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

Grow Your Own Miniature Fruit Trees

miniature lemon tree

When I wrote of choosing fruit trees for you home here, I didn’t mention the miniature fruit trees because they can’t survive temperatures below freezing. However, being able to harvest lemons, oranges, limes or even bananas is so much fun that you’ll be pleased to know it’s possible to grow citrus trees of your own, no matter where you live.

Although Ohio is hardiness zone six, I have had the pleasure and health benefits of having full-sized lemons for the past decade. It’s true that our potted lemon tree has to be drug into the sunroom to protect it from frost, but the annual harvest of two to three dozen organic lemons makes it worth the bother.

What makes a tree “miniature?” The “extreme dwarf” size of miniature fruit trees is mainly obtained from their rootstock. Even with this rootstock, most miniature fruit trees could reach eight to ten feet tall, but are kept at a more manageable height of about three feet. This is easily done with our miniature lemon tree because it’s kept in a container and is occasionally pruned. Therefore, the factors determining a miniature fruit tree’s size is its rootstock, pruning and being contained.

How to keep miniature citrus trees safe in colder climates: Most miniature citrus trees thrive in hardiness zones of nine to ten. In Ohio, bringing these trees indoors before reaching freezing temperatures is essential. We joke that it’s easy to prune a miniature tree—just make sure it can fit in the door! Look here for more on “how to prune.” Fortunately, very little pruning is needed when the tree’s roots are contained.

How to keep a miniature fruit tree productive: Having great harvests from miniature fruit trees requires both healthy soil and good pollination.

Healthy soil for potted plants is difficult to maintain with commercial fertilizers. Instead, use compost tea. (See here for how to make your own). Its natural microbes and sugars can never be over-done. I believe our ten year-old lemon tree is thriving and productive because it has been nurtured with compost tea.

This same miniature lemon tree has never been repotted from its original 14” container. If it seemed not be thriving in the future, I would probably prune back the roots and replant it in the same pot rather than a larger container. In this way, I can keep this miniature fruit tree small enough to come into the sunroom in winter.

It would be most convenient to have a self-pollinating miniature fruit tree (and most are), but I’m afraid our little lemon tree needs help with pollination. It usually begins blooming in cold February so I do my best to pollinate each flower’s pistil with a little paint brush. My efforts are far inferior to the bees, however, so we carry the tree back outside on warm days when it’s in bloom. With the bees and my pollinating efforts, we have always had as many lemons as the little tree can support before harvest time in November.

How to preserve citrus fruit: If I had orange, tangerine, lime or banana miniature fruit trees, I would probably savor each fruit as it became ripe. The lemons all become ripe within a couple weeks’ span, however, and I really want to enjoy them year-round. To do this, I use the Moroccan method of preserving lemons.

 Preserving Lemons

In Morocco, lemons aren’t refrigerated or dried, but instead preserved with salt. I find this method easy to do and that it results in favorable and nutritious lemons for cooked meals.

Preserved/Salted Lemons


Containers (I use two-quart canning jars, but any container not eroded by salt will work)
Lemons (picked when fully-ripe)
Sea-salt (use instead of table salt for improved nutrition and taste)

Preparing Moroccan-style Preserved Lemons

1. Cut each lemon into quadrants, almost all the way through. Hold the lemon sections open while sprinkling a generous amount of sea-salt onto all on cut sides of lemon. It’s better to error on the side of “too much” sea-salt because too little salt can result in spoilage.

2. Close each salted lemon and squeeze it into the container tightly with other lemons. No need to refrigerate.

3. I begin to use these lemons almost immediately and continue to use them throughout the year. They gradually become softer and produce more of the wonderful lemony-salty juice—perfect for how I cook with them!

Recipes with Moroccan-Preserved Lemons

Our winter meals are made from garden produce that is preserved in the root-cellar or by canning or freezing. One of my favorite meals is slowly roasted vegetables. After coating the cut-up vegetables with olive oil and sea-salt, I simply put them in the cast-iron pot and let them cook slowly on the wood-burner. Their taste is amazing, but what makes them greater still is adding chopped up preserved lemons with some of its juice. The lemon’s peel is included—it has no chemicals and is packed with vitamins. For this purpose, the “Meyer Lemon,” sold by StarkBros, is noted for its “thin-skinned lemons.” Delicious!

