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

Tom’s Food Forever Method for Long-Term Soil-Building

I wanted to grow my special variety of crossed tomatoes, which I use in my often ballyhooed guacamole. They are an ‘Early Girl X’ cherry tomato inter-specific cross. I think they’re delicious and they are prolific. My garden's soil blended with my homemade composts and the biochar did well. The key was soil preparation before planting. Growing the earthworm farm first before planting is a virtual guarantee of the crops future vigor and vitality.

Then it happened. I saw an interview online with Professor Reginaldo Haslett Maroquim. As a young man in the Guatemalan highlands, Dr. Haslett Maroquim dreamed of getting a degree in America in the standard U.S. model of industrial farming. He thought he would go back and teach his mountain clan these skills to help them rise above poverty. This came to pass at the University of Minnesota.

His degree in hand, Dr. Haslett Maroquim realized that, unlike his Native American traditional farming methods, industrial farming is not sustainable. It pollutes while depriving the soil of nutrients. Indeed, approximately 65% of the world’s farmlands is now depleted of soil nutrients, and that figure is growing. With an increasing human population and the constant loss of soil, one need not be a soil chemist to see where this is going.

"Regi" as Dr. Maroquim’s friends endear him, decided that a mixing of the two methods was in order and began his form of "Regenerational Agriculture," now an accepted farming method sweeping the planet in its many forms. Currently the good professor may be found at Regeneration International, a globally recognized advocate for soil.

Building Soil Using a Livestock Paddock System

Soil not only is like a battery, the earth is a battery — a huge one. When the soil is full of life's nutrients, it can be measured. A single positively charged soil particle is called a “cation" (pronounced “cat I on”). There is a point when the life in the soil has reached a saturation point. This is a high "cation-exchange capacity" or "CEC", as those in the know term it. Arborists use the slang that the soil is either "live dirt" or "dead dirt", depending on the crust's hardness or carbon-richness, as the case may be and which, when loaded with worm castings, looks like coffee grinds.

I copied Regi’s design of raising poultry in row crops in the confines of fenced paddocks. I took a parcel of three 1-acre paddocks, separated by a living fence, in my case of Nopale cacti to keep out the coyotes. This cultivar of cacti is adorned seasonally with the big, red fruits on them. Chickens love the fruits. I started an earthworm farm in each paddock using chipped trees from my tree service and horse manure from the local horse farms, forming worm beds called "windrows".

While the worms grew, I made biochar and raised chicks up to poults. In spring, I planted my crops. The small fruit trees, elderberry, pomegranate and chestnut, already started. When the vegetables were about to mature, I released the large poults into paddock number 1. They went straight for the earthworms. They ate so many worms that if you looked, you could see them floating in the backs of their throats and still they were stuffing down more!

The chickens began to mature rapidly on the high protein. Their egg-laying soon began in earnest, and the yolks were tall and a brightly colored orange. The chickens were only slightly interested in the greenery inside the paddocks. That changed as the worms became more scarce. The birds began to hunt insects that were feeding on the chicken manure and feeding on the plants. Their scratchings acted as micro-tilling. The dips and divots they made left helped rainwater penetration. I used oyster shells as grit in the soil to further this forage and put Beyond Tangy Tangerine vitamin supplement in their water. I traded eggs and meat for produce that others grew to round out my diet.

When the crops were beginning to show signs of foraging stress, I moved them into paddock number 2, and replanted number 1, making use of a common dirt road passing by all three paddocks to wheel about the birds’ mobile coop, or "chicken tractor."

When number 2 paddock was browsed sufficiently as was the first, I moved them to number 3 and replanted 2, then back to number 1, so forth and so on. I was amazed at how well this concept worked. It grew intense amounts of food in a small area while keeping the CEC at full charge in perpetuity. As long as farming operations continues in this model, the soil fertility will remain fully charged forever.

This is the inevitable future of farming globally. It’s the oldest new way. The next year, I entered the idea in the Southern California Agricultural Exposition's farm competition and won first place in "Most Innovative Farming Concept".

Water: The Beginning Farmer’s Primary Concern

Becoming a farmer for the first time was an eye opener, to say the least. I was only a micro farmer but suddenly began to realize the scope and logistics of the larger farming operations. These logistics were presenting problems to my future plans to expand the operation. These are the same problems a farmer might encounter anywhere on agricultural or desert areas of the planet.

Water, or the lack thereof, was burning copious quantities of brain calories. How to get it? To answer that, I must locate it and procure it without paying for it. Where is it? In the Southern California environment, one is bombarded with water conservation advertisements. But these cities sit next to the Pacific Ocean, which is, of course, the largest water source on the planet. All water shortages there are human-made. Southern California has all the water it could ever use right there at the beach. There are new desalination methods in San Diego with patents and methods that use no power, only gravity. Methods producing 99.99% pure water.

Nowhere in America is the price of water so high and the water district so mighty as it is in Ramona, Calif., in San Diego County, where I operated. I had to think of ways to get my water other than from a well or a pipe as it was far too expensive to continue farm operations. Permits for wells are scarce there, and these water barons hand out hefty fines for bootlegged wells. So I began to plan my next operation. I am now ready.

I knew there are vast amounts of water in the air we breathe and surrounding us 24/7. How to get it from the air? "Swamp cooler"-type window air conditioners produce water while condensing air in the air conditioning process. But air-conditioning units are not efficient because of the large amounts of electricity needed to power the units. 

Why couldn't a machine be designed specifically to harvest this moisture from the air? An online search produced a litany of electrically powered and even passive and solar powered "water generators". These experimental and some commercial machines are existing technology. The water these devises produce is negatively charged. By draining this water into a fish or duck pond, it will soon be stinky with life, most definitely positively charged, and Grade A worm food ready for irrigation.

