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

Planting Food Near Native Oaks: Pairing Forest Ecology with Edible Gardening

Here in Northern California, we are blessed with many stoic and picturesque native oaks. Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), and Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) are all found in this bioregion. Many people are talking about Sudden Oak Death and other oak ailments as a result of anthropogenic (man-made) influences. Fear not: By following some simple rules and planting specially adapted native plants, you can foster life under your oaks.

Our California oaks have evolved to have dry roots for the summer months. One of the main mistakes I see in consulting with homeowners and ranches is that irrigation is installed too close to the drip line of the oak. This “wet feet” easily can lead to rot and disease.

By choosing the right specialists for the very specific habitat of oak understory, you can achieve a full, vibrant understory that will bring hummingbirds and other wildlife right underneath the majestic oaks and into your window’s views.

Drip Line Denotes Microclimate

The drip-line is where the edge of the branches make a circle that defines where the majority of rain drips out to the edge of the tree. In intact nature, you will see in the oak savannah where a diversity of plants are growing “at the skirt of the tree” due to the increased moisture of this drip-line perimeter.

These plants receive the benefits of more rain, running off the oak as well as more light than inside the canopy. This makes the drip line a sweet spot for many oak savannah natives.

Try these native plants on the drip line’s edge:

• Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea)
• Sonoma Sage (Salvia sonomensis)
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
• California Fescue (Festuca californica)

Likewise, if there is vacant space in the partial shade of the oak but also outside the drip line, then the list of edible plants below will do fine for you here in the Bay Area or locations with similar climate. As it is outside the drip line, it is safe to water twice per week.

Edibles for Oak Shade (Outside Drip Line)

• High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) “Sunshine Blue” and “Jewel”• (Low Chill) Cherry (Prunus avium) “Royal Lee”

Note: Cherries like acid soil and in the low chill of the Bay Area, some shade can actually be a positive.

• (Low Chill) Apple: “Fuji” and “Pink Lady”

Note: Like Cherry, Apples don't mind light shade to trick them into thinking our winters are more pronounced than in full sun.

• Currants: Edible cultivars of currant do well in the light shade outside the canopy. As the food cultivars of Red Currant and White (ribes rubrum), White Currant and Black Currant (ribes nigrum) need more water than the native cousins, they need be separated for the benefit of the oak above. Under these perennial food crops, you can grow Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum).

• Raspberry (rubus idaeus): Raspberry will tolerate the light shade.

Dry Oak Shade Specialists (Inside the Drip Line)

Inside the drip line is another story. Inside the dark canopy of oaks is the realm of native plant oak specialists. These plants have adapted over eons to tolerate the shade of the oak as well as the intense acidity of the oak leaf duff. Additionally, these plants have taken growth habits that are vertically upright. This allows for them to stay above the leaf drop in autumn when the leaves can accumulate over a foot deep!

Note: Do your part and do not irrigate directly under your oak canopy, not near the trunk/root crown.

Try these native plants for within the oaks canopy:

• Iris (Iris douglasiana)
• Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)
• California Barberry (Mahonia pinnata)
• Pink Flowering Curant (Ribes sangueneum)
• Golden Currant (Ribes Auereum)
• Fuschia-Flowered Gooseberry (Ribes Speciosum)

Note: All these native plants listed for under the oak canopy are drought-tolerant. To establish these plants, only water 1 time per week. Drip irrigation is the preferred delivery method, as it will target the new plants root zone without soaking the surface or overwatering. If the soil is workable, these plants can be planted in the wet season.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other 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.

Beginning Your Medicinal Herb Garden: Part I

Even though our gardens and pasture are still covered in about 3 feet of snow, I’m thinking about and planning for my spring garden. In just a few months the ground will be ready to support plant life. Now, if you live in a milder climate than North Idaho then your ground will be ready much sooner. Either way, this is a great time to plan, order seeds and get those starts going!

One of the questions I get asked frequently is what herbs would I recommend for a small medicinal herb garden or for someone just starting out so they don’t get overwhelmed. So that’s what I’m going to cover today. Of course, I don’t know everyone’s specifics. I will have to make a few assumptions – there will be plenty of sun, access to water, and the soil is healthy. One other important point is that these are herbs I believe allow for a beginner herbalist to begin treating their family with, they are also good for more advanced herbalists (for instance, I use chamomile in many preparations because it’s good for so many things). I’m hoping this will enable more and more individuals to grow their own “farmacy”!


