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


Growing Great Garlic and Homestead or Farm Profit

organic garlic curing at Inn Serendipity straw bale greenhouse

Organic garlic curing at Inn Serendipity straw bale greenhouse 

As Lisa Kivirist and I write about in our Farmstead Chef cookbook, growing garlic is nature’s ponzi scheme. That’s what happens when you plant a head of garlic which usually consists of about 6 to 12 cloves. We harvest our garlic in July, curing them in our straw bale greenhouse.

When it comes time to plant garlic late in the fall, we break apart the bulb and separate out each of the cloves: our seeds. By the second season, that original bulb or head of garlic has produced new six heads. By Year 3, as many as 36 bulbs (6 heads x 6 cloves each). In Year 4, there’s 214. You see where this is going. By Year 10, more than 10,000 garlic bulbs. So, we can sell some of the garlic for profit, while retaining the largest heads to plant for next year’s crop.

Unless we suffer a catastrophic crop failure, pretty uncommon for garlic crops, it’s practically impossible to go bust. Nature is hardwired to cover itself, reproductively speaking. For proof, try counting the blossoms on an apple or cherry tree in the spring. Some blossoms become apples or cherries, others don’t (blame it on the bees, a late frost or some other weather calamity). The point here is that nature, more often than not, goes overboard on abundance. And if you tend your own orchard or garden, it doesn’t take long to realize that the bushels of apples don’t cost a penny. Just your time and some labor.

Our 'German Red' hardneck garlic is a cash crop at Inn Serendipity Farm and Bed & Breakfast, generating more than a thousand dollars a year. So, we sell a lot of garlic locally, and ship it, too, taking orders online. Now that we’ve been selecting only the largest and best cloves on our particular Wisconsin site to plant the following year, our German Red garlic is ideally suited for our soil, climate and seasonal weather conditions. This means it becomes easier to grow every year and the crop increasingly reliable, since we’re planting the best plants for the following year.

We do get a lot of questions from first time garlic growers, asking for tips and organic practices that have served us well over the past twenty-three years. Here are a few the most common questions.

How many seed garlic heads to I need when planting?

Pounds wise, there about six to seven heads of our German Red garlic per pound for seed, based on the size of the garlic. The diameter for our German Red seed garlic is roughly 7.25-inches to 8-inches and weighs from 2-and-3/8 an ounce (66 grams) to 3 ounces (86 grams). For reference, we sell our culinary garlic for eating and cooking, too; there are nine to twelve garlic heads per pound for eating. Our culinary garlic will last for eating until March, 2020, if properly stored in a cool and dry place out of the sun.

Each of our German Red garlic heads used for seed will have about eight to eleven cloves. But you only want to plant the biggest cloves and the ones that have a good wrapper around them for planting. When planting, however, I only select the largest and best-looking cloves, so about four to seven cloves are planted for each head. The bigger the clove, the better, all other things being equal. The other smaller or “compromised” cloves we used in cooking or turning them into pickled garlic for sale under our state’s high-acid cottage food law. We keep the seed garlic dry and in a cool spot until it’s time for planting.

When do I plant seed garlic?

For our southern Wisconsin location, given the increased variability and unpredictability of weather caused by climate change, we usually plant our garlic in prepared beds at end of October or early November, depending on the temperature and when the ground starts freezing. We manage our growing fields organically, so we rotate our crops in different rows every year to help minimize disease and other issues. We never plant garlic in the same row, year after year. In terms of farming workflow, we like to plant potatoes (in early spring) next to garlic, since both can often be harvested around the same time.

How do I plant garlic?

We mulch very heavy with straw after planting the garlic cloves about an inch or so in the prepared soil. We cover the planted garlic cloves as much as five to six inches with straw and sometimes leaves. If we have a snow-free, but bitterly cold, winter, it’s peace of mind to have the cloves covered under the blanket of mulch. Come spring, we can always pull back the mulch to allow the young garlic stems to emerge from the mulch. After that, the mulch provides a weed barrier and helps preserve moisture.

