die and are turned into soil by a multitude of microbes.

To have superb soil, we want to learn how to compost wastes from the kitchen, lawn, garden, farm animals and animal bedding. We want compost to smell “earthy,” look black and crumbly and have the consistency of a damp, not wet, sponge.

compost from animal bedding

Making compost is a bit like cooking: in the kitchen, some of us prefer to follow a recipe and others (me!) like to take basic ingredients and then follow their intuition. This article gives you the option of either path for making great compost.

Basic Compost Ingredients

1. Organic material, although strictly defined means “made of carbon,” it includes everything from kitchen scraps to manure to lawn clippings to old plants from the garden. The key to good compost is to have a lot more of the “brown” materials (straw, autumn leaves, wood chips) than “green” (grass clippings, kitchen scraps). The ratio of brown to green is actually 25 or 30:1.

backyard compost tumbler

2. Air is necessary for composting to be an aerobic process. Lack of air can lead to the proliferation of harmful bacteria. Our backyard compost tumbler has screened openings for air and its instructions admonish us to give it three full turns daily. The compost piles in the meadow get turned with the tractor when they stop steaming, and one recipe says it should be turned when the temperature gets to 160 degrees (Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis).

3. Water allows the necessary chemical reactions to take place in compost and keeps microbes alive. Some people build their compost pile around a perforated drainage tile so they can water the pile through the tile during dry times. Others water their pile when they turn it. Your composting material might need water if it appears dry, no longer heats up and crumbles apart rather than having the consistency of a damp sponge. Compost that’s too wet can be diagnosed by a bad smell because air can’t permeate the compressed material. You will also be able to squeeze water out of composting material when it is too wet.

4. Heat comes mainly from the chemical reactions taking place within the compost as it decomposes. Warmer ambient temperatures do make a difference though, and that’s why compost tumblers are painted dark colors and composting occurs faster in summer.

5. Microbes that assist with composting include everything from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and protozoa. Some are available in manure, and most are available in the leaves, grass old garden plants and garden produce. Microbes multiply quickly in a healthy compost pile.

Composting Caveats

1. Make sure manure doesn’t come from animals that have been treated with antibiotics. You don’t want the precious soil bacteria killed.

2. Know the source of any grass or straw to avoid insecticides, fungicides or glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup) which will kill soil microbes.

3. Shred materials to speed up the composting action. Just as the soil microbes shred organic material to make it break-down more quickly, you can shred leaves with a lawn mower before placing them in a pile. Since we’ve run our cows’ straw bedding through a manure spreader as it goes into the compost pile, the entire composting process takes closer to two years than three years, as it did before.

4. Kitchen scraps alone won’t make good compost—they are inevitably too wet. Add straw, wood chips or dried leaves until you get the consistency you want.

5. According to J.I. Rodale (see below), manure by itself does not make good compost for the following reasons: It’s slow to decompose, has unbalanced nutrition, the nitrogen is lost during the compost process, it takes too much energy from the soil to break down and it is acidic.

6. Using just compost to build good soil still releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere as it breaks down. Consider coupling compost with cover crops.

Rodale’s Compost Recipe

For those of those who want to begin composting with a precise recipe, I want to share that given by J.I. Rodale in his difficult to find, 1945 book, Pay Dirt, Farming and Gardening with Compost:

Compost pile can be any length, but make the width 5 feet to 12 feet. To build the pile, keep repeating these layers: 6-inch-high green material, 2 inches to 3 inches manure, 1/8th inch good soil plus limestone or wood ashes.

Build to a 5-foot-tall taper and water to “wet sponge” consistency. Monitor temperature, and don’t allow it to get hotter than 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn pile to reduce temperature to 90 degrees.

You’ll probably not get a blue ribbon for creating this great compost, but you will be rewarded with healthy, thriving plants and flavor food that is packed with nutrition. Compost tea provides one more way of working with nature to give healthy produce. I’ll discuss that in the next article.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou'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.


Lisa Kivirist Women In Agriculture

Women make up one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers today, increasing over twenty percent in the last ten years alone. More than mounting numbers, these women rock fresh ideas when it comes to agriculture, farming and – ultimately – what’s on America’s plates.

These women-led operations prioritize local food, sustainable agriculture and land stewardship and do it via a diversification of ways, from serving up pizza and pies to offering farm stays powered by renewable energy, like at my own farm in Wisconsin, Inn Serendipity.

