Mother Earth Living

In the Garden

Get down and dirty in the garden

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Let nature provide everything you need to feel satisfied, healthy and energized by growing your own garden. Photo by iStock.

Our health is the result of a diverse list of factors—which begins with what we put into our bodies. Nature provides all we need to stay satisfied, energized and healthy, and we can grow much of it right outside our doors. Whether you live on a farm or in an apartment; grow a few culinary herbs or your own apothecary garden; enjoy a couple of tomato plants or grow food year-round, use the tips in this issue to step up your garden and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with creating our own food, medicine and well-being.

These simple tips will have you transplanting your seedlings with ease. Photo by iStock.

Transplanting Tips

Starting seeds indoors is a great way to save money. Use these tips when it comes time to move baby plants to their outdoor home.

Handle with Care: Always handle seedlings by their leaves to avoid harming plants’ delicate stems, their main lifeline.

Hardening Off: Hardening off gradually introduces seedlings to the conditions in your garden. Bring seedlings outdoors and expose them to a steadily increasing amount of sun, wind and varying temperatures, starting with a couple of hours a day. Do this every day for about two weeks before permanently planting seedlings outdoors.

Prepare your Soil: While your seedlings are hardening off, prepare the planting space by adding a handful of compost to the bottom of each planting hole.

Preparing the soil a week or so in advance of transplanting will ensure the compost is integrated with the surrounding microorganisms in the rhizosphere.

Know When to Plant: If possible, wait to plant until the weather is overcast. The extra moisture in the air and soil will ease the transition into the earth.

Keep them cozy: Plant seedlings in the ground at about the same depth that they were in the container. Planting too deeply could rot the stem. Check that the soil is firm around the plants so that no air pockets dry out the roots. If your seedlings seem delicate, temporarily shield them from wind and cold with upturned flowerpots, cardboard boxes or even buckets. In hot weather, you can use a piece of lightweight cloth as a sun tent.

The Best Free Fertilizers

You will find an array of fertilizers at garden stores, but think twice before you buy: A survey of soil testing labs across the U.S. revealed that garden soils have too much fertilizer more often than too little, and too much can be bad for crops. Opt for natural fertilizers instead. These free fertilizers break down so quickly they can’t be bagged and sold, but they enrich garden soil with nutrients perfect for plants and helpful soil microorganisms.

Grass Clippings: Pesticide-free grass clippings make a great organic fertilizer, and help prevent weeds and conserve garden soil moisture when used as mulch—two things other fertilizers cannot do. Just a half-inch of clippings each spring (about six 5-gallon buckets per 100 square feet) mixed into garden soil, or a 1- to 2-inch layer used as surface mulch, will provide all the nutrients most crops need for a full season of growth.

Compost: Compost releases nutrients very slowly. Adding compost encourages many strains of fungi and bacteria to form partnerships with plant roots, helping them absorb and actually manufacture more nutrients, and keeping the soil moist. Each time a crop is finished, spread a half-inch layer of compost over the soil. (Make your own compost and, if you don’t have enough, contact a municipal compost center for more.)


Ah, winter. It can be a welcome break from all of the hustle and bustle of the growing season…until the holidays wear off and plain old winter, sans glitter and glam, settles in. The seeds catalogs start to arrive, and occupy our bedside tables and our dreams, as we plan and scheme and imagine all of the things we can’t wait to do, just as soon as springtime arrives.

But the catalogs only take us so far. Once the pages are dog-eared and torn, and the highlighters have run dry, what’s a gardener to do in the dark days of winter? Never despair, there is always something for an industrious planner to do!

DIY Plant Markers 

Make Plant Markers

I always have great plans for orderly, clearly labeled plants. And every year I end up with barely labeled planting beds, having to make educated guesses on which varieties are which. If you leave the planning too late, making cute and well-organized plant markers will be the last thing you do. The onslaught of spring brings on a host of much more important tasks—starting the seeds, hardening off the seedlings, and getting everything in the ground and well-cared for before it’s too late.

