Organic Gardening

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

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Hand Built Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds can make gardening easy for a number of reasons. They warm up faster in the spring, they are easier to weed and maintain, and they give a garden a nice, organized look. Also, the soil does not get compacted because you do not need to walk on the soil around the plants.

Almost any gardening center or home-improvement warehouse-type store carries raised-bed kits or treated lumber that can be used to build raised beds.

However, one way to have the raised beds you want for next to nothing — or free — is to look for free lumber.

This can be found in a number of places. Some of the best wood for raised beds are old fence boards. Search through community buy-and-sell websites for anyone in your area who is rebuilding a fence and is giving away their old fence boards, or someone who is throwing out scrap lumber from a construction project.

A good size for raised beds is about 12 inches high, 2 or 3 feet deep and about 5 or 6 feet long. As old fence boards are generally around 6 inches wide and 5 or 6 feet long, they are ideal for this project.


For each raised bed, you will need:

• 6 fence boards that measure 6 inches wide and 5-6 feet long. Two of these boards will be cut in half to create four boards that are 3 feet long.
• 4 corner posts that are 18-24 inches long. These can be cut from pieces of 2-by-4 boards or 2-by-2 posts.
• Wood screws that are long enough for the fence boards you are using. If the boards are 1 inch thick, you will need 2-inch wood screws. If you don’t have any wood screws on hand, this will be the only item you will need to buy.

• A power drill
• A circular saw or radial arm saw
• A shovel

• Large cardboard boxes, flattened out. This is optional, but if cardboard is laid in the bottom and under the sides of the raised bed before you fill it with dirt, it will deter weeds and grass from growing up through and around the bed.


Now to build your raised bed.

1. First, plan out where you want to build your raised beds.

Make note of which area of your yard gets the most sun, and draw up a plan on paper. Map out the fence or boundary of your property, other trees, sheds or shrubs, and where you want your raised beds to go.

Determine how many raised beds you want, and draw them out on your yard “map.”

2. Plan out the size of your raised beds.

Raised beds are easy to work in if they are no wider than two or three feet. This allows you to reach to the center of the bed from either side.

The raised beds can be as long as you need them to be, but make sure you can get around them easily.

3. Build your raised bed frame.

Put the shorter end pieces together first. Lay out two corner posts, 2 feet apart. Lay the first 2-foot length of board on the posts with the top edge aligned with the top of the post. Screw the board to the post, and then add the next piece of 2-foot board under the first one and screw it to the post as well.

Make sure the boards are square with the post. For added stability, use two screws per each end of the board. Repeat this process with the other two corner posts and the remaining 2-foot lengths of board. You will have two end pieces that look like bed headboards with legs.

Now add the side rails. Prop the end pieces on end and brace them securely. Make sure the corner posts are facing the inside of the box.

Line up the 6-foot pieces of board with the end boards and screw the side rails to the corner posts. Make sure they are square and use two screws per each end of the boards.

Repeat this process with the remaining 6-foot boards on the other side by turning the box over to lay on its finished long side.

You will now have a box frame that is 1 foot deep, 2 feet wide and 6 feet long, but is open at the bottom. It will have four legs that are each 1 foot long.

Raised Garden Bed Frame 

4. Set the raised bed frame in the ground.

Set the frame in the spot where you want it to go. Using a shovel, mark the location of each leg in the ground, and then move the frame out of the way.

Dig a hole for each leg and make sure it is at least 1 foot deep. This is easier to do if your ground is soft, but if it is hard or rocky, you can build the frame with shorter legs so that you don’t have to dig so deep.

When your holes are dug, set the box into place, dropping the legs into the holes. When you are sure the sides all touch the ground, then you know your holes are deep enough.

If you are going to use cardboard to keep the weeds down, lay large pieces of thick cardboard under the sides, around the legs and in the bottom of the raised bed. When the cardboard is in place, and the frame is settled with the legs in the holes, fill in the holes with dirt, tamping it down firmly.

Now your raised bed is ready to fill with good-quality soil for planting. You can also fill in around the raised bed with bark mulch, gravel or straw for a clean and weed-free space around each bed.

Inside Of Raised Garden Bed 

Judith Docken is a freelance writer, author and blogger. She has published gardening articles in SF Gate and Modern Mom online magazines and was published in an anthology of Canadian short stories called That Golden Summer. She is currently building her backyard into an urban homestead and organic garden, writing her second novel, and learning how to grow asparagus and celery Connect with Judith on LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google+.
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.


If you are new to gardening, getting started can seem like a daunting task. But if you break it down into each of the small, individual tasks and use some of the apps available, it can be achievable in a relatively short amount of time.

After moving to a new house in the fall of last year, I dreamed of having a large vegetable garden. The yard was a completely blank slate, so I knew I would have to start small and build up to my dream garden one step at a time.