More than looking for a “job” and something to pay the bills, these women farmers and food business owners, educators and activists see their farmsteads as a tool for change, a canvas on which to both express their passions, earn an honest livelihood and change the world.

A tall order, indeed, but as you’ll see in the pages of my new book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, these females with a drive for food and farming serve up exactly that.

Soil Sisters

Soil Sisters is the first collaborative and comprehensive start-up guide to support the record-breaking number women wanting to start farms, compiling ideas and inspiration from over 100 successful women in sustainable agriculture.

Joel Salatin kindly called it, “A truly wonderful guidebook. May I be a Soil Sister? Wrong anatomy, you say? Too bad. I found more in common with this book than the ones written by most men. Go, Lisa. Girl power never sounded as authentic and needed as in the pages of SOIL SISTERS. I wish all my neighbors were SOIL SISTERS. Better farmers, better food, better fellowship — what's not to love?” 

Beyond the business plan and tractor, these women are those inspiring souls you want to linger with over a cup of coffee – or farmstead cocktail!

After my research for this book along with leading the Rural Women’s Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) providing women farmer training, I personally draw so much good energy and ideas from these women who wear collaboration on their sleeve. Breaking roles, shaking up stagnated ideas, amplifying diversity and sprinkling in DIY creativity in everything they do, this movement of women in sustainable agriculture will serve as your buddy system and “big sisters” cheering you on, no matter where you may be on your own journey as a female with a farm business dream.

Workshops at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs

I’m looking forward to launching this new book at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Asheville, North Carolina, this weekend with a Soil Sisters workshop on Sunday, April 10 at 10:00 am and other fabulous MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs this year.

Woman Farming Potato Field 

3 Ways Women are Changing Food Systems

Here’s a sneak peak summary of what I’ll be speaking on at the FAIRS: Three ways women today are cultivating food system change:

1. Focus

Feel like you have a million different ideas for your farm and don’t know where to start?  Savvy female farmers take that idea overload and strategically slice it down.

For example, Cathy Linn-Thortenson of Wise Acres Farm outside Charlotte, North Carolina.  How did she transform from the corporate cubicle in Chicago to successful farmer in just a few years? By focusing on one specific crop:  organic strawberries.

“Nobody else in this area of North Carolina was doing this so there would be interest from moms to bring kids to the farm to U-Pick,” shares Cathy. She also saw that strawberries often pop up on the “top ten items to buy organic” lists because of pesticide spray, another reason to focus in on one item with market demand.

2. Embrace your Female

“By being in touch with your feminine side, however you define that, you can express yourself and importantly be yourself in your farm business,” declares Gabriele Marewski, owner of Paradise Farms in Homestead, Florida, raising specialized crops like micro greens and oyster mushrooms and also on-farm dinners.  “For example, I wear skirts every day. This may not be typical farm gear, but it’s who I am and what I like.”

3.  Collaborate

It’s the proven quilt circle philosophy: We women amplify everything done together. We can take things only so far on our own, but knowing you have a tribe of kindred spirited women who have your back? That’s some quality fertilizer.

I know this one first-hand when two women farmer pals and I took on the fact that Wisconsin has the most restrictive cottage food law in the country: We’re suing the state. Definitely out of my usual territory of tricks, but needed to move this issue forward and I feel much stronger about moving into knowing this trifecta of female spirit is in it together.

I look forward to dialing into these ideas further and sharing more of these women farmer and food entrepreneur stories with you via this MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog. Stop by for continued practical information and resources from a female perspective, a viewpoint that until now hasn't been championed in most farming resources.

Find Soil Sisters in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.Soil Sisters Book Cover

A national advocate for women in sustainable agriculture, Lisa Kivirist is a Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, focusing on identifying opportunities to champion leadership development among female farmers and rural women. She founded and leads the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, an award- winning initiative championing female farmers and food-based entrepreneurs. When she isn’t speaking and writing, she is running Inn Serendipity in Wisconsin.

