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

5 Container Gardening Tips to Successfully Grow Produce


I look forward to spring every year. I start planning my small raised bed vegetable and herb garden about a month before I can actually put anything on the ground. I learned the hard way that I need to be patient lest I lose everything to an unexpected frost.

My yard is not very big so, I have always filled clay pots with brightly colored flowers to place around the outside of my home. Over the past couple of years, I have expanded my container gardening to include fruits, vegetables, and herbs, not just flowers. I have discovered that I can grow almost anything in a container. Here is what I have learned from my container gardening adventures.

Assess Your Sunlight

You need to take notes on how much area receives full sunlight and for how long each day. I have underestimated how much sun my containers need by placing them in the wrong areas. Some plants do better in shade than others. So, you need to know how much exposure your containers are going to receive before you start your seeds or buy your plants.

You will need to time the sun exposure in certain areas. Once you know how much direct sunlight your container will get you can refer to a sun calculator to determine which plants will work best. Most seed packets and seedling plants come with instructions that tell you how much sun they need.

Choose Your Containers

This is a really broad category. You can basically grow plants in anything from 5-gallon plastic construction buckets to sophisticated, custom, raised wood boxes. You can read this article to find more ideas about container gardening.

I have experimented with different types of containers. What I have discovered is that you really need containers that will drain. Clay pots with holes work great. Same is true for plastic that you can drill holes into the bottom of. The roots need room and can’t be saturated with water all the time unless you are growing a plant like watercress that needs constant moisture.

Here are a few other ideas for containers:

Wooden wine casks
Plastic tote bags
Old wheelbarrows
Wooden drawers from discarded furniture
Rain boots

Get Nutrient Dense Soil

If you are fortunate enough to be able to find a rich, earthworm filled soil source that you can dig up, then that is the way to go. I live near salt water, so the soil is a bit sandy and likely high in salinity. I generally have to rely on purchased potting soil for my containers. This is usually not very nutritious for my plants.

If you have to purchase potting soil, look for organic soil that doesn’t have any chemical fertilizers or additives in it. You can mix in an all natural plant food of either your own composted vegetable matter, seaweed, free range animal manure, or even fish emulsion, depending on what you are growing.

For fruits and vegetables, you will want nutrients that aren’t going to impart an unpleasant taste into the produce. Here are some ideas of nutrients for edible container gardens.

Give Your Seedlings Time to Adjust

Seedlings are almost always started inside your home or in a greenhouse where it is nice and warm. Before you plant your seedlings in the containers, let them acclimate to the extremes of the outdoors gently. Place seedlings outside for an hour or two each day for direct sun and wind exposure. They also need to adjust to insects.

If you have been watering your seedlings with tap or filtered water, start adding some fresh rainwater to their hydration regimen. Eventually, allow them to stay outside overnight. Over time they will adapt to the conditions and will survive better once you plant them.

If your containers are inside, this might not be an issue.

Care for Your Plants

Any container garden needs care, just like ground gardens. Pay attention to how much water your plants are receiving. If rainwater is adequate, don’t be tempted to hydrate more. Remember, the containers will not drain as quickly as the ground.

Be mindful of the amount of sunlight your containers are receiving. They may need to be moved if it is too much or too little, especially as the seasons change and days grow longer. That is the nice thing about containers - you can relocate them.

Flowering plants need to be deadheaded from time to time. Herbs need to be pruned so that they don’t bolt and go to seed too quickly. Fruits and vegetables need to be harvested to make room for new growth. Weeds need to be kept in check so that they don’t choke the roots.

Sometimes insects are troublesome. Here are some natural pesticide recipes for flowering or green plants. For edible plants, your best pesticides are beneficial insects and removal by hand of the unwanted invaders. I recall one summer where I daily removed cabbageworm from the leaves of my collard greens by hand. If I missed a day the leaves would resemble Swiss cheese by evening.

If you have limited space or are physically unable to work on the ground, containers may be your best bet for putting your green thumb to use this growing season. There are so many creative options for containers. And, you really can grow just about anything in a container, depending on the size.

Container gardens are attractive and relatively easy to maintain. Though, they do differ slightly from ground gardens. There is a bit of a learning curve. You will get the hang of it with a little trial and error. Try following some of the tips suggested here and you should end up with a bounty of greenery, flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

We always like feedback from our readers. Please feel free to comment or share some of your own container garden experiences and suggestions.

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.


Seed Starting Tips


Tomato sproutOur office seed starting project has been a glowing success so far. Just three days after we planted our seeds, a few tomato sprouts had already broken ground! A few days after that, the peppers did the same. And both have been growing like crazy ever since — especially the tomatoes. Our excitement has been accompanied by a lot of learning, and I’d like to share some seed starting tips based on our experience. (Check out our What to Plant Now tool to learn which seeds you can start indoors in your area right now — there's still time!)

