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

A Giant Among Plants: Grow ‘Solomon’s Seal’ as a Native Medicinal

This article is republished with permissions from the January 2020 issue of Washington Gardener, a publication covering Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area gardens.

If you’ve read any of my past diatribes, you know that I favor scientific, botanical nomenclature above “common names”. That’s caused many of my readers to come to think of me as a know-it-all. Not the case! But, I’m going to save the plant name discussion for a later date. I just want to inform you that I have no problem with common names, although sometimes they don’t tell you anything about the plant or don’t seem to make any sense.

Well, here’s a definite exception to that rule: Polygonatum canaliculatum, otherwise known as ‘Giant Solomon’s Seal’, a remarkable plant that’s native to every state in the U.S. aside from eight Western states. This plant is a giant in more ways than its size.

Comparing Varieties of ‘Solomon’s Seal’

If you’re not familiar with this plant, I’ll bet you know its “little” cousin, Polygonatum biflorum, the ‘True Solomon’s Seal’, native to the same geographic area. That common name distinguishes it from Maianthemum racemosum, formerly Smilacina racemosa, or the ‘False Solomon’s Seal’. I’m not fond of that common name — if you have to use a common name, try ‘Solomon’s Plume’.

Polygonatum is a genus of plants that has a hard time with familiar relationships. I always knew it as a member of the Liliaceae (lily) family; now, depending on who you’re talking to, it could be in the Convallariaceae or Asparagaceae family.

This story is starting to get away from me, so let’s get back to Polygonatum canaliculatum and talk about the differences between these two kinfolk. Typically, Polygonatum biflorum (biflorum because it produces two flowers at each axil) grows from about 12 inches to 36 inches tall, depending on age, soil fertility, moisture, etc. It flowers from May to June with a graceful, arching stem. On the underside of the stems, in most of the axils, two greenish-white, pendulous, bell-shaped flowers are produced. These flowers turn to blue-black berries over the growing season.

Polygonatum canaliculatum is quite similar in most respects but looks like Polygonatum biflorum on steroids! It typically grows on road banks and is normally 36 to 72 inches, but we’ve had some attain heights of over 96 inches. There are also two to 10 flowers in each axil as opposed to only two in Polygonatum biflorum.

Growing and Using ‘Solomon’s Seal’

For growing. Both plants are easy to grow and propagate. The rhizomes produce a new joint every year and if you dig them up every few years, you can easily multiply them. You can also easily grow them from seeds: just wash the pulp away under running water and sow them outside. It takes several years to raise a mature plant from seed. In the garden, Giant Solomon’s Seal is a welcome guest, there are a multitude of shade-loving plants that you can plant under it. I’ve even planted Polygonatum biflorum under the Polygonatum canaliculatum. The richer the soil, the more organic matter and moisture, the more robust they’ll grow.

For healing. The name of the genus, Polygonatum breaks down as follows: Poly means “many” and gonu means “knee joint”, a reference to the joints on the rhizome. The common name of “Solomon’s Seal” is usually thought to refer to those “knee joints” on the rhizome, but there has been some older writings found to indicate the “Solomon’s Seal” refers to the wound-sealing properties of the rhizome. The specific epithet, canaliculatum means “grooved” or “channeled”, in reference to the grooves on the leaves. Members of this genus have a multitude of other medicinal uses and have been used for the treatment of indigestion, profuse menstruation, lung ailments, general debility, and other ailments. It is a folk remedy for piles, rheumatism, and skin irritations. A poultice or a decoction of the fresh roots is applied to cuts, bruises, and sores.

For eating. The starchy, edible rhizomes were consumed by Native Americans who shared them with the early settlers.

Giant Solomon’s Seal has a place in every shade garden, native plant garden, wild garden, and I’ve even seen them used in rain gardens — where will you grow yours? Use your imagination.

Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has been residing in Greenbrier County, W.V., since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery at Sunshine Farm & Gardens is a mecca for gardeners from virtually every country in the world. Barry writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores, his two main specialties, and welcomes visitors with advance notice. Reach Barry at and 304-497-2208. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Planting Onions in Northern Arizona

Large bulbing onions 

While the world is struggling this March because of the pandemic outbreak of Covid-19, planning a summer garden makes even more sense. Planting onions is often the first thing I do in the spring to ensure that I have fresh produce in the summer for my family and friends. 

Onions are day-length sensitive. What that means is that onions make big bulbs when they have certain lengths of the day. This article from 2010 explains the science behind what I know from experience. For example, in the summer, Alaska has 22 to 24 hours of sunlight each day, so onions grown there should be "long-day" onions. Here in Northern Arizona, our longest days are about 14 hours, so "intermediate day" or even "short-day" onions work best for us because they don't need more than 12 hours of light per day to make bulbs. Several "old-timers" in town have complained for decades that locally-sold bulbs from big box stores don't ever produce large bulbs, and this is often why. 

What all this means, besides being careful to pick the proper day length of onion for the area, is that the plants need to be planted early enough in the spring that the days are not quite as long as they are going to be, but are getting enough sun each day to encourage the plants to send down roots and become established before the days do get long enough. For me in St. Johns at the 34th parallel, that means mid-March. By the Spring Equinox, the onions are going to try to start bulbing without having proper root growth and sometimes that means onion death by hateful wind and drought just as they should be trying to take off. I try to get planting before March 15.

Soil Preparation for Planting Onions in the Southwest

Onions need a loose soil that drains easily but is rich in nitrogen. Technically, onions are a leaf crop, and the bulb is a swollen part of the stem, not an actual root like a carrot. Because of that, they desperately need nitrogen frequently throughout the growing season. I use both well-composted manures and blood meal to make that happen in my personal garden. 

Here's how my planting day went this year. 

Soil needing to be prepared

First, I just raked it clean and turned it over with a broadfork to break up the clumps. Onions like soft, fluffy soil to send roots down, so I picked out large crazy roots. It took about 10 minutes to turn the above into this:

Soil all ready to be planted in

Planting Onions: Spacing and Depth

After the soil is prepared (I did have to lift up my dripline grid and then put it back down), I start planting. Many people plant onions way too deep, which causes them to split or never grow bulbs. I take the bottom of the onion between my thumb and forefinger, and insert it into the soil only to the depth of my first knuckle, which is about an inch or so. 

An onion plant, right after planting

Because I want large bulbs, and I buy very high-quality plants from Dixondale farms in the fall, I space my plants about 4 to 6 inches apart. My raised beds have an inside soil diameter of 4 feet by 8 feet, so I get about seven plants along each short side. 

Proper spacing for onion plants ensure that you get large bulbs in the summer

After I have all the onions planted, simply water deeply, and mulch if you expect winds, heavy precipitation, drought, or cold. Considering this is March in St. Johns, Ariz., we can expect all four in a single 24-hour period.  

A properly-planted, properly-spaced, early spring onion bed can look like this and yield at least 120 delicious 4- to 6-inch onions in August. 

Properly planted and spaced onion bed

Only Buy Onions Where Day Length is Listed

One final note: Onions purchased from a reputable source will always have day length information, as well as expected size and storage information. I tell all my gardening clients and students to stay away from any purchasing agent, whether big box store, feed store, or online shopping option if they don't state the day length of the onions they are selling. There is nothing more frustrating than buying "onion sets" or "onion plants" that look beautiful but won't bulb in the particular area they are going to be planted in because the seller doesn't actually know anything about how to get big beautiful bulbs!

Here's some I grew a couple years ago, as large as softballs. They were delicious, as well, and stored for about 5 months. 

Large bulbing onions

Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.



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Marketing Homestead Products: Should You Sell via a CSA?


