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

The Land Over the Fence: How One New Yorker Moved to the Midwest and Built Her Urban Farm

Backyard Farmer Jodi Kushins

I spent the bulk of my childhood and young adult years in metro New York. The daughter of two hard-working physicians, I wasn’t born to be a farmer. And still, I’m sitting here today with dirt under my fingernails and a to-do list that includes water the seedbed, harvest tomatoes, and clean the coop.

In 2003, I moved to Columbus, Ohio, to attend graduate school at Ohio State University (OSU). OSU is so big it has its own zip code. So, while I never lived on campus, it was the center of my world. I didn’t consider myself a resident of the city as much as the university. All that changed when I graduated and decided to make Ohio my home.

There’s a stereotype about New Yorkers that we can’t see west past the Hudson River. When I moved here, my family repeatedly asked if I was warm enough and offered to send extra blankets despite the fact that I was just two states away. I had driven across the country once or twice by then, but I never really got out besides the National Parks and big cities. I had no sense of life in the Midwest before I got here beyond the faint notion that people worked hard and they grew things.

What I learned was that Columbus is a city where people make things and make things happen. Ideas take root here and people support and celebrate the pursuits of their friends and neighbors. Perhaps there are lots of places like Columbus. I hope so.

Finding Land and Taking Advice

Suburban Backyard Lawn With Shed

The land Over the Fence, November 2013. Photo by Jodi Kushins

When I met him in 2005, my husband was living in a house he bought from his grandmother; the house his mother grew up in. His grandfather had kept a large kitchen garden out back and his grandmother had a canning station in the basement. Dan was also an avid gardener, but he had two kids, a dog, and a job and was trying to keep it all together. Together we slowly resurrected his grandfather’s corner of the yard.

I took advice from a wide range of sources. One friend encouraged me to keep on top of weeds before they became a problem. One extolled the importance of watering, deeply and regularly. Another taught me how to lift sod and soon our backyard was transformed from a patch of crab grass to an ever-evolving menagerie of flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs. I subscribed to MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine and I read about backyard sharing. And by 2013, we devised a plan to increase our space.

Over the fence from our garden sat a patch of land that was rarely walked on other than the person who mowed it. Our kids played back there from time to time, but our neighbor on that side was elderly and it was more than she needed. I devised a plan to lease the land from her but just as I was preparing to approach her, she had a bad fall and was moved to an assisted living facility.

When her children were ready to sell the house, Dan and I bought it with the intention of turning the yard into an urban farm and the house into a rental property. In a twist of fate, his parents wound up moving in and we have all enjoyed the inter-generational proximity, to one another and to the land.

Starting an Urban CSA

Backyard Urban Farm In Ohio

In full bloom, August 2017. Photo by Jodi Kushins

I will never forget how we took possession of the house one day and rented a sod lifter the next. After initial amending and tilling, we planted our first crop of garlic (about 100 feet) that week, and it was the best decision we could have made. A few months later, the farm was bursting with new growth. Those initial beds served as our beacon. We had already done something right. 

Over that winter, I reached out family and friends with invitations to join our CSA. We got a small group of supporters, enough to help us pay for start-up supplies. Our first season was more successful than I could have imagined. We had tons of help from our members establishing beds and tending plants throughout the season.

We’ve had high points and low since then. The weather is a never-ending source of aggravation and sometimes wrangling folks to work feels a lot like herding cats. But I get out there every day and find something to marvel at, something to nibble, something to question.

When we started the project I hesitated to call it a farm or myself a famer. Six seasons later, it feels like home.

Photos by Jodi Kushins

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.

[Video] Farming For Life, Part 2: Getting Started in Farming

Taking the first step into any new career is difficult, because you know it will lead to some genuine challenges. But given time and commitment, those first steps also can lead to substantial rewards. In that sense, farming is no different from any other career, but it does offer unique opportunities to experience the natural world while building a business and a community. Listen as two current farm interns, an apprentice, and a harvest crew leader share their views of what starting a new career on a farm really feels like.

What’s the Best Background for Farming?

Today’s new farmers come from extremely diverse backgrounds. Social workers, cooks, educators, office workers, retail salespeople, landscapers and builders, artists and writers. The list is as endless as any list of different jobs. But all future farmers have several things in common: They appreciate healthy food, they love being outdoors, and they care about the land. And there’s one more important criterion — new farmers can’t be afraid of hard work.