Seed Starting Supplies

Seed starting trays. You can pick up various sizes of seed starting trays at your local garden center. These usually come with one tray with dividers and holes in the bottom, and one flat tray without holes to set the first tray into. If you don’t want to purchase a setup like this, you can use recycled materials. For example, clean, empty yogurt cups with holes drilled in the bottom could be set inside a large baking pan to create a great tray kit. Making your trays is a perfect opportunity to get creative.

Seed starting mix. For best results, start seeds in an organic seed starting mix. These mixes are very fine and will hold water well. A small bag will cost about $5 at your local garden center.

Seeds. Consider planting heirloom varieties (see our article, Heirloom Vegetables: 6 Advantages Compared to Hybrids). Also, only use seeds from previous seasons if they’ve been stored properly in a cool, dry place.

Timer for your grow light. A timer isn’t a necessity, but it sure is handy. We plugged our grow light into an automatic timer, setting it to give the plants 18 hours of light per day.

Getting Started

Planting. For tomatoes and peppers, we planted two seeds per compartment with the intent to thin them later. We then covered the seeds with about a quarter inch of seed starting mix and gently patted down the soil.

Watering. For the most part, you’ll water your seeds via the bottom tray. When you first plant the seeds, however, you can give them a few good waterings from the top (but use a watering can with a gentle spout). Water lightly once, wait Grow light bookcaseabout an hour, water lightly again and so on until the seed mix is nice and moist. Also, fill the bottom tray up with about three-quarters of an inch of water (adjust based on the tray materials you’re using; you want to make sure the holes in the bottom of your primary seed trays or cups are surrounded by water).

Grow light. It’s not necessary to put your plants under a grow light until they actually sprout. When they do, place them as close to the grow light as you can (we set books under our trays to get them to the desired height). Then simply move the trays down as the plants grow.

While Your Seeds Grow

Watering. Keep an eye on the water in your bottom trays. Add water every few days or so, as required. There's no need to water the plants from the top at this point.

Temperature. The temperature of the room where your seeds are growing will affect their growth rate. Our tomato sprouts grew extremely rapidly, and we think it’s because they were at a pretty consistent temperature of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit both day and night. It’s best for your seeds to be growing in the 50 to 60 Insulation under seed traydegree range. Ours grew so quickly that they look a bit tall and spindly (though still healthy), and a cooler temperature could have slowed them down a little and resulted in sturdier stems.

We grew our seeds in a grow light bookcase (see Multipurpose Plant Grow Light Seed Starting Bookcase for plans on how to make your own), and we noticed that the seeds growing on the middle shelf seemed to be getting a bit of extra warmth from the light mounted directly underneath it. This is something to consider if you have a similar setup. We’ve tried to solve this temperature issue by placing a sheet of insulation board underneath the trays on the middle shelf (see photo).

Thinning tomato startsThinning. After two and a half weeks of growth, it was time to thin our tomato plants. Do this by cutting all but the strongest plant in each compartment. Cut the weaker plants at soil-level. This method won’t disturb the root system, as pulling the plants would do.

Petting. Yes, petting. This may sound strange, but if you gently wave your hand over the tops of the plants a couple times a day, it encourages them to grow nice and strong. (This step has been my favorite because it stirs up a lovely tomato smell.) The same thing can be achieved by pointing a fan at the plants to simulate mild wind.

Outdoor time. After a few weeks of growth, you can start setting your plants outside in the shade for about an hour per day. Just make sure you don’t expose them to rain, direct sun or heavy winds at this point. Setting them out will help your plants “harden off” — prepare them for their upcoming lives in your garden.

Seed starting is not only fun, it can also save you money. We spent a minimal amount on seeds and materials, and we're growing 64 tomato plants and 32 pepper plants! Plus, you can experiment with varieties more freely when you're not limited to the starts available at a garden center.


Do you have any seed starting tips to add to this list? If so, please share them with our readers in the comments section below. Happy growing!


Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment.

Photos by Sean Rosner and Megan Phelps. 

Illustrated Guide to Growing Lilies: Varieties, Propagation Techniques and More

The buds push their way to the sun through the leaves and are soon followed by many charming flowers. Photo by Michael Feldmann

Everyone loves lilies. With large, showy blooms, lilies add striking elegance to every yard and garden. Lilies tend to bloom from early summer to fall, depending on the variety. But by carefully mixing early, mid-season, and late varieties into your garden, you can enjoy their blooms from spring through first frost. Growing lilies is actually not as difficult as you may think and is certainly worth the effort for those who take pride in showy blooms.

Note that these flowers, the "true" lilies, are from the genus Lilium, as opposed to daylilies, which are from the genus Hemerocallis.

Lily Varieties for Gardeners

There are lots of varieties of lilies with flowers in a variety of beautiful colors including white, yellow, orange, pink and red. As well as lots of colorful streaks, dots, and stripes that add even more to the beautiful blooms. There are a number of popular lily species and their endless hybrids are available to gardeners.

Asiatic lilies bloom in early summer in May or June. They don't require much care as long as they are grown in well-draining soil. They are the shortest type of lily (about 2 to 3 feet tall) and come in many colors. They don't have much fragrance, but they do add brightness to every garden and yard.

