Organic Gardening

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

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Collards by Julia LontKale. It’s everywhere. The preferred leafy green. The darling of the local food movement. The inspiration for “Eat More Kale” bumper stickers. I grow kale — six plants, started in February, planted out in early March, eaten as salad greens in April and for dinner in June. It is a lovely plant, until mid- July, when it attracts every aphid in a six mile radius.  Then, the leaves curl up on themselves, warp, and wither. For years, I tried to kill off the aphids. I used the always recommended spray of water (big-time failure - Aphids do not wash off), soapy water (pain in the neck with intricate leaves), ladybugs (they flew off), and cayenne pepper. The aphids remained. When I asked Shepard Smith, our local compost tea guru, why I had so many aphids, he allowed that the plants had a weak aura that attracted pests, and that compost tea was the solution.  I pulled the plants in early July and tossed them into the chicken run. Chickens don’t like plants covered in aphids, either.

The next year, I was reading the Territorial Seed catalog, one of my favorite January breakfast rituals. Their seeds are all tested about seventy miles from my house, so they grow in the Pacific Northwest. Collards. My partner Mark grew up in the south. He loved collards, especially cooked with a ham hock. I was prejudiced against the plants myself. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the collard patch rustles around the kids when they are sneaking up on Boo Radley’s house. Who would want to eat a leafy green that rustles loudly? But, for two fifty a packet, I added them to the list. An experiment. I started them inside in early April, with the chard and vines, and planted them out about a month later. I’m a convert.

Reasons to Grow Collards

No aphids in July. These plants stand up to hot weather and do not send out distress signals when the temperature rises above 80.
Winter hardy. My collards made it through this winter, which was bitter cold (zero to ten degrees Fahrenheit for a week). I had to trim away to dead leaves, but the plants survived. The kale did not.
Nutrient dense, especially when grown in organic soils.
Tasty.  And flexible. It can be a tender young salad green or two huge leaves, chopped fine and sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a shot of vinegar, can be dinner. It is really good with black eyed peas.
Does not rustle.
Beautiful plant … the leaves are greeny grey, like most brasiccas, but they grow upward and curve inward, like hands at prayer, protecting the heart of the plant.

I still grow a few kale plants. I love them in the early spring, before the other greens are growing. The chickens consider their tougher, not buggy,  leaves a treat. And, now that I am not trying to rescue them from aphids, they are doing better. I turn off the water in their raised bed by late July, when I’ve harvested everything. Some years, they hang out, tired and weepy, until late September, when the rains begin, and then put on new growth. And, until that happens, we always have collards.      

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


Trimming garlicYou have gotten your garlic out of the ground, now the next step is to prepare it for curing and storage. The two main processes involved here are trimming and cleaning, and you will find that the methods used vary between growers. It is important to determine which methods are appropriate for you and your crop, since the success of these steps will determine both how well your garlic cures and, subsequently, how long it will last in storage.


Trimming is the first issue to consider, and applies to both hard and softneck garlic. Firstly, to trim or not to trim? The main factors in deciding this include how much garlic you have, and how you are planning to store it during the curing process. Growers producing relatively small amounts of garlic often cure it by hanging it in small bundles. With this method, there is no need to trim the leaves or the stalk unless you wish to do so for the sake of neatness. In proper conditions, the foliage and bulb should cure fully while intact.

Growers who produce gourmet garlic on a larger scale usually don’t have the luxury of space to cure garlic y hanging. Instead, we have to be rather mercenary about the whole process. Our main concern after getting the garlic out of the ground is how we are going to efficiently cure the maximum amount of bulbs in the minimal amount of space. For us, there is no question that we will have to trim the bulbs before we can continue the curing process.

The next question then is whether to trim in the field or back at the curing shed. In our case, we trim our garlic twice, first in the field, and again back at the shed. In the field, we swathe our stalks to approximately two inches, and undercut our roots to approximately three to six inches, before the garlic is brushed off and gathered. Back at the shed, the bulbs are allowed to dry for several days to a week before they are trimmed for a second time. There are no hard and fast rules regarding the amount to trim, and the amount will vary between growers. We cut the stalks to one inch above the bulb, and the roots to approximately one-half an inch.