With a full-time office job, a 45 minute commute each way, and two young children (4 and 2), I also knew that I would have to be extremely organized so that I could make the most efficient use of just a couple free hours each weekend and perhaps a few minutes in the evenings after it started staying light out.

Around the new year, I read a friend's blog about making a New Year's Project instead of a New Year's Resolution. This gave me the idea of treating my garden like any other work project — I'd make a project plan!

Here is a sample from my project plan (which I made using Microsoft OneNote, part of the standard Office bundle):

Sample Garden Project Plan

Garden Project Plan Checklist

As you see, I didn't list "Raised Beds" as a single step. That would have been too much to wrap my head around. But I could accomplish the individual tasks of: 1) Select design of raised beds; 2) Determine and purchase required materials; 3) Build raised beds; 4) Order amended soil; etc.

I was able to use the evenings researching my tasks on Pinterest (my favorite place for garden ideas). I'd use a few minutes here and there at work to search for local retailers or online stores that had the materials.

By the time the weekend would arrive, I already knew what my target project and goal was for that weekend, and then I'd execute. Examples of weekend projects included:

• Clear the spot for the garden
• Buy potting mix and seeds and start seeds in pots inside
• Build raised beds (this was the toughest weekend project, but with my husband's assistance, we were able to build two 4-by-10-foot beds in one weekend)
• Have amended soil delivered and wheelbarrow and then shovel it into the beds
• Install drip irrigation
•Plant seedlings out and direct sow other seeds 

What, When and Where to Plant

Besides the actual construction of the garden, I needed to have a plan on what to plant and when. Living in Southern California, our growing seasons are weird and the typical Spring/Fall crop schedule does not work here.

I was having a difficult time determining what vegetables I could plant right away until I discovered the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Grow Planner app. Not only did it tailor my planting schedules to my zip code, but it was also easy to construct the layout of my garden beds and play around with where to plant each type of vegetable and how many of each I could fit in.

I am even using the Grow Planner app to show me month by month what to do next and log notes to a journal. At the top of this page is a sample of my garden plan for the month of April.

This app will also help me with succession planting and crop rotation. I can easily create next year's version of the garden plan, and it will know where certain plant families were from prior year plans, so I can avoid putting next year's kale where this year's broccoli, kale, or cauliflower was.

To see more posts on my progress against this Garden Project Plan, you can check out them out here. Happy planning!

Rachel Stutts began yearning for a simpler lifestyle more rooted in family and community after having two children and continuing in the corporate rat race. Following conversations with her husband over drinks one date-night, they agreed to search for a new property where they now work toward some serious gardening and "lite homesteading" pursuits. Connect with Rachel at her Amber Burst blog.

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.


Julie Fryer Mosquito Repellent Plants

Photo by Michelle White

Did you know mosquitoes are considered to be the deadliest critter on Earth? Every year they spread a host of debilitating, and often fatal diseases, including West Nile Virus, Encephalitis, Malaria, Chikungunya, Zika Virus, and Canine Heartworm. Pretty scary for folks like us who spend so much time outdoors!

But dousing on bug spray is not always practical and for children and animals, it’s potentially toxic. Try this idea for chemical-free, all-natural mosquito control that’s also beautiful: a mosquito-repellent garden that works all summer long to keep bugs out of your outdoor living spaces.

3 Gorgeous and Easy-to-Grow Plants Mosquitoes Hate

Citronella Geranium, Lemongrass, and Lantana Camara already top popular gardening lists because they’re robust and quick growers; adaptable to almost all conditions; gorgeous in every setting; and in Southern climates (Zone 9 and warmer), hardy enough to grow as perennials.

Best of all, when cut, bruised, or even jostled by a breeze, they give off a pleasant lemony, citronella scent that mosquitoes avoid.

These three plants make fantastic container elements and look lovely combined with Petunias, Alyssum, or even tucked into your potted herbs. This article offers quick tips on growing these plants but you can also find much more information in this free ebook, Mosquito Repellent Plants, from Clovers Garden. Just click this link to be taken to their signup form where you’ll get instant online access to the book.

Citronella Geranium (Mosquito Plant)

Cintronella Flower Blossom

Photo by iStock/photographer unknown

Citronella Geranium grows large and bushy with thick foliage of lacy, medium-green leaves and produces a few pink-purple blossoms during the season. Like all geraniums, Mosquito Plant should be planted outside after all danger of frost, needs direct sunlight for at least 6 hours per day but can tolerate partial shade, and prefers well-drained, moderately-rich soil.

It makes a great container addition but give it room to grow as it will reach up to 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Toward mid-summer, prune back woody branches to keep plant nicely shaped. Look for the main central stem and cut it back to the preferred height — this will promote outward, side stem growth and encourage more blossoms.

