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

How to Plant and Care for New Fruit Trees

Photo by Unsplash/Macu ic

Once you’ve invested in new fruit trees, you want to make sure you get them off to a good start. Every step from digging, planting, mulching, watering, staking and pruning is important to their long-term health and survival. You’ll be able to do a good job with your fruit trees by following these steps:

New fruit trees that arrive by mail are best left in their box, in a cool place, until you have time to plant them. Before planting, soak their roots in water at least an hour to overnight.

The best holes for fruit trees are dug to fit the diameter and shape of the individual tree’s roots. Never prune roots to fit the hole! The depth of each hole is determined by the graft line. This line is recognized by a change in bark color or by a diagonal scar in the bark. This graft line must remain just above soil level to prevent “suckers” that will continually need removing.

When digging the hole, mix the topsoil with deeper soil. The cardboard your tree arrived in can serve as a surface on which you place and mix soil. This mixture is then placed around the new fruit tree’s roots. Using just topsoil or lighter soil in a hole whose walls are made of clay allows water to sit around the roots and drown the new tree. Scoring the sides of the hole with the edge of a shovel will also help to keep water from collecting around the roots.

Hold your new fruit tree upright as you place soil around its roots, and then step on the ground around the fruit tree’s trunk to remove all air pockets. Fruit trees can be planted by one person, but it does help to have a helper holding the trunk to assure it stays upright and the graft line remains just above-ground.

Immediate care of your newly-planted tree includes pruning, staking and watering. A newly planted fruit tree should be pruned to about three-feet in height. This will help to balance its new growth to the tiny roots it lost when transplanted. Begin training its branches to angles of ten and two-o’clock by bracing them away from the trunk with wooden, spring-type clothespins.

Staking is done through a fruit tree’s first year until it expands its roots. Dwarf trees, however, need to be staked long-term. Use a firm rope attached to a sturdy stake which is braced at a slight angle away from the tree. The stake is placed on the windward side—the direction from which the wind usually comes. Protect the tree trunk from damage by running the rope through a short piece of hose where it will touch the tree’s bark.

Make sure your tree gets about one-inch of water each week for its first year. Dwarf trees will need this attention long term.

Mulching the ground around fruit trees is essential to protect their roots and to gradually change the soil into what will allow fruit trees to thrive. Grass growing around fruit trees doesn’t support their roots, so mulching heavily out to the “drip line” is important. Imagine your tree as an open umbrella and make sure to keep it mulched as far out as its outer branches reach.

Wild fruit trees thrive at the edge of forests, and that’s is the type soil you want for your fruit trees. Although vegetables do best in soil with a high number of bacteria and a slightly basic pH, fruit trees thrive where the soil has a high number of fungi and a slightly acidic pH. To achieve this, use high-carbon mulch like leaves, straw and shredded branches. Garden compost can also be used if it is mixed with a lot of similar brown material.

Protect the trunk of your fruit trees as soon as you plant them. Rabbits, voles and mice use the young fruit trees’ bark as food. Even a small bite to the bark provides an entry-point for pathogens, and if a fruit tree’s trunk is girded, it will die. Sun can also damages tree trunks in the winter when heating and then cooling results in the bark cracking. These cracks provide an entry point for pathogens.

A six-inch drainage tile around a new fruit tree’s trunk can keep small animals from damaging the bark. Alternatively, vinyl spiral tree guards come in two-foot lengths and can be used for years. Because the vinyl is white, it also prevents “sunscald” by reflecting the sun.

Another method of preventing sunscald is to simply paint the trunks of your fruit trees with white latex paint. Either one-half strength with water or full-strength white paint prevents the trunk’s bark from heating and then contracting with cooling. Some people find that full-strength latex paint is also effective for discouraging damage from mammals.

The original care you take with new fruit trees will translate not only into protecting your investment but also having healthy trees and fruit for decades to come. It pays to dig their holes well, provide the right mulch and protect their trunks’ bark. In the next two blogs, I will explain further methods of having healthy fruit trees without the use of chemicals.

Mary Lou, a retired physician, homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.

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.

'Bob Steffen's Hardneck' Garlic: Try This Drought- and Flood-Tolerant Giant Variety for Changing Climates

laughing woman 
Betsy Samuelson with 'Bob Steffen's Hardneck' garlic. Readers interested in this garlic variety can reach Betsy via

Floods, drought, ruined harvests; by now, many of us have experienced these, and we hear it may get worse. In previous posts, we’ve considered paths to resilience through soil health. But the missing piece in every resilient gardener’s toolbox is locally adapted seed, as this story, written by farmer Betsy Samuelson, explains so well.

