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Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 2: How to Grow Plants

Plant Nursery 

So, what do you really need to start growing plants for profit in a plant nursery? Not a lot. Plants actually know how to grow quite well, without interference from us. The problem starts when you take them out of their natural environment and make them grow in plastic containers and shade houses, and you take away natural predators that would, in nature, take care of any pests.

Replicate the Plant's Natural Environment

The trick to growing plants well is to know what your plant’s natural environment is, their preferred growing conditions. Where did they originate? Do they naturally grow in a swamp in the Amazon or do they grow wild in subzero temperatures? Do you find them on rocky outcrops or in valleys with fertile soil?

Initially, we didn’t consider any of this when we started our plant nursery, and you don’t have to, but it certainly avoids a lot of stock losses. Your plants will teach you where you’re going wrong, and it won’t be long before you notice drooping leaves, yellow spots, or other signs of a generally unhappy plant. You can take a plant out of nature, but you can’t take nature out of the plant, so to speak.

For example, I managed to get my hands on a true Medinilla magnifica, a very rare plant species. It went into the nursery with all the others, and promptly decided it hated it, dropped all its leaves in the first few days, and had a proper plant tantrum. Much too late, I researched its preferred conditions and realized that 50% shade was not enough, nor was the soil fertile enough, and my watering was way off. I managed to save it by replicating its preferred conditions and it continued to thrive and make us lots of money. One single small plant would sell for over $100! For this one, this special care was worth it, but I highly recommend you find plants that are similar in care, or can at least adjust!

You’ll learn on the fly, and practice makes perfect. If it looks like a plant is not thriving, try something different with the next one. Put it in semi-shade rather than full sun. Give it less fertilizer, or more. Let it dry out a bit more before watering again. And so on.

1. Seaweed Solution

Here is where we enter seaweed solution. Yes, I’ll talk about seaweed before soil, before water, before fertilizers, before anything else really. Why? Because seaweed solution is your right-hand man. It helps average out extremes of your care, your possibly heavy hand.

The benefits:

  • It increases plant growth when applied as seed treatment or foliar spray. Seaweed solution contains micro-nutrients, auxins and cytokinins (beneficial hormones), and other growth promoting substances. (Spinelli et al., 2010)
  • It contains micro-nutrients that increase soil health. (Liu and Lijun, 2011)
  • It helps retain moisture and minerals for your plants. (Zodape et al.,2011)
  • It increases the plant’s defence enzymes which reduces a plant’s stress response. (Jayaraman et al., 2011)

These are just some of the many benefits reported in studies but I’ll tell you what we noticed, from personal experience.  

When we started using seaweed solution, it became harder to ‘go wrong’. Plants were stronger, much more resistant to disease, fungi, mould, and bug attack. They were able to deal with heat and cold better. They looked happier. It was easier to give them the right amount of water.

Soils looked better and retained more moisture, while at the same time making it more well-draining. Bugs didn’t like them as much and seedlings didn’t experience damping-off as much, plus seed germination rate went up.

We also used seaweed solution as a ‘soak’ before packaging plants for postage. There was a noticeable increase in plant health on arrival at the customer’s house, and feedback was very positive. They were able to travel longer, arrived stronger, grew better once planted, and were more resistant to being in a dark box (no sun) for days on end in the mail.

2. Sun

The second thing I’ll talk about is the sun. While some plants, think tomatoes, love being in full sun, there are many that don’t. Also keep in mind that it’s a whole different story when they grow in a small, contained pot, versus being out ‘in the wild’. We found that it is really helpful to have some shade, and we rigged up a rudimentary shade roof between trees for our first under-shade area.

Without watering multiple times per day, it becomes very hard to keep the water up to your plants in adequate amounts. And once your soil gets dry, it’s nearly impossible to wet it again. Seaweed solution will help here, but it won’t completely save you.

Again, it depends on the variety and your climate, of course. Our plant nursery was in Queensland, with incredibly hot sun most of the day, and we specialized in tropical plants. Those two don’t go together. Almost all tropical plants enjoy a fair bit of shade, and they love rich, deep, moist soil, so we couldn’t just grow them out in the open. We started with a little hoop house, but soon realized that, to grow a significant amount of plants, we needed a decent sized area, which is where the oversized shade sail came in.

You’ll need to look at your chosen variety of plants. Do they love full sun, part shade, full shade? Is your climate hot and sunny, or is it manageable?

Plants soaking in seaweed

3. Soil

Then, there’s soil. Our opinion here may be a bit left-field, and contrary to a lot of other advice you’ll see.

