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The Lazy Farmer

Lessons in Intercropping

Oops!  That’s not supposed to work that way! 

Gardening is a science, but it’s also an art.  We can control things like location, how we amend the soil, and which seeds we plant.  This is the science.  But the weather is in God’s hands.  Some things work some years, and then are complete flops the next.  Some techniques work for one person and cause catastrophe for others.  Herein lies the art.

 These are a couple of the mistakes we’ve made, and what we learned from them.

Blog9  Zinnas in the Corn

The Three Sisters

Planting corn, squash, and pole beans together in a single bed was practiced long ago by Native American tribes.  If they could do it, so could we, right? 

Wrong.  The Native Americans planted corn that remained in the field all season, drying on the stalk to be used for grinding flour or for parched corn.  We grew sweet corn, meant to eat in summer.  We wanted to harvest our corn 80 days after we planted it.  Squash vines are REALLY prickly when you try to walk through them to get at your corn.  Pumpkins need the full season to mature.  We also planted pole beans we wished to use fresh as shelly beans rather than dried beans.  Same problem with the prickly squash leaves.  And the bean harvest was definitely reduced.

If you want to try the Three Sisters we strongly recommend planting corn, beans, and winter squash that you want to fully ripen and dry in place for harvesting together just before frost.  How To Grow a Three Sisters Garden will guide you on your way: 

If you want to intercrop sweet corn we recommend planting hills of turnips in the spring at 3 foot intervals, and then planting 4-5 corn seeds in between each hill once all danger of frost is past.  The turnips won’t get too tall before the corn outgrows it.  And the turnips will be harvested before the corn begins to shade it seriously.  Trellis beans onto the garden fences and plant shorter things in front of them.  Zinnias and gladiola look lovely rising gracefully from the middle of your pumpkin patch.

White Clover Undercover

A great idea for gardens that grow one or two crops and then are turned under at the end of the season.  The idea is that you plant the clover under taller vegetables and it suppresses weeds.  Dwarf white clover (Trifolium repens) is considered ideal for use as a groundcover. It grows just 3 to 6 inches tall with a spreading, mat-forming growth habit. While it does spread, and is considered invasive in some areas, it is less invasive than many other clover varieties.  This should work under our caged tomatoes, right?

Wrong.  We plant in permanent, no-till beds.  The clover loved it, spreading aggressively underground, flowering and dropping seeds all over for next year.  It did a great job of eliminating other weeds.  But it took three years to fully eradicate the clover. 

We recommend planting lettuce around your tomato cages.  Lettuce can get bitter in the heat of summer unless shaded which your tomato plants will do nicely.  Closely planted leaf lettuce cuts down on weeds and provides a lovely cut-and-come-again salad bar right there under your cherry tomatoes.  Plant a few carrots in-between the tomato cages and you’ve got a full salad growing together.

Blog9  Tomatoes and Lettuce

Intensive intercropping takes some skill and experience.  There are lots of good books and internet sites to provide you with initial information.  But your garden is unique.  Developing skill and experience requires making some mistakes and learning from them.  With practice you’ll find the combinations that work for you. 

Iris: The Rainbow Flower

Irises come in every color of the rainbow.  They are versatile plants, having a wide range of uses in the garden.  There is an iris for almost every garden need:  wet or dry, short or tall, spring or fall flowers, as specimen plantings or groupings.  You can have irises in bloom from March through November (and sometimes December) even in zone 6.

 Blog8  iris gardens

There are two main categories of iris:  Beardless and Bearded.  Within the beardless irises several types including those below.  These each have their own cultivation needs, which you can learn more about at Draycott Gardens.

  • Japanese which love water, bloom in July, and have beautiful color patterns
  • Siberian are very graceful with leaves that stay green and lovely throughout the growing season. They bloom in June
  • Louisiana which need lots of water and were the first group of irises to achieve true red color
  • Dutch irises are the only ones that grow from bulbs, and are often used in floral arrangements
  • Flags while pretty are invasively vigorous and can quickly choke waterways
  • Pacific Coast Natives are some of the loveliest irises with beautiful flowers and color patterns but they only grow well in specific areas – hence the name

 Bearded irises are what most people think of when you say you grow iris.  They come in a wide variety of sizes and bloom seasons.  Learn about bearded irises at Iris Hills Farm.

