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

Why Do Potatoes Sprout and How Can You Prevent Sprouting?


Potato sorting early November 2016.

Under certain conditions, potatoes grow shoots (sprouts). You only want this to happen shortly before you plant seed potatoes. How can you stop potatoes sprouting at other times? Under what conditions are potatoes more likely to sprout? How can you help them sprout when you do want them to?

Potato sprouts are toxic, see my earlier post, Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating.

"White" or Peruvian potatoes (sometimes called Irish potatoes) are stem tubers in the nightshade family; sweet potatoes are root tubers in the Morning Glory family – completely different.  I do plan to write about sweet potatoes in another post. This article is about white potatoes, not sweet potatoes.

There are three key stages of potato storage, and they require different conditions, if you are to make a success of long term potato storage.

Curing Potatoes Before Harvest

If you want your potatoes to store well, it's best to leave them in the ground for two weeks after the tops die, whether naturally or because of mowing. Note that, to the potato, it's all the same whether the death of the tops is due to frost, mowing or the natural end of the plant's growth cycle. So if you need to hurry up your potato harvest, go ahead and cut the tops off two weeks before you want to harvest. This works better than harvesting and then curing. When the potatoes are harvested after the skins have toughened, there will be less damage during harvest. Potatoes are cured enough for storage when the skins don’t rub off. Dig a few up to test them by rubbing with your thumbs. Curing allows skins to harden and some of the starches to convert to sugars. These changes help the tubers to store for months.

Storing Newly Harvested Potatoes, Weeks One and Two

When potatoes first go into storage, they are still “alive” and respiring, and need fresh air frequently. They will heat up if left closed in, and could develop black centers, where the cells have died from lack of oxygen.

After harvest, for the next two weeks, your root cellar or other storage space will need 6–9 hours of ventilation every two or three days. The temperature goal is 60°F–75°F (16°C–24°C), with 95% humidity. This is warmer than you might have expected. Because the new potatoes tend to heat up, you should ventilate the cellar when the temperature is 0–20F (0–11C) cooler than your goal. If nights are too cold and days are mild, ventilate in the daytime. If nights are mild and days too warm, ventilate at night. If it is very damp in your root cellar, ventilate for longer or more often—you don't want water running down the walls.

Weeks Three and Four

Two weeks after harvest, sort all the potatoes. This single potato sorting at this stage can save a lot of losses. By this time, any which are going to rot have likely started doing so—not much new rotting starts later. You can use rags to gently dry any damp potatoes, but be careful not to scrub at them, as this can break the skins.

Restack your crates or boxes, remembering to keep airspace between the crates and walls. For weeks 3 and 4, the temperature goal is 50°F (10°C) and fresh air is needed about once a week.

Long Term Potato Storage

After week 4, cool to 40°F (5°C) in winter; below 50°F (10°C) in summer. Ventilation for air exchange is no longer needed, as the tubers have become dormant. Just watch the thermometer and ventilate to control the temperature as needed.

The ideal long-term potato storage conditions are cool and fairly moist, 40°F–50°F (5°C–10°C), 85%–90% humidity—a  root cellar is ideal. Don't refrigerate potatoes. Below 40°F (5°C) some starches convert to sugars, giving the potatoes a bad flavor and causing them to blacken if fried. Try hard to avoid having the cellar cool down, and then warm up. That causes the potatoes to sprout.

Seed potato cutting.

Pre-sprouting Seed Potatoes

The one time you do want potatoes to sprout is before you plant them! If you are thinking of saving your own seed potatoes for a second planting in the same year, read this paragraph. Potatoes have a dormant period of 4–8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. If you want potatoes to sprout during the dormant period, trick them by refrigerating for 16 days, then pre-sprouting them in the light. The warmer the conditions are after dormancy ends, the quicker they will sprout.