Easter lilies are usually grown indoors as holiday plants. As their name suggests, they are typically forced into bloom, in March or April. Outdoors, they are better suited to the warmer regions of North America, where they can be planted in the garden after flowering.

Oriental lilies have that famously strong fragrance. They are tall and stately (4 feet), and tend to grow more slowly, often in bloom as Asian lily flowers start fading (from mid to late summer).

Trumpet lilies are very similar to oriental lilies, producing many flowers with a pleasant scent. Their flowers are usually smaller and more closed (like a trumpet) than those of the other lilies.

Other lilies. There are many other lilies out there, of course, such as tiger lilies and Turk’s cap lilies, as well as hybrids like “Orienpet” (Oriental + Trumpet) and LA lilies (Easter + Asiatic). Browse through your favorite gardening catalog to find what you like best!

Planting Lily Bulbs in the Garden

For the best flowering, it is very important to plant only firm and healthy bulbs. Illustration courtesy Mary Peterson

Growing lilies in the garden is probably the best way to enjoy your own blooms, or make from them astonishingly beautiful bouquets. And for all this, you just need to familiarize yourself with their needs such as soil, location, and other.

Selecting lily bulbs. It is very important to buy only plump, firm, healthy, medium to big sized bulbs. Lily bulbs are available in late fall or early spring from mail-order and local nurseries. The good lily bulbs should be firm, with closely packed scales and with a dense root system.

Soil consideration and Preparation. Lilies can grow well in almost any well-drained soil that has a pH slightly on the acid side. An exception is the Madonna lily, which does best in a neutral to slightly alkaline soil.

Soil preparation before planting lilies is very important, just as it is with other bulbs. In light soils, a generous addition of well-composted organic material or peat moss will improve moisture retention. Remember that lily bulbs and roots will be damaged if fresh manure is applied. Heavy soils can be Improved by adding coarse sand or light gravel. Super-phosphate, well mixed in, will enrich and condition the soil for several seasons.

The subsoil should also provide good drainage so that water does not accumulate around the bulbs. In soils with poor drainage use raised beds with well-draining soil. Planting on a gentle slope also improves drainage.

Choosing the right Location. Lilies grow best in a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden. Full sun provides the strongest growth, but lilies can also grow well in partial shade. For best results, plant your lilies in a location that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day.

When and how to plant your lilies. It is also very recommended to buy your lily bulbs very close to the planting time. Since lily bulbs don't go dormant, and will deteriorate over time, so don’t plan to buy bulbs in the fall and wait until spring to plant them. In most regions in the United States, it is best to plant the bulbs in the fall, generally, a few weeks before the winter brings freezing temperatures. Bulbs planted in fall will have well established roots in spring.

When preparing the planting location for lilies you need to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. Planting deep encourages the developing stem to send out roots to help stabilize the plant and possibly eliminate the need for staking. In addition, deep planting also keeps lily bulbs cool at high temperatures.

To start planting, dig a big enough hole 3 times as deep as the height of the bulb and set the bulb in the hole pointy side up. Fill the hole with the soil and tamp gently. Space your lily bulbs at the distance about 8 to 18 inches apart. Or you can also plant your lilies in groups of 3 to 5 bulbs for more visual appeal. After the bulbs have been planted water the area thoroughly.

Caring for Lilies

With correct planting and care your lilies can award you with many beautiful blooms in Summer. Illustration courtesy Mary Peterson

Fertilizing. In the early spring, when the first green stems appear, fertilization should be applied. Another application when the buds are forming will be beneficial. And after the lily has bloomed, one more feeding will boost the bulb for the next season.

Mulching. Lilies need a steady supply of moisture, particularly during the growing season. A summer mulch is an excellent way to conserve moisture. Mulch will also keep the stem roots cool during very hot weather and will help control weeds. Mulch to a depth of 3 or 4 inches with oak leaves, pine needles, hay, or any other loose material that will allow passage of water and air to the soil.

Watering. Correct watering is very important for every plant, and also for lilies. During the active growth, lilies should be well watered, especially if the rainfall is less than 1 inch per week.

Staking. Unless they are sturdily staked, lilies more than 3 feet tall may be damaged by strong winds. So, it is best to support your lilies with stakes. Use one stake for each lily bulb. When placing it, take care not to drive it through the bulb. As the plant grows, tie the stem to the stake using the small rope or other soft material.

What can go wrong with lilies. This chart describes the most common problems encountered by lily growers.

Propagating Lilies

Lilies can be propagated by many methods all of which will help you increase these lovely flowers in your garden.

Propagating lilies is actually very easy, interesting and can be done by nearly anyone. There are five ways of propagating lilies, including seeds, scales, bulbils, bulblets, and offsets. They are all very easy and effective ways.

Propagating Lilies by Seeds

Propagating your lilies from seeds is an excellent way, but it takes a little bit longer than others. Letting the flowers germinate and then harvesting them is easy, but the plants take longer to fully develop from seed. It may take several years before you will see the first flowers. Professional growers will cross pollinate different species to collect seed and develop new hybrids. While this may be a fun way to propagate lilies, it isn't something most gardeners need to do, especially since there are better and faster methods.

