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

How to Grow Your Own Sponge: Luffa

Dried luffa sponge
Photo by Nicole Wilkey

Luffa or matter the spelling, these make the best skin smoothing exfoliators in the shower and natural dish scrubbers in the kitchen! Raise your hand if you believe they come from the sea... No judgement here, most people believe them to be sea sponges. Would you believe me if I told you they are actually a gourd, and you can grow them too? Luffas are related to the cucumber family, grow on long vines that do great when trellised and are also edible when eaten while small and immature.

Luffas have a very long growing season, requiring 150-200 warm days to mature. So naturally they tend to be gown in areas such as Florida, Mexico and parts of Asia. Don’t be deterred though, if you have a trellis in your garden or along a fence that gets full sun, these gourds can be started indoors or in a greenhouse weeks before you intend to plant them out in a shorter growing season. I like to use arched hog panel trellises for the vines to climb and fill in with lush green leaves and bright yellow flowers. The gourds can then hang down as they mature, typically maturing in early to late fall. The vines grow to about 30 feet long, and while they can take a bit of time to get going, once they take off their growth rate is incredible.

Luffa on the vine
Photo by Nicole Wilkey

If you would like to eat them while still immature and before they become fibrous many do so up to about 6’’ in length, they are a popular ingredient in many Indian and Asian dishes. A fully mature luffa gourd can grow up to 24’’ in length before it begins to dry and mature on the vine.

Photo by Nicole Wilkey

To grow your own natural sponges and have a successful luffa harvest start your seeds indoors or in a greenhouse {if you are not in a tropical climate}, preferably on a heat mat to speed up germination. I have started seeds anywhere from 4-8 weeks before our last average frost date, to be planted out as soon as the threat of frost has passed. I leave all of the gourds on the vine to mature and dry, until frost has killed off the entire vine. By leaving the gourd on the vine as long as possible, or until it is completely dry, it makes the cleaning much easier as you can be sure that most or all of the starchy interior is gone and only the fibrous loofah is left behind.

When the gourd is brown, wrinkled and feels very light in weight, you are ready to peel off the outer skin. Once completely peeled you can easily shake out the seeds. Don’t forget to save some seeds for next year and maybe some for your friends! Once peeled and seeds are removed, I like to spray off the luffa with a hose and spray nozzle, the nozzle creates some pressure to make sure you remove all of the starchy coating that may be left behind. From here you can dry them for use in your bathroom, kitchen or wherever you plan to use these fun sponges. You may have some luffas that have brown spots or discoloration, not to worry, they are easy to clean up in a bucket of bleach water. I like to sit them, submerged, in a bucket of bleach water for a couple of days or until they are all uniform in color.

Photo by Pixabay/juhele

Once your luffa sponges have been cleaned they are ready to hit the showers- acting as both a natural washcloth and an exfoliator for smooth skin. Or send your luffa to do the dishes, scrubbing plates and your sink until they shine.

I love growing luffas in my garden, they lend a fun and unique crop that makes great gifts, is a great conversation starter and will last for a very long time as a useful tool in your house. Many online seed companies carry luffa seeds to get your crop going, and once you harvest a single luffa you’ll never need to buy seeds again.

Nicole Wilkey transitioned from a corporate job to small-scale farmer in 2015. Since then she has run California based Flicker Farm to accommodate meat pigs, mini Juliana pigs, pasture based poultry and sells goats milk soap and lotion on Etsy. Connect with Nicole on Instagram and Facebook.

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.

Grow Up!: Vertical Gardening

Photo by Unsplash/Cherry Laithang

The first step in the permaculture design process is observation on site. In the northern hemisphere, creating thermal mass to the garden’s north provides a warming effect.

The northern edge of the garden also has the opportunity to house a vertical strutter that can bolster harvests for small spaces. We erected a vertical wall where we grow herbs on the vertical in pockets, and artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes atop the wooden structure. Our garden receives approximately 150 pounds of herbs and produce on this added urban garden vertical system.