In addition to the use of water generators, there is the collection of rainwater through glorified "water guzzlers", which the Fish and Game biologists build in desert regions to collect and store water in underground revetments to hydrate wildlife. These and other water-conserving methods could be employed on this future farm. These are drip irrigation and possible solar stills to recapture that water dripped onto the soil.

Planning and Advocating for the Future of Farmland

It is conceivable that a small 1- or 2-acre farm could feed a family, or maybe two. In my mind's eye, I see it used as a community garden or as subsistence farming in remote deserts at the micro level. It could be scaled up to a much larger operation. The limiting factor is how much water can be condensed from the air? The sky's the limit as they say. Even a large farm used in this manner would have a much smaller "footprint" while out-producing industrial farming of equal acreage. All of it organic and non-GMO. The resulting small size reduces impacts to wildlife habitat and underground aquifers than conventional farming operations.

But are our many global governments ready to endorse this new but old concept? Only your lobbyists know for sure. The one bit of wisdom I have found from 27 years of public speaking on various issues is that letters, much more than emails, written to your Congressmen and women work. So tap the keys and lick those stamps. Save mankind while conserving water and wildlife.

My next farm will be in Idaho and address the three logistical "opportunities" of power, water and labor. Power is always available from the sun though solar panels, to be stored in batteries. I plan to rearrange the paddocks from the three-panel rectangle to a square with four fenced-in paddocks, the internal fence making an X pattern. The poultry, either chickens, turkeys, pheasants, or a combination of all three, will be lofted in the coop in the exact center of the four paddocked fields. This stationary coop will be sporting four doors, with each door to allow the birds to access one of the four panels, used in rotation. This way, the coop never needs be hooked up to the hitch and moved and increases the paddocks to four from three.

Tom Stephan works in the green industry treating sick trees to improve their vigor and vitality through anti compaction and soil fertility. He is a former certified arborist, a master falconer, and has incurable minimalist tendencies. Connect with him at Barn Owl Boxes, and read all of Tom’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog 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.


Biochar: Ancient Method for Long-Term Soil-Building


Photo by Natural Resources Conservation Service Oregon

I was nterested in falconry in my grade-school years, and became quite proficient at tree climbing, although I never had any safety equipment. Something unheard of today. We were never to let our mothers know just exactly what we did setting loose upon the countryside every Saturday morning. We just came home dirty, tired and hungry, sometimes arriving with a meat-hungry chicken hawk in a wicker basket. In time, I became a certified arborist and the owner-operator of a small tree service.

Whenever I had sick trees, an arborist friend would come and do his magic to save the trees. He, unlike some others, was invariably successful, bringing back to life seemingly hopeless cases. His methods of patient recovery involved surveying and often reintroducing life back into the soil. This at a time when everyone else was using macronutrient NPK chemical fertilizers, which did more long-term harm than good. This skilled arborist taught me his recipe of organics, which he applied to the root zones of trees. He took me on an education of soil fertility, one that has become my most recent passion.

Biochar’s Ancient Roots

The ancient Mesoamericans knew about these methods of soil fertility, too. They used beneficial life in the soil to grow their food to a great degree. So much so, that these soils can still be found today, centuries after the great cultures have vanished. The first U.S. spy satellites in the late 1960s were showing blocks of South American jungle that were taller, greener, and thicker than the surrounding jungle. The intelligence community knew the blocks were manmade because of their geometry. But since there were no humans there, they sent out the archeologists to study them. The denominator common to all the sites was that the dirt was very dark, almost black. That color in the soil was carbon in the form of charcoal.

The First Nation folks hundreds of years ago (and actually even before with the ancient Pleistocene-epoch Paleolithic hunters of unknown origin, whom the Indians called "the ancient ones"), would slash down the forest and dig pits. The slash was piled in the pits and partially burned to produce a type of charcoal now called terra preta, or “biochar." Piled on the raw charcoal was added all manner of fish and animal offal, pottery shards for minerals, bones, and human waste. These wreaking piles were left to rot in contact with the charcoal for a few months or years.

Biochar Encourages Microorganism Growth

Photo by Marcia O’Connor

In the ancient ones’ compost-with-biochar amendment, micro flora and fauna, as we modern hominids call them, proliferate in the char, where they persist for many generations. All wildlife, and people too, need just three things to survive: food, water, and shelter. The micro-organisms are no different and take up residency in the burnt, open-ended cells of the charcoal. This is their food as well as their cover. Later, the micro-critters in the biochar venture out into the surrounding organic deposits — leaves, stems and other carboniferous material, which rain down daily from the surrounding forest, turning it into compost. They break down the biochar much more slowly. The resulting compost is earthworm food as well as food for many other bug and bug larvae.

Worms are an integral part of the process of forest regeneration. They eat the compost and micro-critters, while they tunnel up and down in slow-moving, greyhound-like undulations from the top "A" horizon soil layer, where the plant's feeder roots are located, into the "O" for organic horizon. This mixing of the two improves the soil texture, also known as "tilth", from a hard, negatively charged crust to a moist, soft and fluffy horizon full of life and carbon. As they feed in this fashion, they take with them the beneficial fungi in their gut and on their bodies in, under, around and through the feeder roots, inoculating them with the coveted fungal spores.

There are two branches of mycorrhizal fungi: "ecto" and "endo" One attaches the spores to the roots and the other actually implants the spores into the roots for enhanced plant surivival. No plant and the fungi die. No doubt this method is a drought survivability adaptation on the fungi's part. As they tunnel and feed, the worms leave worm casting-laden tunnels that act as rainwater drains to rapidly percolate down mineral laden rain water to the feeder roots. The difference in the field charge between the positively charged A horizon and the less charged B horizon helps to retain the moisture from rain in the roots of the plants in the A horizon.

