Organic Gardening

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


Last week in the garden we were stymied by excess rain (yet again). Beasties were eating our crops. I caught two groundhogs already, snacking on our kale. In the process of trapping groundhogs in a live trap, I accidentally caught a skunk. This happened last year and I wrote about it on my blog, It could even have been the same silly skunk - it had a lot of white and not much black to its fur.

Live-Trapping a Skunk

Mug shot of skunk

So, how to let the skunk out of the trap without arousing its ire? We brainstormed a bit and I told the crew what I did last year, using sticks to open the trap and a plastic sack to screen myself. One of the crew came up with a better idea, which I'm passing on, in case you ever need to know! She got a large piece of cloth, draped it over the trap and then delicately opened the trap by hand, through the fabric. It worked like a charm. The skunk ambled out. But then it turned round and went back in, back to sleep. Skunks are nocturnal, so I suppose it thought better of setting out in bright daylight to find a new place to sleep. We left the trap open all night, and in the morning it had gone.

The fabric was so perfect we are now keeping it in the garden shed in case we need it again. It was a large piece of knit polyester - thick, drapeable, washable, and not the sort of thing anyone would have wanted to make clothes out of!

Moles in the Garden

Havahart live trap

Meanwhile, we have also had a burrowing animal biting off our broccoli seedlings from flats in the cold frame. It isn't eating them, just cutting them down and stashing them in piles. My prime suspects are moles. Although carnivores, they apparently use leaves to line their nests. We tried hot pepper on the seedlings, the rain washed it off. We set the flats on landscape fabric. Now they chew through the landscape fabric. The tunnels are too big for voles or mice. We tried to fob them off with old lettuce, and spare kale seedlings. On my blog, I asked anyone who had ideas to please leave a comment.

I got a great response to my post from Joanna Reuter, who farms at Chert Hollow Farm in Missouri. She and her partner Eric run an inspiring website, and what sounds like an inspiring farm too, although I've never been there. Joanna suggested I could line the coldframe with hardware cloth. She also shared that they have had similar experiences with skunks in traps. Once when the trap was in a busy work area, they draped a sheet over the trap, tied a rope to it, and dragged it to a less busy area to release the skunk.  She said she had read that skunks can't spray from within a trap because the trap isn’t big enough for them to adopt the spraying posture. But they didn't want to test that theory! Nor do we!

Joanna also told me that according to the Missouri mammal book, skunks eat moles. So she suggested if we caught another one, we could release it near the coldframe…. That gave me a chuckle. I value skunks for eating ticks, but I can't quite see them eating a mole. Maybe Missouri skunks are really big. . .

Meanwhile, back to thinking about the moles. Lining the coldframe with hardware cloth would probably work, but would be expensive and inconvenient. We’re thinking next year we should get rid of the moles somehow before we put any flats in the frame. In the winter we grow spinach in our cold frames. We could try trapping and/or planting Mole Plant there. Then line the coldframe really thoroughly and fully with the landscape fabric, making sure there are no gaps. Part of the problem might have been that we cleared the spinach and lined the coldframe in sections, so the critters found the broccoli. Maybe if we had been more thorough they would never have thought it worthwhile to chew through the landscape fabric.
Photo credits:;

Since 1991, Pam has been living in central Virginia, at Twin Oaks Community, an egalitarian, secular, income-sharing, work-sharing ecovillage established in 1967. There she helps grow food for around 100 people on three and a half acres and provides training in sustainable vegetable production for community members, practicing farming with awareness of ecology, finite resources and the future of the planet. 


recycle containers x 3

Earth Day activities are a time to focus on taking care of the environment. You might have attended such events. If you did, did you notice how the trash was handled? Since it was an Earth Day event there really shouldn’t have been any trash to haul away. If food and drink was served, people could have brought their own cups and plates to offer as receptacles, then taken them home. Unfortunately, I believe the Health Departments of all municipalities would have frowned on that. One year I attended an Earth Day event where all the food vendors were required to serve their food and drink using compostable plates and cups. However, I didn’t see any trash containers labeled to receive them to make sure they were destined to a compost pile. There have been many stories in the news over the years of garbage dumps yielding things that should have composted, but hadn’t because everything was sealed.

