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

For the Love of Insects

Butterflies and moths

Most of us can agree that butterflies are lovely and peaceful to watch on a warm summer day as they flit from one flower to the next. Many of them have colors that would excite any artist’s palette. Butterflies, specifically Monarchs, have even recently invaded the news as progenitors to the dangers of climate change. Pretty things dying in great numbers help grab attention. They are however just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. 

When was the last time you sat in a garden and saw more than Monarchs? Sure, they’re easy to spot with their dramatic color and designs but there are many more flutterbys (as a niece used to call them) than Monarchs. Some are quite understated, others have such subtle differences you need to count the dots to know which one you have photographed.

I admit to being one of those people who mostly saw Monarchs and Swallowtails. In fact, this is the first year that I can remember seeing such diversity in my garden. I saw more than I could photograph—the little ones can be so fast and some of them much prefer the safety of a closed-wing resting position to one that advertises where it has landed. I’m already looking forward to next season when I can more patiently wait for better identification photos of my fritillaries and Cloudless Sulphurs—I won’t forget the moths! But that’s a whole other story.

Did you know that caterpillars overwinter in dead leaves? This is one of the best reasons not to remove or burn leaves once they’ve fallen. When I do anything with my leaves —which is rare these days—I tend to gently rake them to the beds next to where they’ve fallen. I’ve also become more particular in which “weed” trees I remove. You can bet I’ll leave more of my hackberry volunteers now that I’ve identified Emperors in my garden.

There are over 20,000 different types of bees worldwide, with up to 4,000 living in the US. As with butterflies, most of us think of only one or two types—honey bees and bumble bees. If pressed, you might come up with borer bees, sweat bees, or digress into hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets with a loathsome grimace on your face.

Insect Collection

Bees are just as fascinating as butterflies in their diversity—some live in the ground and others are solitary rather than working as a collective. I’ll warn you, this rabbit hole might be even larger than following butterflies… though catching photos of them can be nearly as elusive.

I have learned that some of the larger bumble bees even seem friendly. A friend swears that one of her garden bumbles greeted her each morning on her rounds. I don’t doubt it as some of those I’ve spent time around certainly seem to recognize me and my camera. I won’t swear they don’t pose…

I have become much more tolerant of wasps and their predatory relatives since I’ve been researching them. While I grow tobacco to entice the hornworms away from my tomatoes, I have to admit to a small amount of fascinated satisfaction when finding mostly dead worms thanks to the braconid wasp eggs being hosted (see photo below). Life is a circle.

I still pick some of the peskier insects off my plants, mostly because they can decimate plants that I’m waiting to harvest. However, I may be reaching an impasse with the cabbage lovers because I noticed that while the worms leave me little kale in the summer, the chilly weather is their enemy and my kale is still good to go with temperatures into the 20s.

Many of us understand that birds eat a lot of insects. But due to marketing and mythology, how many of us know that hummingbirds eat far more insects than nectar? If you want to support hummingbirds, along with other birds, don’t use pesticides in your garden. Let most of the insects flourish and your birds will love you for it. Over the past several years, I have definitely been seeing the wisdom of Doug Tallamy play out in our garden.

Hummingbird and hornworm

Even though we’ve been taught to be afraid of them, there are many insects that prey on harmful insects. There are also completely harmless insects (like crane flies) who have a reputation of munching down others (like mosquitoes) but are not at all predatory. I have learned so much about the insects who share space with me indoors and out. I would beseech you to do the same.

We need to cherish more of our insect family members… not just the pretty ones. Take some time to watch and learn about more of the tiny critters in your garden and the world around you. Stop killing insects indiscriminately—the life you ultimately save just might be your own.

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.

Children Growing Their Own Food: Why Children Need To Learn This Important Skill

2'x3' children's garden planter box

Are you wondering "why should children learn to grow their own food?" Depending on their age, they are probably busy with school, after-school activities and sports. Or for that matter why should you as a parent make an effort yourself to grow healthy and fresh food at home as a role model for your children? After all, we have grocery stores everywhere. And vending machines and corner stores. Lots of food available. Nobody needs to go hungry, right?

