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


Potato Growing and Orchard Update

We Get Lots of These 

We get lots of these, photo by Ron Melchoire

In conjunction with our recently published book The Self-Sufficient Back yard: For the independent Homesteader which is in Mother Earth’s book store, we’ve been making short videos of how we do things around the homestead. One of the things generating interest is how we grow potatoes.

Our Method for Growing Potatoes

I know everybody has their methods for growing potatoes from covering them in hay, planting them in barrels, buckets, grow bags and the list goes on. For over 40 years, we’ve planted potatoes only one way. Why change when we have been so successful. Success for us is measured in the consistent size and quantity of potatoes a hill produces year in and year out. 

Roughly 400 pounds of Root Cellared Potatoes

Roughly 400 pounds of root-cellared potatoes,  photo by Ron Melchoire

Although we have not weighed our potato harvests, it’s safe to say we lug bucket after bucket down to the root cellar and inventory close to 400 pounds. We always have several buckets of small potatoes set aside for seed for the following year. Seed size is roughly the size of a golf ball, perhaps a tad larger. 

Potatoes Ready For the Root Cellar

Potatoes ready for the root cellar, photo by Ron Melchoire.

We will plant potatoes only one way. In a traditional row that is hilled up multiple times. We’ll start by defining our row with a couple of stakes and a string. The stakes are banged into the ends of the row and string tied between to use as a guide making it easier to hoe a straight furrow.

Planting Seed Potato

Planting seed potatoes, photo by Ron Melchoire

A furrow roughly 3 inches deep is made using a hoe and the seed is set in the furrow roughly 10 to 12 inches apart. We’ll let the sun warm the seed and soil for a few hours and then we’ll cover the furrow back up.

Weeks later after the potato has sprouted above the soil, we’ll come by and hoe soil on top completely covering the new plant. We don’t worry about killing the plant. It will emerge again. Once it has, we’re more aggressive about hilling up soil from both sides of the plant row and burying the plant again. The tuber will bust through the soil once more. With our hoe, we’ll take soil from each side of the row and bury it a third and final time.

We now have a nice straight row of potatoes that have been hilled up. The base of our row should be at least 20 inches across and the hill should be roughly 9 inches tall. It’s very important we have a good mound of soil. We will be growing many, large potatoes come fall and if some potatoes outgrow our hill, they’ll be susceptible to sun burn and greening.

I think covering the emerging plants make them mad and more determined to grow. We like to have mad, determined potato plants. Not to worry though our plants don’t stay mad at us for long and they reward us with strong healthy, plants and good eating tubers.

One of Many Buckets of Potatoes

One of many buckets of potatoes, photo by Ron Melchoire

Now we monitor daily. We are looking for insect damage and any indications of fungal problems. Depending on the insects, it might be as simple as plucking a few beetles off or a shot of insecticidal soap or BT. Fungal might be as simple as removing and burning a few leaves or a shot of a fungicide like copper or sulfur. Sulfur would be our first choice.

Good News on Our Orchard

While we’re chatting here, I thought we might update you on our orchard we’ve talked about in previous posts. In our last post, we explained the pitfalls we’ve dealt with over the years establishing our orchards. We expressed hope that the trees planted last spring would flower this year and give us some fruit.

One of Twelve Flowering Apple Trees

One of 12 flowering apple trees, photo by Ron Melchoire

It is thrilling to see twelve trees in bloom laden with lots of flowers this spring. How much fruit sets will be the million dollar question. The trees are still young and many flower clusters are on the branch tips so we want to limit production to a degree. Once we actually see small apples forming, we will probably limit each tree to a dozen apples this year.

We’ll remove the least desirable apples and leave only a small percent of the best looking apples so the trees continue to put energy into growth and root systems. Keep in mind, many of these trees were just planted last spring so we don’t want to stress them with their first fruiting. We are expecting substantial, vigorous growth and it’s important to us we don’t rush the fruit production. It is a balance between our age, ( we aren’t spring chickens) our desire for a root cellar overflowing with apples and what’s best for long term interest of the trees. What good would it do to have every branch laden with so much fruit that ultimately it breaks off from too much weight and damages the tree? So we will be patient and smart about this.