Photo by Joshua Burman Thayer 

Increase Edges and Margins

The next place we found increased capacity was in the gardens edges. On all 68 raised beds in our gardens, we plant the fringes of the beds in beans and peas continually in succession. In addition, we grow peas  or runner beans on trellis on all northern edges. These north edge walls give added vertical growing space while also serving as wind blocks without shading other plants.

A pea trellis may not seem like much of a wind break, but 70 of them begins to make a difference in urban lots.

Cucumbers Growing Up and Out

We also grow cucumbers on the raised bed edges. They will then root in the bed, while snaking down into the mulch or concrete outside of the bed to set fruit in unused real estate. We also use tomato cages or chain-link fencing to trellis cucumbers up vertically like the vines that they are.

On a native plant research trip in 2010 to the mountains of Baja Sur, Mexico, I came upon a wild cucurbit vine, a relative of squash and melons and cucumbers. It was traipsed upon a large shrub and had grown up above the surrounding foliage. By mimicking this in the vegetable garden, this seems to create less powdery mildew than specimens grown on the soil.

Photo by Joshua Burman Thayer 

Leave Some Areas Bare for Native Bees

On our vertical garden we installed a mason bee house. This keeps pollinators close by in our urban gardens. We also leave some ground areas free of sheet mulching. Because sheet mulch will drastically reduce seed sprouting, I recommend raking out one meter circles that are left bare. Into these circles, I seed wildflower mixes, such as California Poppy eschscholzia californica, Lupine lupinus albifrons, and Yarrow achillea millefolium.

These bare zones can foster native insectories, in the form of pollen as well as leaving some ground bare for ground-nesting native bees. For more information on ground-nesting bee habitat, check out The Xerces Society website.

Want to rethink your relationship to weeds? Check out the new book written by a fellow permaculture designer, writer and friend, Tao Orion, entitled Beyond the War on Invasives, published this year by Chelsea Green.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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

Indoor Gardening: Fruit Trees, Kitchen Herbs, Beans and Sprouts


At two weeks of regrowth, there may be snow outside, but there are free onions growing inside. Photos by Jo deVries

A New Year begins, but as we look outside, nothing much has changed. Here in eastern Ontario, Canada, we are usually confined to a deep freeze for the next two months. The only thing that’s new is the latest dumping of snow. Our hearts yearn to work once again in the gardens, which are presently sleeping under a hard, frozen crust. We anxiously await the latest seed catalogues and magazines, ready to bury ourselves in our favorite chair with a hot cup of tea the moment they arrive.

It’s important to keep our spirits up — and keeping our houses looking and feeling fresh is a good start. If our surroundings are stagnant, we will not be operating at our full potential. Remember to throw open the windows for a short period of time every couple of days to circulate the air in your house. Fresh air and a connection to nature does wonders for the soul!

One way of keeping our homes looking fresh and keeping things exciting, is growing edibles indoors. This can be accomplished by growing indoor plants that will flower and bear fruit, or offer a continued supply of cut-and-come-again greens.

Just-cut, green onions are placed in soil. 

Indoor Gardening

 The April/May 2020 issue of Mother Earth News featured an article titled “The Garden of Rebirth.”  In it, author William Rubel had many clever tips on regrowing vegetables from the unused root portion of grocery store veggies. I followed his advice and put some green onion roots, and a few rotten beets that got overlooked in the root cellar, in my garden. A couple of weeks later, I began harvesting green onions and beet top leaves for salads. All free for the picking!

I wondered if I would be as successful with trying this idea indoors. So, about a month ago, I planted green onions in a pot of soil and anxiously awaited the results. In just a few days, the white of the onion base developed a green colour in its center, and a new shoot was visible. After the roots were firmly established, the onions grew almost an inch each day. It was exciting to watch their development; to witness obvious change on a daily basis.

I did some accidental gardening in my root cellar as well. Beets contained in a large plastic container, sprouted healthy leaves, despite having no light and, what I thought was very dry soil. Condensation formed on the inside of the lid, and I had salad fixings growing contently, without even knowing it.

After five days, green onion roots exhibit growth and colour. Fresh new growth is inspiring and comforting.

