Organic Gardening

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Chipped, fried, sautéed, boiled, baked, or mashed—potatoes are one vegetable we simply couldn’t do without. But what type and variety of potato should you be growing? Read on and watch our video to find out about the different potatoes types so you can choose the best potato varieties to meet your needs.

freshly dug potatoes
Photo by Fotolia/vm2002.

Culinary Uses for Potatoes

Choose potato varieties that suit their end use. Starchy potatoes are great at absorbing liquids, causing the potato to break apart in cooking. These types are great for making baked potatoes, mashing, or cutting into wedges and roasting.

Waxy potatoes hold together better. They are ideal for cooking in soups and stews, and for making potato salads.

Look closely at the descriptions of different varieties and make sure you pick one that’s suitable for how you want to cook it.

Time to Harvest

Early potatoes are ready as soon as the start of summer and “second earlies” follow on a couple of weeks later.

Maincrop potatoes are ready to dig up and enjoy anytime from mid- to late-summer and onward.

Growing Potatoes

Grow potatoes in moist, fertile, and well-draining soil. Early potatoes can be planted in rows just 1foot apart, while maincrop potatoes need at least 1.5 feet between rows.

Our Garden Planner is a useful tool for choosing varieties suitable for your location and working out how many plants you can fit into the space you have for optimal harvest. When you drag out a row or block of plants, the Garden Planner will calculate how many plants will fit in the space you have.

If space is tight, try growing early potatoes in containers.

Disease Resistance

Potatoes are commonly affected by blight, scurf and scab. Select varieties described as displaying resistance or tolerance to these and other common diseases. Early varieties are less likely to be affected by blight.

Learn more about potato types and varieties—and their best uses—in this video.

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

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

More Videos

Watch more videos on growing food and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

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.


last year's arugula 

I’m chomping at the bit to play in the dirt when the first warm, dry days of spring come. I check the soil for moisture, because I can’t dig in mud, and the weather report to see if it’s time to dig. When it’s finally time to dig and plant, I’m as happy as a five-year-old in a Bounce Castle!

This year, I thought the time was the week of March 19th. I started in bed #4 out of 5 raised beds in my backyard. I turned the precious organic soil I slaved over during the first year of gardening in Baltimore, and then shoved it through my homemade dirt sifter to get ready for planting greens.

Choosing the Right Lettuce Varieties

I don’t just plant lettuce. No, I plant up to ten kinds of greens in one or two of my beds. The more the merrier. I planted the second round of seeds in bed #3 on March 26th that featured: beets, two kinds of carrots, Chadwick’s Rodan lettuce, and SloBolt cilantro. Things are looking great for late April and early May.

I started with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: 'Rocky Top' blend, 'Petite Rouge', 'May Queen', and arugula. The 'Rocky Top' blend is one of my favorites as it’s easy to sow and grow. They don’t disclose exactly what the blend is, but it seems to be about five different types of lettuces that do well in planting Zone 7 where I live. In the summer, my lettuce crop doesn’t do well, so I like to plant in early spring and September.

This year, I planted a bit early, and frost may get some or my entire first crop. I’ll gladly take the chance. But here’s the thing to consider: Lettuce seed is cheap, and after months without fresh lettuce from my garden, it’s worth the risk. The worst that can happen is I will need to re-seed and start over. The best that can happen is I’ll be picking fresh greens the last week of April instead of mid-May.

last years greens

Last year's greens.

By trying the four different types of greens, chances are good most of it will survive and thrive. I’ll pick a few leaves at first and thin whole plants for the best salad greens ever — while my neighbors eat grocery store greens that have made a perilous cross-country voyage wilting on the way.

When June comes around, I start pulling up entire lettuce and arugula plants to make room for cucumbers, peppers, beans, eggplant and tomatoes. At that point, I have way more than I need and go door-to-door gifting bags of mixed greens to my closest neighbors. Half the fun of gardening is giving away the beautiful bounty we gardeners fret over.

Harvesting Salad Greens

I’ve learned over the course of four years that growing greens in the Mid-Atlantic it’s best to pick in the early morning. I have the process down to a science.

First, I clean both sides of my kitchen sink and fill one side with ice water. I pick the greens and bring them into the kitchen. The next step is rinsing the greens in the empty sink then immersing them in the ice water. I swirl them around several times then set them in the empty sink. I refill the big side of the two sinks with ice water and repeat the swirling and then shake the water off.

Next step is to spin the leaves in the salad spinner and bag the clean-dry leaves. After this treatment, I’ve had my greens last up to ten days or more. This taught me that the grocery store greens I had been buying all these years must have had a long trip before they ended up in my kitchen where they might stay fresh for three days at best!

Once you grow your own organic greens, it’s hard to go back to grocery store crap. The good news is greens are easy to grow in a multitude of environments. If you are short on space, try building a salad tray and grow your own greens on a patios or balcony. If you have a small patch of ground, do what I did and install a raised bed.

My 3x6 foot beds are easy to work and allowed me to import special soil. This is a good option if you have a lawn. Put in some raised beds and get rid of that green American carpet so many home owners are obsessed with. Or, just cut out a space in your lawn and grow your own right there in the dirt. Whichever way you choose, it’s great to have options to suit most situations.

Eating Salad Greens

When it’s time to start picking the first few leaves and thin the seedlings, you will have a great salad, wrap, or sandwich to look forward to. So get out and grow some greens this spring!

