Organic Gardening

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

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The State of Oregon is home for a large and ever-increasing community of farmers and farm supporters who are committed to sustainable farming. It’s no wonder that’s the case when one considers that organizations like Oregon Tilth and Organically Grown Company were getting their start here back in the late 1970s, and have since grown to become major influencers in this now surging movement.

Planting A Future

As a Portland-based writer and dedicated organic gardener, I was anxious to find a way to become an active participant in the community of folks who endeavor to grow, distribute, and eat healthy, local food. So when I was co-authoring a book featuring a group of Oregon winemakers, it occurred to me that a collection of more in-depth profiles of Oregon’s sustainable farmers could be an effective way to share their stories and let the world know how sustainable food production has become integral to our culture.

My new book, Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement, is the result of my efforts. And I’m very happy to be able to share these profiles with the readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Profiling Oregon Local Farms

As a new blogger on this site, I will be posting all 18 of the profiles contained in Planting A Future, as well as sharing other news and developments in sustainable farming from Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

Though my book was recently published, I am not new to farming. In fact, I was introduced to small-scale family farming by my parents as soon as I could walk around the barnyard. This photo of my parents shows what family farming in central Kansas looked like around the time I was born, which was 1951. It’s an image that could have been captured today on any number of small organic farms.

Tractor In A Field John Clark Vincent

Actually, it was about the time I started learning about farming that traditional small-scale farming began its dramatic shift toward the industrial methods being touted by post-war chemical companies and land grant universities. Fortunately, my father was slow to adopt many of the new ideas, so I had the opportunity to experience things like saving seed wheat for next year’s planting and allowing our hogs to freely roam the woods and pastures.

But as farms gradually changed or were purchased by larger industrial concerns, and small towns began to fade away, I, too, began a life apart from the earth, focusing on an urban career and learning to eat food packaged in boxes and plastic bags. All I can say is thank goodness the pioneers of organic agriculture who participated in the back-to-the-land movement had the vision and the will to persevere and carve out a path that led to the multi-billion-dollar organic food industry we have today.

Beautiful Small Farm Landscape

A number of those pioneers can be found in Oregon. People like Jack Gray, Mary Jo Wade, and Wali and Jabrila Via who turned an early homestead near Noti, Ore., into Winter Green Farm, one of our state’s leading biodynamic farms. And Dr. Alan Kapuler, an original co-founder of Seeds of Change, who has dedicated his life to public-domain seed breeding, and continues that work with his family at Peace Seeds near Corvallis, Ore.

In the coming weeks, I will be sharing the profiles of people like these who were featured in Planting A Future. In addition to providing these book excerpts, I’ll be writing about a wide array of new developments in sustainable agriculture coming out of Oregon. I’m looking forward to it.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

Photos by Lisa D. Holmes

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.


 low tunnel-fall greens

Building low tunnels that are about 30 inches tall to protect your crops through weather that is outside of their comfort zone is fairly easy to do using plastic pipe and plastic sheeting. You will find directions for this at Homeplace Earth. The tricky part is securing the covers. I have seen directions to make the cover with enough plastic sheeting on each end to draw it together to tie to a post in the ground. Sometimes the design calls for simply gathering the extra and holding it down with a cement block. The sides in that design are held down with rocks or boards or buried in the ground. The way I see it, the only use for a low tunnel made that way is if for crops in a bed that wouldn’t need vented, checked on, or harvested for weeks t a time. There is no easy way to access the plants.

If there is a ridge pole, as my design has, snow and ice usually slide off or can be brushed off easily without damage. In fact, some snow on the cover provides insulation in severe weather. However, since it also prevents light from getting through, it is good to get the snow off after a day or two.

Wind, on the other hand, is quite another thing and is the major problem for low tunnel covers. It will pull the sides right out from under the rocks, boards, soil, or whatever you have held it down with. Besides leaving your plants uncovered, all that blowing around wears on the plastic sheeting. I solve that problem by using a cord over the top to keep the cover grounded.

The cord is tied to a screw eye at the base of the arches at each end of the tunnel. It goes over the ridge pole to the other side of the next arch, passing through the screw eye at the base of that arch, proceeding across the ridge pole to the other side of the next arch, and so on. A bungee cord can be used at one of the end arches between the cord and the screw eye to provide tension.

