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


[Video] Farming For Life, Part 4: Passing Your Farm to the Next Generation

As large numbers of America’s farmers near retirement, the need for new young farmers to take their place grows more urgent. But replacing retiring farm owners involves more than just finding a young person with the right skill set. It also takes money — a lot of it. So how do young farmers without much capital acquire property or take over farms?

In this video, working farmers and farm supporters discuss a variety of ways ownership transactions are taking place.

How Do Farm Buyers and Sellers Find Each Other?

It’s when the challenges we face are greatest that innovative thinking becomes most important. And that type of thinking is helping farm ownership transfers take place. One of the first challenges sellers and buyers face is finding each other. To facilitate that, a number of “land-link” websites serve as a resource to connect people. But sometimes the best strategy is to simply put buyers and sellers in the same room and let them get to know each other.

Organizations across the country are now working to do that. But making connections is just the beginning. Next comes a bigger challenge: making things work financially.

What Financial Strategies are Being Used?

Agricultural easements are growing in importance because they provide a financial benefit for a retiring farmer and help make farm acquisition more affordable for young farmers. Land trusts are another important component of the movement to keep farms in operation. As are investors who hold the mortgage on a property until a new farmer can afford to acquire it. And joint ventures that help groom young farmers to take over are becoming more common.

For more information on advancing your farming career, contact these organizations:

New Entry Sustainable Farming Project - Tufts University
nesfp@tufts.edu
978-654-6745

National Young Farmers Coalition
info@youngfarmers.org
518-643-3564

Rogue Farm Corps
info@roguefarmcorps.org
541-951-5105

Production Credits And Thanks

A special thank you goes out to farmers Jack Gray and Chris Overbaugh (Winter Green Farm), Emily Cooper (Full Cellar Farm), Lili Tova (Flying Coyote Farm), Jonny Steiger (By George Farm), and Katie Coppoletta and Tayne Reeve (Fiddlehead Farm); to farm employees and trainees Mary Koppes, Daphne Gill, Stephen Lewis, and Piper Krabbenhoft; to EMSWCD Land Legacy Director Matt Shipkey; and to the staff members of Rogue Farm Corps for their support and participation. Selected video and photo files were provided by Rogue Farm Corps 

The four-part Farming For Life series was produced by Farming Is Life Media Services (FILMS), with writing and directing by John Vincent, and videography and editing by Paul Manda.


John Clark Vincent is a writer and author who lives in Portland, Ore. His most recent book, Planting a Future, presents a view of what’s happening within Oregon’s rapidly growing movement toward sustainable farming practices. In an effort to provide a glimpse into the many different aspects of such a surging movement, he uses profiles of 18 different farmers and farm supporters to represent the different elements of Oregon’s farm community. Find John online on his website, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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

Building a Pallet-able Compost Bin

 compost-bin
Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

Composting in the office often seems like a far-off dream, but here at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS headquarters, we’ve found an office-friendly solution: a repurposed trash can for the collection bin and a compost bin built from pallets. (Find the tutorial to build the bin here.) Now, we’re adding a second chamber to the compost bin, since we’ve been so successful with our composting endeavors.

office-compost-bin
Our compost collection bin doesn’t take up much space in the breakroom. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

As you might suspect, adding on a second chamber is merely a matter of attaching three pallets to the original compost bin.

 compost-bin-sides
Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

The pallets are attached to the preexisting structure and screwed into place. That’s it!

 compost-bin-back
Jay and Tyler install the back of the new chamber. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

attaching-boards
 Photo by Staff

 A board across the two chambers helps to reinforce the integrity of the structure.

 strengthening-compost-bin
The rest of the structure is further strengthened by screws. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

Next, the overflowing compost has to be moved to the newly built chamber. The bin is opened from the side, and the compost is transferred.

opened-compost-bin
emptying-compost-bin
Photos by Amanda Kim Stairrett

Our bins also attracted a visitor — this friendly cricket who was undeterred by the construction.

 compost-bin-cricket
Photo by Ingrid Butler

We hope our cricket visitor enjoys its new, spacious home, and we look forward to the time when our compost is ready to be integrated into the soil.

