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

Growing Nutrient-Dense Vegetables on the Cheap

steve solomon intelligent gardener cover 

I come from the old "add compost and manure and it'll fly!" school of gardening. In the past when I felt really fancy I'd also throw in stuff like bone meal, blood meal, or lime. Then a friend told me to try fish emulsion and I discovered plants loved it. I also discovered that Epsom salts will make plants happy quickly, thanks to the magnesium and sulfur.

Mostly, though, I concentrated on getting my plants the big three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). I figured if my compost had a bunch of stuff in it, the plants would likely find the micronutrients they needed.

Then I read Steve Solomon and Erica Reinheimer's book The Intelligent Gardener and readjusted my thinking.

If the soil in your region is short on an element like manganese or selenium and you make compost from material on your property - or use the manure from animals grazing on grasses growing in your area - your garden will be short on that element. Improving the health of the soil will allow plants to get most of what they need, but if an element is scarce, it won't magically appear just because you have lots of soil life. It needs to come from somewhere.

After realizing this, I started adding kelp meal and rock phosphate and other ingredients to my soil. I got wood chips from a variety of trees growing in a mixed hardwood forest. And I started hunting down seaweed, clay and other good things and bringing them into my gardens. Once micronutrients get into your garden soil, many of them will continue to cycle through as you compost garden waste and return kitchen scraps to the soil.

Which leads me to the video I posted this week:

Despite the silly title, it's not empty clickbait. YouTube seems to favor videos with obnoxious clickbait-style titles - and who am I to fight the power? I should do one called "Fertilize Your Garden While Losing Weight With This One Weird Trick!" I'll bet it takes off.

But back to the topic: I'm currently adding basalt sand, seaweed and crushed sea urchin shells to the garden so I can maximize the amount of micronutrients getting into my crops. I'll add compost and manure too, as I have it, but my mad scientist amendments will certainly increase the amount of nutrition available to my plants over time.

When the plants get nutrition, so do you. If you're growing in mineral-poor soil, it's not enough to just throw on compost and manure. The plants may grow fine but they won't be as good for you as plants grown in mineral-rich soil.

Steve and Erica explain it much better than I do in their book, but I'm applying what I've learned by seeking out amendments which will give my plants a little extra nutrition above-and-beyond the average.

Various Sources for Micronutrients

I know what you're thinking: I DON'T HAVE BLACK SAND/SEA URCHIN SHELLS/SEAWEED! That's perfectly fine. I didn't either until recently.

If you're far from the coast, there are plenty of other ways you can "up" the minerals in your garden. Add some clay to your compost pile. Buy some kelp meal. Try azomite or other rock dusts. Compost a really wide range of materials. Throw meat and eggshells into your compost pile. Take some soil from a rich spot when you're on vacation and then come home and mix it into your own beds. Get fish guts from a local market and bury them under your beds. Add oyster shell to your gardens.

There are an abundance of places to get minerals - you'll start seeing them everywhere. If you want to get really serious about balancing your soil, The Intelligent Gardener has more scientific suggestions. But you can also hunt down materials from uncommon sources. I don't think you have to shell out a lot of cash on exotic amendments. In some cases, it's a good idea to buy some elemental sulfur or something you know you're missing, but other times you can find good inputs for a lot less.

In my case, I found a little beach with black volcanic sand and a pile of urchin shells fishermen had discarded. Off to the garden with 'em!

I'll post updates on these gardens as they grow. Keep experimenting.

David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. Find new inspiration every weekday at his website and on his YouTube channel at

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

Grow Your Own Sweet Potato Slips


This sweet potato is starting to grow sprouts which will grow into slips. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange 

I wrote Growing Sweet Potatoes in June 2016, Saving Sweet Potato Roots for Growing your own Slips in October 2016 and How to Prevent Sweet Potatoes Sprouting in Storage in January 2018. Here's the next step in the process of sweet potato self-reliance.

The Mystique of Sweet Potato Slips

Sweet potatoes are not grown from seed or from replanted roots, but from “slips,” which are pieces of stem with a few leaves, grown from a mother root. We used to buy bare-root slips, believing that growing our own would be very tricky. We had some problems initially, so I can warn you about how not to do it! Now we have a system we really like, and we’ve found several advantages of home-grown slips over purchased ones.

Disadvantages of Buying Slips

You need to specify a shipping date months ahead, then hope for good weather.

You might have late frosts, spring droughts, or El Nino wet springs, and climate change is only adding to the uncertainty.

You have to jump-to when the plants arrive, get them all in the ground promptly, and keep them alive as best you can.

A certain amount of drooping (transplant shock) is normal.

Advantages of Home-Grown Slips

Delay planting if that seems wise.

Plant them in stages rather than all on one day.