Emulating These Processes Is the Key to Great Gardening and Agriculture

Most of the minerals that a plant needs to build its structure is in the char, The rest in the soil and compost. The fungi prepare, or "chew up", the minerals to the molecular level so to speak. They essentially are the plant's "teeth," combining minerals and other nutrients it into a rainwater soup. This feeding renders the nutrients availability from the charred wood, soil, and compost to the next generation of plants, and the next, and the next.

Forests grow and mature in time. They then begin to decline from maturity, rot, or burn. The now-open forest canopies with carbon in the soil supply the next generation of plants with the sunlight and mineral building blocks needed to thrive and compete with their neighbors. Plant life as we know it would not be possible without the unfathomable numbers of single-celled organisms, living on the hair-like absorbing roots of 97% of all vegetation on earth.

If soil conditions become adverse to the plants through tilling, pollution, soil compaction, or erosion (and even strong sunlight and rain), the fungi and bacteria living on those plant rhizomes' can begin to die. The plants in turn, especially trees, cannot draw up much in the way of minerals and water without the fungi. They then begin to decline and die if something is not done to remedy the situation.

Biochar Builds Long-Term Soil Health

There are USDA studies showing huge tracts of the Rocky Mountain West that stretch from state to state. The roots are interlocking from tree to tree, using the mycorrhizae as a common but simple brain. The soil life forms tell the trees over entire regions to prepare for droughts, fires and insect infestations. Think of all we have yet to learn about nature!

The Native Americans would, after a period of a few years, spread out all the char and compost mixture on their now-ready farm plots and plant crops such as squash, yams, and corn. The corn grew ten feet high and fed thousands of hungry mouths, all grown in the most nutrient-poor soils on the planet. This was only possible through the making and use of biochar. These areas are still fertile today, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years later from a single application! One plot was 1,800 hundred years old and was dug up and sold as farming soil!

After my friend passed to the great cloud forest in the sky, I began to use his recipe to help my clients’ trees, but added my own homemade biochar. It was then that I began a new hobby about a decade ago: I planted a vegetable garden.

In the followup post for this series, the author outlines his innovative, small-scale, regenerative agriculture method using soil biochar and crop rotation paired with a particular paddock system for moving his chickens. Follow all Tom’s posts here.

Tom Stephan works in the green industry treating sick trees to improve their vigor and vitality through anti compaction and soil fertility. He is a former certified arborist, a master falconer, and has incurable minimalist tendencies. Connect with him at BarnOwlBoxes.

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.


Which Vegetable Crops Survive Cold Weather?


I’ve long been interested in just how cold-tolerant various vegetables are. Each spring I update my Winter-kill list of cold-hardy crops. You can find Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019 at the link. Here I’ll describe some step-by-step observations as temperatures dropped one winter.

14 Degrees FahrenheitF (-10C) in mid-December

A few years ago (in the 2013-2014 winter), we had two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens in December. What survived that temperature? We had Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates kale in the open. The senposai was still alive, but some of the midribs had brown streaks. Sadly we didn’t have any leeks that winter, as we lacked enough workers to tend them in late summer. Still alive were a nice bed of Deadon cabbage intended for January harvest, and some small heads of Melissa savoy that missed the bulk fall harvest. The Gunma cabbage stumps had some leaves and tiny heads still alive, but the Tendersweet were definitely dead. We had cut off all the chard leaves in November, and it seemed to be dead. Some winters it hangs on later, if we leave some foliage to help it regenerate.

Savoy cabbage is very cold-hardy. Photo by Lori Katz

The oats cover crop we sowed in August and early September was pretty much dead. All the broccoli looked dead. That’s as expected for the temperatures. Often we don’t get nights this cold till January – the cold came early that winter.

The hardneck garlic tops looked to be in good shape. The Polish White softneck tops were considerably smaller, but they had suffered a bit. They will grow back if they have died. Some of our Chandler strawberry plants looked dead. Either that or they were extremely dormant! The deer were killing them off by eating the leaves. Too many deer!

The hoophouse was still bursting with great food. Plenty of salad greens: lettuce; various kinds of mizuna and frilly mustards like Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, as well as Bulls Blood beet leaves. And for salads or cooking we had spinach, chard, tatsoi, radishes, scallions, baby Hakurei turnips and their tasty greens, Red and White Russion kales, and more senposai. In January we eat the heading Asian greens: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo bekana and Yukina Savoy. The first sowing of tatsoi (9/7) was starting to bolt, so we cleared that. The first round of baby lettuce mix (10/24) was ready for its second cut. I love working in the hoophouse on sunny winter days.

4 Degrees Fahreheit (-15C) in Early January

Second: two nights at 4F (-15C) in early January. Along came the Polar Vortex, which in our part of central Virginia, meant two nights at 4F (-15C), January 6 and 7. How did it go?

During the prelude to the Big Chill, when we got 9F (-13C), I harvested the odds and ends of small cabbages left in our main patch. Quite worthwhile, I got two 5-gallon buckets. Between the 9F (-13C) and the 4F (-15C) nights, I harvested the bed of Deadon cabbage, which we planted with January harvests in mind. There was some freeze damage, so in future I’ll say that Deadon is good down to 10F (-12C)  but not lower. I got two full net bags and two more buckets of small ones from a 90’ (27.5 m) bed with two rows. I left one smaller and one larger cabbage as sacrificial victims in the cause of better information for next year. When we got 4F (-15C), the smaller one died and the larger survived. One of the other gardeners harvested the last of the outdoor senposai. Another couple of buckets of tasty food.

I took another walk round the frozen garden after the Polar Vortex, to see what was still alive. The Tyee spinach under rowcover, and the Vates and Beedy’s Camden kale without rowcover were all still alive! There was some freeze damage in spots on the spinach leaves, but plenty of good meals still to come!

Our hardneck garlic tops suffered some damage but didn’t get killed back to the mulch level. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and they too were still alive.

