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

Dehydrating Herbs: Easy, Aromatic and Thrifty

Garden Herbs 

Growing herbs can come with challenges such as insect or weather damage, but I think the payoff for cooking-enhancement and cost-saving is well worth the effort. Most of my cooking herbs are planted in my spiral herb garden though there are mints, basils, and garlic scattered throughout our entire garden area. My healing herbs are also scattered far and wide.

While I have been seen wandering out around dinnertime to collect something lovely and aromatic to add to our meal, I dehydrate most of my herbs for use throughout the year. I gather mine in the morning and am careful to avoid any damaged leaves and plants that have gone to flower. The photo above (lower left) shows last year’s sage growth in flower (it’s been keeping the bees happy for the past month) with this year’s fresh growth lush and ready to harvest (lower center).

Prepare Herbs for Dehydrating

After snipping your herbs for drying, bring them in for closer inspection, rinsing, and de-stemming. While you work, if it’s not too hot out and you so desire, you might brew yourself up a lovely cup of fresh tea with some of your clippings. Though I dry much of my mint for use through the winter, it’s always great to have a cup of fresh herbal tea.

Dehydrating Herbs

Try to layer your leaves without too much overlapping so you won’t have to rearrange them during the process. If your leaves don’t thoroughly dry, there’s a risk of mold. It’s preferable to choose herbs with similar dehydration times unless you don’t mind removing trays with leaves that finish more quickly during the process. I usually check mine once during the drying time and often rearrange the trays for more even drying.

I also label the trays on the outside using scotch tape and a Sharpie, mostly because I’m getting old and I usually busy myself with a variety of things during the period my dehydrator is working its magic. I don’t want to forget what I’m drying. This is especially important when you have herbs that look more alike than the batches shown in this blog post—I often dry catnip, peppermint, and chocolate mint at the same time. Sometimes smell will help identify but it’s easier to label and not worry about it.

For sage, oregano, and mint (the herbs pictured here) I set my dehydrator at 115 and plugged it in for 5 hours. The time needed to run your dehydrator can vary due to the temperature chosen, the humidity of the air, and the goods being dehydrated. Simply check your recipe (if you’re following one), the manual, or keep an eye on your goodies while they dry. I often let my dehydrator run overnight when I’m processing tomatoes or fruit leathers—herbs dry much more quickly.

Storing Herbs

Storing Dehydrated Herbs

Once your herbs have fully dried, switch off your dehydrator and let it cool. If you put your herbs away warm, moisture can collect and create mold ruining your otherwise diligent work. I use a variety of containers for storage — some have special significance. My favorite is the glass flip-top jar that my brother sent me years ago filled with dried sage from his garden. I love refilling this jar every year with my own sage because it touches my heart to think of my brother every time I use it.

Another thing that tickles me when storing my herbs is reusing and repurposing old containers. My husband thinks I’m a bit of a packrat — well, okay it’s true — but I get so much joy storing mint in my old plastic protein powder containers and oregano in reused spice and jam jars. I store other herbs in similar containers that otherwise might find themselves in the dump — even though we take our things for recycling containers, the trash companies only recycle it when it’s cost effective for them. A quick labeling with painter’s tape reminds me of what’s inside and my goods are ready for the shelf.

I highly recommend considering growing and drying your own herbs. If you haven’t done so before, you could start by planting a pot or two on your window, balcony, or porch. I prefer in the ground only because I forget to water pots as often as I should. If you have room in your garden, try a variety to see what you prefer (and what thrives in your growing zone). Store some treasures for your own use and share with others like my brother did. You never know the smiles you might bring to others’ faces for years to come.

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.

Food in a Preservation Garden


If you are interested in being more self-sufficient, to have nutritious food at the ready, reduce your food bill or just want to save the extras from the garden this year, there are simple ways to preserve many different vegetables from the garden: freezing, drying, canning, and pickling.

