10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.

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January’s Harvest

It may surprise you to learn that the garden is still alive. A selection of cold hardy crops have been riding the weather like waves, wilting during the cold and dry periods only to perk up and shine after each warm rain. I haven’t been able to bring myself to harvest, preferring to savor the visual feast of green vitality deep into winter. But the forecast for tomorrow holds a frigid low of 8° F, and I doubt there will be many plants left standing after that weather passes through. Ah well. I was going to eat them eventually, and a fresh feast is especially welcome on a cold, windy night like tonight.

What’s for dinner? Clockwise from Top-left corner: Parsley, Mixed Salad Greens, Ruby Red Swiss Chard, Chioggia Beet, French Breakfast Radish, Malaga Radish, Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale.

A note about planning for a winter harvest: I did plant a specific fall garden (though I got a late start with it). The radishes and mixed salad greens (mesclun) came from that fall planting. The kale was planted in early spring, the chard followed in early summer. They have produced abundantly across the seasons, harvested carefully using the “cut and come again” method. This means that rather than chopping down the whole plant to harvest, I repeatedly snip off the oldest individual leaves throughout the season, always leaving several healthy young leaves on the plants to keep the plant alive and growing. As for the parsley and beets, they were also spring planted. They became shaded by other plants, which slowed their growth and prevented a summer harvest. Once those taller plants were out of the picture, these little lurkers filled in the newly available space.

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The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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Compost Safety and Leguminous Rhythms

It’s November in Indiana, and I’m raising little bean plants in my guest room. They’re not an early start for next spring’s garden, but a test of some new compost. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make enough compost this year to nourish the major garden expansion I’m working on, so I purchased a truckload of locally made compost from a nearby lawn and garden supply shop to supplement what I did make.

Other people’s compost is a little bit suspect these days due to the emergence of a new class of herbicides which persist in soil, in plant material, and in animal manure for up to five years after application. These herbicides are sometimes used on conventionally grown grain crops and grazing pastures, so they can wind up in your organic garden through compost, straw, hay, grass clippings, or manure.

Not only do I try to avoid ingesting herbicides as a personal health preference, and not only do I endeavor to manage my farm organically for myriad reasons, but the whole point of herbicides is to kill plants, so nobody wants them in their garden harming their flowers and veggies for the next several years.

Since these chemicals have such a long active life, sometimes persistent herbicides can contaminate a batch of compost by accident if somebody fed their horse something that once grew in a field that was once sprayed and then the manure from that horse is composted, or if contaminated straw or hay was added directly to the compost pile. It’s difficult if not impossible to verify all the inputs all the way to their origin if you’re a business or a municipality who takes in other people’s compostables and makes large quantities of black gold for a whole community. The best way I’ve found to make sure that not-homemade compost is safe is to test it before spreading it on the garden.

Ergo, I have six pots of Phaseolus vulgaris in my guest room right now, and we’re learning a lot about each other. Most interestingly, I learned that they “sleep” every night. They actually fold up their leaves into a relaxed-looking posture and spend the night that way before stretching out for the sun again the next morning. This botanical process is called nyctinasty. According to Wikipedia, “Nyctinastic movements are associated with diurnal light and temperature changes and controlled by the circadian clock.” Not all plants have nyctinastic movements, but some plants do, including beans. I plan to research more about nyctinasty, but I couldn’t wait to share these photos and observations with you all. See below for more info.

So far, all my beans look vigorous and healthy, and all signs point to safe, excellent compost. I’ll know for sure in another week, and then I can proceed with my garden expansion at full speed.

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The November Garden

Jack Frost arrived later than usual this year, but he’s been persistently nipping at the garden for about a week now. The green tomatoes that didn’t have time to ripen on the vine are beginning to blush indoors on my window sill. The final pepper harvest is pickled, sauced, and dried for a steady supply of winter warmth, and the last of the tender herbs are hanging to dry on my kitchen herb clothesline. But while the aforementioned warm season plants are giving back to the compost pile, many hardy crops are still alive and thriving in the garden.