Composting and Recycling at the Mother Earth News Fairs

I took the photo of the three trash bins at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, N.C., recently. One is for things that will compost (food scraps, paper, and compostable plastic #7), another is for things that can be recycled (bottles and cans, plastic #1-7, and clean paper), and one is for everything else, which is destined for the landfill. Managing trash in this way is nothing new for Danny’s Dumpster, the company managing this service at the Mother Earth News Fair. They even have their own composting operation and sell compost! So, you can be sure those compost bins really are headed for a compost pile.

I didn’t have a booth at this Fair, but I have had one the past four years at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, Penn., and was aware of their Leave No Trace Policy which required exhibitors to not leave any debris or trash in their space. They were threatened with a fine of $50 per 100 sq. ft if they did. I left my spot clean so as not to find out how well that would be enforced. It would be nice if everyone cleaned up after themselves without being told, wherever they are. Personally I believe that people should celebrate Earth Day Every Day. You can read more about my zero waste activities at Homeplace Earth.

In the housing industry there is a LEED certification program that builders can gain points with if they meet certain requirements on a checklist. There should be such a program for event planning. If there was, and if meeting the requirements for the highest certification was something to brag about, as the LEED certification is, there would be more events planned with no waste and more companies available to help them through the process. Can you imagine if nothing would be taken to the landfill, making it really a zero waste event? I believe it could happen and it is certainly something to look forward to.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at


Russian Red

In my last blog post (Gourmet Garlic: Hardneck vs. Softneck) I discussed the differences between hardneck and softneck garlics. In the next series of blogs, I will be exploring the various types of cultivars that fall under the auspices of these two categories. I will begin with the Rocamboles, a highly regarded type of hardneck. Rocamboles are considered by many growers and garlic enthusiasts to be the caviar of gourmet garlic due to their exceptional taste. Common examples that I grow include German Red, Yugoslavian, and the hugely popular Russian Red.


Rocamboles require a relatively lengthy period of vernalization for proper growth, making them better suited for growing in colder climates. If you are growing Rocamboles in a climate with more mild temperatures, you will need to put your cloves in an artificial state of cold dormancy in order to obtain optimum results. Although a hardy strain, they do also need a rich soil matrix to grow to their full potential. The plants themselves are robust, with thick stalks and up to nine deep blue-green colored leaves. The scapes are quite long, and often will tightly curl at least twice before they begin to straighten to their full height of approximately six feet. The umbels themselves contain bulbils of varying size and number depending on the cultivar, but they are generally medium to large in size, and vary from a few to many in number. Rocamboles are usually harvested mid-season, after all the softneck varieties are out of the ground.


Grown successfully, Rocamboles will produce medium to large sized bulbs with a regular, slightly flattened tear-drop shape. The outer skins are a matte off-white, and mottled or striped with purple in patterns that vary among cultivars. The clove skins themselves range from a light tan to a deeper brown, often subtly striped or leopard-spotted with a deeper purplish hue. The cloves under the thick, easy-to-peel skins are medium-large and plump, and number from around six to 14 cloves per bulb, again depending on the cultivar. Double cloves are common with certain strains, further expediting easy peeling, but reducing the number available for planting come the fall.



Rocamboles tend to be the most highly regarded of garlic cultivars when it comes to taste. Although specific profiles differ somewhat between different strains, the majority are celebrated for their complex flavor which is characteristically rich, sweet and moderately hot. Although very tasty when cooked, the complexity of flavor means that Rocamboles are best enjoyed raw. Using them, in fresh salad dressings for example, really allows them to shine. And if their superior flavor isn’t enough incentive for you to use them as soon as you can harvest them, keep in mind that, although one of tastiest of the gourmet garlics, they also have the lowest storage capability – usually lasting in good condition for only three to four months. Now you don’t need an excuse to devour them first!


Nestled above an overgrown ridge-top meadow in the Appalachian Mountains, farmer Susana Lein proudly runs Salamander Springs Farm, a permaculture farm, homestead and “food forest,” where living, healthy soil is considered the most important resource.

Working closely with her local farmers markets, town stores, and CSA members, Susana grows a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, mushrooms and numerous nut trees. All food is grown organically, in the traditional sense, using permaculture and biodynamic practices.

Her WWOOFers and apprentices, who often stay for an entire growing season, learn extensively about cycling local resources and energy, homesteading from the ground up, and practicing permaculture principles for sustainable housing, food production and local economic systems.