I only do canning of high acid vegetables like tomatoes or pickling so only a large pot is needed.  If you decide to can low acid vegetables, then a high pressure canner is needed. See a few of my favorite sites and resources for canning.

Spring Food in a Preservation Garden

Vegetables that are easy to put away for year-round eating include beets, basil, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, green beans, greens, herbs, onions, peas and snow peas, peppers, tomatoes and squash.

The easiest to start with are herbs. Spices are very expensive in the store.  Herbs are carefree and produce alot that can be dried or frozen to use year round. My two favorites are making pesto from basil (Basil basics-harvesting, preserving, growing basil) and using a variety of dried herbs to make my own "Herbes de Provence" that I add to almost every dish. Because many kitchen herbs used in North America are from the Mediterranean region, they thrive in mediocre soil and dry conditions.

For spring and fall planting for a preservation garden: beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, garlic, greens, cool season herbs like cilantro and parsley, onions, peas, potatoes and snow peas. Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, greens, and snow peas should be blanched and then frozen. Blanching stops the degradation of the vegetable in the freezer, increasing the shelf life to months. Blanching simply means putting into boiling water and then immediately into ice water or very cold water to stop the cooking of the vegetable.  For the bigger veggies, 3 minutes in boiling water is sufficient. For greens, just a couple of minutes. After blanching, remove the excess water. I like to then put on a cookie sheet in the freezer in a single layer. After freezing, I put in freezer bags. This way, your veggies will defrost quicker and you can remove only what you want to use for that meal. If just put directly into the freezer bag, they will all freeze together in one big block.

Dry any vegetable, store in a sealed jar, and rehydrate when needed for cooking. The trick is to make sure that they are dried enough that they will not mold. If in doubt, your dried produce can be stored in the frig or freezer, taking up much less room than the whole vegetable.

I also like to grow sprouting broccoli as it can be harvested for 8 months of the year. Carrots and onions can be left in the ground over the winter and pulled when needed. My favorite onion to grow is Egyptian walking onions. It produces a small bulb that is just the right size for using for one meal. It can be grown in a pot, too, and harvested year round.

Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in mid summer. There are three ways I preserve garlic. One is to harden off and keep several garlic bulbs to use fresh. The second is to separate the cloves and put into vinegar with peppers. I store these jars in the refrigerator.  This preserves the garlic and adds a little kick. Have garlic any time you need it, just pickle some! The third is to dry some garlic cloves to make garlic powder.

Summer Food in a Preservation Garden

For summer planting of a preservation garden:  Corn, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, warm season herbs like basil and rosemary, peppers, squash.

I don't blanch my summer vegetables before freezing. If you want to keep them in the freezer longer than 4 to 6 months, blanching is the best way to go. For small peppers, I freeze them whole. Large peppers and all tomatoes, I slice and freeze.  As the tomato harvest heats up, any that we can't eat, I freeze. Come fall when it cools off, I will take all of last year's frozen tomatoes and make into sauce. A few tomato plants give us enough to freeze and make sauce for the coming year.

For peppers, I also make hot sauce and dry them to make chili powders. For eggplant and squash, I like to freeze them whole.  When I am ready to eat them, I slice them while frozen and grill.  If you are going to use them in recipes, I would cut them into the size you want to use in your recipes, blanch and freeze. This past summer, I made spaghetti and lasagna noodles them, blanched them and froze them in quart bags. For the lasagna noodles, first lay them flat on a cookie sheet to freeze before putting into a freezer bag.

Green beans, I break into the size I will use in my recipes and freeze. Cucumbers I make into pickles. Make your own pickles without a store bought seasoning mix.

For corn, the easiest way to store is just blanching the whole ear of corn. After removing the silks, you can either freeze whole or slice off the cob and freeze the kernels.

All your summer vegetables can be dried as well

Now you are ready to eat fresh and preserve the extras to get you through to next year's garden.

