Organic Gardening

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

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late fall gardenGardeners dreaming of frost-touched collards, sweet winter roots, crisp fall lettuce and huge heads of broccoli need to get busy planning and planting now. Here in central Virginia and further north it is already time to start transplanting cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings started earlier in late June or July. Lettuce, winter roots, kale, Oriental and other leafy greens can be planted starting in July and continuing into September. Gardeners in the Carolinas, coastal Virginia and further south still have enough time to start all Brassica seedlings. For more precise planting dates in your area talk with experienced gardening neighbors or consult a fall planting schedule from your local Master Gardeners or state extension service. For some great tips and detailed info on fall timing in Virginia and the Carolinas see Southern Exposure’s Fall/Winter Growing Guide by Ken Bezilla or catch his Zero Degree Gardening workshop at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 13, 2014. 

To keep the harvest coming through summer into fall and winter is a real juggling act. Begin by reviewing your plans for summer successions and starting seedlings for fall and winter vegetables. Take into account special considerations for fall: impending frosts and the decreasing temperatures and daylight. The liberal use of transplants helps with the transition from summer abundance to fall plenty in our Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial garden beds. See our earlier post on Fall Planning and Planting for more tips on calculating the right time to sow and choosing the best crops for your fall garden.

Take care of the soil before you plant. Successfully growing multiple crops in one year means paying extra attention to building the soil. Before fall planting add generous amounts of compost and any other amendments recommended by your most recent soil test. 

Cover crops are especially important for four season organic gardeners. Ideally set aside one or more beds for summer cover crops like crowder peas, sun hemp, or buckwheat. Avoid bare soil in the fall and winter garden: plant fall and winter cover crops like oats, rye, vetch, or winter peas in any areas not being used for crops. We under sow corn and broccoli with clover to get a head start on our fall cover crop. In summer, we plant buckwheat in areas that will be open as little as 5 weeks to suppress weeds and add organic matter. Harvey Ussery points out some of the special benefits of these quick growing warm weather plants in Best Summer Cover Crops.

What to Plant in Late Summer

In Virginia, North Carolina and nearby states summer planting for fall and winter harvest starts in June with Brussels sprouts and accelerates in July with sowing seed for broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, cauliflower, and oriental greens to be transplanted to their final location after four weeks. Lettuce and Oriental greens are ready to move in only 2-3 weeks during mid-summer in Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Seedlings for fall plantings can be started in flats on benches high enough up (3 feet) to deter flea beetles, under spun polyester row cover, or in an enclosed shade structure. At our Southern Exposure Trial Gardens in Central Virginia we prefer to use outdoor seedling beds well supplied with compost in a location shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. The north side of a stand of corn, caged tomatoes, or pole bean trellis makes an excellent choice. Outdoor seedling beds should be covered with thin spun polyester row cover or the newer Proteknet row cover to guard against flea beetles and other insects. Transplanting makes for a faster turnaround when garden space becomes available. 

Don’t forget to plant a last summer succession of quick maturing beans, corn, squash, and cucumbers in late June or early July to mature and harvest just before frost. Keep plants growing fast and reduce risk of disease by providing regular and adequate moisture (1 inch per week).

In July and early August we direct sow chard, creasy greens, carrots, beets, winter radishes, and other roots. In the cases of lettuce and carrots summer succession plantings meld seamlessly into our fall garden plantings. Later in August and early September sow kale, arugula, turnips, rutabagas, spinach, and lots more lettuce. Make a late September sowing of kale and spinach to winter over as smaller plants under row cover, then make rapid growth in the lengthening days of early spring during what used to be called “the hunger gap” in March and April. Use row covers, cold frames or later plantings in a greenhouse to further extend the growing season. Leave plenty of room in the garden to plant garlic and perennial onions mid-October through Thanksgiving.

Ira Wallace works, 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.


Red Malabar SpinachWhile we are in the midst of hot summer weather it is a good time to reconsider what is growing in our gardens. It is also good to think about the time we actually have to spend there, in the midst of other activities. Notice what is doing the best as the summer progresses, especially with little attention other than picking. Some crops tend to shut down if the temperature gets too high. For Malabar spinach, however, the hotter the better. It is a tropical plant that loves the heat.