Soil is there to hold the plant up. It’s support, that’s it. It’s what you DO with the soil that makes all the difference. It’s a different story in the garden, soil is everything in the garden. Having a good microbe population and earth worms in your garden soil is invaluable, and it’s not as hard to achieve as it sounds. I’ll cover this in the ‘establishing mother stock gardens’ article, coming up.

However, in a pot, which is an artificial way of growing a plant, you can’t create a soil microbe system. It’s just not big enough, not extensive enough. There’s not enough room for bugs to compete with each other, to travel around and spread their goodness. It’s a very small segment of a very large ecosystem, and you’re guaranteed to miss elements of that ecosystem, breaking the natural cycle.

What you’re aiming for is a soil, any soil, that is:

  • Of slightly acidic pH (5 1/2 - 6 1/2 is good), unless you specialise in acid-lovers, like Azalea’s, in which case you should focus on a lower pH.
  • Substantial enough to hold the plant up without it moving around. Movement breaks tiny new roots, and these are the roots that go out looking for water and nutrient, thus arresting growth and setting you back.
  • Moisture retentive, but well-draining.

Our Initial Plant Nursery Setup 

The pH of your soil is important. We decided to use resources available to us to make our potting mix, and we had a pile of saw dust, given to us by a local wood cutter. We composted it and potted plants in it. The plants didn’t look happy, so we decided to do a litmus paper test (for pH). It was pH4… That’s way too acidic, even for Azalea’s. We later found out that saw dust, or any woody substance, robs the soil of Nitrogen when it breaks down. So, not only was the pH terrible, we were also losing Nitrogen at a great rate.

Moisture retentive but well-draining, that one had us stumped for a bit. How could it hold water and drain well at the same time?

Thankfully, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Your soil needs to have enough ‘big’ (that’s relative) pieces in it to allow for some air, thus drainage, but it also needs to be composed of a substance that holds water. Kind of like a sponge. Imagine lots of pieces of sponge, with lots of pieces of small rocks between it. A bucket full of sponge and rocks would drain extremely well, but the sponges soak up enough water for moisture to be available.

We ended up using mulch, available for $5 per trailer load, from the local dump. They had piles and piles of it, made out of green waste collected. We’d compost it, with two or three piles on the go at all times, so we could use them while the others where still breaking down. This made a good potting mix once we added some coarse sand. We tried perlite for drainage - it all floated to the top. Same for vermiculite. Coco peat was great, but expensive. In the end, simple compost with sand did the trick just fine and it was cheap.

One thing with compost, it’s best to turn it regularly. We started with a shovel, and it’s truly an epic workout. It was fine initially, we’d turn it with a shovel, shovel it into a wheelbarrow, wheel it over to a little platform we built, and potted plants up in the wheelbarrow. To do this at large scale, however, is nearly impossible.

Dan is a diesel mechanic by trade, so we purchased a 1950’s, broken front-end loader tractor to turn the piles with. Dan got it running himself and we came out of it with a great loader for $500. If you don’t have equipment like that, you can order truck loads of potting mix from landscaping suppliers. We found that it was quite expensive, but it does keep you going for months and the quality was really good.

I’ll talk about fertilizers and other equipment in the next article, see you there!

Photo's by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens

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 Happens, on Facebook and Pinterest. Read 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 Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 1: Choosing What to Grow and Unique Plants

Flowering Plants In Backyard Greenhouse 

Years ago, although it feels like yesterday, my husband, Dan, and I were given two small cacti. We’d just traveled around Europe and decided to settle in Australia’s Queensland, so we never had a garden of any kind before. The cacti belonged to Dan’s grandfather and was aptly named “Jaws”.

These small cacti sparked something, a flame of passion for things that grow. All of a sudden, we noticed other succulents and cacti around us, and we visited the cacti show at the Mount Cootha Botanical Gardens. We came home with another 15 or so cacti. These plants had little hangers-on, tiny offsets, which we learned could be replanted and would grow.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind. For some reason, I can’t have a hobby without it becoming a business venture of some form or shape. My mother would tell you a story of me, at 7 years old, giving horse riding lessons on my pony to neighborhood kids for 10 cents per go!

This led me to sell the cacti offsets on eBay and it was the start of a nursery business that would serve us well for over 10 years.

There are many ways of starting a plant nursery. My story is just one way to get into it, but it’s a great way to start without any overhead or cost upfront. Yes, I think we spent about $30 at the cacti show, but I’m not talking about huge bank loans. We built it up as we went along. We didn’t start with shade houses, irrigation systems, potting houses, great big setups that cost a fortune to run. We found people selling second-hand pots for peanuts, and used an old shower head as watering wand.

