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

Growing Lettuce with EcoScraps Raised-Bed Garden Mix

As a vegetable gardener, I tend to grow my vegetables in the ground if I can, but there are times when I have need to grow in pots and other containers. In my backyard right up next to my house, I have a shadier area where it doesn’t make sense to put in permanent beds, especially since I’m a renter (it’s better to grow stuff in my designated garden area 150 feet out from the back door). This spring I decided to load up a pair of black plastic containers I was gifted several years back. They are 2 foot wide by 3 foot long by 9 inch high and are perfect for growing salad veggies like lettuce, radishes, spinach, green onions, and kale. With holes drilled into their bottoms, these containers can be moved around so I can take advantage of sunnier spots while minimizing dead grass zones.

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2-foot-by-3-foot containers with little tiny lettuce starts. The EcoScraps mix is on the right.

In years past, I’ve used basic potting soil for my container gardening, but this time I wanted to try something different, so I filled one with potting soil and the other with EcoScraps Raised Bed Garden Mix. This mix is cool because it’s specifically formulated for raised beds. It’s made up of a mixture of “food waste compost blend, coco coir, perlite and tree bark”, all of which help to give excellent drainage while still retaining water. As you can tell from the below picture, the EcoScraps mix is lighter and has a nice brownish color, while the potting soil is heavier with sticks and other wood mixed in. Another feature of the EcoScraps product is that its compost blend is made up of food scrap compost versus other composts which are normally produced from who knows what, including animal manures. When buying composted manure, I’m always concerned with what animals the compost came from. For example, I assume composted cow manure comes from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). I had the misfortune to tour a commercial dairy farm a few years ago and I can still remember that place’s stench. With EcoScraps, since their compost has “no poop added”, I don’t have to worry about that, plus this product is certified organic and reduces landfill waste, so it helps my conscience all the way around.

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Potting soil on the left and EcoScraps Raised Bed Garden Mix on the right

A few weeks ago, I planted both beds with pelleted Salanova lettuce seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, with the hope of trialing the new soil against my tried and true. Unfortunately, nature, in its infinite wisdom and randomness, decided to throw me a curve. You see, we have a neighborhood orange cat named Sammy who often hunts Snarky Acres and the wooded lot next door. Well, it seems that she really appreciated the EcoScrap Raised Bed Garden Mix, as when on the dry side it resembles sand. On the plus side, Sammy only used my bed to add some nitrogen in the form of kitty pee, but in doing so, she moved the soil around and disturbed the seeds. Some of the seeds have germinated in both beds, but the side-by-side test that looked so neat and orderly in my mind is now null and void. I will try it again with some wire placed over the beds so Sammy will stay away.

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Planting Leeks

 

Unlike onions, leeks grow independently of day-length and will stand in your garden at temperatures colder than many other vegetables can handle, getting bigger until you harvest them. A flexible harvest date during fall and winter is a boon to gardeners seeking a steady supply of vegetables. Planting dates can be chosen to suit your climate. Both the white and the green parts of the leek are delicious. Only the tougher parts of the outer leaves need to be composted. Late spring or early summer is the time to transplant leek seedlings started earlier in spring. That is the aspect of growing leeks that I'll cover in this post. 

Leek Varieties

Leeks come in two main types: the less hardy, faster-growing lighter green varieties, which are not winter-hardy north of Zone 8. We like Lincoln, and King Richard (both 75 days). They are hardy down to 12°F (-11°C). American Flag aka Giant Musselburgh (105 days) is good for overwintering in climates milder than our 7a. It and Jaune du Poiteau, are hardy to 10°F (-12°C).

The blue-green hardier winter leeks such as Bulgarian Giant, Laura, Tadorna (100 days) are hardy to 5°F (-15°C). For winter leeks we also like King Sieg (84 days) and Bleu de Solaize (105 days) and Bandit (120 days). A few leeks (Alaska, Durabel) are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C).

Crop requirements for Leeks

Leeks do best in well-draining soil rich in nutrients, with a pH of 6.5, and good sunlight. Ideal growing temperatures are 55°F–75°F (13°C–24°C). Growth is slow above 77°F (25°C), but the plants do not deteriorate and will resume growth when cooler weather arrives.