What we’ve shared is what has worked well for us. We’ve never used woodchips and don't water our garlic after planted. We suggest getting a “planting with garlic” book or read other articles from Mother Earth News on the subject, since there are lots of strategies and approaches to try in your location.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural RenaissanceHomemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Both are speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, a 10.8-kW solar power station and millions of ladybugs. Read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.


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Growing Grapes Is Easy

In deep summer now the grape vines are lush and dark green, beautiful, and with clusters of still unripe grapes hidden under the broad leaves. A couple of months from now the grapes will be ripe and the family can decide to eat them fresh, or make raisins, or make wine or grape juice.

 grape bowl 

Besides food, grape vines provide me with shade and privacy, since the vines can be — must be — trained to provide architectural structure in the edible landscape and to keep them healthy.

 grape porch beauty 

I got into growing grapes by accident, almost 30 years ago, although I had been exposed to the idea of grapes and vineyards as a young child, in the Central Valley of California. But much later, in North Carolina, my husband and I bought an old house that had a broken-down grape arbor smothered by vines in the back yard. Since I didn't know what else to do, at the tender age of 29, I cut the two or three vines down to the ground — figuring I had killed the whole thing and could start over with something new.

The next year, though, vigorous new vines emerged, and the year after that the kids and I harvested 40 pounds of grapes. We learned how to make grape juice and grape jelly.

As The Encyclopedia of Organic Growing puts it, "Of all the fruits grown in America, grapes are the most widely adapted to varying soils and climates. Our first settlers found grapes growing from the coast of Maine to Florida and inland to the Rockies." Good and good for you, grapes will grow just about anywhere.

Here's all they need:

  • good air circulation around the canes (the slender vine-like branches)
  • loose, not too fertile soil with good drainage (a slope is good)
  • lots of sun and no competition from nearby trees
  • support from an arbor, trellis, or porch railing

Grape vines need something else to produce a good crop of grapes: pruning. Perhaps it's the idea of having to prune grapes every year that scares people, but I have learned over many seasons that pruning isn't difficult. I'll tell you more in a bit.

Eat and drink grapes 

Plant whatever kind of grapes you find. Plant everything. The more diversity the better; whatever is available locally will be cheapest, and if nothing else, grape vines are easy to produce and usually on sale somewhere. I got a lot of my grape vines from 4-H youth fundraisers in my town, usually for $5 apiece.

Grape plants take a few years to get established and create a strong enough root system to support fruit production. So don't worry at all if you don't see any sign of grapes for a long while. All of a sudden it happens, and the long lead time lets you get some practice with pruning before the plants get really big.

Once your grape vines start producing fruit, there are all sorts of things you can do with the grapes besides eating them fresh. If there are children in the house, you might enjoy making grape juice, then pasteurizing and canning it to keep a supply through the winter. Adult grape growers often start making wine, and at the moment I have two gallons bubbling away in a cool closet.

 handful grapes 

My husband likes to make a delicious kind of raisin from pulpy, juicy muscadine grapes which we pick at a farm nearby. He uses the dehydrator to make "muscadine mini-leathers" and then stores them in Mason jars. The Cherokee Indians have a recipe for making grape dumplings -- noodles made with wild grape juice as a binding agent and then simmered in more grape juice. That recipe appears in my book Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines,herbs and flowers for your landscape. And I have made pickled grape leaves and canned them, for use in making stuffed grape leaves, a favorite Middle Eastern dish.

 grape leaves 

Then there are quirky recipes like sugared grapes and grape leaf wine.

Inspired design 

Wine grapes grow, famously, in California, Chile, and the Mediterranean countries…all dry places with thin, rocky soil and little rainfall. But while traveling in relatively lush Hungary many years ago I saw grapes growing practically in water, where farmhouses sat next to creeks and grapevines were trained high around porch supports. Here in America, wild grapes grow high up in trees and scent the air, near forest edges. In any case, grapes need something to cling to and grow around.

 grape tendril 

At my house, early and mid-summer means training time, and it seems to go on forever. Until the vines have matured and hardened in late summer and through the fall, the vines want to reach out and grab something — anything — including the porch furniture and any tools left around.