Indoor Fruit Trees 

Many nurseries today, (and even some of the larger building supply stores) are selling miniature fruit trees. In past years, I’ve grown full size lemons and limes, and miniature oranges, on 3-foot trees in pots, in my small cabin. Lemons take almost a full year to grow, but it’s fascinating to watch the various stages of growth. Lemon flowers have the most amazing aroma, and a healthy plant is full of them. One single lemon plant will fill a room with a heavenly scent for weeks while blooming.

After the flowers die off, the tiny lemons peek out of their centers. A plant may have hundreds of tiny lemons on it, which it can’t sustain, so it’s important to remove all but a few. I grew three lemons on one plant and five limes on another. The bright yellow lemon colour against the green leaves is cheering, even on the dullest of days. It’s so satisfying to look in the window, from outside in the snowy yard, and see lemons growing in the middle of January.

The disadvantage of my place is that the woodstove dries the air out too much for plants. It’s necessary for me to mist my plants regularly. My fruit trees were slowly deteriorating, and some died, so the remaining ones moved in with my son. A greenhouse is definitely in the plans.

Kitchen Herbs

Fresh herbs growing on a sunny windowsill are a delight in the middle of winter. Many grocery stores now sell herb plants in their vegetable department.  A couple of fresh parsley stalks or basil leaves can make all the difference in a meal.

Crushed mint leaves perk up cold beverages, hot chocolate, salads and desserts. Leave a few stalks on your plant to go to seed, and grow your own plants for free.

Magic Beans

If you’re looking for a quick gardening fix, think of Jack’s magic bean stalk. I tend to think of all seeds as somewhat magical, but beans are amazing. Stick a dried bean in a bit of soil, add some water, and voilà, in a few days, you will see new life.

Children especially love watching plants develop. They’re fun to watch; change happens so quickly. Each day, the plant will stretch its new green shoots towards the sun. A strong sprout is followed by a sturdy stem that develops leaves in no time. Already a few inches tall, it curls and twists in search of something to climb.  Its growth can be measured in hours. Each day there is change.

In no time, striking, small, orchid-type flowers appear. The blooms are intricate and come in a wide variety of colours. If you keep a close watch, you might have the opportunity to witness a flower blooming. Then as the flower dies, a seed pod pokes out from the middle of the blossom. A tiny bean, suitable for a Barbie dinner, is growing out of the center of the flower. The bean pod grows at an incredible rate. The bean stalk continues to climb as the pods mature. Whether you’re wanting to collect green beans for eating, or bean pods for drying, picking them is lots of fun! The dying plant can go into the compost, and the whole process, repeated.

Bean plants help improve the soil by adding nitrogen to increase soil fertility. While most plants are extracting nutrients from the earth, beans are a plant that give back. Perhaps, a few beans in the houseplant pots wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Sprouting Seeds, Beans, and Nuts

Sprouting seeds is another great way to enjoy fresh greens, all year round. The crunch of vigorous sprouts makes a great, nutritious addition to sandwiches or salads. Mung, alfalfa, fenugreek and radish are some of the more popular ones, but cabbage, chives, red clover, lentil, peas, black sunflower, and many other seeds are great for sprouting.

Sprouted nuts, like almonds and peanuts are healthy and delicious and are easier to chew than hard nuts. Sprouting is easy, requiring only: seeds, a glass jar, water, and daily thorough rinsing with clean water. Check the Internet for details and the sprouting time required for specific seeds or nuts.

Whether it’s lush, green plants from a nursery, or just leftover kitchen scraps or a few old beans, you can bring new life into your home — and quickly. Open the windows, take in some fresh air, and get ready to watch something new and exciting happening everyday.

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.

Develop a Seed Plan for Your Vegetable Garden, Part 2: Defining a Seed-Starting Schedule

broccoli seedling 

Transplanted broccoli seedling. Photos by Sheryl Campbell

You developed your seed plan, made or purchased your seed starting supplies, and you are ready to start planting your garden indoors. How do you know which seeds to start…and when? Look back at your garden seeding/transplanting plan. Then look at your seed packets for information. Most seeds take 7-10 days to germinate and 2-4 more weeks to grow out indoors in small pots. This might include the hardening off time or you might need to add another week for that process.

