Mother Earth Living

In the Garden

Get down and dirty in the garden

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Last year was our first season farming in the black dirt of Orange County, NY. We had heard that you can grow great vegetables in this unique soil that has over 40% organic matter. Tales have been told that this land was once a huge glacier, with fossilized bones of mastodons recently discovered in this region. As you dig into the soil with your hands or a spade, you can see, smell and feel its richness. The closest comparison might be fresh compost, which we call black gold. It is truly black dirt, getting into our clothes, hair, fingernails and skin.

As we began our first year of planting vegetables, herbs and flowers, to our delight the fertile black dirt helped us grow plants that were huge, massive and glorious… and so were the weeds. Average weeds that normally grow in the back yard, or cracks of a sidewalk, suddenly grew into Christmas trees. We were frustrated, to say the least, as we saw our crops being overtaken. So going into our second year, we decided to take a different approach to assessing weeds.

Weeds - are they friend or foe? Well that depends. Some weeds are edible. In fact most of our restaurant clients love our weeds. Who knew that all this time, we have been throwing away money! But seriously, I have started to look at weeds with a little more compassion. Besides being able to grow like monsters in the black dirt, there has to be a reason why they are there.

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So, I started to dig in. The earth does not like to be barren. Bare soil is like a person who has lost their hair wishing that they had some protection against the blazing hot sun, strong winds, or deluge of rain. Weeds are nature’s way of protecting the land from soil erosion, dryness and sunburn.

Weeds can also tell us something about the condition of the soil. For example, purslane (Portulace oleracea) can be a sign that the soil is high in phosphorous. It germinates in high temperatures, which is why we see so much of it in June and July. Some purslane seeds have been known to stay viable for more than 40 years. So do I say cha-ching or cursed?!

Let’s move on to the next edible weed - dandelions. I can recall as a child blowing the heads of dandelions, making a wish for more play and less school, blissfully unaware that I was spreading dandelion seeds that would come back to haunt me as an adult. But dandelion is full of vitamin A, B, C, and D, and its roots have been used to treat liver, kidney and skin problems. The leaves are edible and commonly used in salads, and this year at the farm we’re using the flowers to make our first batch of dandelion wine!

Photo by Fotolia

Next up are lamb’s quarters, also known as pigweed, goosefoot and even poor man’s spinach. I ate some for the first time last year and was astounded by its flavor, similar to buttery spinach. Despite the taste, it quickly became my archenemy as it grew from those delectable little leaves to humongous 4-foot trees with roots that needed two people to pull out. Lamb’s quarters are still commonly used as food in other parts of the world, and they were once a green vegetable of choice in the U.S., packing a wallop of vitamins and minerals. A note of caution about lamb’s quarters - it does contain oxalic acid, which can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron and calcium. So eat up and be healthy; just don’t splurge.

As we continue to grow our produce and flowers, I will get better acquainted with our other arch rivals such as crabgrass, bindweed, morning glory and chicory.

In conclusion, as they say, “if you can’t beat em, eat em”.  I think on our farm we would need the whole town of Chester to do that.  However, at Rise & Root Farm we have come up with our own solution. Once a month we encourage volunteers to take part in what we call “weed aerobics”. If you can’t “beat ‘em”or “eat ‘em” at least you can get in shape “pulling ‘em”.

So the next time you see a weed, think twice about whether to consider it a friend, foe, or part of your next fitness craze.

Happy grazing,

Karen Washington and Rise & Root Farm

For more on the health benefits and culinary uses of edible weeds, check out:

Eat Your Weeds! The Best Edible Weeds

Edible Weeds 101: The Health Benefits of Purslane

Spring Foraging: 5 Weeds You Should Eat!

Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes and Jane Hodge run Rise & Root Farm, a 3-acre organic farm in Orange County, New York. Read more about Rise & Root in this article from our September/October 2016 issue: Growing Community at a Social Justice Farm in New York.


planting seeds

1. Select the varieties you want to grow in every season and buy organic seeds.

2. Prepare garden area by tilling or breaking up soil, and spreading and mixing in 1 or 2 inches of compost (use organic compost made from food trimmings, chopped leaves, grass clippings, etc.). In the week before you plan to plant, go over your garden soil with a rake or trowel to break up any remaining soil clumps and eliminate weed seedlings. Do this twice in the days leading up to planting and immediately before planting seeds.