Now is the time to think ahead and make plant markers. This year, I’ll finally get around to properly doing my paint stick plant markers by painting them a cheery red with spray paint, and writing the plant names on them with a white paint pen. You could also make similar markers with wooden spoons, or repurpose used canning lids or lids from canned goods. If you’re the type of person who likes to have the seed packet handy in the garden, you can always turn clear plastic jewel cases from CDs into a weather-proof sleeve—just tuck the seed packet inside and place it at the end of the garden bed.

Homemade Trug

Build Wooden Garden Helpers

If you’ve got some indoor workspace—like a garage or basement, or even just a corner of the living room with a tarp thrown down—winter is the perfect time to build small projects for the garden. Make a window box or wooden planters. Create your own square foot gardening planting template. Or build a tool crate for toting your hand tools and supplies around. Craft a harvest trug from wood pieces and hardware cloth. If you have the space, you can even build (or repurpose an Ikea bookshelf) your own seed starting shelf—with some hooks, florescent lights and seed starting trays, you’ll be ready to start all of your seeds for spring in no time.

DIY Seed Tapes 

Make Seed Tapes

Seed tapes are great for planting tiny seeds. They’re also really useful for minimizing waste from thinning plants—ensuring you get the most bang for your buck and your time spent in the garden. All you need are a thin paper, a flour and water paste and your seeds. Some paper options you can use are newspaper, toilet paper, paper towels, tissue paper or crepe paper streamers. I’m partial to newspaper, since it’s a great way to recycle it after you’ve read it. The flour paste is easy: Just take about a 1/4 cup of flour and mix in enough water to form a paste (it should be about the thickness of glue). Simply dab the paste onto the strips according to the spacing directions of the seeds you’re working with, and drop one or two seeds onto each paste dot. Let the strips dry thoroughly overnight, then gently roll up the strips and store them in Mason jars until planting time. Don’t forget to label your strips—unless you like surprises in the garden!

DIY Herb Planter 

Gather Supplies

One of my favorite tricks for getting supplies on the cheap is to buy after the season when everything goes on clearance. The best time for gardening supplies is generally late October through November, but you can still find some deals this time of year too. Most stores start to stock their garden centers around Valentine’s Day, and prices start to climb. So if you need start starting trays, potting soil or tools. Try to get them now at a good price so you don’t have to pay full price later.

Also think about the things you can make yourself—a dollar saved can be better than a dollar earned. Large metal cans are great for gardening. With a coat of spray paint they make a great little pot for herbs or flowers. Just use a nail to poke some drainage holes in the bottom, and paint the outside your color of choice. If you buy a lot of milk in gallon jugs, now is the time to start saving them. They’re great cloches for protecting plants and getting a jump start on the season. Just cut the bottom out and you can place it right over your plant.

Cold Frames
Photo by Paul Gardener

Extend the Season

Speaking of cloches, you can get a head start on spring by using season extenders to grow cool weather crops even earlier. Kale, cabbage, peas, broccoli and lettuce are all great choices. If you don’t have milk jugs on hand, think about other things that can be repurposed. The classic option is to build a cold frame from an old window or door. If you don’t have any of your own, check out architectural salvage or second-hand home improvement stores. Fish tanks can also be a great ready-to-go option, and these are readily available at thrift stores. Smaller scale cloches can be fashioned from glass cake domes, fish bowls, terrariums, or glass cracker jars. Keep your eyes peeled at second-hand shops—they are loaded with glassware, so finding a collection of unique cloches at a good price should just take a single shopping trip.

So even if there’s snow on the ground and temperatures don’t climb very far above freezing, there’s still plenty of work to do in the garden. And besides, planting season isn’t too far off—in about six weeks we’ll all start thinking about getting the tomato and pepper seeds started so they’re ready to go when the ground finally warms up!

Amanda is passionate about cooking, gardening and crafting. To read more, please check out Apartment Farm.


Pruning isn’t difficult, but choosing the best tool for the job always makes garden and landscaping tasks easier. This handy list will help you identify which products you need for your plants.