How to Choose What to Grow for a Backyard Nursery

Most advice I’ve read so far is to “grow what you love”. To an extent, I agree with this, but you can’t sell something you can’t source. Meaning, not only do you need to like the plants you’re going to grow, you also need to be able to source either seeds or plants for that variety. There’s no point focusing on a variety that’s so obscure it becomes impossible to get a hold of.

Although, that said, if you do happen to find a source for this incredibly rare plant, and there’s a market looking for it, you’ve got a winner. We did OK with our cacti, but realized quite early on that we didn’t actually like spiky plants very much. I started becoming interested in edible plants and stumbled upon coconuts. Most coconuts grow over 30m tall, but I found out that there’s such a thing as a dwarf coconut, which is much more suitable for home growers.

I tenaciously researched, trying to find a supplier and, although it was hard, found a grower (who, admittedly, didn’t do a lot of online marketing, making him super hard to find!) and negotiated a deal with him. We met his truck on the highway somewhere, and we were now proud owners of 100 dwarf coconuts.

They sold like hot bread. Not only were we one of the very few nurseries offering the Dwarf Coconut, there was also a huge demand for it. Mind you though, we did need to do some educating, as would be the case with a lot of rare plants. People often don’t know this type of plant, and you’ll have to teach them why it’s a good choice for them and the benefits of growing this particular variety.

This education is a science on its own, but if you can pull it off, it’s really great. Our supplier for the Dwarf Coconuts was incredibly passionate about them and this made it a joy to work with him. We worked together on preserving the purity of the different varieties of the coconuts, and managed to spread the word on the benefits of coconuts. Did you know coconut water is used as a replacement for traditional IV’s in emergency situations?

For us, it was trial and error. I started researching wholesale plant suppliers and found a great many of them, nearly all selling the same plants. That wasn’t what we wanted, I suppose we wanted to be special, different, and unique — it’s no fun selling what everyone else is selling! And besides, if you’re a small fish in the nursery world, you can’t compete with them unless you have something different to offer.

We also wanted to grow organically and, besides some of the herb nursery, there weren’t any organic plant wholesalers. We dabbled in some native Australian plants for a while, after finding someone on eBay who sold big lots of them for a good price. We tried to grow them up, failed miserably, and kept looking for other plants.

You need to be flexible, go with the flow. If you can’t grow something, don’t persist with it. We realized that we needed to research our climate, and make sure we selected plants that suited not only our style of growing (meaning, without a lot of horticultural experience) but also our climate and limited setup. We didn’t have hothouses for picky plants, nor did we have special irrigation systems with separate areas for plants with different water requirements.

Choose plants that have similar watering needs. It gets really hard to properly grow cacti and tropical plants in one area. If you use a sprinkler, like we ended up doing (just a big lawn-type

sprinkler in the middle of the plant area), you’ll end up with either over-watered, rotten cacti, or under-watered, drooping tropical plants.

Eventually, we found a palm tree supplier who supplied us with tiny palm seedlings, minimum buy of 100 per variety. This was great. We’d buy 1000 (10 different varieties) and pot them up. One hundred seedlings would cost around $30, so $0.30 per plant. We’d sell them in 5-inch pots at $5 to $10, depending on variety, which is a great markup.

We also started planting seeds, which was both amazing (we felt like miracle workers planting a seed, and growing a whole new life!) and amazingly frustrating. There are lots of critters that love eating seeds. Then there’s rot, and damping-off (a fungal disease), and mold.

We sold all our plants online, which was a must because we lived in a small town, population 280, with the nearest biggish town being an hour away. Our town did have a post office, so mailing them was the way to go for us. I’ll cover this subject, as well as propagating seeds, cuttings, and offsets in one of the next articles.

Plant Starts In Backyard Nursery

Find Something Unique for Your Home-Based Nursery to Specialize In

Although the palm seedlings worked out OK, they were slow to grow and we lost a great many of them to all sorts of bugs (and other wildlife, but that’s not just for palms). It was also hard to compete with the many specialist palm nurseries around us. Another downside is that you need to keep buying seedlings, unless you have a mature palm of your own and you can propagate the seeds it produces.

To make decent money as a nursery operator, you need high-value plants. That much we realized early on. At $5 a plant, you need to sell 10,000 plants a year to make an annual income of $50,000, and that’s before costs and tax. That is a LOT of plants. Now, if you can grow a plant with a value of $25 or $50, or even $100 (yes, we’ve had those, and no, they weren’t 20 feet tall, they were just rare and we were the only nursery supplying them), you can do much less work for more money. Plants are a labor of love but, in the end, you also want to provide for your family.