Trimming the garlic to this final size works well for us. It allows the garlic to cure relatively quickly and thoroughly without taking up large amounts of space, and is also the size at which we sell both our retail and wholesale bulbs. The one-inch stalk provides a decent handle and also helps to keep the bulb wrappers intact for our customers without adding empty weight and thus an inflated price tag. The short tuft of root keeps the garlic looking natural, and prevents the roots from acting as a moisture trap. Leaves, stalk, and root matter all contain moisture which will slow the drying of the garlic and add moisture to the air. With small amounts of garlic hanging in bunches, sufficient air circulation ensures this moisture is not a problem, but for large amounts in a compact space, removing as many moisture retaining elements as possible is essential. The longer the drying period, the increased likelihood that pathogens will affect the bulbs.

How you trim your garlic is decided by whatever works best for you. Since we are trimming many thousands of bulbs, we use a modified band saw which gives us a quick, clean process. Growers producing smaller amounts, however, often use robust clippers or scissors, or even heavy duty knives. Whichever method you use, watch your fingers!



Once you have decided how you want to trim your garlic, you must decide how to clean it. Washing the garlic in water directly after harvest is the favored method of some growers because it provides clean, shiny garlic immediately, which is helpful for prompt marketing. This method must be used with caution. Washing the bulbs introduces moisture back into the skins and stalks, and you must be careful to ensure that the garlic has thoroughly dried before you sell it or store it to cure. Otherwise, you risk mold, rot, or other pathogens infecting the garlic. This is especially tricky since garlic should not be dried in the sunlight, so excellent air circulation is essential.

The brushing method is less risky, but somewhat more tedious than the washing method. The garlic is left for several days to a week or more to dry, then the remaining dirt and damaged skins are simply brushed off. This is the method we normally use, as we find it the most efficient and sufficient for our needs. Some bulbs, usually the first of the harvest, we brush by hand armed with gloves and a toothbrush. We do this for earlier markets and it can often prove to be a bit of a nightmare, since the remaining film of dirt and skins haven’t dried enough to brush off without some resistance. Once some time has passed, any remaining dirt and skins slip off with a couple of swipes of the thumb or, for larger orders, we send the bulbs through a cleaner consisting of multiple soft-brush rollers, which gently remove any outstanding debris. This method is much more efficient, but require bulbs that have adequately dried.

Whichever method of cleaning you choose, ensure that you handle the bulbs gently. Garlic, especially when fresh, has flesh and skins that are easily damaged. Any bulbs damaged during the cleaning process should be eaten or set aside for processing.


pondMy long blog absence shouldn't fool you, life on the Pomponio Homestead continues.  The garden continues to grow weeds in healthy profusion.  The dust bunnies and dishes pile up.  I am secretly thankful that we have not had time to build a clothesline, forcing me to use the dryer.  My husband's aunt was recently and suddenly diagnosed with a very aggressive terminal brain cancer.  At 58, after just building the country retirement dream home and getting her only child off to college, Cindy suddenly appeared to have a stroke.

The ensuing two months have been even more devastating than the initial diagnoses.  From healthy to eight brain tumors.  Paralyzed on her left side and unsafe to be at home with family.  Insurance, after 30 years at the same job paying in, denying her coverage it claims to cover in her policy.  Bankruptcy looming, temporary loans to cover nursing home care, bills rolling over this very proud couple like a tsunami.  

Nick, Cindy's husband and my mother-in-law's brother, who asks the world for nothing and shows up ready to work every day; called me for help.  In the midst of an insurance denial crisis, a translation disaster dealing with industry lingo, and the devastation in hearing 'all we can do is keep her comfortable, maybe 6 months' Nick cried out for help.

So instead of gardening, cleaning, canning, and summering, I have talked with social workers and insurance boards.  Filed and defended insurance appeals, written letters and cried at Cindy's bedside.  The absolute isolation of facing your mortality holds at bay every friend and loved one.  We enter and exit alone.