Growing Leeks from Seed

If you have a long enough growing season and don’t want leeks in summer, you can delay sowing till March as we do. We transplant in late May or early June, in beds cleared of early spring crops. People with a longer growing season (zones 8–9a) can plant two crops: the first 12–14 weeks before the last spring frost, and the second in mid-July, to transplant in late September or early October. In zones 9b–11, sow only in July, and use a bolt-resistant variety for leeks to harvest in the new year.


Step-by-Step Leek Planting Instructions

The ideal leek size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6" (15 cm) spacing, four rows to a 48" (1.2 m) bed. People wanting really huge leeks use wider spacings. We use a special planting technique, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. If you have a crew, divide up and specialize. If not, take it one step at a time.

1. If the soil is dry, water it well, preferably the day before.

2. Make parallel V-shaped furrows, 3" (8 cm) deep, along the bed.

3. Set out a fiberglass tape measure along one row.

4. Make holes 6" (15 cm) apart in the furrows. Use the tape measure for one row and then eyeball the other rows to offset the leeks in alternate rows. The best tools for this job are homemade “dibbles” or dibblers made from broken shovel or digging fork handles, with the end sharpened to a point. The tool needs to have a diameter of 1.5–2" (4–5 cm). The depth of the holes is determined by the height of the transplants, and probably needs to be 3" (8 cm) or so.

5. If the holes cave in, stop and water the soil more before proceeding.

6. Transfer some leek seedlings from open flats or a nursery seedbed to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make buckets from one-gallon (four-liter) plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket makes it easy to carry.

7. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

8. To transplant, take a leek plant, shake it free from its neighbors and decide whether to plant it. Discard the ones thinner than pencil leads. If the plant is a good size and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant and pointing at the sky — they need to grow downwards. This works best if the roots are still wet and muddy from the water bucket. Bobbing the plant up and down as you settle it in the hole will help a transplant that has slightly bunched roots.

9. If at first you don’t succeed, remove the plant from the hole, dip it back in the water and try again. Soon you will develop this quirky planting skill, and will be able to move along the row at a good pace. Ideally just the tips of the leaves will poke out of the holes, not more. Get the depth of the hole-making adjusted to suit the prevailing plant height. The furrow-and-hole combination creates the depth for growing a long white shank.

10. Surprising as it may sound, it is not necessary or desirable to fill the holes with soil (you don’t want to bury the seedlings). The soil fills in naturally as the plants grow tall enough to survive the depth.

11. Next gently fill each hole with water, either from a low-pressure hose or watering can. The goal is to water the plant roots, adding little or no soil to each hole. The shelter of the hole helps the plant get over the transplant shock, and because leeks have slender tough leaves, they do not lose a lot of water by transpiration. This means that transplanting is possible in quite hot weather.

12. Keep the soil damp for several days after planting,

13. Then give one inch (2.5 cm) of water per week as needed.

14. Like other alliums, leeks do not compete well with weeds, so hoe as needed, at least once a month. Hoeing will help fill the holes.

15. Some people hill up their leeks, but with this method it is not necessary. Our method avoids the problem of soil getting above the point where the leaves fan out from the stem, which makes them very hard to clean later.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at www.sustainablemarketfarming.com, Pam's blog is on her website and also on facebook.com/SustainableMarketFarming.


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Improve Soil With Organic Matter

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Some people are lucky enough to live in an area with ideal soil composition and enjoy lovely rich black earth in which practically anything will grow beautifully. Most people, however, don’t have perfect soil served to them on a silver platter and have to find ways of working around what they do have.

We have heavy soil with high clay content around here. When it rains, it’s sticky and slippery, and during the dry season it gets all rock-hard and cracked. Roots of plants hardly have any room to breathe. Pulling weeds is a real pain. I know what kind of soil I would like to have – looser, fluffier and more yielding – but this isn’t a goal to be achieved in a single day.

I’m no expert on soil, but I do know that practically any soil – whether it’s sandy, or has a high clay content, or is somewhere in between – can benefit from generous amounts of organic material being worked into it. Back when we used to keep goats, there was a place in our yard with plenty of brush that needed to be cleared and I often tethered the goats there. Apart from the brush it was pretty arid, but next year, beautiful tall lush grass sprung up there as if by magic. It was goat manure, left over winter to rot and decompose, that did the trick.