 grape woven 

So almost every day I spend some time basket-weaving the supple young vines, the new growth from the previous night, through the porch supports and stair railings. And I have to trim leaves to keep them from overwhelming the living space, being careful to avoid those that are sheltering grapes from the view of birds and squirrels.

 grapes ripening 

A bit earlier in the season, in spring, one of my favorite events in nature's calendar is to watch the tiny pink grape buds emerge from the tender leaves. The actual flowers are tiny, but as the flowers appear they will attract lots of small pollinating bugs.

 grape bud 

The real pruning, rather than just the summer grooming, takes place in early winter, as soon as the leaves are off and growth has stopped. Here's what The Encyclopedia of Organic Growing says: "Grapes develop on the growth of the current year. Buds left on the vine at pruning time will produce fruit in summer. Year-old wood is the best yielder of fruit."

My practice is to plant grape vines where they can easily reach training wires or other support, then prune back each major cane to just two buds — two nodules or bumps — each year. No matter how much vine and leaf you have to remove from the summer just finished, prune the canes back hard to just two buds.

 grape pruned 

Believe it or not, the vines will grow right back. It's almost impossible to kill a grape vine, so experiment away.

As always, the best source of local information about varieties, suppliers, and care of grape vines is your county Cooperative Extension office, or "Ag Extension." Click on your state and then follow the links to your county.


Nan K. Chase grows her grapes in Asheville, North Carolina, and is the author of  Eat Your Yard!

Pruning Grapes for Maximum Harvest

Gnarly grape vines needing to be pruned 

In the Southern Colorado River Plateau region of Arizona, fruit production is iffy at best. Peaches produce about once every ten years or so, and apples average every fourth year. One fruit that is dang-near 100% reliable in this area, though, is grapes. And one particularly amazing variety here is the Himrod grape. But even though grapes will produce nearly every year with very little variance, the key to good quantities of grapes each year often comes down to pruning.

While it is appropriate to prune your grapes, and any other fruiting bush, tree, or vine any time there is damage, the best time to heavily prune grapes in our area is very early spring, around the first part of March. 

In the fall, your grape vines will look a bit like this (above), provided they had good water and grew well. 

Overgrown fall vines needing pruning

If you have relatively mild winters, it doesn't hurt to do some rough pruning at this stage. However, the best time to prune here is spring time, after the winter has killed back a lot of the sprouts from last year, leaving you being very sure about what is alive and what is dead. When I say "rough pruning", I mean taking off large danging branches that grow out of the main stalk, like here: 

Short old branches where new shoots can arise

These need to come off, as grapes need good airflow and good light penetration to all the leaves. Branches like this, coming right out of the main stem can tangle, serve as home for critters, make your grape vines look raggedy, and aren't usually all that productive. I trim them very close to the main trunk. 

In the spring, your goal is to just have a short piece of last year's wood from each of the side-branches. Most vineyards and home gardeners want to use the "Double-Arm Kniffen" style of growing grapes. In this system, the grape vine is trimmed to one main stem the first year. If there are arms coming off the stem, they are all trimmed away except possible one-four branches, if they are in the right point to grow arms out to the side like this:

Because grapes grow from new shoots coming from old wood, these four branches are the really productive wood, but only if you trim all the stragglers and keep the main trunk trimmed to only these four side branches. 

Year-old sprout emerging from main stem

The picture below shows how short I cut the shoots from last year. Each one of those nodes has the potential to make a fruiting sprout, so I limit the nodes to 2-3. 

Double-arm Kniffin system

Double-arm Kniffin system 

After pruning all branches coming off the main trunk, and trimming down all the old wood on the four arms, all that's left is to cut off anything that's obviously dead from the cold. 

You can usually tell pretty easily which wood is dead and which wood is alive. Living wood will have a rich, brown color and dead wood will be brittle and gray. The wood that is completely gray will not grow new shoots and thus will not be productive ever again, so it should come off as close to the arm of the vine as you can get. Sometimes these side shoots have been productive for a couple years and you'll need large pruners or even a saw to cut them once they die completely.