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


early peas in garden

Did you know you can plant peas in rain guttering under cover, and it will keep them safe from mice and ensure an early start to your crop? Growing peas in guttering is quite simple. You’ll need:

• Standard house rain guttering
• A hacksaw
• Multi-purpose potting soil
• A protected environment (for instance, a cold frame, greenhouse, or even a sunny windowsill)

To get started, first cut your guttering into manageable sections (they’ll be heavy when full of potting soil!). Fill the guttering halfway with potting soil, and then sow your pea seeds about 1 to 2 inches apart. Fill up the guttering with more potting soil. Place the guttering on a bench in a greenhouse, hoop house, or cold frame, and water thoroughly.

The seedlings can be transplanted when they reach about 2 to 4 inches tall. Use a spare piece of guttering to make a furrow just the right size for your seedlings. Transfer your plants by carefully sliding them out of the guttering. You can divide them into smaller sections to make this easier, and slide each section out with your fingers. After the plants are in, firm down the edges and water well to settle them in.

And that’s it! Learn more about growing early peas in this video.

More 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/Vladyslav Siaber

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.



Gardening season is fast approaching. For some of us it is already here. For those of you lucky enough to live somewhere tropical, it has never left. Regardless of the geographic region you garden within, it is safe to say that growing plants is one of the most satisfying activities in which we can partake. In many ways its quite simple. You put seeds in dirt and plants grow.

In plenty of other ways, it can be a very complex process. You must balance fertilizers, build and amend soils, and negotiate the complexities that individual plants need.

I personally find no greater joy than sowing seeds and watching them germinate and grow. It amazes me to know that all the information contained in a tiny little seed can build a head of lettuce, or a native columbine. There is something spectacular about taking an acorn you found buried in your gutter and watching it grow into a little tree that may outlive me by hundreds of years.

Even when winter rears its dreary head and outdoor plants are going dormant, I still find ways to garden indoors. I have amassed quite the collection of tropical houseplants that I must dote over every day. From begonias to orchids and even the occasional arum, houseplants keep me quite preoccupied.

The Dark Side of Gardening 

With all this attention paid to growing the best looking, best tasting, and most interesting plants I can get my hands on, it was only a matter of time before I started reflecting on this obsession on a deeper level. The most important thing I took away from my days as an undergraduate was how to analyze my carbon footprint.

I can get rather anxious about exactly how I spend my days on this planet and I aim to make minimize the brunt of my existence. Sure, I love my creature comforts but at the very least I want to do what I can to give back to the planet I love so very much (or at least sleep a bit better).

A few years back I decided to turn my eye to my gardening practices and figure out how I could ensure sustainability. I had always thought that my horticultural pursuits were a rather guilt-free way of preoccupying my down time. That's when I learned some dirty little secrets.

Actually, they weren't little secrets, they were pretty big ones. Not only was I contributing to the destruction of some wonderfully diverse and sensitive habitats, I was also contributing to a industries that threaten coastal communities and release a staggering amount of carbon into our atmosphere.

Luckily for me, there are some fantastic people out there who were able to guide me in the right direction and help me get my hobby back on much more sustainable tracks. As such, this piece is a call to action to kick two common gardening supplies that are doing serious harm to some very important habitats.

Harvesting Peat Moss


I had never thought of where peat comes from. Never ever. In fact, for most of my early years, I never thought there was an alternative to using the stuff. Its brown, its fluffy, and it smells lovely. Take a close look at it and you will realize that its not made of the same stuff as the soil in your yard. Peat is actually made up of tiny bits and pieces of plants. It lacks the minerals and clays of more traditional soils.

Peat is a natural product. It forms in unique habitats called bogs (other names for bogs include mire, quagmire, and muskeg). Bogs form as one or several species of moss in the genus Sphagnum form a living mat over a body of water. Over time, this mat grows thicker and begins to close over. The resulting effect is kind of like a giant mossy waterbed.

For reasons I don't need to go into here, bogs are very acidic environments and microbial life becomes quite diminished. Because of this, things that fall into bogs don't decompose very fast. Over time, this results in a thick accumulation of plant and other living materials. This material becomes peat.

The acidic environment also creates a unique habitat for plants and animals. Many of our favorite carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants call bogs home. An endless variety of other plants species grow there as well including but not limited to orchids, cranberries, myrtles, heaths, and ferns. Bogs are very rich in botanical diversity and because of this, quite rich in biodiversity overall. Bogs are important breeding habitats for many different species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

Their importance doesn't end there either. At a global scale, peatlands constitute some of the largest carbon stores on our planet. Because things don't break down in bogs, the carbon locked up in each and every cell remains locked away for thousands and thousands of years. That is why we can find the exquisitely preserved remains of organisms like wooly mammoths that have been extinct for over 10,000 years.