If you have the possibility to haul a big load of nice old manure – possibly with old straw or wood shavings, or other organic material – onto your property and work it into the soil, it’s wonderful. Look around you; some people might keep horses, goats or sheep. Friends of ours have recently sold their sheep, and have their old sheep-pen full of old straw mixed with droppings. We’re now working out a plan of getting this organic matter to our place. Free-range chickens also do good, fluffing up the soil where they dig, leaving their droppings here and there and turning the home compost pile.

In other places you might get a hold of organic plant matter, such as bags of dry leaves, or leavings from an olive press or a vineyard. Most people would be only too happy to let you haul these leavings away. These can be added to your compost pile, or worked into the soil directly – in a gradual, mild manner. It isn’t a good idea to just dig a hole and bury a ton of grape seeds and skins in one place!

Overall, the most important thing to remember is that soil improvement takes time. You can’t expect the content and structure of your soil to change dramatically in one year; you must have patience. For us, this has sometimes been rather discouraging as we’ve moved rather a lot these past few years. I do hope that we will eventually be settled in one place long-term, so that we can devote ourselves to gradual improvement of one piece of land. 

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here


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

Planting Carrots

I love carrots. Pulled from the ground and washed, they can be eaten as is or served up with dip. Steamed, they are a perfect vegetable to serve with chicken or turkey. Little rounds can be cut and tossed into soups. Grated, they are a delightful addition to sauerkraut. Having a root cellar, they are also super-easy to keep.

Carrots, however, are not easy to grow. Fresh fertilizer in the spring causes them to split so they have to be dosed in the fall. The main problem, though, is getting them to germinate. Carrots take from ten to fourteen days to come up out of the ground and, during this entire period, they are living in the top ¼ to ½ inch of soil. That means that this very top part of the soil needs to be kept moist the entire time. On warm, sunny, windy days these beds may need to be watered four or five times. If you have raised beds like I do, this is critical.

I only plant my carrots when I know that I am not going anywhere for the next ten to fourteen days. No trips, no visits to the seacoast, no kayaking and no journeys to see friends. I may be able to sneak in a lunch out or a visit to the local store, but I generally water the carrot bed both before I go and after I get back.. It can be helpful if there is a rainy period coming up.

So this year, I decided to try something different. I had bought some coconut coir to put on my icy patches (will write about that this fall) and I had quite a bit left over. This coconut coir is ground up coconut shells—it's completely natural and organic and it used to be pure waste. And it's super-absorbant and holds onto moisture quite well. So I decided to put a layer of coir just under the carrot seeds to see if that would help the watering issue.

I prepared my bed as usual adding soil amendments and loosening the soil with a broad fork although instead of adding fresh compost, I took a couple of half buckets of soil off of the top of the carrot bed.

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Having raked it flat, I put a layer of coir right under where the carrot seeds were going to go.

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I tossed the seeds on top of this and covered it all with the soil in the buckets.

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I then watered it well. Placing my hand on top of the bed over the next few days, I was amazed at how wet it felt most of the time. We did have some rain which helped, but I didn't have to watter nearly as much as I had in the past to keep the carrot seed moist. And my carrots germinated gorgeously.

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I will have to thin them quite a bit as the season progresses, but it's nice to have them available. Give it a try and see if it works for you.

Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more informationvisit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

Weeding Done Right

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Araised garden bed made of local rock. Raised bed gardening makes dealing with weeds a lot easier, because one has a concentrated space to conquer.

Weeds are something every gardener has to deal with and, though the problem can be significantly reduced by raised beds and thorough mulching, a living piece of land will never be completely weed-free. Raised beds, indeed, have been a life-saver for us - when you just have to concentrate on keeping a few chosen areas completely weed-free, it's so much less overwhelming than looking on a whole plot of land and saying to yourself, "wow, this is a mess."

I am extremely sorry to say that many of our neighbors practice the reckless and short-sighted method of spraying their yards with extensive amounts of herbicide each season and, what’s more, shake their heads at us for being “loonies” who make things so much more difficult for themselves by refusing to use chemicals on our property. However, herbicides don’t just get weeds – they turn the entire area into a polluted desert, and that’s the last thing we want, thank you very much. So we try to do our early prevention work by pulling up young weeds as soon as we spot them, especially in and around the garden beds, and mow through what we weren’t able to catch up with every couple of months.