Photo by Unsplash/Peter Feghali

The Marketing Homestead Products series offers market gardeners and homesteaders tailored advice for selling their goods. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of joining up with a CSA, renting a farmer’s market stall, and the various forms of advertising available to your farm-based business.

As the owner of a small farm or homestead, you know that growing a high-quality product is only half the battle of a successful business. Finding the right market can be challenging, especially if you're just getting started. 

Today, more homesteads are selling their product through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model. A CSA program is a market strategy where the farmer organizes a set number of individual shares, each priced per individual or family, and the customers usually pay at the beginning of the growing season. This model is highly customizable, offering either on-site pickup or drop-off locations. 

What Is a CSA?

With a CSA, the customers receive a box of produce each week. Some models allow for tailored selection, while others offer whatever the farmer has available. Community supported agriculture benefits are numerous — whether you grow vegetables, fruit, livestock or cut flowers, it could be an excellent business strategy. 

If you have limited time or resources, or simply don't want the responsibility of running your own market, partnering with another farmer who runs a CSA might be a viable option. Many large-scale models have options for add-on items, including low-availability or highly-seasonal items sourced from other farmers. These products may include specialty mushrooms, baked or canned goods, cut flowers and more. Some vegetable programs also source items from different vendors, especially if they have a bad crop or limited quantity.

Joining a CSA as a partner farm can be a terrific way to sell your product without making a full-time commitment. 

The Benefits of a CSA

Now that you know that answer to "What is a CSA?" let's look at some of the main benefits of joining one. 

1. Low Risk. Collaborating with another farm means you're not solely responsible for supplying customers with products. Whether you're selling vegetables, fruit, flowers or other items, you're able to work with another farmer to ensure you offer the right quantity every week. Additionally, if you offer something as an add-on with limited availability, you can sell only when you have time, rather than every week. 

2. Support Network. If you're just getting started in your farm venture, it can be helpful to work with other professionals. Joining a CSA as a partner farm allows you to communicate with a bigger network of growers and have meaningful conversations about successes and failures throughout the season. 

3. Smaller Quantities. Many homesteaders find themselves with high-quality produce, but not an enormous quantity of it. You may grow delicious organic strawberries, but only enough for twenty customers, not hundreds. If this is the case, joining a CSA has its perks. Most have an online store where customers can select exactly how much they want to purchase. With smaller quantities, you merely offer what you have.

4. Schedule Flexibility. Joining a CSA allows you to pick and choose how much of a time investment you want to make. If you run a homestead but also work an off-farm job, this can be an ideal situation. Instead of accounting for all of the time that goes into customer service, marketing and accounting, you can drop off your product and let the partnering farm do the rest. 

5. Meaningful Connections. The CSA model allows customers to become fully engaged with a farm, rather than purchase a box of vegetables from a stranger. The community aspect is significant, and many homesteads host potlucks and barbecues throughout the season to allow customers to experience the farm. As a partnering vendor, you can engage with this audience as much as you want.

Challenges of a CSA

Joining a community supported agriculture group comes with a lot of benefits. However, there are also some drawbacks to be aware of.

1. Financial Organization. With a CSA, there are certain logistical considerations to make, such as with finances. In the traditional model, customers pay upfront before the start of a growing season. If you supply a specialty product or an unpredictable quantity, it may be best to have your items included as an add-on where the customers pay extra if they choose to include it from week to week.

2. Farmer Collaboration. Working with other farmers can present some difficulties. Depending on your growing situation, you may need to discuss more intricate details of crop selection and liability. For example, if you are growing the same product as a partnering farm, how much are you able to sell without competing? Additionally, if you sell a specialty product, how do you determine liability? 

3. Unpredictable Market. While CSA members pay for their share before the season starts, there is always some fluctuation in how many customers purchase consistently. For example, many people go on vacation in July and August. As a result, there may be weeks when you have fifty customers instead of eighty. If you don't have other revenue streams, you'll need to account for this fluctuation. 