“From working with the soil, to building structures with straw or recycled wood, I know Susana wants to share every bit of knowledge she knows to make a better world,” explained WWOOFer Kayla Lee Preston, who spent two full seasons at Salamander Springs.  “Working with Susana was the most life changing experience I have ever received. She truly is one with the earth.”

Salamander Springs Farm is completely off-grid: it is a rustic homestead where limited solar electricity exists and gravity-fed spring water, rain catchment systems, and ponds serve as the water resources. Susana has built a community where nightly meals are shared by candlelight under the stars and are centered on freshly picked food from the farm.

In 2001, Susana decided her land, which is surrounded by the hardwood Appalachian forest, needed rich topsoil. She began clearing a meadow, which now makes up her food forest, and built her kitchen from only recycled and salvaged materials. Over the next decade she built a solar house using locally harvested and milled wood. She dug clay from her farm and ponds to create a beautifully earthen floor and straw walls.

“This isn’t just farming – it’s a way of life,” said WWOOFer Jacob Mudd, an aspiring farmer from western Kentucky with a homestead of his own. “It would seem foreign if it didn’t come so natural. The experience is very holistic, very back to the land.”

Her farm has inspired people from around the world.

“This farm shows what can happen when dedication, hard work, and wisdom combine to create a real farm that can actually be sustained,” said WWOOFer Wade Archer, who traveled from Tennessee to stay at Salamander Springs. “I would put this farm on the Top Ten list of the most important farms to visit in the United Sates, and maybe the world.”

Are you interested in visiting and experiencing life on an organic farm?

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF-USA) helps visitors from around the world link up with over 1,800 organic farms across the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. WWOOF-USA is part of a worldwide effort to link visitors with organic farms, promote an educational exchange, and build a community conscious of ecological farming practices.

For more information, or to find organic host farms nearest you, please visit the WWOOF USA website.

Photos by Susana Lein


This year, I hope to obtain land to create my own patch of homesteading paradise. As I mentally gear up for the prospect of transforming a piece of raw land into a (hopefully) beautiful, abundant haven of food, animals, and handmade buildings, I am simultaneously seeking stories from folks who have been through (or more likely continuing to go through) that process. Though I am attracted to a rural locale, where development is less, the land is more open, and the restrictions fewer, it has been an enlightening and poignant reminder that not everyone is so fortunate to have access to such circumstances. In fact, it may not even be necessary to live in the country to eat well, grow delicious organic food in quantity, and live the good life.

Paradise Lot: Creating a Slice of Eden in the Suburbs

This is a fortunate time for backyard gardeners and suburban homesteaders, as the literature dedicated to those folks in the suburbs who want to provide more for themselves has been on the rise. One notable book that turns the idea of needing lots of space to grow an incredible diversity and quantity of food on its head is Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Toensmeier and Bates detail the incredible story of the transformation of their 1/10th acre suburban lot into a slice of permaculture goodness, proving that you don’t need huge amounts of space to do so, and that the suburbs can in fact be productive.

The book starts with the duo buying a duplex in Holyoke, Mass., where they soon establish a perennial garden full of multifunctional herbs, shrubs, vines, and trees. Incredibly, Toensmeier and Bates prove that permaculture principles are viable in a suburban setting, even when the forecast is grim, and that a small parcel of land can yield abundant food and nutrition, and even have a bit of space for a few animals, too.

Paradise Lot is no doubt a story of the journey and less of a how-to, but that doesn’t mean the text isn’t brimming full of valuable information and tips for the prospective suburban gardener and permaculturalist. Really, Toensmeier’s plant knowledge is dripping from every page, and you’ll likely find yourself reaching for a highlighter or folding every other page corner because of the abundance of excellent information. Perhaps most valuable is the massive inspiration the book imparts – that you don’t need a whole lot of land to work some incredible gardening and food magic, and that anyone can turn even a scrap of abused land into something beautiful.

Gaia’s Garden: Bringing Life to Your Home and Garden

Another favorite book of mine geared towards home-scale permaculture and food production is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, which when combined with Paradise Lot, makes for an excellent two-punch guide to getting your land to be productive, regenerative, and beautiful. Hemenway’s book is full of practical information that will set you on the path to a self-renewing garden. One of the main premises of permaculture – working with Nature, instead of against her, is always the goal, and Hemenway describes in detail how to make that theory a reality.