What Types of Challenges and Rewards Exist?

One of the most common refrains of beginning farmers is the need to take care of your body, because of the physical demands of farming. There’s often a need to make a lifestyle adjustment by learning to slow down, live more simply, and learn to flow with the seasons. And then there’s the need to learn so many new things, which can be daunting. But again, learning to manage the many systems involved in farming, like any career, simply takes time and commitment. And the rewards for that commitment are unique and remarkable. 

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.

Ultimate Guide to Fall Vegetable Gardening

 best fall vegetables to plant

There are many reasons why you should plant a fall garden.  It'll bring you more nutritious foods over the winter months and it will improve the health of your garden soil.

Yes, you read that right! Planting a fall garden will improve the soil health of your garden tremendously.  The crops in a summer garden will pull nutrients from the soil, especially nitrogen.  Many of the fall crops are leafy greens and they can help to put nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil.  Double-win!

Best Fall Vegetables to Plant

Most of the cold hardy vegetables are leafy greens, root vegetables and plants in the cole family (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.)  Try planting the following crops when the summer temperatures start to drop-

  1. Arugula
  2. Beets
  3. Broccoli
  4. Brussels sprouts
  5. Bunching Onions
  6. Bush Beans
  7. Cabbage
  8. Cauliflower
  9. Collard Greens
  10. Garlic
  11. Kale
  12. Kohlrabi
  13. Leeks
  14. Lettuce
  15. Mustard Greens
  16. Parsley
  17. Peas
  18. Radishes
  19. Spinach
  20. Swiss Chard
  21. Turnips

Most of these need to be planted a few weeks before the first frost. 

Since you don't know when the first frost will happen, look up your local average first frost date.  Use this as a guideline to plant your crops.  When you purchase seeds, look on the back of the packet to see how long it takes them to reach harvest size. 

Count backward from you frost date to determine when to plant them.  Many of the crops can be planted in September and October.

Fall Gardening Tips

Plan on starting seeds.  Most garden centers won't carry vegetable plants during the fall and cooler months.  Purchase seeds ahead of time and have them on hand to plant.  You can start seeds indoors or directly sow them into the garden.  Buying seeds also gives you more options on which cultivars you plant.  You won't have to plant the plain jane crops if you don't want to.  You'll be able to pick varieties that have more color, are heirloom or are more productive.

Be prepared to water your fall garden a lot.  Summer gardens need watering, but fall gardens need a fair amount more water.  Cool weather crops are grown for their leaves and stems, both of which require a lot of water.  Watering should be consistent and frequent.  The water will help the plants stay cool.  Leafy greens that get too warm will bolt quickly.  If you have temperatures that get warm, use overhead watering to cool your plants off and to help prevent bolting.

Mulch your fall garden to help protect your plants.  Mulch protects the plants in a few different ways.  It helps prevent soil from eroding, especially when there is more rainfall.  Soil that erodes takes nutrients with it, so keeping soil in place keeps the nutrients in place also.  Thick mulch can also help protect tender fall crops from frost.  Some fall vegetables can handle a hard frost, some of them cannot.  Thick mulch will help keep the soil warm and a consistent temperature even with a hard frost.  Mulch for your garden doesn't have to cost you.  Use pine needles, dead leaves, wood chips or grass clippings (without herbicides or seeds) to mulch the garden without spending money.

For more in depth information about fall gardening, check out this Ultimate Guide to Fall Gardening on Farminence.

Shelby DeVore is an agricultural enthusiast that enjoys writing about gardening, raising livestock and simple living. You can read her most recent posts on or follow Farminence on Pinterest and Twitter.

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.

Digging for Gold in the Garden

Digging Potatoes

I love growing potatoes for many reasons. I marvel in cutting apart seed potatoes knowing each eye has the potential of producing several new potatoes. Tending to the plants as they grow into bushy vines is fun—I’ve even gotten used to the alien appearance of the larval form of Colorado potato beetles. Watching the berries form after the pretty flowers blossom is also satisfying because I know those contain seeds for future potatoes. But the best part of all has to be the Christmas morning feel of digging for gold.