Propagating Lilies by Scales

Propagation by scales is a very simple and fun way of propagating lilies. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

Propagation by scales is a very easy and fun method of propagating lilies. For this, you do not need even a knife or any other tools, you will see that this is very easy. You could scale a lily bulb much the same as you unfold artichoke leaves. But don't remove all the scales. Remove about 1/3rd of the scales per bulb. The bulb you use can be again planted into the garden with no harm and should bloom like all, provided you did not remove too many scales and you have dig up the bulb at the correct planting time, after all foliage has yellowed or right before new growth emerges.

Place the scales into a well-mixed cutting compost. A half mixture of sand and peat is good, or damp perlite/vermiculite. I've had an excellent result simply putting the scales in a small plastic bag. Protect the scales from harsh freezing or overly hot temperatures. The scales will produce small bulbs the fastest when kept in indirect light. This can be as early as 2 weeks!

After 6-8 weeks, check your scales to see if they have formed little bulbs around the base of each. You can get up to 7 bulbs per scale! When they become a decent size, leave the bags open to reduce the humidity levels. When the small bulbs begin to send a small shoot out of the top, you can replant each scale in a container or plant them directly into the garden. A good potting mix with no added fertilizer works well. Whether you plant the scales in pot or in the garden, you can expect them to be blooming in 1-2 years.

Propagating Lilies by Bulbils

Some lily varieties can also be propagated by bulbils. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

Some varieties of lily, form a small bulb (Commonly called bulbils) on their stems from late summer to autumn, from which new plants can be easily propagated. If they fall off the plant, they rarely grow into large plants, so it’s best to remove the bulbils by hand and then plant them in pots. Remember, this way of propagating lilies can take up to three years before they start producing flowers.

From late summer to autumn, carefully remove the tiny bulbils growing from the leaf axils of the lily plant. Then plant the bulbils in a pot filled with good soil, spacing them 2.5cm apart. Cover with a layer of compost and water them well, allowing the water to drain. Then place the pot on a sunny windowsill, the bulbils will germinate within a couple of weeks. Once good roots have developed, carefully transplant each seedling into individual big enough pots to grow in. After several years your new lilies will start producing flowers.

Propagating Lilies by Bulblets

Another excellent way of propagating lilies is from bulblets. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

Another great method of propagating lilies is from bulblets. Bulblets are young bulbs that are developed underground along the stem root between the primary bulb and the soil surface. This very small bulblets will successfully grow into full sized plants. Wait until a few weeks after flowering before collecting the bulblets; this allows them to develop and increase in size.

Dig up a lily plant, snap off each of the small bulblets growing along the roots, and place the plant back into the ground. Or you can leave the plant in place and gently remove the soil underneath by burying it down to the bulb. You will see small bulbs along the way. The collected bulblets can be planted pointy end up anywhere, were you want. You will probably won't see any growth above the surface in the fall, but in the spring a new plant should emerge where each bulblet is planted.

In colder regions, you can harvest the bulblets and grow them over the winter for transplanting in the spring. Most lily bulbs require between three and six weeks of cold temperatures before they'll grow leaves. They will get it naturally on the outside, but for the bulblets that you want to grow inside should be refrigerate before planting. Place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least a month before planting.

Propagating Lilies by Offsets

Offset is a tried and tested method of propagating many plants and also works excellent with lilies. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

Division is a tried and tested method of propagating many plants and also works excellent with lilies. As the plant matures, the bulb grows to a certain size and naturally divides. It divides into two bulbs with the divisions called offsets. Each offset will turn into a separate lily plant. If left alone in the ground, each offset will eventually split into new bulbs. This process eventually leads to the formation of a clump of lily plants.

Propagating lilies by offset are very easy. You can see this in your garden by looking for two or more plants emerging from the soil very close to each other. Carefully digging up the plant reveals the several bulbs. They are connected but are very easily separated by hand or with a knife. Each of the individual bulb can be planted into the garden and will continue to grow. It's best to do this after the plant has flowered so all of the plant's energy will be focused on root development.

Keeping these various points in mind, you will easily be able to choose the right location, plant your lily bulbs, fertilize and water them properly, get rid of pests and diseases, propagate them correctly, and finally enjoy lots of blooms throughout the year.

Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’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.

Windy Meadows Farm's Spring Garden Favored Crops

 spring flowers in garden

Spring flowers in garden by Mary Murray

In a sunny corner of the woods behind our farmhouse, there is a welcome blaze of yellow…the forsythia bushes are in full bloom. To our astonishment, each spring they arrive as if they’ve blossomed overnight. With those joyful, cheery flowers comes the unmistakable message…Spring is here!

With our dog Bailey bouncing ahead, I walk outside to see if any of the spring bulbs are blooming. Even with a lingering chill in the air, it’s truly a simple joy to discover the first shoots of daffodils and hyacinths pushing their way through the soil to welcome the gentle green of spring.