See when you want to transplant the seedling in your garden, then count back the appropriate number of weeks for that type of vegetable to germinate, grow out, and harden off. There isn’t a set rule for all vegetables. I start tomatoes 5 to 6 weeks before planting, but give peppers 8 to 9 weeks. Melons and squash usually only take 4 weeks. Alliums take forever to get large enough that I can keep them weed free without injuring them so I start them 3 months before planting out. That way I can mulch them with fine straw immediately to keep the weeds down.

A huge benefit to starting seeds yourself is the ability to do so in summer when your heat loving crops are taking up garden space. Indoors the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages are happily getting going on the light table ready to replace corn and beans as soon as spots open up late summer or early fall.

 cool season seedlings hardening off

 Cool season seedlings

Indoor Seed-Starting Calendar

So, without further adieu, here’s my inside seeding program for 2021.


  • Shallots, chives, and onions (transplant in early April)

Late February

  • Parsley (transplant in early April)
  • Peppers, hot and sweet (transplant in mid-May)

Early March

  • Tea hibiscus, summer savory, ground cherries, and tomatoes (transplant early May)
  • Broccoli and cauliflower (transplant mid-April)


  • All basils, all melons, and all winter squash (transplant mid-May)

Early May

  • Long season cabbage (transplant in mid-June)

Early June

  • Italian broccoli, winter cabbages (transplant in early August)

Early July

  • Cauliflower and Napa Cabbage (transplant in early August)
  • Single cut broccoli (transplant in mid-August)

Because we raise 75% of all the vegetables we eat — and we eat a lot of them — you can see that my light table is going to stay busy. Some of my decisions about when to start a particular vegetable indoors has to do with that year’s particular garden plan. Some plants have a longer time window than others for when they can go into the ground and still mature in the right weather. This allows me some flexibility based on what I want to grow and when.

Many vegetables such as okra, sunflowers, and corn don’t like to be transplanted so I seed them directly into the garden. Beans, peas, and summer squash come up so readily on their own that I don’t bother starting seedlings inside. Many of my herbs self-sow each year (cilantro, dill, and borage come to mind) so there’s no need to seed them anywhere.

Hardening Off

When I’m within 1-2 weeks of planting out a seedling, I begin to harden it off. This consists of moving it to a protected area outdoors for a couple of hours where it won’t get direct sunlight or wind. Each day I increase the amount of time the plant spends outdoors and the amount of sun it receives.

 portable greenhouse for hardening off plants

Portable greenhouse

I have two tools to accomplish this. The first stop is a several tiered, portable green house on wheels that I can move around my patio and cover with shade cloth. The plants graduate from there onto my plant wagon which is a large flat piece of wood stepped into a repurposed Radio Flyer wagon that my son gave up years ago. Actually the greenhouse was originally his as well. Seems I’m a bit of a kleptomaniac. I can wheel the wagon into dappled light under the willow tree, under the trampoline when it’s raining, or leave it completely exposed to the sky.

Transplanting Day

With my trowel in hand, a full watering can, and my trays of seedlings, I get down to business in the garden. The peat must be peeled off down to the level of the soil in all the seedling pots. For plants with deep and centralized roots, I simply peel off the bottom of the pot as well and pop the whole thing into the ground. For finer rooted plants or those with more complex rooting systems, I gently peel the entire pot away from the plant, leaving the planting medium intact. Then it goes in the ground. I gently tamp the dirt around the planting hole, and carefully water in each plant.

 kale and broccoli seedlings in the ground

Kale and broccoli seedlings planted out 

The process goes very quickly and is a relaxing way to spend a late afternoon or evening. Try to transplant late in the day when the sun isn’t as strong. Better yet, plant on a cloudy day when gentle rain is expecting later in the day or evening.

Ready, Set, Go!