It is estimated that peatlands contain somewhere around 30% of the world's soil carbon despite the fact that they represent only about 3% of the land area. That is pretty impressive. It is also one of the main reasons peat is such a cruddy product.

You see, we don't grow bogs for our peat. Instead, we mine them. We mine them not unlike we mine sand and gravel. Harvesting peat is nothing new. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years as a source of fuel. However, the industrial mining of peat is new and it is happening at an alarming rate.

Using heavy machinery, the peat industry sets to work draining and digging up bogs. The peat is then dried, bagged, and sold at gardens and nurseries all over the world. The peat industry likes to claim that peat is a renewable product, however, it simply is not.

As mentioned before, bogs form over thousands of years through some very complex climatic and geological processes. What's more they are home to countless species that, for the most part, cannot live in other habitats. When a bog is drained and mined for peat, it does not revert back to its natural state, not even with mitigation. More often they become stagnant ponds with a mere fraction of the biodiversity they once had.

The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives. The best option we have as gardeners is compost. There really is no substitute to good quality compost. We produce so much food waste every day that it may be hard to compost it quick enough. Rich, clean compost is full of nutrients and, with a handful of easy amendments, makes for some excellent soil.

Though not perfect, coconut coir is another great soil amendment you can use. You just have to make sure to wash it good to get rid of damaging salts. More and more there are peatless options being offered in garden centers and nurseries. Peat will be for sale as long as people keep buying it. Lessen the demand, lessen the mining, and save some incredibly important habitat.

Cypress Mulch

There was a time when cypress mulch could live up to the hype of being durable and insect repellent, however, those days are long behind us. We lost those properties when we lost the millions of acres of old growth cypress swamps that once covered the southeastern United States. We lost them, of course, to logging. These once rich habitats were devastated over the last century and a half and with them we lost incredible species like the ivory billed woodpecker.

Today, mulch companies have resorted to cutting and mulching second and third growth stands of trees. The young age of these trees means they haven't had the time to accumulate the protective compounds in their wood that once gave their great grandparents incredible rot and insect resistance. They simply don't exist in any abundance in younger trees.

To make matters worse, cypress swamps don't recover like other forests. The key to this distress lies in their germination. Cypress seeds require regular inundation of freshwater and nutrient-rich silt to germinate and grow.

Thanks to the horrifying way in which we manage our water ways, things like dams and shipping canals have altered the way streams and rivers behave. Instead of lying down silt and clean, fresh water into these wetlands, we now see erosion and inundation with brackish water. The life giving soils needed to grow cypress swamps are swept out into the ocean where they create dead zones.

Again, the loss of cypress swamps isn't just a hit to the environment, it endangers coastal communities as well. Cypress swamps are one of the nation's first lines of defense against hurricanes. They act as buffers, absorbing the storm surge and diminishing all of that energy that otherwise barrels inland and floods communities.

A healthy cypress swamp can cut the force of a storm surge by as much as 90%! That is quite the ecosystem service if you ask me. If storm data isn't your thing then consider this - in Louisiana alone, cypress swamps provide an estimated $6.7 billion in storm protection every year!

Sadly, every year we are losing more and more cypress swamps. And for what? Well, in part for a gardening product with plenty of sustainable alternatives. Mulch is each to come by and, in many municipalities, it is available at little to no cost. Mulch is quite useful in the garden, however, that doesn't mean we have to level sensitive wetland forests to get it.

There is plenty of mulch available in our own back yards and neighborhoods in the form of storm debris, leaves, and unwanted landscape trees. Again, cypress swamps will be cut as long as their is demand for their products. By eliminating cypress mulch from your landscape, you are diminishing the demand.


So, there you have it. If you want to limit the carbon footprint of your gardening endeavors, eliminating peat and cypress mulch are two great places to start. I find it painfully ironic that careless gardening can cause so much environmental damage. If we can't grow plants sustainably, then our outlook as a species is quite grim.

Now, if only we could tackle industrial agriculture as easily. Whether you are growing vegetables, native species, or houseplants, it is important to know where your materials come from. There is no sense in destroying one habitat so that your yard looks nice.