I never know what kind of harvest I’m going to get until I’m finally digging after the vines have died off. I’ve definitely had less successful years—those generally come from using leftover potatoes rather than fresh seed potatoes. It also helps to have great weather. This year, with a very wet spring followed by a lot of heat and not much rain, seems to have delivered a bumper crop of potatoes.

I use the method of mulching with straw after the plants emerge and basically let Mother Nature do the rest. The top photo shows my partially worked Yukon Gold potato bed along with one of the potatoes emerging. There are many ways to dig potatoes. I use a small flat trowel. I make sure to dig at an angle below where the potatoes are growing and lift the soil up while watching for potatoes. I usually wait until the plants die off. I wait a couple of weeks and then dig the entire bed at once. I store my potatoes in our basement.

Potato Critters

Sometimes I wear gloves, sometimes I use my bare hands—it depends on my mood and how much clean-up I want to get into afterward. Some folks may chose gloves so they don’t have to get too intimate with the critters they’ll undoubtedly run across. Even though most of my vines were dead by a couple of weeks, there was still a late season Colorado beetle larva on one lingering vine. There are always slugs hiding in the moisture of the straw. I actually laughed when I found this one slithering halfway up my leg!

I discovered a fascinating thing while digging this time. I usually wait until after a good soaking-rain to dig because it helps loosen the soil for easier work. Because we had gone three weeks with only a tenth of an inch of water, I decided not to wait longer to dig the Masquerade potatoes. While breaking out chunks of dried soil, I kept finding little caves with individual earthworms coiled up in moisture (see photo above). I’m convinced this is how they make it through times of drought. I poured a few buckets of water on my pile after that dig and luckily we had a couple of inches of rain later that week.

Last year while digging I came across a salamander and squealed with delight. A few years ago, I was surprised by three baby ringneck snakes and immediately paused my work to research what they were. One year while I was digging potatoes a stray kitten wandered out of our forsythia and climbed right up onto my lap. As you can see in the photo below, he’s still working with me in the garden.

Potato Harvest

I usually grow my favorite variety (Yukon Gold potatoes) and Gold Rush potatoes—which means that I’m literally digging for gold—but I often try a new type as well because I never know when I’ll find a new favorite. This year I decided to try Masquerade potatoes. If they taste as creamy as promised, I’m sure to be growing them again because they were definitely as prolific as the others. My artist’s eye also finds them colorfully intriguing.

Because our potato harvest was so abundant this year we can look forward to a lovely ThanksGaia come November with plenty of other delicious meals throughout the winter. We’ve already enjoyed one of our favorite pizzas this month—sourdough crust with roast tomato sauce topped with ground lamb and diced potatoes. Gardening can bring such pleasure during the growing season. Growing your own food can bring much healthy food to the dinner table year ‘round. Growing potatoes can add that fun element of surprise while digging for gold.

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, 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.

Sowing and Transplanting Winter Crops in a Hoophouse

Our spinach variety trial in February, showing Avon, Renegade, Acadia and Escalade

At Twin Oaks Community (central Virginia) we are on our way with our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. If you haven’t got a hoophouse, I recommend you consider one, and hurry to get it in place before winter! See 20 Benefits of Having a Hoophouse and Winter Hoop House Harvest Schedule for inspiration. I am giving workshops on Lettuce Year Round and Hoophouse Cool Season Crops at Mother Earth News Fairs, so catch those to learn more.

See Planning winter hoophouse crops on my website, for our step-by-step process.

Hoophouse Bed Preparation

I have written previously about Hoophouse Bed Prep for Fall Plantings. To extend the season of the summer crops in the hoophouse and to make the physical work of bed renovation easier (by spreading it out), we prepare one bed per week. Other growers might use machinery and prep all the beds at once. Your choice.

We plant crops a little closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and nearer to the edges of the beds, as it is easier to tend crops where there are no weeds (that’s thanks to our no-till system). The paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, hence the once-a-year broadforking.

We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.

To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area.

We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or covering the width in two sections. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” (15 cm) back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.

Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.

Our spinach variety trial in February, showing Avon, Renegade, Acadia and Escalade.

Direct Sowing

Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds.

On September 6 and 7 we sow five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet green (for salad mixes), radishes and scallions.

We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. After extensive spinach variety trials, we have replaced our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market with Renegade for fast harvests early in the winter (less later), Acadia and Escalade for strong growth and best December and January harvests, perhaps adding in some Reflect for later spring harvests. For simplicity, grow Acadia in the winter hoophouse.