Matricaria recutita – Chamomile

Like I mentioned before, I believe Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)  to be one of the most important herbs in our home. I use it for upset stomach, trouble sleeping, calming skin irritations, colic, teething issues, anxiety, and more. It is one of those herbs that I could not do without. Once it is growing (seed germination can be difficult) it can thrive in almost any type soil as long as it is well-draining, high clay content or shallow hard pan soil would not work here. It does require full sun, so don’t try to hide this in a corner! It’s PH requirement is also quite flexible growing well in soil as low as 5.6 up to 7.5. Sadly this is not a perennial plant which requires replanting each year. I left much of my flowers and allowed them to go to seed last fall hoping to see some new sprouts this year.

Uses: upset stomach, griping pain, IBS, calming skin irritations and reducing infection, colic, teething, hair rinse, anxiety, sleep aid

Soil:  Well drained

Sun: Full sun but will tolerate a little shade


echinacea garden

Echinacea purpurea– Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)

I’ve always been fond of “daisy” like flowers and Echinacea is no exception. Echinacea is not only beautiful to us, but attractive to pollinators. So if you’re looking to attract more pollinators to your garden, this is an herb you want to consider. Being a perennial, as long as you are giving it space to grow it will grace your garden year after year. It does not do well with “wet feet” but, once established it will tolerate drought and heat due to its deep tap root. The best way to propagate is by root cuttings in Autumn.

For medicinal purposes Echinacea flower can be used but will not be as strong as a preparation made from the root. If you are harvesting the flowers do it when the flowers are just starting to bloom, for the root harvest in the fall when all the energy has moved down (preferably after a frost or two). Don’t dig up the entire root, make sure to leave some to grow back in the spring. I left mine alone last year (besides clipping a few flowers) to allow it to propagate naturally.

In order for Echinacea to be helpful take it at the first sign of a cold, this is not a recommended herb to be used as a tonic. For internal use I recommend three preparations: infusion or tincture (flowers) or decoction (root). Make sure to follow directions for preserving herbs if you want to use it over the winter./p>

Uses: boost immunity

Soil:  Well drained

Sun: Full sun but will tolerate a little shade

Water: water well until established, after that it will tolerate very dry

Melissa officinalis – Lemon Balm

First, a word of warning…lemon balm likes to grow and will expand in your garden if you do not keep it under control. This should not stop you from growing it, just understand you’ll need to cut it back and ‘tame’ it!

Lemon balm is my go to for two specific issues: anxiety and cold sores because of its anti-viral properties, but it is good for many other things as well: eczema, headache, insect bites, and wounds to name a few.  As a culinary herb it adds a wonderful fresh, lemony-mint taste to any dish, (it’s especially good in fruit salad) and brews into a refreshing iced tea!

In my garden, it is one of the fastest growing plants I have. If I see it getting a little sad looking, I simply cut it down and it magically rejuvenates it – basically It is another easy plant to grow and will grow prolifically if left alone! One way to control it is to clip it back several times in the summer and early fall to keep seeds from forming. Unlike mint, it does not grow underground “runners” so it makes it easy to pull any unwanted plants that might get away from you. On a side note, this makes amazing fodder for your chickens and goats. When our chickens got into my herb garden they decimated my lemon balm, of course it grew back in a few weeks, but I was amazed at how much the chickens liked it. When I thin I just throw it over my fence and the chickens and goats fight for it!

Uses: Cold sores, anxiety, sleep aid, eczema, headaches, insect bites, wounds, colic, can help with ADHD

Soil:  moist, rich and Well drained

Sun: Full sun

Water: does not tolerate drought very well

These are three great starter herbs if you are wanting to step into growing your own medicinal herb garden. I will cover three more in an upcoming post.

Check out our online community for ways to help in your local food movement, learn about more medicinal herbs and much more. 

Sean and Monica are available for consulting work regarding property analysis & design, personal coaching and speaking engagements. 

Sean and Monica Mitzel homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and methods for the property. The homestead is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted food forests, guilds and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. Sean and Monica can often be found speaking and teaching at different events. To learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their 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

5 Essential Wood Chipper Safety Tips – Organic Gardening – MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Wood Chipper In Action

If you use a wood chipper around your property, then you know what powerful machines they are. For cleaning up brush piles and making valuable wood chip mulch, using a wood chipper is often the easiest and most effective method.

But with great power comes great responsibility. In this case, it is your responsibility to stay safe when using your wood chipper. Here are some easy ways to prevent injuries while wood chipping:

1. Wear Safety Gear

Wear eye protection and ear protection when chipping. These machines are loud and often fling tiny pieces of debris into the air. Avoid catching one in the eye by keeping your safety gear on at all times.