Betsy's Story

Garlic isn’t typically grown from seed. It's grown by saving a few of the plumpest bulbs at harvest time, separating the bulbs into cloves, and planting those cloves the very same fall. Nonetheless, folks call it “seed garlic” and grow it each year to continue the existence of favored varieties.

If you search for 'Bob Steffen’s Hardneck' garlic, you won't find it, because I'm one of three keepers of this 80-year-old variety. 'Bob Steffen’s Hardneck' can be as big as elephant garlic, but it's much more flavorful and only has four cloves. The cloves are so big that to use a garlic press, you must cut each clove in quarters. It’s also super-easy to peel. These characteristics make it a real pleasure to have on hand. It never had a name, so we call it 'Bob Steffen's Hardneck' to give credit where credit is due; Bob spent a lifetime breeding this variety.

Bob was the farm superintendent of Boys Town from 1943 to 1977. He led commercial-scale organic and biodynamic farming methods in the Midwest. Bob Steffen died in 2006, and I never met him. But his son, Jim, and I served together on a local food policy council. At that time, I had been growing his father’s special variety of garlic for some years.

'Bob Steffen's Hardneck' garlic came into my care while I was working as the production manager at Bloomsorganic Farm in Crescent, Iowa. Diversity among varieties of herbs, vegetables, and flowers was our specialty. We grew more than 100 varieties of tomatoes and about nine varieties of garlic. Bob Steffen was a mentor to Bloomsorganic Farm owner Rebecca Bloom, and he gave her a handful of seed garlic 30-some years ago.


Photo by Unsplash/Tony Liao

Beginning in April 2011, a major flood event occurred in the Missouri River Valley, and our garlic crop was in saturated soil, if not underwater, until its July harvest. Only two or three varieties survived, and 'Bob Steffen's Hardneck' was among those. Then, between spring 2012 and summer 2013, our region was in a major drought. To our astonishment, this variety prevailed in drought and flood conditions.

As if the garlic hadn’t suffered enough, aster yellows (a bacteria carried by the aster leafhopper) hit the crop in 2014. All the garlic varieties quickly began to die back prematurely. When harvested, almost every bulb had major discoloration and a putrid smell. However, it was clear that one variety didn’t take too big of a hit: 'Bob Steffen’s Hardneck.'

When I left Bloomsorganic Farm in 2015, I grabbed some cloves of 'Bob Steffen’s Hardneck.' This fall, I made sure to plant about 30 cloves at my childhood home, which is about half a mile from Boys Town. I like to think that it's happy to be growing there now, that maybe it has a remembrance of its origin, in such close proximity. After all, seeds (or cloves) hold a memory of all the generations that came before, and they store the potential of everything yet to be. Seed saving connects me to previous generations, to the earth that supports our being, to my own spirit. Bob Steffen couldn’t have predicted whether anyone would continue to cultivate his garlic into the future, but I'm sure grateful for all the trouble he went through to create this variety. Hopefully, I can leave such gifts for future generations — this is why I'm devoted to saving seeds and sharing them with pure delight.

Betsy's fascination with the cycles of life inspired her community and policy activism surrounding non-commercial seed sharing. She seeks to empower others to save and share seeds. Get in touch with her about this garlic at Betsy4589 [at] gmail [.] com.

Pamela Sherman gardens with her husband at 8,300 feet on part of an old pioneer farm on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. She can be reached here. 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.

Do Your Part to Prevent Seed Shortages With This Advice


With the onset of the pandemic, resulting shortages, and disruptions to warehousing, food, and transportation, seed companies saw a sharp and unexpected increase in demand. As more people turned to “Victory” gardens and looked to growing at least some of their own, seeds and vegetable transplants became treasured commodities. Seed companies simply could not meet the demands on both their product and their packing and shipping capacity.

In their 2021 seed catalogs, both Fedco Seed and Pinetree Seed mention having had to close their websites for a time last spring to fulfill existing orders. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has already had to close in January 2021 for the better part of a week so that they could keep up with orders—the combination of five-fold increase in seed orders coupled with staffing issues due to COVID necessitated the move. Already this year out-of-stocks and backorders are an issue, with many companies’ catalogs yet to even be delivered.