Grow them big and plant them with 3-5 nodes underground, giving more chance of survival in heat or frost.

Keep some spares on hand to replace casualties.

The sturdy plants get off to a strong start – the transplants don’t wilt – a particular advantage where the season of warm-enough weather is on the short side for a 90-120 day plant.


Planning ahead – how many sweet potatoes to plant

Decide how much space you want to plant, or how many pounds (tons?) you want to grow.

One plant will produce 4–10 roots, each weighing 3–17 oz (80–500 g).

Yield range is 2.5–6.8 lbs (1–3kg) per plant, 276–805 lbs/1,000 ft² (14–40 kg/10 m²).

Planting space is 6"–18" (15–45 cm) in the row (wide spacing gives more jumbo roots).

Space between rows could be 32"–48" (0.8–1.2m). The vines become rampant.

Save at least one sweet potato tuber (root) per 10 slips wanted.

Calculate how many slips you’ll need and add 5–10%.

If you plan to do the two optional tests below, include an extra 10%.

We save 200 roots for 600 plants, which is always plenty.

Selecting "Mother Roots"  

The ideal time to select mother roots is at harvest, when you can choose from the highest-yielding plants. If you didn’t do that, retrieve some from your stored sweet potatoes, selecting small or medium-sized roots (1½" (4 cm) diameter) of typical appearance (no rat-tails)!

• Do not use any roots with disease symptoms.

Each root will produce 10–30 slips, depending how much time you allow, but regardless of size – no advantage in selecting jumbos.

If you haven't got your own sweet potatoes, buy from a local grower, so you get a variety that does well in your area. If you are in a cold area with a short summer, choose a fast-maturing variety.

A good introduction to growing sweet potatoes can be found in the ATTRA publication Sweetpotato: Organic Production. Also see the commercial growing page of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission for lots of good information, including photos of problems.

How Not to Sprout Sweet Potatoes

I took several wrong directions when I first learned to grow slips. You don't have to repeat my mistakes! My first big mistake – following directions written for much further south, was to try growing slips in mid-January in central Virginia. Dismal fight against nature! Likewise, I was puzzled by talk of using cold frames. Ours were freezing cold at that time of year. Indoor spaces are much warmer than outdoors!

Next, I set up a soil warming cable in a cinder-block-enclosed bed on the concrete floor of our greenhouse. This is how I discovered most soil warming cables have thermostats set to switch off the heat at 70F (21C). I just couldn’t get the soil warm enough.


Figure out your ideal planting date and work back to find your starting date. Planting out is usually about 2 weeks after the last frost. You need settled warm weather. The soil temperature should reach at least 65F (18C) at 4" (10 cm) deep on 4 consecutive days – don’t rush into planting too early, or you will get lower yields.

We plant May 10, between pepper and okra & watermelon transplanting dates. It takes 7-8 weeks to grow the slips using our method, and the roots produce more slips if conditioned for 2 weeks (or even 4), before you start to grow slips. So start 10-12 weeks before your planting date. We start 3/4.

Sweet potato roots growing slips in our germination cabinet. Photo by Kathryn Simmons


First test the roots in a bucket of water – the ones that float are said to yield more and produce better flavored roots.

Second, test for viral streaking, (color breaks or chimeras). Discard roots with pale spots or streaks wider than a pencil lead. Cut across the distal end of each root – that’s the stringy root end, opposite the end that was attached to the plant stem. All the slips will grow from the stem end, so don’t cut there! If you can’t tell the difference between the ends, ignore this step. Plan to propagate your own slips for just 2 or 3 years (to keep the virus load low).

Sweet Potato Conditioning

Put the chosen roots in flats or crates, without soil, in a warm, moist, light place for 2-4 weeks. The cut surfaces will heal over during conditioning. Ideal conditions are 75°F–85°F (24°C–29°C), 95% humidity. Conditioning can double or triple the number of slips the root will produce in a timely manner.

Sprouting the Sweet Potato Mother Roots

The environment for sprouting the roots is similar to that for conditioning, so you can likely use the same location. You will need 12" (30 cm) headroom.

Plant the selected roots flat, almost touching, in free-draining potting compost in flats or crates. The tubers (mother roots) do not need to be fully covered with soil. Water them and keep the compost damp. If your planting medium is without nutrients, feed occasionally with some kind of liquid feed.


Cut sweet potato slips in water. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Cutting Slips

After 5–7 days, the tubers begin to produce slips.

When the slips are 6"–12" (15–30 cm) tall with 4–6 leaves, cut them daily from the tubers.

Some people twist the slips from the roots, but this can transfer diseases by including a piece of the mother root.

I bundle them in rubber bands and set them in water.

The slips grow more side roots while they are in water for several days.

Once a week I spot (plant) the oldest, most vigorous slips (with good roots) into 4" (10 cm) deep wood flats filled with compost.