More on composting:

More on building with pallets:

More on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Garden:


Want to grow a garden as lush as ours? Find our go-to products for garden maintenance, harvesting, and more at in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Garden Shed.

If you’d like to be a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Garden sponsor, contact Brenda Escalante.

Thank you to our sponsorsGarden In MinutesNeptune’s HarvestCoast of MaineSouthern Exposure Seed ExchangeMeadow CreatureLehman’sMOTHER EARTH NEWS StoreHappy Leaf LEDBerry Hill Irrigation.

11 Lessons Learned from Our First Year Homesteading

 The farm

Today I've been thinking about what lessons we've learned in the first year of homesteading. Farming or living on an acreage is a very challenging life, but so is living in the city! Just in different ways.

Out here, when your source for drinking water dries up...that's a huge problem. And it translates to a lot of time spent hauling water and hooking up hoses in rough terrain or steep slopes.

In the city, it's the stress of a boss dictating your entire life, including when you can spend time with your kids or do something you enjoy. Also not fun.

But the homesteading lifestyle has so many unique challenges that I wanted to offer my perspective as it's been a year since we moved here. Here are eleven things that I wish someone had told me about before jumping into this life...that way I could have at least mentally prepared for some of it, or been super grateful for the luxury of city living (oh, that faucet that magically pours water out!!).

1. We did a lot of camping-style cooking for most of the first year. If you are going to be in a similar off-grid set-up, be prepared for this by packing your nice plates, linens, and wine glasses in secure boxes and use your camping plates and flatware until a proper kitchen is set up. I had to make sure all of my food was stored in food-grade buckets in case we got mice, so it was challenging to remember where things were stored. I had to let go of wanting that perfect kitchen set-up and organized pantry.

2. Don't over-promise yourself when setting up projects for the year. We bought a bunch of trees back in February and they were delivered in late May during a massive heat wave. We had no irrigation set up, and no fencing ready to keep deer and rabbits out. We didn't have the holes pre-dug because it was a month where so many things needed handling. So some of the trees died, and it broke my heart knowing that we weren't ready for them. But lesson learned: don't buy plants ahead of time if you're not sure that you will be ready for them. We also had a very amazing opportunity to buy goats from a friend, and I had the foresight to say no even though I so badly wanted goats (and had always dreamed of getting them). I'm glad I turned her down because we had no housing for them, no feed, and no fencing. It would have been a recipe for disaster if I had said yes.

3. Everything goes really slowly in your first year. Especially if you have young kids. Pare down your expectations to one or two major projects and you'll be happy at the end of it! At the same time, if you have proper tools and heavy duty equipment + cash money to hire people, then things will go fast and you can say yes to a lot more opportunities. Be ready to spend lots of money on fencing, building supplies, and equipment. 

4. Spend a lot of time observing your new land and all of the different micro-climates around you. Watch everything through the seasons. You will find out things you couldn't guess from looking at topography maps or other such tools. Make sure to do this before making any big decisions like cutting down timber, clearing land, putting in fencing or building big structures. 

5. If your land is in the Pacific Northwest, be prepared to cut, mow, and clear brush constantly. Grass grows to 8 feet tall here! Ferns, blackberries, elderberries, stinging nettle, and wild roses are completely persistent and spring right back. There's a reason it's called the temperate rainforest!

Blackberries in the PNW

6. Get yourself a hedge trimmer. They are so handy with scrubby brush (mature elderberry bushes, ferns, blackberries, wild roses, etc.). They are cheap and not stinky like a chainsaw, and lighter too! Our chainsaw is very handy, but the hedge trimmer is our favorite tool this first year on the homestead. We have a battery operated one that we love. 

7. No matter how much you feel that your new equipment is bulletproof, that tractor or skidsteer is going to need fixing. And it's probably going to need fixing right in the middle of a very critical project. Like fencing or digging trenches for water lines. Count on it and be prepared with lots of common parts that typically break on that machine. Read online forums about your model & make to learn about this.