We always "chit" or pre-sprout our seed potatoes before planting. Bring the seed potatoes into a warm, well-lit room around 65°F–70°F (18°C–21°C) and set them upright in shallow boxes, rose end (where the eyes are) up, stem (belly-button) down, for 2–4 weeks in spring, 1–2 weeks in summer. For summer planting, store your seed potatoes in a cool place at 45°F–50°F (7°C–10°C) until 2 weeks before your planting date, then sprout them in a warm place. Having bright lights helps the sprouts stay short, which makes them less fragile.

The Effects of Ethylene on Stored Potatoes

Ethylene is a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless gas produced by many fruits and vegetables, and also by faulty heating units and combustion engines. Propane heaters should not be used in vegetable storage areas, as propane combustion produces ethylene. Incomplete combustion of organic fuels can result in the production of carbon monoxide, ethylene and other byproducts. Do not use any unvented hydrocarbon fuel heaters near stored produce.

Ethylene is associated with ripening, sprouting and rotting. Some crops produce ethylene in storage—apples, cantaloupes, ripening tomatoes, already-sprouting potatoes all produce higher than average amounts. Chilling, wounding and pathogen attack can all induce ethylene formation in damaged crops.

Some crops, including most cut greens, are not sensitive to ethylene and can be stored in the same space as ethylene-producing crops. Other crops are very sensitive and will deteriorate in a high-ethylene environment. Potatoes will sprout, ripe fruits will go over the top, carrots will lose their sweetness and become bitter.

Summary of What Makes Potatoes Sprout

Potatoes are more likely to sprout if they are:

More than 4–8 weeks after harvest

In the light

Too warm, or warm after being cool 

Near fruits, vegetables, flowers or damaged produce

Near malfunctioning propane or natural gas heaters that produce ethylene.

Photo credit: Wren Vile and Kati Falger

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs. Pam also writes for Growing for Market magazine. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at, Pam's blog is on her website and also on

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

Organic Gardening Tips for Newbies

If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “I’d wish I could grow my own vegetables, but I just don’t know how,” I’d be in a higher tax bracket. But I understand the sentiment—I’ve been there myself. Then I discovered the most amazing secret: gardening is all about practice. If you want to become a gardener, the most important thing you can do is, to borrow a well-worn advertising slogan, just do it.

basket of vegetables

To further encourage fledgling gardeners, I’ve compiled a list of tips from my own just-do-it decision. You’ll also find links to a number of helpful websites if you’re ready for more in-depth research.

Don’t Worry if You’re Inexperienced

You don’t know everything there is to know about gardening? So what? You’ll learn as you go. Every skilled gardener was once a novice. It’s been said that farmers are scientists in overalls. Gardeners and farmers alike experiment, observe, and evaluate results just like the scientists in lab coats. Gardens are outdoor laboratories that feed both body and soul.

Start Small

The first word of advice seasoned gardeners typically give to first-time gardeners is to start small. It’s a hard one to follow. Most people, once they develop an interest in something, jump in with both feet. You’re full of energy and enthusiasm. But that energy will soon flag when your garden demands more time than you have to give it, and your enthusiasm is sure to wane when the weeds start to overtake your carefully planted veggies or a few gardening problems present themselves. Best to start with just a couple of raised beds or few short in-ground rows. 

Likewise, it’s important not to get carried away with one particular vegetable. Two or three tomato plants will go a long way. The same is true of cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash. If you’re not careful, you’ll have more of these foods than you can possibly eat, especially if your family is small.


In addition to learning by doing, you can spend cold winter days and warm summer evenings researching good gardening practices. Find out the best way to build your compost. Learn about side dressing and companion planting. There are some great books and websites to help you out. And remember seed catalogs. Some provide in-depth information all the way from indoor seed starting to harvest and storage. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is the most comprehensive one I’ve come across.

array ofseed catalogs

Many seed catalogs are chock full of  helpful growing tips.

Site Your Garden for Maximum Productivity

A few vegetables will grow in shady spots, but most need a good six hours of sunlight. Once you’ve selected a potential garden space, check it at different times of day throughout the growing season to be sure it gets enough sunlight in all corners. Likewise, you want to place your garden in a spot that has good drainage.