  • Minature Dwarf Bearded Iris bloom in early April and are the smallest bearded irises at less than 8 inches tall
  • Standard Dwarf Bearded Iris range from 8-15 inches and bloom in mid-April to very early May. They are cute and vigorous, filling the garden with color when very little but tulips and daffodils are yet in bloom

There are three types of bearded iris that all grow between 16-27 inches tall:

  • Intermediate Bearded are robust and lovely, blooming in between the dwarf and taller irises
  • Miniature Tall Bearded are graceful with stalks and flowers that are slender and petite, often walking away with awards at iris shows
  • Border Bearded have the same size flowers as the Tall Bearded irises but have shorter stalks
  • Tall Bearded Iris are big, showy, and colorful, growing up to 4 feet tall

 Blog8  My Missus Carter

The most prevalent irises in home gardens are the Tall Bearded Iris.  They originally had droopy falls, a fragile texture, and much smaller flowers.  They only came in purple, white, and yellow.  Due to the vast amount of hybridizing in the iris world since 1930 they now can be found in every color of the rainbow.  The falls have become more and more ruffled while the flowers are bigger, often sporting lacy edges or diamond-like dusting.  The texture of the flowers is more substantial, and the beards have become quite wild, even sporting strange looking appendages called spoons and flounces.

 Blog8  Debras Melody

One of the loveliest advances in bearded iris hybridizing has been rebloom and ever-blooming varieties.  These are flowers that bloom in May, then again in the late summer or fall.  A few even bloom over and over May through November if they receive enough water and fertilizer.  Yet the reblooming varieties are the only ones you need to worry about watering.  In general, bearded irises are very drought tolerant, and have the distinct advantage of being deer resistant.

 Bearded iris can be planted anytime from July-September.  When deciding where to plant bearded iris, remember that the more sun they get, the more they bloom!  They prefer slightly alkaline soil (ph of 7 or more), and need excellent drainage.  Dig a hole deep enough to plant the roots straight down into the hole.  Gently pack in soil, slightly covering the top of the rhizome and firm down.  Rhizomes (this is the nutrient storage package of the iris, similar to bulbs or tubers) need air and sunlight.  Water at planting, and again a few days later.  Then water weekly the first year until summer droughts are over.  After that, let God do the watering as they will withstand weeks of drought by their second year.  Always water in the morning or evening to avoid rot.

 For the lowdown on caring for your bearded irises see Taking Care of Your Irises at Iris Hills Farm.  You should follow the following annual schedule:

  • Clean up dead leaves in early spring and look for tiny bite marks on the leaves which signal borer infestation. If you need to control borers either hand kill or use an insecticide containing imidacloprid.
  • In summer, cut stalks down to the ground (leave the leaves as they are) to keep out rot. Divide any clumps that are more than 5 years old.  If leaf spot (brown spots) are occurring heavily on the leaves you can spray with a fungicide.
  • Clean up the leaves again in the fall and insulate from the cold with a 1/2 inch covering of leaf mold.

Irises are easy to grow, lovely to look at both in the garden and in a vase, and come in intriguing scents and colors.  Plant your own garden rainbow this year and fall in love with irises!

Photos by (top to bottom): Display Gardens at Iris Hills Farm; 'My Missus Carter' by Colin Campbell; 'Debra's Melody' by Colin Campbell

Edible Flowers of Spring

What is crunchy and tastes like a bean yet is exotically big and colorful?  Is there something of many hues with a bite like black pepper?  Can something pink smell and taste like cloves?  What is purple but reminds your taste buds of licorice?  How can something soft and blue taste like cucumbers?  These are all edible flowers – and they will change your cooking.

Its spring here in the mid-Atlantic and flowers are starting to show up in our meals.  Let’s take a look at the edible flowers of spring and some of the wonderful things you can cook up with them. 

floral peas

Apple and Crabapple Blossoms — Malus spp.

