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


Build Your Vegetable Gardens in the Winter

straw bale compost bin

All the extra time at home this year during the pandemic gave you a taste of the wonders of vegetables grown in your own soil and raised without chemicals. You’ve experienced the gustatory delights of vegetable varieties saved across generations because of how good they taste.

Now you want to expand your gardens. This amazing food is a blessing you don’t plan to give up even when life returns to normal. But fall is wrapping up and we’re heading into winter. Surely there’s no way to build a garden in the cold.

Get ready to experience the lazy gardener’s method of breaking new gardening ground. No tillers, no plows, not even cover crops. You will need to find and haul some straw bales but that’s a one time job and over quickly.

Depending on how much garden cleanup (vegetable or flowers) you have left to do this fall, you might want to start two or three straw bale compost piles instead of just one. When we first began vegetable gardening, we marched a line of these down each side of our small existing planting area. Within one year we’d doubled our planting area. 

Build Your Straw Bale Compost Pile

Starting at the edge of your existing garden (or any new area you wish to garden in), lay out a square of straw bales. Place them two bales per side and build them two bales high. In the center of the pile, insert a long piece of slotted PVC pipe on end – stuck into the ground to hold it upright. This will allow air to come into the center of your pile causing it to compost more rapidly.

stacked straw bales 

image by Wolfgag Eckert from Pixabay

There’s no need to prepare the ground for the piles. Just place them on top of the grass, weeds, or dirt. They even work wonders on top of packed clay soil that seems to have hardened into concrete. Trust me, I know!

Nourish Your Compost Pile

Start feeding your pile by dumping in the last of the fallen leaves, old foliage cut from spent flowers (no seed heads), and any last vegetable plant trimmings from your fall and winter garden. Grass clippings from your final mowing can go in too. After every foot or two of depth scatter a cup of soybean meal on top of a layer of garden trash.

Throughout the winter throw in all your kitchen scraps:  vegetable trimmings, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and stale bread. Leave out meat scraps, fat, and dairy products so you don’t lure animals to your compost pile.

Tending Your Compost Pile in the Winter

Put on your slippers, grab a cup of coffee and some seed catalogs, and curl up by the fire. Yep, that’s it. This is all you’ll do this winter to tend to your pile except for feeding it your scraps.

Since you are planning to garden in this spot, your pile is naturally placed in full sun, and is open to the rain and snow. Let nature do the work for you. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the internal size of the pile reduces as the composting process starts even in the cold of winter.

Tending the Compost Come Spring and Summer

When your straw bale compost bin is full, build another near the first one. Using a pitchfork, turn the contents of the first bin into the second one. Now you’re done. Make some lemonade, grab a ripe tomato to munch on, and relax in your hammock.

Really and truly, that’s all you are going to do to make compost.  In the fall (one year from when you started composting) you’ll find spongy, black compost is ready for you to spread on your depleted garden beds. 

Well, you could do one more thing.  It won’t hasten the compost, but you’ll get points for style.  As soon as you’ve turned your compost this one and only time, plant seedlings in it that thrive on heat. You can plant them a couple of weeks earlier than you might have since being planted higher keeps frost off them as does the heat from the pile.

Small cantaloupe and honeydew melons are my favorite plants for this because the vines have lots of area to travel and can hang down from the straw bales. The extra heat generated by your composting pile will cause your melons to ripen in record time and increase their sweetness. 

An Extra Bonus

Something more than compost is made by creating one-year straw bale bins. The ground below each active pile is drenched with super rich compost tea for a full year. No matter what the site looked like when you started it is now rich, black earth full of worms and ready to have seeds or seedlings planted in it.

 lone straw bale

Not only can you start new garden beds this way but it is also an excellent method for constantly replenishing your garden.  Once your garden is as big as you want it, simply dedicate a new area within it each year for your compost pile.  This allows the earth below to rest for a year and soak in compost tea.  It keeps your compost pile right where most of your composting material lives – in the garden. And it sites your compost near where you’ll want to put it when it’s completed. 

When your straw bales start to disintegrate after holding a couple of years of compost, simply break them up and use them as the bottom layer for a new compost pile. Waste not, want not!

Join the Lazy Gardening Movement

Now you are ready to enjoy the lazy gardener’s method of breaking new gardening ground and rejuvenating your existing gardening space. No tillers, no plows, not even cover crops. Grab your pickup truck, get out there, and buy some straw bales. And then look for shady places to relax and watch your compost happen without you.


Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Squash Can Be Your Staple Crop

Squash storage shelves and a happy squash eater 

Squash storage shelves and a happy squash eater.