Given these factors, the single most important consideration in locating your garden is convenience. You’re much more likely to pick supper from your garden if it’s just a few steps from the kitchen door than if it’s a quarter mile away and up a steep hill. You also want to site your garden where it has good access to water. You’ll have to water seeds daily until the sprouts emerge, and your plants will need regular watering during dry spells.

Protect Your Garden

Nothing is more disappointing than going to the garden to pick corn for dinner only to find that night marauders beat you to it. A deer fence is your most secure protection, but it may be too big an investment for beginners. However, netting and row covers placed atop your plants are easy and practical. Dogs and motion-activated sprinklers are also proven deer and raccoon interventions. Spray deterrents work but only if you use them religiously. Look for cruelty-free ones. You can find more tips for deterring deer from Savvy Gardening.

 solar electric fence

In addition to installing a deer fence, we added a solar-powered electric fence to guard against garden intruders.

Row covers help with pests such as cabbage worms. Barbara Pleasant of Mother Earth News has an excellent article on natural pest control.

Grow What You’ll Eat

A seed catalog is a dangerous thing in the hands of a gardener. Every newly introduced seed is a temptation. But it’s important to know what you and your family actually enjoy eating—and how much of it you’re likely to consume before the next gardening season rolls around. Even if your family is committed to eating dark, leafy greens, you may have a mini-rebellion on your hands if you grow mustard, kale, chard, collards, and turnip greens. 

Begin with Easy-to-Grow Fruits and Vegetables

Even in the plant world, some things are just plain high-maintenance. To give your inner gardener a quick win, start with some of the easy kids such as cucumbers, zucchini (just one or two will do), and Swiss chard. Radishes and salad greens are not only easy, but are some of the earliest to sow and to mature. Strawberries are practically effortless as well as being both prolific and yummy. You have to wait a couple of years to harvest rhubarb, but it takes care of itself year in and year out.

bowl of cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are subject to fewer issues than standard-size tomatoes and add a tasty punch of color to summer salads--if you can keep from eating them all as you pick them.

Unless you get a kick out of being frustrated, stay away from celery, artichokes, melons, broccoli, and cauliflower until you’ve gotten your gardening sea legs. For different reasons, each of these presents gardening challenges.

Develop a Garden Plan

Before you prepare your garden in early spring, you need to do some planning. Winter is a great time to get started. Determine the size of your garden and how much space to allocate to each vegetable variety. Select seeds or plants based on what’s known to work in your climate. Different plants have different growing requirements.

Become familiar with your average last frost date (spring) and first frost date (fall) to see how many growing days you have. Just remember that even within zip codes there are microclimates and that every year is different.

To learn when to sow your seed—indoors or out—and when your produce will likely be ready for harvest, look no further than this chart from Mother Earth News. It’s specific to your zip code.

Think about what seeds you’ll plant and where to plant each type. Some plants produce better or worse when near certain others. When dill and carrot cohabitate, they’re likely to cross-pollinate. On the other hand, onions or leeks near carrots might keep carrot flies at bay. For a good companion planting guide.

You can get a more in-depth garden planner here.

Don’t Give Up

So your tomatoes got blossom end rot and vine borers destroyed your squash. Even the experts have bad years. Be that scientist in overalls and learn from your experience. Pull out your gardening books, get on the internet, talk with other gardeners to find out how you can solve those problems next year. Try new methods—and keep records so you’ll know what works best. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert, too.

More Help Is Just a Click Away

Here are a few other websites that can help ensure success for the new gardener.

For average last spring freeze dates.
To find your local cooperative extension service.
Natural pest control.
For a whole host of organic gardening tips.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link:. 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Military Service to Farmer: Four Skills US Veterans Bring to the Field

Dickinson Farm in San Diego

At first glance, a military career and farming livelihood may not seem to cross-pollinate. But dig a little deeper and hear the inspiring story of veteran Stepheni Norton, owner of Dickinson Farm in San Diego, and the opportunities for former military to both heal and thrive in the field quickly grow. 

Norton’s inspiring story celebrates two growing hot spots in agriculture:  the growth of urban farms and the number of women farmers, which has grown twenty percent in the last twenty years as I write about in my book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers.

