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

Heritage Harvest Festival 2017

 Heritage Harvest Festival logo

On September 8 and 9, 2017 I will be participating in the Heritage Harvest Festival held at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, VA. It is a celebration of food, sustainable agriculture, and the preservation of heritage plants. Visitors can learn about our Virginia history, and more importantly, learn how we can make use of that history to move forward as a sustainable society. There will be exhibits, speakers, vendors, and food trucks (including beer) up on the mountain in Thomas Jefferson’s backyard.

This is the 10th year I have been a speaker at the festival. My programs always have to do with sustainable gardening--growing food, seeds, and cover crops. This year my topic is From Seed to Garment: Cotton and Flax/Linen in Your Garden and I will be talking about growing fiber and making it into clothes. Monticello has been adding more exhibits to tell the story of the slave families on the plantation and that is as it should be. Mr. Jefferson added textile production to Monticello’s operations in order to produce clothing for his worker population. That exhibit should open in 2018. However, production of clothing from seed to garment is not something that has to be relegated to the past and my talk will give you information to bring that skill into your life now. Learn more at Homeplace Earth.

Also coming up near me is Field Days of the Past, which is the following weekend. This is the place to see a good tractor pull. This event began as a celebration of old steam engines and you will find a working saw mill there, as well as a sorghum press in operation with a gasoline powered engine. Not everything is about engines, however. My friend Jan Thomas will be there with her flax brake and homegrown flax, demonstrating how to turn flax into linen. I will join her for a while on Friday, September 15.

Festivals and fairs are good places to be exposed to new-to-you ideas and broaden your horizons, so to speak. Mother Earth News now has fairs in six locations around the country. Coming up September 15-17 is the Fair at Seven Springs, PA. Attending a Mother Earth News Fair is a good opportunity to meet and learn from people who have been out there testing the limits of what is possible. You might already be familiar with some of them from the books they have written. Coincidentally, that same weekend, in nearby Stahlstown, is the annual Flax Scutching Festival where you can see the whole flax-to-linen process demonstrated.

Take a look around your community and I am sure you will find some sort of festival or fair to visit. This is the season for fiber festivals, by the way. Often it is the connections you make with others at these events that make your day special. Take the time to listen to the speakers and interact with the exhibitors and vendors. It always amazes me how far people travel to attend the Heritage Harvest Festival or a Mother Earth News Fair. They tell me they made it their vacation destination. Learning new things is good for your heart, your mind, and your soul, especially when it takes you out of our comfort zone. 

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Start a Permaculture Orchard Using the NAP Method

Permaculture Orchard Wide Angle

In a quest to increase our self-sufficiency, my husband and I discovered permaculture. We immersed ourselves in permaculture literature and videos and came away inspired to try some new techniques for resilient living.

Our ultimate goal in life is to decrease our consumerism and increase our ability to live off our land and enjoy the fruits of our own labours. Permaculture, an agricultural ecosystem intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient, looked to be just what we were searching for.

We were particularly struck by the concept of food forests and permaculture orchards. We purchased the DVD from Stefan Sobkowiak (The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic, 2014) and were inspired to begin our own orchard.

Prior to discovering permaculture, we had pondered creating an orchard of heritage apples for hard cider, however, a monoculture of apples is neither sustainable nor self-sufficient and would require many inputs. A permaculture orchard, on the other hand, has multiple layers of vegetation that not only produce something edible, but also improve the soil, and can either attract the beneficial insects or repel the harmful ones.

The Nitrogen, Apple, Plum/Pear Method of Orcharding

We liked Sobkowiak’s N.A.P. method of alternating the trees so that one kind of tree is always separated from another of its kind. Using N.A.P., a nitrogen-fixing tree is planted, then an apple tree, and then a pear/plum tree — this pattern is repeated to several times to complete a row of trees. The rows to the left and right would start with either the apple or pear/plum to ensure the separation between kinds is maintained across the rows as well.

The separation of like kinds can restrict the spread of diseases and pests, but still allow pollinators to do their job. For our orchard we expanded upon N.A.P. by adding another “A”, apricots, and another “P”, peaches.

After drawing up a plan to replace 1 acre of lawn with three rows of 12 trees each, we purchased 36 bare root trees and shrubs. The fruit trees consisted of:

• 10 apple (two each of Calville Blanc, Golden Russet, Kingston Black, Ribston Pippin, and Michelin);

• three plum (two each of Black Ice and a single Toka);

• four pear (one each of Sunrise, North Brite, Clara Frij, and Magness);

• three peach (two each of Flamin’ Fury and a single Veteran);

• and three apricot (two each of Sugar Pearl and a single Harlayne).

The nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs consisted of: six sea buckthorn shrubs; two honey locust trees; two autumn olive shrubs and three Siberian peashrub.

Providence smiled upon us, because the weather for our planting was overcast and cool, with barely a breeze. The week following planting was also cool and wet. And with the exception of a single apricot, which sprouted leaves from its base and not from the branches, all of the trees appear to be thriving — even our struggling apricot passed the scratch test, and hopefully, we will see leaves on its branches next spring.

Silage Tarps for Understory and Orchard Irrigation

Beneath the trees we laid down used silage tarps given to us by a dairy farming friend. The tarps not only smother the grass and weeds, but also motivate weed seeds to germinate in the warm and moist environment; however, these seeds soon die back with lack of sunlight and leave a relatively weed-free plot of soil ready for planting.

Under the tarps we ran soaker hoses with drip irrigation and connected these to a 1,000 L water tote that catches rain water. On top of these silage tarps we’re spreading a thick layer of wood mulch. This task is taking longer to complete because we either pick up loads of free mulch ourselves or a tree service kindly dumps its load following a job nearby.

In the future, we hope to remove the silage tarps and use only the wood mulch as an understory in the orchard. Towards this end, we are making progress and adding the lower layers to our permaculture orchard, and if these plants can thrive, future competition from weeds and grasses will be more manageable.

To date, we’ve added comfrey, red currants, and honeyberries. Each fruit tree has a comfrey planted next to it because the plant’s long roots draw nutrients from deeper in the soil up to the surface, making them accessible to the nearby fruit tree.

Although our orchard is newly planted, and will take some years to become “fruitful”, it has already supplied us with currants to eat and comfrey to feed to our chickens. The work of planting and overseeing the young trees is an exercise in delayed gratification, but we already find joy in tending our orchard and watching the trees and shrubs grow.

Photo by Greg Harrold

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram.

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.

Use Coffee Grounds in Your Garden


Here in California, many of us know much more about the best restaurant in our neighborhood than we do about the best local garden. We know which cafe has the best coffee roast more than the ins-and-outs of good soil biology. Fortunately, there are some easy to follow steps to enhance your backyard soil, without breaking the bank.  In fact, there is a natural and beneficial soil amendment right under your nose! That's right: Coffee grounds are a great natural food source for the soil. So, follow these simple steps and stop throwing away your spent coffee grounds.

1. Separate coffee grounds from your other compost. Also remove paper sleeve if possible.

2. Identify heavy feeders in your garden. Heavy feeders are plants that welcome regular nutrients. 

List of some Heavy Feeders:

Apple, Pear, Plum, Cherry, Avocado, Tomato, Squash, Pumpkin, Corn, Roses, Camelias, Magnolias, Azaleas

Note: Many California Native plants and Mediterranean plants (*Ie: Sages and Lavenders) do NOT want such rich nutrients regularly added to their roots. Please avoid such plants and stick to heavy feeding perennials and vegetables.

3. “Sugar shake” the grounds around heavy feeders, so that it is sprinkled around. Note: Avoid clumping a whole handful of grounds in any given area, as it is very acidic.  Therefore it is important to sprinkle the grounds around the plants.

4. Repeat this application of coffee grounds 1 time per month. This way you keep finding new destinations for your coffee grounds.

Don't have a garden yet? Fret not! You can begin to feed and enhance the soil biology of empty plots as well with this coffee sugar-shaking method! Have a large project? Talk to your local coffee shop and arrange to pick up bags of spent grounds. They are usually very willing!

Want to learn more? Check out my video for how I go to Starbucks all over the Bay Area and glean free castings for all of my garden projects!

So sugar shake those coffee grounds out of your trash or compost and into your garden.  Give your summer crops a boost with coffee grounds!

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun GardensHe 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.

Tomato Problems: Fix Issues Affecting Your Tomatoes


Common Tomato Pests

Aphids and whitefly: Blast off small infestations with a jet of water, or spray plants with soapy water, taking care to reach the undersides of the leaves. Control aphids and whiteflies by planting flowers close by to attract pest predators such as ladybugs and hoverflies. You can even purchase some pest predators to introduce into greenhouses and hoop houses.
Spider mite: Spray the foliage thoroughly with a fine mist of water, and then cover the plant with a row cover for a few days. The shady, humid conditions will repel the mites.
Tomato hornworm: Remove and destroy any caterpillars you find during regular inspections. Sometimes you may find hornworms covered in small white cocoons. These belong to braconid wasps, which feed on hornworms to bring them under control.