Joining a CSA: Is It Right for Your Homestead?

Partnering with another farm can be an excellent way to sell your products without the full-time commitment of running a business.

If you have a specialty item to offer or a limited quantity of products, this model can make connections with your target audience without the added risk of running an operation on your own. Whether you're a beginning farmer or an established homestead, joining a CSA can be a beneficial way to share your merchandise with people. 

Any business partnership has its challenges. Joining a CSA may present some logistical issues, but, in the long term, the connections you make with other growers are invaluable. As a small farm or homestead looking for a low-risk, flexible market, joining a CSA can be a fantastic option

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living, sustainable consumption, eco-friendly practices and green energy. In the past, her work has also been featured on GRIT, Mother Earth Living, Blue And Green Tomorrow, Dwell and Houzz. To read more from Kayla, follow her productivity and lifestyle blog, Productivity Theory, 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.

Sprouting And Growing Mung Beans In Your Garden

Sprouted Mung Beans

This is the time of year one starts thinking about planning their garden for the coming season and maybe trying something a little different this year.

I have been enjoying mung beans in the sprouted form for many years now. I came to find out about the mung bean and its benefits many years ago after receiving chemotherapy. I became anemic and had to search out sources to bring my iron levels up in order to increase my RBC (Red Blood Cell Count).

Mung beans are a very valuable legume. They are sources of not only iron but, many vitamins, minerals and a bonus for me, high in protein.For those that are doing plant-based diets, mung beans are one of the best sources for plant protein.

Warning: As with most beans they contain some phytic acid (which reduces absorption of calcium, zinc and magnesium) and should be soaked for a few hours to leach this out before cooking. The good thing about sprouts is that it reduces this phytic acid through the sprouting process.

Where to Find Mung Beans

My first source for Mung beans was a health food store. I later realized I could buy "bulk" from an Asian market. I only buy organic. For me I feel "safer" if I can grow most of what I consume, I know what goes into it and how it is handled and processed. So, me being me, I thought "why not try growing my own?" I live in Western North Carolina and we do very well with beans and legumes so why wouldn't this be do-able? It proved to be very "do-able"!

Sprouting Your Seeds

I usually start with a tablespoon of seeds and add to a canning jar.

I first soak in about 1 cup warm water for about 6 hours. I use cheesecloth to cover the jar (you can use a rubber band or canning ring to hold the cloth on). After a few hours you can rinse the seed and put cloth back on jar. Rinse at least 2 times daily. Keep in a dark area (not cabinet) or cover with a dark cloth or black plastic bag. You should have sprouts in about 3 to 7 days. You want the sprouts you're going to use to plant to have several leaves started (a microgreen at this point).  I've also grown them in a colander in a black bag...this grows the best sprouts for eating (they're more plump).

You can also start these sprouts in a seed sprouter if you have one...just make sure the sprouts are large enough to plant. 

Sprouts In a Jar


Planting Mung Bean Sprouts

Note: You can start your plants several ways

  • Take some sprouted mung beans from your recent sprouting project.
  • Start inside in cells (or other container) with soil.
  • Wait until all danger of frost is over when you would normally plant your beans and legumes (not as early as most people plant their peas). In our area, it would be sometime after May 10th.

Plant about one-inch deep (if sowing from seed) and 2 to 5 inches apart. If using from sprouted or inside starts just make sure you plant deep enough to cover the roots. Remember, ground temp should be about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

We use natural compost (from our goats) on our garden so, we don't use any additional fertilizers. I use the same practice of planting/growing mung beans as I do with my "dry" beans. These legumes do not grow high and have a "bush" tendency (14 to 18in tall).

Mung Beans

They take 90-120 days to mature (it all depends on weather). Leave until dry and then harvest. Just shell out like you would a "dry" bean. These can be frozen for when needed. You can store in canning jars but make sure the mung beans are completely dry or they will go bad.