Early Signs Indicate a Need for Seed-Buying Care

It is apparent that this year a similar situation is arising, though seed companies seem better prepared for the demand and have put plans in place to fulfill orders as completely and in as timely a manner as possible. Still, the growth of new gardeners and growers, while certainly to be celebrated, is putting at least something of a strain on the industry. The levelling of capacity, supply and demand is likely to take a few years or more as the interest in this new gardening trend gets sorted for the long haul, and as seed suppliers work to increase their product supplies.

As those who grow know, this isn’t something that can be solved with a simple increase in numbers of widgets at the flip of a switch; increasing seed demand and redistributing to the new types of growers will happen over seasons, not days. Nevertheless, if we all do what we can to help spread the seed around, we can grow not only great gardens, but a great culture of self-sufficiency as people start to get their hands dirty once again.

Resilience grows with cooperation, especially in stressful times. – 2021 Fedco Seed Catalog

Planning seed order

How Can You Help Minimize Seed Shortages?

You might not be able to do all of the things listed here, but surely you can do some of them. If we all take a part we can prevent a larger shortage and, as Fedco Seed says, “a true seed crisis.”

Plan your garden and your growing. Plan before you order, so you’re ordering only what you’ll actually grow and use.

Take inventory of last year’s seeds. Few types, like onions, parsnips, and parsley, are not worth saving for a second or subsequent year but most seeds are. So, if you have leftover seeds that were stored well (cool, dark, and dry), take an inventory and use those up first. If you’re not sure how viable your seeds are, run a simple at-home germination test (this link also has a great list of seed viability ages).

Order early. Early ordering helps seed companies plan and restock and it helps you to be able to seek an alternative supply in enough time for seed starting and planting for those seeds that you can’t get all in one place.

Don’t overbuy. It’s obvious. Buy what you need. For many of us, a single seed packet is already more than enough!

Shop local first. Local retail supplies are already bought and paid for, but if they go unpurchased because everyone orders online, they become a waste while others suffer an outage.

Is there a seed bank near you? A seed swap library? Could you, should you, start one? Seed libraries or swaps are great places for free seed, and it helps to make good use of what’s already there without creating a higher demand.

Avoid overplanting. While it’s smart to overplant by a bit to accommodate for failures and poor germination, going overboard on the planting only wastes seed—seed that you can store nicely away for next year, saving you money and saving growers from short supplies.

Find a garden buddy. Having a buddy can make gardening more fun, but it’s also a great way to share knowledge (increase success), extra seeds, and seedlings.

Share seeds. Have more than you need? Pass it on. Or make a plan with your buddy wherein one of you buys one seed, one another, then swap your leftovers. Or split up the planting assignments — one of you grows the tomatoes, one grows broccoli, then divide up the transplants at planting time so you both get what you need.

Share extra transplants. Sharing any excess transplants that you’ve grown can help relieve the pressure on greenhouse growers and relieve the pressures of demand. Waste not.

Select dual-purpose varieties. With so many varieties and choices, it’s easy to want to grow one for every use you have in mind. But there are a lot of great varieties, heirlooms included, that can serve more than one purpose and reduce your plant and seed needs. For example, the Rutgers tomato is an excellent soup and sauce tomato that is also a great slicer. Italian peppers are a similar good dual-purpose choice for sweet, roasting, and cooking.

Try a new or unique variety. Take a chance on a less in-demand, lesser known variety. Especially in times of scarcity, your instinct will be to stick with what you know. That’s logical. But if you’re willing to change it up and try something new, you can make use of those less-popular seeds to ensure maximization of seed supplies.

Rethink how you plant and grow. Will a longer management and harvest get you the yield you need without subsequent and succession planting? Without the need for more seed? For example, rather than pull and start a second broccoli crop, after cutting the main head continue to grow the same plant and enjoy the side shoot harvests instead—right through to fall! Green beans, too, will keep going as long as they’re continually picked and have adequate water. Maybe an indeterminate tomato that will run as long as your season will yield better and longer than a determinate variety.

Select seeds to save. Think beyond this year’s shortages to the potential for years to come. Choose open pollinated or heirloom varieties of seeds that are easy to save (like tomatoes, lettuce, peas, beans, and peppers). Next year’s seed saving starts with this year’s seed purchases and that helps to prevent next year’s shortages.