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. A good chance to see which ones are hardiest! Here’s the scoop: Still alive in the centers – Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. No longer alive – Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Winter Wonder, Red Tinged Winter, Merlot, Red Sails, Outredgeous, Roman Emperor, Revolution.

At nearby Acorn Community, the home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, they had some young but mature heads of cabbage outdoors. The Late Flat Dutch, Early Flat Dutch and Chieftain Savoy all survived one night at 6F (-14C). (It’s usually two degrees warmer there than at Twin Oaks on winter nights).

The Blue Ridge kale grown by Clif Slade at Randolph Farm, VSU. survived. It got down to 9F (-13C) there. Not as cold as Louisa County! Blue Ridge is taller than the Vates we grow, and I’d like to try it here, if it can survive our winters. Otherwise not!

Our hoophouse in December is bursting with fresh greens for cooking and salads. Credit: Photo by Wren Vile.

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover on the afternoon of January 6, and didn’t roll it up for four days, after the warmer weather returned. There was a tiny bit of freeze injury on some turnip greens that poked out the side of the rowcover, and some on some stems of Tokyo Bekana. I think the rowcover saved the crops! Also, a bad thing happened. It was very windy the first cold night and the west window blew open. Argh! Of all the nights to have an open window. Memo: fix the latch to make it stronger.

I didn’t enjoy the really cold weather. I was anxious about the crops and the plumbing! But I can see two silver linings: I now have more information about cold-hardiness of various crops, and hopefully some pests will have died. Now we’re getting ready for another two cold nights, tomorrow and Wednesday.

Below Zero Degree Fahrenheit (-18C)

And third: two nights below 0F (-18C)

It got even colder. We got 0F (-18C) on January 22/23, then a few nights at 5F (-15C), and then the big insult: -4F (-20C) on the night of January 29-30. What survived that?

The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It did recover. Meanwhile we ate the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.

The Vates kale without rowcover was still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves were crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves were dead. Most of it grew back, but we had to wait for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looked worse – the big leaves had died and flopped over. It never really recovered.

At 0F (-18C) we lost a small percentage of our Vates kale. Most of it survived uncovered outdoors! Credit: Photo by Pam Dawling]

Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops were killed back to about one inch (2.5 cm) up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems. 

In the lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse, only the Winter Marvel showed any signs of life. So Winter Marvel gets the prize for cold-tolerant lettuce here!

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F (-12C) inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We ate plenty of Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also lots of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach.  We had small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.

We are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February 2014 Growing for Market magazine opened with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated ones.

Pam Dawling has worked at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia for more than 27 years, growing vegetables for 100 people on 3.5 acres and training many members in sustainable vegetable production. She is the author of Sustainable Market Farming and The Year-Round Hoophouse. Pam often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs and at sustainable agriculture conferences. She is a contributing editor with Growing for Market magazine, and a weekly blogger on Connect with Pam on Facebook, and read all of Pam’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.

Deep Mulching: Give Your Garden the Gift of a Cozy Winter Blanket


A search for “Ruth Stout” on MOTHER EARTH NEWS turns up a range of links to articles, letters, and blog posts from 1976 through the past decade. Stout is best known for her year-round deep mulch recommendations found in her 1955 book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. It’s no wonder she remains popular. Who doesn’t want healthy soil and hearty plants with fewer weeds and less work?

The Stout System, as it came to be called, is simple: Spread a thick layer of spoiled hay (this is material that for some reason got wet and moldy and can’t be used to feed animals, plus any combination of leaves, grass clippings, and other vegetative compostable materials) and leave it on year-round. Stout recommends starting with 8 inches and then, in her own words, “As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more.”

I can’t remember when I first heard of Stout. I am sure I wasn’t much of a mulcher when I was just gardening for myself and my family. But mulching heavily with straw was something we adopted as soon as we began farming. I still remember the first time I spread it around our backyard micro farm and exclaimed, “Now it really feels like a farm!”

Ron Engeland’s tips in Growing Great Garlic (1991) offered early inspiration included covering beds in multiple inches of compost and straw, in both the fall and spring. I quickly saw how this cut down on labor and helped retain water. Years later I still marvel when I stick my hand under a deep layer of mulch after weeks without rain and feel moist earth below!

A few years back I remember hearing Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association speak at a Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) conference. The conference is held in February, historically our coldest month of the year. At one point, he spoke about the importance of roots (both living and rotting) for providing microorganisms in the soil something to live in concert with. He touted cover crops as a good way to keep the soil thriving outside primary growing seasons. The worst thing you can do, he chided, is have bare soil. Bravely, another attendee raised their hand and asked what we could do if we hadn’t planted cover crops, given that it was too cold to start anything at the time. Kittredge’s recommendation: Go home and mulch, with whatever you have! I had my marching orders. I went home that night, pulled some bales of straw a neighbor had given me after Halloween decorating season and got to work.

This fall as I put our beds to rest for the season, I’m reading Stout’s Gardening Without Work (1963). Stout’s wisdom and humor have re-emboldened me and I’m on a mission to cover our farm in a thick blanket of mulch before this winter settles in. I have requests out for moldy straw across social media platforms. I’ve been filling the car with the leaves the neighbors have bagged and left for the city to compost. And, I reconnected with our local Rabbit rescue organization to collect their bedding and manure.

I’m half the age Stout was when she left this world (she lived to be 96!). But my body already feels older than when I started farming 6 years ago. If I hope to keep going and growing into the future, I need to work smarter not harder and I believe the Stout System will help me get there. If you’re a devotee, please share your experiences and advice in the comment space below.  

