Mother Earth Living

In the Garden

Get down and dirty in the garden

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Outside our front doors are two enormous overgrown shrubs. Thirty or so years ago I am sure they were tiny, lovely and added a splash of green to the front of the house. Unfortunately, now they are severely overgrown and threatening to engulf our front steps. Our plan is to remove them this summer or fall as time and budget permits.

Last year, one of the first things we did when we moved in was remove a similar shrub that was mugging our mailbox. Let me tell you, that plant did not want to go gently into the night. It certainly didn’t help that the only tool we had was a handsaw. I bet whoever planted that shrub never imagined it would someday grow big enough to block the mailbox five feet away. 

We are all guilty of buying a plant and putting it in the wrong spot. Sometimes, we know it is the wrong spot, but perhaps we need just a spot of color for that particular growing season and we don’t mind if the plant doesn’t make it. The problem arises when we plant a shrub or plant in the wrong spot and it flourishes, reaching its full growing potential. Sometimes, a plant ends up in the wrong location because we chose not to believe the growth information. How could that cute little two-foot shrub that would look lovely right by the driveway ever grow to be a six-foot monster with a 36-inch spread that blocks our view of oncoming traffic? Worse is when the plant is mislabeled or not labeled at all. Who among us hasn’t bought or received a “mystery” plant and popped it in the ground only to find out later it is destined to be as big as the Titanic?

At our first house I bought three small lovely arctic willows for the front of our house. Nowhere on the label did it say they were fast growing, but I did ignore the growth information. Year one, the shrubs were lovely. Year two found me out in the yard after I’d put my children to bed, hacking out the now five-foot-tall, two-foot-wide shrubs before they completely obscured the basement windows and sent their roots tunneling into the foundation.

Just remember that while the growth information is for ideal conditions, it is entirely possible that your two-foot-tall arbor vitae will attain its fully-grown height of seven feet. Yes, it will be 30 years later, but that’s what gardening is about—the long term.

Jennifer FlatenJennifer happily gardens away in Wisconsin where she lives with her family. When not gardening Jennifer is a freelance writer and jewelry designer. Browse her jewelry at Etsy or visit her website Dragon and Butterfly Design. 


Compost is a vital part of any garden, but it can also be a considerable expense if you buy it at the store. For this reason, many home gardeners are opting to go the DIY route, because it is both efficient and easy to do.

When I first started composting, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Growing up, my town had a community compost heap where residents could drop off their leaves and yard trimmings and then pick up the resulting compost made from last year’s heap. It was a wonderful practice that, unfortunately, hadn’t been picked up in the next town I’d settled in. My first trip to the garden center left me goggling at the expense of, well, dirt.

I decided then and there I would never pay for the stuff again. Then a farmer friend of mine turned me on to home composting.

compost heap
Photo By mjmonty/Flickr

Why should I use compost?

There are a number of reasons to start composting, and not many why you shouldn’t. If you’re a home gardener, you need quality soil, and chances are, you already have all the ingredients you need. DIY composting allows you to use elements at your disposal to give your garden the chance it needs to thrive under your loving care.

Here’s a host of reasons DIY composting can benefit you and your garden:

Make richer soil, providing essential nutrients to your plants. This means hardier, healthier plants with higher yields for you and your friends and family to enjoy.

Curb your carbon footprint by reducing your waste. Composting your organic matter will cut down on the trash you leave out at the curb, which is especially useful if your town charges for garbage pickup by the bag as mine does.

Save money. You’ll reduce or even eliminate the money you spend on soil and fertilizer.

compost bin
Photo By nancybeetoo/Flickr

Striking the right balance

So how do you go about making your own compost pile? First decide where you’ll do it. You can purchase a compost tumbler from garden retailers that will contain your compost while ensuring a good amount of airflow and, consequently, cutting down the smell. If you have enough space, however, a standard compost heap on the ground will allow you to make a greater amount in a shorter amount of time.

A healthy heap relies on the balance of moisture and organic matter, and its composition should be acidic in nature, as acid helps break the components down into quality soil. Generally speaking, you’ll want the pH balance to fall between 5.5 and 8. You can buy pH testing kits from your local garden supplier or hardware store.

What should I compost? Start your compost heap with yard waste you’d naturally dispose of anyway, such as leaves, weeds and trimmings. After you’ve established a good base, you can begin to include organic waste from your kitchen. The best rule of the green thumb: if it grows, it goes. Fruit and vegetable leavings that are easily decomposable will enrich the balance of your soil. Organic matter such as tea leaves and coffee grinds are also good additions, as are ashes and eggshells.

What shouldn't I compost? Food waste that doesn’t grow from the ground up generally does not make good additions to your compost. Meat products, which will go rancid, should never be added to a compost bin. Dairy products should be treated in the same manner, with the exception of eggshells.

