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

Start to Finish Seed Saving

Saving your own seed from this year’s crops to sow next season is the ultimate in vegetable garden self-sufficiency. Here’s how to do it:

What to Save and What Not to Save

Choose your best plants to collect seed from. Selecting in this way means that, over time, your plants will become more and more suited to your garden’s unique growing conditions.

Particularly suitable vegetables for seed saving include peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce. Onions, leeks, carrots, beets and chard are also worth saving, but as they are all biennial crops you’ll need to overwinter some plants to gather their seeds after they flower next year.

Brassica family plants readily cross-pollinate with other members of the same family, so the seeds are unlikely to come true to type.

F1 hybrid seed should also be avoided because they are created from two separate parent varieties, and won’t come true. Only save the seeds of open-pollinated varieties.


Saving Bean & Pea Seeds

As the end of the season approaches, leave some pea or bean pods to dry out on the plant. They’re ready to collect when the pods feel crisp or leathery, and are swollen with beans.

Shell the beans, discard any very small or damaged seeds, then spread them out on newspaper. Dry them on a warm windowsill for seven to ten days.

Fava beans can cross-pollinate with other varieties, so only save seeds from these beans if you are growing just one variety.

Saving Lettuce Seeds 

Lettuces produce hundreds of seeds on each seed head. Lettuces grow tall before they go to seed, so you might need to stake the plants. Once the plant has produced lots of fluffy seed heads, pull it up and hang it upside down indoors to dry. They will be ready within a few weeks. Rub the seed heads between the palms of your hands to release the seeds.

Save Pepper & Tomato Seeds

The seeds of tomatoes and peppers are ready when the fruits are good for eating. Cut them open and scrape the seeds away from the pith. Spread the seeds out on paper to dry out for at least a week. Remove the pulp around the seeds before storing - this is demonstrated in our video How to Prepare and Store Seeds From Your Tomato Plants.

Saving Onion & Leek Seeds

Onions, leeks and shallots set seed in their second year. These plants need to cross-pollinate, so overwinter more than one plant of the same variety to flower the following year.

The seed heads are ready once they have dried out and can be flaked off into a bag for cleaning and sorting. However, you can hurry things along by cutting the heads a little earlier. Check that the seeds are ready by opening up a seed pod. If the seeds are black, you’re good to go. Dry the seed heads in a warm, well-ventilated place such as a greenhouse. Once they’ve turned the color of straw, release the seeds by rubbing the seed heads between your fingers.

Storing Saved Seeds 

Clean dry seeds before storing by carefully blowing away any remaining chaff. Alternatively, separate out the seeds through a series of screens or sieves.

Store seeds somewhere cool, dry and dark, in paper envelopes labeled with the variety and date.

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.

Plan Now for a Caterpillar, Butterfly Habitat in Spring

A viceroy caterpillar munches on cottonwood leaves.

Just the other day, I was outside watering my new cottonwood tree, when I saw this odd-looking little caterpillar. It was brown and white with tiny spike-like horns. I plucked the leaf from the tree and walked over to the barn where my husband was doing a bit of end-of-summer cleaning. We chatted about the caterpillar, neither one of us ever seeing one like this.

So I took a picture of the caterpillar to send to my friend, Samantha. She’s the first one I think of when I have a question regarding anything creepy-crawly, and I mean that in the best possible way. She’s a super-cool lady, interested in all things nature and is a licensed trapper. I knew she'd be the one who could tell me more about this little guy.

Within just a few minutes, Samantha responded that what I had in a jar on my kitchen counter was a viceroy caterpillar. I read over the link she sent me, and showed Fletcher and Emery the pictures of the butterfly it will become. What a beauty!

After reading that the viceroy caterpillars eat primarily cottonwood and willow leaves, it got me to thinking about creating a whole habitat area just for butterflies. And the next day while the kids and I waited for the school bus, we talked about digging up a few flower bed areas around our cottonwood tree to plant flowers that host and feed caterpillars and butterflies.