Now that the season’s first warm days beckon us outdoors, we’re probably thinking about gardening, making it the ideal time to plant a few early spring crops. Many of my favorites grow beautifully in this month’s cooler temperatures, and whether you’re planning a patio, backyard, or large farm garden, with a little planning, soon you can enjoy spring crops as well.

Before you begin, how is your soil? This is the perfect time to add compost to your garden area. The mixture of rich compost and soil will help the seeds get a strong start with the nutrients they need. Next, rake your garden to loosen the soil so roots can have room to spread; this will also help to keep the soil well-drained. Now, the fun begins…it’s time for what I call my Fab Five of spring crops! Choose your favorites from the list below (reading the planting instructions on each package of seeds), and then before you know it, you’ll be enjoying garden-fresh veggies!

spring veggies in the chair

Spring veggies in the chair by Mary Murray

Radishes. Last year I planted radishes in almost every shape and size. Two of my favorites are White Icicle and Cook’s Custom Blend, which were ready to enjoy in about 30 days. Oh-so-easy, and a terrific seed for a children’s garden, simply plant seeds to ½-inch depth and keep them watered. 

Spinach. I love spinach salad, whether it’s warm with savory bacon dressing or crisp and cold with homemade poppyseed dressing, for me, it can’t be beat. I plant an old variety known as Bloomsdale Longstanding which is slow to bolt and full of flavor. Spinach seeds are planted ½-inch deep should give you plants ready to enjoy is about 45 days.

Kale. Kale really thrives in cool temperatures. Not only healthy, it’s a fast grower. I choose Lacinto not only for its flavor, but it’s also really easy to de-stem…just sliding my fingers down the stem removes the leaves. These seeds are generally planted at ½-inch depth and ready to harvest in about 30-45 days.

Spring onions. Easy to plant from seed or bulbs. For me, the plants can get lost in a large garden, so I plant the bulbs in a cold frame. This makes them easy to keep an eye on and easy to weed. Harvest early for a tender onion to add to salads, or leave them in the cold frame until they’re larger. I plant bulbs 1-inch deep and about 4 inches apart. They will be ready to harvest in about 8 weeks.

Sugar snap peas. For me, this is the ultimate spring treat from the garden. A friend got me hooked when she would invite me to share her bounty. It would be a perfect afternoon…picking peas in the warm sun and catching up with one another.  Once chilled in the refrigerator, our family will eat them endlessly dipped in ranch dressing. I plant them ½-inch deep about every 3 inches in rows 24 inches apart. Ready to enjoy in around 60 days, they’ll need a firm support such as a strong trellis or lengths of heavy fencing so they’ll have room to climb 6 to 8 feet.

In our part of the Midwest, spring fever is winning the battle. Yes, there’s a whirlwind of spring cleaning and sprucing up, but my mind wanders to that first tomato, warm from the vine, and roasted corn on the cob. However; for today, I’m brought back to reality as I look out the window. There’s an old saying goes, “There will be three snows after the forsythia blooms.” And you know what?  Right now it’s snowing!

Mary Murray is a goat wrangler, chicken whisperer, bee maven, and farmers market baker at Windy Meadows Farm. She rehabilitated her 1864 Ohio farm property and is ready to share the many stories that come with farm living. Read all of Mary’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.

Our Essential Oils Cottage Business Yields Great Smells and Useful Cash


Happy farmers with copper still. Photo by Alexia Allen

Years ago, I met with our wonderful farm accountants, who used to run a farm near us—a farm that had big fields of mature lavender plants. Since they were getting out of farming, they had a big copper essential oil extractor for sale.  When I saw the graceful curve of the hammered copper contraption, I was hooked.  I’m a fan of cool farm gizmos anyway, and this tool puts the steam in steampunk.

Imagine a big round copper cauldron, almost too heavy to lift.  That part sits on a propane burner, and is filled with several gallons of water to produce steam.  On top of this cauldron is a copper cylinder I can just about wrap my arms around. That cylinder gets filled with plant material, like mint or cedar branches. On top of the cylinder sits the alembic, a curving pipe that sends scented steam through the top and down into the condensing coil that sits in a tub of cold water.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re blessed with abundant rainwater that we run continuously through the condensing tub, and get a stream of warm rainwater coming out.  We could, if we were ambitious, set up a hot tub to soak in as the machine works, but for now I just use the warm water to wash horse blankets!

We set up the extractor, stuffed with plants and water, and seal the joints with tape. This process should not smell good, because good smells mean that oils are escaping into the atmosphere instead of being caught where they drip out of the bottom of the condensing coil. After that machine has its joints sealed with tape, I can’t open it until we’re done! I plan a full day for two batches of plant material. Depending on the plant, this means a pint or two of oil from the conifer branches that are our staple material. Once I set everything up and get the propane burner going, I can step back and do other things around the farm - but always with an eye towards anything overflowing or steaming where it shouldn’t.