Photo Credits: Jesse Reeder and

Matt Candeias is a plant fanatic. His current research is focused on how plants respond to changes in their environment, which takes him to the southern Appalachian Mountains where ample topography and seemingly endless plant diversity offer a window into how and why plants grow where they do. He is always reading and writing about plants on his blog, In Defense of Plants. Read all of Matt'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.


Time to get those seeds started! This year save some money, be more sustainable and, instead of buying potting soil, consider mixing your own with this nutrient-rich recipe cultivated by Natalie Bogwalker, the founder of Wild Abundance and the Firefly Gathering.

Every spring, Bogwalker uses this soil recipe for seed starts on her seven-acre homestead and permaculture school, which teems with life, wild edibles, and garden-grown food. Every seed needs a good start to reach its potential, and this potting soil blend is tried, tested, and easy to make at home.

How to Make a Soil Mix for Starting Seeds

You will need:

• 1 cubic foot of pre-hydrated peat moss (or 7 shovel full) or you can use coconut coir as a substitute for peat moss, which is a much more sustainable, though not quite as easy to use of a product.
• 1 cubic foot of compost, homemade is best, but commercial is an option too (7 shovels full)
• ½ a cubic foot of perlite (3.5 shovels full)
• ½ cubic foot of vermiculite (3.5 shovels full)
• ½ cup of dolomite lime (handful)
• ¾ cup of feather meal, cottonseed meal (cotton is grown with lots of chemicals, so we tend to avoid cotton seed meal), or other slow release fertilizer (a full handful), Though we are fans of using urine to fertilize plants, we tend to stay away from it for starts that are being raised indoors.  The smell can become rather unpleasant)

Rich potting soil made at home 


• Place all ingredients on a tarp and roll it around and mix it up (friends help with this step)!
• Moisten Soil
• Fill your seed trays with the soil blend and tamp firmly using the bottom of another set of seed trays. Soil should be ½ inch from the rim of the pots at this point.
• Sow your seeds
• Cover with ¼ inch of slightly moist to dry soil, make sure that there is still at least a ¼ inch gap between the top of soil and the top of the pot (so the seeds and soil don’t float or get lost).
• Water your seeds!

 Making Soil!

“There are many benefits to starting your seeds indoors or in a greenhouse,” says Allie Showalter, a former gardening apprentice at Wild Abundance, and a youth garden teacher with Muddy Sneakers and Forest Floor.

“It extends your season, gives you a jump start when growing tomatoes, peppers, basil, which just take off once you transplant them in the ground. And, you save a lot of money starting from seed.”

For lighting, Showalter recommends T5 grow lights, and she keeps the lights 4-8 inches from the top of the plants.  If using regular fluorescent lights, she recommends that plants be within 3 inches of light.  

Bogwalker, after having lived without power for many years, tends to start her plants in a sunny window, and brings plants outdoors into the sun on warm days. She sets up a cloche where she puts her starts once they have germinated, and leaves them in unless temperatures fall dangerously low.

3 Vital Elements for Starting Seeds

Once you have your planted seed trays, they will need water, light, and warmth to thrive. “When I start my seeds,” says Showalter, “I feel like I have 100 babies that need my attention everyday.” For high germination rates, Showalter says that there are three vital elements to provide your seed starts:

1. Relative warmth (germination is usually faster with higher temperatures, but some plants, like peppers and basil require higher temperatures than others like lettuce, or even tomatoes. Bogwalker has used heat mats to provide moisture from beneath the soil with great success).

2. Moisture (don’t let them dry out)

3. Oxygen: “When a seed is dormant, it’s still breathing,” says Showalter, “and that’s why, after planting you don’t want to over tamp the soil around the seed.”

Starting seeds

And, don’t forget to always label your seeds!

To learn more about Wild Abundance or take a hands-on weekend class check out their website: or email

Aiyanna Sezak-Blattis a writer, beekeeper, and organic gardener living in Asheville, North Carolina. She also works as the Development Coordinator for Our VOICE, Asheville's rape crisis center. Read her other articles for Mother Earth News 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.


Achocha or Caihua (pronounced kai-wa) is an unusual and relatively unknown member of the cucurbit or cucumber family with a difference. Although they share family roots with cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, zucchini and melons, they are almost completely immune to many of the diseases and pests that attack the other cucurbits – squash bugs, vine borers, cucumber worms and powdery mildew along with other fungal issues.