Jodi Kushins owns and operates Over the Fence Urban Farm, a cooperatively maintained, community-supported agricultural project located in Columbus, Ohio. The farm, founded in 2013, is an experiment in creative placemaking, an outgrowth of Jodi’s training as an artist, teacher, and researcher. Connect with Jodi on Facebook and 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Propagate Plants: Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 4

how to propagate arrowroot plants 

We talked about how to choose plants to grow in part 1 of the Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business series. In part 2, we talked about how to grow your nursery plants.

how to propagate heliconia


In part 3, we covered equipment needed and fertilizers, including Dan’s Liquid Microbe Fertilizer. Today, in part 4, we’ll talk about how to propagate plants for your nursery business. It is very rewarding to propagate your own plants. Much more rewarding than ordering plants from a wholesale nursery!

You’ll get to watch the plant grow from seed to plant, or from little cutting to beautiful flowering shrub. Propagating your own plants feels a bit like magic!It is also very cost-efficient. Besides soil and water, home-propagated plants don’t cost you anything but a little time. My tip: propagate plants in bulk. The more you propagate, the higher the chances of success.

There are quite a few different ways of plant propagation. From seed, cuttings, layering, grafting, rhizome division, bulbs, offsets… Some plants will grow from a piece of leaf! How to propagate depends on the type of plant you want to grow. I’ll cover some varieties below.

How to Propagate Tropical Plants

I’m starting with tropical plants because I’m biased. I love tropical plants. I started out with succulents and cacti but soon realized I wanted big leaves, big flowers, and big, wild jungle. When you think of tropical plants, certain plants come to mind. Heliconia’s, Gingers, Bamboo, Philodendrons, Canna, Monstera, Cordyline, Croton, Coleus, and Hibiscus. Let’s talk about how to propagate these plants.

how to propagate ginger plants

Cut Canna Propagation 

How to propagate Heliconia, Ginger, and Canna

You propagate Heliconias, Gingers, and Canna (above) from rhizome division. Rhizome division is one of the more brutal propagation methods, but it is also the most rewarding. A rhizome will produce a nice-sized plant in no time!

If you are growing your plants for propagation in the garden, you’ll need a nice, sharp shovel or spade. You’ll also need a decent pair of boots and someone strong, someone that can apply plenty of foot pressure.

west indian arrowroot propagation

West Indian Arrowroot

Heliconia’s and Gingers have several stems with distinct spaces between them. Place your shovel in one of these spaces, near the outside of the plant clump. Position the shovel so that when you cut it, you have a piece of root with some stems or new shoots. I’ll add some photo’s here so you can see what I mean.

If you’re growing your mother plants in pots, propagation is easier. See the photo’s below of a West Indian Arrowroot I propagated this morning (above) . The process is similar to the “shovel” method, but the plants are generally smaller in pots, meaning the roots and rhizomes aren’t as tough to get apart.

how to propagate arrowroot plants

Have a good look at the plant to see where it naturally separates. Push your fingers in and try and tease the plant apart. Once you get confident, you might find yourself getting quite physical with the plant, shaking and pulling! Tease the plant apart, making sure each part has roots.

Don’t leave any offset or cutting in the sun! Try and have a bucket of water (with some added seaweed extract - even better) near you, or pot them up straight away. Sun will kill roots in a matter of seconds and you didn’t just exert all this effort for nothing.

how to propagate and plant

For tropical plants, I generally recommend a slightly larger pot than other plants, because they like to stay quite moist. If the offsets have a nice clump of roots, you can add a little bit of organic fertilizer. Then, water them in well.

How to Propagate Bamboo

Bamboo is a tricky one. The easiest way to propagate bamboo is from seed, but there’s a problem with that. I’ll warn you off buying seed online that claims it is Buddha Belly bamboo or Timor Black - 99.99% of the time this seed does NOT come true to type. What you’ll be growing instead is a form of running bamboo that no-one wants in their garden!

how to propagate bamboo

The only way of how to propagate bamboo of the exact variety you want to propagate are offsets or possibly tissue culture. I don’t know much about bamboo tissue culture, although we grew Orchids, Bromeliads, and Banana’s (QLD has strict banana regulations to stop the spread of disease) from tissue culture and they were wonderful. You get some truly amazing, rare, true-to-type plants with tissue culture.

We used division for bamboo. But, let me tell you, it is HARD. Bamboo root systems are super, super tough, like wood, and they are very tricky to divide. In the end, we bought a reciprocating saw for the sole purpose of dividing bamboo. Be prepared to buy lots of new blades as you’ll be using the saw to cut into dirt and blades will go blunt very quickly.

How to propagate bamboo is very similar to the above instructions for Gingers and Heliconia. Find a good spot to cut, put in lots of effort to get through the rhizome, remove the cut piece, and pot it up. Sometimes you can divide the piece you managed to dig out again when you remove it from the ground. Once it is out of the ground, it gets easier to cut and saw through.

The smaller varieties of bamboo are easier to propagate than the big ones. We had a huge Gigantochlea and gave up on propagating it in the end. However, smaller varieties of bamboo are possible, as is Tiger Grass, though it is not technically a bamboo. Tiger Grass was very popular though, and not too hard to divide so definitely give it a go for a bamboo-looking plant.

Find out more here about growing and planting bamboo

How to Propagate Monstera and Philodendron

These two varieties are beautiful with big foliage, lots of different colors, and even fruit in Monstera’s case. It’s also known as the Fruit Salad Plant because of its rather strange but delicious fruit. Monstera is great as a house plant! My latest acquisition is a Philodendron squamiferum, I was rather pleased to get my hands on one of those! Its leaves are very similar to other Philodendrons, but the stems are covered in red hairs or fur, really stunning.

how to propagate spider plants

Spider plant

How to propagate Monstera is from cutting. Monstera and Philodendron grow exposed roots from their stems, which makes it easy to see where to cut it. When you see exposed roots (these may be grabbing on to a tree, or burying themselves in the ground next to the mother plant), you can cut this piece of stem off to replant.

Always use clean cutting tools for all cuttings, and wash it between varieties. Cutting is the easiest way to introduce infection to your mother plant, which is the last thing we want. We need to take care of the mother plant most of all as she will provide us with more (and more) free plants.

