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

Thin Fruit to Create a Better Harvest

Apples, pears and some other tree fruits will naturally drop their fruits in early summer during the so-called ‘June drop’, but further thinning by the gardener can improve the quality of the harvest.

Thinning out fruits prevents them from rubbing together, which can cause wounds that provide entry points for diseases such rot. It also avoids the phenomenon known a ‘biennial bearing’, where trees crop heavily one year, only to produce very few fruits the next. Some fruits, especially plums, can become too heavy if they aren’t thinned out, with the result that branches may not be able to take the strain and will snap.


Thinning gives fruits plenty of room to grow into bigger, healthier fruits that are more useful than lots of tiny ones.

Thinning Apples

You’ll need a sharp pair of pruners to thin apples, or if the fruits are really close to each other scissors may prove easier. Thin to just one or two fruits per cluster by first taking out any misshapen, damaged or diseased fruits, then removing the smallest fruits and any that are badly placed. Thin until only the biggest and healthiest fruits remain, spaced 4-6 inches apart for dessert varieties, or 6-9 inches apart for cooking types.

Thinning Other Fruits

Pears: It’s less crucial to thin pears than apples, but thinning will help produce consistent harvests. Thin fruits clusters to two fruits, with 4-6 inches between fruits.

Plums: Plums can be thinned using just your thumb and finger. Leave one fruitlet every couple of inches, or one pair every six inches if it’s easier.

Peaches: Thin in stages. Once they reach the size of a hazelnut, thin to one fruit every four inches. Thin again when the fruits are golf ball size to their final spacing of 8-10 inches.

Nectarines: Thin once, to six inches between fruits.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

How to Use a Farmer’s Almanac

Farmer's Almanac 2 Options 

Predicting the weather has been a mild obsession of mankind’s since the first cavemen got caught in a storm. (Okay, maybe that’s not the exact reason… but we’re making a confident assumption here). There are numerous global – even galactic – variables that affect weather, and each is affected by their own set of conditions. Furthermore, the weather isn’t restricted to any one consistent pattern, which means predictions made on historical data are far from definitive. Forecasting the weather weeks or months into the future for purposes of gardening is a bit like gambling, and sometimes the table goes cold.

However, an educated guess based on what is known about the weather – historical and regional trends, scientific research, etc. – can reveal what is most likely to happen. Going back to the gambling metaphor, a card shark using strategy and knowledge may not be able to predict the cards with absolute precision, but they can get pretty darn close. That is what a gardener’s trusty friend, Farmer’s Almanacs, do. They offer high-probability regional weather predictions that won’t always be exact but are very often in the ballpark.

Gardeners who want to successfully grow year-round need to know what climate changes they are up against. Will it be hotter or cooler than previous years? Will more or less precipitation allow me to grow during the summer? Instead of turning to a crystal ball, they use the Farmer’s Almanac.

Know the Difference between the Two

The Farmers’ Almanac and The Old Farmer’s Almanac are often referred to as one and the same, but they are actually different resources. Created within 30 years of one another, they both claim 80% accuracy and use protected secret methods to predict the future of our climate over a year in advance. Before using one of these almanacs, it’s nice to know how the predictions are formed.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

Established in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas

Predicts weather 18 months in advance for 18 U.S. regions

Predictions based on solar activity, weather patterns, and meteorology

Incorporates satellite data, ocean temperatures, and new weather-reading tech

Their secret forecasting formula is locked in a literal black box in Dublin, New Hampshire.

The Farmers’ Almanac

Established in 1818 by David Young

Predicts weather 18 months in advance for 7 U.S. climate zones

Predictions based on mathematical and astronomical formula involving solar activity, lunar activity, and the position of planets.

Does not incorporate satellite data or new-weather reading tech

Secret forecasting formula known by Caleb Weatherbee – a pseudonym for the Farmers’ Almanac’s weather professional

How an Almanac Help Your Garden

Garden plants are sensitive to their environment and can thrive or die depending on the weather. When to sow plants depends on final frost dates, too much water can drown plants, and too little can starve them. Higher than normal temperatures can wilt or bolt, and lower than normal can freeze plants. Taking into account weather forecasts is an important aspect of gardening if you don’t want to be caught unaware and potentially see your plants die.

Both Almanacs are helpful in projecting what’s to come. As stated earlier, they might not always be perfectly accurate, but it’s better to prepare and have a guideline for gardening plans.

What’s the 2018 Forecast

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, summertime should bring below-average temperatures to the west coast, Hawaii, Colorado, and most of Texas. The rest of the U.S is expected to suffer from hotter-than-average temperatures.

