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

Growing Leeks from Sowing to Harvest

leeks

Photo by Getty Images/Grahamphoto23

Leeks are hardy enough to grow outdoors through winter in most regions. You can make the harvest period last from autumn right through to spring by carefully selecting a mix of varieties. Look out for varieties described as ‘rust resistant’ if this fungal disease is a problem in your area.

Start sowing under cover from late winter. Our Garden Planner provides personalized sowing, planting, and harvesting times for crops in your location, using data from your nearest weather station.

Sowing Leeks

Sieve potting soil into pots or trays. Gently tamp it down. Sow the seeds about an inch apart (or sow two seeds per cell in a plug tray). Sieve more potting soil over them to cover, and then water them. Keep the potting soil moist but not too wet as the seeds germinate and grow on.

Place early sowings on a sunny indoor windowsill or in a greenhouse. As they grow, you can separate the seedlings into individual pots if you wish.

Planting Leeks

Transplant your leeks into well-dug soil when they are 6 to 8 inches tall. Make sure to harden them off first by leaving them outside for increasingly longer periods over a week or two.

Dig holes that are nearly as deep as the leek seedlings are high using a purpose-made tool or the handle-end of a short garden tool such as a trowel. The holes should be spaced 6 inches apart, with a foot between rows. If you’re planting in blocks, space them 7 inches apart each way.

Carefully remove the leeks from their pots and (if they haven’t already been separated) and tease the roots apart. Place the seedlings into the holes, making sure the roots reach right down to the bottom. Fill the holes with water and leave to drain. Do not fill in the holes — the soil will naturally fall back in with time, blanching the stems while allowing them to swell.

Grow fast-growing salads in between your newly planted leeks to make the most of your space, but make sure to harvest them by midsummer, when the leeks will need the space to grow well. Water the plants in very dry weather and hand-weed or hoe the ground between them regularly.

For exceptionally long, white stems, draw the soil up around the leeks two to three weeks before you want to harvest them to exclude light. Alternatively, tie cardboard tubes around the stems.

Harvest your leeks as soon as they’re big enough. Lever a leek out with a fork while pulling up on the leaves. In very cold regions you may wish to dig up your leeks before the soil freezes solid, but in many areas hardy varieties can be left in the ground and dug up as needed.

Learn more about growing leeks in this video.

Get More Tips With These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Feed the Soil, Build the Ecosystem

taking a soil test - BLOG

The secret to having a good organic garden is to feed the soil and build the ecosystem. You want to strive for balance in your garden. If your soil is unbalanced, with too much of some things and not enough of others, your plants will not thrive. You can remedy that by having your soil tested and amend with organic materials to bring things into alignment.

Building the ecosystem takes a bit more time. I believe it takes three full years of following the guidelines for organic certification before one can be certified. There is a reason for that. It takes that long for things to begin to work together. Building the ecosystem means to have plantings that attract beneficial insects that will feed on the not-so-beneficial ones. Leaving things flower and go to seed in your garden will help do that, which is an additional advantage, besides seeds, of saving seeds.

leatherwing on mint--BLOG

Learn all you can about the insects you attract in your garden. According to the book Great Garden Companions, Pennsylvania leatherwings will feed on “many kinds of insects, including cucumber beetles, grasshopper eggs, caterpillars, root maggots, rootworm larvae, and most soft-bodied insects.” The photo shows a Pennsylvania leatherwing on a spearmint plant in my garden. I let spearmint wander in the wild parts of my garden and it attracts many kinds of beneficial insects when it flowers. Plant it and they will come is so true! Find more information about feeding the soil and building the ecosystem at Homeplace Earth.

Besides amending your soil and planting to attract beneficial insects, look to cover crops to build your soil and add organic matter. Whether you have clay soil or sandy soil, the answer to enhancing it is to grow cover crops. Once you have experienced the wonderful things that cover crops can do for your soil, you will embrace them and never look back. Start now and plant cover crops in your garden this fall.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


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.

Harvesting, Storing, and Processing Apples

apples on a tree

Photo by Getty Images/querbeet

Apples are ready to pick when the skin color deepens and the fruit comes away easily from the tree. The presence of windfalls is a good indication that fruits are ready to pick. Not all apples are ready at the same time, so pick regularly as individual clusters become ripe. Apples at the sides and top of the tree will usually ripen first because they receive more sunlight. If in doubt — taste one!

To pick an apple, cup it in your hand, lift, and twist gently. It should detach along with its stalk. Always handle apples gently to avoid bruising them, and never tug an apple from the tree or you may damage the fruiting spurs or cause apples nearby to drop. Use a stepladder to reach apples higher up on the tree, but take care to avoid over-reaching in case you lose your balance.