Melodie Metje began edible gardening and blogging while living on a golf course.  She has now retired to the lake, but continues to grow edibles in her flower garden. For more tips on organic gardening in small spaces, see her blog at Victory Garden On The Golf Course. Read all of Melodie'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.

Natural Lawn Care: Tools, Tips and Maintenance

Brown Hare Eating Clover Flower

Green, lush lawns are a passion for many homeowners. We like watching our kids and pets playing on the grass or having a barbeque with our nearest and dearest. What a pleasure to have coffee in the morning and enjoy seeing that beauty! But it demands proper and regular care.

When you enrich your grass plot with chemicals, it’s like trying to build a good health eating candy — gives energy but harms the health. With time, your lawn may become more susceptible to diseases, stress, and pests.

Tools for Natural Lawn Care

For caring for your yard properly, you’ll need some tools. We have prepared a checklist for beginners. However, experienced gardeners may find it useful too.

Thatching rake
Leaf blower
Water sprayer
Lime for garden
Organic plant food
Organic grass seed
Corn gluten to prevent weeds

Natural Lawn Care Techniques

Our experts have gathered the top tips, which will show you the right direction in maintaining lush grass-plot in an au-naturel way. We tested these methods in our gardens so that you can rely on our experience!

Compost. Compost is a natural fertilizer. It contains useful microorganisms, supply nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients needed for a healthy lawn), neutralizes soil pH. It’s a “black gold” for your garden! Good ingredients for the compost are wood chips, ash, paper (not glossy and without color inks), hay or straw, weeds, plants, leaves, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea leaves, chicken manure. You should avoid using fish scraps, bones, and meat, diseased plants, black walnut leaves, and any food or stuff that may contain pesticides or other toxic residues.

Natural fertilizers. The market can overwhelm you with choices, so look for product labels that say “Organic,” “Low Analysis,” and “Slow Release.” Many gardeners recommend staying away from products that have a ratio of NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) higher than 15.

Native grass seed. Native grass varieties are suited to the soil, weather conditions and they can require less water. Look for companies offering organic turf-grass seeds grown without synthetic fertilizers or herbicides. Some manufacturers offer mixes for sunny or shady areas.

Weeds and pests. Some gardeners swear by vinegar, citrus oil, and corn gluten meal against weeds. Weeds and pests can be considered messengers of particular problems with the soil. For example, crabgrass points to soil compaction, chinch bugs show that your grass plot is too dry, etc. So, before struggle with weeds and pests, it’s wise to determine the cause of their appearance with a soil test and research.

Care and maintenance. Follow these simple lawn care tips, and your grass plot will please you with its emerald-green beauty.

Do not water your lawn too often, set up an irrigation system.

Enrich with organic plant-food, but do not over fertilize.

Do not forget about compost, add it several times a year.

Aerate the soil.

Avoid cutting wet grass.

Do not cut with dull blades.

Cut in different directions.

Do not cut the grass short.

Natural Lawn Care Calendar

March (early spring). Test the soil, rake leaves and branches, aerate the soil, and add compost.

April, July, October. Get rid of weeds and add organic fertilizers.

September. Get rid of weeds, aerate, and add grass seed to bare patches.

Weekly. Mow and water as needed.

Archie Adams is a lifelong builder and tools expert who is spending his retirement closer to nature in Alaska and writing for a blog HomeMaker Guide to keep himself occupied. Read all of his 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.

Enjoy Native Twinleaf’s Delicate Flowers in Your Woodland Garden

Anyone who has completed the first grade will hopefully remember learning what a plant nerd our third president was, but few know that there’s a plant named in his honor. Yes, it’s true, Jeffersonia diphylla, otherwise known as “Twinleaf” is named in honor of Tommy Jefferson and just happens to be one of my favorite early spring plants.

I almost referred to it as “one of my favorite early spring ephemerals,” but that would only be half true. Half true because as fragile as the pure white, silver dollar-sized flowers are (they can be shattered by a drop of dew), this almost shrub-like plant is persistent all the growing season long.