Oil extraction takes some time, for sure, but we can do it during the winter when we don’t have garden projects and baby goats coming out our ears.  We can take a “waste product” like pruned branches and convert them into a non-perishable, high-value product.  When I sell hundreds of pounds of produce (which I do), I’ve just sold a lot of nutrients off the farm.  When I sell essential oils, I am selling the tiniest tip of the iceberg of all the aromas here.  I’m not depleting soils, because the soggy plant materials go out of the extractor and right back to the earth here, often around the trees they came from. In the wintertime, we make essential oil from cedar, juniper  Douglas-fir. In the summer, we fit in a few batches of mint and the classic lavender.  If friends and neighbors have large quantities of aromatic plants, such as from pruning a giant rosemary or incense-cedar, we take that too.

At first we ran the branches through a small chipper, but that added hours to each session. Now, I put whole twigs right in, and let the steam do the work of breaking down the cell walls. Yes, we get a tiny bit more oil when we grind the plants first—but not enough to account for the extra time it takes to stand in front of the loud chipper.

We were lucky to stumble onto used equipment, and to live in a conifer forest where regular blowdowns give us abundant plant material. There isn’t much information out there about essential oil extraction, so we are discovering as we go. The process strikes a chord with my mad-scientist-botanist self, and has given our resilient farm an income stream that fits well into our yearly routines. A significant bonus is that we have all the essential oil we want for our wood-fired sauna, but that’s a story for another day. Enjoy the smells of the season, wherever you are!

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

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

How to Delay Vegetable Crops from Bolting


Bolting lettuce

What Causes Bolting?

Bolting is the name for plants making flowers and seeds. When a plant starts to bolt, it is usually a sign to expect a poor harvest, and a decline in flavor. You can eat bolting plants, but they become too tough and woody at some point.

Factors that can Trigger Bolting

Annual plants (basil, lettuce, melons, peas) grow from seed, flower and set seed all in one year. That can be spring to winter or fall to summer. Annual crops start making flowers as the daylength and temperature increase. Some annuals are crops where we eat the fruit or seeds and bolting is not an issue (sweet corn, tomatoes).

Increased day length: Bolting can happen (especially with annual crops) when day length increases as summer approaches. This can be a problem if you planted your seeds too late in the spring for that crop to mature before the plants bolt.

High soil temperatures: As soil temperatures increase, annual plants begin flower and seed production. This isn’t a problem after bountiful harvests. But, when spring has unusually hot weather or if you plant crops too late into the growing season, your crop may bolt before any harvests.

Biennial plants (beets, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips etc), carrots, celery, chard, leeks, onions, spinach) grow big the first year, then seed the second year, if we still have them. Many biennial food crops are grown as cool weather annuals. Unsettled weather (cold nights, hot days, late frosts) early in the season can cause biennials to bolt. Spinach grows best in temperatures from 35-75°F (1-23°C) and will begin to flower once spring days are longer than 14 hours and temperatures get above 75°F (23°C).

Cold temperatures: A prolonged cold spell in spring can signal to biennials (especially immature plants) that “winter” has happened and it’s time to develop seeds for the next season. If you start these crops too early in the calendar year, you risk exposing them to cold weather, priming them to develop flowers as soon as the weather warms up again.  Brassicas started in cool conditions, and grown on in warmer conditions, are primed to bolt.

Plant size: larger biennial plants are more likely than small ones to bolt when a trigger such as cold temperatures strikes.

Root stress: Bolting caused by root stress typically happens when you disturb a plant's root system by transplanting, or if your plant runs out of growing space in a container that's too small, or because the rows did not get sufficiently thinned.

Stresses such as insufficient minerals or water: Healthy soil with plenty of nutrients and balanced moisture levels will encourage quick growth. Every gardener should aim for this balance, especially those in hotter climates where it's a race to plant leafy salads, cooking greens and root crops before the hot weather wins. High salt levels are another stressor, particularly in hoophouses.