A child's nutrition is very important in their early years as their bodies develop. Why stuff them full of produce that is laden with chemicals, processed food and nutrient deficient foods? Most processed food is high in salt, sugar and preservatives. And if they start off in life eating what we call "junk food" and food with empty calories, they will continue into their adult lives. And later experience health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer.

Children Especially Need Fresh Whole Foods

Bowl of homegrown lettuce

An apple straight off the tree, a handful of raspberries picked and still warm from the sun, a salad made from fresh lettuce and tomatoes picked just minutes ago or a carrot pulled out of the ground that actually smells like a carrot!

If you are lucky, you may have farmer's markets in your area that you can go to every weekend. But that can get very expensive as organic produce is usually priced higher than conventional non-organic. And it takes time to drive to the market, find parking and then make your way through the hordes of people that are trying to get their fresh produce in the few hours that the market is open.

So what is the alternative?

Growing Your Own Food

My daughter's carrot harvest

It is possible on a small scale, regardless of time, space, money and knowledge. And encouraging your children to grow their own food is one of the best things you can do as a parent. It teaches them responsibility for a living thing, that vegetables can taste good and that they can become more self sufficient and not reliant on big food companies.

Sure, they won't likely be able to grow all the food they need, but every time they eat from their own garden they are putting food in their growing and developing bodies that is healthier and fresher than anything you can get at the store. And fewer trips to the store mean less environmental pollution from cars.

But let’s look at some of the myths that people have with growing their own vegetables and fruit. And unfortunately that gets passed down to children and why many children do not grow food themselves.

Myth #1: It takes up too much space.

You can grow a lot of food in just a few containers. You don't need the acres of row gardens that commercial growers use. Growing in recycled pails/buckets from catering places works well. Or you could buy some plastic storage bins (with the bonus that the lids can double as drip trays underneath the bin). In both cases make sure to drill some drainage holes. My favourite container to plant up has a few lettuce plants, a tomato plant and a few green onion stalks. This can be placed close to your kitchen door so that you can grab a few lettuce leaves, a tomato and some green onion for a tasty salad or sandwich topping.

If you want something more ascetically pleasing you can also build an inexpensive, attractive and sturdy raised bed or planter box. For the cost of a shopping basket full of produce you can have a great place to grow fresh vegetables. 

Myth #2: It takes too much time.

So do a lot of other things in our lives. It is really a matter of priorities and a mindset shift to what you value most in life. The health of your family should be a priority if you are a parent. When you think of all the time spent on “time-wasters” that don’t produce any results that improve your life, you have more time than you think. It’s a matter of priorities: eating well and contributing to the world’s food supply or binge watching the latest Netflix series/watching cat videos on FaceBook?

There are ways to make garden maintenance easier and thus take less time. Routines are key to squeeze in some gardening into our busy lives. Maybe set aside 15-30 minutes when your child comes home from school (practical life skills homework!) or right after dinner to go out and tend to the vegetable garden. Maybe you'll find something tasty for the next day's breakfast or lunch! Also try and set aside an hour each weekend where you go out into the garden and do a few light tasks.

And you can save time by setting up a watering system, mulching heavily to avoid having to weed and growing from seed (to avoid multiple trips to the nursery or garden centre to buy transplants).

Myth #3: It costs too much money.

Have you seen the cost of most organic produce? And the prices are always fluctuating due to natural disasters, drought and market demand. So buying a few seeds or some transplants or soil or fertilizer that sets you back less than $100 will likely save you more than that on groceries.

You can also save money by reusing food containers (properly washed) to grow your seedlings or store harvested fruit and cherry tomatoes. Use chopsticks for digging holes and separating transplants. Use newspaper and cardboard for mulch. Get free wood chips from your local arborist to use as mulch.

And if you save seeds from your best producing plants, you won't need to buy them every year. Stop buying one or two expensive special coffees at Starbucks (make coffee at home and bring it in a reusable travel mug) or the pricy takeout salads (you’ll be able to make your own soon!) and you will have enough money to grow healthy food for your family.