That’s all there is to it. Go forth and plant! You’ll learn as you go and be able to fine tune things year after year. The most important thing to remember is that no year is the same. Sometimes spring comes late, and sometimes winter comes early. Sometimes it remains too cold outside to harden off your plants when you want to. That’s how I ended up taking the portable greenhouse since it allows me to zip up the plastic cover and provide an additional layer of warmth.

You never know what to expect. One of the first years I started my own seedlings we had an enormous storm which flooded my entire garden where the rising water actually lifted my newly planted seedlings right out of the ground and floated them out of the garden. But it’s all a learning process, and learning is fun. For really critical plants (tomatoes anyone?) I start extra seedlings and hold them back one week to make sure all my transplants take and begin to root into the garden soil. If I don’t need them I give them as gifts to friends who still buy their seedlings from the store.

Approach the whole process with a light heart, a desire to learn, and a good sense of humor. Let me how your indoor gardening goes this year.

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.

Wineberries in the Home Garden Add Beauty and Delicious Flavor (with Wineberry Upside-Down Cake Recipe)


Japanese Wineberries are beautiful and delicious

Prized by initiated berry lovers and discerning wild food foragers, Japanese Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are native to China and Japan, but their unique beauty has graced formal British gardens for centuries. Although the historical introduction of Wineberries to the New World is not definitive, most likely they were planted in early settlements in the northeast, where in some areas, they are regarded as invasive plants. Left to their own devices, Wineberries can form a dense thicket, but when properly pruned and maintained, Wineberries make a beautiful and delicious statement plant for the all-season home garden. Graceful arched canes are especially beautiful in Winter gardens.

Wineberry Canes in the Winter Garden

Wineberry Identification and Propagation

From Spring until late Fall, bright green Wineberry leaves boast a silvery under side and reddish-brown canes with few thorns. Small white blossoms prolifically yield delectable, sweet/tart fruit in clusters of hairy calyx that open as the fruit ripens. Biennial plants, Wineberries produce canes the first year of growth and set fruit the second year. Wineberry propagation is simple; gently bend a large, mature cane, forming an arch, and weight the top, about five inches in length, with a heavy stone, where it will take root. If allowed to grow undisturbed, Wineberry canes will naturally bend to the ground and root themselves. Cuttings of mature canes may also be used for propagation and seeds saved from mature fruit are another option for growing Wineberries. Plants and seeds are readily available from several online sources and Wineberries are hardy for Zones 5-8.

Weight Wineberry canes with a heavy stone to propagate

Japanese Wineberries are technically not berries; rather, they are aggregate fruits. With a central core, the cluster of tiny fruit is similar to both red and black raspberries, but Wineberry fruit is not as tightly compacted as the raspberry. Not as sweet as raspberries, Wineberries possess a brighter flavor that is described by some to be almost kiwi-like. Few thorns mean easier picking than blackberries and far fewer battle scars for the picker. While harvesting, Wineberries leave an invisible, slightly waxy substance on bare hands, but it quickly dissipates after picking.

Wineberries are Part of Family History

In the 1960s, my father purchased property in Western North Carolina’s Richlands area. Abandoned for years, a six-room house, surrounded by fifty acres, became our family’s vacation destination. With no indoor plumbing or electricity, the “homeplace” was an upgrade from previous tent camping trips and my brother and I enjoyed exploring nearby fields, streams and forests. Although not unusual for its time, the Richlands property was a perfect example of biodynamic, sustainable permaculture; the former owners lived a self-sufficient lifestyle that necessitated infrequent trips to a store. Remnants of that bucolic existence still lingered when my father purchased the property and we enjoyed harvesting fresh foods from numerous fruit trees that grew in an old orchard, which despite years of neglect, yielded delicious cherries, peaches, apples and pears. Close to the old house, hillsides were covered with black and red raspberries, blackberries and tiny wild, intensely flavored strawberries. With a bounty of fresh, sweet fruits to choose, my brother and I agreed our favorite, most anticipated summer treat was the Wineberry.