Mustard bed bolting

25 Tips to Delay Vegetable Crops from Bolting

  • Investigate, record and follow local last planting dates for early spring crops, and first planting dates for fall crops. Plant spinach 4-6 weeks before the average date of the last frost in your region. You can also sow 6-8 weeks before the first fall frost.
  • For some crops there are varieties that are resistant to bolting. If you have had repeated trouble with a particular crop bolting, look for bolt-resistant varieties. White and brown onions are less prone to bolting than red varieties.
  • Onions grown from sets (plants stymied in mid-growth) are prone to bolting. Grow onions from seed or plant heat-treated sets in early spring.
  • Avoid stressing your plants.
  • Direct sow. Plants prone to bolting due to root stress (beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, and many herbs) grow best when you direct sow them, rather than transplanting. This allows their root systems to develop without interruption.
  • Transfer seedlings to a larger pot before the roots get crowded ("root bound")
  • Harden off plants before transplanting. Get them used to outdoor conditions, avoid shock.
  • Cover plants in the event of a cold spell, which can keep them from being directly exposed to cold temperatures, rain, or snow. 
  • To postpone bolting in spring, avoid chilling young brassica plants (above 5-8 true leaves, or with a stem diameter above a certain size), below 40°F (4.5°C) for a few days, or longer at 50°F (10°C). The interaction of plant size (age) and cold temperatures makes the plant flower. Older plants are more likely to bolt than young plants at the same cold temperature. Young hardened-off plants are very resistant to bolting.
  • Coax your vegetables to maturity quickly and efficiently so they're ready to eat before the plants have a chance to flower.
  • Mulch spring crops early to help keep the soil and roots cooler, extending the harvest. We have found this to be especially helpful with spring cabbage and broccoli.
  • Use shadecloth to keep greens and lettuce cool as the season warms, or plant them in the shade of other plants
  • Many cool-season crops mature better before temperatures get to 80°F (27°C), so plan accordingly. If your springs heat up fast as ours do, start earlier.
  • Plant some annuals after the summer solstice to grow in the decreasing daylength without risk of bolting (unless another factor such as stress or temperature comes into play). Spring-sown Asian greens will bolt as nights become warmer  on average above 50-55°F (10-13°C). To prevent bolting in Asian greens, sow these crops from July onwards.
  • Winter radishes will only form a good root if they are planted in late summer or fall as the days get shorter. Grow bulb fennel, storage carrots, beets in fall, not spring.
  • Once cold-hardy plants are big, they can endure cold winter temperatures. They will not bolt until the daylight is lengthening again (after the Winter Solstice) and the temperature starts to rise.
  • Brassica greens started in hot conditions do not usually bolt if they have enough water. I recommend both Tokyo bekana and Maruba Santoh (both "celery cabbage" types of Asian greens), for summer substitutes for lettuce. You do have to grow them fast, with plenty of water, and insect netting if you have brassica leaf pests.
  • Sow quick-maturing plants like lettuce, cilantro, or radish regularly. Succession sowing can keep some plants always coming into maturity instead of relying on one sowing to last a long time without bolting in the garden. 
  • If you grow biennial plants and harvest them in the first year, they are unlikely to bolt. A few specimens may still do so. Chard is cold-sensitive, and by delaying sowing until April, we grow chard as a fresh cooking green all summer, and it will not bolt no matter how hot.
  • For early harvests of biennials, start the plants in plug flats or soil blocks indoors, planting them out when the weather is more settled and avoiding cold stress.
  • Dry soil can also encourage bolting, particularly with cabbages, cauliflower, arugula and spinach. Provide ample water.
  • For over-wintered leeks and onions, bolting can be delayed by topdressing with 2-3oz per sq yd (70-100g per sq m) of nitrogen rich fertilizer very early in the new year
  • Pick off the outer leaves from leafy crops such as lettuce, keeping the plants from maturing. As well as providing you with multiple harvests, this can extend the harvest period by as much as 10 weeks, although in hot weather the flavor may still become bitter, even without bolting. Grow Batavian varieties in hot weather.
  • With some crops, like basil, if you catch a plant in the very early stages of bolting, you can temporarily reverse the process by snipping off the flowers and flower buds. The plant will go back to producing leaves and will stop bolting. In most plants (such as broccoli and lettuce) this only buys you a little extra time to harvest the crop.
  • Cabbage wrangling: If a cabbage is mature and preparing to split open (a stage of bolting) before you are ready to harvest, you can get a firm hold on the head and give it a quarter turn. This will break some of the feeder roots and reduce the water uptake, delaying splitting.

Change Your Attitude about Bolting

You can’t control the climate, the weather or the daylength. If you’ve taken the steps listed above and your plants are still bolting, change your attitude! As soon as you see signs of your greens bolting, harvest the entire plant. Learn to appreciate peppery arugula or slightly bitter lettuce (mixed in with other salad greens).  Bolted vegetables are food for pollinating insects such as bees. Enjoy the beauty of sprays of yellow brassica flowers, majestic globes of leeks and onions, and lacy carrot umbels.

Pam Dawling has worked at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia for more than 27 years, growing vegetables for 100 people on 3.5 acres and training many members in sustainable vegetable production. She is the author of Sustainable Market Farming and The Year-Round HoophousePam often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs and at sustainable agriculture conferences. She is a contributing editor with Growing for Market magazine, and a weekly blogger on Read all of Pam’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

Make the Most Out of Your Mini Greenhouse

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A mini greenhouse creates endless new possibilities for the home gardener. It extends the growing season and provides a protected space for more tender plants during the winter months. Even a simple, unheated greenhouse keeps the temperature about 10 degrees F warmer than outside. Depending on your growing zone, that could mean salad greens and kale all winter long, or extra-early carrots or strawberries in the spring — or even being able to grow semi-tropical and tropical fruits such as citrus, avocado, or olives.

Mini greenhouses come in a few standard sizes, such as 6x8 feet or 6x10 feet. That may not seem like a lot of space, but by strategically planning the layout, you can maximize the efficiency of the space and what you get out of your greenhouse.

Here are some design principles for creating the layout of your greenhouse:

  • think versatile
  • think vertical
  • think seasonal
  • plan for how you will be using the space

Think Versatility

The way you use the greenhouse will change from season to season. Set yourself up for success by creating a few different zones or areas that you can adapt to multiple uses.