Bypass Pruner

Bypass pruner: most commonly used tool for pruning all types of plants; avoid anvil-type pruners

Hedge Shears

Hedge shears: ideal for cutting back perennials or shaping plants

Pruning Scissors

Pruning scissors (bonsai-grape scissors): perfect for delicate deadheading of small flower heads


Pruning saw: look for a narrow-tip blade so you can get into tight spots

String Trimmer

String trimmers: for large jobs or mass plantings, such as shearing off grasses or herbaceous plants

Learn more about the importance of pruning in A Guide to Pruning Plants.


As the season turns, you may find yourself spending less time in the garden. But now is actually the best time to get your garden in shape for spring. (Read our article Putting the Garden to Bed for Winter for more information.) Organizing where you currently stand, laying a final patch of mulch before winter sets in, cleaning your tools one final time—and more—are all important parts of fall cleanup. Outside of chores, you should also have a little fun in the oasis you’ve worked so hard on with some simple, innovative projects.

We’ve collected some wonderful fall garden ideas on our Pinterest page to get you motivated. Check them out!

Preserve Leaves

Preserve Leaves

Once the trees around your home start changing color, don’t you just want them to stay that way forever? The blog Buggy and Buddy, which offers creative learning ideas for kids, shows you how you can preserve those stunning leaves using glycerin and wax paper. Try it out, and then turn your preserved leaves into a beautiful fall leaf mobile. Via Buggy and Buddy.

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Garden Journal

Start a Garden Journal

Fall is the perfect time to reassess your garden and plan for next year. Keep a journal to track where you want to make additions or even do some rearranging. The website Gardenista shows you how to put together a gorgeous garden journal, complete with necessary supplies and steps to best organize it. Via Gardenista.

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Trampoline Hoop House

Hoop House from Trampoline Frames

Building a hoop house is a simple and inexpensive way to manipulate the growing season and protect your plants from pests. GardenWeb, a website for the gardening community, has a very interesting forum about experiences building a greenhouse. One particular reader shared this very cool-looking photo of a hoop house they built from discarded trampoline frames, along with plans and instructions. What a great way to reuse and recycle! Via GardenWeb.

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Mailbox Garden Tool Storage

Mailbox Garden Tool Storage

Another important step for fall cleanup is washing your garden tools and putting them away for the winter—and what better place to store your tools than directly in your garden. This adorable little mailbox storage idea from the blog Little Vintage Cottage is easy to accomplish and super handy. Plus, it will add a little bit of whimsy to your backyard. Visit the blog for detailed instructions. Via Little Vintage Cottage.

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Newspaper Mulch

Newspaper Mulching

Make sure your garden soil is protected and enriched all winter long. Another wonderful reuse project, mulching your yard with newspaper is a wonderful way to suppress weeds. The home and garden blog, A Garden for the House, offers detailed instructions, as well as information about the benefits, for newspaper mulching. Use this method to tuck your garden in for the long winter ahead. Via A Garden for the House.

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You’ve heard these words before, but what exactly do they mean? How do you figure out if a plant is invasive, exotic or native? With a little help, learn which plants will save you a lot of time and trouble in your garden.

Invasive Plants

Invasive plants are…well, invasive. They take over. They spread like crazy. They can cause devastating ecological impacts, and boy are they hard to remove. Many invasive plants travel via human activity, in bird droppings, or are carried on the fur of animals. Their tendency to multiple at alarming rates is part of what makes them invasive.

Invasive plants crowd out native plants and disturb the delicate balance in a region's ecosystem. Invasive plants and trees are able to flourish outside of their native region. Some can even be dangerous. I know two people that were sent to the emergency room after removing a Brazilian Pepper. The Brazilian Pepper can cause allergic, burn-like reactions.

Some examples of invasive plants in the Southeast region of the country are Brazilian Pepper, Melaleuca and Air Potato. To find a list of invasive plants in your area check out your local extension office, and ask for the Master Gardeners.

Invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree
This tree is spread by birds as they eat the red berries and excrete them along their travels. This invasive species can cause serious health issues. Photo courtesy Poly Cal.

Exotic Plants

An exotic plant is a non-native plant that has been introduced into a new region, but does not cause ecological devastation or have exploding populations. However, when an exotic becomes out of control its classification may change to invasive.

Many ornamental plants are exotic. For example, in South Florida many plants from Southeast Asia do quite well in our subtropical environment, but do not become harmful or spread in an undesirable manner. These exotic plants can be the perfect splash of color you were looking for in your garden, but be conservative and lean towards native plants to benefit and support wildlife and pollinators in your area. For help designing your Florida garden see the Florida-Friendly Landscaping plant database.

Monarch Butterfly
Help pollinators, and birds by planting plants native to your region. Photo by Fotolia/Georg Lehnerer

Native Plants

Native plants are plants that have lived in a region for a prolonged period of time. There is a lot of controversy about what constitutes a native plant. Many scientists cannot agree on the base line. Some feel that a native plant should be measured by not having direct or indirect human contact. At this point that is very difficult to determine, many native cultures had both direct and indirect influence on many ecosystems. For our purposes we consider plants to be native if they were here prior to European explorations.

Native Plants
Bring your garden to life with native, and just a touch of exotic plants. Photo courtesy Florida Friendly Plants.

Some native plants can act invasive if they are introduced into a new ecosystem. In nature, plants travel at a slower rate so native species are able to adapt and change to the newcomers. As humans wander, build and introduce new plants to North America, some of those plants have found a perfect place to thrive. How they thrive determines if they are invasive or exotic.

Most extension offices have lists and pictures of invasive, exotic and native plants in your area. The extension service and the Master Gardeners are fantastic networks for providing science based information. Feel free to contact them with any garden related questions you may have specific to your area.

StephanieStephanie Montalvo is a Master Gardener, Master Naturalist and Habitat Steward, currently studying Environmental Science at SUNY Empire State College. She grew up on a small organic farm in South Jersey and loves to garden. Stephanie is also the Executive Director of the Brighter Future Foundation, a 501c3 organization that shares information and inspires people to interact with the environment in a holistic and healthy way. Visit her on the BFF blog.


After printing the Mother Earth Living article “The Best Herbal Remedies You’ve Never Heard Of,” I’ve been interested in uncovering more largely unknown herbal remedies—so let’s delve right into the research behind even more unusual herbs from across the globe! Today we’ll investigate the Szechuan button (Acmella oleracea; syn. Spilanthes oleracea), a flowering herb that can also be found under the pseudonym “toothache plant”.

Note: As research on this herb is minimal and ongoing, be sure to discuss taking it with your health-care provider before incorporating it into your health regimen.

Szechuan Buttons 

My First Experience with Szechuan Buttons

I first encountered this herb on a trip to Vegas with a couple of my girlfriends. We went out on the town where we each purchased a fabulous summer cocktail from a trendy lounge bar. The cocktail was named “The Verbena,” as it is made with a mixture of citrus ingredients, including lemon juice, lemongrass syrup and Kaffir lime leaves; and we were promised that it would be one of the most unique cocktails we would ever drink. On top of the cocktail floated a small, yellow bud—a Szechuan button. After biting into this innocent-looking garnish my mouth immediately went numb, followed by an intense cooling sensation—a unique cocktail indeed!

What are Szechuan Buttons?

A Szechuan button, also known as a buzz button or electric button, is a low-growing plant native to Brazil that blooms repeatedly summer through fall. The plant produces yellow/red gumdrop-sized flower buds that completely numb the mouth once bitten into. Although there is hint of a bitter, grassy flavor, I wouldn’t even say these buds have much flavor. In my opinion a Szechuan button has less of a flavor, and more of a sensation. First your mouth and tongue start to tingle, as if electricity is coursing through it, then everything starts to cool down. It can even cause a sudden increase in saliva production.