8. Fencing is really, really expensive. If you have a romantic view of having tons of land (anymore than 5 acres), be prepared to be constantly putting up fencing and maintaining it. If you're not ready to do that, purchase a smaller acreage or rent land. Or if you are in the process of buying land, buy some with lots of fencing already done! It will save you so much time and money (and headache!).

9. Be willing to accept a downgrade in comfort and convenience. There may be times when you have to haul water in buckets or shower outside with pretty cool water (those solar showers don't heat the water very much, unless you live in a blazing hot climate). This also depends on your circumstances and what you start out with. But also, even in an on-grid situation, there will be times when the plumber is booked solid and can't come fix the pipes. If you live rurally, power outages are very common. The internet or cell service gets blocked by thick cloud cover often as well. And don't get me started on higher shipping costs! It's been easy to give up our Amazon addiction, since it costs $50 shipping for even the smallest item!

10. Get through the problems with humor! It can be funny when the tractor gets stuck in the mud and you get covered with mud, sweat, and tears while trying to pull it out. Maybe it isn't funny right when it happens, but it's fun to look back and chuckle at all of the shenanigans that happened in the last year. I like recording a lot of the major things that happen to us in my journal so we can do just that.

11. Most of all: Enjoy the beauty of nature! Take sunset walks with your partner, maybe get a hot tub and revel in the glory of the wilderness at your fingertips. That forestry, fresh smell in the morning with a cup of coffee is so nice. I have plans to have an outdoor kitchen, bonfires by the pond in summer, and lots of other fun projects that I could never have done in the city. I am so grateful to have a gorgeous piece of land that is ALL mine and I can do anything I want to it!


Rosemary Hansen is an Author, Homesteading Mama, and a Chef. She has spent the last 10 years “homesteading” in the city. She and her family have just started their off-grid homestead in rural British Columbia, Canada. Her books, Grow a Salad In Your City Apartment and Rosemary’s Natural Cosmetic Guide are a great way to ease into a healthy, pure lifestyle. You can connect with Rosemary at her website, Rosemary Pure Living, or on her YouTube channel. Read all of Rosemary'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.

Fall Is Saffron Harvest Time

Crocus sativus 

A good friend gifted me the bulbs (technically called corms) for my Crocus sativus a few years ago, thus beginning a fascination with this pretty little autumn spray of color. I had previously used saffron in a couple of dishes but due to the price (up to $5,000 per pound for high grade) and my thrifty nature, I saved my kitchen explorations for other, less expensive forays.

Thanks to my gardening buddy, I now harvest saffron from my own garden. For a 2- to 3-week period each autumn, I wander out each morning with my little glass container and gently pluck the three stigmas—bright red, edible saffron part—from each of the flowers that have opened in the previous 24 hours.

Sharing crocus with insects

I have yet to count the flowers I harvest from in one season, but I know it’s far from the 75,000 flowers it takes to produce one pound of saffron. My small collection of bulbs is slowly multiplying, but it’s enough to supply my single household with enough treasure for my current culinary purposes. It will be time to dig up the corms next year to divide them as this is optimal every 3 to 4 years for bringing on even larger harvests.

I heartily support growing your own if you live in Crocus sativus friendly zones—Zone 5 to Zone 8 in my neck of the woods, and up to Zone 9 in the west. I needn’t have worried about our mini drought affecting my crocus since they don’t like too much rain in the summer warmth when they’re sleeping. However, harvest did start a couple of weeks later this year because of our warmer temperatures. My crocus seem to be triggered by nighttime temperatures in the 30s.

I don’t mind sharing my flowers with the smaller flyers (aka insects) in my garden because I know there are dwindling food sources and cover from predators at this time of year. They also seem to leave the stigmas alone so I can still harvest my treasure. Somebody really made a meal out of one of the flowers this fall (lower right of the photo collage above). I’m guessing it may have been a bird or a slug rather than the insects in the photos who still left the stigmas to me.