The spotted flats need good light in a frost-free greenhouse and sufficient water. 

The slips become very sturdy. If you are 2 weeks shy of your planting date and short of slips, you can take cuttings from the first flats of slips.

10 days before planting, start to harden off the flats.

A flat of sturdy ready-to-plant rooted sweet potato slips between two flats of more recently spotted slips. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at Her blog is on her website and also on Pam's second book The Year Round Hoophouse will be published by New Society winter 2017/18

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 Suburban Micro-Farm

Photo by Nydon

As a gardening author, I have read and enjoyed a lot of gardening books by a lot of wonderful authors.

Writers like Masanobu Fukuoka, Steve Solomon, Herrick Kimball, Eric Toensmeier, Toby Hemenway, Ruth Stout, Robert Kourik, Sepp Holzer, Jeff Lowenfels, Bill Mollison, Dick Raymond, Carol Deppe, Gene Logsdon, Rosalind Creasy, Suzanne Ashworth, Thomal Elpel…

...okay, I could keep doing this but I should stop. Except to say that Amy Stross is now on my list of Good gardening authors (pun intended). I just finished reading The Suburban Micro-Farm and I can say without reservation that it’s the best book of its kind I’ve read yet.

A few years ago, Brett Markham’s very popular book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre opened a new sub-genre of gardening titles. When I got the chance to check out Stross’s book, I at first wondered if she would cover new ground or if this would be another take on Markham’s intensive backyard gardening approach. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she has a unique perspective of her own — and she covers material that some authors gloss over.

Myth Busting Suburban Food Production

She also covers the myths that hold many back from gardening, and even makes a good argument for the suburbs:

“...some people today think of the suburbs as an embarrassment, with water-hoarding lawns and a lack of car-centric alternatives, so they choose to live elsewhere. I once made that decision for myself and enjoyed my urban apartment within walking distance of amenities and no lawn to worry about. It was a dandy time! However, if we realize the enormous potential the suburbs have to change overall consumption habits and transform land use practices, the suburbs could end up being just the solution our cities—and perhaps even civilization—need. After all, out-lying villages have performed this function in ancient cities of the world throughout history. All we need are some pioneering micro-farmers!”

I completely agree. The push towards putting us all in little apartments and big, soul-less cities rankles me. I’m a product of suburban South Florida and I can tell you: There are a lot of people growing food there and it wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It’s not all a wasteland. Grow where you’re planted.

Another myth she mentions is the myth that a small space - a small amount of food, noting that “in actuality, it doesn’t take much space to grow a lot of food–only creativity.”

A case in point: This last season my 10-year-old son grew 50 pounds of ginger roots in a roughly 5-by-8-foot bed. My eight-year-old planted a similar sized bed and managed to grow 68 pounds of winter squash on one vine, plus a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes and multiple African yam roots. The square vines sprawled up and over the fence and into a little citrus tree which was soon decorated with huge, melon-like squash.

You can grow up, you can grow in unused strips, you can grow in buckets, bathtubs, along the sidewalk, even under trees. It just takes creativity, and as Stross has shown, even 1/10 of an acre can give you big results.

Small-scale Gardening with Fruit Trees

Another point Stross makes is one I’ve repeated to my readers again and again. Start gardening on a small scale, learn to win, then expand:

“Plant only what you can manage – if you can’t maintain the existing stuff, why plant more? Gardens can be overwhelming, and that’s why I prioritize keeping what I’ve already planted alive and harvesting what I’ve already planted before I take on new tasks like building more garden beds or planting for the next season.”

Seriously, she’s got it. And this is just one of many points in this book where I found myself nodding along. This observation, for example:

“A fruit tree can be the single-most source of fresh produce for the least amount of space and effort.”

Plant fruit trees and get them established until they can take care of themselves and you’ll reap the benefits for years — and others will into the future. We used to have two pear trees at a previous house. They had been neglected for years yet still bore plenty of fruit. In fact, a neighbor told me that the trees were supposed to have been ‘Bradford’ pears, not fruiting pears, and had been planted on accident. What a happy accident! For the years we lived there we had pear pies and pear butter, we made pear brandy and pears in syrup, pear salsa and pear sauce — plus our children ate the honey-sweet, sun-warmed fruit right from the trees. Now another family is there and still enjoying pears.

Stross is right. It was almost no effort to keep those pears and the amount of fruit they provided was startling. When I got to the portion on growing berries, I thought, “okay, Amy, you’d better mention mulberries… if you miss mulberries I’ll know you’re a no-good poser!” And then she mentioned mulberries. Mulberries are incredibly productive and easy-to-grow but there are still a lot of gardeners and writers who completely fail to mention them. Good work.