Early season varieties are best eaten soon after harvesting as they don’t store well. Midseason varieties will store for a few weeks, and late season varieties should be good for up to six months. Apples destined for storage must be in perfect condition. Check stored apples regularly and remove any that are going soft, brown, or rotting.

Store your apples in a cool but frost-free, dark, well-ventilated place such as a shed or garage. Store apples on slatted trays to ensure good air circulation. Make sure they don’t touch, or else wrap them in newspaper. Different varieties store for different lengths of time — keep them separate and use those with a shorter storage life sooner.

If you’ve got too many apples to store, there are many ways to preserve them — stew and freeze them, dehydrate them, turn them in jams, jellies, chutneys, or sauces, or press them and make juice, wine, or even hard cider!

Learn more about harvesting, storing, and preserving apples in this video.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Getting Registered as Certified Organic

Save Seed Receipts and Packets 

Save seed receipts and packages.

Getting registered organic is more than an economic benefit; it is a statement of revolution against the current food chain. If you are prepared; your revolution may not cost as much as ours did. This article will hit some of the high points of organic registration preparation.

Research

Depending on what kind of organic certification you decide to get, there will be slightly different rules for them all. You may already be using organic practices; however, a minor infringement in the rules can set you back on getting your certification. For example we had a hay field that we we thought was organic and later found out that the lime we used was not approved so we had to wait three years in transition on that field. As soon as you decide to take the plunge to getting registered you should start trying to get a hold of the regulations for your certification. The rules will be long and complicated to anyone who is not a lawyer so you will also need to begin to cultivate a relationship with your local organic-program specialist; that person can typically be found by asking your local FSA or extension office. The more questions you ask initially the less mistakes you will make later.

Find other local organic farmers if there any to be found. The rules for organic certification change yearly; however, someone who has already been through the process will have valuable advice about what products are available that you are allowed to use and techniques that work in your area.

Inputs

I had never heard this word used for gardening and farming before we began our certification process. Inputs are anything you use on the land that is not a seed or plant; for example, fertilizer and pest control spray. A very large part of the organic process is using the correct inputs. There is a revised list every year and keeping up with that will keep you from using an input that can keep you from getting certified or make you lose your certification. If a product says it is safe for “organic” practices that does not necessarily mean it is approved. Inputs that have the Organic Materials Review Institute or OMRI label on them tend to be safe to use.  

Mulching

The overarching goal of a good organic program is that one day you will not need the aid of inputs. Mulching is an effective way to move toward that goal which is why most organic certifications expect you to use fewer inputs each passing year and will ask if you practice mulching. The purchase of mulch can be an economic load; or you can come up with mulch on your own. Again be sure to read what is acceptable within your certification guidelines. Cardboard boxes that have only black ink and no plastic tape on them are an excellent bottom layer for mulching; they block weeds for a long time. Many mulching programs will suggest that you use straw rather than hay due to the danger of reseeding weeds into your garden. In an economically perfect world we could all mulch with straw; in the meantime we use whatever we have available. Last year’s hay that did not get fed out, leaves from the yard, and fodder from the last harvest, and whatever other goodies we have around the farm suited to mulching go on top of the cardboard. Just be sure you are using organically certified hay, straw and mulch.

Compost

Compost is essential for a good organic system. There will be rules for what you can put in your compost, what internal temperature your pile is maintaining, when you are supposed to turn it, and when you can safely use it on your garden. It will be beneficial for you to begin logging turn dates and temperature readings. Researching the rules for composting in your potential organic program will ensure that you are using correct practices and that you will be able to use your compost.

Organic Seed

What type of seed you choose will determine whether you get to sell your produce as registered organic. I would recommend that you spend the few extra dollars and source as many organic seeds as you can find. There are allowances for seeds that you may not be able to find or reasonably afford certified organic; but, you have to be able to prove that. Keep your receipts and seed packets for inspections. The cost of organic seeds can be from a little pricey to criminal depending on the type of seed you purchase. This will give you an excellent excuse to start using good sustainable seed saving practices. After all being sustainable is one of the perks of organic farming.    

Record Keeping

Keeping track of your farming practices is key to smoothing your path toward certification. We keep a digital log and print it out each month. I keep our farm logs, receipts, and seed packets in a binder to have for inspection. We keep a farm log for all sorts of practical reasons; however, when going down the organic path be sure to keep track of all inputs, your compost turning and temperatures, your seed and input purchases, and your garden maps. Your inspector will want to know where you planted everything. Create a good honest working relationship with your inspector; it is a relationship that is built off of trust.

Is it Worth it?

Initially it will not feel like getting registered organic is worth the effort and extra cost. Keep in mind that the costs reduce over time because your practices become more sustainable. However cost is not typically the reason people move toward certification; it is to effect change.  The best benefit to seeking certification is that you will not only be consuming real and healthy food; you will be providing your community with good food and changing the world around you one plate at a time.