As for precipitation, most of the southeast U.S. and southern U.S., like Texas, are going to receive above-average rainfall, while the rest of the U.S. is looking at below-average rainfall.

Hurricanes – affecting the western and central Gulf regions as well as Florida to North Carolina – will most likely occur between August and September.

For more detailed information, you can find the Old Farmer’s Almanac here and The Farmer’s Almanac here.  Choose your favorite and put their information to good use in growing your best garden yet!

Theresa Traficante, Founder at notes: “Being located in Florida, the biggest concern for my garden is usually heat. I like growing lots of greens (mustard, kale, spinach, swiss chard) in our raised gardens, but greens don’t do too well with temperatures consistently above 80 degrees – they go through what’s known as bolting. Farmer’s Almanac’s come in handy for me to predict when spring will begin to consistently hit those higher temperature and when fall will make its way out of them so I can plan my planting.”

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.

All About Sowing and Harvesting Cucumbers

Photo by Getty Images/Garsya

Some cucumbers, often called ‘ridge cucumbers’, can be grown outdoors in cooler climates, and are often rough or spiny-skinned. Greenhouse cucumbers produce smoother fruits but do require extra warmth and protection for success. There are also varieties that can be grown both inside and out.

Sowing Cucumbers

Sow cucumbers into small pots of seed starting or general-purpose potting mix. Either start them in a propagator, or wait until late spring. Cucumbers need temperatures of at least 68ºF to germinate.

Sow two seeds about an inch deep, then water well. Once the seedlings appear, remove the weakest to leave one per pot.

Growing Greenhouse Cucumbers

Plant greenhouse cucumbers in beds, large containers, or growing bags. Train the vines up supports such as bamboo canes, vertical wires, or trellis. Pinch out the growing tips when they reach the top of their supports to encourage side shoots. Pinch out the side shoots after each developing fruit so that two leaves remain beyond each fruit.

Don’t allow cucumber plants to dry out. Fertilize them every two weeks with a high-potassium liquid fertilizer.

Remove all male flowers from greenhouse cucumbers to prevent bitter-tasting fruits. Female flowers have a small swelling at the base of each bloom, while male flowers have none. Some varieties only produce female flowers.

Growing Outdoor Cucumbers

Transplant outdoor cucumbers once the soil has warmed in late spring or early summer. Gradually harden plants off for a week or two first – a cold frame is useful for this. In warmer climates, sow seeds direct where you want them to grow.

Cucumbers need a fertile soil, so add plenty of well-rotted rich organic matter such as compost before planting. If you’re growing your cucumbers upwards using supports, grow plants 18 inches apart, or if you’ll be leaving them to sprawl over the soil surface instead, plant them three feet apart.

Pinch out the growing tips after six leaves have formed to promote fruiting side shoots. Tie climbing cucumbers in to vertical supports.

Make a Cucumber Frame

A cucumber frame is a great way to grow cucumbers. To make one, stretch chicken wire or netting over a simple wooden frame and staple or nail it on using U-shaped nails. Make an A-shaped frame using sturdy bamboo canes, then prop the cucumber frame against it at an angle.

This arrangement means that you can grow salad leaves such as lettuce in the shade of the cucumbers – great for growing cool season crops in hotter climates.

Harvesting Cucumbers

Harvest cucumbers while they’re still small and tender using a sharp knife or pruners. Pick regularly to encourage more fruits. Harvest in the morning if possible, while it’s still cool. Pick gherkin varieties when they are about an inch long for crunchy cornichons, or three inches long for larger pickles.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Consider Adding Borage To Your Garden

Borage in bloom

Borage is a plant I like to have in my gardens. Not just because it can be eaten, (which it can) or used for medicinal purposes (which it also can), but because it works wonderfully at attracting beneficial insects and at adding nutrients back into the garden.

Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual that can either be directly sown outdoors in late spring or started earlier indoors and then transplanted. If you wish to have borage in a certain location in your garden, it is best to start it indoors and then transplant. The plant has a long taproot and is best sown in a fiber pot, which can then be placed directly into the ground as the seedling matures. Borage likes full sun to part shade and has no special soil needs. It is a resilient plant and can withstand either extended wet or dry periods. A mature plant is rather bushy, so take into account its mature height (3 ft) and spread (2ft) when planning its future location. It’s growth habit also makes it susceptible to being blown over by the wind.