We are currently shooting video of our homestead and hope to have a virtual tour movie for people to view since it’s nice to talk about all these things but better still, to actually see them from a camera’s perspective. In the meantime, in our next chat, we’ll give you our experiences with root cellars of all kinds.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors of The Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest.


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Intensive Gardening Basics for a Huge Vegetable Harvest

intensively grown garden

Intensively Grown Garden in Full Productivity, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Do you know the best way to maximize your vegetable harvest? Gardening intensively will give you twice or thrice the amount (and types) of vegetables than you can achieve in traditional gardening. Using the same amount of land, you can learn how to plant in succession and replace everything you harvest with a new crop.

There are many methods for gardening intensively and information on two of the most popular ways can be found in Intensive Gardening. Since we take a lazy approach to gardening we came up with our own method that cuts down on the amount of work and money that many named methods require. 

Let’s take a look at how to:

  • use your gardening space wisely
  • replenish your soil
  • plan for the following growing year.

garden productivity

The Garden in Full Production, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Wise Use of Spaces

Harvesting more from the same gardening space saves you both time and money. Your tasks can be planned for more efficient movement, and you’ll save both time and money because it takes less input to keep up productivity. In our main garden of 2000 square feet we grow 75% of the huge amount of vegetables our small family eats in a year.

Having a place to grow our own seedlings is a big part of our year-round abundance. We start seedlings off inside during the depths of winter to plant out as soon as the temperatures allow. During the summer we grow seedlings of fall crops so that they are ready to transplant as soon as summer crops are harvested. Our approach to lazy, yet productive, gardening includes both succession planting and inter-cropping. 

The Garden in Spring

Late Spring in the Garden, photo by Sheryl Campbell

In March we begin planting cold season crops that mature quickly. Spring radishes are ready to eat in 4 weeks, leaf lettuce can be harvested after 50 days, and small cabbages planted as seedlings are picked 6 weeks after planting. As those beds are harvested we replant them with summer crops. Vegetables with a shorter and earlier harvest season, will be followed with fall crops. For tomatoes, peppers, okra, melons, and other vegetables with a long harvest window, we’ll utilize inter-cropping or wait and plant quick growing fall/winter veggies after the summer harvest is completed.

When harvesting just a plant or two from a bed, quickly pop in fast growing seeds of another vegetable in those spots.  When harvesting an entire crop, top the soil with compost then immediately plant a second crop.  Alternate heavy feeder crops (think cabbage and corn) with light feeders such as beans or sweet potatoes.  Go vertical whenever possible on teepees and trellises so that you can plant other crops in front of, or in between, them.

 early summer garden

Summer in the Garden, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Here’s what we’ve planned for a few of our beds in 2021:

  • Purple bush beans, followed by drumhead cabbage for winter harvest
  • Winter sown spinach, followed by sweet corn, and ending with rutabagas
  • Spring beets, then sweet corn, ending with winter radishes sown under the corn
  • Winter sown sugar snaps on a fence, with beets in front; zucchini rampicante on the fence with lemon squash in front; a final planting of kale to carry through into winter
  • Spring carrots, tall climbing cucumbers on the fence, and a planting of mustard late summer
  • Successions of spring lettuce, followed by caged tomatoes, and winter radishes planted wherever a tomato plant stops producing
  • Spring radishes, then lots of sweet potatoes, ending with tatsoi and Swiss chard
  • Beets, then small melons (partially on the fence), then turnips into the winter
  • Early cabbage, succeeded by bush beans, finishing off with fall beets

 using the fences

Using Your Fences in the Garden, photo by Sheryl Campbell

We use the fences surrounding our garden as trellises, having made the garden beds right up to the fence lines. Pole beans grow on bamboo pole teepees creating shade for summer lettuce to grow under them. In addition to the usual suspects, small melons, summer squash, and climbing cucumbers trellis well. Take the sun into consideration when planting vertically so that you know where you will be creating shade.  By planning summer shade you can carry spring crops over into the hotter months.