Myth #4: The food we buy is better quality

Maybe the apples you buy in the store are pristine. And the lettuce has no holes in it. However have you ever thought how that produce got into that perfect state? In most cases it has been sprayed with chemical pesticides so that the produce doesn't get eaten by pests.

So if you truly want to control what goes on your produce and then into your family’s bodies, the only way is to grow your own. Sure, maybe your lettuce has some bites out of it from a slug or snail or your apples have some holes from worms. These are all indicators that your produce is not chemically laden otherwise these "pests" would not be eating your food. 

Disfigured fruit for instance can be used to make applesauce, jams, jellies or juices. And when you have an abundance of your own lettuce, discarding the odd leaf that has been chewed on is easier than doing so with organic lettuce that you paid a premium for at the store.

Myth #5: I don't know how to start

There are so many resources available to learn how to grow your own food.

seed catalogues
Facebook groups
local nursery or garden centre
local garden clubs
local workshops and training
local Master Gardener groups
neighbours, family and friends
local horticultural centres
government and university extensions (if you live in the US)

And finally there is your experience that you will gain by simply doing. By just experimenting and trying something out, you learn valuable lessons from your successes and failures. And your kids will too when they grow their own food! 

Thankful for her garden!

Hope you get a chance to grow at least one vegetable or fruit in the coming growing season. I would love to hear about your experiences with growing food at home with your kid(s), so leave a comment below.

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.

Easy DIY Food Forest Fall Planting Guide

Photo by Flickr/Jeff Wright

Fall is the best season for planting many perennial evergreens. As the days shorten, the stress of the sun is lessened. From the time of this writing until the 3rd or 4th day of our first big storm, when the soil will begin to saturate — thus thwarting digging attempts — is the prime window for planting plants that will provide edible abundance year after year. Plant them now and then “turn them loose” to provide harvests in the years to come.

Sub-tropic perennials that do so well in our communities: Olives, Pomegranates, Citrus (Lemon, Lime, Kumquat, Mandarin, Satsuma) Pineapple Guava, Currants, Loquat, Avocado, and more

Oversized holes. Here in the East Bay, we have a ton of clay. For those of you blessed with sandy loam (i.e. Alameda, California area) or rich alluvium, disregard this section. For many the East Bay Clay needs conditioning. While sheet mulching can help break up and enhance clay over time, over sizing your holes will help right away. Generally holes dug should be three times the width and two to three times the depth of the pot they come from. Thus a 1-gallon plant has a hole dug the size of a 5-gallon pot.

Root crown height placement. The most important part of a young plant is the interface between earth and sky. This important place is known as the root crown, where all the disparate roots align to become the base of the truck of the plant. For Mediterranean species, this root crown must be planted slightly higher than the flooded flatlands around it. This can be achieved simply by mounding the root crown’s planting height 2 to 3 inches higher than the surrounding ground level. Measure this by taking a second stick/ruler and laying it across the hole. This will give the surrounding soil height. From there, create a dome mound to ensure that the new root ball is covered.

Use a stick or ruler to measure hole depth. Take the plant gently out of pot. Measure from bottom to top/root crown. Measure hole plus 1 inch for wet species like Avocado, plus 3 inches for Mediterranean plants like olive. If depth is too much, now build a volcano mini-mound in bottom of hole and tamp down with fingers. Sit root ball on top of this mound.

Re-measure and check so that the plant sits 1 to 3 inches above soil (depending on plant type).

Open up the roots to stimulate growth. Use a hori hori (see below) or a butter knife to gently stab into root ball. Do not remove an excessive amount of the root ball’s soil, as this will allow it to adjust in the hole. Use a stick or ruler to recheck root crown height one last time.

Banded soil Layers

Now that the plant is placed, begin to fill hole with appropriate soil mix (see below) in layers, like stacked doughnuts.

Native soil cap. Cap the last 1 to 2 inches of the planted hole with sorted local soil. Start by sorting or removing the large chunks and pieces bigger than ball bearings. The native soil is able to withstand the impact of a rainstorm and not compress and erode. Bagged soil mixes will run away with the first rains if not capped in either native soil or wood chips.