Chef Clark Barlowe and his father, Richard, harvest Wineberries

Japanese Wineberries thrived on the Richlands property, producing large uncontrolled canes that grew to enormous heights and tangled to form a canopy over our heads. When fruit began to ripen, my brother and I wriggled inside the makeshift bramble room to pick as many berries as we could eat, standing on tiptoe to reach ripe fruit over our heads. We ate sweet, tart fruit until we were stuffed to the gills, our crimson-stained hands and mouths telltale signs that let our mother know why buckets we presented to her were not full.

Japanese Wineberries have become naturalized throughout the eastern United States and they thrive on roadsides, riverbanks, wooded forests and even open fields where they prefer fertile soil and a good amount of moisture. The perfect wild food for beginning foragers, Wineberries are edible and have no poisonous look-alikes that lead to a case of mistaken identity. Other fruit-bearing canes, such as raspberries and blackberries, are also edible non-toxic foods. Due to their loosely clustered fruit and open core, Wineberries have an extremely brief shelf life and it is best to consume or process as soon as possible after harvest.  Rich ruby red juice makes eye-appealing jam and jelly and Wineberries are delicious baked into pies or cakes or added to homemade ice cream. To freeze fresh Wineberries, place a single layer of berries, without touching each other, on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and freeze until berries are firm. When completely frozen, they may be stored in plastic freezer bags for months. It is best to use frozen berries in that state, since thawing will reduce them to mush.

Wineberry’s fragile fruit is unlikely to make it to farmer’s market stands, but the delicious flavor is reason enough to include this plant in your own backyard garden. Attractive to pollinators, birds are the primary competition for Wineberries and there is no need to use chemical herbicides or pesticides to achieve an abundant crop. Harvest ripe fruit just before including in breakfasts or desserts or channel your inner child and eat as you pick.

Wineberry Cakes are a delicious dessert

Clark Barlowe’s Wineberry Upside-Down Cake

Original Recipe by Chef Forager Clark Barlowe, of Potential Pantry, who learned to identify, harvest and eat NC Wineberries as a young child. Now based in Oregon, Barlowe continues his love for foraging and cooking wild foods. For more about foraging and preparing wild foods, follow Clark on Facebook or Instagram @clarkbarlowe

Yields 6 servings


  •  3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 quart fresh Japanese Wineberries
  • 1 ½ cups self-rising flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons softened butter
  • 4 tablespoons sour cream
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup buttermilk


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, F. 

2. Spray 6 baking ramekins with non-stick cooking spray and line each dish with a sprinkling of sugar, using about ¼ cup of the total sugar amount

3. Place berries on top of sugar in each ramekin, reserving about 3 cups berries for batter

4. Mix flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl

5. Cream butter, sour cream and remaining sugars (1/2 cup white and ¼ cup brown)

6. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth

7. Stir vanilla into batter

8. Add ½ flour mixture, beat until blended, followed by buttermilk, stir in remaining flour mixture, blend until smooth

9. Fold reserved berries into batter

10. Pour batter into each ramekin, ¾ full

11. Bake for 25-28 minutes, check for doneness with wooden toothpick (Insert toothpick in middle of cake, when toothpick is clean when removed, cakes are done)

12. Cool for 2 minutes

13. Run knife around outside of cake (between cake and ramekin) and invert cakes onto serving dish

14. Top with ice cream, whipped cream or additional berries, if desired

Cindy Barlowe gardens 8 acres in North Carolina, where she grows and saves heirloom seeds, while freelance writing, covering the “seedy” side of gardening at Seed Tales.  Connect with Cindy on Instagram, 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.