After all this pruning, you'll have a grape vine that looks similar to this. All the side branches should be completely free of old leaf litter and long, dangly vines. 

Freshly pruned grape vines

Grapes pruned in this manner will be easier to take care of, harbor fewer pests, and be more productive for years to come. 


Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

making-your-own-wine

MAKING YOUR OWN WINE AT HOME

If you've been thinking of trying your hand at home winemaking, delay no longer! It’s easier than you think to make wonderful wine at home. Get started today with this practical guide to making your first bottle of perfect homemade wine.

Author Lori Stahl demystifies essential winemaking techniques with friendly, jargon-free instructions and gorgeous color photography. She begins by taking you step by step through making wine from a kit, and then shows you how to go beyond the kit with creative additions. Soon you’ll be making your own flavorful wine from fresh grapes, apples, berries, and even flowers and herbs.

This home winemaking companion offers a wide selection of seasonal winemaking recipes, new twists on traditional favorites, and sweet ways to enjoy and indulge in the wines you create. Even if you have never made wine before, Making Your Own Wine at Home will show you everything you need to master an intriguing and rewarding new hobby. Order from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or by calling 800-234-3368.


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Fall Garden Cleanup in the Arid Southwest U.S.

 Chilies NOT going to ripen before frost

Chilies not going to ripen before frost

I recently ran across a Facebook post that suggested people should leave leaves on the lawn all winter to increase fertility and reduce fall clean-up work. I wasn't surprised when multiple gardeners from all over the world jumped right in and said all the things I was thinking: Mow them first or they will created dead patches on the lawn, pick them up and compost them before adding them so that critters don't overwinter in them, they will rot and make a stinky mess, and so on.

And then I remembered that we don't have big deciduous leaves where I am. Nor do we get enough moisture in the winter to either rot or compost leaves, chopped or not. I don't have much of a lawn, because it is too expensive and environmentally irresponsible to grow big swaths of grass in such an arid climate using city water. But I do have fall clean-up chores and I do appreciate any way that I can reduce my fall gardening chores.

One-Day Chore List

This year, I have been very busy with my son and his family moving in with me, so I made a list of the absolute requirements for garden cleanup, and the rest is going to have to wait until it freezes, or whenever I get to it. My goals for this day included:

  • Get rid of all the fruiting plants that either have no fruits, or which fruits are too small and immature to mature before frost. 
  • Any garden bed that is empty, add compost or manure or both
  • Trim all the trees that had damage, and trim the locust trees for shape*
  • Harvest everything usable and process it
  • Mow all the weeds, lawn, orchard "grass", between raised beds, and paths

It isn't a huge list, I know, but I do have 13 raised beds, seven compost bins, a small grape vineyard, and a greenhouse that needed this treatment, and I can't run the lawn mower (my favorite weed- and leaf-chopping tool) while people in the house are sleeping, so time is always an issue. But I was blessed with a 3-day weekend due to Columbus Day, so I tackled the uprooting of the fruiting plants first.

I think it is important to note, once again, how different this area is from the rest of what people consider "Arizona." Frost here in Zone 6 typically happens sometime in late October. Last year, we had a couple small light frosts between October 15 and 20, and was chilly, but not bitter, until January 1, at which time it suddenly got into single digits and then stayed there for a while. The year before, It froze hard, down to 21 in my garden on October 29, so I know it is coming. But every year, without fail, I get caught by the frost and I have slimy, smelly, frozen tomato vines one morning. Not so this year!

Harvesting

I harvested all the fruits I could. There were very few tomatoes left, so mostly it was a handful of my new favorite tomato from Baker Creek, and peppers. All the pepper plants that had peppers on them that looked to be close to harvesting size, I harvested the peppers and pulled the plants. I took in a couple gallons of peppers, all varieties, including one called Mad Hatter, where these "Fun Bandz"-shaped rings came from. 

Sliced Mad Hatter peppers

Sliced Mad Hatter peppers 

I think it is worth mentioning the 'Mad Hatter' peppers — not ones I would have bought for myself — were seeds given to me by the Seed Keeper Company as part of my winning package a couple years ago on Facebook. They are the MOST prolific of any pepper I have ever grown, and very unique in both shape and taste. My students started them back in February, in the classroom, and then Covid took my students away from me and they couldn't take their plants home. I did sell a few plants, enough to replenish our seed stock, and then I planted most of the rest.