Sheet mulch. Now that you new plant is planted, you can protect it by mulching it 3 to four inches deep. The wood chips or straw will: conserve moisture, reduce weeds, slow release nutrients. Be sure to take your finger and remove mulch from being directly on the root crown. The root crown must be free to breathe fresh air. When the root crown is buried it runs the risk of rotting.

Mulch alternative. If you don't wish to purchase wood chips, you can take advantage of the autumn bounty and collect fallen leaves. I’m sure someone on your block with deciduous tree canopy would be thrilled for you to “harvest” a few trash bags worth. Avoid Eucalyptus and Sycamore as they spread disease.

Tools Needed

Hori Hori: Available at Hida Tool on San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA
Metal Rake
Mattock: It’s like a super pick and the best thing for East Bay Clay
Shovel: Duh. I like the all steel shovels made by Fiskers.
Steel Digging Bar: For larger trees, this amazing tool can often be the only way to penetrate hard clay and rocky soils.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun GardensHe is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other 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.

Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse


We labeled the bed where we found nematodes, to ensure good sanitation practices.

Growing in a hoophouse has all the benefits of a warmer climate and sometimes the disadvantages, such as pests and diseases not seen in outdoor crops. For us in central Virginia, winter-hardiness Zone 7, that now includes root-knot nematodes (RKN). Nematodes are tiny soil-borne worms that have a wide host range and are hard to control. They move only 3'–4' (1–1.2 m) per year on their own, but people move them on shoes, tools, etc. It’s been hard to find an organic approach to management of this pest. I’m offering what I’ve learned so far, so other growers have a starting point.

Tilling every 10 days (bare fallow) is one option, but we didn’t want "dead" soil. RKN are active at soil temperatures between 50°F–95°F (10°C–35°C), but reproduce slowly if at all below 64°F (18°C); their optimum temperature is about 90°F (32°C). At the lower end of their active temperature scale, RKN can complete a life cycle in 50 days. At 85°F–90°F (29°C–32°C) that time can be reduced to only 20 days.

Discovering Nematodes

In February 2011 we found peanut root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne arenaria) in our hoophouse, in young spinach, which we were digging up to transplant outdoors. Some of the roots were misshapen with lumps in them. We sent a sample of plants with roots and soil to our plant diagnostic clinic at Virginia Tech and they confirmed our fears.

We formulated a two-year plan foregoing food crops for two years, using nematode-suppressive cover crops and summer solarization. Thinking we’d then be done with nematodes, we grew lettuce there the next winter. We hoped the solarization would have killed off the sclerotinia that has plagued our winter leaf lettuce. That worked well!

But meanwhile we found nematodes in the other half of the same bed, in a crop of green bush beans. (It was easy to distinguish the lumpy nematode-containing roots from the nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which are spherical, external to the roots and attached to them.) We started the same two-year plan for the new area. For those two areas, our plan felt manageable and cautious: we could afford to lose a half-bed of food crops for two years, in the cause of eliminating this pest.

Our Initial Two-Year Zap IPM Approach

1. Prevent increase by removing all weeds, often (they are common nematode hosts).

2. Promptly remove crops, including roots, as soon as harvest is over, destroying infected plants (we laid ours out in the driveway to bake in the sun).

3. Prevent spread to other areas — wash tools after use, being careful not to move soil to other areas.

4. Suppress nematodes by adding compost at every crop transition to build the levels of organic matter and micro-organisms such as Rhizobacter and mycorrhizae, which can induce systemic resistance to nematodes.

5. Grow a series of nematode-suppressing cover crops. In fall sow wheat. In spring cut it down every time it reaches 12" (30 cm), to keep it manageable. In April spread compost, cut down and dig in the wheat, sow sesame (particularly good with peanut RKN) and interplant OP Lemon Drop French marigolds at 7" (18 cm) spacing. In mid-June spread more compost, dig in the cover crops, water and solarize the soil from June to September. In September remove the plastic, add compost and sow wheat again.

6. For year three, grow non-susceptible crops, or nematode-resistant varieties of susceptible crops, and monitor — watching for plants that wilt during the day and recover overnight, watching for general decline, doing root checks, looking for lumps.