Although an annual, borage will readily reseed itself. Each year I have a handful of volunteer seedlings that pop up throughout my gardens. I tend to leave only one or two to grow where they wish so long as they are not in an inconvenient location. The others I pull up and add to the compost pile. Because it proficiently reseeds itself, you may find you need to only introduce borage to your garden once.

Borage for Beneficial Insects

 The blossoms of borage protrude above its large leaves and are easy for pollinators to spot. The blue, star-shaped flowers continue blooming throughout the summer, providing a continuous source of nectar for pollinators. Bees in particular visit borage often because they find the blue hue particularly attractive. Borage has the nickname of bee plant and is placed in pollinator gardens. It works well as a companion plant to strawberries, tomatoes, and squashes. It can grow up to 3 feet in height and its tempting blue blossoms dangle above its companions, luring pollinators to itself and its neighboring plants.

Predatory insects are also drawn to borage. The large, oval-shaped leaves have a fuzzy coating and are excellent locations for these insects to hide. Lacewings will choose it as a host for their eggs. In contrast, the insects we consider pests in our gardens tend to be repelled by borage. Deer don’t like borage either - too fuzzy.

Edible Borage

 The leaves and flowers both have a light cucumber flavour. The flowers are delicious eaten raw in salads, frozen into ice cubes, candied as decorations for cakes, and used anywhere a cucumber flavour is desired. The fresh leaves also make a refreshing tea when combined with honey and lemon. Blossoms can be harvested throughout the summer. The leaves are best eaten young, prior to developing their fuzziness and can also be eaten raw in salads.

Borage Makes Wonderful Compost

 Borage is a member of the Boraginaceae family and is related to comfrey. Like comfrey it has a deep taproot that can mine nutrients too deep for other plants to reach. It pulls these nutrients into its leaves, where they continue to accumulate until the plant dies, and through decomposition, the nutrients are once made available to other plants. It’s relative, comfrey, is a popular plant for enhancing compost and for making compost teas. Borage too, produces a lot of aboveground biomass that accumulate nutrients, and is also a valuable compost ingredient and itself makes a potent compost tea. An alternative is to skip the compost pile and treat borage as a green manure. Allowing it to grow, which will aerate the soil, and then tilling it into the soil to slowly releases its nutrients and increases tilth.

Borage as Herbal Medicine

Fresh borage leaves and blossoms are ingredients in herbal medicine and the oil extracted from the seeds has herbal properties as well. Traditionally, herbalists looked to borage tea as a multipurpose tonic that could reportedly speed healing, reduce stress, relieve fevers, promote lactation, soothe digestive issues, and ease throat and chest infections. Furthermore, chopped up fresh leaves could be made into a poultice for skin irritations or used as an infusion and gargled for sore throats.

If you don’t already have borage, why not consider adding it to your garden? If you already have it growing, why not discover the myriad uses of this beautiful and multifaceted plant?

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.

Starting Seeds in Hot Weather


Use a (well-marked) soil thermometer to help you decide what can be sown. Photo by Bridget Aleshire. 

Season extension and year-round vegetable production include gardening in hot weather, when there are some particular challenges to overcome.  

Germination Temperatures

Some seeds are hard to germinate when the weather is hot. Sometimes the temperature is just too high for that seed, sometimes the soil dries out too fast. Some varieties of some crops have better germination at high temperatures than others. Consult the catalogs, especially ones from hotter parts of the country, and take a look at what grows in areas one or two zones warmer than yours. There are some techniques that can help, but the first tool is information: know the ideal germination conditions for your crop, the actual conditions, and the expected time to emergence under the conditions you’ve got.

There are excellent tables of germination temperatures in Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook and in Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. Nancy Bubel also has lists of the percentage of normal seedlings produced at different temperatures and flower seeds that need light to germinate, those that need darkness, and those that often do better with light. Get one of these books and a soil thermometer. This kind of information can save you from wasted effort. You may find surprises!

I knew that spinach does not germinate well at high temperatures. The tables say the optimum temperature range is 40°F–75°F (4°C–24°C) and the maximum temperature is 85°F (29°C). One year, after a frustrating time trying to germinate fall spinach, I took a closer look, which revealed that spinach will produce 82% normal seedlings at 59°F (15°C), but only 52% at 68°F (20°C), and a miserable 28% at 77°F (25°C). I hadn’t realized how worthwhile it is to somehow get lower temperatures for spinach, rather than working at the top of the possible range. Crops which germinate best at soil temperatures below 80°F (27°C) include beets, carrots, lettuce, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas and spinach.