Add trimmed branches to floral arrangements as the thick leaves provide a good structure for smaller flowers. Citronella Geranium can be overwintered using regular geranium propagation techniques.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)

Grow Lemongrass In The Garden

Photo by Dreamstime/photographer unkown

This edible plant is often grown as an ornamental and grows in a dense, rounded clump reaching up to four-feet high and three-feet wide. Similar to scallions, the grassy stems grow out of a thick bulbous base which is frequently used in Asian or Thai cooking.

Follow the same general planting instructions as Citronella Geranium: full sun but partial shade tolerant, prefers well-draining, loamy soil, and does best if watered consistently. Lemongrass bulbs can be harvested throughout the entire growing season.

When mature, this plant benefits from division as it can become root bound. Just slice into the crown with a sharp knife or spade and separate each root clump. Replant in a pot or in the ground and feed and water until established.

Unlike most plants, Lemongrass will grow in soil with black walnut residue.

Lantana (Lantana Camara)

Lantana In The Garden

Photo by Dreamstime/Photographer unkown

Sometimes called Yellow Sage or Shrub Verbena, Lantana has been a popular bedding plant for decades. All summer long, it produces lovely verbena-shaped blossoms in multiple color combinations of pink, red, yellow, orange, and purple.

The foliage grows in an upright and sturdy pattern making it a great container choice and, best of all, it thrives in nearly all growing conditions especially low moisture, hot sun, and even salty soils.

Deer and other critters dislike the taste and smell but butterflies and hummingbirds love it.

A note to families with kids and pets: Some varieties produce a small berry-like fruit that turns black when mature. These are poisonous so just trim off when they first appear in their green stage.

How to Get the Most Mosquito Repellent Benefit

Start by planting near high-use outdoor spaces such as play areas, patio borders, deck containers, or around foundations and entry ways. Cutting or bruising the leaves releases a burst of citronella scent so as you walk near the plant, rustle or crush the leaves.

You can also place trimmed branches and leaves in bouquets around your outdoor areas. Some folks have tried rubbing the leaves on the skin or clothing but it’s best to first test this approach as it can cause irritation.

What’s Next?

These three plants aren’t the only way to keep skeeters from your yard! Upcoming posts will talk about the many herbs that also work, offer more gardening ideas, and share recipes for cooking with lemongrass and making your own all-natural bug spray from the plant leaves. Click here to read Part 2 and here for Part 3 of this series.

Julie Fryer is an expert landscaper, gardener and sugar-maker. If you’d like to read all of her mosquito-repellent insights right now, sign up with Clovers Garden to get their free ebook and be sure to come back for more great mosquito-repellent info. For questions on using mosquito repellent plants, feel free to contact Julie at Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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.


frostbit potatoes

Read Part 1: 'Taters Gone Wild: Planting Potatoes from Sprouts.

I held my breath for about a week after I planted the potential potato babies freed from my basement. Even though I knew I was experimenting and that it could result (at worst) in an amended bed with better soil, I was thrilled when the first plants poked their little leaves through the straw.

It wasn’t for another week or so that my adventure was showing fairly widespread success. I had plants of all four varieties coming through. The plants continued to grow and thrive as though I’d planted them with the barely sprouted eyes as I normally do.

Growing Potatoes in Cold Weather

Then in mid-May (later than we ever do), we had a hard frost/light freeze. Thankfully, we suffered only two nights of dangerously cold temperatures. Potatoes prefer temperatures between 40 and 75 degrees (Fahrenheit). I covered both beds with sheets and hoped for the best. I also covered a silly, little volunteer in my tomatoes-to-be bed since it was working just as hard as those I’d intentionally planted.

I was quite pleasantly surprised that the tuber had survived the cold over the winter when I came upon it. I serendipitously discovered this plant on my way to cover the grapes, otherwise I could have easily missed it.

Unfortunately, most of my 'Gold Rush' variety were nipped by the cold. I’ll end up with just a small offering of those this year. The 'Strawberry Paw', 'Thunder Row' (a TPS — True Potato Seed potato), and 'Yukon Golds' all came through like champs!

After that cold snap, our weather moved from a few weeks with daytime temps in the 60s and 70s to more full-on-summer temperatures climbing more regularly into the 80s. I’ve added more mulch twice. The plants are already needing another layer but I had to get the rest of my garden in so they’ve had to wait.

Garden Pest Control for Potatoes 

potato pests

The next chore now added where my potatoes are concerned is pest control. I still remember the first time I saw the larvae of the Colorado Potato Beetle. The truly alien appearance of this beast is what caught my eye, along with its sometimes bright orange color.