As the photos show, this particular bumblebee was just waking up and was hardly bothered by my harvesting. The top two photos of the above array show the before and after where the bumble hardly moved at all. The flower, bottom left, shows a blossom hideaway that I’ll likely harvest from tomorrow.

Make sure to buy only Crocus sativus for harvesting. This plant, and the wild one it is descended from—Crocus cartwrightianus—are the only edible varieties. There are other fall flowering crocus, but they are toxic and should not be used for food or cooking.

Saffron harvest

The photo above shows my dried saffron harvest at the end of the 2018 season compared to the first two days of picking in the 2019 season. I’m happy to pick straight into my wee glass ramekin for now since I only have a few flowers a day to pluck. For larger harvests, a dehydrator would come in handy as long as the saffron was protected from falling through or blowing around.

To date, I have mainly used saffron in rice dishes and incorporated into my sourdough bread. I love a good paella—a traditional dish with saffron—and look forward to a day when I have more saffron than I can use so that I can wander further into experimentation. For now, I’m happy to use whatever treasures they treat me to along with the splash of eye candy before my indoor hibernation.

If you have a spot in your garden with plenty of sunshine, well-draining and somewhat rich soil where you would appreciate a bit of fall color that also gives you some harvest gold to add to your kitchen pantry, consider growing Crocus sativus. It certainly brings joy and delight into this gardening cook’s life.


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.

The Turn of the Luffa: From Gourd to Sponge

luffa 
A small fraction of the luffa, neatly gathered in a bucket. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

Fall has come to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS garden, and with that, the Ridged Luffa Gourds, whose seeds were donated by the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, have finally reached maturity. Eager to turn these dried, ridged gourds into the biodegradable, earth-friendly sponges we all adore, we set to harvesting them with the conviction that this endeavor would only take a few minutes.

We thought wrong.

luffa-harvesting
Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

It took us 30 minutes to harvest this unassumingly prolific gourd: As we cleared away the remaining luffa vines to make room for our fall garden, we kept finding more luffa squirreled away under dense leaves, dangling from the spidery vines. Our friendly rabbit visitor had made no impact on the luffa gourds, despite its love for the plant’s leaves!

clearing-luffa
Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

Harvesting the gourds themselves was fairly simple when we used gardening gloves sufficient to protect our skin from the dry, rough ridges of the luffa.

composting-luffa
We cleared the leaves and vines from the garden and put them into our newly constructed double compost bin. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

We quickly found that we had underestimated the number of buckets we’d need to bring the luffa gourds to the office for processing.

luffa-buckets
Not pictured: still more luffa. Photo by Amanda Kim Stairrett

We scavenged a leftover tarp and piled the remaining gourds onto it; even so, it was a perilous journey back to the office! Even with two people carrying it, the pile of luffa was so high that it seemed ready to topple at any moment.

luffa-office
Photo by Ingrid Butler

Back at the office, it took a few tries to figure out the optimal method of processing the luffa, but we eventually ended up with a fibrous sponge.

luffa-peeled
 Photo by Ingrid Butler

And if you’re not quite sold yet on the luffa as a natural sponge, they make fantastic, earth-friendly pet chew toys.

More on gourds and luffa:

More on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Garden:


Want to grow a garden as lush as ours? Find our go-to products for garden maintenance, harvesting, and more at in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Garden Shed.

If you’d like to be a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Garden sponsor, contact Brenda Escalante.

Thank you to our sponsorsGarden In MinutesNeptune’s HarvestCoast of MaineSouthern Exposure Seed ExchangeMeadow CreatureLehman’s,MOTHER EARTH NEWS StoreHappy Leaf LEDBerry Hill Irrigation.

Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 3: Equipment and Fertilizer

Backyard Plant Nursery Fertilizing 

I talked about seaweed solution, sun, and soil in the previous article, Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 2. Today, I’ll talk about fertilizers and equipment you need to start a backyard plant nursery.