Another winter favorite is chicken-vegetable soup—the usual third meal from one of our small Dorking chickens. It was always flavor filled, but adding the lemon texture and lemony-salt flavor makes it outstanding.

Because miniature fruit trees only require some patio space in summer and a sunny indoor corner in winter, I hope you’ll also be able to have a miniature fruit tree. It’s a new adventure that can add both healthy food and fun to life!

Mary Lou Shaw and her husband grow most of their own food on their homestead with a large garden, orchard, bees, and rare-breed animals. These animals include Dutch Belted cows, Dorking chickens and Narragansett turkeys. Learn how to grow your own food with Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou’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.

Transplanting Seedlings: How to do it Correctly

Growing plants from seeds can be difficult, especially if the plant is out of season. There are variables to consider and the first few weeks are the most fragile. Some plants are so sensitive that the only way to successfully grow them in unfamiliar climates is through transplanting.

Transplanting is the technique of moving a plant from one growing medium to another. It allows gardeners to start a plant from a seed, which is sensitive to the environment and fragile, in optimal conditions before transferring it to a more permanent location in the garden. Transplanting can extend the plant’s growing season and can protect young and delicate plants, all while avoiding the harsh, outside weather. When done successfully, transplanting is a great way to grow new plants, extend their season, and experience the joys of gardening indoors and outdoors. However, it can come with a cost.

Simply put, plants aren’t meant to be moved--that’s why roots run deep and steel themselves in the earth. Moving plants from one area to another may incite transplant shock, which can kill the plant. To avoid this, plants need to be treated carefully and adjusted gradually to their surrounding environment.

Seeds and Seedlings

Before transplanting, you need to consider plant durability and strength. Plant the seed in the center of a flower pot big enough to support that specific plant. Be sure to use a flower pot with good drainage and a soil with high nutrient content (most compost and peat moss enriched soils or seed starting soil mixes found at home improvement stores should suffice). Seeds have different germination times, which can easily be identified from the back of the seed package or online. Allow the seed to grow indoors with frequent water and moderate amounts of direct sunlight or larger amounts of indirect sunlight. In roughly six weeks the seed will have transformed into a seedling; almost ready for transplanting.

If you don’t have pots to begin seed germination, paper based egg crates are a great alternative. Simply fill the empty crate slots with a soil mix (mentioned above) and place ~2 seeds in each slot (just in case one doesn’t germinate). Depending upon the seed type you’ll either plant it deeper or more shallow into the soil. One of the most popular plants to grow in the U.S., tomatoes, should be plant roughly 1/4 of an inch under the soil. The beauty of the paper egg crate is that when transplanting time comes, you simply tear each slot off with the plant, place it in your soil, and the paper composts into the soil. More on that later though.

Knowing when is the right time to transplant a plant doesn’t depend on size, as each variety of seedling is unique in size and shape. Instead, look at the amount of true leaves on the seedling. The first leaves a seedling sprouts are called cotyledons, which provide stored food to the young and emerging plant. As it becomes stronger, the “true leaves” will emerge and begin generating energy through photosynthesis. These are almost always darker and bigger than the cotyledons. Once there are three to four true leaves present, the plant is ready to be transplanted to the outdoors.

Hardening Off

The most important part of the transplanting process is hardening off. This is the part when you allow the young plant to gradually adjust to outdoor conditions. Hardening off usually occurs over a week to two week period, as sudden shifts of environment will cause plant shock and possible deterioration. When a plant is hardening off, its appearance may not change, but the cellular structure of its stems and leaves will adjust so that the plant can survive in a new environment.

To begin this process, start by leaving the young plants outside for small periods of time. Begin with an hour, and then steadily increase the amount of time you leave the plant outside daily over the course of the next one to two weeks. By the end of the hardening period, the plant should spend the majority of its day outside in its new environment. If there are no signs or symptoms of shock, such as pale and sunburned leaves, the plant is ready to make the transition to the garden.