Gaia’s Garden gets into the nitty-gritty of water management, guilds, forest garden design and layout, and recommended plant species suitable for a perennial food and medicine garden. Whereas Paradise Lot doesn’t dwell on the instructions for replicating a regenerative garden, Gaia’s Garden provides ample ideas and directives for creating healthy soil, making use of small spaces, and taking advantage of natural conditions. It’s practical, based on a lot of experimenting, and overall it’s an excellent addition to the library.

While I’m not about to move back to the suburbs to put these home-scale permaculture ideas to the test, I appreciate other people’s work in experimenting with these ideas. There’s a much better chance for getting our towns and cities across the country a little more productive and brimming with life with excellent books like Paradise Lot and Gaia’s Garden around(Both are available from MOTHER EARTH NEWS.) Maybe we can re-create Eden in the suburbs after all.

Photos by Chelsea Green Publishing


Monarch Butterflies

The collaborative efforts of Terroir Seeds, The Xerces Society and Painted Lady Vineyard have spent the past 2 years growing southwest native milkweed seed to reintroduce the Spider or Antelope Horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula) to home gardeners, garden centers and native plant nurseries across the southwest. This story is especially poignant right now with the massive declines in Monarch butterfly populations and the resounding recovery push by several conservation groups alongside private citizens, students and scientists.

Milkweed is Critical for Monarchs

Cindy Scott and Brianna Borders

The milkweed plant plays a critical role in the monarch life cycle. Each spring Monarchs migrate across the United States, laying eggs on native milkweeds - the only food plants suitable for newly hatched monarch caterpillars. The North American Monarch Conservation Plan recommends planting native milkweed species to restore habitat within the Monarch butterfly’s breeding range. 

For the past 3 years, the total area occupied by overwintering Monarchs in Mexico has dropped by almost 50% each year, continuing a decline that has lasted for the past decade. The severe drought seen across Texas and Northern Mexico has been a large factor, combined with wildfires across the entire southwest. The biggest contributor is simply the loss of land that supports the Monarch’s food source and hatchery – the Milkweed plant. Much of the land has been converted to commercial herbicide tolerant corn and soybean production or developed into housing. Overuse of persistent chemical herbicides and roadside mowing for weed control has also created loss of milkweed habitat and thus reduced Monarch numbers. 

Producing Milkweed Seed

Milkweed PlugThe Xerces Society is working to increase the availability of native milkweed seed and encourage restoration using milkweed in California, the Great Basin, the Southwest, Texas, and Florida. These are important areas of the Monarch’s spring and summer breeding range where few commercial sources of native milkweed seed currently exist. Brianna Borders, Plant Ecologist, contacted us about growing out a small sample of Spider or Antelope milkweed seeds that had been collected in central Arizona to make it commercially available.

Painted Lady Vineyard is a small wine grower in Skull Valley, AZ where Fiona Reid has been growing milkweed and saving the seed for a few years, so she was the perfect fit for our reintroduction project! One of her passions is native plants of the area, with an emphasis on butterfly attractants. The Painted Lady is a beautiful, ephemeral butterfly that happened to visit the vineyard in droves as the initial vines were being planted, thus the name for the vineyard came about. 

Planting Milkweed PlugsA California native plant nursery propagated the seeds into plugs, which were shipped to Painted Lady Vineyard. The tiny milkweed plugs were planted over a long and hot weekend in the middle of June 2012 after much work over many weeks preparing the ground to receive the fragile plugs. There were no financial rewards for any of the volunteers for the hours spent bent over in 100°F heat planting over 2,000 fragile plugs. Many of the people helping were native plant enthusiasts, some were butterfly lovers, but a significant number had were helping see a project to fruition on nothing more than the basis of it is the right thing to do. There were over 320 hours of volunteer labor, not counting Fiona's time, from start to finish.