Using the cord eliminates the need for anything else to hold the sides down. The plastic sheeting can be lifted for harvesting or tending the plants and pulled back down when done. The cover still needs to be secured to the end arches and this can be done using garden clips, sometimes called snap clamps. Here in Virginia in zone 7 it is an advantage to be able to have the ends open, so I only leave a few inches overhang. I cut a separate piece of plastic sheeting for each end in the shape of the arch. When needed, it attaches to the arch with the same clip, holding both pieces of plastic secure at the same time. The top of the end piece can be left unattached to provide some venting. When not needed, these end pieces can be folded and tucked inside the tunnel with the plants.

Securing the covers on a low tunnel this way has so many advantages. There are no stakes or cement blocks on the ends to trip over, and no rocks and boards lying around to clutter the garden (and trip over). Venting and harvesting are easy. In the summer you can replace the plastic sheeting with shade cloth and plan your crops accordingly. Actually, old bed sheets can work for shade cloth. I hope you give low tunnels a try with an eye toward making the maintenance easier.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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


The Beginnings of Natural Agriculture

Because permaculture aims at growing food with minimum impact on ecosystems, the ideal of natural agriculture seems embedded within its philosophical roots. Indeed, Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, promoter of natural farming, was a great source of inspiration to permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison. Fukuoka-sensei promoted a form of agriculture where Nature is the farmer’s partner and not simply matter to be controlled. As permaculture leader in the United States and former disciple of Fukuoka, Larry Korn puts it: “People generally think of natural farming as a technique first and a worldview, as secondary. That is exactly backwards.”  A Buddhist teaching reminds us that we are similar to beggars sitting on treasures because everything we need is already available to us. Natural farming is a practical demonstration of that vision.

Fukuoka-sensei was not the sole pioneer of Natural Farming. Another Japanese intellectual, Mokichi Okada (1882-1955), a naturalist, art connoisseur, philosopher, and former member of the Oomoto sect advocated the practice of Natural Agriculture as a cure for humanity along with the practice of Jyorei – an energy healing technique – and the appreciation of beauty in Nature and the Arts. Today, Shumei International is a spiritual organization dedicated at transmitting Okada’s message, whose several farms worldwide grow food in the spirit of Meishusama, the “master of light,” with the firm intention to feed and heal the world. As an environmental history student, I became interested in Okada’s teachings and decided to experience Natural Agriculture while taking advantage of the mild coastal California climate, WWOOFing at Santa Cruz Shumei farm.

Natural Agriculture’s Guiding PrinciplesShumei Santa Cruz Farm

From our realization of our fundamental oneness with all things arise Love, Gratitude and respect for Nature, which lay at the foundation of the Natural Agriculture (NA) movement. Since the soil is perceived as a living organism responding to the farmer’s feelings, NA encourages farmers to adopt a loving attitude. Okada outlined the main guidelines of NA in 1935, which he believed he received as a revelation from God although subsequent observations support his teachings. He deemed the tendency to control and suppress illness in the human body, or insects and disease in plants, as contrary to the principles of Nature. Hence, the first guideline of NA prohibits the use of any chemicals, fertilizers, or manure. Natural compost made of grasses is used in order to keep the soil warm and moist, not with the intention to add nutrients. Endowed with natural energy, the soil is empowered to grow plants without additional inputs.

The second guideline is about using pure seed lines. Because quality seeds will produce healthy plants, farmers are encouraged to save seeds of locally grown varieties in order to increase their purity and connection to site-specific environmental conditions.

NA’s third guideline, continuous cropping, dictates that the same type of crops should be grown in the same location from year to year because the plants will continue to adapt to that location over time. Following those three main guidelines will consequently help decrease the amount of harmful insects or undesirable weeds. Nature sets the balance between insects harming plants and those benefiting plants through pollination or predation on harmful insects. It simply does not make any sense to use pesticides considering pests’ natural self-regulation. Eliminating fertilizers – which constitute an attractive diet for insect pests – also helps regulating pests. Besides, a healthy plant has the capacity to overcome insects.