The flavor is slightly floral.  We use them in salads, ice cream, and to garnish sweet dishes.

Dandelion — Taraxacum officinale

These can vary from bitter to earthy in taste, they are better picked in the bud stage or very early bloom.  We like the very young buds fried in butter, or you can make fritters from the petals when they first open.

Lilac — Syringa vulgaris

The petals have a slight floral taste and are pretty added to soft cheeses and to garnish sweet dishes.

Redbud — Cercis canadensis

The small buds or flowers have a flavor that is a cross between green beans and a tart apple.  You can pickle them in vinegar or use the flowers in fritters.  We like them tossed in salads or with cooked vegetables.

Garden Pea flowers — Pisum sativum

The taste of pea flowers ranges, by variety, from grassy to beany to floral.  We like them on appetizers and in salads.  CAUTION:  Sweet pea flowers (the decorative plant) are extremely poisonous.  Only eat the flowers of garden peas such as English peas, Sugar Snap peas, and snow peas.

Strawberry flowers — Fragaria spp.

These tiny flowers have a mild flavor that is good tossed in salads and looks pretty as a garnish.  You can use the flowers of wild or cultivated strawberries.

Tulips — Tulipia

The petals have a sweet, pea-like flavor with a tender-crisp texture much like lettuce.  They are beautiful as a salad base, in tea sandwiches, dipped in savory dips, or used as a cup for stuffing with chicken or shrimp salad.  Remove the pollen and stamens when using whole.  CAUTION:  a very few people are allergic - start with a small taste and look for numb hands or an upset stomach.

Violets — Viola odorata

A strong, sweet floral taste comes from these petals which are wonderful candied or plain on top of desserts, fruit salads, or in tea sandwiches.  You can also freeze them in ice cubes to float in drinks.

What do all these wonderful flowers look like on your plate? 

The vibrant colors of spring flowers liven up your plated vegetables and salads to bring a smile to your lips, and unexpected tastes to your palate.  The flowers and buds are a delight to pick, and a pleasure to serve to your family and guests.  Mix petals confetti with spring peas and roasted radishes.  Candy violets to top a coconut cake.  Toss some redbud flowers into a salad for a citrusy bite.  Try red and yellow tulips nestled into each other to make stunning taco salads as in the recipe below,

taco salad

Tulip Taco Salads

  • 2 large tulips per individual salad plate
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Grape tomatoes, halved
  • Taco meat mix (browned ground beef, taco seasoning, kidney beans)
  • Tortilla chips
  • Lettuce leaves

Taco Dressing – blend the following:

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • Scant 1/2 cup ketchup
  • Scant 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

Prepare a bed of lettuce on each plate.   Remove the pollen and stamens from the tulips.  Cup two flowers together, offsetting the petals so all the colors show.  Set the flowers on the beds of lettuce.  Fill with taco meat mix.  Top with shredded cheddar cheese and halved grape tomatoes.  Surround with tortilla chips.  Drizzle with dressing.  A fiesta on a plate!

For more edible flower ideas and recipes, go to Bouquet Banquet.

Lazy Gardening Part Three: Growing Intensively

Now that you have no-till, wide growing beds in your vegetable garden, what’s the best way to maximize your harvest?  We discussed the first step, growing almost year-round, in the last post.  The next step is to plant in succession and replace everything you harvest with a new crop.  Use all of your space wisely.  This is what we mean by growing intensively.

Even though we have land, it has always struck me as silly to put too much of it into vegetable gardens.  If I can get the same number of vegetables out of a smaller space I save on the effort I put into the garden, time walking around the garden, and the money I put into maintaining the garden.  We spent a few years early on growing a large variety of crops, including some pretty unusual ones, and determining what we really enjoyed eating.  Then we experimented with which ones intercropped well and how late into the season we could grow each one.  We’ve now devoted the smaller garden to edible flowers and herbs.  In the main garden, about 2000 square feet, we grow 75% of the vegetables our family of three eats in a year.  And we eat a lot of vegetables!