If you don't like sprouts there are many uses for mung beans. They can be ground into a flour to make gluten-free tortilla/flat breads and noodles. The mung bean can be added to veggie burgers, eaten in soups and dals — so, many different ideas!

Mung Bean Sprouts Salad

Give it a grow and enjoy! 

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that have been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, N.C., and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm Connect with Susan at The Mushroom Hut @ Fox Farms and on Facebook. 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.

Wonderful Night for a Moon Garden: Varieties for Low-Light Impact

Photo by Mohammed Ajwad from Pexels

On some days, fun seems to be in short supply. Most of us are busy scratching out a living one way or another, while we're passionately working hard to lighten our footprint on this beautiful earth. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't plan for some enjoyment along the way.

Summer seems to fly by so quickly, yet a warm, moonlit night is very conducive to doing something fun. If you have some yard and garden space, or know someone who does, why not start planning now for having a moonlight dance party?

I'm a big fan of full moons, and when I started doing public presentations as part of my official Master Gardener training, I became intrigued by the idea of a moonlight garden. Such a garden features light-colored flowers that capture and reflect the moonlight. After pondering this idea further, I came up with the concept of a movable moonlight garden, and wrote a book about it: Dancing in Your Movable Moonlight Garden (available now for e-readers and in print when the graphics and photographs are ready.)

Photo by Rhododendrites

Objects for a Moonlight Garden

Below you'll find lists of plants to start growing or collecting. Don't worry, you don't have to grow all of these plants yourself — that's why it's called a "movable" moonlight garden! After determining whose garden or yard will host the event, ask everyone to bring any containerized plants they have from the above lists. Then, distribute the plants around the yard to catch the moonlight.

Gazing globes are a nice addition, too. Nearby trees can be strung with tiny white lights and you can be creative with mirrors or other light-reflecting objects. Place benches, chairs, and tables in convenient spots, and set out refreshments. Add a sound system loaded with music files, and when that big full moon is rising in the sky, push the play button and dance in the moonlight!

Photo by Irina Iriser from Pexels

Plants for a Moonlight Garden

White flowering plants, such as white petunias, white oleander, Artemesia (wormwood), Scaevola “whirlwind white” in landscape, pots, hanging baskets, mints, other herbs, yarrow, snow in summer, white alyssum, caladium, white impatiens, white rockrose, carnations, white star jasmine, cosmos, foxglove, shasta daisies, clematis, candytuft, rose mallow, etc.

Plants that open at night include angels trumpet (Datura inoxia), moonflower (Ipomoea alba), and four-o-clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Any plants with gold, cream, white, and silver markings work well.  

Fragrance with scented flowers or aromatic foliage include lilacs (all colors), roses (Rosa), border carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), rosemary (Rosemarinus officianalis), lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), thyme (Thymus spp.), hyssop (Hyssop officianalis), peony (Paeonia lactiflora), bee balm (Mondarda didyma), garden phlox (P. paniculata), nicotiana (Flowering Tobacco plant), mignonette, honeysuckle (many varieties), star magnolia, mock orange, and tuberose.

Plants with silver, white or variegated foliage include some variegated evergreen shrubs, and textured foliage plants (consider smell—not just touch), lamb's ears, asparagus fern, wormwood (Artemesia), and Silver Queen Euonymous.

Mary Moss-Sprague is a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs. 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

From Gardener to Farmer: A Story for Seedling Season


My daughter helping me label plants for last year’s plant sale at Over the Fence Urban Farm (Columbus, OH)  

Seedlings for Self-Sufficiency and Community

It’s seedling season in Central Ohio! Last week I purchased a pallet of potting soil with a few farmer friends and we’re off to the races. It wasn’t long ago that the notion of buying 60 bags of growing medium in one pop would have seemed like a far out idea. It wasn’t that long ago that I was buying all my seedlings at other people’s plant sales. This year I’ll be hosting my 4th Annual Pollinator Lover’s Plant Sale, aimed at getting more people to plant native perennials to provide habitat for bees and other pollen movers. (As an aside, 2020 marks the first  Ohio Native Plant Month, brought about through OH HB 59, signed July 2019).