Tree-Trimming

After I uprooted all the plants and moved them to the compost, I trimmed the broken branches from the peach tree. While we didn't harvest any peaches this year, we did have some rough winds that caused damage and I cut those branches off. The Homecoming bonfire is coming up anyway, so my son can take those branches and help out his class at school, too. I then proceeded to trim up the bottom of the locust tree. 

Mostly, trees should be trimmed between late fall and early spring, when they are dormant. But when they are dormant in my yard, the way they look is drastically different than when they are green and flopping all over the place, so a light trim for shape and safety isn't going to do them much harm. I won't, however, prune my grapes much at all until January, at the very earliest. Since the produce fruit, I want to make darn sure fruiting canes are pruned correctly at the right time. 

Fertilizing

Adding compost and manure is the easiest part of all this. I just spread compost about 3 inches thick, or chicken manure about 1 inch thick, rake smooth, and water really well. The key to breaking down organics in such an arid area is adding water. The microbes that are needed to turn rich, nitrogenous manure into nitrates that plants can use, need moisture to live and reproduce. While they won't necessarily be super-busy this winter, they'll need moisture come spring and the moisture I am adding now will also help keep it all from blowing away. While we can't always count on which days will bring frost, rest assured the wind will blow every day the sun comes up around here. 

Last, but not least, I pickled my peppers. I mix the hot and sweet together with some thinly-sliced onion and chopped garlic, add some salt, vinegar, and cracked peppercorns, and stick them in the fridge for a couple days. In a week, they'll be the most scrumptious salad- or sandwich-topper ever!

Sweet and hot peppers, ready to harvest and pickle

Sweet and hot peppers, ready to harvest and pickle

The days were busy, but a large portion of the garden is ready for winter!

Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, 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.

What Keeps Farmers Busy in the Winter?

Seed Catalog

There is a myth that farmers only work during the growing season. That we have nothing to do in the wintertime but vacation, tinker, make crafts and read books. Certainly, on our organic vegetable farm, we are busiest during spring planting and summer harvests. But winter is the time to get everything else done.

Winter is farm cleanup time. Clear the rows of hoops and dirt bags, the supplies that keep row covers over the crops. We pile up the hoop and dirt bags at the top of the row on pallets. The pallets can be scooped up on the tractor forks and driven to a storage spot. Mulch the blueberries. Tuck the fig tree under some protective mulch for the winter. We put things away that were set amiss during busier times. Haul the recyclables. Stack tomato trellis panels. Mow the field perimeter. Pull up rows of landscape fabric and reroll it, ready to use for weed control in the fresh spring rows. Organize the barn.

Winter is project time. Build more hoophouse benches for seedling trays. Build an arbor for the hardy kiwi vines. Build new herb garden beds. Work on the solar panel project. Fix the tractors, replace wearing blades. Have a baby.

Yes, we even coordinated our children’s births with the “off-season." Not because we are that organized, but mainly because my husband got a nervous twitch when he thought about a spring baby. There was a window of opportunity, you might say. Our sons were born in January and October. It is not a coincidence.

Winter is fix-it time. Fix the driveway, order gravel dump loads. Rebuild broken wood crates. The bathroom back-splash project.

Winter is housework time. We start to notice the condition of our house. House cleanup and fix up, decluttering, things that never hit the list during the summer season. Put up new clotheslines. Build shelves in the closet. Clean up. Some.

Winter is, indeed, vacation time as well. Go cross-country skiing, go on an adventure, go to a farm conference, visit faraway friends. We don’t leave the farm often, but we try to get away some.

Winter is planning time. I drink tea and peruse a seed catalog, dreaming about next year’s garden. Provider Bush Beans. Windsor Fava. Let’s try edamame! Drop the peppers that didn’t produce well. Plant some horseradish root. Maybe Chioggia beets this year. Want to grow more sunflowers?