Every death cliche bursts forth in these times.  I had a week of not yelling at anyone and just kissing them when they drove me nuts.  Watching the sunrise and practicing gratitude with more frequency than routine often allows.  Focusing on what truly matters in your life becomes paramount.

What matters to me is my family life.  Healthy, loving, supportive, compassionate and service oriented family life.  And I am more committed than ever to live this life sharing my gifts with the world.  Giving, sharing, loving and fighting for the right.  This homestead is my vehicle.

For the 10 years before us, the homeowner hayed a sloping swath down to the pond conventionally and drove his four wheeler around with a sprayer full of roundup on the back.  He never once saw a blue heron and he poured herbicide into the spring fed pond.

This morning as I fed the geese and pulled clover out of the garden, I spotted our first heron grazing in the pond.  Growing our food and hopefully food for other families, enriching the land, cleaning the water, teaching about the cycles of life, filling our bodies and environment with natural healthful inputs and intent, and taking the time to enjoy it all is how this little farm will make us healthier, guard against disease and improve the world.

Living with passion, intent, and compassion can only add to the good energy of the world.  Removing poisons from our environment and poisonous food from our plate protects us all.  The glow of content satisfaction, kindness and purpose radiate to others like the warmth of the sun.  And so I homestead not to cheat death, but to make this life count.


Seed harvest season is starting. Today was our first 2014 harvest of tomatoes and watermelon for seed. Things will start slowly, and by about the second week of August we will be swamped with tomatoes, muskmelons, watermelons and cucumbers.

I’ve been growing seeds at Twin Oaks for six years now, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of the harvest season, which for us runs from early August to late October.

This year though we have added a major new focus to our operation: variety trials, and lots of them. Last November I applied for a SARE grant to trial cucumber, muskmelon and winter squash, with a focus on Cucurbit Downy Mildew resistance, and we got the grant. We grow a lot of cucurbit family crops, and Downy Mildew has been the #1 problem we’ve encountered. This was especially true in 2013, when DM showed up on our farm in June. Downy Mildew overwinters in Florida, and blows north on the wind each year, thriving when the weather is wet. It starts with yellow spots on the leaves. The spots grow and turn brown and the leaf dies. DM can easily defoliate an entire field of a susceptible variety of cucumber, muskmelon, squash or gourds. Most commonly grown varieties are susceptible to current strains of DM. Our smaller observation trials in 2013 found that only a few varieties out of 35 muskmelons and 35 cucumbers were able to produce a crop under heavy DM pressure. Read more about Downy Mildew and about our 2013 trials here.

Our Winter Squash Trial (on July 22nd 2014):


If you live on the eastern US (especially the Southeast and Mid Atlantic) or in the eastern part of the Midwest, Downy Mildew is likely a significant problem for your cucumber, muskmelon and squash crops, at least in a high pressure year. If you live elsewhere in the US, Downy Mildew may be of academic interest but is probably not directly relevant to your garden.

So heres what we’re doing. This winter I did a lot of research on potentially Downy Mildew resistant varieties. I chose 45 winter squash, 35 muskmelon and 55 cucumber varieties to include in our trials. We planted late, because some years Downy Mildew doesn’t arrive here until August.

Most of the entries in these trials are replicated, which means we plant each variety in several places throughout the field. If the trial is successful this will provide results that can be statistically verified and can’t be attributed to natural variation of the field. We will be observing Downy Mildew on the leaves, and evaluating fruit quality and productivity (which DM can strongly impact if pressure is high). We hope to find varieties that have high DM resistance and high quality fruits. We also hope to find varieties that can be used in breeding projects.

Variety trials are an essential part of quality seed systems. We need to know how different varieties and seedstocks perform in relation to each other in order to do further work with them. Variety trials are the basis by which we can recommend or choose to work with one variety over another. It is important that this kind of evaluation be done on a regional and local basis. Organic Seed Alliance has an excellent publication about how to set up on-farm variety trials.