Hard Work, but Worth It

Planting Milkweed PlugsIn an email to everyone, Fiona said, "It has been an amazing community effort and I have had the pleasure of working with a great group of people, children included. As we began to close in on the finish yesterday I was almost overcome by the understanding that people don’t have to involve themselves in such hard work – sometimes backbreaking work, sometimes knee-breaking work, and always hot work. They could sit at home in the cool, or an office somewhere, and do good for someone else. But none of you did that. You came knowing it was going to be outside in the heat; knowing you would kneel and bend; knowing you would get dust in your nose and eyes; knowing that – as Rachel Carson said – “there is something beyond the bounds of our human existence” that matters. You also know that you won’t get any thanks from the butterflies that find all the little milkweed gardens that will eventually grow from this project."

Carpenter BeeShe finishes by saying, "We don’t get paid dollars for doing this. What we get is priceless. One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures – a butterfly – will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there. Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the northward journey. We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that’s OK – we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on earth."

Lessons from Milkweed

Bagged Milkweed PodJust over a year later, in July of 2013, we visited once again to check in the seed production and record some of the process. On this visit, we learned several things. First, milkweed is an on-going production plant, it doesn’t set all of its flowers at once. There aren’t a crush of seed pods to be bagged, but there are little bunches of pods that always need bagging, so it is seemingly never done. Second, there is no real seed cleaning equipment available for the small scale grower to process and separate the seeds from the floss. There is large scale equipment that costs as much as a house, but nothing for the smaller grower. Third, there isn’t an established market for a regionally adapted milkweed seed of a specific species, as there hasn’t been any available up until now.

Since then, we have almost sold out of all of Painted Lady's seed production, mostly to home gardeners but many garden centers and native plant nurseries are growing the seedling plugs or plants around the southwestern US. There is still Milkweed seed available! A number of school gardens, community gardens and Master Gardener groups have stepped forward to help re-establish the milkweed populations in their areas. We are honored to be part of such a project and amazed at the positive impact a decentralized, non-governmental, independent group of individuals that have mostly never met one another can have on such a large scale challenge.

More Varieties on the Way 

Cleaned Milkweed Seed

One of our dear friends, Gary Nabhan, gave a talk at Prescott College recently in collaboration with Make Way for Monarchs and we will be extending our collaboration with several growers of almost a dozen more southwest native species of milkweed that is being grown in southern Arizona this year. 

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. They believe in a world of healthy soil, seed, food and people. Everyone has a fundamental need for vibrant food and health, which are interrelated. They welcome dialogue and can be reached at or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more education like this!


beeyard 2014

After a year without honeybees, we have two new hives. Our previous bees did not survive the 2012/2013 winter. There has been a tree or two that needed to be cut down near the beeyard and you’d think that we would have gotten that done in the past year. It was the upcoming arrival of our new bees that motivated us to cut that tree and remove the lower branches of other nearby trees. It was a nice thing to do on a warm dry Saturday when it was still too early and wet to work in the garden. We took care of any other chores in the area that we had neglected when we previously had to watch out for bees.

During our cleanup of the beeyard I pulled an old metal wagon out to near the hives. It will serve as a bench to place hive bodies on when I’m switching them around, rather than putting them on the ground. The hive bodies can be heavy at times—all the more reason to keep myself in shape. Some beekeepers have gone to using medium boxes instead of deeps, but I don’t believe there is enough room in the shallower boxes to maintain a cluster.

However, I am getting older and those boxes do get heavy. When time allows, I would like to build a top bar hive. Managing a top bar hive will bring new learning experiences, with the advantage that you only lift one comb at a time. The combs the bees build hang from one wooden bar at the top, with no wooden frames surrounding them. Given the opportunity, honeybees will lengthen the comb in a medium frame to fill out a deep box. You can see an example of that at Homeplace Earth. We keep bees for our pleasure. They pollinate things in the garden and give us honey—usually. I won’t know the efficiency of extracting honey from top bar combs until I actually do it. Since we don’t sell honey, the efficiency of honey extraction is not as much of a concern.

Meanwhile, I have all the equipment for the Langstroth style hives, so that is what is housing my two new bee colonies. I started them each in a deep hive body. Soon it will be time to add the second hive body to each colony. After they fill out that box, I’ll put a shallow super on each hive to capture the extra honey. Since I had all the equipment in the beeyard left from the hives that we used to have, during the cleanup I prepared the boxes I will soon need and left them there with a hive cover on top. It is good to anticipate your needs and have enough equipment for an extra hive. You never know when you have the opportunity to capture a swarm. I wish you well with your bees this year.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at

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