I habitually prolong my harvest of spring-planted hardy vegetables like carrots, kale, beets, chard, kohlrabi, and collard greens well into the winter, but this is the first year I specifically planted a fall garden. Although It has been an overall success, I’ve learned a few things that will impact the way I grow next year’s fall garden.

Firstly, I planted it too late. I planted seeds in the second week of August, which according to all the charts should have been about the right time. However, I wish I had planted 2-4 weeks earlier. Many garden plants can survive freezing temperatures, but plants don’t grow very much during these months. Having live plants in the garden at this time of year is more of a way to keep vegetables fresh by staggering the harvest rather than to actively grow new vegetables, so it’s ideal if the plants have already reached a good size before the sun fades and the temperature drops. As you can see in the photo below, my August-planted fall garden crops are still baby sized.

The second lesson I learned about the fall garden is that autumn is called “fall” for a reason. Dry leaves are falling all over everywhere, on everything. It’s tedious to hand-pick the dry tree leaves out of these baby greens in the garden beds. I think next autumn I’ll try covering my pint-sized plants with floating row cover material. In addition to protecting the plants from temperature swings, this should keep the falling leaves out of my salad greens.

What worked well? I have three extra beds full of delicious baby salad greens, herbs, and radishes that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, had I not planted a fall garden. Space wasn’t wasted, because I re-planted these gardens in the same spaces as my summer-harvested potatoes, garlic, and shallots. Soil that would have been bare at this time of year is kept aerated by plant roots and protected from erosion. Although my first try may not have been perfectly executed, this project is still a big win.

Landis Winter Lettuce, baby sized, in the November Garden

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To All The New Gardeners

Starting a new garden often begins with excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for all the possibilities that await. In winter, you choose the most beautiful pictures and mouthwatering descriptions from the seed catalog. In spring, you bring home the best looking plants from the local garden shop. You prepare your soil with loving care and good intentions and you plant. Then maybe late frosts or spring storms come. Maybe some of the plants get injured or sick, or even die. The ones that survive will have to battle weeds to stay in the game until mid-summer, and then the insect predators arrive, and you may wonder if your labors will bear any fruit at all.

If you’re feeling a little garden frustration right now, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. I’ve been there, countless others have been there, and many are feeling what you’re feeling right now. Gardening is a process. You’re not just growing plants, you’re also growing soil and skills.

Today is the 8 year anniversary of this blog, my 6 year anniversary with my land, and the 1 year anniversary of my life as a full-time farmer. In celebration of this auspicious day, here is a post all about my first garden ever, and filled with the lessons I harvested from it twelve years ago.

Invest in Organic Fertilizer

My first garden was planted in fill dirt, on top of an old landfill. It was a community garden so I didn’t own the land, and I thought I wouldn’t invest any money in the soil. Instead, I got loads of free rotted leaves and wood chips from the city and used coffee grounds from various coffee shops. While these items are great for gardens and make excellent mulches, they are not the same thing as compost.

I likely would have seen much better harvests much more quickly if I had purchased compost the first year. My many loads of free mulch did eventually build fabulous soil after about three years, but it was a long wait. You can make your own premium compost at home for free, but if you’ve just started gardening, you probably won’t have any homemade compost ready until the second year. Learn more about making your own compost from my article The Foundation of Our Future.

Grow Some Easy Wins

The most popular garden vegetables are not necessarily the easiest to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, and squashes all require good soil to thrive. Spinach and head lettuces must have a long cool season and rich soil, or they will go to seed before you ever get a salad. Carrots will grow into funky shapes if the soil isn’t perfectly light and loose and free of any twigs or stones.

Other garden plants are much more forgiving and adaptable. These are some crops that produced abundant harvests for me when other crops failed:

TomatillosKaleOregano
SunflowersCollard GreensMint
SunchokesRadishesLemon Balm
PeasSwiss ChardDill
BeansFennel

It’s worth noting that some of the plants mentioned may become weedy.