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 Tell When Fruits and Vegetables Are Ready for Harvest

gardening

Photo by Getty Images/PeopleImages

Root Crops

• Beets and turnips: Ready when golf ball sized to tennis ball sized.
• Carrots: Ready as soon as they’re big enough for your needs. Leave maincrop varieties in the ground until you’re ready to use them, including over winter in milder areas.
• Parsnips: Ready when the leaves have died back. Wait until after the first frosts for the sweetest roots.

Potatoes

• Early potatoes: Ready 10 to 12 weeks after planting, when the plants come into flower.
• Maincrop potatoes for storing: Ready 20 weeks after planting, once all the foliage has died back.

Peas and Beans

• Peas and fava beans: Ready when the peas feel well-developed in their pods. Shell a few to double-check.
• Pole beans and bush beans: Ready when long and smooth, but before beans start to bulge inside.

Fruiting Vegetables

• Peppers and tomatoes: Ready when the skin is evenly colored all over.
• Cucumbers: Ready when there is no pronounced point at the tip. Can be picked small for snacking cucumbers, or larger for slicing.
• Zucchini: Ready when they reach about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long.
• Summer squash: Ready as soon as they reach a desirable size.
• Winter squash: Ready when the stem has died off and hardened. If you push your thumbnail into the skin, it should dent but not puncture it.

Corn

• Ready when the tassels at the ends of the cobs have shriveled up, and when you sink your nail into a kernel it exudes a milky liquid.

Salad Leaves

• Cut-and-come-again salad leaves: Ready when young and tender.
• Heart-forming salad leaves: Ready when the heart has begun to firm up.

Cabbage Family Crops

• Cabbages: Ready when the fleshy leaves have formed a tight, firm head. Delay harvesting Savoy types until after winter frosts, which enrich the flavor.
• Broccoli and cauliflower: Ready when the heads have fully formed but the buds are still tightly closed.

Garlic, Onions, and Shallots

• For using fresh: Dig up when the foliage starts to die down in summer.
• For storing: Wait two weeks after the foliage has turned yellow and toppled over. Dig up the bulbs and cure them for storing in a cool, dry place.

Tree Fruits

• Apples and pears: Ready when they pull away easily from the tree.
• Stone fruits: Ready when they become slightly softer at the stalk end of the fruit.

Soft Fruits

• Raspberries: Ready when evenly colored and they pull away easily from their plug.
• Blackcurrants: Ready a week after turning black.
• Blueberries: Ready two or three days after turning blue.

Learn more about when to harvest your fruits and vegetables in this video.

 

More Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page

How to Save Tomato Seeds Without Giving up the Tomatoes

 

Roma tomatoes with stakes flagged by the best plants.  

I alternate processing tomato seeds and watermelon seeds, getting one batch of each done each week, from late July to the end of September. I keep my drying area in constant use: the day I pack away a batch of dried Roma paste tomato seeds is the day I wash and set to dry a batch of Crimson Sweet watermelon seeds. These are both the Virginia Select strains which I sell to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each year since 2001, I’ve been selecting tomatoes for high yield, earliness, and resistance or tolerance to Septoria leaf spot disease. I use pink flagging tape on the T-posts to mark plants with large early yields and OK foliage, and yellow tape to mark plants that have healthier foliage and at least an OK early yield. By saving tomato seed for next year, you can keep heirloom and heritage tomato varieties alive, and over time, you can improve the variety to suit your region.

I wrote about saving tomato seeds and eating the tomatoes too on my blog at www.sustainablemarketfarming.com. This year I decided to harvest tomato seeds on Thursdays and leave them to fully ripen until Tuesday (5 days), when I processed them for seed. I washed them and cut each tomato in half, dropping any rotten ones in a compost bucket, and putting the good halves in a clean bucket. I like a small serrated knife for this task.

Roma tomato shells seeds removed  

How to Remove Seeds from Tomatoes

Next I scoop out the seeds into a smaller bucket using a soup spoon. I put the scooped out halves into another clean bucket ready for chopping and making into sauce or salsa. I put a loose lid on the seeds bucket and set it in a cool dark corner of the shed for 3 days (until Friday). This is long enough to ferment tomato seeds, which kills the spores of some of the tomato diseases, and also loosens the gel around the seeds and any bits of fruit. I stir at least once a day to break up any surface mold and release the carbon dioxide.

Roma tomato seeds 2 day.

Washing and Drying Tomato Seeds

After three days (Tuesday to Friday this year) I wash and dry the seeds. They look unattractive at first, because of a thin layer of mold on the surface. Washing the seeds and pouring off the junk is almost magical. If you dry tomato seeds without fermenting, they all stick together, so I definitely recommend fermenting.