Summer temperatures can make it hard to establish crops which will have no difficulty growing once the weather cools down. Notice that if you can lower soil temperatures to get germination, in most cases you only have to do it for a few days. Getting good soil contact is important, so tamp the row well after planting.

These spinach seedlings were sown September 6, using sprouted seed. Photo by Pam Dawling

Soaking and Pre-Sprouting Seeds

Some seeds benefit from soaking before sowing. The soaking time depends on the seed’s size: bigger seeds benefit from longer soaking than smaller seeds. We generally soak beans and peas overnight, which helps the large seeds get all the water they need to absorb for the initial sprouting. After that the smaller amounts needed to keep growing are more easily found. Don’t soak legumes so long that the seed coat splits, as they then lose vital nutrients and may become vulnerable to attack by fungi. Small seeds that have been soaked tend to clump together, so after draining off as much water as possible, mix them with a dry material like uncooked corn grits, oatmeal or bran, or use coffee grounds or sand. If you plan to put soaked or sprouted seeds in a seeder, dry off their surfaces by spreading them out in a tray for a while. Experiment on a small scale ahead of a big planting, to make sure your seeder doesn’t just turn the seeds to mush, or snap off any little sprouts.

Beets are notorious for spotty germination — their seed coats contain a germination inhibitor. Presoaking beet seed for two hours can help dissolve this compound. Room temperature water is better than cold water, and running water is the best, I’ve heard. I suspect when I’ve had failures with soaked beet seed it’s because I soaked them for too long and they suffocated due to a shortage of oxygen. Another option is to pre-sprout them just until small red shoots are seen.

To pre-sprout seeds for extended-season growing, first soak them. Then drain off the water which has not been absorbed, and put the seeds in a suitably cool place. Rinse twice a day, draining off the water. Special plastic draining lids are sold for mason jars, for people who grow sprouts to eat. These are great to use, but you can also make your own with a piece of nylon window screen held on with the lid ring or a rubber band. For large quantities of seed we use plastic jars from catering sizes of mayonnaise and mustard. A pasta strainer is a helpful tool, as is a sieve held upside down closely in the mouth of the jar.

Usually it’s best to sprout the seed just until you see it has germinated. Seeds with long sprouts are hard to plant without snapping off the shoot. For most crops, 0.2" (5 mm) is enough. For lettuce half that length is good, and one day may be time enough. If your pre-sprouting has got ahead of the weather or the soil conditions, slow down growth by putting the seed in the refrigerator.

Spinach sown with sprouted seeds in early September has grown quickly despite high temperatures. Photo by Pam Dawling

Pre-sprouting spinach seeds in late summer is very worthwhile. For this we do the whole sprouting process in the fridge, and I confess we don’t rinse them at all! One week is a good length of time for fridge sprouting of spinach. Give the jar a quarter-turn each day to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture.

If you have leftover soaked or pre-sprouted seeds, you can store them in the fridge for a while until you see if you got good germination. If not, and the seeds still look good, go ahead and fill the gaps in the row. Leftover soaked pea seed can grow a crop of pea shoots for salad.

In a future post I will provide 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather.  This information is an extract from The Year-Round Hoophouse © Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs, as well as sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam also writes for Growing for Market and other magazines. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at, Pam's second book The Year-Round Hoophouse will be published by New Society November 20, 2018. Her blog is on her website and also on

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.

Growing Corn from Sowing to Harvest


Growing Corn from Sowing to Harvest

Corn can be sown directly outside once the soil has warmed up, or sow in pots under the protection of a greenhouse, hoop house or cold frame to get a head start of three to four weeks over outdoor-sown corn.

Plant eight to ten seeds half an inch deep in four inch-wide pots. Or, sow into smaller pots or plug trays, planting two seeds in each pot or module then removing the less vigorous of the two seedlings once they emerge.

Your young plants should be at least six inches tall by the time you’re ready to plant them outside. Harden off the plants as the recommended planting time for your area approaches.

Planting Corn

Grow corn in full sun, in rich soil that has had plenty of well-rotted organic matter such as compost added. Corn is wind-pollinated, so plant in a block with each plant 18 inches apart (instead of a row) for the best chance of success. If the corn is poorly pollinated, it will still grow but many of the kernels will not develop on the cob.

Corn also works well grown alongside squash, which will sprawl among the corn and help to suppress weeds.

Weed by hand. Don’t hoe, because corn roots are shallow. Water in very dry weather, especially once the tassels appear and the cobs begin to form.