Make Friends

By joining a community garden, I had ample opportunity to talk to other gardeners. I was able to learn from their wisdom as well as my mistakes. Gardening is an inherently local act, and the wisdom of gardening is inextricably linked to place. There are many great books and blogs about gardening, and they’re worth reading. But that knowledge must be paired with local gardening knowledge that you can only get from experience- yours or someone else’s. So join a gardening club or a community garden or at least pay a visit to your county extension office to give yourself the best start possible.

Avoid Gimmicks

There are all kinds of stores out there trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Invest in good soil amendments, durable hand tools like a digging fork and a hori-hori, quality seeds, and maybe a hose. Once you have gained some experience, you may realize the need for another tool or two, but I suggest starting from a minimalist perspective.

Try, Try Again

Keep a gardening journal and record all your joys, sorrows, trials, and lessons. Take pictures to document your gardening journey. You can refer back to them next year when you’re planning your next garden. And most importantly, plant that next garden. Every year, your garden will become better than the last, and you will become a better gardener. Gardening does not deliver instant results, but it is an ancient and rewarding pursuit. Keep showing up for your garden day after day, and it will show up for you as well.

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Infinipeas : Grow Peas, Save Seed, Repeat For A Never Ending Harvest

The hardest part about saving seed from pea plants is to refrain from eating every last pea. But if you can bring yourself to leave some of those beautiful pods on the vines, you can reap a different kind of harvest: the harvest of next year’s garden.

The start of the seed-saving process happens before planting, when you are ordering seeds and designing your spring garden. You’ll need to start with heirloom pea seeds. These are seeds that will reproduce true to type and are free of any patents or restrictions. You can find heirloom pea seeds from places like Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. If you want to save seeds from a small garden, it’s easiest if you grow only one variety of pea, though it is possible to grow more than one kind with some care.

Peas are self-pollinated and not very eager to cross pollinate with other pea plants, but if you’re growing more than one variety of peas, it’s best to put some distance between each variety to prevent cross pollination. Some sources suggest that as little as ten feet of space between varieties is enough to prevent crossing, while others suggest a minimum of 50 feet or even hundreds of feet. You can use your own judgement based on the size of your garden and how important it is to you to prevent cross pollination. If you’re growing multiple varieties of peas with a smaller isolation distance, you can further reduce the risk of cross pollination by planting lots of other early flowering plants in the garden to keep the bees busy and away from your pea flowers, or by placing screens or covers over your plants to exclude bees and prevent cross-pollination.

Snow peas, garden peas, and sugar snap peas are all the same species (Pisum sativum), and it is possible for them to cross pollinate with each other. If that happens, you might grow a whole new type of pea that’s not really a garden pea, nor really a snow pea, nor really a sugar snap. You might like the result, or you might not. Even if you’re only growing snow peas, if you’re growing three varieties of snow pea, they could cross pollinate with each other to create a new variety that may or may not be a favorite. If you’re a very relaxed and experimental gardener, there’s nothing wrong with saving mystery pea seeds, growing them, and trying the result! But once you find a favorite pea variety that you really want to preserve, you’ll need to separate it from any other Pisum sativum to ensure that the seeds you save will be true to type. Peas will not cross pollinate with beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), limas (Phaseolus lunatus), black eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), chickpeas (Cicer arietinum), or anything else that isn’t a Pisum sativum.

Once you have your seeds and your garden design, the next step is planting. I like to plant my peas on St. Patrick’s day here in central Indiana. I dress all in green and lure my husband into the garden and we plant them ceremonially as a part of our holiday festivities. I use a no-till gardening method and prepare my soil in the fall, so I don’t have to wait for the ground to dry out enough to support heavy machinery. In my best years, I build trellises for the pea plants out of bamboo stakes and jute twine. This spring I never quite got around to building the trellises. The plants didn’t grow as tall as they might have with good support, but I still got a decent crop. Peas are a wonderful crop for the organic garden, because they build soil fertility and are relatively free of pests and diseases. Since my goal was to expand my pea plot significantly in next year’s garden, I ate only a small percentage of the pods and left most on the vine to ripen into viable seeds. Next year I’ll have many more plants, so I’ll be able to eat more peas while still saving the same number of seeds. It’s best to save a few pods from as many healthy plants as possible to maximize genetic diversity, rather than to save all the pods from a few plants.