Blog6  intercropping

Methods for gardening intensively abound in books and on the internet.  Information on two of the most popular ways can be found in Intensive Gardening.  You need to determine what works best for you.  Many of the named methods require either a significant amount of work or money to implement.  Desiring to minimize both inputs we came up with our own approach.  Our approach to lazy, yet productive, gardening includes intensive intercropping, lots of homemade compost, going vertical, and succession planting.

Each winter we gather our seeds, plan out the garden for the next year, and determine which quick growing crops can fill spots emptied by partial harvest of other vegetables.  Each bed has something growing in it for the majority of the year.  Every bed supports a minimum of two crops in a year, while many grow 3-4 crops. 

When harvesting a few individual vegetables from a bed we quickly pop in fast growing seeds of something else.  When harvesting an entire crop, we top the soil with our farm grown compost then immediately plant a new crop.  We try to alternate heavy feeder crops (think cabbage and corn) with light feeders such as beans or sweet potatoes.  We also go vertical whenever possible which allows us to plant other crops in front of, or in between, teepees or trellises.

Blog6  going vertical

Here’s how a few of our beds are shaping up for 2020:

  • Winter sown spinach, followed by sweet corn, and ending with rutabagas
  • Winter sown sugar snaps on a fence, with beets in front; zucchini rampicante on the fence with lemon squash in front; a final planting of kale to carry through into winter
  • Broccoli, followed by bush beans, and ending with fall beets
  • Successions of spring lettuce, followed by caged tomatoes, and winter radishes planted wherever a tomato plant stops producing
  • Beets, then small melons (partially on the fence), then turnips into the winter

 We use the fences surrounding our garden as trellises, having made the garden beds right up to the fence lines.  Pole beans grow on bamboo pole teepees creating shade for summer lettuce to grow under them.  Our tomatoes and peppers are all caged to contain the growth and keep them off the ground.   Fencing is strung between poles within a couple of internal garden beds for more vertical growing space.  We have found a number of vegetables trellis well including small melons, Italian summer squash, pole beans, sugar and English peas, and runner beans.  It is important to take the sun into consideration when planting vertically so that you know where you will be creating shade.  This allows you to carry spring crops over further into the summer.

Having a place to grow our own seedlings is a big part of our year-round abundance.  We start seedlings off inside during the depths of winter to plant out as soon as the temperatures allow.  During the summer we grow seedlings of fall crops so that they are ready to transplant as soon as summer crops are harvested. 

The key to intensive gardening, no matter the method you use, is to regularly replenish the soil with compost.  When you do that you can keep most of the garden planted for most of the year and harvest continually for more months than you ever thought possible.  Let us know what how your experiments go and what methods you try.  Are you ready to eat better than you ever have before?

Blog6  full garden

Lazy Gardening Part Two: Growing Almost Year-Round Without Cover

Here in zone 6b we were told that it wasn’t possible to harvest vegetables for ten months each year unless we used some sort of extensive cover.  Not having the money to build a greenhouse or hoop house, and having too much wind to manage row covers well, we needed another plan.  Carefully selecting varieties of each vegetable, employing straw for insulation, and overwintering baby-sized cool season vegetables, we’ve consistently harvested for ten months each year.  Would you like to learn how to do this in your garden?

Selecting the Right Seeds

Whenever possible, choose open pollinated seeds as the resulting plants produce seeds that grow true to type.  This way you’ll always have the option of letting a few plants go to seed.  Continue to save your own seed and further develop plants that perform especially well in your garden and climate. 

A specific type of breeding involves developing stable, open pollinated, plants under very cold growing conditions.  These “ice-bred” plants are selected for their ability to perform in the depths of winter.  Brett Grohsgal of Even Star Organic Farm in Eastern Shore, Maryland has developed a number of ice-bred greens.  We use many of his Fall/Winter Gardening Tips for our winter garden. As Brett says, “The greens will flower and stop making leaves for you sometime in April or May. Don’t expect these to grow through the warm months.”  Instead, let them set seed and you’ll have started your own continuing line of ice-bred plants that survive your garden’s coldest months.