Also, as with all power equipment, be sure to wear closed-toed shoes. Steel-enforced boots are recommended if you are chipping particularly large and heavy branches. Be sure that loose pieces of clothing are tucked in and not at risk of getting stuck in the chipper.

2. Careful What You Chip

Wood chippers are designed to chip branches and tree limbs. They are not designed to chip metal, plastic, processed wood (such as 2-by-4s), or leftover building materials. Be sure that you only chip branches that are in the size range that your chipper is designed to chip.

For example, if your chipper is designed to chip up to 4-inch diameter branches, trying to feed a 5-inch diameter branch into the hopper can clog the machine, put unnecessary stress on the engine, and put you in danger.

3. Dont Put Your Hands in the Hopper!

If you feed a branch into the hopper and it does not go all the way into the chipping chamber, do not use your hands to push it in.

Use another branch, stick, or pole to push it in. Never put your hands further into the hopper than the safety labels indicate. The depth to which it is safe to put your hands will vary between chipper designs.

4. Got a Clog? Turn Off First

If you have a clog in the discharge chute or chipping chamber, or if you need to do routine maintenance, be sure to turn off your engine before you do anything. After turning the engine off, wait until the flywheel has completely stopped spinning.

The heavier the flywheel, the longer it will take to come to a complete stop. But while it is still spinning, there is still the danger of injury, so it is well worth the wait.

5. Keep Children and Pets Away

Keep kids, pets, and other bystanders a safe distance away from the wood chipper while youre working. Flying debris, loose wood chips on the ground, heavy branches, and the dangerous nature of the machine itself make it a very unsafe place for children and pets.

Bryan Johnson is Ecommerce Operations Specialist with Country Home Products and its brand DR Power Equipment. He is committed to making and promoting innovative, useful, time-saving power equipment. He is based in Vermont, surrounded by what he loves a place of rural beauty with simple and traditional values. Follow Bryan and DR Power on the DR Power Blog, Facebook, and YouTube.
 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.

Grow Cover Crops In Your Garden

2013 garden in March1 -BLOG

Every garden needs regular additions of organic matter for healthy soil. Organic matter, the key to building soil structure in your garden, acts as a slow release fertilizer and is home to beneficial microbes. You could haul materials in for your compost and mulching needs, however, not only does that increase the footprint of what is required for your garden, you are in danger of acquiring Killer Compost, which is a 21st century problem. There is a class of chemicals used as herbicides in the landscape and agriculture industries that are persistent in the plants that take them up, carrying over as active herbicide, even in finished compost. I wrote about Killer Compost here in 2011 and Mother Earth News published an update about the problem here in 2013. The best way to avoid this problem is to grow your own compost and mulch materials in the form of cover crops.

Contrary to what some may think, you do not need a tiller to manage cover crops. Hand tools will suffice. What you do need is the knowledge to manage them that way. These crops can be cut with a sickle in your garden beds and left in place as mulch, as long as you have planted the appropriate cover crop for the job and cut it at the right time. Learn more about that at Homeplace Earth. For mulch-cut-in-place I use rye with a legume planted in the fall. Here in Zone 7 I cut it about the first week in May when the rye is shedding pollen. An indicator for you, besides noticing the rye plants, is that it is about the time when the local farmers are doing their first cutting of hay.

Cover Crops as Compost Material

It is possible to grow enough cover crops to use as compost materials to provide all your compost needs. The carbon (brown) will come from such crops as cornstalks, sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke stalks, and rye and wheat straw. The nitrogen (green) will be provided by legumes you grow for that purpose, such as clover, vetch, and alfalfa. Weeds and other green material you gather from your garden will be a nitrogen addition as well. You could build your compost piles as materials are available, making what I call a Wild Pile. A more balanced approach would be to add equal amounts, by volume, of green and brown material, plus some soil each time you work on your pile. Since the green material needs to be added when it is harvested, you would probably need to store the carbon materials until the green materials are available. You can see me making compost this way in my DVD, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

If you bring in compost and mulch materials, that is all you have. If you grow your own, you have the added benefit of the biomass from the roots that are left to decompose in the soil—no tilling required. This is a wonderful advantage! Working in harmony with Mother Nature. Although you won’t necessarily be planting cover crops now, I would like to encourage you to make them part of your garden plan for the year. Learn what you can plant when and where, and order the seeds with your spring seed order. That way you will be ready when the time comes to plant. Enjoy this new adventure in your garden!/p>

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.