The best time to pull weeds is after a good rain, when the ground is nice and soft. Once our ground dries, it gets the consistency of hard clay and weeding becomes increasingly difficult. This doesn’t go for the raised beds, of course, which are always kept nice and fluffy. I have taught my kids to always give the beds a quick look-over and pull up every tiny weed they can find – sometimes we even make a contest as to who pulls up most.

The most important thing is not to let weeds go to seed – if you are diligent enough to pick those young weeds on time, you will have less of them next year, and even less the next, and eventually weeding will become a lot less time-consuming. Young weeds can be composted with no problem, but weeds that have already gone to seed should be burned, because you don’t want a new crop of those growing right in and around your compost pile.

This post was an excerpt from my book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here


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

Flax to Linen: Flowering to Rippling

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I planted 'Marilyn' flax in March. 'Marilyn' is a variety of flax to grow to produce flax fiber for turning into linen textiles, as opposed to the flax varieties best suited to producing seeds to eat. There is much to know about growing flax to have good fiber to spin. It needs to be planted in early spring and will be ready to harvest about 100 days later.

About 30 days before harvest you will find your flax in full bloom—but only if you visit your plants in mid-to-late morning. Too early and the flowers won’t have opened yet; in the afternoon the petals will have begun to drop. At the less-than-optimal time of the day you will see a few flowers bloom here and there, but not the whole bed in bloom. My flax is blooming now. Take note of that week of full bloom so you will know when to expect to pull the plants for harvest. Yes, you will be pulling them from the ground, not cutting them. 

Once the flax is harvested, the seeds need to be removed, which is a process called rippling. Spread the flax stalks out on an old sheet laid out on hard surface and gently step on the seed heads. The seeds will come right off. The stalks can be bundled, dried, and stored at this point or retted. Retting will be the subject of a future post. Learn more about flax flowering, harvesting, and rippling at Homeplace Earth.

When it comes to saving seeds from your flax harvest to plant next year, harvest time can be a balancing act. You could harvest earlier than 30 days after full bloom and get finer fiber to work with, but the seeds won’t be mature. At 30 days after full bloom, the bottom of the plants will have begun to yellow, but there will still be some green in the upper part of the plants. You will get some viable seeds then, but if you wait a couple more weeks, you will have more good seeds. If you delay harvest until the whole plant is yellow, all the seeds will be mature but the fiber won’t be desirable.

Ireland has been known for its fine linen. To have linen that fine, the flax would have had to be harvested before the seeds were mature, leaving nothing to plant the next year. In colonial times, Pennsylvania did a brisk trade selling flax seed to Ireland, particularly through the Philadelphia port. In return, the colonists imported linen fabric from Ireland. One place to read about that is the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. As much as we talk about self-sufficiency, we have to realize that the world’s people have been trading and depending on each other for quite some time. Nevertheless, it is fun to explore the whole process yourself at home and produce your own clothes from something you have grown.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


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

Get Your Pots Out!

“Rain in the spring is as precious as oil” ~ old Chinese proverb

I doubt if this old Chinese proverb would have many fans here in my hometown this spring. Admittedly, Oregonians love to complain about the rain almost as much as they love coffee and/or micro-brewed beer. We oft lament the lack of the weather forecasters’ ability to accurately predict the outdoor happenings; or even come close. The weather apps (yes, multiple) disagree with each other, and to make me even more irritable, change in the blink of an eye. I quit checking them; easier to just look outside and have great flexibility in the plan for the day.

Well, this year’s rain went above and beyond the average rainfall by breaking a 96-year-old record.  Most thought we were just being exceptionally winter grumpy, even for us Astorians. As we hit day 167 of straight “measurable” rain – all felt vindicated – but still very grumpy. Meanwhile, Portlanders are having the same gripe, yet two hours away over the coast range our rainy season rainfall is nearly double their 46.65 inches in the same period of time. We kind of don’t feel sorry for them.

I had a new wetlands that not so magically appeared in my lower backyard during all this record breaking stuff. I would not have been surprised to see a flotilla of water birds hanging out down there in the swamp. Soggy clay soil often keeps us at bay in the winter, but a full-on marsh? How does one work around that?