Preparing Fruit Trees for Winter

Photo by Unsplash/Pratik Gupta

You’ve pruned your fruit trees in early spring then harvested fruit through the summer and autumn. Before heading into the warm indoors, take time to prepare your fruit trees for winter. This includes giving them protection from cold temperatures, rodents, infections and even the sun. The following three steps will help insure healthy trees for your next year’s harvest:

Mulching fruit trees with a thick layer of organic material will protect the roots from severe cold weather. Because fruit trees naturally grow by the edge of forests where the soil is littered with branches and leaves, similar high-carbon mulch is best. Wood chips, straw and leaves are usually most available and will protect the trees’ roots during winter. As this mulch decomposes the following spring, it gives soil a slightly acidic pH that fruit trees require for their best growth.

mulch around fruit trees
Photo by Mary Lou Shaw

Wood chips are a valuable source of high-carbon mulch and minerals. The highest in minerals are small branches not more than 2.5” in diameter. One source of these branches is from springtime pruning. Additionally, if tree trimmers are clearing electrical lines in your vicinity, ask them to dump loads of chips at your house. It may be a chore to transport them from driveway to orchard, but worth the effort any time of the year.

Straw is also a valuable source of high carbon mulch. Unlike hay, it is an excellent insulator because it has hollow stems which hold air. Always be sure the straw you use hasn’t been “dried down” with Roundup. You don’t want to mulch your trees with an herbicide that has also been patented as an antibiotic. We want the soil surrounding our fruit trees to be vibrant with microbes!

Leaves are a wonderful addition because the roots of trees transfer minerals from deep in the soil to their leaves. By enriching fruit trees’ soil with minerals, we are fortifying their immune systems from disease and increasing the nutrition of their fruit. At our house, we chop and gather autumn leaves with the lawn mower and then stack them thickly around our fruit trees.

Compost can also serve as mulch for fruit trees, but additional carbon should be added to standard compost used for vegetable gardens. Adding “brown” material like wood-chips, straw and leaves, gives compost the balance fruit trees need.

Three caveats regarding mulching fruit trees:

  1. Mulch should be placed at least six to eight inches deep to protect the trees’ roots during cold winter months.
  2. Mulch should be placed out to the drip line of each tree. If we picture each tree’s branches as an open umbrella, the “drip line” becomes evident.
  3. Keep mulch at least six inches away from the trees’ trunks. Mice and voles find mulch an excellent winter home, and you want to discourage them from damaging the tree’s bark.

All this mulching also gives you a head-start next spring when it will reduce competition from weeds and grass as well as preserve moisture for the trees’ roots.

Protecting fruit trees’ trunks is especially important in winter for two very different reasons. The first was mentioned above—rodents and rabbits love to chew on tree-trunk bark which can kill fruit trees. Besides keeping mulch a distance from the trunks, young trees need the extra protection of tree guards. I’ve found the easiest tree guards to use are the white, spiral variety sold through tree nurseries and online. Not only can I put them on without damaging the bark, but if I forget to take them off, they expand as the tree grows. Rodents can’t chew through the plastic guards, so that problem is solved.

White tree guards also solve the second winter problem to fruit tree trunks—sun scald. Sunny winter days heat up the dark fruit tree trunks which then cool rapidly in the evening. These swings in temperature cause expansion and contraction of the bark which result in it cracking and peeling. Fruit tree trunks thus become more susceptible to insect damage and disease.

white tree guard
Photo by Mary Lou Shaw

White latex paint can be used instead of tree guards to prevent wintertime’s rodent and sun damage. White paint reflects back the winter sun and prevents the bark from warming and thus avoids cracking and peeling of the trunk’s bark. Interestingly, white latex paint also discourages rodents, rabbits and insects. It can either be diluted to ½-strength with water or used full strength. At our homestead, we place the tree guards on trees for their most susceptible first couple years and then use white latex paint on their lower trunks as the fruit trees mature.

Remove dead fruit to prevent fungal infections. There are usually some desiccated fruit remaining on fruit trees and the ground every autumn and early winter. This old fruit provides breeding ground for fungal pathogens. Balance can be tipped to the “good fungi” by removing all dead fruit from the vicinity of fruit trees. This helps the trees’ natural immunity withstand disease without using chemicals. At our homestead, old fruit is placed in a young compost pile where pathogens will be destroyed during the natural heat of the composting process. We never use fungicides because fungi are essential for delivering the soil’s nutrients to the food we eat.

Mulching around fruit trees, protecting their trunks and removing old fruit are three important measures to insure healthy fruit trees the following spring.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired physician and homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. 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.