Garden Preparation

While the plant is in the hardening off process, you can prepare the seedling’s new residence. Mix compost and fertilizer into the soil so that it is fresh and full of nutrients the new plant will crave. This is called “energizing” the soil, and it helps with the transplanting transition. Scientists strongly believe that plants resist disease and become stronger when they have healthy relationships with the rhizosphere. The rhizosphere is the space where roots and soil come together in a symbiotic bond. A nutrient filled rhizosphere is the lynchpin to a healthy plant.

Before you begin the formal transplanting process, you’ll need confirm that the soil temperature is within the plant’s preferred range. Cold soil does not make for optimal growing conditions. Also, check the weather and avoid transplanting if there is a heat wave. Heat can overwhelm the plant and cause shock, so wait for a few cloudy and moist days.


It is time to move the plant from its protected and stable home to the wilds of a garden. It has grown, been hardened, and the soil is ready.

Instead of pulling the plant out of the flowerpot and stressing it, push it out by loosening the soil and gradually pushing on the bottom of the pot (if the pot is plastic and moveable). This is the gentlest way to remove a plant from its home, and helps ease the transition. Always avoid touching the main stem. It has been acclimating to a new environment for the past week and considered fragile. Instead use the lowest leaves to transfer it into its new home. If they break off, it’s okay; it’s better than if the stem breaks. If using the paper egg crate as mentioned earlier, gently tear each egg slot away from the crate (at this point the paper should be fairly soft due to watering) while keeping the seedling intact, bring it over to your garden and gently tear the sides of the paper so roots can more easily grow through after setting the seedling and newly torn egg slot into the garden hole you’ve dug for it.

Once set in the garden hole, pack the nutrient rich soil around your transplant as much as possible. Now that it has successfully been moved, drench the soil surrounding the plant with water - be cognizant not to wash the soil away from the plant. This reacts with water-soluble nutrients and the roots will reach out to grow in their new environment. If there is any worry about transplant shock occurring, try covering the plants from long hours of direct sunlight or to retain soil warmth. Cover the plant intermittently over a 4 day period, furthering the gradual transition process and minimizing the possibility of shock.

Transplant Shock

Transplant shock happens most often because of damage a plant sustains during the transplant process. If a plant’s roots or stem are harmed, the plant will lose nutrients and go into shock. Seedlings are delicate and in a critical time of growth, so this is why you have to be careful when transplanting them and make sure they’re hearty enough to survive the move.

Some symptoms of shock to look out for include reduced vigor (small, less vibrant structure), and curled, rolled or yellowing leaves. If you notice your transplanted plant is in shock, make sure to keep the plant’s soil moist and keep its exposure to direct sunlight to a minimum in order to minimize further damage. Eventually the seedling will return to health and soon become a strong plant, capable of living in its new environment.

Transplanting is a delicate process, but offers so many benefits to the gardening enthusiast. Remember to follow these simple steps: allow the seedling to grow indoors until true leaves appear, allow the seedling to harden over time, prepare the garden, transplant carefully, and watch for transplant shock symptoms for the first few days. Do those things and your plants will flourish long after the transplanting process is over. 

Bryan Traficante is one of the co-founders of, where his family and he have one mission: making it easier for you build and grow great garden. They’re the inventors of the Garden Grid watering system, crafters of modular garden beds, and share time saving gardening advice on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and their video series, aptly named Easy Growing.

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.

Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings Easily

We do use some plastic plug flats, flower pots and trays of cell packs, but we also like to use our home-made wood plant trays, as we can grow big sturdy plants in them, and reuse the flats year after year.

Make Your own Seed Flats (Plant Starter Trays)

I recommend choosing a standard size for your flats, to make life simpler when fitting all the flats into your warm sunny growing space, as well as when calculating how much to plant. We have a large garden, and we use flats 12" by 24". We make two depths: 3" flats for sowing seeds in, and 4" flats for spotting out the seedlings to grow them on. I don't recommend bigger than 12 x 24 x 4" as the filled flats get very heavy, and none of us needs to lift extra weight, when that can be avoided by a bit of planning.

