Organic Gardening

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

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Peppers Growing In The Garden

Despite the invigorating air outside and the warmth of the woodstove inside, it’s sad to see the last leaves and needles drop from our trees. Yesterday, I picked the end of the peppers – a handful of red cherries and jalapenos. The plants are done, yellow, and tired. 

I shouldn’t complain. The chill here in Boise, Idaho, is less then our neighbors to the north are experiencing and has come far later than in a normal year where we can see frost on the pumpkins as early as mid-October. Nonetheless, winter points a shivering finger to the months ahead and I already miss my sweet chocolate cherry tomatoes, ripe and warm from the late August sun.

As squirrels skitter in the crisp leaves in the backyard, it’s a good time to survey the summer’s garden, taking note of what worked well and what I might change in the year ahead. It won’t be long before it’s time to start seeds again. And this year, I am wintering over lush pots of rosemary and parsley. In future blog posts, I’ll let you know how they’re doing.

Do you have a sunny, southeast facing window? If you still have herbs growing in the garden, why not try gently digging them out of the ground and potting them up?

As for end-of-the-season vegetables, the Mother Earth News website is full of recipes and ideas on ways to prepare, preserve or freeze them. I plan to pickle the peppers I picked yesterday. There’s nothing like canning fruits and vegetables to help carry summer through the cold months ahead.

In my next Mother Earth News blog post, I’ll include the simple pickled pepper recipe I’ve been using for several decades. Simple, delicious and packed with the sweet memory of summer.

Garden Harvest Of Fresh Jalapenos 

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The Food is Free Project was started with just a handful of seeds in one front yard in Austin, Texas. It began after founder John VanDeusen Edwards read a line in a gardening book that said something to the effect that sharing the knowledge was a vital step in gardening. He resonated strongly with that line and it inspired him to take a leap of faith and start a front-yard free garden. Within one year, over half of the houses on his street had Food is Free garden beds in their front yard. John sparked a food revolution in Austin, Texas, teaching people of all walks of life how to grow and share food. It instantly became a cog for motivation for friends, neighbors and aspiring green thumbs.  The project has reached over 190 cities around the globe. It has become an open sourced idea free for the taking because of the profound inspiration it has given to thousands of individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities all around the world. Their presence on social media is growing everyday, reaching more and more people around the globe. The concept behind the Food is Free Project is simple: build a raised-bed front-yard garden with reclaimed materials such as heat treated pallets. Paint a sign on the box that says Food is Free. Fill it with soil and plant it with seeds and transplants. Share the harvest with friends, neighbors, strangers and passersby. Repeat the process time and time again.

The Food is Free Project was founded by John VanDeusen Edwards (center in photo), who transformed his front and backyard into a teaching farm and resource center. The Food is Free Project is home to three aquaponic systems, twelve chickens, a rooster, two mini pet pigs, a fish pond, a hugelkultur spiral garden, an outdoor kitchen, community composting, a tool sharing program, and free workshops and classes on cooking, preserving. Food is Free Project raised beds are built onsite with the help of families, friends and volunteers. Children love coming to the farm to see the animals, witness how food is grown, and playing with worms in the compost pile. The Food is Free Project has installed several Food is Free beds throughout their community, including one for Habitat for Humanity. They encourage community involvement, the mentoring of children, engaging in conversations with neighbors and bringing life back to neighborhoods.

Recently, an unexpected hefty cash offer was made to the landlord of the property that John and the Food is Free Project Teaching Farm reside at. Those making the offer would demolish the farm, pave over it and develop condos. John and everyone at Food is Free Project is devastated and heartbroken. They have spent 2 years building the soil, planting perennials and fruit trees and inspiring the community in so many ways. They need our help. They have launched a crowd-funding campaign and are asking for community support to establish a new permanent location for the Food-Is-Free Project Open Source Teaching Farm

Their visions for their future site include hosting international visitors and training leaders from all over the world to engage and inspire their own communities. They plan to film the progress of the evolution of The Food is Free Project which would include sharing blueprints, how to videos and gardening tutorials on their website.

Photos courtesy of Food is Free Project

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.