To get you in the right frame of mind, I’ll share my AAA Sandwich recipe link with you for your first crop of arugula. As a trained chef with over 40 years of cooking experience, I look forward to sharing recipes developed in my home kitchen. Quite often, these recipes are inspired by produce from my organic garden. You, too, can cook fast, easy and healthy foods following my lead.

 ingredients for sandwich

The simple ingredients for the AAA Sandwich.

 AAA Sandwich

AAA Sandwich full of green goodness.

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, Read all of Kurt'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.


young brassica seedlings

Spring is coming.  I keep telling myself that, despite the squalls of snow and the slushy roads.  Spring is coming, despite the frozen ground in the morning and the frost spiraling on the walls of the high tunnel.  The days are lengthening, new birds are returning each day, and the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse echoes through the farm like the sound of a distant motor starting.

But cold snaps in April are common here.  The old adage is to wait on planting warm-loving crops until Memorial weekend, which still often holds true.  The short growing season means that day-length sensitive plants (once it is safe for them to grow outside) shoot up with amazing speed, showing noticeable maturity from day to day.  Ever seen what happens when you waited maybe just six hours too long to go pick the zucchini?

Even with our incredibly long summer days, the shortness of the growing season as a whole is a disadvantage to many crops.  That means fibbing with nature and starting plants inside to get ahead of the setbacks.  This way, months of establishing roots and growing stocky shoots that can withstand a little cold has already taken place before exposure to outside weather.  But there’s definitely work involved.

First, we start the seeds inside the aquaponics greenhouse (much like any other baby plant being prepared for the system), but that space only lasts about two weeks before the plants are vying for sunlight and root space.  At that point, it’s time to break up the party and move the seedlings into a larger growing venue.  In the greenhouse, this means breaking the cells apart carefully and “planting” them into a raft tray or a media bed.  But for plants destined for the garden, it’s still too cold out. 

That’s when it’s time to start making transplant pots.  Of course, there are plenty of nice products you can buy (like peat pots) for this purpose, but when you’re transplanting hundreds of seedlings, this can be an expensive proposition.  I’m always interested in repurposing everyday items once they’ve served their original purpose, and transplanting season is one of those times where this upcycling transformation occurs.

We use a simple, wooden, two-part tool called a “pot maker” for creating our own biodegradable transplant pots.  First, I cut the newspaper into strips about five or six inches wide, then taking one strip at a time, roll it up on the pot maker (not too tight, or they’ll never come off!!!), fold the excess paper on the bottom to close off the end, and crush it against the second pieces of wood with a twisting motion that presses the memory of the shape into the paper.  Pull off the new little pot, grab another piece of newspaper, and repeat.  On a slow day at Farmstead Creamery, I might make a few hundred of these before wrist fatigue sets in.

Meanwhile, I’ve made a trip out to the compost pile to find some well-decomposed humus and the dirt pile for some topsoil set aside from a construction project.  I scoop the earthy mix into five-gallon buckets and bring them inside the farmhouse to warm up.  Life is cozy and warm in the greenhouse.  If those little seedlings are moved into chilly soils, they can go into shock that can either kill them or stunt their growth for the rest of the season. 

Babying Seedlings Through the Cold Spring Weather 

Last spring, I was transplanting on the picnic tables outside, with the sun shining and a teasing spring breeze.  But since the broccoli and cauliflower couldn’t wait any longer without a bit more elbow room, and the snow was swirling outside, I dropped an old blanket down on the farmhouse kitchen floor and started the tedious but rewarding process of introducing these little plants to their first mini home in soil.

First, I mix the topsoil and compost in a tub, adding water if the mix is too dry.  Then taking up a cup, I fill about two-thirds full of the soil mix, carefully place the seedling on top with its grow cube, then sprinkle more around the sides and on top, finishing with a careful tamping press to firm up the support for the plant. 

I have a tray going where the little pots snug up against each other like little green soldiers.  At first, the paper pots are stiff and dry, but with watering they soften, and eventually the roots of the seedlings grow through the slowly disintegrating paper until there is just enough substance left to hold it all together in time go into the ground in the gardens.  By then, we’ll be thinking about how spring is starting to turn towards summer!

Now it’s looking like the tomato seedlings are ready for the move into pots as well, so there’s three more buckets of compost and soil warming up in the farmhouse kitchen.  The little brassicas are doing great—I could swear they’ve doubled in size already.  Hopefully soon the nights will be warm enough that they can move out to the walkways of the high tunnel, where the cheery little first leaves of radishes and spinach are popping up in eager anticipation of the season.

brassica transplanted into the garden

There’s something unmistakably joyous about beginning the growing season.  The weeds haven’t crowded in yet, or the gnats.  I’ve temporarily forgotten how blistering the sun can be when you’re out working for hours, wondering why on earth you planted so many cucumbers!  And the memory of picking endless potato beetles is so far off that, in the moment, my only thought is how happy these new little plants will be.  Soon they’ll have a bit more room for their roots to grow and their leaves to stretch.  That means happy plants and yummy produce to come.

Transplanting is another one of those precious rights of springtime on the farm.  There’s always work involved, but it’s also always worth it to be an active part of the unfolding of a new season.  I better be getting to those tomatoes.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo Credit: Baby brassica plants ready for transplanting. (photo by intern LeeAra Scott). Older brassica plants on their first day transition from transplant pots to life in the garden—a scene yet to come but not too far off. (photo by intern Garett Egeland)

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. 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.


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.

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