For years, I would send the kids to their grandparents’ house for a sleepover and Phil and I would stay home to review the seed order together. It took hours, lovely hours over tea and an Excel spreadsheet, with dreams and hopes for next year’s garden. I enjoyed those meetings. Now, in our fifteenth season, seed ordering is easy. Phil pretty much just handles it, reviewing last year’s spreadsheet and making a few changes. We mostly stick with favorites that grow well for us. We always add a few new varieties to try, and change a few things up. Add a couple pipe dreams. Like fava beans. To keep things interesting.

Winter is rest time, too. Even though the job list is long, we sneak in the rest and slow our routine down. We sleep in more days. Cook more soup. Bake cookies. Visit with friends. Read books out loud in the evenings to the kids. Certainly, farming keeps us busy year round, but the busi-ness changes with the seasons.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and Blog.HouseInTheWoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to www.HouseInTheWoods.com. Read all of Ilene'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.

Memory-Building on a Family Farm

Dusky Sky Over Family Farm

On my first day of work at Dayspring Farm, it rained all morning. I felt sheepish in my green raincoat and hiking boots, grinning my “hellos” to the year-round staff I met at the farm’s weekly meeting. My professor and mentor, Charlie Maloney, had been kind enough to offer me some work at his family farm when my other summer plans were canceled due to COVID-19. After learning about the numerous benefits of ecological growing in Charlie’s class on Sustainability and Agriculture at William & Mary that past spring, I was thrilled to have the opportunity.

So, setting out that morning, I drove the 40 minutes from Williamsburg, to the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, crossing the concrete bridge by WestRock Paper Mill at the point where the Pamunkey River flows into the York. Mountains of castrated trees stood out against a grey sky that began to spit rain. SUVs and pickup trucks pounded across the way. The cranes that worked the mill lifted the trees into a loud machine that fed a light-tan pyramid of pulp standing three stories high. This water and its shores, once lush in native vegetation that would have rejoiced in such a cooling rain, now sat trapped beneath cement. These trees would never dance again; they were separated from their roots and branches, lying supine to be grasped by metal. I felt an emptiness I’d come to perceive as a sense of permanent loss.

Arriving at the Farm

I arrived. To keep a rookie dry on his first day, Charlie and the managers assigned me to weed the ginger in one of the farm's four high tunnels. I crawled on my hands and knees and listened to the droplets drum on the tunnel’s plastic roof, reflecting.

Amidst a pandemic that had shown me — more than anything — how far removed we’ve all become from the very land beneath our feet, the scene at the paper mill deepened my concern. And here I was, alone again, tending to baby ginger in a rainstorm. It wasn’t more than two days ago that I’d been with my family, curled up on a couch in the suburbs of Arlington, where I’d grown up. Where was I now? My lower back was screaming, and the weeds seemed to multiply with preternatural vigor right before my eyes. I’d almost finished my first row when Charlie came to check on me.

The man is a 70-year-old meteorite: short, strong, and pensive, who has been farming at Dayspring since he and his partner, Miriam, bought the land in the 1980s.

“Why don’t you come outside and help us with something?” he offered, smiling. “It looks like you’ve worked long enough in here.”

We stepped outside together. There was a break in the rain, and the plants around us stood out happy and cold, steeped in the vibrant color of their contrast with the greyness of the clouds. This was the first time that I’d spent a moment with Charlie alone on his land. I quickly felt his immense pride in the sandy loam beneath our feet, the earthworms that called it home, and all the crops that grew out of it without the help of the neonicotinoids, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that are used upon 99 percent of our world’s agricultural land. But there was something more than pride in his movements and the way he spoke about the place he lived and worked. Straining for a glimpse of this fugitive element, I almost fell over a tray of young flowers that Miriam was preparing to plant in a neat row by the barn. Gathering myself, I managed my best greeting.

“It’s such a pleasure to have you on the farm this summer!” Miriam responded. I blushed.

“Why don’t you help us with these xenias?” said Charlie. “You dig the holes, I’ll prepare them, and Miriam will come behind to tuck in the plants.”