What the Hay: Plant It Anyway!

IMG1921 600x800

Here on the farm, we have been trying to utilize everything in some way. We want to make use of all organic matter and to reuse any farm waste to keep it out of landfill. Alan grows and puts up hay for our livestock. Sometimes if the weather has been wet and some of the hay doesn't dry out as well or gets wet afterwards this will develop some mold issues. We don't want to feed this to our goats. So we plant in it!
If using rolled hay, they need to be upright. If the roll falls onto its side it doesn't take on rainwater as good and the plants will need to be monitored for watering. The hay works best if it has aged at least a year. You can still use the hay but you may need to add a scoop of soil/compost with your plant to give it a good start.

We have used squash plants and the yields are very good.  We find there is less pest and mildew problems when planted in hay. We also use these hay bales for growing potatoes.  The potatoes are very clean when harvested.


Photo of potato plants starting to bloom.


These bales can be used for several years this way.  When the hay begins to break down into compost this can now be added to raised beds and/or hugelkulturs.


We will be experimenting with growing strawberries in a frame on top of the haybale and potatoes tucked into the sides of the haybales.

Make the most of your resources and your growing spaces!

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Read all of Susan'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.

Beating the Blues and Blight

It is raining. Again. For us at the northern Oregon coast our days this winter season have been either crystal-clear-blue-gem-sky days with temperatures down into the 20s and 30s, or a firmament of variations on the gray theme that dumps a deluge. Some days it really has been raining sideways. Yes, we normally get a good amount of rain here; something like an average of 68 inches a year (the landscape is green for a reason!). However, the rain doesn’t usually stop me from puttering around outside. But torrential rains? No thanks. Frozen ground? Pass. Besides, if you muck around your garden when the soil is water logged you will mess up its structure.

Admittedly, I am having a pity-party. This last year has happened to be one of the roughest in my life. Adding insult to injury, the garden is my therapist and the therapist has been out! Mother Earth has been either too soggy or too frozen. The grass crunches under foot or feels like a giant, wet, spongy slip-n-slide and it is only a matter of time before I end up horizontal. Not really very therapeutic and I find as I age I worry about breaking hips and things. Doting over my houseplants isn’t cutting it. Beautiful seed catalogs entice me only temporarily.

Thinking organizing my computer files might be a good idea (I didn’t day fun), I ran across pictures of my gardens from last year. This reminiscing triggered daydreaming. Then daydreaming’s fuzzy path led me to thoughts of spring, renewal, new beginnings - and as corny as it sounds, hopefulness started to slowly bubble up from within me. As there was a break in the weather, I decided to go for a walk in the yard.


Daffodils pushing through the frozen ground.

To my amazement there are signs of life! The daffodils have bravely pushed tips of foliage through the intermittently frozen and sloshy earth. My star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is showing off her silvery buds. I do love the intricate, creamy white flowers those buds are hiding inside and sweet-yet-delicate perfume that comes with their early spring debut. Then I spy the lemony-yellow flowered Camelia japonica that is budding up right on time. It will open a stunning complex yellow flower that eventually fades to a soft buttercream. The more I walk the more I see the beginnings of spring. Tiny reddish buds of Viburnum davidii nestled amongst dark, leathery leaves. Little blips of bumps letting me know my blueberry bushes are waking up despite the crazy weather and my dampened mood.

star mag budstar mag

I meander my way to the site of last year’s main vegetable garden. There are a few carrots left in the ground. The strawberry patch looks ragged but I know it is only a temporary winter wardrobe. My gardener’s mind now shifts easily to planning mode and begins to envision what will go where and when. “Oh! I need to start my tomato plants” interrupts my stream of thoughts. Then came the flashbacks. End of summer 2016 was the Late Tomato Blight calamity. The stars, and subsequent victims of this tragedy, were two Early Girl plants. These ladies were huge! To the point they looked like twice as many plants and were absolutely loaded with tasty tomatoey globes of deliciousness.

I originally had termed last summer as “The One with All the Garden Pests.” However, staying strong and stalwart in my battles against my slug and bug foes was paying off. My garden was beautiful and productive with plenty of fresh veggies for my table and extras for friends. Then came the rains after an unseasonably long dry season and soon after…dun dun dun…THE BLIGHT.

early girls 2016s

That was a very sad day here on Walton’s Mountain. Fraught with blood, sweat, and tears (no clue how I managed to cut myself) as I removed and bagged up my tomato plants and their gazillion blighted fruits of all sizes and shades of ripening. I put aside some of the few still viable maters; a mere drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds now discarded. The disease had literally spread like proverbial wild fire – fast, furious, lethal.