When people hear that I run a farm, they ask, “What do you grow?”  My standard reply is, “Everything we love to eat!”  We specialize in generalizing, growing a varied year-round diet literally from soup to nuts. But if I had to choose one crop to focus on, it might be squash.

Winter squash, specifically, the tasty orange-fleshed varieties I love, the ones that we actually eat. Squash just feel like really good return on investment—I put one seed in the ground, tend it well, and then it sprawls 10 feet in all directions and gives me a few hundred seeds where I only planted one. Given the choice between the casino, stock market, or squash patch, I’ll put my money in the squash.

Understanding Squash Varieties

And I do put money and land into them. I buy good seed for my favorite varieties. I’ll tell you why it’s important to get seed from a conscientious plant breeder in a minute. I have tried many different kinds of squash, and settle again and again on two staples, both bred or recommended by my plant hero Carol Deppe in Oregon. One is called 'Buttercup' (NOT butternut, which is a separate species of squash which I also love but doesn’t grow reliably in my cool Pacific Northwest summers).  'Buttercup' has forest-green skin and deep orange flesh, very similar to what you might have seen called Kabocha at the grocery store.  The flesh is sweet and tastes like chestnuts.  It’s sweet enough to make into a “pumpkin” pie, yet savory enough to make a delicious soup or puree. 

The other variety is 'Candystick Dessert' delicata.  I have grown several strains of delicata squash over the years, and most of them are good for sure. 'Candystick' is just drool-over-it awesome though.

Both Delicata and 'Buttercup' squash have thin skin that we can eat—as in, I can just drop chunks of cooked 'Buttercup' into the blender to make soup. Sometimes I grow a big Hubbard type of squash. Their tough shells make them resistant to voles or deer who would nibble squash in the garden. They can get big, though. I once grew one that weighed at least 40 pounds.  I had to drop it on the pavement a few times to get it into chunks that would fit into our oven. Delicious, and worth growing now and then, but in general I give garden space to my two favorite varieties. 

Plus, sometimes I get volunteer surprises growing in the garden anyway.  Not so much with Buttercup, which is a species called Curcurbita maxima and is less widely grown, but with delicata. Delicata is a variety of the species Cucurbita pepo. You know how Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and poodles are all the same species? Well, delicatas, Jack-o-lantern pumpkins, ornamental gourds, zucchini, and acorn squash (to name a few) are all Cucurbita pepo.  That means there is a lot of potential for a bee to fly from a gourd flower half a mile away to a delicata squash flower in my garden carrying a load of pollen—and then the seeds inside the fruit that develops from that bee-visited flower have some gourd genetics.  If I plant those seeds, I could get some hybrid gourds of potential but questionable edibility.

Saving Squash Seeds

If I am saving seeds from my best squash plants, I need to tape the flowers closed before they open so our abundant local pollinators aren’t doing too good a job mixing plant genes around.  I need to pollinate that flower myself with a male flower from a plant of the same variety—and then tape her closed again to keep bees away while the fruit develops.  You see why I suggest getting seed from a plant breeder who knows what they are doing?  This is also why I’ve gotten ruthless culling plants that sprout up out of our compost piles.  They might yield delicious fruits…  Or they might be covered in tiny rock-hard ornamental pumpkins.

If I’m feeding myself and my “farmily” out of the garden, I want to devote my space and time to what is actually going to feed us. Our 9-person household eats over 800 pounds of squash a year, and the rabbits, goats, and ducks are happy to clean up any we miss. 

Squash blossoms themselves are a tasty treat.  In the later part of the season, when the plants are optimistically putting out more flowers than they can ripen at our latitude, we break off the flowers we can reach at the edge of our giant squash patch, sautee them with eggs, then serve with a dollop of goat cheese. Squash have male and female flowers on the same plant, the male ones smaller and full of pollen, the female ones with a velvety pad to catch pollen and an ovary that will swell and become the fruit. 

So, I grow 'Buttercup' as my Cucurbita maxima squash. As for Cucurbita pepo, I grow delicatas, zucchinis and crookneck squash, and a new kind this year: three varieties of naked-seed pumpkins.  What’s a naked-seed pumpkin?  Well, if you have ever disemboweled a jack o’ lantern, you have seen the seeds that are encased in fibrous shells. The shells aren’t bad, just… tough.  They’re delicious toasted. But what would make pumpkin seeds even easier to eat? Not having tough shells, that’s what.