As for weeds, they are merely a part of agricultural ecosystems. Okada stated that eliminating fertilizers will make plants for human consumption more competitive than others since the soil characteristics will change and native plants grow differently. Learning about weeds’ characteristics, the Natural Agriculture farmer can also make use of them since they provide an indication of the soil conditions, and in many cases enjoy the edible, nutritious so-called “weeds.”

Needless to mention to permaculturists, weeds can also be used to improve soil conditions by loosening the soil and provide organic matter and nutrients cycling from decaying roots systems. As explained by Dr. Diana Jerkins of the USDA who has significantly researched Shumei, if weeds are used as ground cover or green mulch they reduce soil loss, regulate soil surface temperature and allow water to be more readily absorbed into the soil surface. Besides, deep-rooted weed plants will cause the soil to be less compacted and bring up nutrients from the subsoil area for crop plant use. If weeds remain a major problem, a smother crop can be planted prior to crop planting. The idea is to act with the intention to respect Nature’s balance.

“Learning to apply this natural balance is where farming becomes more of an art than a science,” says Jerkins. Irrigation, for example, is not perceived as always necessary and is meant to water the soil, not the plants, and tilling is allowed but shall remain shallow. In Shumei’s philosophy, the management techniques’ ultimate goal is to enable natural processes to progressively replace human’s intendance. Isn’t gardening about creating while partnering with Nature’s genius?

Connecting With Nature through Agricultural Ecosystems

Shumei’s veggies are surprisingly strong and tasty —NA seeks to produce food that contains a powerful spiritual essence and life force and in that sense redesigns the relationship between farmers and consumers as well. Energy is believed to flow from the farmer to the soil and plants and is transferred to the consumer through the consumption of the farmer’s crops. As in a virtuous circle, consumers’ health improves, enabling them to reach a sounder relationship to their bodies and, because they are part of Nature, a better connection with our bodies fosters our relationship with Nature. A beautiful philosophy for sure, but which can turn into dystopia when its members apply the guidelines too religiously, forgetting about the bigger picture and limiting themselves to the teachings of one single guru.

It’s easy to get trapped into a comfort zone and to forget that there’s always room for improvement. The explicit worship to Okada displayed by Shumei members can be quite disturbing. They put a lot of emphasis strictly following NA’s guidelines but they drive their car for a few meters, leave the lights on in daytime, and take long showers in a state afflicted by a severe drought. The way Shumei members live their lives might appear sectarian and a bit hypocrite as well when Sensei Alan Imai, director of Shumei America, proudly advertises the importation of Brazilian Natural Agriculture coffee beans to the U.S. and Japan. Worshipping a guru and relying on his teachings to spare oneself the strenuous effort of thinking does not appeal to me as a smart way of living life.

Spiritual Traditions Linked to Agriculture

There are many other traditions linking the practice of agriculture to the interpretation of Natural Law. Worth mentioning are the Shakers in America who aimed at creating Heaven on Earth through a lifestyle of hard work and communal living. The life of the ancient Druids of Scotland revolved around natural cycles led by celestial beings and has inspired the Findhorn community, growing crops on the harsh northern seacoast by tapping into the spiritual guardians of the plants and the land.

In the 1920s, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed biodynamic agriculture relying on the cycles and rhythms of nature. All of these farming philosophies promote Nature as a teacher and guide. Indeed, the wilderness offers us a demonstration of a perfect co-existence between plants and soil such as in the example of centuries-old unmanaged forests in the Western US.

“Plants do not need to be raised, they grow of their own accord. The mountain forests are living proof that trees are not raised with fertilizers but grow by themselves,” says Fukuoka. A profound intelligence orchestrates the diverse elements within each of these ecosystems —nothing exists independently. In Food, Farming and Faith, Cornell University’s Professor Gary Fick outlines that the best systems will imitate the proven designs of wild nature. Thus, observation is the key. By observing natural patterns and actions, a farmer can ask the question of how Nature works and then let Nature provide the answer.

“It is about seeing the world as a child does, without judgments of any kind”, says Larry Korn. Okada taught that when practicing NA the farmer does not have to put great emphasis on the techniques, but just needs to practice common sense. Because NA seeks to develop methods where all plants, animals, insects and microbes in a field function as a whole unit, it differs from the modern mechanistic view of Nature.