Finding a unique plant with high value is, admittedly, a bit like winning the lottery, but nowhere near as unlikely to win. Look for plants with the potential of cuttings (you’d be amazed how many plants will grow readily from cuttings) or offsets. I wouldn’t touch seeds again. Be wary of sellers offering seeds of a “guaranteed” color or variety. Most seed throws back to its roots, and you won’t get that special purple and pink Adenium, nor will you get ‘Darwin Sunset’ Frangipanis from seed. Cuttings and offsets are the only way to make sure you’re getting a definite clone of that variety.

Good places for finding unique, rare plants, are eBay (we found some beauties there!), Bunning’s (or Wal-Mart), local markets, friends and family, garden clubs, and plant shows at local botanical gardens. Do a Google search for a particular variety, like “Buy African Gardenia online”. If you can’t find a supplier, or there’s only one and that particular plant is out of stock, you might be on to a winner. Particularly if there are forums where people are discussing the plant and asking where to buy it.

The good thing with many of these plants is that you can buy one, or two, and work your way up from there. It may cost you $100 initially, but once you get it home, you’ll take five cuttings of it, or 5 offsets, and now you have six plants. You keep all of those, grow them for a few months, and take another 10 cuttings or offsets. You grow those as well, plant them out in your mother stock garden (which, of course is enriched with lovely organic matter, tons of mulch, and buckets of seaweed solution, or your own liquid microbe enhancer (Dan formulated the best-ever liquid microbe fertilizer, I’ll share it with you in the future) and now you have a ready supply of big plants to propagate, and sell its offspring.

These plants didn’t cost a lot, they don’t take a lot of work once they’re established in your garden, and the plants you’re going to sell have a huge profit margin.

Home Plant Nursery Business

Initial Lessons Learned for Home-based Nursery Businesses

Research your climate. If you regularly get frost, choose cold-hardy plants, unless you’re going to build a hothouse.

Think about water requirements. If you water with a hose, you can look at each individual plant to see if they need water that day, but it’s much easier to choose plants that have similar watering requirements so you can water the whole lot in one go.

Find unique plants to increase your profit margin and to compete with bigger nurseries. Try to establish yourself as a specialist of a particular variety, like tropical plants, frost hardy plants, edible plants, etc. The more niche you are, the easier to market.

Choose plants you like. You’re going to look at them every day all day, and your garden will be full of them (for mother stock).

Choose plants you can propagate, eliminating the need for buying more stock, thus reducing overhead. Look for plants with offsets (gingers, for example, are great, as are Canna) or with the potential for cuttings.

Visit plant shows, collector’s gatherings, local garden clubs, and yes, even Walmart, to find unique plants.

Photos by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens

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 Happens, on Facebook and Pinterest. Read 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.

Simple Composting: Starting from Scraps, a Trash Bin, and a Hay Bale


Our chickens have eaten our kitchen scraps for so long, I don’t even remember maintaining a compost pile. So when we found ourselves without chickens, I really missed the little rotten vegetable eaters. It was a good system, but now I am stuck with kitchen scraps. Scraps fill up the bucket I keep on the counter. They fill up a couple bowls I add for overflow. They get relocated to a five-gallon bucket on the porch, which attracts wasps. This is not a system. I don’t want to walk the scraps out to the garden to bury in the soil. I don’t want to dump the scraps in the woods for raccoons and skunks and my dogs to scavenge. I am certainly not throwing them into the trash. The landfill is no place for easily decomposed food. I need a new system.

I need a simple compost bin. “Composting is easy!” All the marketing for composting says so. But I’ve definitely heard people complain about it being tricky. I researched making a compost bin. Bin options range from homemade on the cheap to quite expensive. And then there is the brown-green ratio. You have to get the green and brown matters to balance for successful decomposition. Guidelines can overwhelm with tips on how to get the ratio right. They give the clear impression that the decomposition balance is tricky, either too dry and static or too stinky and composty.

Simplify your composting routine. My husband makes everything easy. If you want a complicated meal from a recipe, I’ll make dinner. If you want dinner in 15 minutes, Phil’s your guy. So when I told him I wanted to make a compost bin, he said “Just drill holes in a plastic trashcan. Then add hay or straw to cover each bucket of kitchen scraps.” That’s all there is to it, folks.

Use a plastic trash bin. We selected a plastic trash bin with an attached lid, but any plastic trashcan will work. I used a drill with a large bit to punch holes every few inches all around the bin including the bottom. You might need to bungee the top on to keep critters out. I set up my compost bin close to the house and right next to the goat paddock, where there is a steady supply of scrap hay. Every time I dump a bucket of kitchen scraps, I cover it with a big handful of hay. Sure enough, as soon as it started to fill up, it started to shrink down.