 We ask our customers, new and old, to carefully determine what you need, order accordingly, then leave some for the next in line. Seeds are not like gold: they don’t last when hoarded.Fedco Seeds

Saving the Seeds This Year, Next Year, and Beyond

Many of these steps will immediately impact this year’s seed supply. Others will impact the supply in the next few years to come. The hope is that so many new home gardeners and growers will stay in the game. At least for the immediate future it’s sure that many will, and that really is a very good thing. Better demand and therefore access is good for all of us. But just as surely, shortages of quality seeds and plants will be the first thing to discourage new gardeners.

Let’s do our part to help everyone, large grower or small, garden, bed, or patio planter, new or seasoned, raise their own fresh food, sustainably, now and in future. Everyone deserves this basic human right and together we can do our part to make sure there continues to be enough to go around.

Mary Ellen Ward is a how-to author, New England homesteader, and family dairy farmer. Connect with her at The Homemade Homestead, Elderberry Tea Co. on her author website, her Amazon author page, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Read all of Mary Ellen’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.

Aquaponics Basics for a Home Garden System

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.

Photo by Pixabay/trananh

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.

Aquaponics Home Garden System Organic 
Photo by Flickr/Kirsty

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
  • Fish
  • Plants
  • 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.

Sesame: Grow This Survival Plant from Seed (Adapted Excerpt from 'Grow Your Own Spices')

Sesame plant 

The following is an adapted excerpt from Grow Your Own Spices: Harvest homegrown ginger, turmeric, saffron, wasabi, vanilla, cardamom, and other incredible spices -- no matter where you live! 

Sesame is often called a survival plant. It tolerates extreme heat, crowding, and poor soil. There are landraces adapted to monsoon conditions and yet other varieties adapted to drought conditions. Also, its fat and protein content plus utility as an oil, paste, and flour meal have also helped subsistence farmers since antiquity survive in harsh climates.

The natural dehiscence, or shattering of the seed pods, also helps ensure this plant’s self-propagation. As a result, wild and naturalized sesame can be found in many warm regions of the world.

Additionally, sesame plants also benefit the soil. They reduce harmful nematodes and fungal pathogens. Its pervasive root structure breaks up soil compaction. Sesame is also beautiful in pollinator and bird gardens. It grows 2-6 feet tall, with bell-shaped flowers that open for weeks.

Dried sesame seeds lack the aromatic, volatile oils associated with spices. That’s because an antioxidant called sesamol prevents its oils from volatizing. Sesame oil is even used to make margarine and ghee shelf stable. Yet, once the seeds are roasted or toasted, all that oil volatility activates revealing sesames’ spicy nature.

In other words, cooking causes the flavor to…open sesame. (You had to see that one coming!)

Grow Sesame at Home

Despite 5,000 years of cultivation, industrial sesame production only became possible in the mid 1900’s. A natural genetic mutation made some seed pods indehiscent (non-shattering). This allowed growers to breed pods that were easier to harvest mechanically.

Still, sesame harvests have remained largely manual worldwide. In fact, most sesame is still grown and harvested on small family farms. If you live in a warm climate or are willing to start plants indoors to get a head start on the growing season, you can grow this beautiful survival plant on your homestead as well.

Here’s what you need to know to have success with your producing your own sesame seeds.

Key Growing Conditions

  • Warm season crop, 90 to 130 days to seed harvest
  • Optimal seed starting 70 to 85ºFahrenheit; 2 to 5 days for seed germination
  • Mature plant tolerance 55-105ºF, Protect from soil temperatures below 65ºF
  • Full sun; Fertile, well-draining soil; pH 5.5 to 7.5
  • Self-fertile, cross-pollination recommended

Seed Selection

Those white sesame seeds you commonly find at the grocery store are hulled and color-sorted to ensure uniformity. At home, though, you don’t need to hull seeds. For example, the delicious black sesame seeds -- prized by gastronomes -- have edible hulls. There are also a range of other possible colors like pale pink, tan, and brown.

Additionally, some sesame grows in a narrow, non-branching fashion suited to rows. Others are branching and require more space. Some varieties need dense planting for production. Others need more space.

You may have to connect with some specialized seed savers to find the less ordinary or more climate specific sesame seeds to plant. But the more of us who seek a diversity of sesame seeds -- and support the seed saver working to maintain this amazing genetic diversity – the more broadly available these seeds will become.  