Can Agriculture Truly be ‘Natural’?

Is there such a thing as Natural Agriculture, though? Even prior to the transition to a sedentary lifestyle about ten thousand years ago, humans have domesticated plants and animals and thus have influenced greatly on the Earth’s ecosystems. Calling agriculture “natural” might appear inconsistent. In Nature, strawberries don’t grow in rows, and Shumei’s use of heavy machineries for tilling and weeding does not have much to do with Nature’s way of cultivating itself. But in a world dominated by agribusiness’ harmful patterns, the practices advocated by Shumei and other spiritual-farming supporters provide solutions to minimize the impact on the planetary ecosystems and to bring health on our plates, even though they won’t bring us back to a pristine wilderness. Most Natural farming supporters would not deny that eating wild plants remains the best option, but I’m not sure we all want (or are even able) to implement this rough transition.

Nature is perhaps nothing more than a concept invented by humans, merely an intellectual construction. Chances are that the best way of protecting ecosystems from humans’ impact is to switch to a breatharian lifestyle, however until that we reach higher consciousness, cultivating loved and nourished plants will undoubtedly fosters greater respect for Life – soil’s life, plants’ lives, animals’ lives and consequently ours.

Incorporating Eastern Teachings into Western Agricultural Practices

I finally left Shumei Santa Cruz farm last week — I have had enough of the sectarianism of the place, and was seen as a troublemaker each time my mouth opened. Despite the extreme narrow-mindedness that left a bitter taste on my tongue, there are always some positive teachings to take away. I embrace the respect and love towards nature advocated by Okada for whom adding fertilizers and manure to the soil, even from organic origin, was a true offense to nature’s perfection. As an aspiring permaculturist, I am ready to incorporate some of the Shumei’s practices in my future gardening endeavors. Although the soil at the Santa Cruz Shumei farm looked extremely sandy and infertile, the abundant crops have inspired me to undertake the paradigm shift from organic to natural agriculture.

Integrating Eastern teachings to Western agricultural practices cannot be detrimental and would help us develop a more holistic form of agriculture, but a wide gap separates Masanobu Fukuoka from Mokichi Okada. The legacy of Fukuoka inspires us to embrace a peaceful relationship towards Nature that can take many incarnations. The core guideline is to follow one’s heart, not letting one’s mind steal mindfulness away, while remaining open for new ideas. Because reality is a creation, questioning is definitely part of it, even when it’s about natural agriculture.


Spirit of the land: Shumei Natural Agriculture Philosophy and Practice, Shumei International Press, 2012, Diana Jerkins
An Offering of Light: Healing with Jyorei, Natural Agriculture and Art, Shumei America Publication, 2006, Roy Gibbon, Atsushi Fujimaki & Gerard Rohlfing
The One Straw Revolution, 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka
The Natural Way of Farming, the Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy, India Press, 1985, Masanobu Fukuoka
Food, Farming and Faith, SUNY Series on Religion and the Environment, 2008, Gary Fick
• Personal exchange with professor Larry Korn

Photo by Tomaso Michelotti

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.


Storing Carrots For Winter 

Not being a fan of frozen or canned carrots, I began to wonder if there was a way to enjoy organic carrots throughout the winter. I remembered family members in years past storing carrots in sand and being sent to the barrel to find carrots for dinner.

A Failed Attempt at Storing Carrots in Sand

Living in Central Oregon where beach sand is not at the hand, I thought I would try sand pre-bagged at the local hardware store for children’s sand boxes. Using large plastic food boxes with sand, I layered the carrots carefully separating them from each other. As the winter wore on, they became very rough on the outside edges and seem to lose their sugar and flavor. Eventually they began to show cracks and separations along the stems. They really became very unpalatable.

As I thought about this, I began to realize when working in the soil in the early spring, I would find, from time to time, perfectly good red potatoes missed in the fall harvest. It set me to wondering if carrots properly protected from freezing might hold over as well.

The next level of experimentation was to grow carrots in a bed, broadcasted rather than in rows.  This gave me “baby carrots” for Saturday Market and kept the carrots growing in close proximity so that trying to protect them from somewhat harsh High Desert winters in Central Oregon might be more efficient. My carrot beds are 4 feet wide and 24 feet long, which produces more than enough carrots for the farmers market and for our winter use as well.