My introduction to these creatures was an infestation of the nightshade growing near where we park our vehicles. I wasn’t growing potatoes at that point in time so I banked the information I learned (particularly about the insect liking nightshade’s cousin—the potato) and battled the bugs.

Because I choose to avoid biocides in my garden, I currently utilize two basic approaches to winning this fight. One is to have closed containers of soapy water set around the garden. When I come across a pest I want to get rid of, I shake or place it into the water, close the top, and shake gently. The insect drowns almost immediately.

My other death-method comes more quickly with the bottom of my boot. I wish I could shed the pangs of guilt I feel for offing these insects, but I actually prefer to feed my own family and friends. Colorado potato beetles can continue to feast on all the nightshade they wish, but they take their lives in their legs when they choose my taters.

Tiny black flea beetles have joined the battle against my potato plants this year. I’ve been employing one of my late father-in-law’s kill methods for those — my bare hands. Where using this technique with larger, juicier insects gives me the shudders, I have no trouble rolling these little dudes between my fingers as I check the leaves for more offenders. You can see the classic, bb-like damage on the leaf (lower right) along with one of the li’l buggers (alive) in the photo above.

I’m excited by what looks like a good crop of 'taters this year, even though it was completely unplanned. I highly recommend trying to plant those potatoes you thought were lost. They really might surprise you.

I laughed out loud with awe when I noticed some of the babies that I’d thought had no prospects were bursting forth in the compost pile. Never one to ignore hard work, I carefully dug down to extract them and move them over to the area the frost diminished the gold rush. Interestingly, the compost volunteers were also gold rush potatoes.

I will add one more installment to this adventure once I harvest later in the season. Who knows, maybe I’ll even include a recipe! Stay tuned for the continuation of this botanical adventure.

Potatoes in June

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

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



Sweet potatoes are a straight-forward but frost-tender crop - they thrive in hot conditions and are drought-resistant once established. They don't need high soil fertility levels or a lot of organic matter. Field planting comes later than most spring crops, leaving you free to deal with other transplants first. Likewise, after the vines cover the ground they need little attention during the summer (apart from watering) until harvest.

Sweet potatoes are often called yams, but this is inaccurate! They are related to morning glories. Sweet potatoes are roots, not tubers, and will not even cross with yams. True yams are tropical tubers, not morning glory cousins. Enough about yams!

A good introduction can be found in the ATTRA publication Sweetpotato: Organic Production. One baked sweet potato of 114gm (4oz) has 185% the RDA of vitamin A, 28% the RDA of Vitamin C, 100% of vitamin E, lots of anti-oxidants, and 160 calories, none from fat.

Deer are the main pests of sweet potatoes. The main successful ways to deal with deer are guns, dogs and fences, although we have success with motion-sensor water sprinklers too.

Sweet Potato Varieties

Modern varieties such as 'Georgia Jet' can grow to a good size in only 90 days, so sweet potatoes are not just for the South! As well as the traditional orange kinds, there are purple, yellow and white ones. There are ornamental kinds used for city beautification. Some have fancy-cut or heart-shaped leaves. There is the 'Bunch Porto Rico' which has short vines, ideal for those with not much space.

We grow 'Beauregard', 'Georgia Jet' and a white variety we don’t know the name of. It is less sweet than the orange varieties, and could be an alternative to “Irish” potatoes for people seeking food self-reliance in the south, where Irish potatoes are prone to diseases, and it is not recommended to replant ones you’ve grown.

Sweet Potato Crop Requirements

You need sunshine and warmth to grow good sweet potatoes. It is not simply the number of days since planting, or your winter hardiness plant zone that create heavy yields, but the growing degree days (GDD, accumulated heat units).

According to Sandhill Preservation Society, fast-maturing sweet potatoes need about 1200 GDD (calculated on a base temperature of 55 degrees F) to produce a good yield. Black plastic mulch, row cover or a hoophouse can help increase the GDD. Daytime temperatures of 90 degrees F, with 70 degrees F nights are ideal.

Planting Out Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are usually planted out about 2 weeks after the last frost. The soil temperature should reach 65 degrees F at 4 inches deep on 4 consecutive days. For us, that’s around May 12, although we were 3 weeks later than that this year, due to cold rainy weather.

I prefer to wait for the slips to grow four leaves or more in the greenhouse before planting out, rather than rush them out. For big potatoes, just plant the slip vertically. For average-sized roots but larger total yields, plant the slips horizontally 2-3 inches deep. Have 3-5 leaf nodes underground and only the tips above the ground – this also gives the plants a second chance if frost strikes.

If, on the other hand, you are planting in hot dry weather, water the soil first, and keep the roots enclosed in damp compost as you plant. Sweet potatoes are often hilled to minimize flood damage. Hills can be made before planting. In colder areas, black plastic mulch can be used to warm the pre-formed ridges for about three weeks before you plant, and increase both the rate of growth and the yield.