Although this herb has become trendy in gourmet restaurants and bars, where it is used as a fun ingredient to liven up dishes and cocktails, the Szechuan button has long been regarded for its health benefits, especially in South America, Africa and Asia. This flower heads of this herb contains up to 1.25 percent spilanthol, a fatty acid amide that contains natural analgesic properties. Similar to capsaicin, this compound is what is responsible for the tingling sensation: It triggers a reaction in the trigeminal nerve pathway, which is responsible for motor and sensory functions in the mouth.

Because of its spilanthol content, some countries use the numbing qualities of this plant to relieve toothaches (thus the “toothache plant”), as well as throat and gum infections. This plant has also been used to treat blood parasites. (In vitro studies have shown that the plant can act as an antibiotic against a variety of bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and staph.) Szechuan buttons may even help improve digestion and help overcome nausea, and it has been shown to have a strong diuretic action in rats.

In non-medicinal uses, Indian manufactures use the buds to flavor chewing tobacco. The raw leaves are used to flavor salads, soups and meats in Brazil and India. People also use this herb topically—an extract of Acmella oleracea can reportedly reduce muscle tension and facial wrinkles caused by tense facial muscles, making it a great ingredient in anti-aging beauty products.

How to Use Szechuan Buttons

Worldwide, the flower heads of this plant are most popularly used fresh, or dried and powdered, although the roots and leaves can be used as well. To use this plant orally, make a decoction or infusion from the leaves or flowers. (A mouth rinse of a spilanthes extract is excellent for gum health.)

These buttons are quite costly, selling for about $50 a bag of 30 buttons (available from Marx Foods). However, you can try growing this plant at home: Buy a packet of 30 seeds for $3.50 from Terroir Seeds. Grow it as a beautiful ornamental, or to harvest for its fun electric-packed buttons.

Gina DeBacker HeadshotGina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living, where she manages the health section of the magazine.


Controlling invasions of pests isn’t an easy task. Taking the health of your soil into consideration adds an entire new level of difficulty. Here are some tips that will help you rid yourself of garden pests while continually managing and improving the health of your soil.

Garden Pest Control
Photo by Fotolia/kuzelv

Tips to Control Garden Pests

A Dangerous Journey: Don’t make it easy for pests to waltz right up to your plants and destroy them. The more effort they have to put in, the more likely they are to give up. Making the ground near your plants unpleasant to be on is a great way to deter many different types of pests. You can use woodchips or even rock. However, the most effective ground barrier is crushed up eggshells. Many insects/pests have sensitive abdomens. Scraping their bellies across cracked eggshells will be sure to keep them out. Crush them up and place them at the base of your plants.

Predator Versus Prey: Every pest that could possibly cause a problem in your garden has a natural enemy. They all have predators constantly seeking them out. The key to this method is research. It is important to not only know your pest, but also to know its predator. After you know which predator you will be recruiting, you will need to find out what is going to attract your ally to your garden. Generally speaking, plants like mint, fennel, basil and citronella attract many predators that will not harm your garden and rid you of pests quickly. If you can handle having a few parasitic wasps around, this is an effective and easy way to get rid of various pests.

Traps: Another way to achieve a pest free garden is to utilize traps. They are non-toxic and extremely effective. The concept is simple: pests wander into the trap, become stuck and aren’t able to free themselves. This is a very basic and efficient method of pest control.  Check out this learning center for some additional information on using traps!

Weeding: If you were trying to seek something out and get rid of it, would it benefit you to give it a place to hide? I doubt it. It is important to not help your pests out! Keep your garden free of weeds and other objects that an insect or pest could hide behind. This will not only make your garden more aesthetically pleasing, but it will also make getting rid of your invaders easier.

Getting rid of pests without harming your soil isn’t necessarily the easiest task to accomplish. However, with these tips, you should have some new knowledge that will aid you in the battle that is keeping your garden pest free and having the healthiest soil possible.

Glenn Mitcham is an avid gardener and finds enjoyment in being able to share his experiences with those also interested in the complex world that is gardening. When he isn’t waging a full scale war with garden pests, he enjoys mountain biking and rocking out with his cocker spaniel.

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