Pea Pods Dried on the Vine

The seeds in the pods are fully ripe when the pods are brown, dry, and brittle. In my garden, the whole plant is usually brown and dry by this time. If your pods are almost dry but you’ve got a hail storm or a hurricane on the way, you can probably pull the whole plants up by the roots and hang them upside-down in a protected location to wait for them to finish ripening and dry fully. If you aren’t facing terrible weather, it’s best to leave them in the ground until fully ripe and dry.

When it’s time, shell the peas out of their totally dry pods and leave them in a cool, dry, shady location for another few weeks to make sure they are all the way dry before storing them. Make sure you store them with a good label including all the relevant information about the seeds. After they are totally dry, they will keep longest in a sealed container in the fridge. If you plan to grow them within the next year or two, it’s fine to store them at room temperature in a cool, dark, dry location.

Pea Seeds, Labeled and Ready To Save

For further reading, check your library for the book “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, and this article by Seed Savers Exchange. You can also read more about my multi-purpose seed-saving garden in my post A Multipurpose Garden.

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The Strawberry Moon

Tonight is a full moon, but not just any full moon. In the Algonquian languages, the group of languages spoken by all the original inhabitants of Johnson County (the Miami, Lenape, Kiikaapoi, and Kaskaskia nations), the full moon of June is called Strawberry Moon. This moon is celebrated because it coincides with the strawberry harvest, and the beginning of the local fruit season. People often think that this farm is named after strawberries, but it’s actually named for this moon, this time of year. The beginning of the fruit harvest. Today I’m celebrating the Strawberry Moon more fully than ever before, because we finally have native wild strawberries growing on our land!

I started these strawberry plants from seed over the winter, and they have grown really prolifically. Strawberry seeds require a process called cold stratification in order to germinate. This is a fancy way to say that the seeds need to go through winter before they will sprout. That makes a lot of sense if you think about the life cycle of a strawberry. The seeds are in the fruit, and if they sprouted as soon as they hit the ground in June or July, the plants wouldn’t have time to get big and strong enough to survive winter before it comes. So the seeds are patient. Gardeners can place moistened seeds in the refrigerator for a couple of months to convince the plants that winter has passed, and then give them an early start under lights. The plants are incredibly tiny and fragile at first, so they must be watered from the bottom or with a very fine mister until they gain some size.

Since these plants are so young (strawberries are perennials), they don’t have fruit on them yet. But they do have flowers! And flowers are the promise of fruit. Notice how the flowers shown are white, not yellow. You may have seen another plant that looks very similar. Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica, formerly Duchesnea indica) looks very similar and even bears little red fruits. But the fruits of the mock strawberry have very little flavor. The Mock Strawberry has yellow flowers, and the fruits are round with little bumps on them. If you look really closely at the fruits, you may be able to tell that they don’t really look like strawberries, but they have duped even some experienced foragers. Admittedly, I’ve never actually tasted a native wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), but I’m told that the flavor is phenomenal. I look forward to acquiring some first hand experience on this subject soon. 😋

Unlike Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), our native strawberries send out runners. Runners are like long stems that sprout baby plants along them. This is one way that the plants reproduce themselves. Some gardeners prune the runners back, but I am not doing that this year. I’m excited for the plants to spread and reproduce themselves. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many strawberries.

This image shows the mock strawberry, Potentilla indica. This is not a strawberry. It’s not native here, but it is very common. You can see that the leaves look very similar. The fruit is red and round with bumps on it. The fruit is white inside, not red inside like a strawberry, and the flowers are yellow.