Feed Your Soil

Compost is an important part of the process so take a look at Create Your Own Compost for some ways of making your own without a lot of effort. The key to intensive gardening, no matter the method you use, is to regularly replenish the soil with compost. When you do that you can keep a large part of the garden planted for most of the year and harvest continually for more months than you ever thought possible. Here in Zone 6b we have something actively growing in the garden almost year ‘round and typically harvest during 10 months of the year.

A thin layer of soy bean meal on empty garden beds, topped with a layer of fluffed straw, at the end of the season will nourish your garden for the first crops of spring. You can replenish your soil with nutrients and minerals by using fish fertilizer, seaweed tea, or beneficial microbes. If your soil tends to be acidic, you should test your soil to determine its pH balance. Adding dolomitic lime at the end of the growing season will “sweeten” your soil over the winter.

Looking Ahead and Planning

During the winter months we select our seeds, deciding which crops to grow the next year and planning the garden on graph paper. The goal is to have every bed growing at least two crops during a year, while some grow as many as 3-4 crops. It’s also important to identify quick growing crops for each season that can be spot-planted as we harvest individual plants of other vegetables.

Developing a Seed Plan will help you through all the details of getting your garden plan on paper during the winter. It’s always fun to begin your gardening year in the comfort of your chair in front of the fireplace.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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To Plant a Tree

So, you’ve done your research. You’ve determined what trees grow well on your soil and climate. You’ve determined where best to plant them on your property given their height and width at maturity. They’re purchased and now you’re ready to plant!

Planting trees is not a hard process if you have modern tools like a garden tractor. Actually, it’s not a hard process if you have friendly soil, too. I have lived all over the United States and I can tell you from experience that there are places with friendly soil and there are places with enemy soil! When we lived in Northern California near the foothills of the Mendocino National Forest we had enemy soil. It was so hostile that I eventually gave up and went to container gardening. A pick axe would barely make a dent in the parched, heavy clay, mineralized soil of summer! We were advised to wait until the winter rains but we didn’t have the patience so we caved in and bought soil to fill damaged livestock water troughs. By contrast when we lived in the Central Valley near the San Joaquin River delta we had friendly soil. It was easy to cultivate.

It turns out that we have something in between enemy and friendly soil where we live now. It’s agreeable but not entirely so. I can actually dig a hole but we are older and planting sixteen trees all at once is a little beyond our comfort zone. We use modern mechanical equipment to make the process easier. To wit, we hired a man with a tractor to help us dig our holes. You do what you have to do.

poke resize

Caption: He pokes the forklift where we want the hole and the whole thing rears back off the ground. I hope he knows what he’s doing! Quickly, we see that he does.

forklift dig resize

Caption: From a different angle dirt comes out of the hole where he’s poked.

When the holes are ready, we fill them part way with soil conditioner mulch. Pick a soil conditioner mulch that works with your soil conditions. Some places you might need to add gypsum. Other places just need organic material so rotted steer manure works well. Get organic steer manure if you can. Whatever they’ve been feeding the cows comes out the other end with who knows what-all in it. We made holes twice as big as the tree bag and put half a bag into each hole. Soil conditioner mulch adds nutrients and improves aeration and porosity.

We mix the soil conditioner mulch with the native soils a little bit. The little trees need to get used to their new home but not all at once. Too overwhelming! We also make sure that the level of the soil in the tree bag is the same level as the surrounding level of the ground or maybe a titch lower. This protects the roots. We also pile up a little berm of the native soil around the trees so the water stays put and doesn’t run away.

The forklift didn’t get all the soil out of the ground and didn’t make perfect holes so we had to dig some by hand.  We watered the holes a bit after the soil was ripped by the tractor. This made it easier to dig.

removing dirt resize

Caption: The forklift punctures a hole in the ground but it takes manual labor to remove the rest of loose dirt.

After the little trees are in the ground we give them a good long drink.

baby elvis resize

Caption: I named this tree "Elvis".