Other Nematode-Suppressing Cover Crops

We might have included Pacific Gold mustard (B. juncea), if we’d found it in time. Don’t confuse this with Ida Gold Mustard, which kills weeds, and is susceptible to nematodes. Other cover crops that suppress nematodes include some other OP French marigold varieties (but avoid Tangerine Gem or hybrid marigolds); Iron and Clay cowpeas; chrysanthemum; white lupins; black-eyed Susan; gaillardia (blanket flower, Indian blanket); oats; sesame/millet mix. We decided against sorghum-sudangrass (too big), winter rye (harder than wheat to incorporate by hand), bahiagrass, Bermuda grass (both invasive), castor bean and Crotolaria (sunn hemp) (both poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels), partridge pea, California poppy (both require at least one full year of growth) and some obscure vetches that weren’t available locally.

Brassicas for Disease and Pest Management

All brassicas contain compounds with wide-ranging biotoxic activity against insect pests, bacteria, fungi, nematodes and weeds. Because the active chemicals are released only when the plant cell walls are ruptured, brassica cover crops are usually tilled in or plowed under to maximize their natural fumigant potential. The level of biofumigants varies, depending on the species, variety, planting date, growth stage when terminated, climate and weather. This is still a relatively new area of research, with growers having widely different results.

This “mustard-gas effect” is caused by glucosinolate compounds in brassicas. Breakdown products of glucosinolates, such as isothiocyanates and nitriles, suppress nematodes by interfering with their reproductive cycle. Oilseed radish as a plowed-in cover crop can reduce stubby-root nematode (Trichodorus) and root-lesion nematode (Pratylenchus). Root exudates from incorporated cover crop radishes stimulate hatching of sugar beet cyst nematode eggs, but the larvae that emerge are unable to develop into reproductive females, so the population is reduced. Radish does not always completely control the nematodes, but it can be part of a longer-term strategy to eliminate them. See SARE Growing Cover Crops Profitably and ATTRA Nematodes: Alternative Controls.

Avoiding Susceptible Crops in Warm Soil

We considered using the infested bed for susceptible crops during winter, waiting until soil temperatures dropped below 64°F (18°C), when it is too cold for nematodes to reproduce. I found that as of October 6, our soil was still too warm. It would certainly mean no early greens. We decided against this, as it implied a late start to harvesting, and perhaps an early finish too.   Later-planted crops such as radishes and lettuce can be grown through most of their cycle without suffering nematode infection, finishing before spring when the nematodes become active, but we want greens for early winter too. Many spring crops can be planted before soil temperatures warm to 50°F (10°C) and severe damage can be avoided. In spring we'd pull up the susceptible crops when soil temperature reached 64°F (18°C) again.

Cucumber roots infested with nematodes (see the circles).

Planning for Nematode Management

In August 2014, when we pulled our early tomatoes in the bed next to the one we were treating, we found nematodes on the roots of four out of 44 plants. It’s possible they had made their own way there from the next-door bed, or that we accidentally transferred them with tools. Having two beds out of six not producing food was too much of a hit. We decided we needed to learn to live with a certain level of nematodes and only take an area out of production if we got a level of nematodes above the Action Threshold, where we were obviously losing yield. Also, we’d use soil amendments to make conditions suitable for nematode antagonists, added before planting crops, so materials would be in place at root level.

Our New "Two Years Nematode-Resistant, One Year Susceptible" Plan

We planned a system of two years of resistant food crops only (particularly in warm weather), followed by one year of somewhat susceptible crops. We made up one beds-worth of the most resistant crops in our plan. This includes Russian kales (B. napus), mizuna (B. rapa var. japonica) and frilly mustards (B. juncea), Yukina Savoy (classification is now B. rapa, not B. juncea as we originally believed) and radishes. We kept this set of crops as a future nematode-resistant winter combination. In the spring, we grew West Indian gherkins (resistant), followed by Mississippi Silver or Carolina Crowder cowpeas (resistant).

We added Monterey Nematode Control once the soil was warm enough. Biocontrols need to be in place in the soil as it reaches a warm enough temperature for the RKN to be active. Essential oils from wormwood (Sweet Annie), caraway, fennel, applemint, spearmint and oregano are said to be helpful but I have no proof. Jerry Ross of Maui, Hawaii, reported that molasses seems to drive down populations of RKN in the soil. He found that applying some dried molasses (used as a horse supplement) to the soil seemed to really help.