“Veterans today launch start-ups at twice the average national rate,” shares Stepheni Norton, a retired Chief Petty Officer who successfully did just that when she transitioned to become a farmer entrepreneur in 2012 after a military career.  If given the right environment to thrive, military skills can indeed readily transfer to running one’s own business, as Norton feels her Coast Guard experience contributes to her success today.  “Being outside with my hands in the soil also made all the difference for me and other veterans working through PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.  Growing tomatoes can cure all things that ail you.”

In 2012, Norton launched Dickinson Farm, an urban farm in southern San Diego.  She operates a year-round urban vegetable and fruit farm with her husband, Michael Lesley, who is also a US veteran.  Together they raise a variety of organic heirloom vegetables on one quarter acre and sell to area chefs, including Chef Coral Strong at Garden Kitchen as well as hosting farm-to-table dinner events on site.

Norton quickly rose to be a leader in San Diego’s budding local food movement with her high energy blend of “get it done” spirit alongside collaboration, two areas her years in the military helped cultivate. 

“In the military, you learn about quickly figuring out hands-on solutions and that is exactly what is needed in farming,” adds Norton. 

Stepheni Norton US Veteran turned Farmer

Her story epitomizes four key military skills that successfully transfer to running an agricultural enterprise, aptitudes we can all learn from and nurture in our farm business ventures:

Act Fast in Emergencies

“The military fosters an attitude of taking quick action, which is exactly what you need to handle the day-in-day-out curveballs of farming,” explains Norton.  “Veterans can handle tangible emergencies very well, such as when a storm is coming in and we need to figure out a quick way to cover the peas so they can weather the winds.”

The ability to go with the flow and evolve, even when there isn’t an end goal in sight, is a crucial skill in any business start-up venture, especially farming.  “When we first saw this property in 2012, I didn’t have an exact vision of what it is today, but rather took small steps, tried out new ideas and gathered feedback, just as I did in my military days.”

Innovate on a Small Farm

“We veterans know there are multiple solutions to any problem and that often the expected, tried and true answer is not the best option,” Norton offers.  “For example, when we first started everyone expected us to vend at farmers’ markets.  But I started thinking how can we do it differently and how can Dickinson Farm instead take our farm stand directly to the ‘cool spots’ where your best customers hang out already.”

Norton found hipsters hanging out at ChuckAlek Biergarten, a local independent brewery.  So, she started running what has been called the “Tiniest Farmers Market” with one stand – hers -- in San Diego on Tuesday nights.

“This informal, laid back setting proves to be the ideal opportunity to really engage with and talk to potential customers about my farm and answer questions,” explains Norton.  “Importantly, the types of people seeking out local beer are also in the market for organic produce.  It’s a win-win, too, for the brewery as my farm market stand adds interest and value on a typically slower Tuesday evening at no cost to them.”

Share and Collaborate

Norton sees Dickinson Farm as reaching way beyond a profitable venture and the bottom line as she openly shares her story, both the highs and lows, with others.  Partnering with local chefs and event planners, Norton hosts multiple on-farm dinner events on the farm that provide a social yet educational backdrop from which to share her story. 

Fortunately, too, there are increasing resources specifically for veterans wanting to farm such as the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Embrace the Bigger Mission

It’s the same thing with farming as those peas quickly add up to more than just an ingredient in soup:  Dickinson Farm plays a role in transforming the local food system and how we understand where our food comes from. 

“I always keep the bigger mission in mind on the farm, just as I did back in the Coast Guard.  ‘What are my passion points and how can I live them to the fullest’ is a question I often ask myself,” shares Norton.  “And if you’re a little afraid, you are heading in the right direction,” she grins.

Lisa Kivirist, with her husband and photographer, John D. Ivanko, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of Lisa'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.

From the Squirrel Garden

pumpkin ready for carving

A big, round pumpkin ready for carving! 