Sprinklers for Irrigation and Toxic Manure

I did disagree with her dislike of sprinklers for irrigation. My preferred method is to use stand pipes with sprinkler heads on them, set in an overlapping pattern. She is correct that they are wasteful, yet I like their mimicry of the rain as well as the fact I don’t have to worry about fiddling with drip irrigation. You can move beds around, stick potted plants under them, fix problems quickly and they don’t clog up as easily.

This isn’t a big quibble, however. I just like simple and have plumbing allergies. Another note, which isn’t a disagreement per se, is that Stross somewhat understates the risk of herbicide contamination in manure. She does give a warning but it could be missed:

“When finding livestock manure locally, look for farms that pasture-raise their animals and feed them organic feed, since manure from other types of farms can include herbicide residues that can stunt plant growth.”

Some of these toxins go far beyond “stunting” plant growth and well into “nuking gardens from orbit” territory. I once bought a load of cow manure, which killed some of my fruit and nut trees, an entire 80-foot row of blackberry bushes, plus multiple garden beds. The cows looked happy and were raised on pasture but the farmer had sprayed the field with an aminopyralid-based herbicide the previous year to kill pigweed — and the manure, well-aged and beautiful as it was, still contained the stuff.

It’s very important to ask questions as Stross recommends, but it’s also important to know that many farmers don’t have a firm grasp of the long-term implications of some toxins. I’d like to see lots of underlining and capitalization in warnings on manure these days! Like Stross, I won’t take manure from anyone’s farm anymore unless I know they both don’t spray anything and don’t buy in commercial feed. Hay often contains these herbicides and they’ll pass right through the animal’s digestion and into the manure. Even after composting, they’re still potent enough to destroy a year’s worth of gardening.

You might read Stross’s warning and say “I think we’ll be okay since so-and-so is doing fine,” but don’t be too sure. Also, know that there are plenty of people that haven’t been hit yet who are walking a thin line. I once brought up the issue in a column I wrote and one well-known gardening author completely denied the risk altogether, then went on to call me names. Once you’ve seen your gardens wrecked, though, you’ll never doubt the deadliness of modern agrichemicals.

The Suburban Micro-Farm isn’t just a book for wonderfully crazy people who want to turn their yards into food factories. It’s a well-rounded book which works as a great beginning book for new gardeners and a solid set of ideas for more advanced growers.

It’s also very real in that it doesn’t present a pie-in-the-sky picture of what to expect. It’s a book on growing your skills over time, using hacks which work, observing and learning and struggling and planting until you find what works. She even shares her trouble with getting community involvement and dealing with less-than-enthusiastic neighbors. Not everyone is going to “get” your enthusiasm and jump on board. There will always be lawn-lovers and complainers. There will also be weeds and bugs and not enough time to get things done. Yet, after consistent little pieces of work over time, you’ll find break-throughs and move towards a healthy, satisfying and better future where more and more of your food is coming from your own soil — soil rich in minerals and life, without chemicals and toxins.

Also, kudos to Stross for not writing an obligatory chapter on climate change. We know what the problems are and reading a gardening book that stays out of political activism is refreshing. She gives you change that will make your life better without scaring the pants off her readers, letting you know that this world isn’t perfect but you can build something wonderful in your own backyard. Or front yard, for those of you with extra guts.

Finally, Becky Bayne’s illustrations nicely complement the text. They’re clean and neat and easy to understand. Illustrators rarely get the kudos they deserve.

My verdict: 5 out of 5 stars. Stross shares good encouragement and good advice and her recommendations mesh with my own experience over the decades I’ve been gardening. Get a copy and get another copy for a friend. You’ll enjoy it — especially if you’ve followed Stross’s writing at Tenth-Acre Farm.

It’s a great first book and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future. Vive la révolution suburbaine! The Suburban Micro-Farm (2018) is available from Chelsea Green Publishing.

David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. Find new inspiration every weekday at his website and on his YouTube channel. Read 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

A Sweet Southern Delicacy: Walnut Syrup and the Start of Two Young Farmers’ Journey

Pouring Real Maple Syrup Waffles

It’s not every day you come across Tennessee maple syrup — let alone walnut syrup. And in late January, the trees were ripe for tapping as the days were warm and the nights below freezing.

Tyler Burggraf, who, in the fall, scouted the 40 or so trees we would be tapping, had been waiting for this all winter. His lines were strung out across the woods like a maze, sloping downhill some 500 feet.

“Ever had walnut syrup before?” he asked shortly after I met him. Of course I hadn’t, let alone heard of it. After trying it, though, I was sold — it’s a delicious syrup made from black walnut trees, producing a yellow-tinted product that, to me, is sweeter than maple.