Although I’m still currently strawberry-less, you need not feel sorry for me. I’m writing this article powered by a full belly of black raspberries. Black raspberries are another amazing native fruit plant!

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Sage Abundance

Last summer, I wrote an article about two different cultivars of garden sage growing in my garden. It has been fascinating to watch these plants grow side-by-side. Their differences go beyond those of leaf shape and flavor. Both are the same species, Salvia officinalis. For me, growing a diverse assortment of plant varieties is one of the great joys of gardening. I love to taste all the different flavors, delight in all the colors and shapes, and enjoy extending the harvest season by growing some varieties that yield early, some that yield in great abundance, and others that can be stored well through winter.

Before I built an herb spiral and raised beds, I never had any luck growing sage. It didn’t thrive in my moist clay soil, because it’s a plant that loves heat and good drainage. The plants didn’t survive the spring rainy season, so I never even got to find out if they survived winter. This spring for the first time in my life, I have sage plants that are over a year old! They’ve grown from tiny seedlings into shrubby bushes, and even crowded out some of their plant neighbors. I’ve been photographing these plants all year and taking notes comparing the two varieties, so you can join me in observing them through the seasons.

May 2020

Here’s the herb spiral, brand new and just planted in May of 2020. You can see both sages at the very top of the spiral. The large, rounded leaf variety on the left is a German cultivar called “Berggarten”, and the narrow leaf variety on the right is not a named variety, it was simply sold as “sage”. At this stage both plants are tiny, and about the same size.

July 2020

In July 2020, both plants have put on some impressive growth in their first two months. At the time, I felt like the Berggarten plant was growing faster, but they look about the same in this photo.

Berggarten Sage and Garden Sage Growing Together
August 2020

By August, both plants had reached a large enough size for me to begin carefully harvesting small quantities of individual leaves from each plant. This is the only kind of harvesting recommended for sage plants in their first year. I am told that a sage plant needs to conserve its energy to have a good chance of surviving winter, so it is not advised to harvest much from a sage plant in its first year.

February 2021

In February, Berggarten sage still looks pretty good! The garden variety sage is not very attractive this time of year, and looks near death.

March 2021

In March, Berggarten sage is much greener and more lush than the “regular” sage. It has already begun growing again!

April 2021

By April, both sage plants are totally green and growing. And already, the garden variety sage plant is passing up Berggarten in size and vigor.

May 2021

By May, the regular garden sage plant is in full bloom. It put on a beautiful display of lavender colored flowers, the delight of bumble bees and gardeners alike. Both plants are vigorous, lush, and healthy.

I still haven’t harvested large quantities of sage from these plants, because I don’t want to impede their growth. I’ve been using up most of my sage harvests for tea. The tea can be made with 1-2 tsp of dried sage leaves per cup of boiling water, steeped for about 10 minutes1. If you brew the tea too long or too strong, it can be unpleasantly bitter and astringent, but I find the lightly brewed tea to be very delicious and soothing. Sage is beloved by herbalists for its many health-boosting properties, and by chefs for its warm savory flavor.

If you’re interested in learning more about sage’s uses in herbal medicine, I recommend the following books:

  • “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman
  • “Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs” by Rosemary Gladstar
  • “The Herbal Apothecary” by JJ Pursell
  1. Tea recipe comes from “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman

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A Multipurpose Garden

Last summer I had four raised bed gardens and one herb spiral. It was the humble beginning of what will eventually become a 3/4 acre market garden. I suppose I could rent some expensive heavy machinery and purchase a huge quantity of compost and seeds and hire some help and take over the entire 3/4 acre space at once, but I don’t prefer to work that way. I prefer to minimize my costs and my fossil fuel consumption, I like doing this work by myself and by hand, and I choose to grow my planting areas slowly so that when I make a mistake, I can correct it before it becomes a giant mistake. I worked all winter long expanding the garden, and it now consists of 13 raised beds, two herb spirals, a 20×30 in-ground vegetable patch, a large herb border, and mulched pathways. It’s my home garden, it’s a mini-sized market garden, and it’s also a seed garden. Next year I hope to make it twice as big.