We used to plant on the flat in bare soil, with overhead irrigation. We sometimes had bad weeds. We now use drip tape for irrigation — fewer weeds! After a wet year, we tried ridging before planting, to reduce flood losses. It was a bit hard to keep the drip tape on the ridges — we planted on alternate sides of the tape, so it couldn’t slide sown.

Nowadays we use ridges, drip tape and biodegradable plastic mulch (even fewer weeds!). We run the drip tape while planting, and nudge it over to be where we want it, relative to the plants.

Using Biodegradable Plastic Mulch


I wrote a blog post for Mother Earth News entitled How to Lay Biodegradable Plastic Mulch by Hand. In my blog, I've written about it, too. I researched the two main kinds of biodegradable plastic, and wrote about that in my blog Qualified Praise for Biodegradable Plastic Mulch on May 21, 2014.

We like biodegradable plastic mulch because it warms the soil, and we get higher yields. After keeping the weeds down for a few months, it biodegrades, so we don't have to remove it and cause heaps of agricultural plastic trash. It's especially suitable for vining crops like sweet potatoes and watermelons, because the vines cover the ground as the plastic disintegrates, and weeds have little chance of growing.

The Stages of Sweet Potato Plant Development

Your plants won’t seem to be growing much during the first month after transplanting. Don't worry - this is the root development stage. Roots can dive 8’ deep in 40 days. Give an inch of water per week as needed, and pull weeds.

The second month or so is the vine growth stage. The roots begin to store starch and sugar close to the base of the stem. After the vines cover the ground very few weeds will grow. We often do one walkthrough to pull or clip pigweed. Don't worry if the vines root along the length sporadically - it does not reduce yield, even though you may have heard otherwise.

During the third and fourth month of growth, the potatoes grow and the vining slows down. Unlike white potatoes, which come to a natural end when the tops die, sweet potatoes have no pre-destined end date, so you can decide when to dig them up, before cold weather. The longer you wait, the bigger the potatoes, but you are gambling with the weather. Make sure you get them up before the soil temperature gets down to 55°F, or they will be permanently damaged.

Photos and photo credits: Sweet Potatoes Closeup Photo by Nina Gentle; Sweet Corn and Sweet Potatoes Photo by Bridget Aleshire; Sweet Potatoes on Bioplastic Photo by Britany Lewis

Pam Dawling manages the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Pam's blog is on her website and on Facebook. Read all of Pam's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Some of you may have heard that this April 15th I gave a speech in England at the invitation of HRH Prince Charles. The event was a celebration of the gardens and farm he has been developing for 35 years.

Highgrove Gardens is a fabulous demonstration center the Prince has built to embody the best of energy efficiency, endangered species restoration, rare breed conservation and many other aspects of sustainability.

The Garden was opened to visitors and high-profile speakers volunteered their time to help raise funds for the Prince’s Charities. Many of them were BBC TV program hosts. Because this was a charity event, there was no compensation. So we went to Go Fund Me to host a crowd funded campaign (details and posts, here) to gather the funds that were needed for the trip. 130 friends and family donated over $8,000 to make the trip possible.

'The Alchemy of Composting'

The speech was titled The Alchemy of Composting- How 2=2=9, if you let it. The 35 people who almost filled the room were very pleased and enthusiastic about the message. Section 2 of the speech is included below. The full text of the speech is here.

The second of these alchemies is amazing versatility.

Our bacterial friends are busy these days. Though our use of them goes back as far as the history of fermentation, today we are utilizing our knowledge of composting organisms in amazing ways. From turning corn stalks into automotive fuel to cleaning up toxic waste, one of the hottest trends on the planet is the use of bacteria.

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, co-authors of The Hidden Half of Nature, call the knowledge revolution happening now the ascendancy of the micro-biome of the soil and of the gut, the most profound scientific change since we learned that the earth revolves around the sun.

Composting could mean saving food scraps and feeding a bin full of worms. This is not a silly idea. One cubic yard of worm castings sells for $1,400.

Composting and Animal Agriculture

It could be the processing of mortalities from animal agriculture. A large chicken facility with 30,000 chickens can easily have 200 mortalities a day. Wood chips are laid in a 2-foot-high pile then a 1-foot-high layer of dead chickens, followed by a foot of wood chips. I tell you folks in about three days you have the best, slow-roasted.

No really, in three weeks you have nothing but a few beaks and claws. The same process is used for pigs, cows and horses. It features no water or air pollution and compost ready for the using at the end of the process.

In Dodge City, Kansas, the packing plants slaughter 6,000 cattle per day. Every cow has bushel of paunch manure in the intestines. This material is half way through the process of digestion and has characteristics of both wet grass and manure. The answer to this massive problem, of course, is composting.