Tyler’s been tapping trees for a few years on his parent’s land near Tazewell, Tennessee, just south of the Virginia line. A few of the old timers in the area told him he was crazy — he’d never get enough sap out of those trees, they said. But, I could clearly see who was on the right side of that exchange by glancing at the amber and golden mason jars full of syrup that lined Tyler’s kitchen counter.

My partner, Brittney Willis, and I were set to stay for a week with Tyler and the rest of the Burggraf’s: Henry, Peggy and Tanner. They’re the epitome of nice, Southern folks and have a quaint homestead, nestled into a part of the country ripe with a pastoral aura — chickens, barns and old houses dot the landscape among the gently rolling foothills of the Appalachians. As I looked at the place and soaked it all in, it was easy to remember why Brittney and I were there.

Beginning the Journey as First-Generation Farmers

I had always cherished the feeling of harvesting my own food — whether that was from the small garden at my parents’ home or from the lush backwoods and bayous of south Louisiana, where I spent most of my life. It wasn’t until last year, while I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, working a desk job I didn’t particularly care for, that I seriously considered doing so full time.

After reading authors like Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and Mark Sundeen, I found myself trying harder to live a simpler and healthier life rooted in good food. It was easy to see I wouldn’t get where I wanted to be without making a radical change.

After I met Brittney, a float nurse who was also running a produce truck that serviced food-insecure areas in Nashville, our plan morphed pretty quickly. Within a matter of months, we had nailed down a life we wanted to build together. One where we had a small, urban farm, with chickens and rabbits; a compositing service that’s served by bikes to reduce our carbon foot print and provide the community with chemical-free fertilizer; and a community garden to teach others about permaculture and how food impacts your health. Our ideas flowed faster than we could articulate them, at times. But, the vision became clear — and Medium Okra Farm was born.

Being first generation farmers with rudimentary experience, we needed knowledge from folks steeped in the culture. Brittney suggested that we volunteer our way across the western U.S. (where we’d like to settle), as well as Canada, through Workaway, a website that connects people with farms, exchanging work for room and board. We procured a van equipped with a bed, packed everything we’d need for a year and left Nashville without looking back.

The farms we’ll be visiting are those that are engaged in permaculture and a few things we’re interested in, like bees, medicinal herbs and alternative building structures. We’ve been calling it a year-long apprenticeship, of sorts, so that we may find what we’re passionate about and, most importantly, how to make all of this coalesce on a working farm someday.

Brittney and I are a part of a growing movement in the country, one where college educated adults (ages 25-34) are ditching corporate gigs and deciding to start a new life as farmers. For the first time in quite a while, the number of these younger farmers grew, at a rate of 2.2 percent from 2007 to 2012. While those figures may not seem like much, it's a testament to the growing number of millennials in the U.S. who are choosing to grow local food over supporting industrial agriculture.

Young Farmer Couple In Garden

A Beginner’s Lesson in Home Syruping

Tyler’s instructions were brief but detailed. “Drill in the tree at an angle, about an inch or so, then gently hammer the tap,” he told us on our first morning as we gathered around a maple, when the sun was high enough to warm the trees and get the sap flowing. “When you hear a thud, that means it’s in.” We tapped both sides of the tree and, from there, tubing carried the sap to a larger hose that switch-backed down the hill.

A few more tips he offered ensured we tapped the trees in the right place. For instance, it’s best to tap on a side of the tree with a large, main branch, which sends the sap down. However, if there’s a dead stump, avoid that area for a different side of the tree. Larger trees offer the most sap, and younger, smaller ones should be left to grow to be utilized in the future.

The routine wasn’t hard to master and, in no time, we had tapped about two dozen maple trees — in addition to a few more walnuts farther down the hill. That night we gathered in the barn where the sap awaited. It appears much like water that’s clear but with a slightly sweet flavor.

For every 40 gallons of sap, you’ll get about one gallon of syrup. We didn’t have quite that much on our first day, but we had roughly 20 gallons — pretty respectable for the beginning of the season.

The process from there was pretty simple. We double-filtered the sap, then boiled it down until we could transfer it into a smaller pot inside. The same process applied to the five or so gallons of walnut sap we collected. At that point, the clear liquid had transformed to a deep amber indicative of maple syrup. Tyler picked up a refractometer, much like miniature a telescope, which he uses to test the sugar content.

“You want around 66 brix,” he instructed. “That’s the ideal amount for maple syrup for consistency and flavor.” He would carefully dab a drop on the refractometer, until it reached the right amount. The only thing left was a taste test, pairing fresh waffles with homegrown, Tennessee maple and walnut syrup — a lesser-known Southern delicacy that Brittney and I won’t soon forget.

Photos by Jonathan Olivier

Jonathan Olivier is traveling throughout 2018 with his partner, Brittney, with the goal of learning everything they can about farming. He is a freelance journalist, having covered the environment and outdoors for Outside, Backpacker, REI, Louisiana Sportsman, and a host of other publications. In 2016, he published his debut novel, Between the Levees. Follow Jonathan on his website and Instagram.