I’ve filled every garden I’ve ever planted with heirloom seeds (open pollinated seeds that have been & can be saved and passed down through the generations). I choose heirlooms partly because I appreciate the colors, textures, rich flavors, history, and diversity, but also because I believe in them. An heirloom seed is a renewable resource. If you learn how to steward it, you never have to buy it again, and you can share it with whomever you please. And if you select seeds only from your best and healthiest plants, every year your seeds will become better adapted to your needs and local conditions.

One way to support heirloom seeds and keep them available for all is to purchase them from independently-owned seed companies with good ethical practices. I’ve done my share of that over the years, but lately I’ve been working towards becoming a seed keeper myself. Last year, I successfully saved seeds from my Provider Bush Beans, several kinds of herbs, and a particularly vigorous and tasty butternut squash from my friend’s garden. I also saved enough Carola seed potatoes to double my potato planting from last year, and I have previous experience saving garlic cloves to replant year after year. It is extremely satisfying work. This year I planted the seeds that I saved, and now I’m watching them thrive with an extra layer of pride and connection. I remember your parents, little plants. Let’s make them proud together.

I structured my whole garden this year with seed stewardship in mind. Plants that can be isolated by distance have been given that isolation space to prevent cross pollination. For some other plants that can’t be isolated by space, I planted only one variety of each species so that no cross pollination can occur.

Corn is a special case, because it can be cross pollinated by wind up to 1/2 mile away. Although I’m only growing one variety of corn, my neighbors grow another. Since I can’t isolate my corn by distance, I am attempting to isolate it by time. I started my corn seeds extra early (indoors under lights, then transplanted at the proper time), and I chose a variety that is supposed to mature much faster than the kind my neighbors grow. With luck, my corn will be completely done before the surrounding field corn tassels. It’s really important not to let your garden corn cross pollinate with field corn, especially if you plan to save seeds, because the patented genetically modified genes from the industrial corn can get into your seeds. Even if your mother plant is an heirloom, if the father pollen is a GMO, you aren’t legally allowed to plant those baby seeds. Seed Savers Exchange does sell some special bags that can be used to protect the silks from stray pollen, and I am planning to use those too as an extra measure of protection.

I’ve even planted a few varieties that are rare and/or expensive, so I’m growing them just to make more seeds! One of these is a special bean from the Potawatami Nation called Potawatomi Pole Lima that I sourced from Truelove Seeds. The seeds are rare and they sell out quickly, so I only got one packet. I may not even eat any of the harvest this year, because that would reduce the number of seeds I can save to grow a larger planting next year. Another is Mandan Parching Lavender corn, a beautiful pink colored flour corn that is one of the traditional native corns from North Dakota. I’m also growing French Grey Shallots, Santé Shallots, Inchelium Red Garlic, and Tree Onions. These are not grown from seeds, but from bulbs. Bulbs are expensive compared to seeds, and $100 bought barely enough bulbs to fill two 4×8 beds. Will I get my money’s worth from that planting? Probably not, if I simply eat the harvest. But if I re-plant all or most of it, I’ll be able to increase my planting next year to many times that size for no additional money!

Before too long, I should have a market-sized planting of gourmet garlic, shallots, onions, lima beans, and much much more, and plenty enough to save seed AND eat my fill AND take to the market. With certain fruits like tomatoes and ripe peppers, you can save the seed and still eat the fruit the seed came out of. Win-win. Year after year, for as long as I continue the work, I’ll always be able to have these plants in my garden.

If you’re interested in saving seeds from your own garden, there are wonderful free resources available from Seed Savers Exchange. I also recommend the book “Seed To Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. Perhaps it’s available for free at your local library! It’s a very rewarding, economical, and accessible skill.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.