Plants for Caterpillars

A successful butterfly garden should have plants for all stages of their lifecycle. There are plants specific for feeding larvae and adult butterflies, and it’s a good idea to include a variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees to attract a number of species to your property.

Milkweed: Of course milkweed has to be on the top of the list. As the food source for larval Monarch butterflies, Asclepias milkweed is a must for a butterfly garden. It is a perennial, so once established, it should return year after year. Milkweed isn’t too particular about its soil, but does prefer partial sun/shade. Actually, fall is the perfect time to mimic nature by seeding milkweed now in your flowerbed. After winter dormancy, you should see little sprouts in the spring.

Dill: I have a lot of black swallowtails fluttering around my herb bed, so adding dill to a butterfly garden makes total sense. Dill is a host plant for caterpillars, and there are a bunch of varieties to choose from, so you’re sure to find one that’s beautiful enough to put in a flower bed. I like growing “Superdukat” dill because it holds off flowering so I can get more harvestable leaves for market sales. But, I am open to trying quick-flowering varieties for butterflies (Now I can’t wait for my seed catalogues to arrive!). Dill is a quick-growing annual, so you should be able to get a few sowings in each year. And if you leave flowers in place to produce seeds, you may find that dill will self-seed and end up with free plants the following spring (this happened in my hoophouse).

Hollyhock: Painted Lady caterpillars munch on good, old-fashioned hollyhocks and other meadow-type plants. Hollyhocks are perfect for the back of the butterfly garden because of their height, sometimes growing to eight feet. They like full sun and well-drained soil, and are easy to grow once established. I’ve never had luck growing them from seed, but if you’ve got a start from a friend, or purchase a potted plant from a store or nursery, hollyhocks are a lovely flower for your butterfly habitat.

Plants for Butterflies

Of course, all of the above plants are a food source for adult butterflies, as are many flowers. From asters to zinnias, you’ll find butterflies on just about anything you provide in your flower garden. But just as a little insurance to make your winged beauties happy, consider these nectar plants to add to your landscape.

Buddleia: Also known as a butterfly bush, buddleia is readily available at most nurseries and box stores, and is a nectar plant to many species of butterflies. It’s a deciduous shrub, with long, elegant flowers that bloom throughout the growing season. Many varieties now offer colors that will complement your butterfly garden.

Asters: Attracting monarchs and painted ladies is just one of the reasons to plant asters in your butterfly garden. These perennial flowering plants are a colorful burst in late summer/early fall, and keep your butterflies fed toward the end of the season. Aster germination can prove a bit unpredictable, so I recommend purchasing plants or getting a start from a friend’s garden. Asters prefer full sun and well-drained soil.

Tickseed: Ah, coreopsis! One of my favorite perennials, I like to plant bright yellow coreopsis throughout the landscape. What I like about coreopsis is that it seems to thrive on my neglect (because, you know, life), and isn’t too picky. Well, all the plants listed here do not require too much care other than occasional watering during dry spells. There are many colors available now, and you’re sure to find one or two or three to add pops of mid-summer color to your butterfly garden.

So, if you’re like me, and already planning your spring garden in your mind, I hope this helps inspire you to make room for a butterfly habitat on your property. If you’ve got a favorite butterfly plant that I haven’t listed, please leave it in a comment below.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.

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.

Dig It! Time to Transplant Your Perennials

Early fall is the preferred time to transplant perennials, such as peonies.

As the growing season is coming to a close, most gardeners can exhale a sigh of relief. The majority of the work is done, and it’s time for a much needed break. Or is it? Now, and I mean now, is the perfect time to get into the garden and dig up, divide, and transplant your perennials.

I know that most of the focus of Mother Earth News is toward edible plants, which have rightly earned their priority in the garden. But let’s not forget the role flowering nonedibles play. Feeding bees and hummingbirds, adding value to your home, and simply beautifying the landscape, perennial flowers are a great addition to our home gardens. They’re easy to grow, once established, and can be dug up in the early fall, divided, and relocated to other parts of your property to give you more plants for free.