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.

Add Fragrance to Your Garden or Balcony with Herbs

Lavender Grwoing In The Field

Are you looking for a simple way to add fragrance to your garden or balcony? Herbs are a great way to add scents with the side benefit of being useful for cooking. So how can you incorporate herbs into your garden or balcony to provide some “scentsational” interest?

Herbs to Grow for Fragrance

There are many types of herbs. Some of the most popular ones are:

bay laurel
lavender, lemon balm, lovage
summer savory*
winter savory

Where to grow

Herbs are very versatile and almost will grow anywhere. However in order for you to enjoy the fragrance fully, you will want to pick the location carefully.

Most herbs are perennials and will survive winter if provided with some protection. The few that are annuals (marked above with a *) need to be sown every year.

Within each type of herb there are many different varieties. Often you will pick a variety for its culinary qualities, especially when it comes to basil, oregano, thyme, etc. However how an herb tastes is usually linked to how it smells. Often something tastes good simply because it smells good.

‘Dwarf Munstead’ is the most fragrant lavender. French lavender tends to be more popular though as the flowers are more beautiful to look at.

For basil you have many varieties! I would recommend seeding a blend as then you get a taste of different basils. It also provides a great colour explosion in your salad if you use both green and red or purple varieties.

There are some “designer” herbs as well which is not a surprise in the gardening world. You can get chocolate, apple, pineapple, lavender, lemon, orange, and even banana mint. Some may not taste that strongly of their namesake but sometimes subtle tastes and fragrances are all you need.

Container Gardening with Herbs

Containers are the most versatile. If all you have is a balcony or small patio in the city, you can have a pot or two of herbs, even if it is just on a sunny windowsill. And if you move, you can take them with you.

But even in a large garden, planting herbs in containers has many benefits.

You can move your herb containers if you need to in order to change up your design. Or in the case of less cold hardy herbs, you can move the container to a more sheltered location such as a greenhouse, covered deck or even indoors during the colder days of the year.

Containers also allow you to water and fertilize your herbs according to their needs. Some herbs require more water and some very little.

I recommend putting containers as close as possible to your kitchen, so you can step out and pick a handful of herbs to add to your meals — beats having to dress up to go out into the garden.

If you cook a lot outdoors on a barbecue, have herbs close by. Nothing beats clipping off a long rosemary sprig to use as a basting brush. How handy is that?

And since we are interested in the fragrance from the herbs, have them situated close to seating areas. Lavender especially will create a sense of calm and relaxation if located near where you like to sit and enjoy a lazy summer afternoon.

Finally some herbs can be quite invasive such as mint. Plant it in the ground and you will find it spreads uncontrollably. Instead if you plant it in a container, you will be able to control it better.

Potted Peppermint On Porch

Vegetable and Flower Beds

If you already have raised beds for vegetables or flowers, adding herbs is a great idea.

Most herbs are very good at attracting beneficial insects and most help deter pests because of the scent they give off.

And some herbs help to improve the flavour of vegetables planted next to them. A great example is planting basil next to tomatoes. Plus you can pick the basil and add it to your homemade tomato sauce!

Herb plants can also be used as a creative border around these beds, rather than using a standard border bush such as boxwood. This may help to keep mammals away such as rabbits or deer that don’t like the smell.

Another way to benefit from the fragrance of the herbs is to plant them where you will brush against them while gardening or walking by. I have a lavender plant growing on top of a low wall next to my driveway that I brush against once in a while when someone has parked the car too close to the wall!

Hanging Baskets

Think vertical. If you have a small space, you need to use all possible space including hanging baskets from overhead structures such as pergolas, arbours or roof eaves.

Hanging baskets are great, especially for herbs that have a more creeping habit.

The baskets have all the benefits mentioned above in the Containers section. It is great to have a basket close to a seating area where you can enjoy the scent of the herbs from where you are seated.

Just make sure you hang them from proper hardware screwed into a sturdy support.


Some herbs are very resilient to walking on. Creeping thyme especially lends itself well to use as a groundcover. I have a row of thyme along my raspberry bed, so I get a waft of thyme fragrance as I step on it to reach the berries.

Other herbs you can use as groundcover to walk on include chamomile and oregano. For non-walkable groundcover any of the low-growing herbs will work.

Avoid using mint as a groundcover unless you don’t mind it spreading and taking over the whole area. It is a very aggressive herb and needs to be contained as mentioned above.

Seeding and Planting

Most herbs grow well from seed, especially the annual herbs. You can of course also buy seedlings and for some herbs such as rosemary or lavender, this is usually the best way. Alternatively you can also take cuttings and try and root them.