Harvesting Corn Cobs 

Harvest your corn when the tassels at the end of the ears turn dark brown. This normally takes around six weeks after the tassels first appear. To confirm that the cobs are ready, try the fingernail test. Peel back the top of the protective sheath and press a fingernail into a kernel. It should exude a creamy liquid. If it’s not ready the liquid will still be watery, and if there’s no liquid it’s past its best.

The sooner you eat it the sweeter it will be, so don’t harvest until you’re ready to use it. To harvest, twist the ear of corn and pull it away from the plant.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Slow Food USA Townhall Call: Preparing Your Three Sisters Garden

Welcome to the written recap of the Slow Food USA's Garden Campaign, Plant a Seed: Food for Change, Townhall Call. It took place March 15, 2018 with presenters Stephen and Cindy Scott, co-owners of Terroir Seeds/Underwood Gardens in Tucson, AZ and Clark Harshbarger, Resource Soil Scientist, who advises on Soil Health with the Natural Resource Conservation Service and was produced by Anna Mule', Slow Food USA Communications and Campaigns Director. I moderated and have added some commentary here.

Four Soil Health Principles

Clark Harshbarger started us off with an introduction to soil health and a list of four basic principles applicable to all soils. “Mother Nature by herself creates perfectly healthy soil, thanks to the perfect working relationship between plants and the community of soil organisms. We humans cannot improve on the soil ecological environments she has already perfected.” Masanobu Fukuoka's book, The One Straw Revolution, tells us, as Harshbarger says: “the macro and micro-organisms are doing things in the soil that our mechanics, our steel, our technology cannot easily replicate-- and if we can replicate them, it takes more work or energy from fuel or intensive labor. Science is necessary, but it doesn't solve problems; human creativity, all of us working together, does.”

One of the most useful things we have started to do together is figure out how to give Mother Nature the best possible working conditions to renew the soil we have messed up. Here are four ways to do it:

Armor the Soil

Mulch it. Put your cover or target crop residue back on the soil to keep it covered. No bare soil.

Keep a living root in the soil at all times.

“The plant canopy helps protect the soil from rain, which typically falls at 25-35 mph. And from wind. It moderates temperature extremes at the soil surface. Maintaining a living root at all times keeps the sun energy flowing into our plants and soils. The soil microbes are active any time the soil goes above “biological zero,” 40 degrees F. They are fed by sugars exuded by the plant roots and in turn feed the plants its needed nutrients. The Three Sisters are all warm-season crops, so plant cool season crops (those in the cabbage family, for instance) in the early spring. In the fall plant cover crops which include legumes.”

Minimize Soil Disturbance

When we disturb the soil, even with strip or conservation tillage, we are damaging both the bodies and homes of the microbes which build our soil, and we damage the structure of the soil itself. “All the Three Sister families have extensive relationships with mycorrhizae in the soils [microbes which are key for soil health and carbon sequestration.] When we till our soils or try to work in green manures, we disturb the mycorrhizal filaments in the soil, creating a harsh envrionment for them.”

Harshbarger related a central experience in his life which illustrates this principle. “About ten years ago in Texas I met a dear friend, a brother, of the Apache Nation. His name is Ray Salazar and his role was to be caretaker of soil and seed in his tribe. Ray taught me how to plant the traditional way, with minimal soil disturbance. We would plant in groups of three. We would take a planting stick. One person would make the hole in the ground, a second would plant the seed, a third would follow and cover the hole with soil. In all, we made a disturbance in the soil no bigger than a quarter and sometimes as small as a dime. That's really important. The Three Sisters are all above ground, so it's easy to minimize soil disturbance with this community of plants.”

Plant Diversity

“Crop diversity is built into the Three Sisters system, although these are 3 warm season crops.” The more diverse the plant species, the more diverse the soil organisms they work with, the more fertile and healthier the soil is likely to be. Plant cool season crops before them and over-wintering cover crops after them [and, if you can, a hedgerow of pollinator plants around the garden, with perennials and natives in the mix.]

Incorporate livestock

“Try to use finished compost with manure amendments in it. If you have goats or sheep, let them graze the garden.” Let them graze the cover crops to kill them at the appropriate time and let them graze the residue after the target crop is harvested.

Five Crucial Soil Habitats

Harshbarger then described five crucial habitats within healthy soils; they are key to healthy soil function. They exist only when plants are able to work together with the community of soil organisms without disturbance. “These five types occur all over the planet in every soil type, every climate, yet in specific are unique to each location.” These habitat types are:

Detritus—the World of Decay

 “This is the decaying layer where mulch (crop residues, leaf litter) starts decaying into the soil. It keeps consistent temperatures consistent, preventing wild fluctuations. Spiders and some earthworms live in its upper part. It's critical to keep that layer on your soils.” Disturb as little as possible.