Naked-seed pumpkins live up to their name being full of green seeds that are ready to scoop out, rinse, dry, and eat.  We toast them, sprinkle seasonings on them, and have a fantastic salad topping.  If we were really feeling ambitious we could press oil out of the seeds, but that’s more work. One great thing about eating from the homestead is that it is just plain easier to eat whole foods.  Refining food takes work, and when it’s me, or another farmily member doing that work, we’re just less likely to do it when we can whiz a handful of pumpkin seeds in the blender to make creamy salad dressing.

Whole food eating is the general rule around here. Not that we are so virtuous, just energy-conserving to eat that way…  or lazy, or busy, if you will. Most pumpkins have an even longer growing season than the squash we grow, so I have to plant them early and baby them along. But it’s worth it, and another example of how versatile and useful this plant is.

Winter Squash Food Heritage

In general, the savory squash that we eat were developed and bred by agriculturalists in the Americas over thousands of years. Sweet melons were mostly developed in Africa and Asia. The history of food plants is amazing, the way people have worked with these plants for generations, and how food traditions migrate and shift as new plants became available.  You eat plants originally developed all over the world.  Take a look in your pantry. Can you name the origins of the foods there, or picture their wild ancestors? It’s taken many generations to create a plant that yields meaty, sugary fruits instead of small bitter gourds.  When you choose delicious and unusual varieties at the grocery store or in your garden, you build a demand for diversity and resilience in our food supply.

Early in the spring, I planted the squash plants along in little hills where the soil would warm faster. I put little clear plastic cloches over them to keep them warm, I replanted diligently whenever any of them succumbed to a rabbit or a duck knocking them over. The tiny seedlings responded to the heat of the summer by growing across the 10-foot gaps between plants and creating an impenetrable forest of big prickly leaves, all gathering sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sweet fruits.

As fall comes, frost and rain turn the vigorous squash patch into a sea of sad leaves and lifeless stems. But as the plants die back, the squash become visible like jewels and shells left at low tide.  “It reminds me of Easter eggs!” said one enthusiastic young squash gatherer, running around picking up armloads of partly-hidden squash.  Once the squash stems are trimmed, the fruits come inside to share the house with us for the winter.

Maybe it’s because my mother’s homemade squash soup was the first food I ate as a baby, but this plant has a place in my heart, belly, and pantry.  As a healthy, easy-to-grow staple, it’s hard to beat.  No offense to the beets, parsnips, and other root vegetables that round out our winter diet, but those are a tale for another time.


Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’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.

Does No-Till Gardening Work with Hard Soil?

hard ground beneath mulch 

Even after all her work, Elizabeth only has about 5 inches of decent material with a super-hard layer beneath.

No-till gardening is the hottest thing since faux wood panels on station wagons. It builds soil life, increases the worm population, allows fungi to create channels through the soil, and it makes you appear hip on the internet.

I've had great success with deep mulching hard ground in annual gardens and in food forests. Yet it doesn't always work out the way you would like.

My friend Elizabeth has a beautiful garden in which she has practiced no-till gardening for three years. Yet she confessed to me that all is not well and she's discovered some things that have made her question her deep mulch approach. I drove over to her house earlier this week and filmed a video where I let her share exactly the problems she was facing with drainage, roots not going deep enough and more.

You can watch that video here - it's a beautiful garden, but you can also see the problems.

Beneath that layer of lovely mulch and humus, she has an almost impenetrable hardpan which floods during rains and fails to let roots go deep. In the video you can see what happens to daikons planted in her garden. Even that venerable hole-punching brassica is foiled by the rock-hard dirt! The same is true of sweet potatoes - they only like to grow in the top few inches.

Over the years I have found the good and the bad in many different gardening methods. The gardening tool kit is deep. What may work perfectly in one situation does not necessarily work well in ALL situations.

I had rocky clay soil in Tennessee which was loosened and turned into workable soil after a year of deep mulch/no-till gardening. Yet Elizabeth's hardpan isn't breaking up after three years.

When you see something that doesn't work, don't be afraid to adjust and change. Now that Elizabeth has borrowed my broadfork, she is breaking through the hardpan layer bed-by-bed and creating channels for humus and soil life to go deeper. With any luck, this will make next year's gardens more productive and reduce the losses from standing water.

Some have commented that she "didn't wait long enough" for the magic of no-till to do its work. That may be, but why would you want to wait for a long time to get decent yields? Especially in this era of Corona and other uncertainties. The idea of waiting for an indeterminate period of time just to stick with one system makes no sense to me. Not when we have families to feed.

Don't let your preferred gardening practices control your life. When you see something that needs fixing - and there's another method that can fix it, like broadforking the hardpan in a "no-till" garden - run with it!

The primary goal is growing your own food, not sticking perfectly to any one system.