Lettuce seedlings. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

We gather small scrap boards and make up a batch of flats at a time. We usually end up making a couple of half-size 12 x 12" flats to use up the wood scraps too. I like Eastern Red cedar or pine. Avoid oak. Not only is it heavy, but it splinters painfully, and is not so easy to work with as soft woods. Avoid ply, and all other manufactured boards, as the glues and fillers can be toxic to plants. Likewise avoid pressure-treated wood.

We cut 12" wide end boards of the thickest pieces, about ½ to ¾" thick, and 3" or 4" wide. Because I'm working with scraps, I generally cut the collected boards into the biggest possible parts. If you are buying or milling your own lumber, you can plan out your cutting list exactly. The side and bottom boards are thinner, maybe ¼ to ½" thick. The side boards need to be 24" by 3" or 4". The bottom boards are 24" long, of random widths. In fact you can use obliquely cut or waney-edged pieces for the bottoms of the flats, if you are creative.

First assemble the "side walls" of your flats, drilling through the thinner sides and into the thicker ends. This is a nice basic woodworking task for beginners of all ages. Use exterior grade screws, because they will be wet a lot of the time in use. Once you have the four sides together, turn the frame over and fasten bottom boards, leaving small gaps (up to ½") between them. This helps make it possible to combine various widths of board. Turning the frame over gives you a flat surface to fasten the bottom boards to, in case your sides and ends were slightly different widths. The gaps will help with drainage and stop the wet boards buckling. I keep a supply of ready cut and drilled boards to make running repairs during the season.

Greenhouse, early spring. Photo by Twin Oaks Community

Sowing Seeds in Open Flats

Take a 3" deep seed starting tray and line it with a double layer of newspaper (to stop the compost falling out the gaps). Have the paper come part way up the sides, but never poking out above the compost, as this wicks the water out of the compost. Fill the flat with compost - we use a plastic dustpan which happens to be just the right width, and works much better than a trowel or a shovel. Scrape the dustpan across the frame of the flat to ensure it is evenly and completely filled.

Next make tiny furrows for the seeds. We use a plastic ruler pressed into the surface of the damp compost and pushed back and forth. Sow the seeds, aiming for 3-5 per inch for most crops. Cover the seeds over shallowly (except for celery and some flowers which need light). Water and grow the seeds indoors.

Spotting Out Seedlings into Transplant Flats

Once the seedlings have emerged and the seed leaves opened fully, it's time to spot the seedlings out into the deeper flats to grow on until you transplant them outdoors. Fill the bigger flats with compost in the same way. We have a dibble board with 40 wood pegs glued into holes in a 12 x 24" piece of plywood in 8 rows down the 24" direction, 5 offset rows in the 12" direction. The pegs are about 2 ½" apart from all their nearest neighbors. This gives the 40 plants about 7 square inches each, which is a nice lot of space. We press the dibble board down into the surface of the compost, making 40 holes at once.

Cabbage seedlings, showing the pattern of holes made by the dibble board. Photo by Wren Vile

We use a butter knife to loosen the seedlings in the seed flat. Then, handling them only by the seed leaves (which are tough and disposable), we shake the seedlings apart. We use the knife to deepen the hole in the transplant flat if needed, then we jiggle the seedling to get the roots pointing downward in the hole. With the knife and the other hand, we press the compost firmly around the plants. For small plants such as lettuce, we spot into 3" deep flats, but bigger brassicas and tomatoes need 4" flats. Water and wait.

This is a good way to avoid contributing to the problem of agricultural plastic trash and be self-reliant in gardening equipment. You can also grow stronger plants by giving them a larger compost volume than plastic plug flats or cell packs provide. 

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, Pam's 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.

Don't Waste Old Produce: Plant Your Compost!

This time of year in NE Texas I'm dreaming of the veggie garden.  Oh yes, I've been working on my garden planting layout for a few days now.  I'm planning for crop rotation and companion planting.  I'm also using repurposed cardboard tubes to plant my heirloom seeds in my 'indoor greenhouse' so when the time's right I'll have seedlings to lovingly place into that prepared garden soil.  It's true that even before gardening season there's lots of gardening tasks to complete!

But sometimes the opportunity to get my hands in the dirt happens earlier than I planned.  And sometimes that opportunity comes by way of fresh produce getting past its prime for any kind of kitchen deliciousness.  But in past years when I'd toss that failing produce into the compost bin, these days I'm doing something different. I'm planting my compost! A couple of easy and early-gardening examples presented themselves in my kitchen recently.