Selecting Quality Straw for Storing Carrots

After the markets were done for the year and winter was threatening, I gathered garden straw from a local farmer. It is important that you know that straw for the garden has not come from crops treated with herbicides to control broad-leafed weeds. The herbicides can leech into the soil making difficult growing conditions for the future.

I trimmed off the carrot tops to keep them from macerating under the mulch and added the trimmings to the compost pile. Then breaking up the bales, I layered the sides and the top of the carrot beds with 12-18 inches of straw. Starting with 12 inches, you can later add more if the weather looks as though it will turn off severely cold.  I found 12 inches was good to 20 degrees or so, but added another 6 inches when the weather dropped to -10 degrees F or below. We were able to dig good-tasting and -looking carrots until April when they began to show lower-quality characteristic. So this became our standard approach to winter carrot storage, with less work and far better quality and taste.


Year-round gardeners eager to plant wonder what they can start in December. In the mid-Atlantic and upper South, choices are limited unless you have cold frames or a greenhouse, but winter is the perfect time to jump on the hot new trend of forest gardening. Celebrate your shady yard or property, or just a shady corner, by growing your own medicinal herbs and lovely forest ephemerals. 

growing woodland medicinals book cover

An exciting resource for would-be forest gardeners is Jeanine Davis' newly revised book, Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals, which now includes a six-chapter section especially for home gardeners. Jeanine is a university researcher, extension specialist and farmer from North Carolina. She and her husband establish gardens full of native medicinal herbs, edible plants, and beautiful native ornamentals. You can follow her adventures at Our Tiny Farm. She and her staff at North Carolina State University conduct research at a beautiful woodland garden on a research station in western North Carolina. At the Asheville, N.C., MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, Jeanine and her staff will have a demonstration booth and give workshops. 

Bloodroot Flowers

Jeanine shows how even with just a small bit of shade on your property, you can grow some shade-loving herbs. She helps you select woodland plants that are beautiful, useful, and easy to take care of. Imagine having your own little patch of black cohosh, bloodroot, goldenseal, and ginseng to enjoy and make your own medicine from. I thought about this when my friend Thomas told me about his success using her book. Thomas and his partner Kele Tassinari manage Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, a great source of seed and information. Here's his story: 

Forest Floor

"We have a couple of acres of woods that, sadly, were clear cut about ten to fifteen years ago. It's a ridge facing north-northeast and the more we walked around, the more we became excited about the possibilities for growing at-risk woodland medicinals. The trees that have come back are mostly tulip poplar with a mix of sassafras, beech, holly and oak (and some invasive aspens our resident forester, Matthew, is determined to get rid of.) The tulip poplars, especially, were cited in Jeanine's book as a positive indicator for planting ginseng, goldenseal, false unicorn, bloodroot and black cohosh. I guess the tulip poplars act like sugar maples up north as a calcium sink which is especially good for ginseng. 

black cohosh

"The black cohosh was our first success. We planted in late September (which might have been a little early for Virginia) in about 75 percent shade on the side of a ridge. The black cohosh location was fairly steep, and well-drained. I planted it in with some naturally occurring Solomon's Seal and used a mattock to break up the rocky soil. I've since invested in a forester's axe as Jeannine suggests. It's great for clearing beds and removing tree roots. Even though the forest was clear-cut some years back there was a rich surface of moist leaf mulch. After digging and planting we covered the site with leaves again, watered them in and left them to do their thing. I expected the fall rains, the winter cold period and Spring to get them going. But in early November, I noticed they had popped through the leaf mulch and appeared to be thriving. Maybe it was the week of unseasonably cold weather we had in October. We'll check back in on them in Spring." 