David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida GardeningCompost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival GardeningFind new inspiration every weekday at his website TheSurvivalGardener.com and on his YouTube channelRead all of David’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.

Dealing with Snow on Your Hoophouse

 

Bouncing snow off the hoophouse from inside, using a broom. Photo Dripping Springs Garden.

For some hoophouse owners, this will be your first winter. Some others will be remembering last winter, and hoping to find a better way of dealing with snow. Snow can be heavy stuff, so removing it is worthwhile. This can be done from the outside, pulling the snow down to ground level, and from the inside, bouncing the snow off the plastic. It isn’t necessary to remove all the snow. Once you have removed what you can, the daytime temperature inside the hoophouse will rise and help melt the rest of the snow. We have never needed to get out of bed in the night to tackle snow, but you might.

First we tackle the outside, or if snow is still falling or it’s frozen onto the plastic, we start with the inside. Either way, start with the south side, to get as much advantage from solar gain as possible. The important rule of snow removal is “First, do no harm.” Don’t make holes in the plastic in your efforts to remove snow! A hoophouse is most stable when the snow is evenly distributed. Since houses are stronger at the ends where they have end walls for support, it makes sense to start at the weaker middle and work in both directions if removing heavy snow.

Snow scraper mounted on a telescopic painter's pole. Photo by Pam Dawling

For outside we use a tool (SnoBrūm™) which is sold for scraping snow off cars. It’s a foam board about 6" × 18" (15 × 45 cm) with a threaded insert that takes a telescoping pole. It is sold with a short pole, but a painter’s pole will give a much longer reach. If you haven’t yet got one of these handy tools, carefully use the back of a rake (wrapped in thick cloth). Pull the snow down between the bows, avoiding pulling the tool over the framework as much as possible, as that can easily make holes. Alternate with shoveling the snow away from the base of the hoophouse if the snow is deep (piles of snow pressing against the lower walls can do damage). Be careful not to hit the plastic with any metal tools. Don’t attempt to use the relatively fragile foam-board tool for pushing snow along the ground; keep it free of grit and use it only on the plastic.

Repurposed car snow scraper. Photo by Pam Dawling.

Inside, don a visor (to keep blobs of icy water from landing on your face) and grab an old broom with its head covered in a cloth or bubble plastic, taped on. Make sure there are no sharp protrusions from the broom head. First walk along the paths nearest the walls banging the broom against the plastic – use the bristle end. We find a double bouncing action works best, and we can get in a rhythm. This can be a long and tiring job! Start at waist height because if the lower snow falls down, sometimes the higher stuff will follow it down, saving you work. When you need to reach higher, tie or tape the broom to a longer stick. Or find something that screws onto your painter’s pole, such as a paint roller (!) and cover that with bubble plastic. Balance applying your energy with being gentle with the plastic. Do not use the foam-board scraper for bouncing snow — it will crack.

When you’re tired and no more snow is easy to move, wait and try again later. The warming effect of incoming daylight will help melt the snow next to the plastic, so that it is easier to start it sliding off next time you do the rounds.

Sometimes ice accumulates on the plastic. If you get freezing rain that sticks on the plastic, it creates a rough surface that keeps any snow that settles on top from sliding off until the ice thaws. The best way to remove ice is to melt it using warmth from inside. If you have double plastic and it is not windy, shut off the inflation blower — the heat from inside will reach the ice sooner. Be very careful if you try to break the ice free mechanically, as there is a big risk of the sharp edges of the ice cutting the plastic. You also risk abrasion every time you use a device on the outside of the plastic to pull snow or ice off the tunnel. This makes the plastic rough, and snow won’t slide off as well in the future.

Prevent Hoophouse Frame Collapse

Snow comes in various consistencies and weights. A foot (30 cm) of light fluffy snow may only contain as much water as 1" (2.5 cm) of rain. But heavy wet snow can equal 1" (2.5 cm) of rain in only 3"–4" (8–10 cm) of snow. Each inch (2.5 cm) of rainwater-equivalent will load a structure with 5.2 lbs/ft2 (25 kg/m2). This is about 6.5 tons (5.9 metric tons) on a 25' × 96' (7.6 × 29.2 m) hoophouse! Uneven snow loads make a frame more likely to collapse because there are points of higher pressure. This happens if snow is thicker on one side of the hoophouse or if adjacent hoophouses are too close and snow piles up between them when it slides off the roof. The weight of snow can buckle the side of the frame.