At first notice of something gone amiss in my veggie jungle I thought (hoped) it was tomato leaf spot Septoria lycopersici that was affecting my monstrous Early Girl plants. Leaf spot looks unsightly but is limited to the leaves and thus the wonderful red globes are left untouched. Numerous brown spots had seemingly appeared on my plants overnight. The tell-tale yellow halos of chlorosis quickly became evident and nearly in tears, I knew I was wrong. Tomato blight was the culprit and my crazily prolific plants doomed.

blight leavessblight materss

Tomato blight is one of many fungal diseases that can take away a tomato lover’s dreams of dancing amongst bushel baskets over flowing with those tasty bites of heaven called tomatoes. Late blight, the Phytophthora infestans, also causes devastation in potatoes and was the culprit of the Irish Potato Famine. Late blight spreads as spores ride the winds. They can also be carried on the hands and tools of the gardener. After plant removal I sanitized my garden implements, tossed my gloves, and showered.

The clean-up did not include two smaller heirloom plants that were a few feet away. They were late comers to the garden and had just started to set fruit. Neither had signs of blight so I opted to tempt fate and just observe. Although not nearly as productive as the massive Early Girl plants, these two did not get infected and lived on to produce until the first hard frost in early November!

My usual gardening practice is to mulch the vegetable garden with straw and water the ground and not the plants. This helps prevent blight. Copper products are also used in organic gardening to combat blight. However, I worry about build-up in my soil and subsequent peril to beneficial insects. There are biofungicides safe for our veggies and environment but really are best used as a preventative measure as once late blight appears it is pretty much too late.

I am going to try to mitigate a rerun of 2016’s tomato tragedy by starting all my own seedlings with heirloom varieties that are described as blight resistant and planting in a different area of my garden. Stay tuned! Now where are those seed catalogs...?

Happy dreaming, Susan

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.

Deciding When To Plant

bean seedlings - BLOG

You are working on your garden plan, ordering seeds, and making a garden map and suddenly realize you don’t know the timing of your crops. How soon can you get started in the spring? Your tomatoes are to go in after the last spring frost, but when is that? Often crops are planned for according to the last expected frost in the spring and the first expected frost in the fall. If you don’t know what those dates are for your area, ask local gardeners, consult your county Cooperative Extension Service, or take a look at You will find USDA Hardiness Zone maps for 1990 and the 2012 update. Notice how the climate has changed in your area.

Here in Virginia in Zone 7 I use April 25 as my spring date. October 15 is the fall date I use to calculate back from to know the latest in the summer I can plant and still get a harvest. In reality, our first fall frost is usually later in October, but I will never forget the frost on October 9 one year, so I plan with caution. Likewise, in April I use the 25th as my planning date, but look ahead to what the weather is likely to do in the next week or two before I plant frost sensitive transplants or seeds, remembering the killing frost one May 1.

Virginia Cooperative Extension Service’s publication 426-331, Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates, is a general planting guide for gardeners showing  the plant and harvest windows for vegetable crops. I thought that every state would have a publication like that, but my limited search showed otherwise. Knowing my readers are not all in Virginia, I sought a website where they could access a similar calendar specific for their area. Several gardening sites have a garden planner that you can use for free for 7 days, and then you have to pay for it. The Old Farmers Almanac has a general planting calendar for 30 vegetables that you can access for free. Of course, they also have the 7-day-free garden planner offer.

I learned to plan my garden before computers were in homes and still like to put pencil to paper to do it. I’ll have to admit, though, that I have some of my garden records on Excel and have had fun with that. However, the garden maps with the planting dates and rotations are always done by hand. I want to encourage others to understand which vegetables grow when and not depend on a computerized garden planner to tell them that. Find more information about all this at Homeplace Earth.

Once you know when things are planted, you will need to know how long they will be in the ground. The spinach and lettuce you plant in early spring will be done and that space ready for another crop as summer is getting started. For that kind of planning you need to know the days to maturity, which I addressed in this post, and succession planting that I wrote about here.

This planning will come easier the more you do it; but no matter how much you know, Mother Nature does her best to keep us on our toes. We need to stay mindful of what is happening right in front us in our gardens, no matter what we arranged for in our plans.

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.