After two years of resistant crops, we did a year of nematode-resistant varieties of susceptible crops, or something from the “Somewhat susceptible” list in the Susceptibility Chart below. The crops at the top of their columns are more susceptible than those below them. The chart can be read as a continuous list, working from top left to bottom right.

My new book The Year-Round Hoophouse also contains charts of RKN-resistant varieties of various vegetable crops.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs, as well as sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam also writes for Growing for Market and other magazines. Her book, Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, is available at, Pam's second book The Year-Round Hoophouse is now also available. Her 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.

How to Grow Organic Basil in a Pot

Growing Genovese Basil In Container

Photo by Pixabay/Pexels

Think about it: Where would the world's favorite dishes be today without the extra flavoring that comes from basil? It's probably the "sexiest" herb in the garden and for several reasons. Basil is seductive to the senses. It entices all who get near her rich green leaves and bold aromatic scent. The leafy herb comes from the mint family and delivers wonderful flavor to so many foods and drinks:

Infused Oils
Frozen Desserts

Best of all, you can grow organic basil in a pot, and enjoy your own fragrant and abundant yield all year-round as you desire it.

You can shop for organic basil at the grocery store, but there is no guarantee of freshness. There's always the possibility that the herb might have been exposed to some kind of contaminant, and that could come from natural and/or unnatural sources. Growing your own organic basil in a pot is also economical, pure, and you maintain control over how and when you store your basil.

Deep Root Zone Matters

This elegant, peppery-tasting herb can thrive in a pot both indoors and outdoors (depending on where you live) but needs these basics:

Daily Water (hot days)
Some Organic Fertilizers

To grow crazy-large organic basil, your pot or container should have some depth to it. Gardening experts recommend large pots or even window boxes. In other words, the deeper the root zone the better, and the plant won't be so thirsty and dry out as easily.

Fabric "Smart Pots" are excellent for growing basil because these porous containers are light-weight and aid the basil plant in developing an efficient and fibrous root system. Choose a 3- or 4-gallon size pot for each plant.

Window boxes are also a cool way to watch your basil grow because their eager roots can spread out along the bottom of the box. You can add about four plants to a window box.

Plastic pots that resemble genuine terracotta containers are suitable for growing basil. A real terracotta pot, however, is not the best for growing the herb because its clay base can dry out the plant more rapidly. You would have to water twice as much. Plastic containers are ideal for mini-basil plants, and you could group a trio into a 12-inch pot, for example.

Choose Quality Potting Mix

Basil Seedlings In Container Gardening 

Photo by Pixabay/lenok-ru19850

A great organic plant is always healthier and more delicious due to its mineral-rich and nutrient-dense base soil. Chemicals and synthetics rob a plant of its natural purity, so select the proper products before you go potting.

Organic farmers recommend soaking your basil plants first in a diluted solution of organic liquid seaweed. This type of fertilizing formula builds healthy plants by encouraging a stronger root system, creating resistance to disease and frost and retarding the aging process in plants.

Your organic potting mix choice is also key as these premium soils have been designed specifically for organic container growing. The right mix provides nutrients, promotes proper drainage and supports root growth for bigger, heartier plants.

Any Basil is Beautiful

If you thought that there was just one type of basil you could grow, then, you would be sadly mistaken. The herb has a variety of fragrant and delicious types, according to the seasoned pros at The Old Farmer's Almanac.

Sweet basil is very popular, but there is also Thai basil with a licorice taste, lemon basil with a classic citrus flavor and purple basil with a spicy taste.

These gorgeous plants not only offer a special zing to foods and drinks but a lovely leafy ornamental look to your outdoor or indoor space as they grow and prosper. For example, Thai basil features purple stems and blooms with green leaves reaching 12 to 16 inches tall.

The almanac also offers excellent tips on everything basil. For instance, "If you pick regularly, twelve basil plants will produce 4 to 6 cups of leaves per week."