Backyard plant nurseries are one of the few businesses you can start with almost zero outlay. You can start with a few pots (you can find lots for free or cheaply online or in your local paper), some bags of potting mix, and take some cuttings of your own plants. Simply water them with a water hose or watering can, apply some seaweed solution fortnightly, and perhaps a sprinkle of organic fertilizer here and there.

That’s pretty much how we started. We started with cacti, so watering was hardly ever necessary. They thrived in the sun, so no shade cloth or greenhouse needed. As you grow your plant nursery, however, there are a few things that’ll really make your life easier, and also help you increase plant production and profit.

1. Weed Mat

Weed mat is a heavy-duty landscaping fabric that will let water through but keeps weeds out. It makes your life easier by significantly reducing weed growth in your plant pots, and provides a nice, clean base for pots.

We didn’t use weed mat for a start, but you’ll be weeding pots until the end of time! Also, as weeds grow in your pots, they’ll suck up fertilizer, taking it away from the plant it is intended for. They’ll also completely fill the pot with roots, so your plant’s roots get strangled and they are nearly impossible to separate.

Plant Nursery Gardens

2. Plant Nursery Irrigation

A watering hose does the trick but eventually, you’ll want to be able to turn the sprinklers on and leave them to it while you attend to other plant nursery tasks. Irrigation can be as simple as a dome sprinkler, placed in the middle of a group of plants, and moved around to different spots.

Or, it can be more elaborate with drip irrigation in every pot (I do not recommend this if you have 100’s of plants!) or ‘ticker sprinklers’. We used the tickers in the end, mounted on star pickets. Our shade house was around 30m long, and we had 1 row of 8 ticker sprinklers down the middle. This worked well, but you will need to check plants regularly, especially in the corners as the sprinklers don’t reach the corners very well.

You can then install timers as well and set them to water every X amount of days, for X amount of time.

One thing, make sure you have good filtration set up if you’re watering from a dam, as we did. Your sprinklers will clog up very easily. The bigger the sprinklers, the less likely they will block, and the dome sprinklers don’t really block up at all. Unless you have a frog or lizard in the water lines, of course, which happened a few times!

3. Fertilizing a Plant Nursery

I talked about seaweed solution/extract in the previous article, and it is something I consider a necessity in a commercial backyard plant nursery, and in any garden, really. It’s like spinach for Popeye, but for plants. It makes them strong, stress-free, and happy.

Seaweed extract does not have an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) content. That means that it does not have any form of food for the plant, at all. It has a lot of benefits but feeding plants is not one of them.

For food and growth, you’ll need an actual fertilizer. There are 1000’s of fertilizers available and it can be quite hard to know which one to get. We tried around 25 different ones and for us, the best ones were organic, simple, and cheap. We used Organic Xtra for many years, just a few pellets in each pot. We were able to get this in ton bags for around $350. We used it everywhere, in the plant nursery, in pots, and in gardens.

When we purchase the farm where we started our plant nursery, we didn’t consider soil quality. In fact, we purchased it without knowing we were going to start a plant nursery! As it turned out, the soil was absolutely depleted of pretty much every nutrient, except calcium. The dam was full of iron, which colors sprinklers and plants red.

If we were to buy a farm to start a backyard plant nursery, soil and water quality would be incredibly important. If you're growing gardens in difficult conditions as well, I highly recommend you go with tiered, or peasant-style gardens. I'll touch this subject in the next article, but I wrote a breakdown of these types of gardens in 'How to Grow a Wild Food Forest'.  

Wild Food Forest Garden

Where I was going with this, is that we started looking into improving the soil, naturally. Not simply tossing around tons of lime and chemically-produced nitrogen, but really improving the soil. Increasing worm activity, increasing compost rates and organic matter, and working on ‘healing’ the soil and its topsoil. Not just for us, or to make money from the plants, but also for the many lizards, frogs, insects, birds, and other critters that lived with us.

Dan was the forerunner here. He invented a brew-your-own liquid microbe fertilizer blend, with a system to absolutely pour it onto the farm. The brew would bubble for 24 hours, then it was all hands on deck while he fired up the water pump and we’d race around the garden like we were putting out fires around the place. He also set it up so we could switch it over to water the nursery with it.