What about water? Water aids the decomposition process and is essential to a healthy compost heap, but be careful not to overdo it. You want your compost to be just slightly moist to the touch, however it should not resemble mud—aim for the moisture consistency of a well-tended potted plant.

Turning your compost. To aid the decomposition process, you’ll need to “turn” your compost heap regularly. Once or twice a week should be sufficient.

If you have a standing composter (or “tumbler”), this might mean just a few quick cranks of the handle. If you have a pile, you’ll need to turn it manually with a shovel or pitchfork. Use these tools to bring the soil from the bottom of the heap to the top, allowing the freshly turned soil to be exposed while the rest quietly breaks down away from the sunlight. This also promotes healthy oxygen distribution, which aids in the decomposition process.

Making your own compost isn’t without its toils, but it can be an economical and invigorating decision. Try it for yourself and watch as your garden thrives!

Rebecca Lynn CrockettRebecca Lynn Crockett is an avid gardener, herbalist and writer. She inherited a love of the earth from her father at a young age, and has been cultivating it ever since. In her spare time, Rebecca pursues her passion for literature and folklore as a fiction writer for all ages.  


Summer is in full swing with victory gardens, community gardens and flowers in bloom. Even here in Florida with the humid summer heat plants still need tending and care. Did you know that according to a survey, almost a third of all American households intended to grow food this year? That's almost a 20 percent increase over last year!  Recent studies are also suggesting that exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve your mood just as effectively as using antidepressant drugs. To quote Mohandas K. Gandhi, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” Don't take for granted the fresh fruits and vegetables that are put on our tables. Growing a garden for food brings to light a healthy curiosity for what is safe and non-toxic for humans and the environment. To reap the benefits of a garden we must ensure the health of the soil and plants, while deterring unwanted pests.

So how does neem fit into this?

neem tree
Photo Courtesy Autumn Blum

For more than 4,000 years, the mighty neem tree has been providing healthy, safe and therapeutic solutions for people, pets and plants. The United Nations declared neem the tree of the 21st century, and neem is currently cultivated in more than 80 countries. Neem (Azadirachta indica) is fondly referred to as “the village pharmacy” and has been used by millions of individuals as a botanical panacea for health and well-being, and for protection and prevention against insects. Neem leaves are classically stored with grains and beans to protect them from insect infestations. Worldwide, neem oil is one of the more widely used and safe bio-pesticides, used in organic agriculture. Not only is it beneficial as a pesticide, it enriches the health and vitality of the soil, plants and farms and is also safe for bees and other pollinators.

neem leaves and neem products
Photo Courtesy Autumn Blum

Natural amendments and garden treatments like neem oil offer multi-faceted benefits over single active ingredients. When we use single active ingredients as treatments in our garden, we may throw nature a curveball for a short while and deter pests and disease, but there are often unwanted side effects to this method. Mother Nature is intelligent and will eventually outsmart a single active ingredient and create “super bugs” or “super bacteria” to combat these simple complexes. When we utilize botanical allies such as neem oil we are utilizing thousands of diverse molecules, each of which offers slightly different actions. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are transparently being linked to countless diseases for humans, pets, bees and the environment.

Neem oil is easy to use in the garden. Just mix about ½ ounce of quality organic neem oil to one quart of warm water and an environmentally safe dish washing detergent to emulsify the oil in a spray bottle. To apply, spray both on top and below the leaves so that rain doesn't immediately wash away the oil. Use the remaining mixture as a soil drench to benefit earthworms while discouraging undesirables. I have formulated a product called Neem for the Garden that accomplishes this end easily.

Neem oil is one of those little “natural” secrets that can make a huge difference when gardening while ensuring a greener and more sustainable outcome. Even indoor household plants can benefit from its protective properties. Happy gardening!

Autumn Blum, Organix SouthAutumn Blum is a formulating cosmetic chemist, manufacturing pioneer and expert on organic neem who specializes in incorporating natural and organic ingredients into healthy body-care products and herbal dietary supplements. Having a passion for product development that delivers quality and efficacy, she is the founder and chief formulator for Organix-South®, the world’s leading manufacturer of certified-organic neem products. Autumn holds a BS in chemistry from Eckerd College and is a member of the National Chemical Society, the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the American Botanical Council and the American Herbal Products Association. To learn more about neem products, see


Last year we moved into our house and I can’t tell you how excited I was—after living in rental properties for more than 10 years I finally had a piece of land where I could garden to my heart’s content. Our house is on a regular city lot, but to me it was a huge, wide-open space that I could fill with plants.

Unfortunately, we moved in during the worst drought our area had seen in 10+ years. Everything, and I mean everything, in our yard with the exception of the evergreen shrubs was dry, brown and shriveled. I figured I would just wait until next spring to begin gardening. (Okay, I didn‘t wait; I did manage to get a few plants and bulbs in the ground.)