Then for 2 - 3 weeks water your trees every day. Watch for any signs of dehydration like drooping leaves. Even a little drooping means they’re thirsty! Don’t panic if they droop. Water right away. Just know that a thirsty tree is a stressed tree which then makes it susceptible to insects and disease. Insects are to trees as wolves are to the weak members of the elk herd. Don’t let them prey upon your investment! As a matter of fact, in one of the pots we found a  grub infestation. I would have returned the tree but our nursery was miles away so I got down on my knees and picked the grubs out all the while wishing that I had some chickens to feed the grubs to. Now we cross our fingers that the little tree will make it. Grubs feast on tender roots and can weaken and kill the tree.

spacing resize

Caption: Here you see seven of our trees situated where they will eventually provide windbreak and privacy. Why are they so far apart? These trees will be approximately 20 feet wide and 40 feet tall at maturity. We made sure to set them back far from the power lines. On 4 acres we have plenty of room to do this.

elvis resized

Caption: Imagine when Elvis grows up how big and splendid he will be! Image courtesy of Nates Nursery

Our pine trees, with loving care, are said to be fast growers so over the years we expect a gain of 3 to 4 feet per year. Isn’t that going to be wonderful? Normally I dislike the passage of time but in this case, I welcome it!

Papaya from Seed to Tree

ripe papaya 

Ripe Papaya
Photo by Taylor Goggin

My love for papayas began about two years ago, during my work-trade farming experience in Hawaii. Having tried the fruit only once or twice from a supermarket I was not impressed by its bland, dirty sock like taste. Aka not a fan. When it was offered to me on the farm I cringed but gave it a go because hey, we’re growing everything we eat here, so why not? 

Juicy, sweet, and smooth like butter. I was shook to the core, “how can this be?!” my taste buds have been lied to all these years. How many other fruits and veggies have I been tricked to thinking they were a flavorless catastrophe? The answer to this is everything. Every single fruit and vegetable tastes 100x better locally grown than mass produced.

My main focus at the moment was papayas. When I returned home from my farming endeavors I took a good look at the small yet generous yard I had. It’s not a huge space but it’ll do. I had nothing planted, “an open canvas” I thought.

I recommend to anyone living in subtropical areas to take a ride to your local farmers market. I found loads of seeds, plants, and mature trees native to my area. I bought two papaya trees about knee high in length. They will grow exponentially and fruit within one year. Another reason why I’m obsessed with this tree at the moment.

 Papaya seeds
Photo by Taylor Goggin

To give you an idea, mango trees take anywhere from 5-8 years to grow and bear fruit, figs can be anywhere from 6-10 years, avocado’s around 13 years, lychee’s 10-15 years. Compared to papaya’s, they mature within 6 to 9 months and can produce as many as 100 fruits in summer or fall!

 Green papaya bunch
Photo by Taylor Goggin

In South Florida and sub-tropical areas papaya grows all year round. But what’s all this hype about? Here’s a brief highlight of the beautiful benefits a serving of papaya can add to your life.

  • Rich in anti-oxidants
  • High in fiber
  • High in potassium
  • Immune support
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • High in Vitamin C & A
  • Contains digestive enzyme “papain” which aids bloating, IBS, and leaky gut syndrome

Once your tree begins to fruit wait until you see little spurts color. They will be a vibrant green, when you begin seeing an orange, yellow, reddish spread your papaya is ready for harvest. How can you tell if they are ripe? Think of them as an avocado. If you were to gently push down on the skin and feel it slightly mushy it’s ready to serve.

Ripening bunch of papaya
Photo by Taylor Goggin

The best part? One fruit can now provide you with a papaya forest! There is an abundance of seeds in the middle of each fruit; and every seed has the potential to be a new tree. There is a slimy film coating each seed. Peel off this film and let seeds dry out for a day then plant in a pot or directly in the ground.

Papayas are low maintenance companions and don’t need much to thrive. They actually do great in sandy dirt (hello South Florida!) pair that with loads of sun time and humidity you now have the bullet proof method to growing healthy, happy papaya trees! Compost every now and then on the roots is another top tip that’ll give the trees a little pep in their step.


Taylor Goggin is tropical gardener in Florida who gained her skills in cooperative agriculture while work-trading with a World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program on the Hawaiian Islands. She now grows papaya, banana, avocado, fig, tomatoes, and medicinal herbs to make into inventive plant-based recipes. Connect with Taylor on Instagramand read all of her 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.