I remember when, as a still relatively novice gardener and younger mother interested in showing my kids where our food comes from, I tried to grow my own seedlings. I laugh now at the single spinach plants I housed in four-inch pots and the leggy tomatoes I grew on the floor of our three-season porch. We learned so much. And, I had so much more to learn.

Early seedling experiments.

In the years since, I have developed my own system, systems really, for growing thousands of seedlings for transplant each season. I use a range of methods, indoors and out. There are a lot of articles and posts already on MOTHER EARTH NEWS that highlight how to set up a grow system indoors as well as how to use a cold frame in the yard. I encourage you to search and read if you aren’t already familiar. Rather than clog the system with more ‘how to’ options, I’m reflecting here on the role seedlings played in my transition from thinking about myself as a backyard gardener to a backyard farmer.

Finding Myself in A Sea of Seedlings

A few years ago, I took part in a conversation of women involved in agriculture across Ohio about how we identified ourselves. “How do you view your title? Are you an urban farmer, homesteader, grower, livestock farmer, gardener, or something other?” I was going into my 3rd season operating an urban backyard CSA and while I named the project Over the Fence Urban Farm from the onset, I always felt a bit of imposter syndrome about whether or not I was really a “farmer.”

As the conversation unfolded in an online forum, I realized that more important than the titles we claimed, were the reasons behind our choices. Reading responses from other women helped me clarify my own self-consciousness. I wrote about this at the time on my blog for Over the Fence Urban Farm. In Jodi Kushins, Urban Farmer (March 10, 2016), as the title suggests, I took hold of that title. And for me, the decision lay, in part, in my seedlings.

Finding myself in lots of lettuce.

One day around this time, as I was reflecting on my peers’ responses and contemplating my own, I was transplanting about one hundred lettuce seedlings, then starting a hundred more. How could any one person or family (read: gardener, homesteader, or community gardener) eat that much lettuce? And then things clicked for me. In growing for others, and taking money in return for produce, I became a farmer.

It’s seems somewhat ironic in retrospect that I found my identity as a grower in a sea of lettuce. I’m a big fan of raw salads and access to fresh greens was a major driver in my initial gardening efforts. After I tasted kale, spinach, and mustard straight from the backyard I couldn’t go back. The seed catalogues opened a whole new world of options to me and as I farmer I get to share those with others: tatsoi, cabbages, and chard  to name a few. When people new to gardening or season extension ask me what to grow first, the answer is always greens.

I still wrestle with the idea of calling myself a farmer, especially when I am around folks with acres of land to steward. But, it’s up to us all to do the best we can with what we have to work with. It will take many, many more gardeners, growers, and farmers to feed the world as the population grows in the coming decades. What are you waiting for? Go out and plant something!

Jodi Kushins owns and operates Over the Fence Urban Farm, a cooperatively maintained, community-supported agricultural project located in Columbus, Ohio. The farm, founded in 2013, is an experiment in creative placemaking, an outgrowth of Jodi’s training as an artist, teacher, and researcher. Connect with Jodi on Facebook and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

Propagate Like a Pro! Rooting Willow Shrubs is Easy, Inexpensive


Like most gardeners, late winter is when our green thumbs begin to itch, and the need to get to work in the garden is too hard to resist. But, if you’re like me and live in a climate that’s not quite warm enough to spend much time outside, you have to resign yourself to indoor tasks, such as seed starting and propagating. 