3. Direct-seed greens into prepared garden soil. Many growers like to plant two sections or rows about every two weeks throughout the growing season to get a staggered and continuous harvest.


Growing garlic is one of life’s easy pleasures. The hundreds of varieties fall into two main categories: hardnecks, with long, woody midstems; and softnecks, with soft, braidable necks. Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant (buy her ebook Growing, Harvesting and Curing Your Homegrown Garlic for $5 on our website) shares her favorite varieties to grow.


1. ‘Music’ is fun to grow because everything about it is big—the leaves, the curled scapes, and the cloves and bulbs. The stately plants are easy to grow, the plump cloves are easy to peel, and perfect bulbs will keep through winter. A whole ‘Music’ bulb slowly roasted with olive oil and salt is a culinary marvel.

German Red 

2. ‘German Red’ is a robust hardneck with red-blushed cloves that grows well in a wide range of climates and soils. The symmetrical bulbs are composed of uniform cloves that practically jump out of their jackets when lightly smashed with the side of a knife.

Chinese pink 

3. ‘Chinese Pink’ or any variety described as an Asiatic or turban type will mature more than a month ahead of other garlic varieties, which makes them invaluable for early summer pickling projects. The small bulbs cure quickly and store beautifully for up to a year.

Inchelium Red 

4. ‘Inchelium Red’ is a vigorous softneck that’s easy to braid, and its mild-flavored, medium-size cloves are versatile in the kitchen. 

Nootka Rose 

5. ‘Nootka Rose’ may be late and lumpy, but this softneck is a favorite variety in the kitchen. The juicy outer cloves encircle layers of elegantly long inner ones, with sharp flavors that become sweet and mellow when cooked.


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There's nothing quite like the feeling of taking in a beautiful garden. All of your hard work and energy spent caring for your plants pays off when everything is in bloom and looking its best. A well-maintained garden is the perfect complement to any house — it definitely spruces up your home's outdoor image.

Unfortunately, runoff from your garden can undo all of your work. What's worse, it can combine with pollutants and end up ruining not only your garden, but also the areas around your house, like creeks and streams. While your local municipality probably has implemented processes such as street sweeping to reduce the runoff entering our waterways, making a conscious effort to control runoff in your lawn or garden can help even more.

Stopping polluted runoff is the only way to keep your garden looking fresh and prevent it from causing unintended environmental damage.

Here's a few ways to keep that runoff at bay:

Block the Runoff With a Swale

A swale is a ditch designed to intercept water. It's shallow with gradually sloping sides that allow rainwater and runoff water to collect at the bottom of the ditch.

The swale can fit into your property's style better if you add some rocks. Not only will it look nice, but the rocks also slow down the runoff, filter it and keep the soil stabilized.

This is a project not suited for manual labor, however — you'll need a machine to help dig the hole.

Photo by Fotolia

A Berm Keeps Runoff out for Good

Think quickly back to your history lessons in high school. How did the greatest empires survive? They built their palaces and castles on high ground, surrounded by protection like walls and moats to keep intruders out. A berm acts the same way. It's a fortress for your garden!

It's a hill covered in grass and plants designed to divert runoff away from your most important plants. One of the first things to consider is where you want the runoff to go. Think about what plants should receive the runoff and build them around the berm. That way, most of the runoff is used up by all the plants surrounding the berm.

Collect Runoff With a Drywell

Drywells are exactly what their name suggests — they're a hole in the ground that stays dry often. That is, until flowing water is directed to the well. It collects the water, but the water doesn't just sit there. It gets filtered into the soil at a better pace through geotextile fabric, a permeable fabric.

Photo by Fotolia

Collect Runoff With a Barrel

All of the rainwater that falls on your house ends up in your garden or lawn through your gutter system. The quick stream of water coming from a gutter can easily sweep up soil and nutrients that you painstakingly placed there. Don't let all that hard work go to waste — a rain barrel can solve this problem!