Illustrated Plan for a Colorful Herb Garden

An herb garden can be a very pleasing and useful addition to any yard. Illustration by John Peterson

Aromatic plants will please both the nose and the eyes. This beautiful herb garden design incorporates foliage of various colors and textures to produce a visually appealing and fragrant display. The focal point of this design is rosemary planted in a lovely container. Containers of spearmint and peppermint flank the rosemary, adding height to the garden while also preventing these plants from overgrowing.

Weeds are kept to a minimum, and the soil is shielded by fragrant, low groundcovers, including curly parsley, lemon thyme, golden sage, and variegated oregano. This lovely herb garden is not only very beautiful and fragrant but also very easy to care for — even a new gardening beginner can deal with it.

Garden Layout

Here are the plants and their positions in the herb garden. Illustration by John Peterson

Plant List

Herb garden plan diagram. Illustration by Michael Feldmann

  • A 4 Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Annual
  • B 3 Variegated Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Variegata’) Zones 5–9
  • C 1 Spearmint (Mentha spicata) Zones 3–11
  • D 1 Variegated Peppermint (Mentha piperita) Zones 5–11
  • E 2 Golden Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Aurea’) Zones 6–9
  • F 2 Variegated Oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Variegatum’) Zones 4–9
  • G 1 Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) Zones 4–8
  • H 4 Purple Basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurescens) Annual
  • I 2 ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ Basil (Ocimum x citriodorum) Annual
  • J 2 Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) Zones 4–9
  • K 2 Dill (Anethum graveolens) Zones 2–11
  • L 1 Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Zones 8–11

Planting and Care

Herbs provide beauty and fragrance in the garden and abundant flavor in your kitchen. Most herbs are easy to grow and, once planted, require little care besides watering and harvesting. So, if you're just getting started with an edible garden, herbs are a great to start. Here are some easy tips to care for these almost carefree, beautiful, flavorful plants.

Before You Begin

Preparation is the key to developing a garden that will provide enjoyment for a lifetime. Before you go to the nursery to buy plants, you need to review which plants can grow in your area, can they grow in your soil, do you have enough space, do you have enough sunlight, and many others.

Choose the Right Location

Most of the herbs that I have included in this garden plan are very easy to care for and need only several things: enough sunlight, well-drained soil, enough space, and the correct USDA Zones. This means that when deciding where to place your herb garden, you should look for a spot that receives six or more hours of sunlight per day, has well-drained soil, and has enough space for your herb garden.

Many people think of convenience when deciding where to start an herb garden. Planting near the kitchen or the house can make harvesting herbs from the herb garden easier.

Prepare the Soil

After you've decided were to start your herb garden, you'll need to prepare the soil. Add a lot of compost if your soil is sandy or clay-heavy. Even if your soil is in good condition, working some compost into the soil will provide nutrients for your herbs while they are growing.

Planting Your Herbs

Keep all of your plants in their pots and place them on the planting bed if you have them on hand. This will give you an idea of how the bed will look and encourage you to make changes before digging any holes.

Place your plants in the soil at the same level as they were in the pot. Firm the soil around each plant with your hands, then thoroughly water it. The distance between herbs varies depending on the plant; generally, allow enough space between plants so they all have enough space to grow and flourish.

After all the herbs have been planted and thoroughly watered, next you need to mulch your plants. Shredded leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, and straw are all excellent mulch options for herb gardens. Apply the mulch properly to suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture and regulate soil temperature.

Caring for your new herb garden is very easy. The only thing you need to do is correct watering, a little fertilizing, mulching, picking up weeds if there are, and pruning & harvesting.

Watering

The majority of herbs grow best in well-drained soil and create their most intense flavor when kept dry. Their water requirements are determined by soil type, weather conditions, and the type of your plants. Plants in sandy soils, for example, require more regular watering than those in clay soils.

Keep in mind that plants use more water when the weather is hot, windy, and low humidity than when it is cold, humid, and cloudy. Apply enough water to moisten the root zone at least 6 inches deep while watering. Water can be applied efficiently using soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems: They avoid wasting water by only watering the plants' roots, and this also prevents many diseases by keeping the foliage dry.