I must admit, however, that seed starting is one of my favorite gardening jobs. It’s when I get to make my final decisions for the spring and early summer garden, dig through my box of seeds, take inventory of my supplies, and get my fingers in a little dirt to prepare and seed my pots with a variety of edible plants and flowers. And it’s a heck of a lot easier on my back than hauling wheelbarrow-full loads of goat manure and straw mulch.

One task that is perfect for this time of the year is propagating shrubs and trees that root easily. This year, I decided that I needed a few more Salix discolor (American pussy willow) shrubs to add to my butterfly garden. And it’s easy and inexpensive (practically free in my case) to propagate willows by taking cuttings of mature plants.

Now, I feel like I should write some kind of disclaimer here because I know those pesky social media trolls might comment about nuisance willow roots without even reading this article. I am not, repeat not, talking about a weeping willow tree, Salix babylonica. Yes, I know that the roots of the weeping willow are invasive, and I do not advise anyone to grow those trees in a suburban yard. You will have problems with tree roots in your sewer lines and foundations. If you read a comment about the roots, rest assured that that person did not read this article. The roots of a 15-foot shrub are not as deep and invasive as those of a 50-foot tree (this is a “duh moment”). 

Propagating a Willow Shrub

Native to North America, Salix discolor grows in many states and southern Canada, zones 4 - 8. And just like Salix babylonica trees, it thrives in full sun with moist soil. Growing up to about 15 feet, Salix discolor can be a hefty deciduous, multi-trunk shrub, or trained into a small tree with pruning. The leaves are shiny green during the summer, turning yellow in the autumn. These shrubs make a lovely hedge or specimen plant in a flower garden, paired with other butterfly-attracting plants, such as milkweed, monarda, and buddleia.

You’ll want to cut back, or coppice, a Salix discolor every few years to promote new growth, discourage pests and diseases, and maintain shape. This is a great time to keep some of the pruned branches to propagate into new shrubs. Or, ask your gardening friends if they have a willow in which you could take a few cuttings. Most of us would be happy to share or trade for a start of one of your plants because we know just how expensive gardening can be! 

But what’s so great about Salix discolor is the silver-gray catkins that emerge in late winter/early spring. These cute, fuzzy little “kitten paws” are more than just a showy sign of spring. Tiny flowers pop out from the fuzz, providing an early food source of pollen for scavenger honeybees.  

In addition, the Salix discolor is a host plant to many butterflies and moths, including: dreamy duskywing, morning cloak, eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy, and twin-spotted sphinx. There are also medicinal properties associated with all willow varieties, but I'll leave that information up to trained herbalists. Let's just say, it's important to have access to willow during, oh, I don't know, a zombie apocalypse or something. 

Salix discolor and Salix babylonica are simply the easiest plants to propagate. There are three steps:

  • Grab your snips (I guess they’re called hand pruners nowadays) and cut a few five-inch branches of your willow of choice.
  • Place cuttings in filtered water (not tap water, especially if you have a water softener or it is chlorinated.).
  • Wait.

Lessons Learned from Tree Propagation

That’s it. I promise. In a few days, you’ll start to see little white “bumps” on the cutting. Then, in about a week to 10 days, you’ll see little white roots stretch out. In about three weeks, you’ll be ready to remove the cuttings from the water and put them in pots with soil. They are not fussy, so I use plain ol’ potting soil. 

And be sure not to dump the water used to root the willow. You can reuse that water to start other cuttings. Because of the salicylic and indolebutyric acids released from the willow, and now found in its rooting water, you have a homemade rooting compound that stimulates root growth in a variety of plants.

You can plant your new shrubs after the threat of frost has passed, watering regularly until established, but I usually wait until early September. I give my Salix varieties a little time to establish a good root system in the pots and I want to see a good amount of new growth, so it’ll better withstand the harsh winter conditions I experience in Central Ohio. 

In no time, you’ll have mastered this easy technique to try on other shrubs to see what roots easily, such as forsythia and rosemary, to increase the number of plants in your garden … and impress your non-gardening friends.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page, 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.

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