I have always liked the earlier edition of Jeanine's book and now I have hard evidence that the new chapters for home gardeners are just as good. This book would be a great holiday gift for the home gardener on your gift list. To whet your appetite, here's a short excerpt from the first chapter in that section: 


“You’ve decided you want a woodland garden, but you don’t know how to start. Don’t be intimidated at the prospect. A shade garden can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. You can plan it all out in advance or let it evolve naturally as time and money allow. What I describe in this chapter is the ideal situation, but if that doesn’t fit into your life right now, don’t worry about it. When my husband and I started our woodland gardens we had a baby and a toddler at home, we both had demanding jobs with long hours, and money and time were in short supply. In the beginning, we just cut some paths through our woods and started putting in plants as they entered our lives (we were both extension horticulturists at the time so bringing free plants home was a common occurrence). It wasn’t until the kids were in school that we were able to build retaining walls and stairs, bring in big loads of mulch, and invest in a few specimen trees. So what I’ve described below is the ideal situation, but it is certainly not the only way to do it. Take what you can from this part of the book and design your own little woodland paradise."


You can order a signed copy of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals from Jeanine just in time for holiday giving. 

Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she coordinates variety selection and new seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and Virginia Association for Biological Farming. She is a frequent presenter at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and many other events throughout the Southeast.  Her new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is available online and at booksellers everywhere.

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.


firs and clouds 

Here in the Willamette Valley, the entire planet balances on the point of fir trees for the two weeks around the Winter Solstice. The sun rises a little before 8 a.m. and is down again by 4:15 p.m. It often does not even appear, but remains buried in layers of cloud and fog. The world is dark and dank. Nothing moves.

The gardens are all asleep, tucked up under piles of leaves and cold frames. A few hardy collard and kale plants provide greens; the parsnips, leeks, and beets wait for harvest; the garlic and overwintering onions put down deep roots. A few cabbages loiter in the fields, waiting to be harvested for coleslaw and gratins. Nothing grows. There is not enough light. One or two garden catalogs appear in the mail, but I tuck them away for the seed orgy of New Year’s Day. Trees do not need to be prune. All of the possible repairs and changes have been made for the season. The gardens pause and balance, waiting for the light.

The pantry is full. All of the summer fruits have been canned or dried or jammed; the storage onions and squashes are in the larder; wheat and oatmeal fill the metal tins. Eating is good in December. Even if the leafy greens are nipped back by a heavy frost, there is a wide variety of food for dinner. Meal planning is quick; I do not have to discover four dinners around mustard greens and old potatoes. We buy little treats for the holidays — fruitcakes and cookies, long-distance cheeses and spreads. We revel in the variety of food the earth has provided, and spend long winter nights by the fire, waiting for the warmth to return to our northern world.

The woods and fields are quiet. With no long project lists hanging over us, we head for the hills that surround us. The woodland juncos and the field robins have moved into town for the winter and poke around in the back yard, looking for lunch. Douglas firs stand tall against the clouds when we walk the old logging roads. The swamp maple and alder leaves tangle in the blackberry vines in the valleys. For a few weeks, the only thing that grows is the moss on the trees. We watch for the blooming hazelnut catkins, the first food for the bees in the backyard.

Our world turns inward for a few weeks. We pause — the gardens, our lives, the woods and farmlands that surround our home. Nothing will grow until the sun tips and turns back towards us. And so, we wait.        

Check out Julia's blog to read more about the Twenty First Street Homestead. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to her website,, and

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



Today I'm sharing stories about the successes and failures of this growing season. Sorry that it's been so long since I posted. I allowed a slow personal economy and a series of family troubles to distract me from writing.

Vigorous Carrots and Parsnips

In Racing the Weeds I suggested that it would be nice to select among the carrots and parsnips for seedlings that grow vigorously so that they can out-compete the weeds. I am content to say that was a stunning success this growing season! A patch of carrots was grown without weeding or thinning. They didn't grow as big or produce as abundantly as the patch that was weeded and thinned only one time, but both patches produced food for the table and roots to be grown for seed next year. The parsnips were also grown without weeding. They are still in the ground. The smaller plants can be culled in the spring before the patch flowers. The surviving carrots and parsnips have shown that they can handle the weeds. The photo of a recently weeded carrot row shows the huge differences in growth that can exist between strains. I don't see the value in keeping the slow growing plants. They would continue to grow slowly for the entire growing season.

Selecting carrots for vigor

Skunks Attack Corn!