The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.

One week after the sowings, we thin the spinach and radishes to 1” (2.5 cm) apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg and White Icicle radishes. Cherry Belle would be ready sooner, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody. We only grow Cherry Belle in our first planting, as they get woody here if sown later.

On October 1 we sow more radishes and some brassica salad mix (baby mustard mix). In mid-October we sow turnips and “filler greens” to transplant later to fill gaps. In late-October we sow more radishes, scallions, filler greens, turnips, chard and spinach; some filler lettuces, and our first baby lettuce mix.

In early November we sow more radishes, frilly mustards, tatsoi, baby lettuce mix, scallions and some filler lettuces and spinach. In December we sow more radishes and brassica salad mix.

Here in central Virginia (winter-hardiness zone 7) we get crop growth throughout the winter and we still plant a few new crops, even in December.

Radishes in early October.

Transplanting from an outdoor nursery seedbed

Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sow the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse: ten varieties of lettuce; chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy. Because the pest pressure outdoors is fierce at that time of year, we cover the beds with insect netting.

In a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed, we will dig up those transplants and replant them indoors. Mostly they are big enough to transplant after only 3 weeks growing outdoors.

On September 24 we sow the second half of our transplants: ten more varieties of lettuce, Russian kales, senposai, more Yukina Savoy, some frilly mustards for salad mix, and we resow anything from 9.15 that didn’t come up well. On 9/30 we make more resows if needed.

Lettuce in particular

See Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, for our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had.

Our schedule calls for 10 varieties of lettuce (twice), including three Vitalis One-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley.  These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.

We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova varieties and I wrote about them here. You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine.

Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse and Tango which have a similar multileaf shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumple Wave, Merlot, New Red Fire, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl.

My favorites were Buckley, Ezrilla, Revolution, (much faster growing than most Lollo Rossa types) Red Tinged Winter and Tango.

Red Tinged Winter lettuce from a September sowing looks this good in January and provides leaves all winter.

Winter Hoophouse Harvest Schedule in Central Virginia

  • October: beet greens, radishes, spinach, tatsoi.
  • From November onwards: As October, plus arugula, brassica salad mix, chard, lettuce leaves, mizuna, frilly mustards and scallions.
  • From December: As November, plus kale, senposai, turnips, and Yukina Savoy.
  • From January: As December
  • During December: whole plants of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh.
  • During January: heads of Chinese cabbage, pak choy.

Having the heading crops in December and January gets us through the slow-growth period when the loose-leaf greens might not keep up. Most of the loose-leaf crops last until mid-March or later.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs, as well as sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam also writes for Growing for Market and other magazines. Her books, Sustainable Market Farming, and The Year-Round Hoophouse are available at Sustainable Market Farming. Her blog is on her website and also on Facebook.



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

Gardening for Gullywashers and Flash Floods?


In drought-prone areas, gardeners hope and pray for rain. Some have started preparing for the gift of gullywashers so no precious drop is wasted when the skies finally open. When they open too long, though, floods can overwhelm the land, particularly in recent wildfire burn scars on slopes. Here we look into ways we might make the best of both gullywashers and floods and minimize the damages to gardens, orchards, and small acreages we manage.

Emergency management folks say the public only prepares for extreme conditions after experiencing an extreme event. Here on Colorado's Front Range, some officials (even meteorologists) said that before the big flood of September 2013 they could not fathom any flood could hit with such heavy, continuous rain and produce such catastrophic flooding. We got more rain in a few days than we often get in a year. Most of us were unprepared. Topsoil, crops, burn scars washed away or were waterlogged for a couple of years, streambank trees fell into streams and, along with heavy debris flows, altered their course, permanent gullies formed.

Anna Lappe writes of a similar time in the Foreword to Mark Shepard's book, Restoration Agriculture: “...powerful rainstorms had devastated farmland and left the state footing a bill for millions of dollars in flood relief...I'd driven by enough flooded fields...I assumed Mark had faced the same fate. Imagine my surprise when I [found] Mark and an intern joking around, grinning from ear to ear. These were not the faces of farmers in despair. While New Forest Farm had been pelted with the same rain that had crushed neighbors across the road and left dark brown gullies in its wake, Mark's fields were relatively undamaged. In fact, a few of his crops had never been better.