We planted the cucumbers on July 12th, the muskmelons on June 28th, the winter squash on June 10th and the tropical pumpkins (long season winter squash) on May 20th. We’ve been busy cultivating and hoeing, setting up irrigation, training the winter squash vines (different entries shouldn’t grow into each other),and checking on what the first winter squash fruits look like.

The winter squash trial especially, which has the biggest plants, looks really good. Its going to be a job to keep the varieties separated, even at 12 foot row spacing. I’m hoping that many of the entries will soon start looking a lot less good soon! and that the Downy Mildew will finally get here (I've been regularly checking the Downy Mildew forecast website). Variety trials can make you think opposite from most growers.

Stay tuned for the results! There will be preliminary results by September, and final or near-final results in November. Reports and updates will be available on our website, and I will post updates on this blog as well.



To have correct and well taken care of gardening tools is a great place to start any gardening endeavor. Here at Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead we only use hand tools (non-powered) in our gardens since we find that we can get the job done easier and more efficiently with a more correct impact on the soil and less impact on our bodies than we would with any machines.

A good gardening tool is lightweight, ergonomically correct and has a positive impact on the soil. In most of our garden area the top soil is deep and light after years of building it with natural amendments such as seaweed, oak leaves and manure and very little disturbance is needed. We use tools that air and lift the soil and break up clumps and very rarely is there any need for turning or deep digging. Here are my 5 favorite gardening tools:


This tall two handled fork usually comes with a 30 inch, 7 tines wide head. It's pushed into the ground by stepping on the flat upper part of the head and the handles are used as leverages to lift the soil without turning or excessively breaking it up. The large area covered by the broad head makes it time efficient and lessen the impact of gardener since fewer lift/bend movements is needed to cover the same space. The tall handles allows for a more upright position than a standard digging fork and the leverage aids to lessen the human power needed.

We use the broadfork as a way to “fluff” the soil up in the spring prior to planting but as the years go by and the quality of our soil improve we find the need for it to be less and less and that we often can skip this step in the garden preparation.

slicing hoe

Slicing Hoe 

I use the slicing hoe as my main way of weeding. I can stand up straight and lightly scritch-scratch between plants, in the paths or around the garden perimeter. The hoe head is a narrow blade about an inch wide and 6 inches broad. It cuts the weeds at the base and stirs up weed seeds to prevent them from germinating.


Each year we plant a couple of thousands allium plants (garlic, leeks, onion) and a simple wooden dibble is a great way to create the holes where to put the seeds and seedlings in. We use wooden pegs left over after building our timber framed buildings. Any stick that is easy and smooth on the hand and can make a hole 4 inches deep and wide enough for a garlic clove will do. The dibble makes it to my favorite-tool list since it's the ultimate low-tech solution for how we go about planting our biggest crops.

digging knife


I often quietly acknowledge the instrumental role the wheelbarrow plays in my life as a homesteader. From the creation of our gardens to the building of our house, the driveway and the garden soil, to providing firewood, creating orchards and hauling water, the wheelbarrow is the tool we reach for. We use a Jackman wheelbarrow with a heavy duty metal tray and a tough tire that we keep well filled with air. Be aware though that a wheelbarrow is only as useful as the garden design allows for. The paths and gates need to be broad enough and narrow, sharp turns avoided. Any obstacles such as steps or steep slopes quickly renders the wheelbarrow useless, or at the very least, turns it into a challenge instead of an aid.

Japanese Digging Knife 

My Tomita Japanese digging knife, a hand held tool, is a multi-functional tool with a stainless steal blade with a pointed end, one serrated edge and marked inches. I use it to I pull weeds with long tap roots, cut stems, dig holes for transplants and measure the correct distance for where to put the seedlings. This kind has a slim, lightweight handle which allows me to use it for a whole day without tiring my wrist or my hand.


Dancing Carrot

Ever try growing carrots, only to have them lost in weeds? Or you harvest tiny little strings because you didn’t thin them? I would sit for hours and try to move along my row, determining the miniscule carrot greens from other fuzzy little weeds. No surprise we stopped growing carrots for our CSA.