Sesame Care

Sesame requires temperatures above 70ºF for good growth. Some sesame varieties tolerate wet conditions while others only thrive in dry conditions. For best results, try to plant seeds sold by sellers who grow their sesame in conditions that are as similar to the conditions on your homestead as possible.

Soil Preparation

Incorporate 3 to 4 inches of compost into soil before planting. Add feather meal, bat guano, or other slow-release nitrogen sources for best yields.

Indoor Seed Starting

You can direct sow sesame in climates that have a long, hot growing season. For an early start, though, plant seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before ideal outdoor conditions being. Use an electric seed mat to warm soil. Sow seeds ¼-inch deep. Water daily until germination.

In fact, you can start your sesame with your tomatoes, give them similar care, and plant them outside at the same time.  With sesame though, do not disturb the roots when transplanting.  Treat them like you would other indoor started taprooted plants by planting them in paper pots or soil blocks for safe transplanting.


Plant sesame outdoors when daytime temperatures are mostly at or above 70ºF. In cool climates, use row covers for the first few weeks to allow plants to settle in and stay warmer until consistently warm weather sets in.  

Water plants regularly when young. After they are over a foot tall, water when the top two inches of soil is dry. Keep watering consistently during flowering so that plants keep on producing as long as possible.


Since most homegrown sesame varieties are dehiscent and will naturally open to spread seeds once dry, you need to harvest the pods before they dry.

For small production, pick individual pods when they are mostly dry. Finish drying on a baking sheet or drying rack. Let the plant continue to grow. Like okra, pods will keep forming at the top of the plant.

For larger harvests, when 75% of the lower pods show signs of drying, cut the tops. Hang the heads to dry in a paper bag or dry on a tarp to minimize losses when the pods open. Once the heads are dry thresh the pods to release the seeds, sort, and winnow the chaff.

You can see an example of how I do this using a sheet and my bare feet for mustard seeds on my website. But the process is the same for sesame only you will dry the pods off the plants before threshing.   

Expect 1 to 3 tablespoons of seeds per plant.

Using Sesame on the Homestead

Sesame seeds and oil

I personally don’t have enough room to grow sesame as a survival plant such as for pressing oil or making tahini. But I’ve found that growing 12 plants per year provides me my annual supply of sesame seeds to sprinkle on our regular supply of homemade bagels, use as a garnish for Ramon and other Asian noodle dishes, and to toast as a crust for seared tuna or salmon on special occasions.  

I’ve also found that growing sesame is a great way to rejuvenate any garden beds that have slowed in productivity. I can’t say exactly why it works. But my guess is that sesame is a good bioaccumulator of the excess phosphorous and potassium that tends to build up in gardens fertilized with livestock manure. Plus, all that biomass left after harvest is great for compost or as a treat for my goats.

Sesame is just one of the many of the amazing spices you can easily grow on your homestead. Ginger, turmeric, paprika, nigella, Sichuan pepper, peppercorns, vanilla, wasabi, and more can all be grown on homesteads everywhere if you are willing to use both your indoor and outdoor spaces to create ideal growing conditions for these fascinating plants.

Tasha Greer is an Epicurean Homesteader, duck lover, and author of Grow Your Own Spices. You can find her at Simplestead. You can also find a list of all her Mother Earth News posts and more on her Other Works page.

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

Start Your Garden Indoors: Seed-Starting Timing, Varieties and Equipment

tomato and pepper seedlings on my light table 

Tomato & pepper seedlings.

Why bother to start your own seeds? It seems like a lot of work, and there will be all those lovely vegetable seedlings at the big box stores and farm stores in a couple of months. It is isn’t it? They will won’t they? Let’s explore these assumptions and talk about the benefits of starting your own seeds indoors.

Benefits of Starting Your Own Seeds

You control the timing. Imagine having your garden all planned out, the timing of each crop figured out so that you can succession crop each planting bed. But the stores thinks all cool season seedlings go in at the same time. If you wait to buy past their preferred timing, all they’ll have left are straggly, ill-cared for leftovers. If you want to buy ahead of their timing, there won’t be anything to purchase. Starting your own seeds allows you to time their growth enabling transplant just as a spot opens up in your garden.

You decide the variety. Do you want a variety that performs well in your micro-climate? Is taste your determining factor? Would you consider hybrids, or only heirloom vegetables? Whatever is important to you can only be ensured through careful varietal selection. When you start your own seeds you are growing the perfect plant for your needs and desires.