We saw incredible results with this, combined with layers and layers of mulch. The plants in the plant nursery looked amazing. The gardens started to heal and thrive. Worms started to live in the soil. I’m proud to say we managed to grow some incredible tropical gardens in a soil that was barely soil; just hot, dry gravelly rock.

I’ll share Dan’s microbe blend here, for, in the end, bugs turn the world and I hope you’ll use it to increase your bugs, too.

Dans Liquid Microbe Fertilizer

Liquid Microbe Fertilizer - Dan’s Blend

For a 200l batch:

Ingredients

  • 1.5l molasses
  • Seaweed extract (Quantity as per the bottle’s instructions)
  • 3-4kg of Organic Xtra, Chicken manure pellets, or fresh chicken, cow, or horse manure
  • Optional: 250g Guano
  • Optional: 50g potash
  • Optional: any extra’s you feel like experimenting with; cans of tuna, dog food, other manure, etc.

Directions

  1. Put all the ingredients in a big tank and add water to fill to 200l.
  2. Use big pond aeration bubblers to create air in the mixture, and let it bubble away for 24 hours. You’ll see a layer of foam forming on the top - this is a good sign of active microbes, and it will smell sweet.
  3. If you leave it longer than 24 hours, it will start to smell sour and ‘off’ because the mixture turns anaerobic rather than aerobic. Different types of bacteria will need different amounts of oxygen. ‘Aerobic’ means that they need oxygen, and ‘anaerobic’ means they don’t. You can still use it, but you won’t have the aerobic bacteria we love so much, and you won’t see the same results.
  4. The liquid microbe fertilizer needs to be diluted before you apply it. Dan set up a system with a pump from the dam and a pump to water the plant nursery. The dam pump had a higher flow than the nursery pump, resulting in water pumping into the pod tank faster than it was coming, thus diluting it as it was going on to the plants.

You can make this liquid in small quantities too, just adjust the ingredients accordingly and then dilute it in watering cans.

The main issue with this system is that there is lots of ‘matter’ that won’t go through sprinkling systems. Dan solved this issue by having the pick-up tap on the pod tank up about 15cm, so any debris would sit at the bottom, and the fertilizer was picked up above the bulk of the debris. He also installed coarse sediment filters to protect watering equipment. This is mainly only an issue with sprinklers, it goes through bigger watering hoses fine.

Once the fertilizer was all distributed, we would take the hose off the tap, open the tap, and let it run out while pouring more water in with it. The run-off would go into the gardens via a trench, so no good stuff was lost.

4. Nursery Shade Houses and Greenhouses

Shade was a must for our plant nursery in the end. We couldn’t keep the water up to the plants in full sun, but we are talking hot Queensland (Australia) sun here. We were a tropical plant nursery, and tropical plants love humidity and shelter. If you are growing cacti, you won’t need a shade house. Look at your climate and plants, they’ll show you if shade is beneficial for your nursery, or not.

Greenhouses are important for propagation. Successful propagation depends on steady conditions and enough moisture to sustain the cutting or seed until it can grow its own roots. Some plant varieties will propagate fine outside of a greenhouse, but there are many varieties that simply won’t. You can also have a misting system in this greenhouse so your propagation stock gets nice gentle water, rather than the same full-stream that the rest of the nursery gets.

5. Tables

Having your plants on tables really saves your back. Bending over to tend to plants takes its toll! Having plants raised also keeps weeds out and greatly reduces damage-causing insects and rodents. Initially, we only had our seeds on tables, as we found a lot of rodent-type animals love eating seeds. We lost 1000’s of Strelitzia seeds to, what we think were, mice.

The downside of tables is that pots dry out quicker. That loss of contact with the ground, I think, increases draining and it can be harder to keep the soil nicely moist. Weigh up the costs of tables and the pros and cons, make a decision to suit your needs.

In the next article, I’ll talk about growing plants in mother stock gardens, to use as propagation stock for your backyard plant nursery. The liquid microbe fertilizer is hugely important in your mother stock gardens as well, so keep that in mind as I’ll mainly focus on setting up your mother stock gardens, good plant varieties to grow for propagation, and how to propagate them.