Achocha are hugely prolific both in leafy shade growth and fruit, making them a dual purpose plant for gardeners looking for a green shade or windbreak which gives a good supply of tasty food.

Originally domesticated in the Andes Mountains, the seeds travelled by trade from modern day Columbia in the north to Bolivia in the south. This ancient crop has been featured on pre-historic pottery and art and is discussed in the book Lost Crops of the Incas by the National Research Council. Today, they are widely grown all across Central and South America, as well as in many other parts of the world. For example, achocha is very popular in northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Achocha Seeds

The seeds are very intriguing, looking much like flecks of bark or burnt chunks of a rough plant material. The color ranges from a medium brown to an almost black. Each mature fruit will have several seeds in it.

Achocha Seeds on Finger

A close-up of the seeds shows how very different they appear from almost all other vegetables, and certainly other cucurbit family seeds.

Achocha Seed Closeup

Another look at the achocha seed. The majority of them have the little tail or protrusion seen here.

Achocha with Butter Daisy

Achocha puts on vigorous vine growth with lots of leaves which provide a good shade for other crops. In areas with a long hot season, establishing them early will give better growth as they slow down during the hottest times. Giving them a bit of afternoon shade and protection helps them along, as they are seen growing up through a patch of Butter Daisies and climbing up a trellis.

This is a western facing wall, and they had a bit of a challenge in becoming well established with the afternoon heat. They had morning shade, but were exposed to full sun and heat during the hottest part of the day until almost sundown.

Achocha Plants

On the opposite side of the wide walkway, they are seen much more established and prolific. This is the east facing wall that is shaded from early afternoon, giving the plants enough protection from high heat and constant sun exposure to really take off.

This was the most productive planting, giving handfuls of fruit each harvest.

Achocha Pod

Cindy is holding a young fruit with the blossom cap still attached. At this stage the bark-like seeds are still fairly soft and immature. The fruit will not have completely hollowed out yet, but it is very edible and mild in flavor with a soft texture.

Once the plants begin setting fruit, they should be harvested regularly to encourage continued production. As they begin to produce, you will have handfuls of the fruit to work with!

The tiny, off-white flowers can be seen in the background. It is best to plant at least two plants so they can pollinate each other. The flowers will attract a number of smaller insects to help with pollination, among them the beneficial serphid fly which feasts on aphids, thrips and other soft bodied destructive insect pests.

Achocha Pods

Another view of the size, shape and color of the achocha fruits, along with the foliage. There are a few different varieties of achocha – some with soft spines and a fatter fruit. Ours are more slender and smooth skinned with no soft spines.

Handful of Achocha

The foliage will sometime raise eyebrows and cause questions, as its long toothy leaves somewhat resemble another controversial plant. There is no relation, but it is a conversation starter!

One handful of fruit leads to discovering another, then another as well…

Stuffed Achocha Pods

You’ll see why they have earned the name of “stuffing cucumber” when you slice them open and scoop out the seeds. There are enough recipes using them to fill a thick cookbook, but an easy and delicious starting point is to simply stuff them with sautéed sweet peppers and onions after slicing them open and just warming them up on the griddle.

Very colorful, unique and eye-catching along with being delicious, they will be the center point of the table. In Central and South America the fruits are eaten either raw or cooked after removal of the seeds. They are also prepared as stuffed peppers; stuffed with meat, fish or cheese and then baked or fresh.

Kids often love to pick and eat them in the garden, and they make an excellent addition to salads. The tender shoots, tendrils and young vines are edible and eaten raw or very lightly cooked.

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this! Read all of Stephen and Cindy'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.


Lettuce, Chives In Front, Potato Onions In Background, Tarragon On Left

Lettuce, chives in front, potato onions in background, tarragon on left.

It was a relatively mild winter with some cold snaps in the last month. So, what is popping up in this Midwest garden? A lot!

Fall-planted garlic, elephant garlic, arugula, French sorrel, blood-veined sorrel, kale, oregano, rosemary, cultivated dandelions, common chives, garlic chives, strawberries, onions, wild leeks, sage, dill, mint, rosemary, cultivated leeks, overwintered beets, overwintered carrots, newly planted peas, volunteer lettuce, catnip, lavender, newly planted lettuce, overwintered chard, tarragon, salad burnet, overwintered mustard, horseradish and thyme are all up and harvestable.