I like putting the cutting in water for a week or two, similar to Spider Plants. I found that it really promotes root growth and keeps them moist enough. Make sure the container with water is not transparent, like a glass jar. The roots should be as dark as possible (I know, I used a glass one for the photo, my excuse is that Spider Plants don't mind...). After a week or two, plant your cutting in nice, fertile soil and water in well. You can add some organic fertilizer as your cutting already has roots.

To make sure this article doesn’t get too long, I will cover how to propagate Hibiscus below. Then, in the next part, I’ll cover how to propagate Coleus, Croton, Cordyline, and Succulents (including Aloe plants and Jade plant). Maybe Spider Plant as well, because they’re incredibly rewarding!

How to Propagate Hibiscus

how to propagate hibiscus

Of all the shrubs, Hibiscus is my favorite to propagate. The “normal” varieties are the easiest. The most flamboyant and rare the flower, the harder it is to propagate (and grow, for that matter). The easiest Hibiscus to propagate are the single light pink, the single white, the single red (Regius-Maximus) and the double cherry pink (landersii).

Any others, like this gorgeous double orange, are harder. You don’t need to have a greenhouse to propagate Hibiscus, but you’ll find that your strike rate will go up with one. Hibiscus cuttings like a certain amount of humidity around them, preventing them from drying out. You can propagate them out in the open too, just keep them nice and moist.

Hibiscus cutting propagation

Take cuttings just below a node. Make sure every cutting has at least three nodes, but aim for more, especially if the nodes are close together. At least 7 to 8” long. Remove most of the leaves with sharp scissors or secateurs to reduce moisture loss.

Hibiscus leaves removed propagation

As soon as you have cut it, drop it in a bucket of water with some seaweed extract mixed in. You can also use special rooting hormones, like Ezy-root, to promote root growth.

Don’t choose pots that are too big, we want dense root system, not rambling, fragile root system. For the size cutting in the picture below, I used a 4” tall pot (called a “supersaver”). Push the soil down tightly around the cutting so it doesn’t move. Water it in well. You can use the seaweed solution from soaking your cuttings to water the cuttings in with.

Keep all cuttings in a shady position and keep them well-watered. Roots may appear in as little as a couple of weeks, or they make take much longer.

Mycorrhizal Fungi

My latest experiment is the addition of mycorrhizal fungi. It’s too early to tell if it’s working or not, but the idea is great. Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that burrow into the new roots, and they help increase the root surface area. It is mainly used for existing plants in the garden, applied with a watering can, but I’m trialing it as it is beneficial for root systems.

Mychorrhizal fungi increase mineral uptake for your plants, zinc, phosphorus, and calcium in particular. This means you’ll need less fertilizer for a happy plants, and it makes the plant stronger too. Soil humus levels are increased as well, for happy soil and soil organisms.

I add a tiny amount to a bucket of water, agitate it to mix it in, and drop the whole cutting in the water. Cuttings are usually in the water from a few minutes to an hour, depending on how long it takes me to get the cuttings I want. When you’re ready to plant them, fish them out of the bucket, and plant them in pots.

How do you propagate your plants, and what are your favorite plants to propagate? I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, or questions. I’m happy to answer any questions about how to propagate, leave a comment below!

All photo's by Elle Meager

Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children. Connect with Elle at Outdoor Happenson Facebook and PinterestRead all of Elle’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.

Start a Free Community Produce-Sharing Group

Community Seed Swap Event 

Every month, we meet at a local venue in the small town of Nanango in Queensland, Australia, to share produce and household goods with the community. My friend suggested the concept three years ago, and I thought it was a fantastic idea. At first, there were only 10 people and now there are often over 60 people gathered every month.

People bring excess produce from their gardens, as well as plants, seedlings, cuttings and seeds. They also bring useful household items like newspapers, books, jars and containers. They don’t just share goods, they also share a laugh and smile (one person even shared their musical talents one month). Our aim was to create community as well as share our excess produce and it has been a huge success! Let me tell you how it works for us and encourage you to start a share in your own community.

Fresh Garden Produce On Table

The name is important. We nearly called it a “produce swap”, but it was clear from the start that we wanted people to share their excess, rather than feeling like they needed a fair swap for what they brought along. Making it a share simplifies the transactions. It’s more about giving than taking, which makes everyone feel good.

Be clear about the rules. Our rules are very clear and announced at the start of every share: Bring what you don’t need, take what you want, and make sure everyone around you gets to take something, too. At the end, please take home anything that you brought with you that hasn’t been taken yet.

Research what you are allowed to share. There are food-safety rules that restrict us from sharing eggs and meat (however, eggs for hatching are fine). And our local council regulates sharing of preserves and baked goods. We ask that people don’t share these items unless they have the necessary licenses, to protect the reputation of the share.

Sharing isn’t for everyone. When I explain the concept of sharing, some people get it right away and some people don’t feel comfortable without a direct swap or barter system. The first type of people will enjoy the share, the second type will not. I just accept that not everyone is going to enjoy the idea of sharing, but the right people will come and be happy to join in.

It will take time to build numbers. It took about a year for us to establish the group. My friend and I promised that we would come every month for a year, even if it was just us sharing what we had. Some months there wasn’t much to share, except for a chat and cup of tea, but we kept coming. Eventually people found out about the share and the numbers grew so that we now always have a decent number of people come along and plenty to share. It seems like there is always someone growing something in excess!

Make the share self-sufficient. We didn’t want to create another obligation. Everyone is busy and most have gardens and animals to look after. Sometimes you just can’t make it to the share, but the share needs to be able to run without myself or my friend there every month. We are lucky to have a small shed at the venue where we can keep a few things, and they also let us use some tables. It is very quick to set up when we get there and pack up again after about an hour. We start each share at 9:30am sharp, with a quick speech to thank everyone for coming and remind everyone of the rules. Now that we have a large group of regulars, the share can run with the collective effort of the community, and I hope that means it will be self-sustaining.