There are reasons growing carrots organically is challenging. Carrots germinate slowly. Weeds germinate fast. What if you could plant the carrots into the weed-free soil after they are already germinated with green tops? They would be weeks ahead of the weeds yet to germinate. It’d be like a five mile head start in a marathon.

Carrots are delicate. Their foliage is delicate, and early on it is barely discernible from the weeds. By the time the tiny lacy greenery is substantial enough to see, the weeds are taller and bigger.  Weeding them is painstaking.

Carrot seeds are tiny. They easily wash away in the rain. They are nearly impossible to plant in three inch spacing, and then aggravating if there are big gaps where the one seed didn’t germinate. So people usually plant the seeds heavier and then thin. But you are in for painstaking thinning along with your painstaking weeding. In summary, I find growing carrots painstaking.

What to do? There are expensive seeds that are coated with vegetable matter so they are bigger and have some weight to them. It’s a solution to over-seeding, making less thinning possible. But it won’t help you win the marathon with the weeds.

Phils Dancing Carrots

Partners in a Dance

We found a counter-culture solution (our favorite kind). We transplant carrots. What? Transplant carrots? Isn’t that against the rules? It is true that transplanting carrots is not recommended in gardening books, but we thought we’d give it a try anyway.

Now, we pop little carrot seedling blocks of soil into the ground, pre-thinned, not washed away, and germinated weeks ahead of the weeds in the row. We did discover the likely reason you are instructed not to transplant carrots. They grow multiple tap roots early.

You get twisty, four-rooted, gnarly, bendy carrots. You get Phil’s Dancing Carrots! They wrap around each other, partners in a dance. They are fun. They are carrots with arms and legs. They are Phil’s dancing carrots.

When Phil first saw them, he said “they are demented.” I said, “No, they are dancing.” It’s all in how you market it. Now of course, Phil’s Dancing Carrots are not (yet) marketable in stores. But for CSA members, they work! Kids pick out their favorite twisty combos. The crazier the dancers, the better. They all still taste great. And for CSA or your home garden: functional, tasty carrots are what matter most. Sometimes it takes an explanation about how things grow, but explanations about how things are grown is what CSA is all about. So that’s just fine by me.

If you avoid growing carrots, you might consider growing some dancing carrots by transplanting a tray. Get em going for a late fall crop of carrots or plan for the spring.

See my post about Growing Early Corn. It’s another crazy transplanting story!

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News  and, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to


Honeybees are drawn to lavender

Few plants can match the all-around versatility of lavender.  Full in flower, beautiful in form, fragrant, long-lasting, bee-friendly, deer resistant and drought tolerant, it is high on my list of desirable landscape plants. Yet in many part of the United State lavender is hard to obtain. You can order it mail order or you can grow it yourself. Growing it from seed is notoriously difficult – if you can find the seeds. The variety I prize most highly, Lavender intermedia, also known as “Provence” is not available by seed. If you want to grow it you need to learn how to propagate it by taking cuttings. That’s what we’re going to examine in this blog.

Timing is Important

In Northern California lavender grows actively during the six warmest months of the year, April through September. It is green (blue-grey, actually) year ‘round, but this is deceptive because during the coldest months of the year with the shortest daylight hours, lavender is essentially dormant. Cutting season is right now, during the period of active growth because this is when it forms roots most readily and growing conditions are best. You might be able to take cuttings as early as April, but this would deprive you of the flowers which bloom in late spring and early summer. We wait until now, mid-summer, when the blooms have past their prime, to take our cuttings. Note that it’s best not to wait too long after the flowers begin to decline, because it can take 6-8 weeks for lavender to root well enough to transplant, and by then the days are growing shorter and cooler.

Where to Cut

A full tray of cuttings

Remove the flower spikes to get to the leaf clusters, as pieces of the leaf clusters are your cutting material. Depending on how many lavender plants you have, and therefore how much cutting material you have available, you may take longer or shorter sections of the leaf clusters. The bare minimum is two nodes, one node to root in your medium and one to remain above. This meager amount doesn’t always generate the best results, as the resulting rooted cuttings have very little foliage and take considerable time to develop. Better, if you have enough material to take four nodes total, two for rooting and two for foliage growth above the growing medium.