I also put on our covered deck a few weeks ago, our kumquat, overwintered eggplant and pepper plants, newly bought basil and dill. They are doing great, too.

The plants are growing well enough that we can pick leaves for salads now from both the garden lettuce, herbs and chard and the potted lettuce, kale, salad burnet, corn salad, arugula and Italian dandelions.

The forsythias and redbud trees are are in full bloom. This is the sign that it is time to use an organic weed and feed to treat pre-emergent weeds, and green up the yard! redbud flowers are edible, too. They taste similar to peas. Pretty and tasty in salads! (Read about growing edible flowers.)

We are behind this year in fertilizing and mulching the garden bed. I'll fertilize today and finish planting the spinach and lettuce bedding plants. The pots are already full with planted lettuce, volunteer lettuce, cultivated dandelions, sorrel, corn salad, cilantro, peas, kale, beets, onions, carrots and salad burnet; all edible plants that enjoy spring's cool temperatures.

Overwintered Kale In Pots, New Lettuce In Garden Bed
Overwintered kale in pots, small lettuce in garden bed.

I love mixing herbs, different types of greens and lettuces in salads. It took a bit to get the corn salad going, but now it is doing great! The overwintered plants have already bolted and have pretty yellow flowers.

The baby corn salad plants are growing quickly. Corn salad is very similar in taste to arugula. The advantage of having both in the garden is that corn salad is harvestable through most of the cold months and when it goes to seed, arugula is in its prime.

This week end we had mixed herb, greens and lettuce salads and dandelion alfredo sauce. Dandelion greens are super nutritious and get sweeter when cooked. (Dandelion nutrition info.) Use dandelion greens just like you would spinach.

Corn Salad In Bloom

Potted Corn Salad in bloom.

The cilantro does not last long; as soon as it warms up, it bolts. You have to succession plant these to keep them in the garden. Place them in a cool spot that gets some morning sun, but is in the shade the rest of the day. Parsley does great for the entire season.

I didn't have to start any chard this year as it came back from last year. I have them in a mix of colors. Chard is beautiful in orange, red, yellow, burgundy, fuchsia and white stemmed varieties. I have them planted along the back of the garden bed as they grow to as tall as 4-5 feet tall.

Yellow Chard In Foreground, Egyptian Walking Onions In Background

Yellow chard in foreground, Egyptian walking onions in background. 

Small chard leaves are great in salads. Large leaves are great steamed. The stalks of the large leaves can be used like celery, but very pretty celery! Chard is also a tender perennial. The white stemmed is the most cold hardy. I have had a red one that came back for years. For year-round steamed greens, grow chard!

I didn't need to plant carrots or beets as they overwintered in pots. I am going to start chervil from seed. I love the fragrance and benefits it adds to my skin oil I make. Make your own fragrant herbal body oil.

I like broccoli raab or sprouting broccoli because you get small broccoli heads throughout the entire growing season versus one large head at once. The leaves are also edible and great to add to salads. I am waiting to see if these survived the winter in the pots they were in last year. Two plants gave us all the broccoli and broccoli leaves we needed for our salads. They grow to be large plants. If planting in a container, thin to one plant in a large pot. Sprouting broccoli - a year-round fav.

Lettuce And Arugula In Earthbox
Lettuce and arugula in an Earthbox.

Now is also the time to plant spring garlic. Fall is the best time, but you can get scapes and small cloves by planting in spring. I also have garlic re-sprouting from the first crop I planted. When you dig the garlic in the fall, there are tiny cloves that usually get left behind. These will come back in the spring. The tiny cloves may take 2 seasons to get up to full-sized cloves. Time to plant garlic! With growing tips.

Our potato onions and Egyptian walking onions are harvestable for cooking. They both overwinter well. I love Egyptian walking onions as you can harvest them year round and they are so easy to grow, either in the garden or a pot! I use the bulb as you would a white onion and the tops as you would chives. Egyptian walking onions.

To help guide her family's gardening efforts and to keep track of what was happening in her own garden, Melodie Metje started her blog, Victory Garden on the Golf Course. She named it after the victory gardens grown to help the WWII effort. Melodie thinks we are in a similar situation today: Our country needs our help in battling the war on ill health. Read all of Melodie's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

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