Fertilizing

Herbs that receive a lot of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, grow slowly and have little flavor or fragrance. As a result, don't over fertilize your plants. Controlled-release manufactured fertilizers and organic fertilizers that decompose slowly are less likely to provide an excess of nutrients all at once. To figure out how much fertilizer to apply, follow soil test recommendations or label directions.

Mulching and Controlling Weeds

Mulch to prevent weeds from growing in your herb garden. Wood chips, straw, or pine needles are fine organic mulches to use. Apply a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch around your herbs, but keep it away from the plant's crown. Mulch smothers weeds, prevents most weed seeds from germinating, and makes it easier to pull those that do germinate. Mulch also helps to preserve moisture, so you'll need to water less frequently!

Pruning and Harvesting

When you prune and harvest your herbs often, they seem to grow better. Pruning keeps plants from outgrowing their space. You can harvest or prune your herbs at any time until they begin to bloom. Herbs grown for seeds or, such as coriander or chamomile, must be harvested after the seeds have dried on the plant or when the flowers are about to bloom entirely. Cutting the herbs with clean tools reduces the risk of disease and keeps your herbs healthy and productive.


Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’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.

Growing My Self-Sufficient Diet with Perennials


Wild garlic (background) with trout leaf (foreground) Photo by Jo deVries

I am so happy that we’ve already enjoyed over a month of spring weather here in Ontario, Canada. The chickens are doing well, and I’ve just been blessed with my third hatch of chicks (and one awesome miracle! See next month’s blog post). My two weaner pigs have only had to endure a bit of snow and enjoy snuggling in their bed of straw when not digging up the earth. They are tearing up everything except the elderberry bushes (which is toxic to them so they avoid it; another miracle), and turning over my first serious garden.

My son, Jordan, who bought a chainsaw last fall, has already felled and blocked a dozen trees, and two other friends have helped by dropping two very large trees that were dying and leaning toward an area I want to fence for the elderberry grove.  o, here we are in full swing, and there is much to be happy about.

When spring hit, and the first sprouts started emerging from the soil, I was excited to discover a fantastic variety of wild vegetables ready for harvest; free from Mother Earth. The first edibles to emerge were the daylilies and the dandelions, quickly followed by the wild garlic, trout leaf, and fiddle-heads.

Daylily

I planted many patches of orange daylilies on my property soon after purchasing it 25 years ago. I dug them up from the side of the road, inspired by their ability to grow absolutely anywhere. Those patches have turned into large beds of bright green shoots that return first thing every spring, and multiply each year.

Every part of the wild, orange daylily (which isn’t a true lily) is edible except the stamens. Do not confuse the common, edible daylily with the toxic tiger lily, which has black spots on its flowers and black bead-like bulbils growing along a single upright stem.


All parts are edible: root, stem, leaves, buds and blossoms. Photo by Jo deVries

Dandelion

Dandelion is another trustworthy, perennial crop. Dandelion leaves can be served raw in salads or cooked like spinach, and their flowers can be enjoyed in simple children’s party bouquets, medicinal teas, wine, and a wide variety of other recipes.

Wild Garlic

Each year, I am blessed with an increased crop of wild garlic, which my late friend David Saunders gave me over 20 years ago. I have never harvested the roots — only the green leaves — to ensure the crop would continue multiplying. I have also collected their ripe black seed pods and distributed them in new areas to broaden my crop. I may have started with eight or 10 roots; I now have hundreds.

Each root of wild garlic usually sprouts two leaves. Cutting only one leaf allows the remaining leaf to bring nutrients to the root. The fresh garlic leaves are great in soups, salads and on sandwiches. Feeding wild garlic leaves to the chickens helps deter mites, and the chickens love them.

Trout Lily

The trout lily, also called a yellow dogtooth violet, is a widespread edible wild plant, especially common to eastern North America. It is considered both edible and medicinal but acts as an emetic (makes you throw up) if eaten in large quantities. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and the corms can be roasted. Trout lily is a great trail snack when hiking.