That’s especially true if planted in full shade and given some extra water during dry spells.

Making its home in the Berberidaceae family — the same family as “May Apple”, “Blue Cohosh” and, believe it or not, the invasive, horrible “Barberry” — Jeffersonia diphylla is one of our least known and most desirable native plants.

Surprisingly, it does quite well in my somewhat low-pH woodland gardens. I say surprisingly because in nature, Jeffersonia chooses to grow in high-pH limestone soils. Yet another testament to the ability of so many plants to accept and adapt to a wide range of growing conditions.

As stated above, the flowers are very short-lived, but there is a consolation prize: a very cool seed head. I’ve always described it as having a little sombrero. It’s a uniquely shaped structure with a “lid” that opens, exposing copious amounts of shiny brown seeds when they’re ripe. Unlike a lot of other plants with explosive seed-dispersal mechanisms, these seeds will patiently wait for you to come collect them and create your own, very special Twinleaf colony.

That’s right, the common name for this treasure is “Twinleaf” and as you can see from the image, it’s a no-brainer to figure out where that comes from. By the way, don’t wait too long to collect the seeds, as the plant depends on wind, wild animals and hikers to help it spill the seeds out and they may just beat you to them.

Typical height varies anywhere from 10 inches to 18 inches, and I’ve had single mature plants up to 24 inches in diameter.

A related species, Jeffersonia dubia, occurs in Asia and is Jeffersonia diphylla’s identical twin, except for the flower color, which just happens to be blue rather than white.

I’ll refrain from suggesting companion plants as this super easy-to-grow plant does just fine on its own and having a colony in your garden, large or small, is quite a staggering sight.

Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has been residing in Greenbrier County, W.V., since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery,Sunshine Farm and Gardens, is a Mecca for gardeners from virtu­ally every country in the world. He writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores, his two main passions, and welcomes visitors with advance notice. Reach Barry at barry@sunfarm.comor 304.497.2208. Read all his 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.

Creating Community in a Community Garden

Young Woman Showing Community Garden

Photos by Cameron J. Taylor

Today as I was masked and gloved, working away in the community garden, I noticed my own inner urge to chat with the gardener in the plot behind me. Under normal circumstances — ya know, back in January — I wouldn’t hesitate to walk over, shake his hand, and have a less than socially distanced chat. But things are different now.

You don’t know if you’ll offend someone by trying to talk to them. You don’t know if they’re overly comfortable with the situation and if you’ll have to tell them to stand back a bit. I decided to stop over thinking it and I struck up a conversation. We talked about how great his plot is starting to look after only being there for 3 months. The crinkle in the corner of his eyes told me he was happy to have a break in the stifled humid air of an oncoming Texas storm.

We talked about peppers, how great cedar mulch is, and how I ended up with the biggest tomato plants in the garden. The conversation so naturally flowed even with the distance, and finally I felt a twinge of human contact coming back into my time at the community garden.

I started thinking exactly how do you go about rebuilding a sense of community at the community garden during a pandemic?

Varied, Vital Roles of a Community Garden

Community gardens are not a new concept. However, I did not understand how incredibly much I’d learn from my fellow gardeners. I had no idea how nice everyone would be and how much free produce I’d be offered just because “I planted too much”. I’ve mostly learned about gardening from YouTube. But then after succumbing to the fact that it would be a number of years more before I was going to have a backyard garden, I found my community garden.

For $50 per year, you get a 10-by-20-foot plot of land to garden. Mine was rough, to say the least, when I got a hold of it. We were able to tour the property and pick an open plot and when I found mine, it was about 5 to 6 feet tall with a litany of different species of weeds. But I saw a 4-foot collard green plant poking through trying to find the sun. And I remembered my grandma telling me, “If something is growing strong in it, it’s a good piece of land.”