Have a hay bale on hand. Then I realized the key to easy composting: get a hay bale. You need that convenient source of the brown ingredients to layer between every dump of kitchen scraps. Brown ingredients can be dried leaves, branches, hay, straw, shredded paper, but let’s keep this easy. It is hard to find the browns, especially in a tidy suburban yard. Dry leaves are plentiful in the fall, but the rest of the year one could spend too much time scrounging around for these brown elements. You might not have hay scraps, but I would go so far as to recommend this, even to suburban composters: buy a square bale of hay or straw to set next to your compost bucket. After every kitchen scrap offering, cover it with a generous layer of hay. Fully covering the scraps every time will keep them from having an odor or attracting animals. Worth it.

Take it from Phil and keep it simple. Punch holes in a plastic trashcan and add layers of scraps and hay. It’s as simple as that, to spin straw into garden gold.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life on the farm's Facebook Page. For more about House in the Woods Farm, go to the House in the Woods website, and read all of Ilene's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

[Video] Farming For Life, Part 3: Growing Your Farming Career

Growing a business is a trial-and-error process, but there are a few areas of focus that many farmers point to as being key to successfully growing your farming career. In this video, we hear from a variety of farmers who share some of the lessons they’ve learned about how to successfully expand a farm business. What are those lessons?

Mechanization, hiring help, designing efficient systems, reinvesting profits, thinking strategically, and planning for expansion are only a few of the messages they convey as they talk about their varying approaches to doing business as farmers.

Are Internships Required to Become a Farmer?

Do you have to be an intern in order to farm? No. Do you need farming experience to start a farm? Yes, if you expect to succeed. People come to farming from WWOOFing experiences, from years of paid farm labor, and from formal internships and apprenticeships.

Training takes many forms, but the key is learning the varied tasks involved with farming, and coming to understand how to integrate and manage those tasks as part of a larger agricultural system.

Do Farms Differ From Other Small Businesses?

All businesses begin with an understanding of what type of product or service they are providing, why they’re doing what they do, and how they intend to continue doing what they do. In that sense farms are like any other business. But when variables like the weather are added to the mix, farming successfully and sustainably becomes more complex than many undertakings. But at its core, farming is about growing and providing good food for your families and communities.

For more information on advancing your farming career, contact these organizations:

New Entry Sustainable Farming Project - Tufts University

National Young Farmers Coalition

Rogue Farm Corps

Production Credits and Thanks

A special thank you goes out to farmers Jack Gray and Chris Overbaugh (Winter Green Farm), Emily Cooper (Full Cellar Farm), Lili Tova (Flying Coyote Farm), Jonny Steiger (By George Farm), and Katie Coppoletta and Tayne Reeve (Fiddlehead Farm); to farm employees and trainees Mary Koppes, Daphne Gill, Stephen Lewis, and Piper Krabbenhoft; to EMSWCD Land Legacy Director Matt Shipkey; and to the staff members of Rogue Farm Corps for their support and participation. Selected video and photo files were provided by Rogue Farm Corps.

The four-part Farming for Life series was produced for MOTHER EARTH NEWS by Farming Is Life Media Services (FILMS), with writing and directing by John Vincent, and videography and editing by Paul Manda.

John Clark Vincent is a writer and author who lives in Portland, Ore. His most recent book, Planting a Future, presents a view of what’s happening within Oregon’s rapidly growing movement toward sustainable farming practices. In an effort to provide a glimpse into the many different aspects of such a surging movement, he uses profiles of 18 different farmers and farm supporters to represent the different elements of Oregon’s farm community. Find John online on his website, and read all of his 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.

A Moment for Turning: Soil and Soul


Marigolds: slowly turning to seed.

As peak harvest for northern growers in North America winds to a close, we confront a range of emotions. Our energy wanes as the shortening daylight hours make themselves clearly apparent. We mourn for the things we didn’t mark off our to-do lists, we look forward to a break from seasonal chores, we plant cover crops, and we begin to make plans for next year.

For Jewish farmers like me, this is also the time we pass from one calendar year to another. This week we celebrate Rosh haShanah and the start of the year 5780. This is a time of deep contemplation, when we reflect on the year past – on our good deeds and the times we missed the mark in living up to our values – and plan for how to do better, to turn over a new leaf. Our term for this is teshuva, often translated as repentance. But it’s not just a matter of asking for forgiveness, teshuva is an active process of “reconnecting and reaffirming one’s commitment to living a healthy and good life.” It’s hard not to see the parallels between this definition (borrowed from Hazon, a leading Jewish organization thinking about and working towards sustainability) and our relationship with the Earth at this time of year. In fact, in response to the ongoing Global Climate Crisis, Hazon has called for 5780 to be a year of Environmental Teshuva.