As with any seeding, make sure to use a proper seeding mix and keep the seeds moist. Once they sprout, ensure they get enough light so they don’t get leggy.

And once they are a few inches high, feed them sparingly with a diluted seaweed or fish fertilizer.

You can also save the seeds from your herbs if you let them flower. Just be careful to harvest the seeds in time before they naturally drop off. I made a mistake one year with fennel and now have fennel plants sprouting everywhere!


Herbs generally do not need much water as most are originating from Mediterranean climates. The exception to this is mint, as mint loves water.

If your herbs are in pots or containers, they will require regular watering as soil in containers dries very quickly in hot weather. In order to make watering easier and effortless, consider setting up drip irrigation for all of your pots.

Alternatively mass all your containers together so you can give them a quick water with a hose or watering can. It gets quite tiring having to visit multiple containers spread out throughout your garden unless you do it as you harvest or do other maintenance work.

When you water with a watering can, add some diluted fish or seaweed fertilizer to keep the herbs fed. You may think the smell takes away from the herb’s natural fragrance but usually the smell from the fertilizer dissipates quickly and the herb’s scent takes over again.


Harvesting’s main goal is to use the herbs in cooking, teas and medicinally. However it also serves to prune the plants to keep them in check, stop them from flowering and to produce more bushy plants.

Harvest in the morning if you can, after the dew has dried but before the main heat of the day. At this time the herbs generally are at their best, with the strongest fragrance and taste.

Lavender is great once dried to put in sachets in your closets or clothes drawers or in the bath. I have a small container of it on my desk in my office and will rub some between my hands for an instant calming waft of fragrance when I’m getting stressed from my work.

I hope that has inspired you to grow some herbs if you have never grown them before or grow more herbs if you have only grown a few in past years. Enjoy the fragrance they bring to your garden or balcony.

Photos by Marc Thoma

Marc Thoma is a British Columbia gardener who started the Tranquil Garden blog to share simple ideas to create a more tranquil garden, a place where someone can relax and get away from the stresses of daily life. He is the author Tranquil Garden eBook covering 25 ideas to create a tranquil garden. Follow Marc on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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.

Ladybug Patrol

ladybugs on fennel

Ladybugs doing their duty on a fennel frond in the greenhouse.   

On warm autumn days, they come out in droves—dive bombing, climbing, crawling.  They bite, they stink, they’re everywhere, and they’re not originally from here.  Yes, ladybugs have their charm (in storybooks) but mostly they are a nuisance in the Northwoods.  Not too many folks I’ve met actually like them very much.

There is a native bug of a similar appearance, and it’s an herbivore (a voracious one at that).  But the type we mostly encounter is the Asian Lady Beetle, imported in 1916 to aid in the aphid infestation that was consuming alfalfa crops nation-wide.  Voracious carnivores, these lady beetles will eat almost any other soft-bodied insect they can fit into their mouths.  But since we all call these half-orbs of reddish-orange with black spots “ladybugs,” I’ll use that name for this story as well.

Right next to Farmstead Creamery is our aquaponics greenhouse.  Within this greenhouse is an ecosystem teaming with life.  In four large blue tanks, schools of tilapia fish enjoy a full refreshment of water hourly.  The manure-rich water flows downstream to the clarifiers, where beneficial bacteria live.  These bacteria colonies break down the fish manure into the components that plants need in order to grow. 

The now nutrient-rich water flows to the plants, which grow on rafts in the water, in suspended channels, or in beds of clay media.  By the time the water snakes its way through the 5000-gallon system, these roots have acted as a massive bio-filter, returning the water fresh and clean to the fish. 

Tilapia, beneficial bacteria, and crop plants live in this symbiotic relationship, which allows us to grow fresh foods all year!  But the system requires special precautions, known as “biosecurity” to keep running smoothly. 

“Can we go in the greenhouse?” is a common question from visitors at Farmstead.  Unfortunately, the answer is no.  Many regional lakes contain hemorrhagic fish viruses, which can hide on your skin or your clothing if you’ve been fishing or swimming (a virus that would kill our tilapia), and any number of bugs and plants pests can cling to shoes, pants, etc., hitching their way in.  We often change our clothing before working in the greenhouse, and we even have separate shoes for the purpose.

If a hitchhiker makes it inside, these pests can wreak serious havoc in the closed environment of the greenhouse.  Even with all the precautions, an occasional stinker does make it through the biosecurity gauntlet.  We’ve had our mini-battles with thrips, spider mites, and the like.  And while many greenhouses might spray an insecticide to control the issue, these would also kill the fish!  Even Organic-approved chemicals would kill the fish too.  Guess fish are rather picky.