Perennials to Divide Now

Peonies: Spring flowering peonies are an old-fashioned favorite of mine. I love the bright pink, red, and even white peonies, and their fragrance it beyond compare. They can live a very, very long time (In fact, your peonies will probably outlive us all!). Peonies make wonderful cut flowers, and last a long time in a vase.

To divide, simply grab your shovel and dig all around the roots. You’ll want as much of the roots as you can, as they are quite hefty because they store a lot of water. Divisions will need to have a minimum of three eyes (little pinkish sprouts). Be sure to relocate your peonies in full sun for the best blooms. Also, peonies do not want to be buried deep in the soil. Just barely cover your roots and add a nice layer of mulch or straw for the winter. Once you see growth in the spring, remove most of the mulch and enjoy.

Daylilies: Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ditch lily? The mid-summer burst of orange is a herald that summer is official here. Easy to grow, and edible, every homestead should have daylilies to grace the fence row or flower bed.

To divide, lift roots and bulbs in a large clump. You can carefully separate with your fingers or your shovel. Daylilies thrive in full or partial sun, and any soil should work (I mean, they grow in ditches, for Pete’s sake!). Just plop your division the ground, water, and voila!, you’ll have lilies next summer.

Coreopsis: Tickseed is a great flower for a country garden. With so many colors available now, you can customize your selections to perfectly complement your home. I have yellow coreopsis, and love when it blooms in the summer, attracting bees and hummingbirds (Plus, coreopsis has the word "oreo," so of course they have to be one of my favorites!)

To divide, dig up the entire plant. With your shovel or a knife (my favorite garden tool is a steak knife I bought at Dollar General, like, 15 years ago.), cut through the roots to separate the original plants. I don’t like to make more than three new plants at a time. Plant in full sun.

Iris: Let me just tell you, I heart irises! I have a few purple irises from my childhood home that I dug up and planted at my first home. When Matt and I moved to our property in Morrow County, I, again, dug them up and brought them with me.

Iris benefits from lifting every few years to check for worms (likely iris borers) on the rhizomes and divide if they’re getting a bit crowded. This helps with better blooming, too.

To divide, I dig around the rhizomes and pull up as much as I can, separating them with my hands. If the irises aren’t wormy, I just plant some around the flowerbeds and mulch. This may affect the blooming for the first year after transplanting, but by the second year, you should see your irises in full glory.

These are just a few perennials that you can transplant, but I know there are hundreds of plants I could write about. But the good folks in charge prefer I keep my posts to 500 or so words. Actually, these are the plants that I divided this morning before a mild case of sunburn set in. So, if you’ve got a transplanting tip or a favorite perennial to brag about, I’d love to read it in a comment below.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.

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.

September in St. Johns: Apache County Fair

 Italian Tomatoes grown by a local gardener

Gardeners all over the state grow delicious vegetables, fruits, herbs, and even grains for their nourishment, enjoyment, and to share with friends and family. A unique aspect of living in the county seat of St. Johns is being able to see a vast number of products people in our area are producing in their gardens each year. 

I've been the head of the Field Crops department of the Apache County Fair for several years, and it never ceases to amaze me at some of the amazing things that come into the fair that Wednesday morning. What amazes me even more are the stories that go along with some of those entries and the challenges gardeners tell me about as we sit at the table and fill out fair entry tags. 

Take John Bennett for example. He's been growing, showing, and winning at the Apache County Fair for decades. In fact, he's one of the biggest exhibitors every year. He tells of a pink banana squash that he grows over in Springerville, that he's been growing for nearly as long as he remembers. He says that some of the biggest challenges is knowing from year to year where the squash will pop up. As an organic gardener, he composts all of his plant waste and inevitably some viable squash seeds end up in the compost that gets spread all over his garden site. 