It could be using bacteria to digest the contents of spray paint cans - propane propellant and hydrocarbon paint or a semi-trailer load of spoiled Pizza dough. Imagine a semi-trailer and three black SUVs pull into the compost facility. Black-suited agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with bulletproof vests stand guard while workers slowly open and pour out bottle after bottle of over-age Chevas-Regal scotch. It’s a scene to make a grown man cry, but our bacterial buddies are up to the challenge.

Compost Tea and Beneficial Bacteria

Compost can neutralize both strong alkaline or acidic feedstocks and leave a neutral pH. It contains enzymes to separate the strong inorganic bonds and organic ions that render them harmless.

Compost teas are a powerful way to influence crops. Spraying a mixture of a compost tea and molasses is a tried and true technique in organic farming. Very specialized strains of bacterial inoculants are even capable of giving a crop a systemically acquired resistance to a pest.

In California, Ray Helland was making special blends of bacterially active topsoil for playing fields. The weather forced him to leave some of his special soil on an asphalt parking lot for 6 months. When he returned to remove the compost, the bacteria had eaten all the asphalt, leaving the just the clean rocks. He collected some of the bottom layer of the compost and started culturing compost tea from it.

From the initial 5,600 species of bacteria, he mixed 12 strains into an affordable compost tea spray. 300 species in his blend are previously unknown to science. 5 species in his blend have DNA so strange that they can’t even be placed in a phylum. His product was tested against the anti-nematode products from agro-chemical giants, Monsanto and Syngenta.

One thousand strawberries plants were treated in each plot. Both the agro-giants plots lost 600 of the 1,000 to nematode pests. Our hero’s plot lost six plants out of 1,000 to the nematodes.

Though these strains of bacteria are naturally occurring, it’s finders-keepers when it comes to the most promising products, with fortunes in the balance for the finders. To date, this gentleman has built a robust business selling his product and has turned down some very large offers to sell out.

Natur-Tech compost system in operation. Photo by Jim McNelly.

Future Compost Trends

Even the way we compost is changing greatly. My friend Jim McNelly, a fouder of the US Compost Council, has invented the Natur-Tech composting system based on shipping containers. He loads the containers with a special mix of materials, computer controls the oxygen and temperature levels and uses finished compost to absorb the odors as a biofilter.

He can process completed batches in only a few weeks with no turning necessary. With precise control of the ingredients and the process, Jim makes “designer compost” to meet his client’s standards. He was the first to produce enriched compost with an NPK analysis of 4-1-1. Normal compost has an analysis of 1-1-1 and is not considered a fertilizer.

The intended effect of the speech is to let people know that we have the tools we need to reverse climate change, restore diversity and health to our ecosystems and ourselves…and that it amounts to going into a respectful partnership with the creatures of Middle Earth-the bacteria and friends who inhabit the soil beneath our feet and the chambers of our intestines.

The full text of this speech is on my website, Compost Education.

Stan Slaughter is a presenter providing waste reduction/composting programs in schools and for adults in cities, counties and states. He has visited more than 1,000 schools and 100,000 students in Kansas. He is also active in the U.S. Composting Council, presenting workshops entitled Best Practices in Compost Education at the annual conference. He was the first winner of the Missouri Environmental Educator of the Year award in 1995. Read all of Stan’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.



lettuces growing on hugulkultur bed

A journal entry from my pre-gardening days reads as follows:

I just returned from the farmers’ market with two pounds of apricots, half a pound of ground cherries, a bag each of arugula, radishes, pepper cress and kale. One of the farmers gave me a peach spray, which now brightens my kitchen.

I’m grateful to these family farmers who till the land, and then bring their produce and other wonderful foods to the city. Hard work, I imagine, and not particularly lucrative. Still, I hope I’m not romanticizing their life when I dream of working the land and depending less on others to grow and raise my food.

Living in the city, I do what I can to support organic, local, biodynamic farming. I shop at the farmers’ market and food coop, have a sideline as a food educator at CSAs, prepare most of my meals from scratch. Yet, in my life, the farm-to-table cycle remains incomplete. With the exception of a few potted herbs on the windowsill, I have little chance to grow or raise what I eat. Sometimes I bring fruit and vegetable scraps to the food scrap collection site in the park. Other times I toss them in the trash. In either situation, I miss out on the pleasure of returning them to nature myself and in so doing nourishing soil and soul.

Now, four years into growing much of the produce we eat, I realize that garden farming connects me even more deeply than I had imagined to the earth, the life cycle, my body and food. It is also more difficult not only physically, but mentally as well. Had I known more from the start, no doubt it would have been easier and more effective. It is in this spirit that I am sharing some of what I’ve learned.