Photos by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens


Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children. Connect with Elle at Outdoor Happenson Facebook and PinterestRead all of Elle’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.

Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 2: How to Grow Plants

Plant Nursery 

So, what do you really need to start growing plants for profit in a plant nursery? Not a lot. Plants actually know how to grow quite well, without interference from us. The problem starts when you take them out of their natural environment and make them grow in plastic containers and shade houses, and you take away natural predators that would, in nature, take care of any pests.

Replicate the Plant's Natural Environment

The trick to successful plant growing is to know their preferred environment and growing conditions.  Start by answering these questions: What’s their country of origin? What temperatures do they prefer? How about humidity and/or sunshine?

Initially, we didn’t consider any of this when we started our plant nursery, and you don’t have to, but it certainly avoids a lot of stock losses. Your plants will teach you where you’re going wrong, and it won’t be long before you notice drooping leaves, yellow spots, or other signs of a generally unhappy plant. You can take a plant out of nature, but you can’t take nature out of the plant, so to speak.

For example, I managed to get my hands on a true Medinilla magnifica, a very rare plant species. It went into the nursery with all the others, and promptly decided it hated it, dropped all its leaves in the first few days, and had a proper plant tantrum. Much too late, I researched its preferred conditions and realized that 50% shade was not enough, nor was the soil fertile enough, and my watering was way off. I managed to save it by replicating its preferred conditions and it continued to thrive and make us lots of money. One single small plant would sell for over $100! For this one, this special care was worth it, but I highly recommend you find plants that are similar in care, or can at least adjust!

You’ll learn on the fly, and practice makes perfect. If it looks like a plant is not thriving, try something different with the next one. Put it in semi-shade rather than full sun. Give it less fertilizer, or more. Let it dry out a bit more before watering again. And so on.

1. Seaweed Solution

Here is where we enter seaweed solution. Yes, I’ll talk about seaweed before soil, before water, before fertilizers, before anything else really. Why? Because seaweed solution is your right-hand man. It helps average out extremes of your care, your possibly heavy hand.

The benefits:

  • It increases plant growth when applied as seed treatment or foliar spray. Seaweed solution contains micro-nutrients, auxins and cytokinins (beneficial hormones), and other growth promoting substances. (Spinelli et al., 2010)
  • It contains micro-nutrients that increase soil health. (Liu and Lijun, 2011)
  • It helps retain moisture and minerals for your plants. (Zodape et al.,2011)
  • It increases the plant’s defence enzymes which reduces a plant’s stress response. (Jayaraman et al., 2011)

These are just some of the many benefits reported in studies but I’ll tell you what we noticed, from personal experience.  

When we started using seaweed solution, it became harder to ‘go wrong’. Plants were stronger, much more resistant to disease, fungi, mould, and bug attack. They were able to deal with heat and cold better. They looked happier. It was easier to give them the right amount of water.

Soils looked better and retained more moisture, while at the same time making it more well-draining. Bugs didn’t like them as much and seedlings didn’t experience damping-off as much, plus seed germination rate went up.

We also used seaweed solution as a ‘soak’ before packaging plants for postage. There was a noticeable increase in plant health on arrival at the customer’s house, and feedback was very positive. They were able to travel longer, arrived stronger, grew better once planted, and were more resistant to being in a dark box (no sun) for days on end in the mail.

2. Sun

The second thing I’ll talk about is the sun. While some plants, think tomatoes, love being in full sun, there are many that don’t. Also keep in mind that it’s a whole different story when they grow in a small, contained pot, versus being out ‘in the wild’. We found that it is really helpful to have some shade, and we rigged up a rudimentary shade roof between trees for our first under-shade area.

Without watering multiple times per day, it becomes very hard to keep the water up to your plants in adequate amounts. And once your soil gets dry, it’s nearly impossible to wet it again. Seaweed solution will help here, but it won’t completely save you.