Identifying as a Jewish farmer wasn’t a label I adopted until recently. I grew up quite religious and I spent a lot of time in my adult life thinking about and engaging with contemporary Jewish innovation and experience. As such, I know Jewish ideals around taking care of the Earth, eating with intention, and building sustainable community were part of the foundation for my farm work. But secular sources like MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle were my direct inspiration for getting growing. I was Jewish and I was farming, but being a Jewish Farmer wasn’t something I thought of consciously until about two years ago.

In the winter of 2018 my mother told me to check out the cover story of Hadassah magazine. The headline read “My Daughter, The Farmer” and I read with interest about folks throughout the U.S. and Canada leading Jewish farm programs at summer camps and retreat centers, synagogues and on their own. I looked some of them up and started following the Jewish Farmer Network on Facebook. Through that group, I heard about a conference for Jewish farmers and environmental educators. A few months later I found myself touring urban farms in Detroit and hanging out in the Michigan woods engaging with “new to me” ideas about how to connect my Jewish values, environmental ethics, and farm practices.

As a Roman philosopher once said, a rock band quoted in a song, and one of the hosts of the podcast Judaism Unbound often likes to repeat, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And so it is with farming. We are on a wheel that is constantly turning, with no clear ends or beginnings. While plants die back, they become part of the next generation of the soil. As summer’s tomatoes and squashes disappear, fall greens and roots appear as we set garlic for next year alongside cover crops like daikon that will hold the soil in place for spring planting and feed microorganisms over winter. While our fields might go dormant for a period, the soil breathes on.

This season was a really tough one for Ohio growers. We had excessive rain in the spring followed by what’s been described as a minor to moderate drought this summer and the hottest temperatures on record for the first days of October.  It’s hard not to feel discouraged. But things will change, in one way or another. They always do. Are you ready to start your next season?

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.

Biochar for Soil Fertility with DIY Char Box Design


Growing up as a falconer, I climbed every hawk nest I could find at a young age. It was, therefore, natural that I would become a tree trimmer and later a tree service owner and now former certified arborist. This, by the way, is a certification program which is recognized as an expert witness for the U.S. Judicial system. Whenever I had a sick, infected or infested tree, I would call on an associate to return the vigor and vitality of my client’s trees. We would do this with a nearly 100 percent success rate, all without chemical fertilizers.

Soil Building with Mycorrhizal Fungi

Take soil compaction, for example; a common landscape malady. He would either hand dig or use an auger to drill 2-inch diameter holes in the drip line and backfill it with a recipe of fecal fertilizer, worm castings, and Mycorrhizal fungi spores. The worm castings have eggs and larvae in them which hatch when moistened. They feed on the fecal material, grow and spread, conditioning the soil as they do so taking the microbes with them in their gut and on their bodies.

These fungi and other microbes live on the net like absorbing root tips called the "rhizome". The fungi break down coarse minerals to the molecular level — what I term "chewing up” the minerals, just as we use our teeth to process food. These minerals in a rainwater solution are now available and absorbed by the plants, helping them grow and compete with the neighboring trees and other plants for sunlight. The plants in turn provide the fungi with a place to live and food in the form of sloughed off dead cells. You will later see the mushroom caps coming up in the compacted soil.

Discovering Biochar for Soil Fertility

Unfortunately, my associate is now no longer with us. I had to perform that function myself. This at a time when I had just heard about an ancient soil fertility component called biochar. I began developing my own "activated" (inoculated) biochar and added to the organic tree health drip line mix.

Forests grow up, mature, become over mature and ultimately burn. That is the regeneration cycle, the "great circle of stuff" that the sage swine Poomba taught us about in The Lion King. The charred remains of the forest lie on its floor to become soil over and over as the cycle repeats itself. All species of plants and animals are evolved to utilize any and all resources at any stage of the regeneration cycle.

The U.S. government spy satellites in the late 1960s were showing blocks of South American jungle which were greener and taller that the surrounding forest canopies. Because these blocks were in geometric patterns, the intelligence officers knew they were human-altered. However, there were no humans to be found there. These sites were hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. Ergo, these were ancestral human sites, so they alerted the archeologists.