It is always exciting to see an idea transform into reality. Seeing people happily sharing their excess produce and building community has been worth the small effort to start the group. I encourage you to think about whether a share like this could work in your community. You will have to be patient while the group grows, but eventually you could build a strong community around the concept of sharing.

Gardening Equipment On Table

Photos by Liz Beavis

Liz Beavis is a small-scale cattle farmer and soap-making beekeeper in rural Queensland, Australia. On her Eight Acres Farm, she sells beef-tallow soaps, honey and beeswak, and is the author of Our Experience with House Cows, A Beginners Guide to Backyard Chickens and Chicken Tractors, Make Your Own Natural Soap, and the Solar Bore Pump Handbook. Connect with Liz on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Managing the 5 Elements on the Farm


While a lot can be said for well researched books, fine-tuned ideologies, and gurus, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about growing food and raising livestock have come from mistakes, observation, and my continually developing relationship to living systems.  With so many authors, activists, and agriculturalists touting their own (sometimes dogmatic) approach to growing food as the solution to all crises in our changing climate, I can’t help but think, “Yes, more of all of it, please.”   

Whether you’re raising livestock on grassland ecosystems, growing crops utilizing no-till principles, streamlining organic production for economic viability, or planting out elaborate orchards with dynamic biological relationships, it’s all necessary, needed, and your own particular spin on things is the absolute epitome of co-creation with the Universe. 

As a woman in agriculture, I’ve been forced to confront endless suspicions that my own choices on a particular landscape are wrong or misguided.  In this new age of internet trolling, I’ve been encouraged time and time again to seek out the prominent theories of men, usually white (always?), dead and alive, holding all of the answers to the absolute correct methods for deriving nourishment from land.  I have swallowed all of my gut reactions about the stymying of diverse voices in this realm and done my best to let my work speak for itself. 

I’ve decided that I like to think of myself less as an expert, practitioner, or guide and more as a poet.  It is safer this way on these internet streets and helps keep me out of trouble. I’m just a human, out here interacting with the land, literally learning something new everyday.  My success doesn’t come from a set of rules that I’ve come to follow, but more from a dedication to adaptation, to intimacy with my natural spaces, and from a deep curiosity and reverence that tunes me to the flow of my landscape.  It doesn’t always rhyme, but sometimes, lordy, does it sing. 

For someone who is just beginning their journey getting to know the land they intend to grow with, I suggest taking some time for the wide lens approach.  Many books will delve deeply into the specific details that brought success to the author and this is very important inspiration. It can give you added tools for achieving your own goals with the land and may even become something you riff on and make better within your own operation.  What a book can’t give you is a sense of place. Getting to know the ecological resonance of your own little piece of heaven is a challenging journey you must face on your own.   

What works seamlessly on one operation, housed within one ecotype, may not fit so perfectly within the mineral, biological, and meteorological setting you’re working with.  The good news is, through observation and obsessive tweaking, you can use the inspiration you get from other growers as a jump off point for how you may adapt your own operation to synchronize with what’s already happening on your land.  Below I’d like to take us all the way out--out of the fields and into the biggest picture possible--and talk about the 5 Elements. These forces are not only present in the big picture, they are working tirelessly in every single nook and cranny of your farm or garden and their formative dynamics, when balanced, can bring long term productivity and fertility to the landscape. 

I know that the elements bring many different ideas into your mind depending on your own experiences.  Some of y’all are thinking of Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine, while others still are getting stoked on some Avatar the Last Airbender.  While all of these versions of the elements are slightly different, the concept is the same. There are archetypal rhythms and signatures that facilitate the dynamic interplay of life on Earth and they each contribute something important to our living world.  Below I will call them forward and give a brief overview of how you might begin to observe them within your own operation in hopes of inspiring the development of systems that harmonize with their more predictable rhythms. 



Water is life and you’d better not forget it.  Farming now in Vermont, it is easier than ever to take this most rare and precious living mineral for granted.  I need only remember the hot drought conditions that brought incredible vulnerability to my gardens in south and central Georgia or take a peak at any news outlet for the current state of California for a harsh reminder of how essential this life force truly is.  Like all of the elements, when it is harmonized within the system it can bring longevity, even during times of stress. When it is imbalanced, it can flood, erode, and devastate. When working with this element you have to let your thoughts flow.   

If you are working in an area where there isn’t enough of it, you have to observe where it comes from and when (seasonal rains, transpiration, morning dew, etc.)  You have to set up ways of catching it, slowing it down, and increasing the amount of surface area it touches before it descends into the water table. As water disappears from a sun caked landscape it can reduce the plant’s access to nutrients which can lead to poor harvests and unhealthy livestock.  Increasing organic matter in beds helps build a biological sponge that can retain water, even as it becomes less available from lack of rain.   

When you are working in an area where it is abundant, you have to think about how it moves.  How does it flow through the property? What does it pick up and deposit? Where does it want to go and how can you get it there with the least disturbance to your own goals on the land as possible?  Too much water in a growing space can lead to overly lush conditions; the cells of plants and animals can become engorged, making them more susceptible to fungus and disease. Over watering a garden can weaken plants in a similar way and contribute to shallow root growth, limiting the plant’s essential relationships to organisms mining for the micronutrients the plants seek from the subsoil. 

In both areas of lack and excess it is important to think about what goes into the water.  Water being involved in the chemical life processes, is prone to picking up soluble materials and carrying them downstream.  What potential soluble materials are entering or leaving your system through the water? What remedial landscape features (wetlands, riparian buffers, native plantings,) can you add to your property to reduce these pollutants?  Seeing healthy frogs in standing water and macroinvertebrates in streams and rivers are a good sign that your operation is contributing to water wellness as opposed to reducing it.