How did Mark prosper while his neighbors suffered? I was eager to know because the answer, I believed, could hold a key for rethinking farming in a climate-unstable world.”

In brief, Mark designed his farm according to ecosystem principles. He began with a bare, eroding piece of hilly land, badly degraded from previous owners' industrial monocropping practices. Using Keyline Design on the hills, he ripped the soil on amplified contour and planted a forest of edible nut and fruit trees and shrubs, and edible vines. Strong tree roots hold soil in place and all  increase the photosynthetic capacity of the land, which in turn helps increase carbon sequestration and humus formation, essential for holding water in the soil.

Diverse perennial and annual crops and pasture grasses planted beneath and between tree rows and multi-species rotational grazing further increased the microbe-mediated fertility of the land and its capacity to hold and infiltrate water and to slow and spread it, as it can do in all soil types. Thanks to all the living roots and the ever-increasing percentage of stable organic matter, his crops and soil hold steady in gullywashers and flash floods.

On a smaller scale, gardeners apply the same principles when we install raingardens, bioswales, bioretention ponds, or implement other basic water-harvesting techniques of our choice or design, ancient and modern. Permeable pavement and green roofs can add to our options. Gardeners are capable of preventing and mitigating gully formation, erosion, and crop loss from severe rain events and flooding by building soil water-holding capacity and fertility in our gardens, orchards, and home landscapes.

Pamela Sherman gardens with her husband at 8,300 feet on part of an old pioneer farm on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. She can be reached at

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.

Worm Composting: How to Make a Wormery

Photo by GettyImages/sirichai_asawalapsakul

Wormeries use special composting worms to convert kitchen waste into nutrient-rich compost and liquid fertilizer. They’re odorless and take up less space than a traditional compost pile, making them a great composting solution for small gardens or as a complement to your existing compost pile.

Make a Wormery 

We’re creating a wormery with three compartments. The bottom compartment collects the liquid, which can be drained and mixed with water to use as fertilizer. The worms live in the top compartment and this is where you’ll feed them with kitchen scraps. This is also where your compost (worm castings) will be made. The third compartment makes it easier to collect the worm compost without disturbing the worms. Holes in the bottom of the middle and top trays insure that any liquid produced by the worms can drain down into the collection tray at the bottom, and enable worms to migrate up into a new tray once the other is full. A lid prevents the wormery from drying out or flooding with rainwater.

The trays we’re using are 16x20in and just 8in deep. You’ll also need a plastic faucet, a drill and drill bits.

Don’t use worms from the garden as they’re not as good at composting as specific composting worms, which you can order online.

Building Your Wormery 

Cut or drill a hole in the bottom tray to closely fit the faucet. Fit it as low as possible in the tray so that all the liquid can be drained off easily. You can raise the wormery up on bricks to make it easier to drain off the liquid if you need to.

Drill quarter-inch holes, spaced two inches apart, across the bottom of the two top trays. Drill a single row of holes near the top of the two trays at the same size and spacing to improve ventilation.

Adding the Worms 

Place a three-inch layer of bedding material such as dampened coir fiber or compost in the top compartment. Add your worms, then add a layer of kitchen waste no more than two inches thick. You can also add a layer of burlap on top to keep them snug. Leave the wormery for a week before adding any more food so that the worms can settle into their new home.

Keep your wormery somewhere shady and as close to room temperature as you can. Move the wormery into a garage, outbuilding or utility room for winter to prevent it freezing.

Feeding Your Worms

Add food a little at a time. The worms will digest vegetable peelings and other kitchen scraps, including coffee grounds, but avoid meat or other animal products that may attract flies. Too much citrus peel and alliums like onion and garlic will make conditions too acidic for your worms, so only add small amounts of these. You can use small amounts of weeds and leaves, shredded, non-glossy newspaper, or torn up cardboard.
Once the top tray is full, swap it with the empty middle tray and start filling that instead. The worms will find their way up through the holes to the food, leaving the full tray ready for harvesting. Repeat any time the active tray is full.

Using Worm Compost and Feed 

Worm compost makes a great soil conditioner, or include it in your potting mix for a nutritional boost.

Drain any liquid from the bottom tray whenever it collects and mix one part of the liquid into ten parts water to water onto your plants as a nutritious liquid fertilizer.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

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

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

More Videos

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


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