Just purchase a special rain barrel and place it right under the gutter stream. Be sure to put it on a slab of concrete to make sure it's completely level. You can use the collected water for anything you choose — washing the car, rinsing off tools or filling up a watering can, for example — without raising your water bill.

Get Rid of Your Impermeable Surfaces

Asphalt, stone, concrete — these are culprits for increased runoff. Why?

Their hard, impermeable surfaces make it easy for runoff to run over them without any trouble. This can lead to major flooding in some areas!

If you can, consider replacing these surfaces with materials that allow runoff to be filtered or absorbed. Flagstone and gravel are good choices because the small spaces in between each stone allow runoff flow to be slowed down.

Make Sure You're Not Doing More Harm Than Good

Are you aware of what you're putting on your lawn and soil? Many lawn care products contain chemicals that may be useful for your lawn, but can be harmful when it turns to runoff.

Make sure to use fertilizer responsibly and if possible seek natural alternatives. You can also follow these quick tips to properly care for your lawn.

Runoff is a pain to any gardener. It can suck the moisture out of your garden and it can also cause environmental concerns in the areas surrounding your home. By taking advantage of these tips, your garden will be healthier, safer and less expensive.

Megan Wild is a gardener who is the process of cultivating her first succulent garden. She loves visiting local floral nurseries and picking out plants that she struggles to fit into her yard. Find her tweeting home and garden inspiration @Megan_Wild.


There is something about the gentle flow of water that is soothing to the soul. If you’ve been thinking about adding a water garden to your yard this summer, you can’t go wrong with a small pond and even a waterfall.

water garden 

Photo by Pawel Bukowski

However, if you’re trying to create an eco-friendly environment, which most gardeners are, then you’ll want to follow these tips to conserve water and energy — as well as to make sure your plants are fed naturally, and algae and weeds are kept out without harsh chemicals or poisons.

Solar Energy Savings

One easy way to create a more eco-friendly water garden is to use solar power for things like landscaping lights, pumps and other equipment. Although you might pay a little more for the solar equipment up front, over time it will pay for itself in energy savings.

You’ll also know you’re doing something positive to reduce your carbon footprint. While you will have to replace batteries occasionally, overall, you’ll see a significant savings in energy costs required to run water garden equipment — and you’ll be doing the environment a favor by using a clean energy source.

Consider the Ecosystem

An eco-friendly water garden also pays attention to the plants and animals in the area. Everything in nature works together to create a thriving place for plants and animals to live.

However, if you throw something out of balance, then your ecosystem becomes unbalanced and will require a lot more care than you probably want to give it. One of the most important parts of this equation is a circulation system that is efficient. This will keep oxygen levels at the proper level for both plants and animals. The last thing you want to do is add a water feature that only works to attract mosquitoes or harms plants you would like to see do well.

Consider Your Current Layout

Unless you just finished building a new house and have a blank canvas of a yard, you’re going to have to consider the current landscaping design of your home. Think about how you can integrate water into your garden in a smart way.

For example, if there is a dry area in your garden, adding a small waterfall can create an oasis for thirsty plants and butterflies. If you’d like to add fish to your water feature, you’ll want to plan ahead for placement of pumps and aerators as well. Well-aerated ponds are healthier for fish, but the aesthetic of your garden is also important. You want to be sure you can tuck things away behind plants and in a dark corner of a water pond so equipment isn’t obvious.

Avoid Unnatural Treatments

It is tempting when your water needs freshened or you suddenly have a pond full of dead fish to start adding chemicals and additives in an effort to “fix” things. However, this may only create a bigger problem down the line as it impacts other animals and plants, and even the environment of the pond itself.

Instead, look to natural solutions, such as adding a fish that eats algae or specific aquatic plants. Your local garden center should have an aquatic expert who can help with these types of issues.