Another big exhibitor who has been growing and showing in Apache County for a long time is Heather Higginbotham, daughter of Rick and Lorie Williams, who own Boondocks Farm and who used to have the job I now have at the Apache County Fair. Heather and her son Karsin win top honors every year for their produce, just like mom and dad did a mere ten years ago. Heather makes the most amazing fruit jams and jellies and sells them at the local Heritage Market through summer and fall, as well, and I can attest at the amazing flavor of the local produce. One of the things they battle on their farm is unpredictable weather. Late-summer hail storms have decimated plants in the past. Late spring freezes have also been a challenge as fruit trees start to flower and bud. This area is known for the challenging weather patterns above all else. 

Dried Beans

During this year's fair, I talked to a bunch of people who have recently moved in or are currently looking at moving in, and seeing the fair gives them hope. But true to the spirit of my blog and why we started the Gardeners with Altitude garden club ten years ago, I had to let them know of the unique challenges they may be facing. It is really easy to see this abundance on these shelves and believe that throwing some seeds out onto the ground would lead to an abundant harvest. "Nay, nay," said one of our local gardeners. "Do not believe that this sort of produce will be grown easily, particularly out east of town where all the land is going for so cheap. There's no water. There's three solid months of drying winds. The ground is as hard as a rock and the pH is so high that even if you can get the soil broken down into something workable, your plants won't be able to access nutrients like boron, iron, or calcium. Soil that grows this kind of produce requires decades of working and tons of water. Without a well, you could go broke just hauling water from town."

The Apache County Fair is not only a fun time for all involved, thanks to chairpersons Josh and Annie Anderson, but it is a time to learn a lot about how gardening in southern Apache County works. It is a time to listen and talk with neighbors, glean the wisdom of "old-timers", and really get the low-down about how to be a successful organic gardener in St. Johns, Springerville, Concho, Vernon, Alpine, and many other little towns in this area. It is one of the only FREE county fairs in the state and would love to see Mother Earth News readers visit if anyone happens to be in the area. 

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.

A Mid-Summer Foliar Spray for Fertilization and Pest Control


Photo by Flickr/Herry Lawford

Across the Northern Hemisphere, we are now beginning the transition from summertime active growth. We now have passed the longest weeks of the year, when the sun is as far north as she sets. In plant terms, the month following Summer Solstice (on or around June 21st),  are when plants transition from green growth to forming flowers and then fruits.

In those next weeks, you can give a last nitrogen boost to your plants to stilt them up tall. This easy blend can be given as a root drench and also as a foliar spray. Foliar is to be applied in the time when the sun is up but too low to shine on the leaves. By spraying directly on the plants leaves, a boost to their metabolism hits them faster than in the soil.

June is a time when many of the insects have sprouted and are potentially snacking on your plum leaves. By spraying weekly you can discourage the bugs to bite the summer foliage.

Joshua’s Multi Function Foliar Boost for Summer Solstice

1 teaspoon kelp meal *(adds nitrogen for green growth final push)
1/2 teaspoon volcanic ash dust *(lengthens nodes of branches)
5 drops peppermint oil
750 mL spray bottle
Note: Spray 1 time per week just before sundown.

Want to learn more about foliar sprays? Check out Joshua’s Foliar Spray Article in the Spring 2016 Edible East Bay.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other 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.

Grow Sub-tropical Moringa for Food and Fodder


Photo by Flickr/Books for Life

The amazing a fast-growing soil-builder called moringa (Moringa Oleifera) is a perennial plant that is edible from root-to-shoot and can be a real boon to your garden and orchard. High in iron, it is an amazing vegetarian nutrition boost to you and your chickens.

Grow your soil. Moringa is a fast-growing sub-tropical shrub. Unchecked, it can grow to over 20 feet tall. However, with one or two pruned per year, it can be managed to 4 to 8 feet tall and its pruned branches can be eaten by humans, goats, or chickens. The pruned branches can also be “chopped and dropped.” This means that pruned branches are laid around production trees to break down and feed the desired trees.

Cool the orchard floor. In the heat of summer, the exposed ground can get very hot. By growing crops like moringa in the gaps of your orchard, you can “green mulch” the ground surface, helping keep root temperatures cooler.