Tomato Diseases

Late blight: Avoid splashing the leaves when watering, and remove infected plants as soon as you spot the first signs of blight. Blight is uncommon on tomatoes grown under cover. There are also now some varieties described as “blight resistant.”
Blossom end rot: Keep tomatoes evenly moist and don’t let them dry out. Feed them regularly with a liquid tomato fertilizer. Keep a careful eye on plants grown in containers, as they are especially susceptible.

Watering and Feeding 

Split fruits: Keep soil consistently moist, and mulch with plenty of organic matter.
Magnesium deficiency: Magnesium deficiency can occur if the plant is receiving too much potassium. To correct this, spray a solution of Epsom salt directly on the foliage and then begin feeding using a tomato feed containing a higher proportion of magnesium.
Wilted plants: Plants can wilt when the soil is either too wet or too dry. Set up an irrigation system on a timer if you can’t be around to water regularly enough. Make sure containers of tomatoes have large enough drainage holes in the base and that water can drain easily. Raise containers up onto pot feet if necessary.
Poor Fruit Set: Avoid pesticide use and make sure to open the doors of greenhouses and hoop houses to allow bees access and provide plenty of ventilation. Tapping on supports to dislodge the pollen or gently twiddling the flowers between your fingers can help improve pollination. If your climate’s very dry, raise the humidity around plants with regular damping down. Feed your plants regularly with an off-the-shelf tomato fertilizer or a homemade high-potassium liquid fertilizer such as comfrey tea.

Learn more about keeping your tomatoes healthy in this video.

More Gardening Resources

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

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

More Videos

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

Managing Your Onion Harvest

onion braids hanging in the shed - Copy

When I harvest my onions in late June I pull them up when the tops are beginning to fall down. Then I put them somewhere with good air circulation to let the tops and the onions dry. I want the tops in good condition to braid. Onions are easier to harvest when they can be easily pulled out by the tops. If you wait too long, the tops break off or are gone completely when you are harvesting and you have to dig the onions out of the ground.

No matter how you have harvested your onions, it is time to take another look at them. I grow enough onions to store for winter eating and know that some onions, even though they looked great at harvest, are clearly not going to last long in storage. However, just because you have a few rotten onions, doesn’t mean they are all bad, or going to go bad. In fact, even if an onion is beginning to get soft in one spot, it might still have some good in it. I find that, particularly with onions that have divided into two under the skin, the outsides might be soft but there are still two solid onions just below the rotting skin. At least they will still be good to use if you get that skin off soon.

Sort through your onions and pull out the ones that are solid all over. They will be your long-term keepers. Identify the ones that have just a bit of softness at the neck. They will last a good while, but you want to use them before the long keepers. By this time in the season you can readily identify the ones that need to be used now. (There will also be ones that need to go directly to the compost pile.) The onions that have some good in them, but will be of no use for long-term storage, can be used when you are canning salsa, spaghetti sauce, and whatever else you preserve that has onions in it. You can use the best parts of these onions to dry for winter use. Although not suitable to store as raw onions, they will be great dehydrated. I keep a basket of onions that have to be used very soon on my porch, right outside my kitchen door. They are handy to grab for summer cooking.

Onions need to be in a cool, dry place. According to Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, onions should be stored at 45-55° F. and 50-60% humidity. I braid my onions for long-term storage and hang the braids from the rafters in my garden shed, transferring them to the crawlspace of our house by mid-October. In addition to looking great, it is easy to see the condition the onions are in if they are in braids. I don’t check the temperature or humidity of these places, but I know that it never goes below freezing in the crawlspace. Read more about managing your onion harvest at HomeplaceEarth.

I have read of people storing onions in panty hose—tying a knot in the stocking after each onion is put in. That keeps them separated and allows for maximum air circulation. You would cut at the knot to release the onion it was holding. Storing onions loosely in baskets is another possibility. A mesh bag would work to hold your best onions long term if you hung it in an airy place.

If you want to store onions for the winter months, it is important to have grown the varieties best for that. It is too late for that this year, but notice the descriptions of the varieties when you choose onion seeds or sets for next year. Also, if you think braiding is the way to go, make a note to keep the tops in good condition when you harvest next summer. Onions are a terrific staple crop for your garden that, with a little care, you can enjoy all year in your homegrown meals.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Root Tomato Cuttings for Fall Using Test Tubes

The cherry tomato plants were looking really sad, half-dead, leggy and non-productive. With a good two months until first frost, it’s time to start new plants. So, whack them off just right above where new shoots are starting, about 8 inches from the ground. These will now grow quickly and have new cherry tomatoes in probably about six weeks since they have huge root systems.