Every year in the garden, something grows like crazy and something is a bust.  This year, members of the cucurbit family were the bust.  I don’t know how many times we tried replanting cucumbers and winter squash, but the success rate for germination in the chronically cool and damp soils this year was very poor.

And we weren’t the only ones—other neighbors struggled with their zucchini and winter squashes too, having the best success rates with plants started indoors and transplanted into the garden.  But a different kind of gardener on our farm had the best success rate with planting the squash family.

Last fall, about this time of year, Kara and I and our intern Olivia collected trailer loads of unwanted pumpkins.  Poor stems, blemishes, unloved shapes…we piled them up in the trailer and truck and brought them back to the farm to store for feeding our heritage Kunekune pigs through the winter.  The pumpkin flesh is sweet, and the pigs love gnawing up the smashed pieces like candy and eating up the seedy guts.

But the squirrels were thrilled about our stash in the green, hooped shed as well.  They climbed between the golden orbs, chewing their way in through the sides and stealing the seeds.  Whenever I’d approach the cobbled-together palates that held the pumpkin horde, three or four would scamper away, popping out the sides of half-frozen pumpkins like gophers from their holes.

The seeds are high in oils and protein—great food for the squirrels.  We assumed that they sat in their pumpkin bunkers and ate them, but apparently they also ran off with many of them to bury and hide their seedy treasure.

One of the places they chose to hide the seeds was in the compost pile beside the raspberry patch, all the way across the barnyard.  In spring, before we even had a chance to plant our own squashes and pumpkins, up sprung the tell-tale jagged-edged leaves from the rotting hay and mulch and sheep manure stashed there to spread on the raspberry patch.  Guess that wasn’t going to get spread this year, or we’d lose those curious volunteer plants coming up!

Now, sometimes when squashes sprout from the compost patch, you really don’t know what kind of fruit you’re going to get.  As the bees visit from flower-to-flower in the summertime, pollen from a variety of cucurbits can be mixed together, creating halfling squash children.  I’ve seen combinations that looked like a spaghetti squash and zucchini mix, or an acorn and delicotta squash mix, and so on.

But what came out of the compost patch was definitely pumpkins—and lots of them!  With all the rains this year, they grew and grew and grew.  When it came time to pick them, I could hardly lift some of the biggest ones into the golf cart to bring down to the Café!  Fat and orange, they were ready for decorating and upcoming pumpkin carving classes on Saturday afternoons.

The score for the pumpkin harvest was definitely in the squirrels’ favor.  My patch had yielded four nice pumpkins.  Their patch yielded 10.

And they’re quite nice looking pumpkins too.  Only one is a quirky, lop-sided shape.  That meant that, even with the cool and rainy temperatures, the local pollinator force did their duty of visiting each flower sufficiently.  If pollination is poor, not all parts of the flower are fully pollinated, which stimulates the production of the seeds.  If there are not the full number of seeds produced, the fruity flesh will not grow around that region, causing misshapen fruits.  You can see this in lop-sided apples, zucchinis with narrow ends, or cucumbers with one bulbus part and a skinny or curled-up part.

So I really should credit the squirrels AND the bees for a successful pumpkin crop.  And the sheep should get some credit for making the rich bedding that was piled up by the raspberries and made the compost in the first place.  And, of course, Mom and Kara need credit for hauling the manure to that site to be composted, so the squirrels could find it.  So, really, it was a full-farm project.

But last winter I’d been so miffed at the squirrels for stealing all those pumpkin seeds that were meant for the pigs.  How rude and selfish (and very squirrel-like) of them!  But now I get to enjoy the fruits of their frittering away for winter (and promptly forgetting the location of their stash).  It has to be our biggest pumpkin harvest on the farm yet!