Grow a tree salad. As moringa grows vertical, the amount of soil space needed for it is small compared to the biomass created. This can be called “vertical economy” and provides the advantages of growing up, rather than flat on the ground.

Edible parts of the Moringa include:

Immature seed pods
Mature seeds

Find out more about moringa at Perennial Solutions.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other 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.

Hoophouse Bed Prep for Fall Plantings

book cover 

Because crops grow so fast in the hoophouse, the organic matter in the soil is consumed at a rapid rate. Each new crop requires a fertility boost. In the fall, we prepare our beds by removing all the summer crops, and spreading about four wheel­barrows of compost per 4' × 96' (1.2 × 29 m) bed. This rate is a generous 46 gals/100 ft2 (or 680 L/36 m2 bed). A full wheelbarrow generally holds six cubic feet (44 gallons or 170 liters). 1 ft3 = 7.5 US gals. An inch of compost is about 8 ft3/100 ft2, or 60 gals/100 ft2; 20 gals/100 ft2 is 15 tons/acre (8.6 L/m2). Other professional growers use any­where from 12–40 gals/100 ft2 (5–17 L/m2). Some use much more.

There are three concerns about using too much compost: high phosphorus levels, raised salt levels and nitrate accumulation. Some growers like to do two years of high compost rates (40 gals/100 ft2, 17 L/m2 or more), then reduce the rate to half that and add fish or kelp, at only 5 oz–8 oz/100 ft2 (15–24 gm/m2) per year. Sustainable alternatives to compost in­clude organic pelleted chicken manure, alfalfa meal, etc.

We added in an annual broadforking a few years after we put up our hoophouse, when we noticed that despite our best efforts, we were walking on the edges of the beds and compact­ing them. Initially we simply loosened the edges of the beds with a digging fork. We then noticed that the plants on the edges grew better, and we realized the whole bed width needed loosening. If you have designed your hoophouse to use trac­tor equipment there, that will deal with soil com­paction. We wanted our hoophouse to be free of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels, and the broadfork has provided the solution. Ours is an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.

We set nylon twine to mark the bed edges, holding it in place using sod staples. The string alone has not been enough to stop us walking on the bed edges. Loose soil is important because our winter crops grow all the way to the edges. After spreading compost, we broadfork the beds, then vigorously work the compost into the top of the soil with scuffle hoes and rakes. We learned the hard way the importance of raking the soil to a fine tilth immediately after broadforking — you don’t want to let the broadforked clumps dry out into bricks before you rake!



A section of a hoophouse bed after broadforking, before working to a fine tilth.

When I posted Sowing hoophouse winter crops on my website in Sept 2017, I wrote about our bed prep method and tools, and also our outdoor sowings for transplanting into the hoophouse, with a special focus on suitable lettuce varieties.

We had just started planting our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. If the seeds are a bit wet when you need to sow them, and clumped together, pour them out on a cloth to dry a bit before sowing.

On September 6 and 7 we sow five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sow lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.

We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges), hence the once-a-year broadforking.


A late September photo of spinach sown as sprouted seeds 9/6.

Step-by-step guide to how we do our fall bed prep:

1. First remove the summer crops to the compost pile,

2. Spread a generous layer of compost over the whole bed surface.

3. Remove the soil staples and move the drip tape off to one side or the other,

4. Broadfork the whole bed, but not all at once. 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. We tackle 1/3 bed each day.

To use a broadfork, go backwards working the width of the bed. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the crossbar 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. Note: you are not inverting the soil – this is not a "digging over" process. Step on the bar and repeat.

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. More often we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job stirrup hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing), but the sharp hoe blade does a really good job of breaking up clumpy soil.

5. We’ve 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.

6. Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags.

7. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

8. After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds.

For more on winter hoophouse crops, see more posts on my website, such as

Planning winter hoophouse crops for our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning

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

Excerpt from The Year-Round Hoophouse Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers

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 book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at, Pam's second book The Year-Round Hoophouse will be published by New Society November 20, 2018. Her blog is on her website and also on



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

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