We recently hosted a Free Permaculture Workshop at La Vista Farm. The topic was Hugelkultur Pollinator Garden. The farmers at La Vista Farm partnered with Maxine Pohlman of the the La Vista Ecological Learning Center the Oblate Fathers of The Oblate Ecological Initiative and several dedicated volunteers including fellow Mother Earth News Blogger Annie Kelley. The group was  concerned about the dwindling population of monarch butterflies and honey bees and wanted to build a pollinator garden that would offer both food and habitat for pollinators. We built the beds on an already existing terraced garden. Hugelkultur beds are made to retain moisture, serve as a living bed and support various root structures of a number of different plant species. The basic concepts behind hugelkultur are to utilize existing materials to form living raised beds which promote healthy ecosystems for animals and insects. These beds are low maintenance as the branches act like a sponge to retain water and vital soil nutrients. The beds can be built at any height and typically the sod layer in the bed space is removed with a sod removing tool and placed upside down on top of the final bed and planted directly into. We chose to not go with this method because we were battling with invasive Johnson grass.

The first step was to weed the terraced beds, which was done by hand by a group of dedicated volunteers prior to the day of the workshop.


After terrace2

On the morning of the workshop, the group helped to gather organic materials from around the property (all materials were gathered from within the radius of about one acre). We gathered fallen oak and pine tree limbs and branches and cut them into manageable sections. We raked leaves into one pile and pine needles into another. We scraped and gathered detritus leaf litter mixed with other organic matter from a nearby abandoned driveway. We used spoiled hay bales leftover from Halloween.


We then created 1-foot-wide by 1-foot-deep trenches on three of the four beds. Hugelkultur trenches are typically larger for vegetable and fruit gardens. 

We placed the fallen limbs and branches into the trenches. We then layered leaves, pine needles, spoiled straw, and other organic materials. We topped it with wet chip mulch to ensure the leaves didn't blow away.

limbs and branches final

The beds will be topped and folded in with food scraps and red wriggler worms throughout the winter to speed up the decomposition process.

We have recently collected seed heads from a nearby prairie which we will plant in our high tunnel soon to overwinter. In the spring, the beds will have decomposed enough. We will add a layer of topsoil mixed with compost and will plant native pollinator attracting transplants both from seed as well as plants dug up from around the property.

We have also been collecting swamp milkweed seeds that we will eventually be planted in the hugelkultur beds.  Swamp milkweed is on the endangered plants list in our region and we hope to do our part by increasing the population within the next few years.


Dedicated groups of Eco-conscious individuals who hold earth stewardship as a moral imperative truly do help to make this world a better place. I am honored to be a part of a community with so many of those individuals.

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.


Fall garden bed

Want a worry-free, weed-free, organic-matter-rich vegetable garden bed? Wow! That just sounds fabulous and a little too good to be true. Actually, it is doable and fall is the best time to put it in action. How? Mulch.

Mulch is an amazing thing. Think about how nature works on its own. Every fall, trees shed their leaves, blanketing the ground. The leaves break down over the winter, providing nutrients back into the soil in time for spring when the trees need to power back up again. And these trees grow to massive heights and widths!

Using mulch, wood chips, and fallen leaves for your vegetable garden beds provide the same benefits; returning nutrients back to the soil that your vegetable plants need to produce their tasty leaves and fruits during the growing season.

Mulch also keeps in moisture and absorbs water, significantly reducing your watering needs. It protects the soil from the winds blowing it away. To top it off, it keeps the weeds from sprouting and causing you to have to spend hours each week pulling the little suckers. What’s not to love about that!

A system where you don’t have to bring in outside resources to replenish your garden bed health is referred to as sustainable permaculture. In town, I think we need to look at this as utilizing the resources within our communities. Many communities have mulch free for the taking. In some areas, tree removers would be thrilled to give you wood chips for free to get it off of their hands.

When I started our garden bed at our house on the golf course, we were forced to get creative. I couldn’t plow up the backyard like my grandparents could on their farm; the landscape “police” frowned on that type of thing on the 15th green. It was my grandmother’s full time spring, summer and fall job to care for the garden. I already had a full time job.

The solution? Expand our mulched flower beds and plant veggies and fruiting plants among the flowers and use decorative containers on the patio.

To make the new vegetable/flower beds, we used a sod cutter to cut all the sod. We then turned the sod upside down, put newspaper over the top and then a three-inch thick layer of mulch on top. We have since learned through experience, the whole sod cutting thing wasn't necessary. There is a much easier way.

Potted pepper plant

New Beds

Fall is the best time to start your new beds. It gives the entire winter for the grass and mulch to break down into the nutrients your veggie and fruit plants will need for the growing season.