To replace the determinate variety that is long gone, snip some cuttings from the top growth to root. Because shoving them all into a single jar makes for tangled roots that rip when separated, try this little system: Put each cutting into a test tube filled with filtered water. If there’s more than one variety, you can easily label the tubes.

A very economical set of 25 tubes with a cardboard rack can be found on Amazon for just $6.99 with Prime shipping. Set this “rooting rack” in a window with good light and expect roots within a few days. Tomatoes love to make roots. The cuttings drink, so check the water level daily.

When the cuttings are well rooted, you can pot them up to set out when they show good growth or put them right into a garden area they you can tend and keep evenly watered at least until they put on strong growth.

This works equally well for cherries and full-sized tomato varieties. If there are still green tomatoes when frost hits, go ahead and pick them. Those with just a bit of color will slowly ripen on a windowsill and the ones still hard green make wonderful relishes and pickles. No work to speak of, a bonus tomato crop and it’s free.

The test tubes are an inexpensive investment. Scrub out them out and store them away for next year. Before re-using, give them a quick swish with white vinegar, just in case.

Before you store them for next year, consider rooting some herbs to grow out during the winter. Lemon verbena comes first to mind, then rosemary and lavender.

Wendy Akin is happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’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.

Flax to Linen: Hackling

0-hackles and hands2 - BLOG

Growing flax and turning it into linen for clothes requires growing a variety suitable for fiber to spin. You plant it in early spring and harvest it about 100 days later, Next it is retted, broken, and scutched. There is no hurry to go from harvest to retting and from retting to breaking, however, breaking, scutching, and hackling generally happen at the same time. Hackling is done with a tool (hackle) that is full of sharp tines. After it is broken and scutched, the flax is drawn through hackles to clean it, resulting in a long ponytail of flax fiber ready to spin.

Unless you are lucky enough to find one at an antique mall, you will most likely have to make your own hackles. I have purchased two antique flax hackles—one was $60 and the other was $40. Wigmaking requires the use of hackles and you might find a new one made for that purpose. Although not as much fun as using an antique flax hackle, you can make a new one out of a board and nails. You will find the specifications of my homemade flax hackles at Homeplace Earth.

Some hackles are on a long board with, what looks like, hand holds at each end. One of those holes is actually for your foot to go through, holding it to the ground. You use the hole at the other end to hold the hackle upright, parallel to your body. I prefer to have hackles that are clamped to a table. Since this is an outdoor activity, the picnic table is usually the recipient of the hackles. I use c-clamps to hold them in place.

Hackles are sharp, so take care when using them or else you will draw blood. It is wise to keep up-to-date on your tetanus shot. To protect yourself when they are not in use, you can make covers for your hackles. My husband made a wonderful wooden cover that fits over the first hackle I bought. For the two I made, I have fashioned a cover for each from cardboard boxes. I haven’t taken the time to make a cover yet for the second antique hackle that I acquired in May.

You will find flax hackles with varied spacing of the tines. One guideline to use for spacing the tines on a hackle is to put them 1” apart for a coarse hackle, ½” apart for a medium hackle, and ¼” apart for a fine hackle.  If you only have one hackle, make it a medium with half inch spacing. In her book, Home Life in Colonial Days, written in 1898, Alice Morse Earle says that the fineness of fiber after hackling depended on the number of hackles used, their fineness, and the person doing the hackling. She writes that after the first coarse hackle, six other hackles were used, in varying degrees of fineness. If you have three hackles, coarse, medium, and fine, you will be doing well.

You will end up with more tow than line fiber when you hackle flax. You can still use it by hackling it again. The shorter tow fibers may have to be carded with wool cards kept just for that purpose. When processing the flax of my own harvest from an 80 sq. ft. bed, I started with 5.6 pounds of retted flax, which yielded 6 ounces of line fiber ready to spin and 19 ounces of tow. Of that amount of tow, 12 ounces was pulled out with the coarse hackle, 4 ounces with the medium, and 3 ounces was left behind in the fine hackle. That harvest also included 6 ounces of seeds.

Once you know how to do it and have acquired the tools, growing your own linen clothes isn’t so hard. The next step is spinning, which I have talked about here, then weaving and sewing. So far I have used the linen I have spun with handspun cotton on the loom—cotton warp and linen weft. I have also designed the patterns for the clothes I have made from my handspun fiber. If you do not already have skills in any of these areas, thinking of growing your own clothes can be daunting, but don’t let that stop you. Concentrate on learning one thing at a time and remember that life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the journey!

Photo by Stephanie Conner.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.