Fast forward to this past spring: we experienced the coldest, wettest spring on record. Thanks to the weather I didn’t get nearly as much done garden-wise as I wanted to, but the one thing I did do was play plant detective or, as I like to call it, “Friend or Foe.”

Before we bought the house, it was a rental, so there wasn’t too much done plant-wise in the yard. Although, whoever lived here before us really liked columbine because I found a bunch of columbine plants in random locations around the yard. I also discovered a cache of hostas when we removed an overgrown shrub. Both the columbine and the hostas were easy to figure out. I‘d tried growing columbine at one of our other houses with no success. Others, like the Virginia bluebells that popped up by our deck I had to do a little detective work in order to figure out what they were.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a seasoned gardener as a friend or family member, just how do you figure out what that mysterious plant is? 

If you have some idea of what the plant might be you could use reference books. I know my library has a huge selection of gardening books and magazines. What is nice about the library is they will usually have books on specific plants for your region. In the case of the bluebells, I thumbed through my stack of library books (Perennials for Midwest Gardeners) until I found a similar plant.

Another tool is the Internet. Again, it works best if you have an idea what the plant might be. You just enter the plant’s name in the search engine and in seconds, you can view hundreds of photos of the plant for comparison. Keep in mind some photos could be mislabeled. Try to stick to reliable gardening sites. With smart phones, you can even take the photos out into the garden for a real side-by-side comparison.

What do you do if you have no idea what the plant could be? Try talking to a local garden center or a master gardener. I know our local master gardeners frequently have booths at the local farmers markets. You could also email a picture to the local extension office.

The extension office is a great resource, especially for invasive species. I found a cute plant in our yard and I was going to let it stay, but as it so happens a few days after discovering it, I was out for a walk and spotted what looked like that same plant running rampant in another house’s front yard.

Suddenly, I wondered if my cute little plant was an invasive bully. I Googled “Wisconsin invasive plants” and discovered the extension office’s interactive website. I entered a description of the plant from the drop down menu and found out that my plant was bittersweet nightshade vine, which is considered invasive in Wisconsin-. So out of the garden with him!

If you have any other tips or tricks for plant identification let me know.

Jennifer FlatenJennifer happily gardens away in Wisconsin where she lives with her family. When not gardening Jennifer is a freelance writer and jewelry designer. Browse her jewelry at Etsy or visit her website Dragon and Butterfly Design.


They hang like twinkling diamonds in the ink of night. We lay on our backs upon quilts sewn by hands that were gnarled and divine, my grandmother’s hands. I can feel her love pressing against my back and my heart swells with the memories of summers past. I am 8 years old and I am lying in the pickup bed of the old red Chevy. My cousin's are wrestling around me and all I wish for is to be peaceful and look up into the stars. My grandmother is leaning over the bed with a cherry pie in her hands. The cousins stop rough housing as the scent of the crust, made with butter and the cherries, handpicked from the trees that afternoon are beckoning. I can't really make out her beloved face in the dusk but I can feel her breath upon my cheek as she whispers into my ear "Your favorite."

Trolley FarmThat summer was the beginning of many summers with my grandmother. Each memory becomes another layer of my heart for the country. Though I was raised a city mouse I was always eager for the country. Laughing with my grandfather as he taught me how to ride a horse and sitting on his lap I learned to drive a Chevy pickup. I can still remember the scents of his cologne and his pipe and the homemade biscuits and pies my grandmother made. The ranch was sold after their deaths, one at 87 and the other at 100. Amazing love between them and I am the bearer of the quilts that came before.

I have called my husband out to join me and we lay on our backs with our hands entwined and we look up into the expanse of sky with stars that are a constant. When generations have come and gone the stars will keep shining. We call out the galaxies we see as they appear. We watch the last vapor of a star streak across the night sky. It's a country tradition to just be still and count the stars. To know that from the beginning of time stars kept watch by night. These days we don't eat many pies, but we still watch the stars and court our love beneath them. Carrying on the country legacy my grandparents gave us.

Lynn SchrinerLynn Schriner aka Organic Girl is a singer/songwriter and 2013 Independent country music associations Folk Artist of the year. She lives on Trolley Farm with her husband and animals and writes every day about the journey.


Guerrilla gardening is a new trend popping up—by its very definition—in some of the most unexpected places. It’s the practice of planting in a public or private space you don’t own, and it can be a useful way to save space around the homestead while connecting with your local gardening community. It’s also a way to improve some of the less beautiful or neglected spaces in your neighborhood. But before you head out the door with a pocketful of seeds like some modern-day Johnny Appleseed, there are a few things you need to think about.