When heavy snow is predicted, turn a heater on a couple hours before the storm begins, with the thermostat at 70°F (21°C) or higher. The cost of the fuel is less than a new hoophouse. A portable propane heater (non-electric!) is a good thing to have on hand for unheated tunnels or if a furnace fails. If you have a very heavy snowfall and it is not possible to remove the snow, then cut the plastic and let the snow fall into the hoophouse to relieve the pressure and save the frame.

We have an “If this, do that” card at the front of our hoophouse log book, to help with decisions. It divides snow events into three types:

If the night temperature will be higher than 25°F (−4°C) and you expect less than 6" (15 cm) of wet snow, leave the inflation on, go to bed and hope the snow will slide off.

If the night temperature will be lower than 25°F (−4°C), or there will be more than 6" (15 cm) of snow and no wind, turn off the inflation until the morning, letting the interior heat do its best to melt the snow.

If there is hard sleet or freezing rain, cycle the inflation off for three hours, on for three hours, with the goal of letting the interior heat melt some of the accumulation, and then using the inflation to push the slush off (give it some help in the morning). Repeat this cycle as needed.

Two great resources are Vern Grubinger, University of Vermont Extension, Prevent Greenhouse Collapse and the Rimol Greenhouses Blog How to Reduce Storm Damage to Your Greenhouse and High Tunnel.

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 HoophousePam 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 SustainableMarketFarming.com. 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.

Gardening Indoors to Beat Winter Doldrums

winter, arizona, meme dry heat

There are hundreds of memes out there on the internet about how ironic life can be sometimes. The one that springs to my mind, I made myself.

But seeing the 9" of snow (and the -2º temperature) that my part of Arizona experienced in early January made me remember why I have been growing tropical plants inside for so many years.

It all started in early 2008 when I started the Gardeners with Altitude garden club here in St. Johns. We had a huge seed-starting class at our local library where we had over 50 people in attendance. We discussed all the things that could be started indoors and I was asked if I had ever grown citrus. Now, I realize that most companies cannot ship citrus plants to Arizona due to agricultural restrictions, but I immediately went home to see if there were any that could. What I found was that I could not find any. But lo and behold, a mere two or three weeks later, while perusing my local Home Depot in Show Low, I found kumquats, loquats, and oranges in little pots. I brought them home. 

Limequats on tree

It wasn't long before I realized some of the trees were going to do better than others, and that first winter, I harvested 10 kumquats, one orange, and a handful of limequats, like the ones in the picture above. 

In the summer, when temperatures outdoors are much more favorable to the happy little trees, I moved them outside of the house where they could take advantage of that great sun. The problem with potted plants in Arizona sun and summer temperatures is that they can bake to death in the period of a couple hours. That first summer, after bringing the plants outside to the fresh air, I was gone most of the day to do some shopping and what-not, and I came home to an orange tree that looked very dead indeed. I drenched it with water and in a couple weeks, all but one branch had revived. 

Since then, the orange tree has died, and though the kumquat continued to put on a handful of sweet-peeled, tangy fruits for a couple years, it, too, finally kicked the bucket. But I added to my tropical fruit collection by adding a banana tree a garden club member had to be rid of. It has had several pups grow from it, and I've given away banana plants to several people. 

Lemon tree

Recently, I acquired this great lemon tree. 

This picture doesn't show just how crazy beautiful the plant is, but here are some lemons it produced this winter; the first year I have had it!

lemons

And the limequats from the tree above:

limequats

One thing I have learned the last several years about caring for plants like these inside the house include making sure to fertilize, watching the water level, making sure they have enough heat and light, and helping them pollinate. 

Tropical plants like citrus, pineapple, bananas, and kiwi benefit greatly from a little fertilizer every few weeks during the blooming and fruiting periods, specifically. I use Neptune's Own fish fertilizer on my plants because growing as naturally as I can is important to me. Because it is a water-soluble liquid fertilizer, getting on a good fertilizing routine helps with making sure they are getting enough water, too. The soil should be fairly dry an inch or two down, but never more than that. These plants produce high-water-content fruit and they need enough water to produce blooms and fruit.

A south- or west-facing window can usually be sufficient lighting if the days are long enough. Here in northern Arizona, I like to supplement with some grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights when the days are less than 10 hours long. Keeping them warm enough indoors is as simple as making sure they are in the house rather than a garage or storage area. If its warm enough for you, it is warm enough for them.

The last thing about making sure you get decent fruit from these types of plants is to help pollinate the blossoms. Commercial growers sometimes swear that the blossoms will fertilize themselves, but I find I get a much better harvest from my baby trees if I take a paintbrush around the blossoms a couple times during the bloom period. 