Drilosphere—the Earthworm-Casting World

The drilosphere  is the part of the soil which has gone through the digestive tract of earthworms, or the lining of an earthworm burrow. It's very rich in nutrients. Do not disturb.

Rhizosphere—the Root Zone World

“This is the soil around the root zone, where the mycorrhizal network lives. In fact, almost all the soil organisms live in concentrated population densities here. This is where the plant excretes its sugary carbon exudates --different polysaccharides, enzymes, different chemical signatures--to feed the soil microbes that will go get the nutrients the plant needs, but can't access by itself. The microbes are not only able to mine these minerals from rocks and organic matter in the soil, they also convert them into plant-available forms. Many of these relationships are as old as time. Many of them have taken place since long before the human species was part of the ecosystem here on earth.” Keep a living root in the soil at all times and disturb these interactions as little as possible.

Porosphere—the World of Soil Pores

Earthworms tunnel, creating pores--air pockets and passageways--allowing roots to go deeper, allowing oxygen and water to infiltrate quickly into the soil, retaining the water in the soil deeper so it doesn't run off, holding the water in the soil to feed the soil food web for a much longer time. When we disturb our soils, the first thing we destroy is these macro air and water spaces.

Aggregate Sphere—the Building-Block World

“Aggregates are the building blocks of soil, made of minerals, organic matter, air, water, and biology. The minerals and organic matter are bound together by glues secreted by fungi and other microbiology. Aggregates are critical. They make healthy soil resilient to hard rains, to extreme changes from air and water pressure inside the pores. It is absolutely critical we keep living plants in our soils to keep the aggregates freshly glued.” When we disturb soil, we rip up the aggregates.

Stephen Scott then introduced his and Cindy's presention: “We also believe everything starts with the soil. Clark, loved you talking about not tilling and not disturbing those soil horizons and the biospheres there. At the gardeners level, we say get on Mother Nature's Team, work with her instead of working against her, and you will be amazed at the results and success you have: the garden will be more productive, the health and productivity of the soil and the plants will be better and continue to increase, flavors will be better, weeds will decrease; it's kind of amazing.”

Anna Mule' told of sending 500 Three Sisters Garden kits to gardens all over the country. These kits all held seed for Stowell's Evergreen Corn, Christmas Limas, and Long Island Cheese Squash—all heritage varieties on the U.S. Ark of Taste. Stephen and Cindy's presentation focused on these three varieties. Stephen Scott began:

Stowell's Evergreen Corn

“Stowell's is old timey, one of the first sweet corns developed, came around the 1850's and it's white corn, better flavor than what you will find with any of your supersweet corns and not as sugary sweet. The flavor complexity--its profile will be much different.”

Why you need to plant in warm soil. “All these Three Sisters crops are warm-season. All need warm soil to be planted in. To test the soil you can do the old English gardener's trick: drop your pants and sit on the soil. If it's too cold to sit on, it's too cold to plant in! Or you can get a digital thermometer and if it's 75 degrees or better, you are good to go. The ideal soil temperature for all these varieties is 80 degrees.Now there are always season extenders: the French cloche, row covers, a lot of other techniques, but bottom line is you need a good warm soil, otherwise your germination will be significantly delayed. Five to ten degrees cooler may mean the corn does not come up for three weeks--that's how significant a difference it can be.”

For Best Pollination Plant in a Block or With the Wind Flow

“Corn is a heavy feeder. Most corn planted in poor soil will give a disappointing result, both in production and in flavor. Deep, dark rich, aromatic, fertile soil is what corn needs. Ideally corn is planted in a block because the pollen is windblown. If you can't plant in a block, you want to plant with the direction of the wind flow so the pollen blows from the leading plant back to the other plants. You can get better pollination this way. If you have to do rows, try to do them as thick as possible, do three or four lines of plants, not just one.”

Mutual Aid and Bed Designs

“Research has found the beans and corn in the Three Sisters grouping help each other and the squash helps everything else. Corn can help deter bean beetles. Depends on where you are how you are going to plant your Three Sisters garden. In the arid Southwest it would do better as a Zuni, Navajo, or Hopi Waffle Garden. You want to dig down to put the garden in the lowest place to collect rainwater. The plants need as much as they can get. Sink the beds, so they are the last place the water goes. The Mandans in South Dakota would plant the corn and beans together, but would use the squash as fencing, to delineate the family garden plot. There's no one absolute right way.”