I make no claims to expertise. Certainly, there are professional gardeners, farmers and agricultural scientists who know much more than I do. Still, my hope is that those newer than I to growing their own food may benefit from these tips.

1. Plant Edible Woody Perennials First

Edible woody perennials include fruit trees, berry bushes and grapevines. Since these perennials take several years to mature, the sooner you plant them the sooner they bear fruit. I resisted at first. Planting fourteen fruit trees by hand is labor intensive. And since we had no source of free cultivars, buying the trees also made a dent in our wallet. Fortunately, my wife prevailed. Now, four springs later, apple, cherry, peach, plum and pear blossoms dot our trees. Our Chinese apricot tree is laden with tiny hard fruit.

The second spring we planted a variety of bushes including raspberry, gooseberry, choke cherry, goji berry, service berry, sea buckthorn berry, nero aronia, and currant. We planted elderberry, hazelnut and persimmon trees. We also planted grapes.

These botanical treasures contribute to making us feel rooted in our homestead. They also contribute to self-reliance by feeding us well. As for finances, already they’ve more than paid us back.

2. Plant Edible Herbaceous Perennials Next

I wish I’d learned this tip sooner. Come early spring, it’s such a pleasure to see sorrel leaves poking through the snow. Soon after the rhubarb, lovage, dandelion, walking onions, and asparagus appear. Our perennial roots and herbs include garlic chives, culinary lavender, oregano, thyme, horseradish, hyssop, and sage. (Rosemary, which we hoped would be perennial, turned out not to be in our zone four climate, and so we plant it anew each year.)

Once planted, perennial edibles provide good food early in the season with little work. And some (including sorrel, horseradish, hyssop, oregano, and thyme) have another benefit as well: they do a wonderful job of keeping grass and other weeds at bay.

3. Grow What You Love (and What You Can)

Midwinter when it’s minus twenty and snow drifts cover the porch, we enjoy sitting by the fire planning our garden. It’s easy that time of year to get carried away. Yes, we’d enjoy a walnut tree. But we lack the climate, soil constitution, and acreage (not to mention the energy) to grow everything we’d like. Easy to rule out in our zone four climate are heat-loving trees such as avocado and lime. And as much as we’d like to have blueberries, the pH of our soil would make growing these a daunting task.

So how do we decide? First, we eliminate what we cannot grow. Then we decide what we like. We also experiment. Over the years, we’ve learned, for instance, that although we adore broccoli, it tends not to flourish in our garden. So much planting, watering and weeding all for a few buggy florets.

Potatoes, on the other hand, thrive. So do sunchokes, lettuces, arugula, radishes, chard, cress, parsnips, nasturtiums and many other species of edible plants. Our raspberry bushes produce so well and with so little effort that each summer we invite neighbors to pick from our patch.

We’ve tweaked our choices based on what we’ve learned about our land, climate and preferences. Tomatoes are a winner. Not only do we adore them, but they’re easy to bottle, dry or freeze. Come January, it’s such a pleasure to reconstitute sun-dried tomatoes for a sandwich or side dish.

Garlic has more than earned its place in our garden. Two autumns ago, we planted one hundred fifty cloves (at no expense, since we used the garlic we’d grown the previous year), and ended up last summer with one hundred fifty-two heads of garlic. We harvested them in July and they lasted until March. Each June we enjoy several meals of sautéed garlic scapes.

So how do you know what to grow? Learn from cooperative extension sites. Learn from neighbors and friends. Learn from Mother Earth News. But then take that knowledge and adapt it to your circumstances and tastes. To do so will contribute not only to sustainable farming, but to a sustainable experience too.

4. Learn about Companion Planting

Planting two (or more) crops in the same bed (either together or one following the other) can have certain advantages including contributing to biodiversity and reducing plant disease. Depending on the crops, it may also discourage pests. Yet, not all plants work well together. Before learning this, we planted onions and peas in the same bed to the detriment of both. On the other hand, tomatoes and basil get along well. Radishes serve as a trap crop for cucumbers protecting them from certain pests. For other examples, see An In-Depth Companion Planting Guide (Sarah Israel, Mother Earth News, May/June 1981).

Planting two crops together that mature at different times is also a way of making good use of limited space. We’ve been doing this with onions and lettuce.

5. Keep Red Wiggler Composting Worms

Composting worms produce castings, which are often referred to with good reason as black gold. We tried planting heirloom tomato seeds indoors both with and without castings. The difference in growth rates was significant. Especially in colder climates with short growing seasons for tomatoes and other annual plants, this can make the difference between having and not having a crop.

Castings have other benefits as well including improving soil structure, promoting microbial activity and producing tastier vegetables and fruit.

We keep a worm bin in our basement. To be honest, I resisted this practice too. Visions whirled in my head of little red wigglers wiggling out of the bin and into the house. This has not happened. After nearly three years, nary a worm has escaped. And though I’m still squeamish about handling the critters ungloved, I’m wholly convinced of their benefits. So much so that I’d keep them even if my gloves disappeared.