I wonder if I could get the squirrels to plant all of my squashes for this next year.  Hmmmm…garden squirrels for hire?  Not sure if that would work as well as I might imagine.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

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Spring Soil-Prep Steps for Busy People


Adding Nutrients to Soil

Spring Soil-Prep for Busy People

From the beginning of November to the end of January, our schedules take on the hefty holiday burden. Dinners, celebrations, shopping, new resolutions, travel, family, and friends fill up the remaining vacancies on our schedules, and next thing we know…it’s February! With the cold weather, gardeners who aren’t raising a winter garden often put their gardens ‘to rest’ during these busy times. Gardeners who want to start fresh in the spring, prep their gardens for winter by hanging up their garden irrigation system and sheltering the soil from harsh conditions with a thick insulator. Although it may hurt to see such a dreary patch where our illustrious gardens usually sit, we can rest easy knowing it will be there, ready for the springtime planting.

Generally speaking, people are very busy and we don’t want to add another item to your list. Understandably, many of us want to return to normalcy after the crazy holidays, and that may mean the garden is never returned to former glories. Luckily, preparing a garden for springtime planting doesn’t take much effort at all! All it takes is a few simple steps, and rich, black soil will be ready for new life.

When Should I Think About Soil Prep?

You want to begin preparing your garden after the last frost date within your Hardiness Zone. This isn’t an exact science, but you can use an online resource like the Farmers’ Almanac to see the previous years last frost to give yourself a date to work with.

What Should I Do First?

Maintenance and repairs. Before you get your hands dirty mixing up the soil and adding nutrients, the garden needs to be cared for. Maintenance includes cleaning your gardening tools, mending supports if needed, testing the irrigation system, and judging the integrity of your raised bed boards. Similar to car maintenance, fix small issues before they evolve into major problems. Cleaned tools, prepped supports, and a strong structure make for a reliable and bountiful garden for the year to come. Of course, starting with quality garden beds and tools mitigate much of this concern and time commitment for the years to come.

Additionally, if you’ve insulated your garden by adding mulch to it during the winter months, now is the time to remove any remnants and fully expose your garden’s soil. Once this layer is removed, you may find some weeds that have found a way to survive through the cold months and coverage. Make sure to clean these from your garden.

When Do I Know the Soil is Ready for Springtime Prep?

The last frost has passed, and your garden area is cleaned. You are dying to dig into that soil and add your first plants, but you’ll need to make sure the soil is hospitable. During the winter months, with less sunlight and lower temperatures evaporation will be less allowing soil to retain more moisture, increasing its density and weight. Wet, compact soil maintains nutrients during the cold months, but the density of this compacted soil isn’t an ideal environment for planting. You will want to turn your soil (basically breaking it up and aerating it) to allow for easier root growth, easier water drainage, and easier absorption of any nutrients/fertilizers you want to add.

Green Thumb Tip: Pick up a handful of soil and ball it up. Then, press on the top of the ball with some pressure. If it wants to stay clumped together and offers resistance, then the soil is still too moist and dense. If it crumbles and gives easily, then the soil is ready for the next step.

Do I Need to Add Nutrients to my Garden?

This depends on the soil’s treatment during winter and your environment. If you planted a cover crop or added a thick layer of mulch onto your soil over the winter months, there’s a good chance your soil maintained more favorable nutrients since both help to retain and add nutrients as they break down into the soil. However, if left exposed, you may need to improve the nutrient quality. Integrating a general well-balanced fertilizer mix or turning compost/manure into the soil at the beginning of a new growing season is usually a useful step to take regardless. If you’re unsure and want a more definitive answer for what your soil needs, simple soil test kits are available at most garden centers.

You are now ready to plant your spring garden. The soil will be freshly loosened and nutrient-filled, ready for planting. Depending on the size of your garden, this entire process should only take a few hours or less. A small amount of time to ensure a long year of fruitful gardening!

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.

Growing Your Food From Organic Seeds

Seedlings in trays

At some point, anyone who tends a vegetable garden in the hopes of producing their own food will likely ponder what it is, exactly, that they are burying in the ground and hoping will sprout? What is the story behind the seeds? After all, since these seeds will grow to produce the food they eat, shouldn’t everyone give it some thought?

And it’s a question worth asking. Food can be labelled and sold as Organic so long as it’s grown following certifiable organic principles, but the seeds that grew the plant are often developed with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. When it comes to seeds, there is a good chance that when buying a packet from a stand erected as a seasonal feature in a store, the seeds in that packet will have a background of pesticides and fertilizers. If growers wish to find organic seeds, especially heirloom organic seeds, they’ll have to search them out.