In the image to the right, a bunch of cuttings with stalks still attached.

A nice cutting

When choosing your cutting material, choose the soft, new growth, not the hard growth from previous years. After taking your cutting, cleanly remove the leaves to where they join the stem using sharp scissors. Scissors with a needle tip are great for this task. You want the node exposed to your growing medium and moisture to encourage root growth.

In the image to the right, a fresh cutting, flower stalk removed. Note the bottom set of leaves has also been removed to aid rooting.

Healing the Cut

You need to expose the lower nodes.

At this stage of the process your lavender cuttings are vulnerable to drying out and dying: they have a lot of leaf area and no roots whatsoever, just an open wound where you exposed the nodes. To prevent loss of your fresh cuttings you need to plunge them immediately into a moist medium where the lower nodes stay wet at all times. We carry a tray at our side filled with damp vermiculite about 2” deep (note: the tray drains at the bottom to prevent too much saturation of the cuttings which would cause them to suffocate and rot from lack of oxygen). After filling our tray with cuttings we move it to a bench with a wire surface beneath shade clothe where it receives regular overhead watering throughout the day.  

Lavender requires good air circulation for optimum growth. We have learned from experience that storing our cuttings in a greenhouse risks loss due to rotting because of the high moisture level in the greenhouse. This is another good reason to find a shady outside location to heal your cuttings.

About three weeks after taking your cuttings, test them to see if they are developing roots at their base. A simple, gentle tug on the cutting will tell you what you need to know. If the cutting is taking root it will resist the tug because new roots are holding the growing medium. If it pulls free it may be slow to root or not rooting at all. White roots are a sign that all is well. A brown lower stem is a sign that your cutting is failing.

Moving Your Cutting to Soil

Cuttings in vermiculite

After your cuttings have well developed roots, about 1” long, it is time to move them to soil. The pots containing the soil don’t need to be large. We use square transplant pots 2-1/2” in diameter. We use a standard transplant mix composed of 1/3 peat, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 compost. We fill a tray with the pots, moisten the soil well, and begin transplanting, gently removing the cuttings from their medium and transferring to the pots. Sometimes the medium clings to the roots. If you can’t remove all of it don’t worry, it is better not to damage th

e roots than to have them thoroughly cleaned of the rooting medium.

After transplanting we water the immature plants well, one more time. Then we return them to the shady outdoor area with good air circulation. At this stage in the process water management is of critical importance. Too little water and the roots don’t grow into the surrounding soil. Too much water and the plants will rot. A sure sign of rot is blackened leaves at the base of the transplant, or even worse, a blackened stem at the base where it meets the soil. When you see that you need to scale back your watering. In general, the best approach is to let the soil dry between watering, which means you may water every other day or every third day. Pay close attention during this stage of the process!

Transplanting into the Garden

A one-year old hedge.

Once the lavender has developed enough roots to bind together the soil in the pot, it is time to move it into your garden or landscape. Ideal locations for lavender have excellent drainage, full exposure to sun, and good air circulation. Late summer and early fall are ideal for transplanting lavender in locations with moderate winter temperatures. The gentle, gradual cooling of the air as the days slip into fall put less stress on the new plantings. When late fall rains arrive they have had time to settle in; the rains help them extend their roots further, establishing a good base for spring grow

th. Early to mid-spring is better in areas with severe winters. If you’re in a marginal area, planting on the sunny side of a south-facing wall that will absorb heat and protect from excessive exposure to wind can improve the plants’ chances of success. Best of all, when you find the right spot, you’ll find that your lavender returns and looks glorious year after year with almost no effort whatsoever.

Ripe Ones

The apex of tomato growing season is just weeks away. Wherever you live, let us know about your first ripe tomato. Here’s a link to a section of our website where we post our customers’ success stories.

I’ll be traveling in England the next three weeks. Who knows what interesting garden-related experience I might have in a land where the interest in gardening is legendary.

Check back in August, when we'll look at another hands-on gardening project.

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