Hopefully you can beat the winter doldrums by growing a few indoor plants, even fruits, for yourself. To me, nothing beats a fresh glass of lemonade in January, courtesy of your own indoor tropical garden!


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.

Indoor Herbs are Better Than Houseplants

Indoor-Herbs

Herbs work harder than your ordinary houseplants. Not content at just being decorative, they bring fragrance to the room and flavor to the food. As a bonus, they often repel insects. There are plenty reasons for growing herbs inside.

If you live in an apartment, small house or have room-mates, access to a traditional outdoor garden space might be limited. Growing a few multi-functional plants is easy and makes life more enjoyable.

Late fall, winter and early spring often puts a damper on fresh herbs as they go dormant or die off in all but the warmest parts of the country. Our taste for delicious foods seasoned with fresh herbs doesn’t go dormant, however! Growing a few choice herbs in a container that is moved inside during the cold seasons makes those flavors available year-round.

Kitchen Garden Goals

One of the cardinal goals for any gardening cook is fresh herbs for winter salads, stir fries, sauces, soups and stews, right at your fingertips. Absolutely nothing is quite as impressive and satisfying as the flavor fresh herbs bring to the winter dinner table!

I always recommend starting small in any new gardening endeavor – partly to make it easy to do and monitor, but also to avoid overwhelm and the feeling of being chained to the garden.

That is still a good rule of thumb with indoor kitchen herb gardening, but there is one other thing to think of - when growing herbs for the winter kitchen garden, make sure you have enough.

A small pot of perky parsley or a couple of bunches of bright green, aromatic basil brightens up the kitchen, but probably won’t supply enough for more than one winter salad or a small pot of tomato sauce.

Another rule of thumb I always advocate is setting yourself up for success. In this case that might mean larger pots with more plants of fewer herbs to get started. Three 12 or 18 inch containers with oregano, thyme and sage will grow plenty of herbs to supply your cooking for the winter. Three containers won’t be too much to look after or keep watered.

Winter Plant Table

If you have the space or need more light for indoor herbs, strongly consider a winter plant table. It provides a dedicated space for your herbs and storage underneath with provisions for lights above if needed.

The simplest and most effective plant table is a rolling wire rack. The wheels allow it to move where it's needed or convenient. You can find them at the big box hardware stores or kitchen and bath stores. The good ones cost a small amount more up front but will last for a decade or more. They usually include five shelves and are adjustable. Use only the number of shelves you’ll need – we usually only use 3, one at the bottom, the plant container shelf and the top shelf where we suspend the lights from.

Growing Herbs Inside

Growing herbs inside means you’ll need to provide them with the optimum conditions for growth. This is simpler than it might seem, so let’s look at the major aspects.

Light. Most herbs thrive on full sun and need 6 – 8 hours of sun a day when grown indoors. This can be from a sunny, south-facing room or from fluorescent lights above the containers on a plant table. It can also be a combination of both – sun in the morning and early afternoon with fluorescent light the rest of the day. Fluorescent fixtures are inexpensive – shop lights will work fine - just make sure to use bulbs specified for greenhouse or growing use. They have a full spectrum light that helps your indoor plants grow better than normal “cool white” bulbs.

Temperature. Almost all the herbs listed do well in temperatures that we are comfortable in - the 60-70°F range. If you keep your home warmer during the winter, consider moving them to a cooler room and watch the soil moisture levels closely to avoid over-drying. Most herbs like a cooler night and slightly warmer day.

Air circulation. Herbs grown inside need some air circulation to keep stagnant air from encouraging molds and fungal diseases. A small fan on the lowest setting set several feet away will keep a gentle airflow going and your plants healthy. Watch the leaves of your plants for signs the air is too dry – drying at the edges, curling or cracking. Place a tray with a layer of pebbles under the catch basins of the pots and add water to increase the humidity. Keep the water level below the catch basins to avoid waterlogged roots.

Soil. A bagged, complete potting soil such as the Square Foot Gardening soil from Garden Time works well. It is basically a complete soil with added nutrients to support the plant’s growth. It is inexpensive and one bag will be more than enough for several large planters.

Fertilizer. Growing inside in containers means you will need to feed the plant a bit more often than in your outside garden. Inside herbs need enough fertilizer to keep growing, but not too much where they become leggy and gangly and start losing flavor. Once or twice a month feedings of dilute seaweed or fish emulsion at half-strength should do well.

Water. Indoor herbs are almost universally intolerant of waterlogged roots and damp, wet soils. In general, water less often than you think you need to but more thoroughly. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch and water until it comes out the bottom of the pot – that’s what the catch basin is for! If water doesn’t come out, make sure the drain holes in the bottom of the pot aren’t clogged. If they are, open them up with a small stick. If the roots have overgrown the drain holes, it’s time to divide the plant root and repot.