Organic Seeds

To be certified organic, a seed must be grown by a certified organic grower. Certified growers do not expose their seeds to any chemicals during the growth of the parent plant, the harvest of its seeds, or the post-harvest processing. At our home, we prefer to plant heirloom organic seeds. Our nation’s ancestors saved and planted these seeds. They knew the seeds to be dependable, and when growing food for a family in a climate of poor food security, dependability was paramount.

organic seed packets

Furthermore, unlike conventional agriculture, where seeds are treated and bred to produce an easy-to-grow and easy-to-ship commodity, heirloom varieties taste better and are infinitely fresher. I think the best example of this is the tomato. Typical tomatoes - red, glossy orbs - bought at a grocery store are not picked at their ripest. Instead, the harvest is timed to ensure the fruits remain aesthetically pleasing upon their arrival at the store and remain so while sitting upon the shelf. This means the tomatoes are plucked from the vines before fully ripe. If too green, a shot of ethylene gas will quickly redden their skins to give them the appearance of ripeness while keeping them firm enough to withstand the rigors of transportation. In contrast, heirloom tomatoes show greater variety in shape, size, and colour than those bright red spheres we’ve come to think of as tomatoes. And all that variety in appearance coincides with a variety in tastes, nutrients, and culinary uses. The organic heirloom tomatoes that we choose to grow are picked when they are ripe and flavourful. The  transportation consists of walking from the garden into the kitchen.

Seed Saving

The best way to ensure your seeds meet your standards is to grow them yourself; after all, that’s how heirloom seeds came to exist in the first place. Seed saving is nothing new, but it’s experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to the flood of genetically modified ingredients in our food.

As stated before, saving seeds was a necessary protocol for survival a century ago. Today, our collective culture is experiencing a different kind of uncertainty in its food supply: we’ve relinquished control of our food to big business and entrusted the government to keep us safe. Nurturing plants, harvesting their abundance, and saving their seeds is counter-cultural, but an increasing number of people are awakening to its inherent value, hence the growing popularity in saving seeds and the creation of non-profit groups, such as Seed Savers Exchange, Organic Seed Alliance, or Seeds of Diversity, and websites and other resources offering instructions for seed saving how-tos.

Purchased Organic Seedlings

If for some reason you’re unable to acquire the seeds you want, or perhaps the seeds you attempted to grow failed, you can purchase already started seedlings. Finding organic seedlings can take more searching out than finding organic seeds. The vast majority of seedlings bought from a nursery, unless labelled organic, are sure to have been treated with some form of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or fertilizers. Among these treatments are the neonicotinoids; a persistent insecticide that inhibits the ability of bees and other pollinators to navigate, feed or reproduce and increases their susceptibility to diseases.

Local nurseries, neighbourhood plant swaps, fellow garden enthusiasts or even an Organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation selling off a surplus of seedlings, might be your best bet for organic seedlings. Otherwise, you’ll have to trust the labelling at a garden center. Alternatively, you could re-evaluate that particular plant’s role in your garden. Perhaps the hoped for crop will never thrive because you’re trying to grow it beyond its range or the site conditions are too stressful. Now could be the time to consider replacing the plant with something else.

growing garden and children

In the end, if you are what you eat, who wouldn’t want to feed their family the freshest, healthiest, and most ecologically viable food? The best way to ensure that is to grow your food yourself from seeds you consider appropriate.  

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’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.


Winter Mulching in Cold Climate Gardens

Wheel Barrow Full Of Hay 

Mulching acts as an insulation to protect your plants from the freezing-thawing-freezing-thawing cycle which may damage roots. Mulching protect plants from winter. It keeps roots warmer much longer.

What Makes a Good Winter Mulch?