 Blog5  february lettuce

When your goal is the longest growing season possible, you’ll probably want a few hybrid cultivars developed especially for the coolest times of the year.  Choose your varieties from seed houses that grow their seed in cold climates to reliably get vegetables that perform well in extreme cold.  We use two seed growers in Maine because they have a strong focus on hybrids bred for cold locations and on open pollinated ice-bred seed lines.   Johnny’s Select Seeds, an employee owned business, and Fedco Seeds, a growers’ cooperative, have excellent reputations for their cold hardy vegetable lines.

Insulate with Straw and Plant for Winter Harvest

Straw makes a wonderful insulator for wintertime plants as we discussed in Part 1 of this series.  We begin seeding for winter harvest as early as the beginning of August when we put in our first beds of turnips, winter radishes, and rutabaga.  By mid-August we’re transplanting seedlings of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages.  As these plants grow, we surround them with blankets of straw to protect their roots from the heat of late summer, followed by the cold of early winter.  Beets and lettuces are direct-sown in late August, with continued planting of lettuces and mustards through October.  Straw surrounds these plants as well once they are several inches tall.  When an early frost or freeze threatens, pull a covering of the straw over the plants and most of them will come through undamaged.  Turnips can be covered completely by straw once they are full grown and kept in “cold-storage” directly in the garden.  Cut off the greens before covering them and top with 6-8 inches of straw.  Harvest as needed any time the ground below the straw isn’t frozen.  Swiss chard seems oblivious to temperature extremes.  It is our go-to green in the summer months, but the new, small growth on existing roots has survived into the low teens in our garden.  In late January the 6 inch leaves on our chard stayed a glossy green after three nights at 15 degrees.

 Blog5  winter insulation

Overwintering for Early Harvest

Many plants that can’t survive a hard freeze (below 24 degrees Fahrenheit) when mature, pull through extremely cold temperatures when in the baby stage.  This positions them to put on an early growth spurt giving you a harvest 4-6 weeks ahead of early spring seed plantings.  We plant cold hardy lettuces, kale, mustards, and spinach in October hoping to get it to just a few inches tall before cooler temperatures inhibit growth.  The ones that stay below 6 inches tall pull through single digit nights and are ready for harvest in March.  During a particularly hard winter here in the Mid-Atlantic, the greens on these plants appeared to have died.  But the straw-covered roots survived and we were harvesting from them by the beginning of April.

Are you ready to harvest abundantly during the winter months?  Start selecting the right seeds, insulate with straw, plant late in the year, and plan to overwinter baby greens.  Let us know about your successes, and which seed varieties work well for you.

Being in Community: A Gardener's Response to Coronavirus

What does it mean to be a part of a community during a pandemic?  How can I reach out to my neighbors, or they to me, when we’re supposed to practice social distancing?  With all the focus on protecting ourselves, how do we look out for each other?

Take a look in your canning pantry.  What is still on the shelves from last year?  Are there nutritious soups or stews you can share with the elderly in your community?  What about that overabundance of winter squash – could you spare a few for friends?  And the fall apples in cold storage – would a family with small children appreciate some fresh fruit?  Did you store potatoes or sweet potatoes?  Do you need all your stored or could you share the bounty?

stocked pantry with homemade canned goods

Now take a look at your garden.  Did you successfully overwinter lettuces, kale, or cabbage?  Wouldn’t those vitamin-packed greens be a welcome treat for someone finding the produce section empty at the grocery store?  How soon will your asparagus start coming up?

We’re in this for a while.  If you haven’t yet started planting please do so right now.  Spinach, leaf lettuce, kohlrabi, kale, and radishes all come to harvest maturity very quickly.  Anywhere you don’t normally plant until May, put in cool weather crops that can be harvested before then.  Plant peas for late spring and plant them profusely with sharing in mind.  Plant quick maturing cabbage in abundance so that you can share them in a few weeks.  Get your tomato seedlings started inside and start extras.  Many of your friends who don’t garden might appreciate a seedling and instructions on how to grow it in a large planter or even in their flower garden. 