Now that you have a feel for what your winter kitchen herb garden needs, let’s look at eight herbs that do well inside! We’ll start with the easiest herbs first.

8 Best Herbs for Indoor Winter Gardening

Garlic Chive Blossom

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) Perennial, grows to about 2 feet tall. Needs about 8 hours of full sun or bright light to keep from yellowing and well-drained soil. Water when the soil surface begins to dry and give plants room for good air circulation. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will tolerate lows to the mid-40s.

Harvest by snipping a few stalks at the base with scissors, leaving about one inch of stalk above the base. One plant is usually enough for a family’s culinary use. A beautiful and underappreciated herb, the clusters of pure white star-shaped flowers smell like roses!

Garlic chives will slowly spread to fill their container and can produce for several years in a pot with enough soil volume for the roots. When the pot becomes crowded, divide the root mass and re-pot.

Greek-Oregano2

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) Perennial, grows to about 1½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Water completely once the soil surface is dry to the touch.

Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but can take temperatures down to the high 40s.

Good companion herbs for oregano are marjoram, sage and thyme as they all have similar needs in their growing environment.

Harvest leaves for cooking once plant is well leafed out and beginning to become bushy. Once established, it may need trimming to keep from spreading out too much and to maintain air circulation.

Oregano should remain productive in pots for one to two years. When they become too woody for inside use, transplant into garden in late spring.

Sweet-Marjoram

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) Perennial, grows to about a foot tall. Prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Water when the soil surface begins to dry, will tolerate a slightly drier soil than most other herbs. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will continue growing down to high 40s.

Marjoram grows well inside, so trim plant to keep its bushy appearance. It will spread to fill the pot its planted in. Once it has filled the pot, divide and re-pot, sharing with your neighbors or gardening friends.

Potted plants will be productive for one to two years inside. Afterwards they can be transplanted outside into the garden.

Produces a heavenly fragrance that perfumes the room its grown in.

Orange-Scented-Thyme

Thyme (Thymus fragrantissimus) Hardy perennial, grows to about 4 inches tall and a foot across. Will tolerate indirect light, but prefers about six hours of light a day. Needs daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night. Water completely each time but allow the soil surface to begin to dry before watering again.

Will remain productive for over two years, but will need to be repotted once the roots reach the edge and bottom of the container. Thyme benefits from moving outside during the late spring through end of summer. Acclimate in a semi-shaded location then gradually move to full sun.

Very easy to grow, thyme adds a perfume to the air and a delicate aroma and flavor to dishes. Harvest when plant has plenty of foliage by snipping off a stem or two, rinse and remove the leaves from the stem. A quick way is running your thumb and index finger down the length of the stem to remove all the leaves at once.

Chop leaves or add whole to sauces, soups and other dishes. Add stems to stock to add their flavor, then strain out.

Flat-Leaf-Parsley

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Biennial, grows to about 1 ½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day but will tolerate part sun or indirect light. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 60s and 50s at night, but will continue growing down to low 40s.

Soil should be lightly moist – a fingertip should show just a touch of moisture on it after touching the soil surface. Water completely and empty the catch basin so the roots are out of standing water.

Grows best with a little added humidity, so the kitchen usually works well. If the leaves start looking dry and brittle, add a layer of pebbles in the catch basin or set the pot on a tray of pebbles with a layer of water. The evaporating water increases the humidity around the plant.

Harvest by snipping a few outer leaves, leaving the rest to continue growing. Should be productive for six to nine months inside and can be moved outside during warm weather – from late spring to early fall.

Common-Sage

Sage (Salvia officinalis) Perennial, grows to about 2 ½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or at least 8 hours of light a day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will continue growing down to low 40s. Water completely each time but allow the soil surface to begin to dry before watering again.

Remains productive for one to two years indoors and can be transplanted into the garden when it becomes too woody for indoor use. Trim leaves to maintain bushy shape and dry excess leaves for later seasoning use.

Fresh sage is incredible in holiday stuffings and roasted turkey or any poultry. Adds a delightful aroma and flavor to winter soups and stews, whether vegetable based or not.

If you’ve comfortably grown the herbs above, then these two will be easy. If you’ve not grown any herbs inside before, start with some of the choices above to gain some experience.

Mariska-Dill

Dill (Anethum graveolens) Annual, can grow to 2 feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Dill grows a long tap root and needs at least 12 inches of soil to thrive in. A one to two-foot-deep pot works well.