The best mulches you can apply on your garden for winter should have these qualities:

Coarse in texture
Provide insulation
Allows adequate water and air to flow

Winter mulching in cold climate garden is best applied after the first hard frost. This is when the temperature is below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are some rules of thumb on how to apply mulch:

• 1-2 inches away from plants.
• 6-12 inches away from tree's base.
• 3-4 inches away from shrub's base.
• 3-6 inch layers for coarse- textured mulch (straw, wood chips)
• 2-4 inch layers for fine-textured mulch (compost, shredded leaves)

There are a wide variety of winter mulch materials. These are some of what you need to have:

Pine Bark. Durable, Remains in place, Shredded or chipped, Does not easily decompose, Attractive

Pine Straw/Pine Needle Mulch. Durable, Lightweight, Fragrant, Moisture retentive, Does not easily decompose

Cypress Mulch. Adds moisture when decomposes, Prevents growth of weeds, Less expensive

Cedar Mulch. From the bark off Evergreen tree, Durable, dense, heavy, Decomposes fast, Protects ground against the thawing cycle, Safe for soil and plants, Strong scented, Expensive

Rubber Mulch. Inorganic mulch, Recycled tires, Retains moisture of soil, Suppresses weeds, Available in a variety of colors

How to Apply Mulch in Cold Climate Gardens

Using the right kind of mulch can protect the roots of the plants from extreme temperatures. It can also improve the soil and prevent the growth of weeds. Decorative mulch provide texture and color on the bare space between the plants. Applying mulch is simple and fast but the benefits your plants will get out of it in winter is something you will be thankful for.

Step 1: Choose the right type of mulch for the job. During the rest of the season, you may consider the choice of mulch based on its availability, biodegradability, permeability and appearance. However during winter, mulching functions simply to cover your plants from the freezing temperature.

Step 2: Prepare the area for winter mulching. Pull out the weeds. Add fertilizer to the soil. Install any edges or borders in the area.

Step 3: Prepare the plants for winter mulching. Prune some of the plants.

Step 4: Use a rake to spread the mulch. It is ideal to apply at least 2 to 4 inches of mulch. This is to prevent the growth of weeds and for the soil to retain moisture. Too much mulch will damage plants while too little will be of no use. Make sure to cover the plants completely with mulch. The mulch will insulate the plants from the freezing cold.

Preparing Various Plant Types for Winter

Preparing Annuals for Winter. Mulch the beds of annuals with 3 to 4 layers of mulch. If the annuals are due to germinate the following spring, cover the plants with only 2 inches of mulch. After heavy frost, check the condition of the annuals and discard some that have died.

Preparing Shrubs or Young Trees for Winter. During the early days of fall, transplant the shrubs or young trees to a new location. Before the ground stats to freeze, water the shrubs or young trees. If there is not much rain, water deeply. When the ground starts to freeze, spread about 5 inches of mulch. Add some fertilizer on year old and over shrubs and young trees. Older shrubs and trees do not need fertilizer when they have been mulched. For shrub roses, mound mulch on their lower canes and add a burlap screen for added protection against the freezing temperatures.

Preparing Roses for Winter. Roses are dormant during fall thus they need to be prepared for winter. For shrub roses, apply mulch on the base of the roses to keep them warm. Hybrid roses (cloche or cone) are vulnerable to freezing temperature and will need an additional protective covering after mulching.

Preparing Vegetables for Winter. Before light frost begins to fall, harvest such crops as potatoes, pumpkins, onions and potatoes. Root crops, carrots and Brussels sprouts can survive light frost. Clear the debris off the harvested beds. Heavily mulch root crops with thick layers of chopped leaves or straw.

You do not need to stop gardening just because it is winter. Winter mulching in cold climate gardens is such a breeze with the right choice of mulch. Have you been winter mulching in your garden? Share with us some of your winter mulching tips in the comments section.

Ann Katelyn is a homesteader in Alabama who has dedicated most of her life to gardening and botanical study with growing interests ranging from the popular, world-class roses to the rarest and most exotic orchids. She is currently trying her best to become well versed on plants found in desert areas, the tropics, and Mediterranean region. Connect with Ann on Twitter and her website, Sumo Gardener.

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.