Growing your own bounty of organic basil offers wonderful advantages, and you don't need an acre to plant it. The herb does beautifully in pots of various sizes, and even beginners can reap an abundant harvest within weeks. Today's herbs are often imported from countries with less stringent standards of purity. Growing organic basil in a pot is simple, rewarding and the way nature intended.

Andrew Dang is a DIYer and founder of Simply Home Tips. He likes to share his experience through detailed guidelines and pictures on home improvement, gardening, DIY projects, and woodworking. Connect with Andrew on Twitter and Pinterest.

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.

Aquaponics Basics for a Home Garden System

Aquaponics Home Garden System Organic 

Photo by Flickr/Kirsty

Are you looking for a quick and relatively easy way to grow plants in your garden? Aquaponics is a revolutionary and alternative way of growing food that maintains both plants and fish in one integrated system — and with no need for soil.

The fish produce waste, which is converted into fertilizer for the plants. In return, the plants filter the water for the fish, creating a self-sustaining way of both growing plants and keeping fish.

There are many benefits to using aquaponics to enhance your organic gardening, with several that outweigh traditional hydroponics. Aquaponics uses one-tenth the water that soil-based gardening does, and even less water than hydroponic systems.

It is a completely natural ecosystem, it drastically reduces the amount of time you need to spend gardening, and you’ll be able to spend more time doing the more enjoyable things (such as feeding the fish and harvesting the plants).

An aquaponics system can be placed anywhere, and they can be any size — from small tabletop herb systems to large backyard systems.

Another benefit is that, not only do you produce plants and vegetables to eat, but you can also raise the fish to eat — you can grow an entire meal all at once! If you want to have a go at starting your own aquaponics system that runs in addition to a vegetable garden, we’re going to take a look at all the things you need to get started.

What You Need for an Aquaponics System

For all aquaponics systems, you need all the following equipment. You may also need other equipment depending on the size of your system, and where you live in the world. If you live in an area which experiences seasonal changes and colder winters, you may want to use a greenhouse to allow the system to keep going all year round.

Basic materials list:

A fish tank
A grow bed
Grow media
A grow bed stand
Plumbing pipe
Siphons or stand pipes
Water pump
Filtration system
Optional – sump tank, liners, heating elements, backup systems

Choosing a Tank

Depending on whether you want to build your own system from scratch, or are happy using a kit this will determine the tank that you use.

If you choose the DIY route, there are lots of different options available, from using a glass or acrylic fish tank, to setting up your own system using wire ranks and large food grade tanks. Food grade containers typically come in two popular sizes: 55 gallons and 225 gallons.

If you choose to use a recycled food tank from the catering industry, make sure than whatever has been stored in it hasn’t left a toxic residue.

Vinyl swimming pools are also a great choice for larger DIY tanks. Find somewhere that is level to place the fish tank; it’ll also need to be close to a source of electricity.

Choosing the Grow Bed and Media for Aquaponics

Aquaponic Plant Growing In Aquarium 

Photo Robert Woods

The grow bed will be placed above the fish tank, and is the place where all your plants will grow.

The grow box doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you can use a wooden box with a pond liner. It should be quite shallow, between 6 to 10 inches deep.

Unlike other gardening system, you won’t need any soil in the grow bed. Instead you should choose a different media such as perlite, fine gravel or clay pebbles. Each one has their own advantages and disadvantages so carry out a little more research into this area before building your aquaponics system.

Choosing Fish for Aquaponics

The fish you choose will depend on whether you will be harvesting them to eat, or whether you just want them for their aesthetics.

If you plant on eating the fish, an ideal species is Tilapia. They are fast-growing and low maintenance. They’re also really hardy and resilient to disease.

If you’re looking for ornamental fish, Koi carp are often a popular choice, as are goldfish.

Choosing the Plants

You’ll find that some plants will thrive in pretty much any system such as lettuce, basil and kale, whereas plants such as tomatoes, broccoli and peppers all require more nutrients. If you’re new to this – start out with the easier options and once you’ve got a handle on what you’re doing you can experiment with the trickier plants.

Choose plants with short grow-out periods such as salad greens. Most leafy greens do well in aquaponics systems.