The one thing the workers found to be common to all the sites of lush, green forest patches was that the dirt was black. The natives called it terra preta, which in Portuguese (some of the first Europeans to sail there) means "black earth". Tested, this soil had unusually high carbon content. They surmised that these sites were once Mesoamerican dump sites, because this was also where they excavated terra cotta pottery shards, animal bones, and other organic materials. The natives corrected them: "No, these were their farms".

These large cities of hunter-gatherer-farmers were where the masters at coaxing food from the surrounding jungle lived, growing vegetables such as corn 10 feet high, squash on the corn stalks, and other vegetables between the rows that fed millions of citizens, all from the poorest soils on the planet. Without biochar this would not be possible.

Ancient Biochar Technique

Their modern Native descendants showed the professors the ancient method of making terra preta. First, they would slash down a block of jungle. Then they would pile the wood and add their waste mineral products like dirt, bones for calcium and phosphorus, terra cotta for iron, copper, zinc etc., on the brush piles and log decks. Then, they burned it all slowly in pits, controlling the burn so that it thoroughly charred the wood but not completely burnt it to ash. 

The charcoal produced was now in a raw state and needed to be inoculated with soil microbes or "activated". They partially buried the coal with fish offal, corn husks, fecal material and any and all refuse. The charcoal absorbs minerals and the beneficial fungi spores. Most of what plants need to grow are in the charcoal, the microbes release those nutrients slowly over time to make a layer of top soil nutrients called the "A horizon".

Activating biochar first before use is key. If raw char is used, it will deplete the soil of nutrients by absorption for a few years. The cells that make up the charcoal are open ended from the burn. This is where all the elements that will make soil fertile are infused into the cells where they live and reproduce what I call "tenement apartments". They persist there for many centuries feeding as the wood slowly decays. There is a cottage industry of workers that search the jungles for these ancient growing grounds. They dig it up and sell it as fertilizer.

Homemade Biochar with DIY ‘Bio Box’

A few years ago, I began fertilizing my house plants the same way. I purchased some red worms in a little tub sold for fishing bait. I dumped the entire contents, one in each potted plant. I added biochar and then some kitchen scraps now and then.

If you find a little milk at the bottom of the glass, in it goes, as does a little cooking grease, eggshells, coffee grinds etc. Even two or three dry dog food kibbles when the worms are hungry. The worms come up to feed and in turn condition the soil by making little tunnels that are laced with worm castings, nature's fertilizer. These tunnels are perfect for roots to grow in. This indoor agronomy worked surprisingly well. One drawback is that sometimes house pets are interested in the potting soil, so it may not be for everyone.

Staring in thought last spring, I did not want to tear up my lawn to build a vegetable garden. I looked at the wooden fence, it was getting full sun. I thought of hanging terra cotta pots with vegetables in them but the sun heats up the soil and roots of the plants producing inferior harvests. So I built 2-inch-thick pine boxes which I charred and inoculated inside. I charred the outside and wire brushed it for aesthetics, raising the lignin grain.

Tomatoes were planted out holes drilled in the bottom of the box and added potting soil. I then hung them on the fence using a 16p nail in the sun. I added a charred lid to match with kitchen scraps on the potting soil and earthworms. Potato peelings, watermelon husks, coffee grinds, egg shells, any and all kitchen waste was introduced to the awaiting worms. I sold one to a fellow crafter.

A few weeks later, they complained that "It’s all grey inside with fungus!" I explained that this condition was exactly as I and nature had intended it to be. I call this invention the "Bio Box." I believe it to be the first composting planter box. If you would like to see a photo of this creation please visit my site at Barn Owl Boxes.

Growth in Regenerative Agriculture

I wish to tell you another story now. This story is of a little boy who dreamed of getting an agronomy degree at a prestigious school in Guatemala. This so he could return to teach his clan to farm profitably, thereby raising them all out of abject poverty. This came to pass. He realized after he got his degree in Guatemala and then a business degree at the University of Minnesota that industrial farming was unsustainable because it robs the soil of life and pollutes it with glyphosate herbicides, insecticides and other "cides".

So he took the ancient Indigenous way of farming and added the best of American industrial farming and scaled this new concept up. He called it "Regenerative Agriculture”. What I call "ReGenAg" for short. This first project was is called Finca Mirasol, and is still at his place in Northfield, Minnesota. I copied the plan verbatim and won a first place ribbon at the Southern California Agricultural Exposition, aka The Del Mar Fair, for Most Innovative Farming Method.

The boy turned farmer, professor, entrepreneur, organizer, is the famous Reginaldo Haslett Maroquim, a founding member and steering committee member at "Regeneration International" and founder and CEO of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance.