Water when the soil surface begins to dry and give plants room for good air circulation. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 60s and 50s at night, but will continue growing down to mid-40s.

Sow seed directly, then thin by clipping shoots to 3 seedlings per 8-inch diameter pot. Young plants may need staking until mature.

Plants will be productive for two to four months indoors. Harvest by clipping lower leaves for cooking use. Plant may flower if conditions are right and provide fresh dill flowers and seeds for later use. Seeds begin to mature about 2 – 3 weeks after blooming. Trim stalks to harvest seeds once flowers have died and seeds begin to mature and harden. Store stalks in a paper bag for a month to dry seeds, then shake bag to release seeds and store.

Mariska is an excellent variety – hardy with lots of aroma and flavor.

Genovese-Basil1

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Annual, grows to about 2 feet tall. Prefers full sun or at least 8 hours of light and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Does not tolerate water stress, so make sure pots have good drainage. Soil should be somewhat moist but never soggy. You should be able to feel the soil moisture when touching with a fingertip, but it shouldn’t be wet.

Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will suffer below 50 degrees F. Basil likes light, just like when grown outside in full sun.

Harvest the leaves by snipping with scissors as needed for cooking. One plant can keep a family in fresh basil through the winter! Trim the young flower bud tips frequently to keep plants bushy and prevent flowering.

Plants will produce continuous leaves for three to six months with flower bud trimming.

Get Started

Now you’ve got the tools and information to choose the herbs you want to grow in your kitchen garden this winter. Use this article as a guide and refer to it as you grow.

One resource to help you further are Starting Seeds at Home, an article showing what a seed needs for germination and what happens to the seed during sprouting. For more information on what potting soil might be best for you, read Potting Soils – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly.

Whether you cook or not, bring the aromas of fresh herbs into your home this winter!

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this! Read all of Stephen and Cindy'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.

The Lifecycle of the Mustard Seed

tatsoi sprouts 

The mustard seed is a truly remarkable specimen. Ranging from 1-2 millimeters in diameter and colored yellowish white to black, these tiniest of seeds have a full lifecycle. Once planted in the ground, mustard seeds spring forth edible leaves and flowers and eventually form seed pods bursting with new life. Discovering the lifecycle of the mustard seed from experimenting in my garden was an exciting process.

When we watch for daily changes, simple lessons emerge. 

May: Planting the Seeds

On May 8th, I planted Tatsoi mustard seeds from a packet. In just 12 days, my little green sprouts were shooting out of the ground.  (See lead photo)

June: Harvesting the Greens 

In less than a month, the sprouts evolved into spicy and crunchy green leaves that were ready to harvest.

bed of greens 

July: Bolting to Flowers

In July, the weather turned hot and the greens seemed to bolt overnight into delicate yellow flowers that I used for salad toppers and stirfrys. 

salad topper

August: Seed Pods

As I continued to observe the Tatsoi plants, I noticed that small green nodes started to form on the stem. I opened one to reveal green seeds and paused to consider if this was how mustard seeds actually form. I had never actually thought about it. Prior to this, mustard seeds were found in Aisle 5 second shelf down. I had not connected that the tiny seeds for the greens were in fact the same that we use for mustard. With this new information in hand, I looked at my crop in a new light. Cucumbers were forming on the vine and the idea of future pickles or homemade mustard began to form. 

seed pods

September: Harvesting the Seed

Once the green pods turned papery brown and split open easily, the seeds were ready to harvest. I gingerly plucked the stems from the plant and put everything in a paper bag. With a good shake , the seeds easily broke free from the pods and I was able to cull out the chaff. 

seeds 

How I Used The Harvested Mustard Seeds

Fortunately when it was time to can pickles, I had my own stash of mustard seeds. The local market was out of stock for weeks due to all of the covid gardens! That’s one good reason to let your greens go to seed. 

mustard seeds in pickles  

Another way to impress your friends (if only virtually) is making a true DIY mustard with your homegrown seeds. The Spruce Eats has an easy to follow Simple Mustard Recipe with Variations. ...

Each season of gardening gives an awareness that only immersing my hands in the dirt can bring. I love the discovery of the simple lessons and learning how to integrate all the edible parts of a plant into the kitchen. What new discovery did you make this year? 

Lyndsay Dawson Mynatt is a dedicated forager, outdoor enthusiast, and blogger for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Her published articles include: Build a DIY Cider Press in the 2015 September/October issue of GRIT and 5-Minute, 5-Ingredient Mayonnaise in the 2015 Best of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Follow her adventures at A Faithful Journey, and read all of Lyndsay'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.







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