6. Raise Hens

If you’re a bit of a hedonist, as I am, free-range eggs meet a need. Mornings, I sauté homegrown garlic, and then add eggs from our hens. Few meals prove more delightful. Building (or buying) a coop involves an investment of labor and cost. But once done, hens are easy to maintain. And the more time they range freely, the less they cost to feed.

In addition to providing eggs, free-range hens do a wonderful job of controlling garden pests. (Be careful though when and where you allow them to range since they enjoy greens too.) They also provide manure, which once composted (do so for at least a year) nourishes the soil. Here, too, is another way to increase self-reliance. Skip the store-bought compost. Use your own instead.

As for hens that stop laying, several options exist. You can run a retirement community for old chickens, you can harvest them for food or you can give them away. One day we hope to avail ourselves of the second option. In the meantime, we give them to someone who does.

7. Compost in and Near Your Garden

The first year we gardened, we put vegetable scraps, leaves, coffee grounds and other organic matter in a compost area far from the garden. This worked well except that conveying the compost to the garden beds became yet another project. Now, often we use a method of composting known in permaculture as chop and drop. Quite simply, it involves placing a mixture of (chopped) green and brown organic matter on the garden bed and leaving it to compost. This works particularly well in our hugelkultur beds where we add organic matter to the areas in which we’re building the soil.

At some point last year we must have added potato and garlic scraps to the hugelkultur bed. This spring, we had the pleasant surprise of potatoes and garlic, a free composting gift.

A separate composting area (preferably, close to the garden) has the benefit of permitting the addition of fresh manure. It also allows for a more controlled ratio of green to brown organic matter. Once the compost is ready, you can add it to your garden as needed.

True to my pre-gardening vision, I find composting a deeply satisfying endeavor. Not only does it contribute to the farm-to-table cycle, but it also gives me an excuse in any weather to head out of doors for a while.          

8. Make Your Peace with Sharing

It can be deeply satisfying to share your harvest with family and friends. People seem to enjoy receiving a bottle of tomatoes, a braid of garlic, a jar of raspberry jam. But I’m referring here not to people, with whom we have a choice of whether or not to share, but to critters and pests, with which often we don’t. We’re committed to organic farming. We also value self-reliance, which means we try to limit our dependence on consumer products even if they are organic.

Still, even within these parameters, methods exist to discourage critters. Some we’ve found helpful include crop rotation, companion planting (including the use of trap crops), and handpicking. (Disclaimer: My wife is in charge of this task. She picks slugs off leaves, and then squashes the critters. My task is to applaud her.)

For more information on the topic, I’d suggest Barbara Pleasant’s article “Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t” (Mother Earth News, June/July 2011).

I’d also suggest making peace with sharing. Not all. Hopefully, very little. But a bit. We’d like to think we have a tacit agreement with the birds. They eat the cherries from the top of the trees. We eat those from the bottom. Occasionally, a worm nibbles on one. We’ve made our peace with the arrangement. In exchange, we get fruit that’s organic and sweet.          

9. Preserve Your Bounty

Come winter, there’s such joy in opening a jar of homegrown tomatoes or peaches. But even if you lack the time or inclination to bottle, you can preserve your bounty by drying or freezing. Curing garlic, onions, and potatoes is simple. We line the garlic on a quilt in the basement where it remains cool in the summer and leave it there for six weeks. Then we trim it and place it in the food storage pantry under the basement stairs. That’s it. It lasts six to eight months.

Onions require only about two weeks to cure. So do potatoes. But since the latter require dark, we lay them out in the food storage pantry. Winter squash cures on the kitchen counter where it’s warm. Two weeks later we move it to the food storage pantry. Depending on the variety, it usually lasts until the end of the year.

Tomatoes are easy to dry in a dehydrator or in the sun. We’ve also dried melon, grapes, currants, ground cherries and green beans to good effect. We tried summer squash, but found we didn’t like it as much.

Herbs are easy. And pleasant. We bundle and tie them with cooking twine, and then hang them with clothespins from twine in a fairly dark room. When the herbs crumble they’re ready. It’s that simple. We’ve had success with lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme, oregano (including the flowers, which make a nice bouquet), hyssop (also including the flowers) and sage.

10. Take Time to Relax

Just as food tastes better when we’re hungry, relaxation feels better after work. How wonderful it is to stroll through the garden admiring the fruits (as well as vegetables and flowers) of our labor. How pleasant it is to savor the aroma of lavender in our kitchen or bath. How joyous it is to relax on the porch savoring a meal from our garden.

Felicia Rose lives and works on a small homestead in northern Utah. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.    

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