Origin of the Stowell's Evergreen Name

Cindy added: “the Stowell's Evergreen name came from it staying green for a long time after you actually picked it—it was fresh corn that lasted a long time.” Stephen added: “Early frost came in and a desperate farmer just yanked the plants whole and hung them upside down in the barn and found the corn continued to ripen, thus was “ever green.” 

Christmas Lima Beans

Mutual Aid

“They need warm soil. Beans help fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, which helps give a boost to corn and squash. Pole beans minimize corn worms.”

“Pole bean anchor corn to minimize lodging (falling over) from wind-- our winds can get 20-40 mph. Heirloom corn like this has better roots to help stabilize it. It's not planted as tightly as some of the hybrid corn because heirloom corn stalks don't depend on each other to hold each other up.”

Pole or Bush Beans

“But if you are in an area with not as much wind, a bush bean can work just as well. You can do both. Bush beans help protect the soil, keep the moisture in, and keep it cooler, so bush beans moderate plant stress over the hot summer, so you get more consistent growth.”

Cindy explained: “it depends on the age group the school garden is serving—bush beans will be at the level of the younger kids, pole will be much taller for middle to high school students.”


“And Christmas Limas are wonderfully-- nutty and flavorful. Folks who say they don't like limas cuz they don't like the flavorless ones sold in the store are always amazed at the flavor of the heirlooms and homegrown food. Christmas Limas are pretty and big.” 

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin

“It's a moderately heavy feeder—grows best in rich, fertile soil for the richest flavor and production.

Depending on your space constraints, this pumpkin gets up to 20 pounds, so if you want smaller scale, you may want to look at New England Sugar Pie.”

Vine Design

“Two pumpkin vines can take up as much space as a couple hundred corn stalks. You can train those vines to grow where you want them. If you are doing the Southwest style, the squash will be in the sunken bed with the others. If more the Mandan style, the squash will be outside the corn and beans. Depends on what you need. If it's a raised bed or square foot gardening type of situation, we always encourage planting on the corners because they can sprawl into the walkways.”

“You will have sprawling growth you will need to corral; you can direct them back where you need them. You can train those vines to grow where you want them. Large leaves shade soil, keeping it cooler and retaining moisture for other plants underneath. One of neat things with pumpkins or squash is you can grow some heat-intolerant herbs like cilantro underneath the leaves, in their shade. Redirect the vines so the leaves cover the cilantro. One gardener we knew had cilantro that did not bolt for two months despite 100 degree days because of this. Show the kids: see how moist and cool it is under the leaves compared to two feet away, where the soil is hot and hard as a rock and nothing grows there.”


“We consider Sunflower as the eldest sister; we know from research it's the oldest domesticated food in North America. Research has shown how sunflowers have traveled with hunter-gatherers and as people started taking up farming more. Sunflowers work well with the Three Sisters as a windbreak, shade, cover crop; they have heavy roots that dig down and break up compaction and help improve soil over time. But plant them three feet away from the other sisters, as they are allelopathic.”

Building Great Soil

“The one thing we have worked with customers all across the country on is improving the soil.

We agree with Clark: manure-based compost is excellent—apply in spring and fall. This may be harder to find in cities. Learn to stack nutrition—coffee grounds, charcoal, minerals, milk and molasses. We have more information on composting here . Do cover crops in the fall and spring. We have more information on cover cropping here and on our Facebook page. Plant pollinator attracting flower mixes for better production and to improve production and amazement in the garden, especially with kids, whether in preschool or high school. The more pollinators the better; you'll have bigger and better produce that season and in the long run.”


What do you do if you are starting a new bed and there is grass there? Can you remove the sod and add a layer of compost and manure?

Clark Harshbarger: “Ranked in order of managing for soil health: the way I prefer is passive solarization with black, breathable landscape fabric: spread it over the sod six weeks before you want to plant there. There will be 70-80% kill. Two, you can scalp sod and try to get the crown [grub hoe]. Three, in the worst case you would till it, then lay down 3” of compost, 3” of straw, and then plant into it.”

Stephen Scott: “If you need to till, plan a season ahead and go in with a cover crop mix—rye, vetch, or others. You won't get to planting your target crop that first season because the soil will need a season to chase away the roots and improve the soil with the cover crops.” 