Again, it depends on the variety and your climate, of course. Our plant nursery was in Queensland, with incredibly hot sun most of the day, and we specialized in tropical plants. Those two don’t go together. Almost all tropical plants enjoy a fair bit of shade, and they love rich, deep, moist soil, so we couldn’t just grow them out in the open. We started with a little hoop house, but soon realized that, to grow a significant amount of plants, we needed a decent sized area, which is where the oversized shade sail came in.

You’ll need to look at your chosen variety of plants. Do they love full sun, part shade, full shade? Is your climate hot and sunny, or is it manageable?

Plants soaking in seaweed

3. Soil

Then, there’s soil. Our opinion here may be a bit left-field, and contrary to a lot of other advice you’ll see.

Soil is there to hold the plant up. It’s support, that’s it. It’s what you DO with the soil that makes all the difference. It’s a different story in the garden, soil is everything in the garden. Having a good microbe population and earth worms in your garden soil is invaluable, and it’s not as hard to achieve as it sounds. I’ll cover this in the ‘establishing mother stock gardens’ article, coming up.

However, in a pot, which is an artificial way of growing a plant, you can’t create a soil microbe system. It’s just not big enough, not extensive enough. There’s not enough room for bugs to compete with each other, to travel around and spread their goodness. It’s a very small segment of a very large ecosystem, and you’re guaranteed to miss elements of that ecosystem, breaking the natural cycle.

What you’re aiming for is a soil, any soil, that is:

  • Of slightly acidic pH (5 1/2 - 6 1/2 is good), unless you specialise in acid-lovers, like Azalea’s, in which case you should focus on a lower pH.
  • Substantial enough to hold the plant up without it moving around. Movement breaks tiny new roots, and these are the roots that go out looking for water and nutrient, thus arresting growth and setting you back.
  • Moisture retentive, but well-draining.

Our Initial Plant Nursery Setup 

The pH of your soil is important. We decided to use resources available to us to make our potting mix, and we had a pile of saw dust, given to us by a local wood cutter. We composted it and potted plants in it. The plants didn’t look happy, so we decided to do a litmus paper test (for pH). It was pH4… That’s way too acidic, even for Azalea’s. We later found out that saw dust, or any woody substance, robs the soil of Nitrogen when it breaks down. So, not only was the pH terrible, we were also losing Nitrogen at a great rate.

Moisture retentive but well-draining, that one had us stumped for a bit. How could it hold water and drain well at the same time?

Thankfully, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Your soil needs to have enough ‘big’ (that’s relative) pieces in it to allow for some air, thus drainage, but it also needs to be composed of a substance that holds water. Kind of like a sponge. Imagine lots of pieces of sponge, with lots of pieces of small rocks between it. A bucket full of sponge and rocks would drain extremely well, but the sponges soak up enough water for moisture to be available.

We ended up using mulch, available for $5 per trailer load, from the local dump. They had piles and piles of it, made out of green waste collected. We’d compost it, with two or three piles on the go at all times, so we could use them while the others where still breaking down. This made a good potting mix once we added some coarse sand. We tried perlite for drainage - it all floated to the top. Same for vermiculite. Coco peat was great, but expensive. In the end, simple compost with sand did the trick just fine and it was cheap.

One thing with compost, it’s best to turn it regularly. We started with a shovel, and it’s truly an epic workout. It was fine initially, we’d turn it with a shovel, shovel it into a wheelbarrow, wheel it over to a little platform we built, and potted plants up in the wheelbarrow. To do this at large scale, however, is nearly impossible.

Dan is a diesel mechanic by trade, so we purchased a 1950’s, broken front-end loader tractor to turn the piles with. Dan got it running himself and we came out of it with a great loader for $500. If you don’t have equipment like that, you can order truck loads of potting mix from landscaping suppliers. We found that it was quite expensive, but it does keep you going for months and the quality was really good.

I’ll talk about fertilizers and other equipment in the next article, see you there!

Photo's by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens

Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children. Connect with Elle at Outdoor Happens, on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of Elle’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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