Plant Your Compost  Sprouted Garlic  TaylorMadeHomestead

Garlic Past Its Prime is Full of Opportunity!

I didn't get to that fresh clove of garlic before I noticed the cloves were starting to spread apart. Then gradually they started showing tiny green sprouts at the top of each clove.  The time is right in our planting zone 7 so I'll just plant it in the garden. Heck, it's already gotten a head start, right? Then this one clove of garlic will be magically transformed to many cloves of garlic for future culinary delights in my kitchen!

So I take the sprouting garlic to the garden and gently pull apart the cloves. Then, I take my garden hoe and make sure any early-sprouting spring grasses are removed and fluff the soil a bit.  I then use the edge of my hoe to make a shallow trench and place each sprouting clove of garlic (sprouted side up) in a line about 8 to 10 inches apart from each other. 

 Plant Your Compost  Plant in a row  TaylorMadeHomestead

Now I gently tuck the soil around my newly planted garlic cloves and top with spent hay from around our hay ring. The hay mulch will keep the soil below from drying out and becoming hard. That will help these garlic bulbs grow nice and fat!

Note About Using Hay as Mulch

Now sometimes using hay as mulch causes problems with hay seeds and I'll admit I do have some seed that will sprout where I've used it in my garden. But the benefit of the hay mulch far outweighs any seed issues.

First, it's free and plentiful. I'm a big 'Use Whatcha Got' fan. Secondly, this hay is made up of winter rye so there won't be much sprouting during the hot summer months anyway. And finally the thick layer I use keeps most seeds from sprouting in the first place. Diligence with removing any new sprouts takes care of any rogue hay sprouts easily & quickly.

For that small amount of maintenance I'm rewarded with mulch that helps my veggie plants with moderated soil temps, reduced irrigation needs and reduced weed pressure. Then at the end of the season I simply allow the decomposed mulch to continue improving my garden soil. Since I typically seed my dormant planting areas with winter rye as a cover crop anyway, if those hay seeds sprout when it turns cold there may be nothing else needed until spring. Talk about efficiency!

What About Those Sprouting Potatoes?

Another past-its-prime example in my kitchen recently is that bag of red potatoes I bought a few weeks ago.  Unexpected travel plans and unplanned activities kept me from using the whole bag before they started sprouting. And lately, I've been on the lookout for seed potatoes to plant, but I was only finding standard white varieties. We really prefer red potatoes at the Taylor Homestead.  But there's no need for me to search out those planting reds, I've got several in the pantry that are just aching to be planted.

I take those sprouted potatoes and cut them into chunks, making sure at least one sprouting eye is included on each chunk. Then, I'll let the chunks air dry for a day or so. This cures the cut edges to help keep the potatoes from rotting once they're planted.  I've recently read after the initial curing time it's helpful to dust the potatoes with wood ash, so I'm trying that this year as well.

Plant Your Compost  Sprouted potatoes  TaylorMadeHomestead

After a couple of days curing and a good dusting of wood ash, I'm ready to plant my red potato pieces. I've decided to plant them in a large cattle-trough planter I have at the end of our porch. The potato foliage is thick and bold — I think it will be beautiful greenery added to this planter. I'll use the same spent-hay mulch I used with my garlic to cover the potato vines higher and higher up as the greenery grows.  This will allow the plants to put on lots of potatoes all season long. Then, when it's time to harvest, I'll simply remove the hay mulch and the potatoes from the planter and boom!  Fresh, homegrown red potatoes from produce that would have just been wasted.

So next time you sigh with regret at seeing your fresh produce has gone too far to consume, think outside the box. Can it be planted instead of composted? If so, go ahead. Plant your compost!

Tammy Taylor is the owner of the ~Taylor-Made Homestead~ blog. Tammy lives & works on a Northeast Texas ranch and writes about home cooking, gardening, food preservation, MIY, DIY and living as gently as possible on this big blue planet we call home. You can visit her Homestead Blog – or follow her on Facebook or Pinterest. Find all of Tammy'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 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.

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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.