Small Changes

Once you have the water garden in place and everything is working together, make any changes very slowly. For example, if you wish to add goldfish and a few water plants, do your research, and then add just a few fish and a plant or two at first. You can always add more to your water garden later. It’s always best to proceed slowly if you want to keep things as eco-friendly as possible.

Creating a water garden gives you the ability to create an oasis in your yard that is truly unique. Not only will you enjoy sitting by your own bubbling brook, but you’ll know you’ve added something to your garden that helps plants and animals as well as adds beauty.

Kayla Matthews is a health and wellness blogger who loves jogging, yoga and hiking. Follow Kayla on Google+ and Twitter to read all of her latest posts.


Rooftop Growing Guide

Learn how to start your own rooftop garden with Annie Novak in The Rooftop Gardening Guide (Ten Speed Press, 2016). Sample plans, interviews with other rooftop gardeners, and case studies round out this enthusiastic guide to creating urban farms in every possible space, no matter how small or city-bound.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: The Rooftop Growing Guide.

At the age of twenty, when I was a very susceptible young thinker, I read Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating.” To this day, it remains the most powerful essay I’ve ever read about food.

Beginning with the simple assertion that “Eating is an agricultural act,” Berry deftly unfolds the tragedy of the modern American food system, then lays out a short charter of actions for the ecological eater. He ties our good health to food sovereignty: the ability to grow our own food, or at least understand where it comes from. He links high quality food to healthy soil, healthy soil to good farming, and better farming stewardship to the sustainability of our watersheds, our country, and our planet. To eat well, he says, is as simple as maintaining a healthy curiosity about the connection between dirt and dinner. The essay concludes with a list of common sense ways an eater can do this. He asks that we cook for ourselves, try to grow our own food, make friends with farmers, and investigate the stories of our favorite plants. I can remember exactly what I did when I finished the article: everything, precisely as he suggested.


John Stoddard and Courtney Hennessay were experienced ground-level farmers before they took to the roofs.

Now it is your turn. You’ll find that rooftop gardening, urban farming, and farming and gardening in general are challenging tasks. But the word Berry uses — “pleasure” — is an apt counterbalance to this effort. Farming and gardening present opportunities to reengage with a deeply entrenched part of our humanity that goes beyond simply eating well or getting outside. People need plants. In 2005, in the same spring season I started my career at the New York Botanical Garden at its beautiful two-acre family-friendly vegetable gardening site, The Edible Academy, Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods, a call to arms in the face of the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression. Regular exposure to nature, Louv suggests, is essential to the health and cognitive development of children and adults alike.


Inexpensive plastic crates lined with geotextile fabric and filled with organic soil mix make for an easily portable rooftop farm setup.

Our personal health and the ecological health of our chosen living environment depends on maintaining and creating new green spaces. This is particularly true as inter­nationally we become a more urban people. All rooftops — in and outside of cities — could be greener, but markedly in the density of an urban landscape, rooftop gardens and green roofs have transformative power. In 2009, the year we founded the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, an abandoned elevated train track in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood opened in renewed use as the High Line. It quickly became one of the most popular public parks of the last century, welcoming five million visitors a year.

Rooftop farming is a thread in a larger woven landscape we’ve spent a long time unraveling but can yet stitch back together. Whether it’s food, pleasure, entrepreneurship, health, community, or necessity that brings you up to the roof, your efforts are a note in a long-sung song. Indeed, when looking at the landscape of empty rooftops around you and wondering where to begin, it’s important to remem­ber the stubbornness of nature below and above our archi­tecture. In New York City, I see it in the weeds prying up through sidewalk cracks, or in the red-tailed hawks circling their way back into an ecosystem by nesting in the stone facades of turn-of-the-century buildings. In the years the High Line sat fallow, wildflowers grew up through the train trusses. There’s a necessity to green spaces, which in his poem In a Country Once Forested Berry gently reminds us is as inevitable as we allow it to be:

… the soil under the grass
is dreaming of a young forest,
and under the pavement the soil
is dreaming of grass.

Reprinted with permission from The Rooftop Gardening Guide by Annie Novak and published by Ten Speed Press, 2016. Buy this book from our store: The Rooftop Growing Guide.

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