Alas, it was mine. I tempted my boyfriend to come help me with the promise that he could use a machete and feel like Indiana Jones for a couple of hours. We got it cleared on a hot September day last year and ever since, it has evolved over the weeks and months into being what it is today — which is the Spring/Summer 2020 garden, abundant and beautiful even with my rookie gardener mistakes.

Community Lessons in Community Gardening

However, there’s no way I’d have gotten this far in such a short amount of time if it wasn’t for the community part of the community garden. Dave was the one who told me that you can grow sugar snap peas in Texas all winter long. Julio was the one who told me I could bury plants I’d pulled up to regenerate the soil. Kate informed me that my Brussels sprouts were far too close together. And Jeff was the one who told me to think about adding some beauty to my space, prompting me to get into flowers.

You can learn just about anything on the internet these days. But it’s the anecdotal word-of-mouth information you get from seasoned gardeners that is beyond valuable — actually being able to have someone walk you over to their plot and show you what they’re talking about, show you their success, and go back to your plot and tell you exactly what to do. It’s an element of the community garden that isn’t found anywhere else.

Proud Young Gardener With Squash

Community Garden as Pandemic Refuge

Thankfully, I’ve still been able to go tend my plot at the garden during the pandemic. Living in the one-bedroom apartment with another human and two large dogs, I needed the escape. I hadn’t seen anyone for a number of weeks and I could tell certain gardeners’ beds were being untended.

The mix of gardeners is extremely varied both in culture and age, which makes it so rich. But I could tell the older people’s plots around me were suffering. I’d try to water them as much as I could but didn’t want to step on their toes. But the first day I saw my older plot neighbors, I cried. I waved to them, as I was busy pulling weeds, and they were masked and gloved with eyes darting around in fear. The fear was crippling for them. They looked over the garden, made a list of projects, and left very quickly.

You could feel the anxious and scared energy. I was heartbroken. The plot they’ve had for the last 5 years, the soil they’ve tended so carefully, and the community that they love so much, they have fear of. I cried right there. Maybe I have a soft spot for older folks, because I have such a close and special relationship with my own grandparents. Whatever the reason, my heart felt heavier instead of lighter after leaving the garden that day.

It’s likely that the only permanent fix is time, a vaccine, and general improvement in overall health and healthcare. But I can’t help but think if there’s small ways we can start to connect again. Maybe it’s sending out a recipe for things in season to the garden community. Maybe it’s introducing new gardeners via email to everyone. Maybe it’s creating a network of people who can help out on older people’s plots if they aren’t comfortable returning right now. I certainly don’t have an answer right now. But I do have hope.

My first in-depth conversation yesterday gave me a smidge of hope that someday I’ll have my beloved community back in full effect. I keep coming back to the notion that the garden reminds us of, nature remains. Even when there’s so many things you can’t do, focusing on the things you can do like being a good steward of the Earth, will bring you hope. Nature will show you that things can live and thrive, even amongst unfavorable conditions.

And above all else, gardeners have the best sense of hope, faith, and vision in their plants, garden plans, and more. We have to hold onto that more than ever right now.

Brooke Wiland is a true millennial, who found her homestead inspiration on Netflix and now saves vegetable scraps to make stocks, produces homemade apple cider vinegar and gluten-free bread, and grows a high volume of produce in her 10-by-20-foot community garden plot in Austin, Texas. Connect with Brooke on Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Why, When and How to Hill Potatoes


Maybe you hoped you could just drop your seed potato pieces in the ground, cover them over and wait for potatoes. More likely, you’d heard that you would need to hill your plants. Here I’ll explain why we do this, when to do it, how to hill, plus a couple of alternatives to hilling.

Initial Potato Development Stages and The Main Reason to Hill: More Potatoes!

The first things the seed potato does after planting is to produce roots, stems and leaves. This vegetative growth stage lasts 30 to 70 days. Bigger plants can yield more potatoes, so the goal for this stage is to produce large sturdy plants. Vegetative (leafy) growth of potatoes is favored by warm, 80°F (27°C) moist weather, but tuber growth is favored by cooler soil conditions of 60°F to 70°F (15.5°C to 21°C). This combination can be achieved in spring, when the soil is cooler than the air temperatures most of the time, or if you are planting in early summer, add organic mulches to keep the soil cool.