The seedlings handle transplanting with greater ease. Purchased seedlings have rarely been hardened off, which is the process that makes them ready to be transplanted. They are usually too far grown to allow you the time to harden them off yourself before planting. Seedlings that you start yourself have the hardening time factored into their growing period before transplant. One to two weeks before planting out, you take them outside to a lightly shaded and protected area for a few hours. The time is increased daily. By the time you put them in the ground they are already acclimated to your growing environment. This also gives you more flexibility in when you plant so that you can factor in the weather conditions.

But it’s a Lot of Work, Isn’t It?          

Yes, no, maybe. It is more work than driving to the store to load up on purchased seedlings. You’ll start your gardening work a couple of months earlier than if you wait to buy seedlings.

But you won’t drive around town looking for the varieties you want. And you won’t have to rework your garden plan because the varieties available have different maturation times then what you’d hoped for.

You won’t have to drive around town a second time looking for replacement seedlings that are still in good shape. Your successful transplantation rate will be higher since your home-grown seedlings will have first been hardened off correctly. You will spend time potting up seedlings once they’ve sprouted but, if you are like most gardeners, you’re aching to get your hands in soil again anyways.

What’s Actually Involved?

Determine whether money, convenience, or time are more important to you. There are multiple ways to approach each area of indoor seed starting. Here are the things you’ll need to buy or make to get started:

seed starting trays and planting medium 

Seed starting trays & planting medium.

Planting Trays

I like the ones that have individual cells in groupings, covered by clear plastic domes. This way I keep the moisture levels high when the seeds are germinating and can see exactly when they come up. The trays come in three parts: the under tray which is where you apply water, the cell tray which is where you put the planting medium and the seeds, and the clear dome cover. A frugal version of this is an array of small plastic cups with holes punched in the bottom and set in an aluminum baking tray. Only fill half way with planting medium (to give room for seedling growth) and cover with plastic wrap. You can also start seeds in seed blocks you make yourself.

Planting Medium

You can make your own seed starting mix or buy it ready to use. The important things to remember is that it should be soil-less (to keep it light and airy) and sterile (to avoid introducing disease). Being an older gardener, and a lazy one at that, I buy bags of seed starting mix locally. Since I start my first indoor seeds in January (onions, chives, shallots), I make sure to end the summer with a few bags of the mix on hand for mid-winter. The starter mix can be hard to find locally when no one but me is gardening yet.

herb and flower seedlings in peat pots

Herb and flower seedlings in peat moss.

Pots for the Germinated Seedlings

I use peat pots because they can either be planted along with the seedling or gently peeled off the plant before putting it in the garden. They are biodegradable. Roots that grow through these pots are air pruned which makes the plant stronger. This does add to the annual expenses, but it is a convenience for me. Many people use old sour cream tubs with drainage holes in the bottom. A disadvantage to this method is that roots tend to encircle the seedling if left in the pot too long – this is what happens to those seedlings you buy in the stores.


Some people use sunny windows but this tends to produce leggy, straggly plants. A controlled environment where you can provide lighting for set hours each day works more consistently. My gracious husband built me a super sturdy light table a few years ago which gives me plenty of space to provide natural light (through broad spectrum florescent lights) for my seedlings. You can purchase light stands and tables at varying price levels from multiple sources. Also, check your seed packets since many seeds need dark to germinate and only want light once the seedlings make their appearance.


Most articles on seed starting will advise you to purchase heating mats to put under your seed trays. In my experience, keeping the trays in a room that stays around 65-70 degrees will allow most seeds to germinate just fine without the cost or hassle of heating mats.

You can start very small seedlings within 2-3 weeks of planting time and transplant them out directly into the garden. They’d need to spend their final week hardening off. This is what you’d do if you’re a market gardener. For this method seed blocks are the best way to go. For home gardeners success comes more assuredly by putting these tiny seedlings in the larger pots and growing them on indoors for another 2-3 weeks so that they are large and robust at transplanting time. This helps them deal with garden pests better as well.

Ready, Set, Go!

January is here, there’s ice and snow on the ground, and it’s almost time to garden! So get your supplies and equipment ready. Tune in later this month to find out which seeds we start indoors and the timing we use for the process. I just completed my seeding schedule for the year so you’ll be looking at what I’m actually going to do throughout the year.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit 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.