Call your friends and neighbors to see what their needs are and what they are not finding in the grocery store.  Do some crowd-sharing and bartering to ensure that we all come through this together and closer than ever. God has blessed us with the ability to garden and feed our families with healthy, vitamin-packed, real food.  Let’s bless each other by sharing what we can! 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lazy Gardening, Part One: Eliminating the Weeds

Do you dream of raising most of your own vegetables?  Are visions of canned goodies dancing in your head?  Yet do you find the thought of all that work to be daunting?  Follow along in the couple of Lazy Farmer posts to learn how you can develop a nearly year ‘round garden with low input techniques.

Our journey to a 10-month garden started when my husband laid down the law that I was NOT allowed more garden space until I could figure out how to garden without the back-breaking amount of rototilling and hoeing that I’d been doing.

Rushing to the library I found a book entitled Gardening without Work by an octogenarian named Ruth Stout.  Go to Ruth Stout’s System for Gardening for more information on her mulching method.

It turns out that this wonderful method of weed prevention has limitations when used on clay soil and requires about 25 bales of spoiled hay annually for a 50 by 50 foot garden.  Our soil is comprised primarily of clay and rocks.  Strike One.  $150-$175 per year of hay quickly eats away at our financial advantages in gardening.  Strike Two.  We’re over 50 years old and that’s a lot of bales to lift and divide.  Strike Three.  We needed to modify. 

Enter Lee Reich’s No Till Gardening method at Maintain a Weedless Organic Garden.  Again there were limitations.  Lee takes the time to create perfect, weed-seed free, compost which allows him to use a shorter layer of mulch than Ms. Stout.   We’re lazy farmers so we needed to compromise.  The no-till method is based on disturbing the soil as little as possible so as not to introduce light and air to dormant weed seeds.  We grow many root crops which naturally disturb the soil when harvested.  We needed to develop our own method using ideas from both these knowledgeable experts but based on our specific land and growth requirements.

What has developed over the past few years in our no-till, heavily mulched garden is based on 1) disturbing the soil as little as possible, 2) avoiding compaction of planting beds, 3) mulching with home-grown lazy compost, and 4) placing a 4-6 inch layer of straw on the beds each winter, followed by additional straw as needed when planting seedlings during the year.  At current prices, we spend about $60 on straw per year.

 Blog4  fall harvest photo

Undisturbed Soil

Using a metal rake and shovels we scraped the dirt in the existing vegetable garden into a series of 3-foot wide beds separated by 18 inch walkways.  We never walk anywhere but on these paths which keeps the dirt in the growing beds fluffy.  Walkways are kept weed free through a several inch layer of straw and the constant compaction created by walking on them.  When harvesting root crops we try to lift each tuber or clump carefully, shaking the loose dirt back into the hole it came from.

Soil Rejuvenation

Because of the large amount of compost created on the farm — see Lazy Composting — we top all beds with a couple of inches of compost each year.  Some gets added as side dressing to rows of corn, some as finished compost at the beginning of the growing season around transplanted seedlings, and some in the late fall/early winter as rough compost that will finish in place before the next spring.  We make sure to remember where rough compost went as it is important not to plant root crops there the first year since the resulting sow bugs will ruin the harvest.

Weed Deterrent Topping

Following the late fall/early winter final harvest we top each bed with 4-6 inches of fluffed straw.  Straw is the bottom half of grain stalks and contains few seeds.  Straw stalks are hollow and don’t compact, while they do retain air providing for good winter insulation of the soil.  Come spring, straw is slow to decompose and doesn’t tie up nitrogen or other soil nutrients.  It does cause more even soil moisture and so is an excellent drought defense in deep summer.  When planting seedlings in the summer and fall we surround them with additional straw to stop the spread of diseases that can be caused by rain splashing soil onto plants.

Now that you know to have a productive garden with less work, join us in a couple of weeks for Part Two: Growing Almost Year-Round Without Cover.


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