Lucky Bucket 15

They told me about how the rows had to be straight and how I was a “natural with a trowel.” I couldn’t tell if they were joking, but I loosened up and smiled. I learned that “preparing” the soil meant dropping a scoop of organic chicken feather fertilizer into each hole. Charlie carried this amendment in a galvanized bucket with a twisted handle and a faded number 15 painted on the side. He noticed that I was staring and chuckled.

“What? Haven’t I told you my bucket story yet?” I shook my head, and he took off, recounting how his father had been a sharecropper who took a seasonal job at the tomato cannery in town every winter to make some extra money for his young family. I was struck by how much Charlie knew about his father’s daily life and history, as he explained how the workers at the cannery would skin the tomatoes into metal buckets by hand and send them down a conveyor belt to be processed. I noticed a distant quality in his gem-blue eyes as he continued:

“Well, when the cannery finally went bankrupt and closed, they gave each worker one of those buckets as a memento. My father got lucky number 15,” Charlie beamed, holding up the relic. “Now I use it as my special fertilizer bucket. It reminds me of Dad.” By this time, Miriam had planted her last flower.

She stood up and looked over the land she loved and said to no one in particular that “these will come up beautifully by the end of the summer. They’ll attract the bees and keep the cycle going.” And then I understood.

Memory-Building on the Farm

All this time I’d thought that, once lost, the intimate memory of one’s connection with their home land is forever severed. But Miriam and Charlie were living proof that it's not. The element that mingled with their obvious pride in the farm was memory, a memory that was built and rebuilt over their 30-plus years in the place they still call home. To “keep the cycle going” is to trust that once-bountiful land will never be completely decimated and to believe in the nourishing, restorative process of memory-building that emphasizes our indelible human reliance on healthy soils and ecosystem services for survival.

At the end of that first day, Charlie took me on a tour of the farm to make sure I knew the layout of my new workplace. Our last stop was the woodlot that borders his property where his kids, now in their 30s, once built a treehouse and put on plays by firelight.

“I would always recommend including a woodlot to anyone looking to buy farm property,” he says. “It’s so important to have wild space in an agricultural system to encourage biodiversity.” He’s staring down at the decrepit treehouse, now full of wolf spiders and rotting wood. The green paint on its aluminum is weathered, and the spring-fed creek that borders his land trickles, constant just beyond our field of vision.

“Plus,” he says with a glance 20-or-so-years away from me, “it’s great for the kids.”

Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him on Facebook and read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

What is Biodynamic Farming?

 Biodynamic vineyard

Biodynamic winery

I have heard the term "biodynamic" and wondered what was involved. Some consider biodynamic gardening or farming as voodoo science and quackery — or simply a scam. Others feel it is holistic, natural way of gardening leveraging mystical forces. The description I like is defines it as organic permaculture with a spiritual twist.

Biodynamic Farming's Roots

Biodynamic farming is actually the precursor to organic and sustainable farming. It is from Dr. Steiner’s teaching of how to work with the earth and heavens to farm in harmony with nature. “Organic farming” was coined by those describing Dr. Steiner’s farming approach.

Biodynamic gardening was developed in Germany in the early 1920s by philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner. Dr. Steiner believed that the soil, plants, animals and everything in the solar system is interconnected.

The backbone of the method is the making of preparations used in minute amounts to enhance production. Biodynamic gardening results in much enhanced soil and veggie nutrition and increased top soil depth.

Many gardeners feel that the approach is too complicated to implement in their gardens. However, you can purchase the preparations to add to your compost. I purchased mine from Malibu Compost.

There is a deep devotion to the soil’s health, animal welfare, and the cycles of the moon and stars. It is important that 10% of farmland is set aside as a biodiversity preserve. As with organic, farms have to be certified to claim their products are “biodynamic” by following the Demeter Processing Standard.

Free Range Chickens For Pest Patrol (Control)

Free range chickens used for pest patrol (control)

As with organic gardening, biodynamic uses only all natural amendments, pest and weed control. As with permaculture, biodynamic gardening is self-contained with no outside inputs brought into the farm.