Effort to Maintain an Aquaponics System

The beauty of an aquaponics system is that after it is set up, it doesn’t need much intervention. You’ll need to feed the fish daily and check the water parameters, but you won’t have all the additional maintenance that comes with fishkeeping or gardening. You really do get the best of both worlds: Low maintenance, and high rewards!

Robert Woods has been keeping fish for nearly 30 years. As the owner of the Fishkeeping World blog, he strives to ensure that the standards within the aquarist community are kept high and that people are given the best advice on caring for all aquatic life.

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.

Heirloom Leafy Greens to Plant for the Cool Seasons

Let's grow this fall!

The cool seasons have arrived, bringing with them new opportunities for your garden. This year, try something different by growing a leafy heirloom garden that can be used for lighter offerings during the coming feasts. We live in an age of health awareness, so grow a green garden that yields a holiday salad or the key ingredients for tasty sautéed greens.

Theresa Traficante, co-founder of Garden In Minutes and avid urban gardener, loves growing heirlooms because of the history and taste they bring to the table and garden. Known to usually be more flavorful, heirlooms are defined by open-pollination and being true to generational type. The following are some recommended heirloom leafy greens that are perfect for a cool season garden. 

“Wild Rocket” Arugula

Known for its role in salads, pestos, and on pizza, Arugula has a distinct flavor and is fast growing. 4 plants can be sown per square foot, and it can be planted in late summer/early fall. Ensure your garden receives full sun and keep the first two inches of soil moist. Pro-tip: Use a watering system in your garden that waters plants at their base.

 Wild Rocket Arugula - Eden Brothers Image

(Img Src: Eden Brothers Seeds)

Collards –“Georgia Green”, “Champion”, “Vates”, “Morris Heading”, and “Green Glaze”

Heirloom collards are rare and you can actually help preserve them by growing more. Infamous in Southern cuisine, it’s similar to Kale but with a slightly sweeter flavor. They can be planted throughout fall, one per square foot, preferably 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost. In more northern regions, collards can be planted in late summer as the cool weather comes sooner. They are frost tolerant and it’s thought frost improves their flavor.

Pro-tip: Use the Farmers’ Almanac to find out the current year’s forecasted first frost for your region. Leaves can be harvested when they reach 10 inches long and appear dark green.

morris heading collards - rare seeds 

(Img Src: Rare Seeds)

“Lacinato” Kale

Kale is a popular staple for anyone living an active, healthy lifestyle. It has found its way into salads, pans, smoothies, and even has become a substitute for chips. Fall is the best time for growing kale, but it won’t do well in regions where it drops far below freezing. Kale should be planted one per square foot and like collards, needs to be planted 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost. In more southern regions, it can be continuously planted through the Fall season, but it won’t do well once temperatures consistently dip below mid-twenties. (If an unexpected period of freezing temps are coming your way - put these garden frost protection tips to good use.)

Lacinato Kale - Eden Brothers

(Img Src: Eden Brothers Seeds)

“Southern Giant Curled” Mustard

Another fast-growing leafy green, these can be planted upwards of 16 per square foot. Known for their spicy kick, they do best in moist, well-drained soil. Pro-Tip: Grow these in a raised garden for optimal drainage. They are usually grown before the last frost for a Springtime garden, but they can be planted as the weather cools from Summer to Fall. They are frost tolerant meaning they can survive quick light frost, but prolonged temperatures below freezing will kill them.

Southern Giant Mustard Greens - Eden Brothers

(Img Src: Eden Brothers Seeds)

“America” Spinach

Spinach is a versatile leaf like Kale, finding itself in sandwiches, salads, shakes, and sautéed. Spinach, like Kale, can be made into chips as a tasty substitute for traditional potato chips. Spinach also has the potential to grow through winter if provided enough warmth and protection. Nine plants can be grown per square foot - and much like our other leafy heirlooms, plant spinach 6 to 8 weeks before your first frost.

America Spinach - Seed Savers Exchange 

(Img Src: Seed Savers Exchange)

So there you have it! 9 leafy heirlooms to grow in your fall garden. You can find seeds for all of these heirloom varietals on websites like,, and Happy fall 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.

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