Tuber (potato!) formation and branching of the stems comes after the vegetative growth stage. All the potatoes that will grow on that plant are formed in this important two-week period. Flowering can happen too, but it’s not essential, so don’t worry if you get few or no flowers. The number of tubers produced per plant depends on the hours of daylight, temperature and available water in that short period of tuber initiation. Hilling adds soil to the stems, encouraging stem growth and providing more sites for potatoes to form.

Watering also stimulates the production of more tubers. When tuber formation begins supply 5 gallons per cubic yard (22.8 liters per square meter) of water. Water at this critical time, even if you can’t water at any other time. Short day length is optimal, with a night temperature of 54°F (12°C). High nitrogen also inhibits initiation. During this stage, leaf growth continues (the plant gets bigger).

When and How to Hill Potatoes

Start hilling (pulling soil up over the potato plants in a ridge) when the plants are 6” (15 cm) tall. Hill again two or three weeks later and two more weeks after that, if the plant canopy has not already closed over, making access impossible.

On a small scale, use a rake or standard hoe to pull soil up from the side of the row opposite to where you are standing. If you are sharing the job, one person can work each side of the row at the same time. If you are alone, turn round when you get to the end of the row and work back up the same row. Don’t be tempted to twist your arms around and move the soil up the side nearest you. You will damage your body by this distortion of your spine and shoulders!

At the next scale up, use a rototiller with a hilling attachment, or perhaps a wheel hoe with a hiller, if your soil and stamina allows. We have used our BCS walk-behind tiller, with a hiller/furrower attachment. Nowadays we use a tractor-mounted hiller that has disks turned inwards in pairs to ridge the soil.

Hill Potatoes for Weed Control

Potatoes are sometimes said to be a “cleaning” crop, as if they did the weeding themselves. Not so! Any cleaning that takes place is a result of cultivation. As with many plants, the initial growth stage is the most critical time for weed control of potatoes.

As well as providing more stem length underground for potatoes to grow from, hilling in sunny weather can deal with lots of weeds in a timely way, especially if machine work is followed up by the crew passing through the field hoeing, as we do. Sun and wind kill the weeds quicker, giving them little chance to re-root. Organic mulches also reduce weeds. Potatoes later in life produce a closed leaf canopy that discourages more weeds from growing until the tops start to die. Mary Peet in Sustainable Practices for Vegetable Production in the South reports that potato yields were decreased 19% by a single red root pigweed per meter of row left in place for the entire season.

Hill Potatoes for Frost Protection

A potato plant after two late frosts of 30F and 29F.

Frost will kill potato leaves, but the plant underground is not killed and can quickly recover and grow more leaves. If you are expecting a heavy frost after your potato plants are 4 inches (10 cm) tall, try to hill them before the frost. We had a heavy frost May 9 this year which just about killed all the above-ground growth. But we knew it was coming and hilled to give our plants the most protection we could from the soil. I was amazed at how quickly the plants recovered. On the third day after the frost, the plants weren’t looking good. By day 6 they had new green growth and on Day 8, they looked almost as good as before the frost.

Two frosted potato plants on the third day after frosts, already recovering.

A potato plant on the eighth day after two late frosts, showing lots of new growth.

Alternatives to Hilling Potatoes: Thick Mulch

If you can’t hill, or really don’t want to, you can increase the effective depth of planting by covering the rows with thick straw or hay mulch. It does need to be very thick, if you are not hilling at all. So-called “lazy beds” of potatoes are made by planting the seed potato pieces under only 2 inches (5 cm) of soil, and then piling 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) of mulch on top. If you are buying the mulch, or spreading it by hand, the cost and time may leave you feeling far from lazy!