So what to do when a pesky insect raises its itty-bitty head in defiance?  The leading practice (other than removal of an infested plant and thorough cleaning of the area) is to introduce beneficial insects.  These are selected insects (often sourced from breeders who specialize in friendly bugs for pest solutions) that will eat the naughty bugs but not harm the plants. 

Yay for Good Bugs!

But most of these suppliers are in California, so shipping to Northern Wisconsin gets rather cost prohibitive, and in deep winter it might not be an option at all.  So when we had some aphids appear, it was time to find a solution before the problem grew out of hand.  That’s when we remembered how effective ladybugs are at snarfing up these tiny, greenish, soft-bodied creatures. states that a single ladybug in its one-year lifetime will consume 5,000 aphids.  That’s a lot of munching!

Instead of buying a bunch of these little red balls and shipping them in winter across the country, we set about a home-harvest program.  There’s a particular sunny window in our house that the ladybugs absolutely love, and with jars at the ready, we’ve been snagging mini ladybug herds and bringing them to the greenhouse.  Tap-tap, and another jar is emptied out onto the plants with aphids.

In just a few weeks, the ladybug patrol (added to daily) munches its way along, and the aphid threat has moved from “yikes, this could be really bad” to “got a few over here” to “wow, I can really see we’re making progress.”  And all with no chemicals needed.

Now, in the evening when we finally get a quiet moment at home after chores, we’ll be reading a book in front of the wood stove and someone will call out “bug!” and it’s time to grab the jar.  Our resident ladybugs have risen in the ranks from being annoying little twerps to colleagues in solving a pest issue in the greenhouse.  Who knew they could be so useful on the farm.

I have to imagine it’s a real win-win for the ladybugs too.  There can’t be much for them to eat in our house (which may be why they resort to biting us this time of year)!  It’s certainly not like being dropped into a land of plenty in a warm, cozy greenhouse.  The affected plants certainly appreciate the attention. 

So next time you see a ladybug crawling across the window sill, you might have a different opinion about this little critter.  And if you keep a garden and aphids make an appearance, get your jar out and start collecting!  You never know when you’ll have to call in reinforcements for your very own ladybug patrol.  To be honest, they may already be working for you and you don’t even know it.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Laura Berlage.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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.

Practicing Patience Without Becoming a Patient

Bread Testing 

Warning: Homophone humor ahead. They say, “Patience is a virtue.” My response to that has always been, “Patients are for hospitals!” While I may appear to be a very patient huming on the outside, inside I’m always wanting to speed up time until I can do the next thing I’d rather be doing. Early spring, in particular, is one of those hurry up and wait times for me.

One trick that I’ve stumbled upon to help pass the time is to fill it with activities that help me inch toward my future goals while still feeling somewhat productive in the moment. I have no trouble making time for artwork but adding pieces that will end up in a garden project helps me feel connected to nature more quickly. Cooking and testing recipes for my cookbook is productive but starting seeds for things that will end up in a dish created from one of those recipes at the same time feels much richer.

A more directly related garden activity is easing my body from its wintertime slowness into the 8+ hours I’ll soon be spending outdoors. I can do this by tackling big chores in smaller bits each day when weather permits. One such chore is the removal of over-abundant of wild onions (Allium canadense) from various beds in my garden.

Removal Tools 

In just one hour on a cool spring day, I was able to fill a bag with those pesky onions (which are edible if one so wishes). I prefer to remove by digging rather than use a non-organic method such as spraying pesticides. I was also able to visit with our outdoor cats while cleaning up a portion of my sweetgrass bed. While I wasn’t expending a lot of energy or hard manual labor, I was getting my body used to many of the movements and postures I’ll be using on those longer days outdoors.

This chore takes a little patience but very few tools as I work free the small bunches of bulbs. As pictured, I use a large shovel, a smaller hand spade, a kneepad, and a reused bag for the pickings. I also grab a bucket of arborist chips from my pile so that I can cover up the area afterward—this makes the worked area look a little nicer and adds an extra layer of protection for any earthworms I’ve awakened. These favored hard-workers tend to be much more lethargic in the cold and I want to make sure to keep them happy.

I admit that I’m hard on tools because I expect them to dig in right alongside me with heavy duty effort. The hand spade pictured in the photo is not one of my better tools and frankly is on its last legs because my patience urges me to rush rather than spend time loosening the ground first. My favorite spade is more like this one. I’ve found the flatter spades to be much less sturdy unless working in pre-loosened soil. Similarly, kneeling pads are not all created equal. The one in the photo is just one of several that I use.

Whatever tools you use, I have no doubt that you can find productive steps to fill your time as you wish Spring forward. I know there’s no reason while I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for my daffodils, tulips, and garlic (the cherished members of my bulb family) to progress to their pronouncement of Spring that I can’t move some of the peskier members out of my garden.

The Good Bulbs 

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

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