My fiddle-head patch is small, but growing. They are my favorite of the wild greens.


Daylily, wild garlic leaves and trout lily. Photo by Jo deVries

Resolving to Create a Diet of Homegrown and Foraged Food

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make wild edibles a bigger part of my diet. In order for that to happen, I have to make foraging a bigger part of my life. We are creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break. So, my foraging hasn’t been as extensive as it could have been. Many of us have been raised going to the grocery stores for our food. My parents went to the stores for everything except rhubarb and crab apples, but my grandparents were gardeners and farmers; they had to be or they would have starved.

The practise of buying the majority of one’s food, to be dependant on others for one’s sustenance, is not one to be proud of. We are subject to whatever the stores stock on their shelves, and most of the food is processed, filled, or sprayed with things that aren’t healthy while being over-packaged in plastic that contributes to filling the earth with garbage. We are a sorry lot. We have forgotten how wonderful simple, whole, natural foods are, and how much less packaging is involved.

This year I’m swapping store-bought greens for foraged ones, juice for fruit, meat for eggs and fish, margarine for butter, coffee for herbal tea, junk food and desserts for nuts, avocados, berries and good-quality dark chocolate — healthier choices for me and the planet.

Building Self-Sufficiency in the Garden

In an effort to be more sustainable, I am researching the type of diet I might be able to provide for myself. I’ve discovered that foraging can supply all of my greens for a minimum of six months of the year now that the crops have been established. I’m anxious to get a vegetable garden started, as I have a fantastic root cellar awaiting produce.

Chickens. My chicken coop presently houses 10 to 12 chickens, which provide: eggs for four people, live chicks to sell to cover all of the poultry costs, and a separate cage to raise a spring and summer batch of meat chicks.

Berries and more. I’m growing several types of herbal tea, horseradish, asparagus, and green onions, all of which are perennial. The elderberry bushes will make a comeback and eventually provide all the juice and berries I’ll ever need. I’ve got a small patch of wild blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and raspberry, as well as a few cultivated blueberry and raspberry bushes.

Fruit trees. The three apple trees I planted last year — which I got for a measly $12 dollars each, because they were full of bugs — have started to bud, despite the fact that I got overzealous and pruned them back to sticks. I just bought a Juliet Dwarf Cherry tree (half price) that hopefully isn’t as dead as it looks.

I’m far from being self-sufficient, but each day brings me one step closer, and I’m enjoying the experience immensely. In the meantime, I’m merging sustainability with the conveniences I am privileged to enjoy. I cook daylily stalks and leaves as I would broccoli, served with butter, cheddar, and parmesan cheese. I always add a fair number of wild greens, vegetables and garlic to either cream of mushroom or tomato canned soup by cooking the vegetables first, then adding the soup. I’ll use different herbs and spices each time — always a different pot of soup.


Broccoli or daylily, with butter and two types of cheese. Photo by Jo deVries

Living off the land is an opportunity to live a lifestyle that promotes good mental, physical and spiritual health, and results in a treasure that can’t be measured in dollars: peace of mind. Let’s do our part to keep the planet and ourselves healthy. It’s never too late to start living right. Let’s count our many blessings, and start serving them for dinner.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’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.

Create Compost the Lazy Way with Poultry, Slow Bedding and Straw Bales

chicken composters 

Chickens make quick work of composting
Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Compost is black gold! It is the darling of the vegetable gardening community. So much so that people will spend untold hours and lots of back breaking labor creating it. This effort seems justified for an end product that builds the structure of your soil, adds accessible nutrients for your vegetables, and (as top dressing) protects your garden from drought and winter-leaching.

To get it, gardeners spend hours gathering up raw materials, turn the heavy compost-in-the-making frequently with pitchforks, and monitor moisture and temperature so they can adjust the pile as needed.