Our soil was a nice orange color when we first dug the new beds, indicative of the clay soils in the Midwest. Five years later, it is a beautiful black color full of earthworms and organic matter.

I can’t say enough good things about mulch! We don’t have to water nearly as often. There are very few weeds to pull, and those that do sprout are easier to pull. And it is a great way to add organic matter and nutrients at the same time.

What have I learned from experience that I would do differently to accelerate the process for a new fall garden bed?

First, make sure you get a soil test to see what nutrients you are deficient in. The typical that are tested are nitrogen (for green leafy growth), phosphorous (for flowers and fruits), and potassium (for overall plant vigor). Apply an organic source of the nutrients needed before applying the mulch.

Second, you don’t really need to use the sod cutter.

Third, I try to use cardboard instead of newspaper. Make sure it isn’t shiny with chemical ink. Earthworms love cardboard. You’ll attract more to your garden bed.

Fourth, I would add a three-inch layer of compost on top of the cardboard and an organic all around fertilizer before the mulch. I found out that nitrogen will leach into the air if not covered. You lose about 50 percent of it if you just lay it on top of the ground so you need twice as much for the same benefit.

Fifth, I would have done more like a six-inch layer of mulch in the fall. I would also recommend mulch that is from the whole tree (not just bark mulch) and is finer. Big chunks just take longer to break down and you want that nutrition in your soil as soon as you can get it!

This year, we are going to suck up all the leaves and grass in the mower bagger and apply a six-to-eight-inch layer over all the beds at the lake house. Then top with a layer of mulch either later this fall or early in the spring. For a house with homeowner covenants, you may have to do a half-and-half approach. Four inches of leaves and grass covered with four inches of nice black organic mulch this fall. Over the winter, it should decompose down to a nice thick four-inch layer of protection.

Let’s talk about the basics of what plants need. In general, plants need the same things we do: oxygen, food and water. Their food includes the standard nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium we all hear about, but they need much more than that. It is kind of like saying all we need are vitamins and minerals so a multivitamin is all we need to eat each day.

Like us, fruits and vegetables need a wide range of nutrients to be the healthiest and strongest. It is so true that you are what you eat. Same principle applies to what your plants “eat.” And if your fruits and veggies are getting a wide range of nutrients, this means that they will provide you with food chock full of nutrients as well!

That thick layer of mulch, wood chips and leaves every fall gives the organic material a chance to break down over the winter into nutrients that supporting microbes and earthworms need to multiply to give the best support to the plants growth in the spring.

A strong population of earthworms does two key things you need in a garden-they are nature’s rototiller, loosening the soil for veggie roots to easily expand and grow in to, and nature’s fertilizer, making lots of vermicompost right in your garden bed. The other key thing a layer of organic matter does is prevent the weed seeds that are laying on top of the ground from sprouting, eliminating the need for weeding or chemical herbicides. What can be better than that?!

Microbes thrive where there is an abundance of organic matter. These microbes nourish plant roots which feed the plant. You do not want to disturb this flourishing web of life-supporting microbes by tilling up the ground after you have done such a nice job of developing them into a strong support system for your spring plants. Tilling destroys your microbes. With a healthy population of earthworms, nature will take care of producing the light, crumbly soil your plants will thrive in.

Worms avoid areas that have pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. It is common sense that anything that has been designed to kill living things is not beneficial to other living things. I have seen when round up has been used, earthworms will not get onto the area that has been sprayed.

New spring garden bed

I recently listened to an interview with Paul Gautschi, who gets 14 inches of rain a year on his farm in Oregon. He hasn’t fertilized or watered his fruit orchard for over 30 years or his vegetable garden in more than 15 years. His secret: he looked at his surroundings with new eyes and replicated what nature does. He started using wood chips, which is basically what mulch is. The wood chips he uses include all the leaves and limbs chopped up. You need more than just the tree bark in your mulch. Paul likes to quote the Bible and George Washington Carver for his inspiration on gardening. As George Washington Carver said, “If it is simple, it must be right.”

He also applies a layer of dirt he gets from his chicken pen which he feeds only organic and as much fresh vegetable scraps as possible. We can get the same effect by the application of compost and an all-around organic fertilizer (the one we buy is based on composted chicken manure, Re-Vita).

A recent soil test in Paul’s garden revealed these results:

“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines – the desired level that you want, and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is I didn’t do anything!”