What are the best methods to test soil health? Pam: “Professor Miguel Altieri and colleague's soil health indicator test uses observation alone. It was developed for vineyards, but can be used with soils of other crops; you can tweak it as needed. It can be fun for students because you can graph it into an amoeba.”

Clark Harshbarger: “We teach kids to use their five senses—taste, smell, touch, describe the colors, close their eyes and feel the soil. Children can quickly tell you healthy from unhealthy soil. You can also tell by the amount of critters present. You can do Albrecht and Reams tests for mineral profiles.All soil has the ability to change its health. You can upgrade and degrade it. Sometimes during the year it goes through both of those processes. It can always do better. Compare your own soil to itself over time.”

When does nitrogen get into the soil from the beans to help other crops such as the corn? Some agronomists say only when the dry bean itself is returned to the soil, some say any part of the dead bean plant returned as mulch can do this, some say the bean plant when alive will share nitrogen with its companions. What's accurate?

Stephen Scott:” It depends on the type of bean, how strongly they fix nitrogen, the type of soil, whether there are the right bacteria to fix nitrogen present. So you need to plant into good, rich, fertile, healthy soil. Beans must not be the only provider of nitrogen; they can only provide some, but not the majority. Most will come from animal manure-based compost and cover crops.”

Clark Harshbarger: “The legume will take care of itself first. And free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are in the soil by the millions, we just can't quantify them in laboratories. We haven't yet been able to put genus and species on them. They swap DNA based on temperature and environment; there's a lot more going on in the soils than we know about. Use amendments if needed. All plant tissue has nitrogen in it, air has nitrogen, nitrogen is not a limitation if you have a good food web!”

What are good crops to plant before the Three Sisters, before soil warms up? Stephen Scott: “The cole/kale/cabbage/broccoli family, spinach, lettuce, anything that does well in a cooler soil (50-55 degrees). You can use hoop houses, high tunnels, row covers for warmer soil. Keep active, living roots in the soil at all times.”

Does corn transplant effectively from greenhouse to field? Cindy Scott: “In a shorter, cooler season: yes.” Stephen Scott: “the roots are very delicate, sensitive to changes. Transplant shock will make them bounce back a month later. Start them not in tiny seed containers but in larger soil containers, 6” or 8,” and be super careful when you transplant. If you plant in tiny containers the plant will read its environment and think “I've only got 3” to work with here and it will stay small.” Pam: “We have had good luck with this. My husband transplants when the seedlings are 3” high, into very wet soil.”

Should squash be transplanted from the greenhouse? Stephen Scott: “If indoors, start it in a larger pot.”

Can you give us a diagram of the best Three Sisters planting configurations? Pam: “If you want to see some articles on this, there's one from Native Seeds Search with a downloadable handout, and others from Cornell University Extension.”

Cindy Scott: “It depends on your environment. Talk to other gardeners in your area. Depends on the wind, etc. Each situation, environment is different.” Stephen Scott: “Don't be afraid of breaking established rules.” Clark Harshbarger: “Human creativity!”

Are sunflowers allelopathic to beans?Stephen Scott: “Sunflowers are one of our most allelopathic plants, next to rye—good for weed suppression. We have to ask: how long does the allelopathic effect last? Sunflowers are good as a wind break-- three feet away is fine. Don't plant beans right next to sunflowers. And the allelopathic effect is much less on a foot-tall seedling as compared to a newly-germinated seed.”

Define allelopathic effect? Stephen Scott: “there is a phytochemical some roots exude which decreases the ability of other seeds in the soil nearby to germinate. So weed seeds can't germinate either for 4-6 weeks. Mow cover crops when they are a foot tall. Plant in there.”

Do we need to do crop rotation with a Three Sisters garden?

Clark Harshbarger: “There are cultures that are givers and those that are takers, according to the principles of Iroquoian and other indigenous cultures. We have been a “taking” culture. Indigenous cultures that have lasted are “giving” cultures. We want to give more than we take from our resources base. So you can plant for two to three years in same spot, but then rotate for the next two to three years. You can rotate in a circle or in rows or whatever. We want to try to give back more than—or at least as much as--we take. We can do by using cover crops or other such plants we are not actually mining from.”

Stephen Scott: “Clark, I like your use of the word mining, especially when you talk about heavy feeders. Sometimes in as few as three years if you don't replace what you've taken from the soil, it can go downhill. So you do need to rotate. Do a cover crop, compost, manure. Feed the soil. Keep it healthy.”

The photos of Cindy and Stephen are from Terroir Seeds/Underwood Gardens. The photo of  Clark Harshbarger is from 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.