The importance of managing the air element on the property is most obvious in situations where strong winds knock over livestock shelters, lodge corn or cover crops, and playfully destroy high tunnels and greenhouses.  Air flow is increasingly becoming more severe during storms and setting up appropriate buffers around cultivated fields, greenhouses, and in and around livestock pasture can prevent serious damage to costly infrastructure and eliminate constant stress in valuable stock.  Trees, with their leaves, needles and branches, have the power to take strong winds and break them into eddies that are much less destructive. 

Maybe somewhat less obvious is when air becomes stagnant in a place and contributes to acidification.  We can see this more easily in situations involving water, where the lack of air contributes to the anaerobic breakdown of materials and attracts acid loving flora and fauna, but this lack of air is equally powerful in changing the nature of soil.  In soils where airflow has been stamped out through compaction, the acidification of the landscape becomes evident in the types of plants and mosses that grow and the lack of wellness achieved by our crops. Keeping soil biology stimulated through the introduction of rock powders, kelp, and other minerals and limiting tilling regimes can encourage soil organisms to build back into the soil the precious airways that keep the soil breathing and healthy. 

Stagnant air can also be a problem in the garden when it comes to densely planted crops in situations of high humidity.  If certain tender plants, like tomatoes, are grown without proper airflow in hot and steamy conditions, they can become more susceptible to disease.  Similarly, air pollution can reduce the vitality of your farm system by clogging up stomata and pores and the incorporation of woody and herbaceous perennials can help mitigate some of the negative effects. 

Being the carrier of light and the gaseous forms of all elements, air and openness are essential in allowing plants and animals to derive proper nourishment from the life giving rays of the sun and the nutritious, roaming nutrients of the atmosphere.



While warmth and light are partners in creation, it is important to note that light often travels to while warmth radiates from.  Fire is an essential element in the establishment of biological communities both in the way that warmth is a life giving phenomenon and equally in the fiery processes of reproduction.  We see fire most obviously in its most basic form as the burning of carbonaceous materials. Burning, in this way, is a very cleansing activity and has been used in forest management schemes all over the world throughout the ages.  Fire, like all of the 5 elements, is incredibly dangerous when it is imbalanced and can instantly cleanse the life force right out of large patches of ecological communities. Fire can also be used to refine materials, such as the carbon structures of plant materials in biochar, to produce a differently charged, porous material with the power of slowly releasing nutrients and stabilizing heavy metals in soils.

When it comes to managing the fire element on a property, this can be as simple as managing a proper woodlot for producing the literal fire that will warm the homestead or cook the meals, to the more complex management of the energies that lead to seed formation and fruit.  Thinking of fire as warmth, we draw special attention to the early blooms of fruiting perennials during the threats of late spring frosts and the incredible friction that occurs when a baby sheep gets pushed from the womb. 

The fire element is an important aspect of the kinetic energy of the landscape, or the farm’s ability to support organisms capable of high levels of activity through movement.  When the fire element on a farm is in good balance, animals of all kinds are able to derive sustenance from the land and impart their significant gifts. One of the essential gifts that comes from managing a landscape where diverse, mobile organisms interact is the proper balancing of predator and prey ratios.  Similarly, a farm that can support the health and well being of large ruminants such as cows is typically operating from a deep and nourishing ecological wellness derived from all of the elements in flux. 


kale Yes

When it comes to farming, the earth element may be easiest to identify.  The carbon realms of formative structure that we interact with on a daily basis are literally grounded in soil, which we often call earth.  Earth as an element is definitely a serious governing force for the mysterious communities of the soil, but the earth element is present in everything from worms to the birds that eat them.  When we are managing our farm for earthen energies, we are looking closely at the ways in which our farm is built. 

The bones and stems, the way the timber grows and grows; all of the materials that are finely crafted from the elusive and ambient energies that make their way into our landscapes are sorted by this dynamic energy.  Taking the soft whispers of the cosmos and weaving them into material form is a specialty of the earth element and its powerful relationship to the other elements. 

When imbalanced, this element can find our fields desertifying and lifeless, unable to muster up the strength to lift any organisms from the soil into the atmosphere.  Where the earthen energies are too great, the garden will produce leaf after leaf of beautiful, lush growth without fruit set or seed. This over abundance of form and structure must be balanced with fire and the other elements for the land to move from simple productivity to long term regeneration and fertility. 



There are many definitions for the term ether and I’m not here to say that I am the guru knowing the right and proper meaning.  My understanding of ether may be slightly different from what you come up with from your own experiences and I think that’s an important part of our time on this planet: to see things through different eyes.  In my own experience, ether is the essence or signature of each of the elements. While ether can be defined and classified on its own, it is gives a voice to each of the elements and is the conductor of their great orchestration.  Ether, to me, is not so much the forces themselves, but the space in time or consciousness that brings their essence to life. 

These different signatures or archetypes of the elements are given life or activity through the consciousness of the present moment.  Just as our deeds start out as thoughts and dreams, the physical manifestation of life within our farms and gardens must coalesce from forces beyond the physical.  Our real power in working with ether is to observe and understand the elements in our operations and think behind them. What does the farm dream about in the winter before the first sprouts and tubers break free from the Earth?  How is our own consciousness tied to the land, stirring up what may manifest in our harvest totes and on our market tables?  

Our mindfulness in the garden can allow the different ethers of each element to bring balance into the greater picture.  The elements themselves, once identified, can be monitored through their relationships to measurable rhythms such as the seasons, the movements of the cosmic bodies, and the rhythmic dancing of water, stimulated by the orbiting moon.

Darby Weaver has spent the last decade growing Biodynamic produce in the Southeast and teaching holistic and ecological methods to learners of all ages and backgrounds through articles, agriculture intensives, workshops, and lectures.  She has recently moved to the Northeast with her husband to begin a new venture on 20 acres in Wolcott, Vermont. You can read all of Darby'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.

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