When you plant seeds in the spring, be sure to move the mulch out of the way. The mulch’s hard top crust is impossible for seedlings to break through. Once they have sprouted, you can pull the mulch back around the plant.

The other thing about healthy plants is that they are not bothered by insects. If you have a plant that is being attacked, the plant itself is likely not healthy. Nature is telling us that we have a “sick” plant or a bio system that is not in balance. If you are just moving to an organic approach with no pesticides, it may take a season or two for the “good” and “bad” bugs to come into balance.

Think very hard before you start spraying the “bad” bugs; those pesticides/insecticides don’t know the difference between a beneficial insect (like bees) and a “bad” bug (like grasshoppers). I put on gloves and go bug hunting for the “bad” bugs. I pick them off and squish them. If that is too harsh for you, you can pick them off and throw them in a bowl with soapy water.

Having trees and bushes near by also encourages birds to look for bug snacks in your garden. Birds don’t usually eat vegetables. They do love berries, though! You can put a light net over your berries to protect them. Fall is a great time to plant trees and bushes. Gives them the entire winter to establish a robust root system.

This fall, I am planning on accelerating the process in the new garden beds we put in this summer by doing a layer of leaves and wood chips at least eight inches thick. This should give our garden a significantly thicker layer of black soil, rich in organic matter by next spring. I hope to cut the time in half to get to black soil as deep as I can dig.

For more tips on organic small space and container gardening, see Melodie's blog at

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.


Cindy at work at desk=2013=BLOG I just returned from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Topeka, Kansas. I love those Fairs. It is as if the MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine opened up and all the people and products popped right out to meet you. The presenters are authors of books and MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine articles in addition to other experts. MOTHER EARTH NEWS has a bookstore there and the fair-goers stocked up on lots of books to take home. They were able to hear many of the authors speak and the bookstore gave them the opportunity to look at the books to make sure it was something useful to them. These people are taking an active part in broadening their education in the areas that interest them and learning from people who are actively involved.

I was a speaker at the fair and I also casually connected with people individually throughout the weekend. Besides those activities, I valued the time I could spend talking with the publishers and authors. Where else could I do that with such a variety of people? The last morning was spent in conversation with three authors over breakfast. We had afternoon flights, so we had time to linger at the table with tales and tips of writing and launching a book.

I have been gardening since 1974 and have been learning and doing new things in the garden ever since. There is never the perfect garden plan and I am always making adjustments as I add or subtract crops or varieties. The photo in this book was taken when I was writing Grow a Sustainable Diet, but the scene is the same whether I am writing a book (Seed Libraries will be out in early February 2015) or working on my garden plan. I gather a lot of information, much of it from books, and glean what I need—usually with my sources spread out everywhere. My friends are the same way. Often when we are discussing something, one of us will offer an author’s take on the subject and we will add it to the conversation. We search out information we want to know.

When using information found on the Internet, it is not always easy to know the source. However, besides my blog, Homeplace Earth, there is some great stuff out there. The Cooperative Extension Service has their bulletins online. I remember when we would have to go to the Extension office and find the print copies of them in a closet or request they be sent to us—and that wasn’t so very long ago. I’ve just finished writing Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People and was happy to list the online source for organic seed production manuals, among other things, in the Resource section.

Whether you have wondered which squash has the best defense against squash bugs, which corn is the best to grow for cornmeal in your region, or how to make and use a coldframe, take some time to learn more about these things. Read books (or use videos if you aren’t a book person) and take notes. Write up your notes for your garden notebook so you will have that information at hand. Be alert to learning opportunities in your area that will broaden your gardening knowledge. There may be programs offered that you hadn’t considered until now, but would be what you need to make your garden better. Besides the information, the people you will meet will open your life to others with the same interests. It is always fun to make new friends and learn something new.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at her blog, Homeplace Earth.

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.


squashThe larder was once an awkward spot half way down the cellar stairs, where the wood pile collapsed, cats rummaged after rodents, and spiders gathered. But, when we remodeled the garage into a dining room, it became the most unexpected and best addition of all.

The larder is 5 feet deep — a long arms length in — and 6 feet wide. It is 4 feet high; above is a cozy reading nook, looking into the back yard. The floor is the old cement slab of the garage, which stays cool in summer. The walls and the ceiling are insulated and finished with sheetrock and there is a set of double doors, also insulated, that swing open at chest height off of the stairway. We put two screened openings to the outside, and, to be honest, there is a little airflow coming in between the foundation and the wall as well. The space stays cooler in summer, when we store canning supplies and the food dehydrator there for easy access, but it truly shines in winter.