You need to leave space in the middle for a pathway (minimum 1.5 ft wide), so you really can only use the space in a U-shaped area along the edges and at the end for growing. One approach would be to fill up this U-shaped area with either raised bed boxes or fixed shelving. My recommendation, though, would be to set up a couple of different types of areas.

If you create a raised bed box on one side and create gravel flooring for the rest, that gravel area can be changed and adapted based on your needs. (Gravel flooring is ideal because it keeps the space tidier than a dirt floor would be, and the rocks store heat during the day and release it during the night, keeping the space warmer during those critical spring nights.)

You could set up shelving for seedlings and potted plants in the spring, replace them with large self-watering containers for tomatoes and peppers in the summer, and use the space for potted subtropical plants such as dwarf olive or citrus in the winter. You could even set up a potting table, with compost and soil stored conveniently underneath, for part of the season.

Think Vertically

The footprint of a mini greenhouse is small. Solution: grow vertically! Stacking crops vertically allows you to make the most of the sunlight and space all the way up to the ceiling.

You can use hooks or top shelves, or hang containers, such as baskets of strawberries, from the ceiling. If you have an aluminum greenhouse, you should be able to find fittings and hooks specifically designed to fit the frame. With the help of hooks and garden twine, or tomato cages, you can trellis plants such as pea vines, tomatoes, and cucumbers to grow up. You can also use the ceiling space for drying herbs or hanging your gardening hand tools.

Shelving is another great way to make full use of the height of your greenhouse. You can choose between free-standing shelves and wall-mounted shelves specifically designed to attach to the frame. Adjustable shelves are ideal. Though many gardeners prefer wood as a material, remember that insects and pests can overwinter in wood – plastic or metal may be the better option.

Think Seasonality

The “landscape” of your greenhouse changes as the seasons change. Reserve the precious real estate of the greenhouse for plants and purposes that really need or benefit from that extra protection and warmth.

In the winter, depending on your growing zone, the greenhouse might be the one place where you can still grow year-round salad greens, or Brassica greens like kale or tatsoi for braising and steaming.

In the spring, starting an extra early crop of sweet peas or strawberries in the greenhouse makes for a lovely treat in March or April, a few weeks before peas or strawberries will start producing outside.

In the summer, reserve the greenhouse for heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, or peppers. Plant vegetables that don’t particularly need the heat elsewhere. The same goes for vining vegetables that take up a lot of space, such as melons and cantaloupes; growing them in a mini-greenhouse simply isn’t a good use of space.

Summer vines in the greenhouse

Summer vines in the greenhouse 

Plan for How You Will Use the Space

­­I've made the mistake of planting the entire greenhouse so full that, by July, I had trouble even entering. The greenhouse was one shiny box of jungle, with tomato and cucumber vines sprawling out the door and the vent. It was exciting, though not exactly convenient, to try to enter and harvest food.

Remember: if it’s hard for you to get in, you won’t be very successful at keeping an eye on your crops! Design space for yourself.

Think about how you will be using the space, and design enough space for those activities. Definitely leave enough space for that walkway in the middle. If you want to do potting inside the greenhouse, reserve one corner for a potting table. Trellis and train your most vigorous plants so as to guide their growth enough that you can still access the very back of the greenhouse.

The drawings below show possible layouts for a standard 8x6 ft mini greenhouse through the four seasons.


  • bring in racks or shelving for seedling trays
  • cover crop is mowed down and different brassicas, lettuces, and peas are planted in
  • harvest carrots and salad greens from smaller containers
  • start an early crop of strawberries in hanging baskets

 Greenhouse spring layout

Greenhouse spring layout 


  • spring plants have given way to heat-loving summer vegetables: cucumber, eggplant, pepper, and tomatoes
  • you can plant several cucumber and tomato plants in the raised bed box and grow smaller, more compact peppers and eggplants in containers

Greenhouse summer layout

 Greenhouse summer layout


  • keep harvesting the last of summer tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants well into October
  • then clear out any plant debris, spread a fresh layer of compost, and plant a winter cover crop or winter veggies that are not heavy feeders, such as lettuce
  • plant winter salad greens in containers
  • bring in any potted dwarf subtropical plants, such as citrus, avocado, or olive to overwinter in the greenhouse

Greenhouse fall layout

 Greenhouse fall layout


  • plant winter Brassicas, such as kale, broccoli, or collards in the raised bed
  • keep harvesting salad greens from smaller containers
  • check on overwintering potted plants

Greenhouse winter layout

 Greenhouse winter layout

Mari Stuart lives in Asheville, N.C., where she stewards an urban homestead with her husband and daughter. She is a project designer for Carbon Harvest, a pioneering community-powered carbon farming initiative in Southern Appalachia, as well as an edible landscape designer, homesteading skills teacher, and freelance writer. Connect with Mari at Make Gather Grow and its Facebook and Instagram, and at Carbon Harvest and its Facebook and Instagram. Read all of Mari’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

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