But there are many ways to make compost, and not all of them require so much work. If you are sold on the benefits of compost for your garden, but are looking for an easier way to have it, read on for some lazy ways of getting to the same end. We long ago gave up cranking compost tumblers, weekly turning of compost piles, and careful formulations of brown-to-green materials. Here on our farm we now employ:

  • Quick Chicken Composting
  • Super Slow Bedding Composting
  • Lazy Garden Composting

Quick Chicken Composting 

This has to be the easiest way to make compost. It’s also the fastest! Make a compost bin right in your chicken yard (or near their coop if they free-range). The result will be perfect compost within about 2 months from spring through fall. These compost piles get hot enough internally to kill weed seeds!

Since our chickens live in a large fenced in pasture area we simply cordoned off two of the corners with a few straw bales creating triangular composting areas with straw bales on one side and fencing on the other two sides. Into the chicken composter go kitchen scraps and spoiled garden vegetables. Tomato and apple skins from canning go in as well. Dying plants at the end of harvest are added. The chickens eat some of the vegetable matter.  The rest they churn over and over, creating a perfect environment for worms and sow bugs who help them with the composting process. 

The extra insect life from composting is bonus food for the chickens as well. If you grow any kind of vegetable for very long you’ll come to realize that you’ve also gotten very good at raising bugs. We often succession plant beans, pulling the older plants as soon as they populate with bean beetle larvae. The plants and bugs go straight into the chicken composter. Spoiled hay and old straw are also nice carbon additions.

Keep two chicken compost bins in action so that you can fill one full then let the chickens do their thing for the next two months while you fill the second bin. When you empty the first bin of beautiful compost for your garden you simply start a new pile right in the same place. In the fall, break up any of the straw bales that are disintegrating and use them as the bottom layer of a new pile.

 super slow bedding composter

Use animal bedding to make wonderful composting the slow way. Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Super Slow Bedding Composting

This method takes two years, and involves a little more work as the piles need to be turned a couple of times. But it’s still a lot less work than traditional methods. Because animal manure is used in these piles they also get hot enough to kill weed seeds. Which is good since both hay and straw end up in the piles and these often have seeds mixed in.

We raise chickens, guineas, and sheep so we developed this composting method as a way of recycling the used bedding. The same method should work well if you have other birds or mammals. The birds sleep in a coop at night where we use a deep-bedding system of pine shavings. During the winter, and during early spring lambing, the sheep are housed in an open barn with a deep-bedding of straw. By the end of winter we have quite a lot of partially decomposed dirty bedding to remove. 

My husband created compost bins using four salvaged wooden pallets lined with chicken wire. Setting them directly on the ground (so the worms could find the compost) he tied them together with heavy duty Zip Ties. A row of these bins stretch in a line between the two animal houses.

Each spring we muck out the barn and coop putting all the dirty bedding in a large round wire bin beside the pallet bins. This lets in lots of air and rain. Over the summer the contents compost down to less than half their original size. My husband then turns it all out into the first pallet bin.  In the spring, the wire bin is filled again, and the first pallet bin gets turned over into the second pallet bin.  At each turning, he mixes in soybean meal or bone meal to speed the composting process.  By fall, Bin 2 goes into Bin 3, Bin 1 into Bin 2, and the large wire bin is turned into Bin 1.  By the third spring Bin 3 is ready to use directly on the garden, as beautiful black compost. 

This method takes a long time, but involves minimal work on your part.  If you have animals you must do something with their dirty bedding.  You might as well make lazy compost.

 straw bale composter

Make a straw bale compost pile right in your garden. Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Straw Bale Composting

Being a slow and cool composting method, this process will not kill weed seeds. But it makes compost within one year with little work. Simply be careful about putting in materials with seed. Make a square or rectangle of straw bales. Place them two bales per side and build them two bales high. A long piece of slotted PVC pipe placed vertically in the middle of the pile will allow air into the center which will cause it to compost more rapidly.

For more details about what to add to the pile, where to place it, and how to tend it, read my earlier post on BuildingYour Garden in Winter. This is a great composting method to place directly in your vegetable garden as a quick place to dispose of harvested plants. If your garden is near your kitchen as mine is, it is also a wonderful place to take kitchen scraps.

Scatter a cup of soy bean meal across the top of the pile every foot or so of material that you add. Once your compost bin is full, simply let it sit for a year and it will have fully composted.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her 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.







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