Selecting the right space

sidewalk treeWhere you'll plant depends on what type of guerrilla you'll be: are you a suburban or a city guerrilla?

If you live in the city, you'll have to get a bit creative. Take a look at those little dirt cutouts around sidewalk trees. Might they look better with a few companion herbs or flowers? Opportunities often exist in places we don't give much thought to. Untended areas such as small street medians and spaces between sidewalks and hedges can make good impromptu beds—just be careful not to plant during high-traffic hours, and make sure to select hardy crops that aren’t too invasive—California poppies, horseradish and some varieties of valerian are all good for these purposes.

If you're a suburban guerrilla, you’ll probably have more options when it comes to planting spaces, but that also means you'll need to be more selective. Try to identify low-impact spaces that aren't likely to draw the ire of nearby property owners or town officials—there are few things more upsetting than returning to a lovingly planted bed to find that someone has torn up all your hard work. Some of my favorite guerrilla plots have been roadside knolls that could stand to be improved with a few bursts of color. Violets, goldenrod and lavender are all great choices for these types of gardens. Just make sure you don't choose a busy road!

Some guerrillas prefer to plant not for food, but with the single objective of making their community a more beautiful and pleasant place to be. Whether you’re a city or a suburban gardener, installing flower beds and greenery near abandoned or neglected buildings or public spaces can accomplish this nicely.

Finally, whether you live in the suburbs or the city, remember to never plant anything in a state park or nature sanctuary. These places are contained ecosystems meant to preserve the area's native flora and fauna. Be respectful of that!

Know what you’re introducing

flowers on sidewalkThat mystery packet of seeds you've been holding onto for the past couple years? Best to save it for your personal garden beds or containers. When you set out to plant "in the wild," it’s critical you know exactly what it is you're introducing and how it will interact with the vegetation already present. Be conscious that you’re contributing to a broader ecosystem.

For example, fast spreaders such as mint and oregano might not be the best choices for small areas that bleed into nearby beds or areas where plants shouldn't go (like commonly used pathways or trails). These types of spaces are best reserved for more containable plants like basil, sage or even certain edible roots.

In the same way, consider local wildlife in the area. Make sure nothing you’re planting will do any harm to the birds and other native critters.

Learn to share

If you're going to be planting in public places, realize that you may not be the only harvester. Make sure you plant enough to share, and don’t be discouraged if you find that others have discovered your trove. Who knows, you might even stumble onto someone else’s secret garden! Guerrilla gardening can be a rewarding experience, but keep in mind, the space isn't as actually "yours." This adds an element of risk, but also one of excitement. Another gardener may perceive what you’re doing and decide to pitch in!

morning glories on chain-link fence echinacea and alyssum
Left to right: String morning glories along a chain-link fence. A "bed" of echinacea and alyssum borders a small patch of woods. Photos By Rebecca Lynn Crockett.

Have fun with it!

Take the opportunity to improve the neighborhood aesthetic. Create small borders with rocks or seashells, or give your spare garden gnome a new home. Just don't install anything you consider too valuable, as vandalism and theft are, unfortunately, still possibilities.

Guerilla gardens are a great way to share your passions with friends, neighbors and other members of your community. Talking to other adventuresome local gardeners can help you build a strong guerrilla network, and online forums can also amplify your efforts and enhance the experience. Even if you never meet your fellow guerrillas in the flesh, however, this connective community pastime can still be truly rewarding.

Photos above: Empty space around sidewalk trees creates a perfect opportunity for a small guerilla bed. A hint of color makes even the most dull spaces a little brighter. Photos By Rebecca Lynn Crockett.

Rebecca Lynn CrockettRebecca Lynn Crockett is an avid gardener, herbalist and writer. She inherited a love of the earth from her father at a young age, and has been cultivating it ever since. In her spare time, Rebecca pursues her passion for literature and folklore as a fiction writer for all ages. 


Summertime means outdoor living—and outdoor living often means putting up with mosquitoes. For many people, the only way to deal with mosquitoes is to use a DEET-based repellent. While the EPA has deemed DEET safe if “used as directed,” this chemical pesticide carries a number of risks with it. Some studies have found DEET to be toxic in excessive doses, and a 2001 review of 17 cases of suspected DEET toxicity in children concluded that the chemical should be avoided on children’s skin.

Instead of slathering your skin in neurotoxins, opt for a safer, natural approach to fending off mosquitoes. In this video, Mother Earth Living Editor-in-Chief Jessica Kellner demonstrates how to make a bug-repellent spray using essential oils know to repel mosquitoes, such as citronella, as well as a few tips on choosing carrier oils and where to find good spray bottles.

For a full list of bug-repellent essential oils, plus more tips on how to ward off mosquitoes, check out the article Natural Mosquito Control Methods.

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