Here I am chomping at the bit waiting for the ground to get workable so I can do some outdoor housekeeping, mark some plots, and do a little digging and weeding. I need to get my garden seeded! But oh no, not in the cards. What can make the winter rains pale in comparison? Stepping off a curb in nursing clogs and right foot buckles under me. SPLAT! Spread-eagle onto the pavement I go. Skinned myself up royally like I used to as a kid. So stunned I didn’t even have time to feel embarrassed. Gathered myself up and tried to shake it off but that darn foot was really paining me. Long story, short – you probably guessed it – broke the dang thing. Dreams of vegetable seeds and plants swirled down the drain as the very clear x-ray showed the fruits of my gracefulness.

Not to be daunted, I was determined to find a way around my water-logged soil and broken foot. Containers! Although my immediate issues are temporary, for many it is daily life. There are over 54 million Americans living with some type of disability making activities such as gardening difficult, or thought to be impossible. Growing your own food, herbs, and flowers is a way of reconnecting with the world while nourishing our bodies, minds, and souls. I am here to tell you - regardless of disability, gardening is for everyone. It is all a matter of making adjustments. Garden therapy! Containers! Yes! I am excited! Let’s get to it! Okay, I will park the exclamation points (for now).

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Instead of getting overwhelmed with all the things that you can’t do – try to focus on things you can do and start small. Breaking an activity down into smaller, more manageable parts is an easy way to begin.

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I will use the example of planting a pot of herbs. Choose herbs you like to use in cooking or flavoring your foods. Most starts grow very well in a sunny window (as long as you don’t have my cat noshing on them) and if desired, can be transplanted outside later. You can keep them in the house but they usually do better once outside if you aim to harvest frequently – these sun lovers want at least six hours of it a day.

You will need a pot with a hole for drainage, organic potting soil or seed starting mix, a coaster to keep the pot from ruining the sill, a small tub or similar to work in, and of course, your seeds.  You can recycle yogurt containers for a pot; just put some holes in the bottom and use the lid for a coaster. Gather supplies and put them where you will be working – you can do this at the kitchen table if you want. Rest. Have a snack. Pet that naughty cat.

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I have one of those stunning mauve plastic hospital basins I use. You can use anything similar such as an aluminum pan or plastic tub from the dollar store. Working in one helps with damage and mess control. Start by moistening some soil and putting it in your pot. Rest again if needed. Rescue the packet of seeds from the cat and plant the seeds following the planting guide. Water well, yet gently, or you will flood your soil and seeds will spill over the pot’s rim. Place on your pot coaster in the window; take another break. Give the cat some catnip. (You can grow catnip indoors as well but I would strongly suggest keeping it in a locked, cat-free room. Trust me. I speak from experience with a huge mess and a very loaded cat.) Clean-up. Done!

Have a patio, deck, or similar? Many vegetables are adaptable to container life and vertical-growing. Cucumbers, peas, beans, squash, melons, and even small pumpkins can be trained up a trellis. Carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale, green onions, bush varieties of beans and peas, and tomatoes all can be grown in containers. Just make sure to choose the non-bush types for the vertical veggies, otherwise you might find yourself a tad frustrated and disappointed in the resulting height impaired crop.

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Certain smaller varieties of berries are likewise suitable for containers. I have a “Top Hat” blueberry in a pot on my patio. This very pretty dwarf variety grows up to two feet high, is self-pollinating, and produces tasty treats in August. How about some day-neutral strawberries in a hanging basket? Or, newer thornless dwarfs such as raspberry “Shortcake®” and blackberry “Baby Cakes®.”

Companion planting is very doable in larger pots and you can and should include flowers! Stick some beautiful French marigolds (Tagetes patula) in with your tomatoes and peppers to deter root knot nematode invasions. I love sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritime) and its subtle, sweet scent and so do hoverflies (Allograpta oblique)! And what do hoverflies also love? The flowers of cilantro, fennel, garlic chives, oregano AND aphids, scale insects, caterpillars, and thrips! As an added bonus hoverflies are great pollinators. Not sure what a hoverfly looks like? They are those flies that look like wasps (smart group to identify with when you want predators to leave you alone). Except that hoverflies don’t have stingers, have fly heads, and only two wings compared to the wasps’ four.

Mother Earth News has a great companion planting chart here. The point is, you don’t need to do it all in one sitting and there is something extremely satisfying about growing, harvesting, and eating your own fresh organic food. Containers or raised beds make access and care easier. What edibles have you grown in containers?

Happy gardening! ~SSH


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