I do a series of about four washes, floating off more of the tomato flesh each time, along with poor quality seeds. I add water from a hose until the bucket is about two-thirds full and I stir the mixture. Then I let the liquid settle, with the good seed sinking to the bottom of the bucket. Next I pour the liquid along with bits of fermented tomato into another bucket, then dump that. This is a precaution to ensure I don’t slip and throw away good seed. I repeat the wash and pour a few more times. After just the second pour the treasured seeds are plain to see.

Seeds that float are poor quality – let them go! They are either very thin or they have a black spot in the center. So it’s counter-productive to try to catch every single seed.

After four or five washes, when the water I pour off is clear, I add more water, stir and pour the contents of the bucket through a sieve into a bucket.

Wet Roma tomato seeds and fan.

Next I take the sieve indoors and empty it on sturdy paper towels on a tray in front of a small fan. I come back after a few hours to crumble up the clumps of seeds and even out the drying. I turn the seeds over a few times a day for a couple of days. Once they are dry I put them in a labelled paper bag, and prepare the space for the next batch of wet seeds. Watermelon in my case.

Seed saving is very rewarding, and with tomatoes you can not only save seeds for planting, but at the same time, prepare the tomatoes for canning or juicing.

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


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.

Welcome Beneficial Insects with a Pollinator Garden

Bee

In an effort to encourage pollinators around our property we beautified the side of a corrugated steel drive-shed with plants attractive to pollinators.  

Pollinators play an invaluable and irreplaceable role in both our natural and human-made ecosystems. Bees are perhaps the best known pollinators, but it’s not the popular honey bees (brought over from Europe by early settlers) that do all the work; it’s the humble native bees who perform this service. Where we live in Southern Ontario, over 400 species of wild bees also make their home. What many of these bees have that make them so effective at pollinating is a coating of bristly hairs over their bodies and a preference for pollen instead of nectar. These busy bees crawl over a flower collecting pollen and covering themselves with a dusting of the same substance stuck to their velcro-like coats. The bees then fly to another flower, mixing the pollen of this new flower with the pollen of previous flowers that they have visited.

Other insects also pollinate our gardens and crops. Butterflies, moths, wasps, and hoverflies all transport pollen between flowers. As humble caterpillars, moths and butterflies can be pests when they feast on our crops or flowers, but as adults their fragility and beauty, to say nothing for the pollination services they perform, can make us forget their lowly beginnings. Wasps also visit flowers to drink nectar, and as they move from blossom to blossom, they too carry pollen. But wasps have another service they provide; the larvae feed upon the caterpillars that damage our garden plants and so help us with our pest control. Like the wasps, hoverflies serve both as pollinators and pest controllers. The adults drink nectar from the flowers and the larvae feast voraciously on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Birds too can pollinate; hummingbirds specialize in drinking nectar from flowers, and as a result, spread the pollen between plants.

To have a productive vegetable garden, berry patch or orchard - we all rely on pollinators. At our country home, we created a special garden designed specifically to attract pollinators. Two years ago we began our pollinator project with four beautifully built (by my husband) cedar trellises placed along the wall of our drive shed. The garden is a narrow strip that we filled with sun-loving plants that would attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Within the new garden we planted the following native species: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) and a new variety of aster (Aster Kickin Lavender), as well as Honeysuckle (Loincera x heckrotti ‘Goldflame’) to grow up the trellises. We also added some non-native but pollinator-friendly plants: Purrsian Blue Catmint (Nepeta faassenii), Deep Rose Improved Saliva (Salvia nemorosa), and Grape Gumball Beebalm (Monarda ‘Grape Gumball’ PPAF). To improve the attractiveness of the site, we hung a nectar feeder for hummingbirds and set up a small birdbath filled with pebbles, as well as a shallow water feature that permits insects to safely land and drink without fear of drowning.

We’re glad to report that our efforts are being rewarded. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird patrols the feeder and flowers. Monarch, Red-spotted Purple, Giant Swallowtail and Red Admirals are among the butterflies that feed from the blossoms. Fortunately, something's always blooming in our garden and the colourful and fragrant flowers host myriad species of bees, wasps, beetles and hoverflies. All this activity attracts the predatory insects and we find spiderwebs strung between stems and dragonflies patrolling overhead.

When in bloom, the milkweeds are magnets to the insects. The children and I took advantage of these guests and had a nature lesson as part of our homeschool; we pulled out the insect guides to identify some of the bees and then sketched them in our Nature Notebooks. Later in the summer those same milkweeds hosted Monarch caterpillars. We found one chrysalid and kept our eye on it for over three weeks. The morning it hatched we discovered two other butterflies hatching from nearby chrysalids that were so well camouflaged among the foliage that we had not noticed them before.

Our little garden is a testimony to the difference that even a handful of plants in a previously wasted space can make to the local population of pollinating insects.

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


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