How to Plant and Care for New Fruit Trees

Photo by Unsplash/Macu ic

Once you’ve invested in new fruit trees, you want to make sure you get them off to a good start. Every step from digging, planting, mulching, watering, staking and pruning is important to their long-term health and survival. You’ll be able to do a good job with your fruit trees by following these steps:

New fruit trees that arrive by mail are best left in their box, in a cool place, until you have time to plant them. Before planting, soak their roots in water at least an hour to overnight.

The best holes for fruit trees are dug to fit the diameter and shape of the individual tree’s roots. Never prune roots to fit the hole! The depth of each hole is determined by the graft line. This line is recognized by a change in bark color or by a diagonal scar in the bark. This graft line must remain just above soil level to prevent “suckers” that will continually need removing.

When digging the hole, mix the topsoil with deeper soil. The cardboard your tree arrived in can serve as a surface on which you place and mix soil. This mixture is then placed around the new fruit tree’s roots. Using just topsoil or lighter soil in a hole whose walls are made of clay allows water to sit around the roots and drown the new tree. Scoring the sides of the hole with the edge of a shovel will also help to keep water from collecting around the roots.

Hold your new fruit tree upright as you place soil around its roots, and then step on the ground around the fruit tree’s trunk to remove all air pockets. Fruit trees can be planted by one person, but it does help to have a helper holding the trunk to assure it stays upright and the graft line remains just above-ground.

Immediate care of your newly-planted tree includes pruning, staking and watering. A newly planted fruit tree should be pruned to about three-feet in height. This will help to balance its new growth to the tiny roots it lost when transplanted. Begin training its branches to angles of ten and two-o’clock by bracing them away from the trunk with wooden, spring-type clothespins.

Staking is done through a fruit tree’s first year until it expands its roots. Dwarf trees, however, need to be staked long-term. Use a firm rope attached to a sturdy stake which is braced at a slight angle away from the tree. The stake is placed on the windward side—the direction from which the wind usually comes. Protect the tree trunk from damage by running the rope through a short piece of hose where it will touch the tree’s bark.

Make sure your tree gets about one-inch of water each week for its first year. Dwarf trees will need this attention long term.

Mulching the ground around fruit trees is essential to protect their roots and to gradually change the soil into what will allow fruit trees to thrive. Grass growing around fruit trees doesn’t support their roots, so mulching heavily out to the “drip line” is important. Imagine your tree as an open umbrella and make sure to keep it mulched as far out as its outer branches reach.

Wild fruit trees thrive at the edge of forests, and that’s is the type soil you want for your fruit trees. Although vegetables do best in soil with a high number of bacteria and a slightly basic pH, fruit trees thrive where the soil has a high number of fungi and a slightly acidic pH. To achieve this, use high-carbon mulch like leaves, straw and shredded branches. Garden compost can also be used if it is mixed with a lot of similar brown material.

Protect the trunk of your fruit trees as soon as you plant them. Rabbits, voles and mice use the young fruit trees’ bark as food. Even a small bite to the bark provides an entry-point for pathogens, and if a fruit tree’s trunk is girded, it will die. Sun can also damages tree trunks in the winter when heating and then cooling results in the bark cracking. These cracks provide an entry point for pathogens.

A six-inch drainage tile around a new fruit tree’s trunk can keep small animals from damaging the bark. Alternatively, vinyl spiral tree guards come in two-foot lengths and can be used for years. Because the vinyl is white, it also prevents “sunscald” by reflecting the sun.

Another method of preventing sunscald is to simply paint the trunks of your fruit trees with white latex paint. Either one-half strength with water or full-strength white paint prevents the trunk’s bark from heating and then contracting with cooling. Some people find that full-strength latex paint is also effective for discouraging damage from mammals.

The original care you take with new fruit trees will translate not only into protecting your investment but also having healthy trees and fruit for decades to come. It pays to dig their holes well, provide the right mulch and protect their trunks’ bark. In the next two blogs, I will explain further methods of having healthy fruit trees without the use of chemicals.

Mary Lou, a retired physician, homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.

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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