The brassica crops, such as kale and collards that I grow for greens from fall till spring, do not hold up well in Zone 7 to our warm summer nights (in the 60s and 70s)) and hot days (regularly in the 90s). Lettuce likes cool weather, also, but can be coaxed along in the summer with some shade and lots of water. Malabar spinach doesn’t need that kind of attention.

What you see in the photo is red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Basella rubra). There is also a green-stemmed variety (Basella alba). I prefer the red for climbing up the trellis in my garden. You can find some nuances of the red and green varieties at Homeplace Earth. In his upcoming book, Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, David Kennedy suggests that you can grow Malabar spinach in hanging pots. That sounds interesting and if I had limited space I might consider it. But then I’d have to remember to water the pots; something I’m not too good at. Could you imagine walking out to your deck and cutting the leaves and stems for your stir fry just before cooking dinner? They would just be hanging there waiting for you!

Malabar spinach can be eaten raw, but is often eaten cooked. The texture of the leaves is a little mucilaginous, which I don’t find to be a deterrent. That makes it good for your digestive system. As you are making notes of what to have in your garden next summer, if you haven’t grown Malabar spinach yet, I hope you put it on the list of new things to try.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at


Four years ago I began experimenting with the idea of growing as much of my family's food as possible, which would include growing my own protein on a small scale. I live in Tennessee, definitely the south, and we are blessed with a long growing season, and pretty dependable rains. You really can raise enough food to feed a family on a relatively small piece of land. I started by thinking about what types of foods people in the South ate before mass transportation made it possible to ship food from all over the world, something that will become less and less affordable in the decades to come. I also thought about what were the staple foods that Native Americans relied on to feed themselves from this land, and the answer became obvious: beans and corn. I remembered back to the late '70's, when I lived for two years among the Mayan people in the highlands of Guatemala. There, black beans and maize are still the primary sustenance for most families.

Over the last several years I have had successful harvests of pinto, kidney, navy and black beans. Last year I planted two rows 75 feet long and harvested nearly 30 pounds of dry beans.

rows of black, pinto and kidney beans

black beans in their green stage

The young black beans start our crisp and green.

Because of the humidity and summer rains in Tennessee, on many years I cannot let the pods stay on the bush to dry because often they will either mold or begin to sprout. I also want to get them picked and off the vine as soon as possible to avoid losing them to insects (boring beetles) or filed mice and rats.

I pick the pods every other day right after they turn from green to purple (black beans), brown (pintos), or yellow with purple stripes (kidney). The shell changes from a crisp green to soft and leathery, letting me know the beans inside are now basically ready. 

bean patch drying as they mature

The yellow leaves tell me the plants are fully mature and starting to dry out.

This year I followed an approach related to the Native American "Three Sisters" method (beans, corn and squash), planting the beans directly in my rows of corn. This allowed the beans to climb up the corn stalk, using them as a natural trellis to support the vines. My winter squash is planted adjacent and its vines wind their way through the corn as well.

2014 was a wet summer with plenty of rain, so I never needed to do any additional watering. However the weather turned dry towards the end of July, allowing the pods to fully mature on the vine. The dry, brittle pods were very easy to shell by hand.

black beans the dry pods

Dry black beans pods among the corn stalks.

After shelling, I spread all the beans out in the trays of my dehydrator and run them through this overnight to remove any extra moisture. This insures that none of the beans mold or go rancid in storage.

black beans dehydrator

As an added measure, I keep all of the dried beans inside a freezer for my long-term storage, eliminating the possibility of a moth infestation.

When I think about the amount of land it takes to raise a protein source like cattle, space for the pasture, acres for hay to feed them in winter, still more acres for the corn and beans that make up their feed, it seems clear to me that it takes a lot less land to grow the corn and beans for ourselves.

When we think about what it will take to be sustainable, not just on our own homestead, but on our planet, we have to consider the amount of resources it will take to support all life. Beans, are believed to be one of the oldest, cultivated plants and are definitely a truly sustainable source of protein!


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.

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