In early October, I begin to stock the space. First, I bring in the pumpkins and squashes from our yard and from local farmers. They are tucked on the shelves to the left, all of their funky organic shapes cast in shadows. Then I fill a potting tray with the long keeper tomatoes and set them against the back wall, propped on a crate. Apples from our CSA settle in under the crate. A few weeks later, sixty pounds of onions are tumbled into boxes, which sit to the right. A paper bag of bulbs, waiting for winter rituals, hides in the back corner next to the seed storage tin. In early December, the space glows with a case of oranges that I buy to support the high school baseball team. We store armloads of kale, mustard, and chard, ordered weekly from Sunbow farm, in the larder as well. Pots of soup, left-over casseroles, and an occasional jug of cider can spend a day or two in the larder; in winter, it is the same temperature as our apartment sized refrigerator. There is not enough room to hold the one hundred pounds of potatoes that we grow each year, so they live in milk crates at the bottom of the stairs and the canned goods are in the basement, against the far wall.

Come mid-winter, I walk downstairs, gather a can of peaches from the basement shelves, some potatoes from the bins, and the greens and onions from the larder, pulling together dinners from what we have tucked away, and feel truly blessed to store so much healthy, organic, and beautiful food in my home.

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to and

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.



InchThe last of my series of posts discussing the different types of gourmet garlic will explore the Artichoke variety. Artichokes are a family of very large, very prolific softneck garlic. Due in large part to their size, and thus high yield, Artichoke strains such as ‘California Early’ are grown on a large scale for commercial processing into products such as garlic powders, salts, and as the garlic component in many packaged foods. Less commercial cultivars are also available, with popular names including ‘Inchelium Red’, ‘Lorz Italian’, and ‘Susanville’. Like Silverskins, Artichokes are also commonly used in garlic braids.


Artichoke garlics are attractive to commercial growers not only due to their size, but also because they are relatively easy to grow. They tend to thrive in more southerly climates due to the comparatively mild winters, but we also get good results up here in the lower half of Canada. Growers in more northerly regions can still grow Artichokes fairly easily, but may find that the overall bulb size is somewhat diminished and that the plants have a tendency to bolt.

Bolting under stress very rarely produces an actual scape, but may produce a small cluster of large bulbils within a pseudo stalk, up to a few inches above the bulb itself. Otherwise, growing Artichokes reduces some of the intense labor associated with growing garlic, since there are no scapes requiring removal.garlic

Artichoke cultivars are early-maturing, the stocky plants generally ready to harvest soon after Asiatic varieties. The regular rules of harvest apply, with the bulbs dug when there are approximately five wide yellow-green leaves left. It is worth keeping an eye on their progress close to harvest, however, as in some cases the large size of the bulbs will cause the skins to separate, exposing the cloves. Since the clove skins remain intact, this separation is fine if the bulbs are grown for your own consumption, but if you are growing them with retail in mind, you will get some rather unsightly bulbs that are best saved for processing or seed.


Cultivars of the Artichoke variety produce large, slightly flattened and lumpy bulbs. The bulb skins are thick, coarse and white, with varying degrees of purple marbling. The bulbs produce multiple layers of cloves, which range in shape from fat and blocky on the outer layer, to tall and thin in the innermost layers. It is worth mentioning that when planting Artichokes varieties, unless you are trying to increase stock levels, consider avoiding planting the small inner cloves to keep the overall size of the bulbs at harvest large. Clove numbers tend to average 12-20 per bulb and have very pale to light tan skins, often with red or purple tones.


Compared to hardneck types, many people find the taste of Artichoke garlics rather tame. The cultivars themselves vary in heat and richness, from the sweet and mild to the spicy and rich. The milder cultivars such as ‘Susanville’ tend to be enjoyed by those who prefer a more delicate garlic taste if, for example, the garlic is being consumed raw for health benefits, while hotter ones like ‘Lorz Italian’ are a popular choice for sauces. All Artichoke cultivars make excellent roasted garlic. They also tend to be quite long-storing, lasting from six to nine months when stored correctly, making them worthwhile addition to any garden.

In my next series of posts, I’ll be examining the different diseases that can affect garlic!

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.


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