Skunks ate 2-3/4 patches of sweet corn. My corn varieties were developed in fields that are not bothered by skunks, so when planted into a new field they were decimated by a new pest. No worries. A quarter of the plants in one variety passed the survival-of-the-fittest test and overcame the skunk predation. They had stronger stalks, or higher cobs, or other traits that kept them from being eaten. I'll replant the survivors into the same field next year with the goal of developing a skunk-proof, or at least skunk-resistant, sweet corn.

Tomatoes Getting Frisky

Open tomato flower

Great progress was made on the project to develop Promiscuously Pollinated Tomatoes. A number of varieties were identified that have loose or open flowers. The shorter season specimens were combined into a new grex. Then F1 hybrids were created between them and my earliest tomato. The hybrids are currently growing indoors under lights in hopes that they'll produce F2 seed to plant in the spring. The second generation after a cross is the most exciting. That is where the most diversity shows up.

Melons & Squash vs. the Rain

Mixta Squash

We had unusually long and repeated monsoonal rains this summer. The muskmelons and watermelons suffered. Ripening was delayed. Plenty of muskmelons were left in the field – or turned into wine – because they popped from absorbing too much water. There was mildew on the squash leaves! Out here in the desert we mostly forget that mildew even exists. Nevertheless, the squash produced abundantly, including about 9 different types of mixta squash. The total harvest of mixta squash in the previous 5 years of trying was one fruit. I am really looking forward to growing the mixta squash next year.

Named the Beans

This year the dry bean landrace was well enough adapted to my garden and way of doing things that it was given a name. It is consistently performing very well these days and not changing much, it seemed like it was time for a name. We watch for naturally occurring bean hybrids. They get trialed for a year or two. The best get added to the landrace. The rest get eaten. The new additions are about 10 percent or less per year.

Grew Some Trees

To continue the Fruit and Nut Trees From Seed Project, a few hundred hazelnut seeds were planted. About a dozen plants survived without being weeded. A half dozen pecan trees were grown from seed. Some of the more promising walnuts were identified for transplant into a slightly colder micro-climate. Scions from feral fruit and nut trees and friends yard's were grafted into existing trees. My grafting skills could definitely use some refinement.

Sunroots Get Award for Most Improved

The sunroot landrace showed remarkable improvement this growing season. Last year the feral sunroots were crossed with a commercial clone. The seeds were replanted. About 40 percent of them grew vigorously and survived the growing conditions and the farmers. Half of the plants were not agronomically pleasing and were culled. The others produced vigorous plants with pretty, easy to harvest tubers, and high productivity. They have been replanted into a seed-production and trail bed.

Steady As She Goes for Potatoes and Popcorn

The potatoes and popcorn continue on each year with a little bit of refinement here and there. A few nice cultivars among the potato seedlings were added to next year's seed crop. The popcorn is refined each year for better popping ability, easier shelling, and taste that is more pleasing to me. Popcorn hybrids were made to add more colors and more carotenes. I figure that more colors equals higher nutrition. Slow and steady is the working meme for these crops.

New Garlic Varieties

The project to produce true pollinated garlic seeds, and thus new varieties of garlic, produced 26 pollinated garlic seeds, and 9 new varieties of garlic. I'm intending to post on that topic this winter.

Other New Crops

In order to assure Food Security Through Biodiversity, work continued on adapting new species to our growing conditions. I felt inspired by William Woys Weaver's blog post so I grew and ate dahlias this summer. They need some work, but there's lots of potential there. Respectable amounts of favas and garbanzos were harvested. I've only been working with them one or two years, so they are still in a rough draft stage. This was the third year of working on an okra landrace. The first year the plants grew to just above my ankle and 99 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test by not producing seed. The second year a few plants reached knee high and only 95 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test. One of the plants survived the first fall frosts. This year one of the survival-of-the-fittest tests was performed in the greenhouse by selecting for vigorous growth of seedlings. About 80 percent of the seeds were culled before setting out. This year one of the successful plants grew taller than the farmer, and there was an abundant enough harvest to share okra at the farmer's market. Some of the plants were still producing food when I tilled them under 52 days after the start of our fall frosty season. The third year of a landrace development project often seems magical to me. Frost tolerant okra grown in my cold mountain valley? How clever.


In spite of the complete neglect that some crops suffered, they nevertheless provided food for my people. They produced offspring that seem very capable of providing food next time there are economic or family problems. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

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