Aquaponics: The Basics

Photo by Adobestock/chartphoto

I recently decided to try my hand at aquaponics! I’ve been doing regular hydroponics for a little over 10 years, both as a hobby and a job. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without the use of soil. Instead, you use an inert growing medium and special fertilizers made for hydroponic growth. Another hobby of mine over the last 7 years or so had been keeping tropical fish aquariums. I have a marine (salt water) tank at home and two fresh water tanks at my retail gardening store. So I thought to myself, why not combine the two hobbies? I started reading Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein, and it instantly hooked me. Now, when I get something in my head that I really want to do, I want it done right now. So, an hour later I had a basic DIY aquaponic set up built onto my existing aquarium.

Aquaponics is a type of hydroponic growing in which the fertlizer used is actually generated by the fish themselves with a little help from some beneficial bacteria. There is no need for additional fertilizer. Likewise, the plants then filter out the water by sucking the nutrients out of it and thus negating the need for weekly water changes on your fish tank — a perfect symbiotic relationship.

Aquaponic Set up part two
Photo by Maryann Robinson

There are two different types of aquaponics. The type I did is a smaller scale using “pet” fish, but you can also do a larger scale operation in which you not only get fresh produce from your garden but also fresh fish for your dinner table. I was obviously not planning on eating my fish, I’ve grown quite attached to them and yes, they all have names.

Having an existing aquarium was a huge time saver. The tank had been set up in the store for 5 or 6 years at least, so it was well established. A fish tank needs to be “cycled” through a series of biological events in order to be able to sustain life. Fish waste produces ammonia which is toxic to fish, so in an enclosed environment such as a tank, the ammonia levels can rise quickly and endanger the fish. The tank needs time to build up beneficial bacteria which will break the ammonia down into nitrite. Nitrite, however, is actually more toxic to fish than ammonia. Fortunately, a second type of bacteria will develop that will convert the nitrite into nitrate which is not nearly as harmful and is also a fantastic fertilizer. See where I’m going here? These bacteria will develop naturally, it will just take time. Now in a normal fish-only aquarium you would need to remove the nitrate manually by doing weekly water changes. When you add plants into the mix they will take the nitrate out for you and use it to grow.

Aquaponics Day one
Photo by Maryann Robinson

I’ll walk you through what I set up here at the store. I decided that a basic ebb and flow system would be the easiest. Ebb and flow just means that the grow tray fills up with water and then drains back down into a reservoir, which in this case is the fish tank. I used a white grow tray that’s used for hydroponics (its dimensions are 36-by-8-by-4 inches), a fill and drain kit, which is just a couple of fittings that are used to attach a water pump to, and a 160-gallon-per-hour water pump.

I drilled two 1-1/4-inch holes side-by-side in the grow tray with a hole saw and attached the fill and drain fittings. The taller of the two fittings is the overflow, which keeps the water from overflowing the tray, and the shorter is the fill. I used a length of 1/2-inch vinyl tubing to attach the pump to the fill fitting and placed the pump in the tank. Now, I was lucky in the fact that there was a large plant shelf right next to the tank already, so I just pulled it closer and put the grow tray on it. I had to raise the tray with a cinder block to get it higher than the top of the tank and on a slight angle so the water would flow back down into the tank via gravity.  You could just as easily place the tray directly on top of the tank.

Fish in Aquaponics
Photo by Maryann Robinson

I had already had some basil seedlings ready to go that I had started weeks before in rockwool (an inert medium) so since I wanted instant results, I went with basil — Sunleaves Rocks was my medium of choice.

I filled the bottom of the tray, placed my basil seedlings in, spaced about 8 inches apart, and filled in the rest of the tray with the rocks. I plugged the pump into a standard timer and set it to flood the tray for 15 minutes every hour. Then I grabbed some red worms out of our worm composting bin, about a handful, and added them to the grow tray. The purpose for this was that the worms will eat any solid fish waste that gets pumped up into the tray and convert it to worm castings (another fabulous fertilizer). I hung a high-output fluorescent light over the tray and voila, I was done!

In order to keep the fish, plants and bacteria happy the pH of the water must be kept between 6.8 and 7.0. If it gets much lower than that, the bacteria will suffer and slow the conversion of ammonia and nitrite. Much above and the plants won’t be able to absorb the nutrients needed to develop and grow. PH regulator solutions made for hydroponics should do the trick. Just remember not to adjust the PH more than .2 degrees in a 24 hour period or the fish will suffer.

I hope you found this helpful and informative. I usually post updated pictures and info on my Worm’s Way Facebook page.

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