Mulching is easiest to do immediately after planting, before the plants emerge. It’s difficult to spread the mulch around the plants after they emerge. We don’t mulch our spring-planted potatoes because we want the soil to warm up from its winter temperatures – I don’t recommend mulching potatoes if the soil is cold.

When we plant in June, we cover the seed pieces with soil, then hill, then unroll round bales of spoiled hay immediately, like wall-to-wall carpeting. We choose this method to help keep the soil cooler through the summer. In warm conditions, deeper planting, hilling and thick organic mulches all help keep the plants cooler, as does irrigation. A couple of weeks after planting and mulching, we walk the rows, investigating the spots where there should be a potato plant but none is visible. Sometimes the shoots get trapped under the mulch and need to be freed up.

Alternatives to Hilling: Flaming

In wet weather it can be impossible to hill when you’d like to, and this is where flaming can save the day, as far as dealing with weeds. Although not an alternative to hilling in terms of providing more stem length underground, flaming can deal with rampant weeds if the soil is too wet to hill and it can buy you some time. Potatoes may be flamed at 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) tall. Flaming is not recommended for potato plants taller than that. See ATTRA’sFlame Weeding for Vegetable Crops

Flaming when the potatoes are less than 8 inches (20 cm) tall is also an effective organic control measure for Colorado potato beetles. Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90% of the adults and 30% of the egg masses, according to ATTRA.

Third Stage of Potato Development

After the two-week tuber initiation period, the potatoes grow larger, but don’t increase in number. When the leaves start to turn pale, the plant has finished its leaf-growing stage and will be putting energy into sizing up the tubers under the ground. Adequate water and nutrients are important until the plant reaches maturity for that variety, up to 90 days. Try to ensure at least one inch (2.5 cm) of water per week, up until two weeks before harvest.

The size of the tubers depends on various growing conditions. Two or three weeks after flowers appear (if they do), the baby potatoes will be 1 to 1.6 inches (2.5 to 4 cm) across. The best temperature is around 65°F (18°C), and I’ve read that potato size decreases by 4% for every Fahrenheit degree (7% per Celsius degree) above the optimal. Spacing is another factor — we got large potatoes one summer because we had poor emergence and therefore wide spacing! The heat of the summer didn’t stop them. Finally, the tops naturally yellow and die. The skins of the tubers thicken, which makes them suitable for storage. No more growth is possible.

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


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5 Easy Vegetables to Grow

basket of vegetables 

A basket of easy-to-grow garden goodness. Photo by Carole Coates

In my last article. I shared gardening tips for novice gardeners, and I promised a follow-up outlining some easy crops for gardening newbies. Some are not only easy; they are fast growers, too.

Let’s face it. Some plants are much harder to nurse. It takes great diligence to protect broccoli from pests, for instance. In my wet, short growing season, tomatoes are a huge challenge and, often, a disappointment. But other plants practically do all the work for you. (Think zucchini.)

As I mentioned in my last article, the smart newbie gardener will start small. Better to grow a few things happily and well than to overwhelm yourself. Consider selecting five vegetables to grow your first year, and go for easy-to-grow vegetables. Think, too, about what you and your family like to eat.

Let’s start by breaking down the easiest crops into five broad categories you can grow without being a garden guru. You might want to select one crop from each of the categories or choose several from one category and skip another.

For details about planting times and growing conditions, check the back of the seed package, read the details in gardening catalogs, follow one of the blog sites I referenced last week, or purchase a reputable book for beginning gardeners. One of my favorites is Niki Jabbour’s Year-Round Vegetable Gardening.

Salad Greens

These are are quick, prolific, and most often cut-and-come-again veggies. In other words, harvest by cutting an entire plant slightly above ground level and it will grow again—and again. You may get three or four cuttings from one plant. Or you can pick the outer leaves while the inner ones continue to grow. Salad greens can be planted early in the season. In fact, they prefer things a little on the cool side. You’ll have baby salad greens in as few as three weeks. For a continual supply, plant a few plants now and a few more every two-three weeks.