Cover crops are used routinely. The farm is considered a wholly connected organism. There is also significant emphasis on water conservation and companion planting. Planting and harvesting is done by the phases of the moon and astral conditions like those our grandparents followed using the Farmers Almanac.

The 9 Preparations of Biodynamic Agriculture

There are 9 “preparations” used in biodynamic (BD): BD#500 horn manure, BD#501 horn silica, BD#502 yarrow, BD#503 chamomile, BD#504 stinging nettle, BD#505 oak bark, BD#506 dandelion, BD#507 valerian, and BD#508 horsetail. BD#502-507 are collectively known as the compost preparations.

  • BD#500 is a cow horn packed with cow manure and buried in the ground for the winter.
  • BD#501 is silica packed in a cow horn buried in the ground for the summer.
  • BD#502 is yarrow blossoms sown into a stag bladder that is hung in the summer sun and buried for the winter.
  • BD#503 is chamomile blossoms stuffed in a bovine intestine and buried over winter.
  • BD#504 is the entire stinging nettle plant ground up and buried in the ground surrounded by peat moss for a full year.
  • BD#505 is ground oak bark packed in an empty skull with the membrane intact and buried in swamp like conditions for the winter.
  • BD#506 is dandelion blossoms stuffed into bovine mesentery or peritoneum membrane and buried for the winter.
  • BD#507 is the juice of valerian blossoms that is fermented for a few weeks.
  • BD#508 is a horsetail tea.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are important for soil retention, soil nutrition, and soil enhancement

Using Biodynamic Preparations to Build Soil

It is best if the preparations are made on the property that it will be used. Steiner believed burying the preparations in the ground gave cosmic and earth energy to them. If you are going to purchase the preparations, purchase them from a farm in the same region.

Spray applications of 501 and 507 raises the top level depth from shallow to a depth of 14 ubcges over several years, according to biodynamic wineries. Using cover crops and adding compost to the soil is the backbone of organic practices that have been shown to increase topsoil depth. Biodynamic farmers believe the spray applications enhance these practices to another level.

BD#508 spray is used to combat fungal conditions. I sprayed my garden with BD#508 this summer as I had lots of fungal pressure with all the rain we got last June and the rain is even greater this summer. So far, so good.

To try out the benefit of biodynamic in our garden without personally finding the ingredients and making the preparations, I purchased Bu’s Brews by Malibu Compost biodynamic compost tea bags. I add the compost tea bags to my water pail and water my pots and garden plants after aerating the biodynamic compost tea as recommended. I then compost the bags in my compost pile that I add back to the garden.

You can purchase wines and food products that are raised biodynamically. Here is a directory of biodynamic product: Biodynamic food directory

My Sister, Mom and I at Beckmen Vineyards

My sister, mom, and me at Beckman Vineyards

A Visit to a Biodynamic Winery

Over the holidays, my sister and mom wanted to know what “adventure” I was up for during my stay in the Los Angeles area. I wanted to visit a biodynamic farm to talk to the farmers to get a better understanding of what biodynamic is all about.

The most well-known biodynamic farms are likely wineries in the U.S.: Frey, Beckmen, Quivira, Bass Vineyards, and Benziger are a few wineries that raise their grapes following biodynamic practices.

Beckman Winery is within driving distance of LA. Beckmen Winery produces excellent wines. You can visit the winery, have a picnic, and try their wines in their tasting room. Beckmen Winery

I am a big fan of organic and working with and supporting nature. Biodynamic farming embodies this approach. The additional layer with biodynamic is the preparations used in small quantities in your compost piles to impart the energies of the earth and sky. Dr. Steiner believed all was connected together as a living organism.

Even though scientific proof of how the energies are imparted is a mystery, studies prove the soil and nutrition of plants in a biodynamic farm is higher than conventional. I think we find out more each year of how interconnected everything is.

Melodie Metje started her blog, Victory Garden on the Golf Course, to help guide her family's gardening efforts and to keep track of what was happening in her own garden. She named it after the victory gardens grown to help the WWII effort. Melodie thinks we are in a similar situation today: Our country needs our help in battling the war on ill health. 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.







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