I have recently designed and am working with a university on a loosely but improved rendition of his original design. This small farm will greatly reduce a farm's acreage or footprint, while producing intense amounts of organic food. Through the use of biochar and fecal material provided by chickens and other livestock in blocks or panels, it will grow annuals, perennials with fruit and nut trees in infinity, totally without the need of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

I call it the Food Forever Project. This new sustainable method of agriculture will derive all its irrigation from the atmosphere. Meant as a future humanitarian project, my vision is for all of the world to have healthy food and freedom for his or her family with profits from the sale of any surplus food.

Tom Stephan works in the arborist 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 Tom at Barn Owl Boxesand read all of his 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.


Companion Planting Primer for Vegetable Gardens

Yellow Marigold Close Up

Companion planting is the practice of grouping plants together that have beneficial relationships. The goal of companion planting is to increase the yield of plants by controlling for pests, increasing the nutrients within the soil, and increasing pollination. It should be noted that companion planting is not an exact science, and takes experimentation and observation.

A well-known example of this practice is the “Three Sisters” garden, consisting of maize, beans, and squash. Various Native American tribes discovered this practice thousands of years ago. Planting these three crops together increases the yields of all three plants. The beans are legumes, which increase the nitrogen content of the soil through the nitrogen-fixing bacteria contained within their roots. The squash’s large leaves shade the ground and retain moisture in the soil. The maize provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb up and reduces the competition on the ground for space to grow.

Companion planting mimics nature by incorporating a variety of plants into one location. Plants often develop symbiotic relationships after adapting and evolving together. By separating crops, we are limiting the natural benefits these plants have developed in nature. Monoculture, or the practice of planting a single crop, corrodes the soil and reduces the nutrients over time.

Companion Planting with Vegetable Crops

There are hundreds of beneficial combinations for vegetable crops. Here is a quick summary of the main groupings:

Legume family plants, such as peas and beans, should not be planted in proximity to plants in the allium family or garlic crops. Onions and garlic can stunt the growth of peas and beans. Legumes pair well with the Brassicas family, carrots, lettuces, spinach, strawberries, corn, and cucumbers.

The Brassicas family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, grow well with beans, carrots, lettuces, onions, spinach, and most herbs. They do not grow well with strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash.

The Allium family should be planted with potatoes, carrots, lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries, and the Brassicas family. These crops do not pair well with legumes.

Place potatoes with onions, corn, lettuces, beans, and the Brassicas family. Potatoes do not grow well with tomatoes, pumpkin, squash, and zucchini.

Lettuces and spinach both grow well with carrots, radishes, the Brassicas family, onions, strawberries, and cucumbers.

Tomatoes love being paired with basil, nasturtiums, marigolds, onions, and cucumbers. Don’t plant tomatoes with potatoes, corn, or the Brassicas family.

Most herbs can be placed together or amongst other vegetable crops. However, be careful placing dill with carrots and tomatoes.

Pest-Repelling Plants

Another important aspect of companion planting is the placement of pest-repelling plants in your vegetable gardens. Not all insects are bad, but some can eat away your garden. Plants that have pest-repelling properties include marigolds, alliums, and several varieties of herbs.

Marigolds deter nematodes, which can attack the roots of plants. Herbs such as basil kill mosquito eggs, and rosemary keeps away both flies and mosquitoes. Mint deters ants, mice, flies, and mosquitoes (although it must be potted because it is an aggressive grower). The allium family keeps away slugs, carrot flies, aphids, and cabbage worms.

Pollinator Plants

Incorporate local, pollinator-friendly plants into your vegetable garden. Pollinator plants support local pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Increasing the number of local pollinators in your garden will increase the yield from your vegetable-producing crops.

Research which pollinator plants are the native to your area, but common ones include Purple Cone-Flower (Echinacea), Yarrow varieties, Goldenrod, Black-Eyed Susan, Salvias, Penstemons, Blanket flower, Borage, and Aster.

Temperature and Sunlight Variance

Plant crops that require similar temperatures and sun exposure together. For example, cool-weather crops, such as kale, lettuce, spinach, and broccoli, should be planted together in areas that are shadier and have lower temperatures. On the other hand, warm-weather crops, such as peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash, should be planted together in areas that receive increased sun and higher temperatures.

Keep in mind that the northern and eastern areas of the garden typically receive decreased sunlight and temperatures, while the southern and western areas of the garden typically receive increased sunlight and temperatures.

Photo by Krista Bratvold

Krista Bratvold travels North America in her converted van to raise awareness for sustainable living and protection of our lands. She is a landscape photographer and travel writer who educates on sustainable food production and native plants. Connect with Krista at The Suitcase Photographers and on Instagram @thesuitcasephotographers. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

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