Arugula is one of the quickest growing salad greens and it adds complexity to your dinner salad. If you like a little bitter in your salad, this one is for you. I like to plant a mix for the maximum texture, flavor, and color. You can find premixed seed packets in most gardening catalogs. For something a little different, try, claytonia or vit (also known as corn salad or mâche).

Leafy Greens

Swiss chard and kale produce all season long, too. I find chard easier to grow because it’s not as subject to insect damage, while cabbage moth caterpillars can demolish kale almost overnight, though those pests are not as fond of curly varieties. On the other hand, kale is extremely cold-hardy, and it is hard to beat this easy-to-make kale salad.  Chard can tolerate some heat but generally prefers cooler weather. With the multi-hued stems of some varieties, it is simply stunning in the garden. Those stems are edible, too. Plant in mid-spring and you can be eating baby chard in a month or so, long before it’s time to plant many crops. Kale can be planted even earlier. Harvest individual leaves and both of these nutrient-dense powerhouses will keep you in leafy greens throughout the growing season.


Snow peas, sugar snaps, and green shelling peas can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. Plant again about two months before the average first frost date in your area for a fall crop. Trellising will save your back as well as valuable garden real estate.

If you’re looking for quantity, green beans will produce all season long if you pick them before seeds mature in the pod. Unlike peas, they shouldn’t be planted until after the last frost date in spring. Green beans are typically ready for harvest in 50-60 days. Broad beans, such as lima or fava take longer—75-80 days on average.

Unless you plant a bush variety, use a trellis. Trellising is as easy as making a tepee out of bamboo or even fallen tree limbs. Lots of items which no longer serve their original purpose can be upcycled to for clever and attractive vertical gardening

Roots and Such

Like salad greens and peas, radishes can be planted early in the season and will reward you with crunchy goodness in about three weeks. To avoid toughness, harvest when roots are the size of large marbles. Tip: while we most often think of radishes as a salad vegetable, both the roots and young leaves can be sautéed.

Garlic is super easy to grow. And to make things even better, it is planted when not much else is going on in the garden. Plant individual garlic cloves in late fall, cover with a thick layer of mulch, and wait until early summer. Remove mulch and wait some more. When half the leaves have yellowed and fallen over, it’s time to carefully dig them up. What could be easier?

Root crops such as carrots and beets don’t need much help after you’ve planted them, either. You can sow in mid-spring and again every two or three weeks for a continuous crop, harvesting young roots throughout the season. Both store well in the refrigerator crisper drawer.

Potatoes take only a little more effort. Mound soil from either side of the plants a few times during the growing season to encourage growth and protect tubers from sunlight so they don’t develop the toxin. solanine. While you can choose to pick a few along the way as new potatoes, wait until foliage has died back in fall to harvest the main crop. A real time saver.

For root crops, read up on proper curing and storage techniques to protect your crop.


Zucchini is every bit as versatile as it is prolific, making it an excellent choice for a small garden. But unless you have a large family or really, really love them, you only need a couple of plants. The same is true of that all-time summer favorite, yellow squash.

baby summer squash 

There isn't much as exciting as seeing a new vegetable appear in your garden. Photo by Carole Coates

Don’t forget about winter squash. Packed with important vitamins, they will last for months in a cool, dark spot like a basement or unheated closet, though you should check on them regularly to cull any that are going bad. It happens. Butternut squash is the best keeper.

Pumpkins are fun to grow, and they’re not just for decorating—or even holiday pies. Like butternut and other winter squash, they can be used as hearty side dishes or even meat substitutes. But their vines take up lots of space, so plant just a couple and plant them near the edge of the garden.

You may not think it, but chili with winter squash instead of meat is both delicious and filling. Winter squash can be roasted, made into muffins and quick breads, and serve as the star in soups, stews, casseroles, and winter salads. A real winner.!

Next up—fun in the garden. Stay tuned.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

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