Mother Earth Living

In the Garden

Get down and dirty in the garden


Last year, my wife and I moved into our first new house, and we were so excited that we could finally plant a garden. We didn’t know where to start, but one thing we were really interested in growing was herbs. While we usually use dried herbs when we cook, we try and use the fresh ones when possible.  They just taste so much better!

We weren’t sure where to start, because we live in an area that's cold for quite a bit of the year. We were looking for something easy, and something that wouldn’t take up our entire yard if we planted it.  We also wanted to make sure that we had something that we would actually eat.  There's not much sense in planting lots of tarragon in your garden if you only eat it a few times a year. 

mint in garden
Photo By tchara/Fotolia

We ended up planting a few of our favorites in the summer season, and it was so nice to have them.  Here's what we started with:

Mint: This is one of our favorites as we can put it in our lemonades, tea and some pasta dishes that we make in the summer. Mint is fairly easy to grow, too, as it needs morning sun and afternoon shade. Be careful though, as mint can quickly get out of hand.

Cilantro: We frequently use cilantro in our rice and beans, and the stuff grows well in our area of the country as well. This year, our cilantro got a bit out of hand, and we had way more than we knew what to do with by the end of the season. If this happens to you, you can cut up your cilantro and stuff it into an ice cube tray with a bit of water. Freeze it and you'll have cilantro cubes, which you can toss into the recipe when it calls for cilantro. The water will melt off, and you'll have fresh cilantro in the winter.

Parsley: I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with this at the end of the year, but we found quite a few ways to use it. One of our favorites was a parsley pesto that we made. It was shockingly tasty and very easy to make with all of our leftovers from the season. It's even friendly if you'd like to home can it as well.

Basil: Another favorite, we will most likely be planting more of this next year. We use this on pizza frequently, and it goes in many other dishes we make as well. Another herb that grows relatively easy, basil was difficult for us to mess up. 

After our successes last year we are planning on planting more herbs in the garden, and considering getting a planter for the porch to fill as well.  Herbs seem to cost so much in the grocery store and are so cheap and fun to produce at home.

Jeff started the website in 2009 to talk about sustainability and chronicle his journey to a more sustainable life. He currently resides in Wyoming with his wife and dog.  


culinary garden

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Earlier this year, my wife and I redid our bathroom. As I was removing the old 1920s-era window from its frame, I really hoped that I could find a use for it instead of shipping it off to the town dump like I had with some of our other construction refuse. After looking around the net, I stumbled upon the perfect idea: a cold frame.

cold frame
Old windows make great cold frames. Photo By Paul Gardener

A cold frame is nothing but a wooden box with no bottom and a transparent roof, typically glass. These are slightly taller in the back than they are in the front, and traditionally placed facing south in order to gain the maximum amount of sun exposure each day. Cold frames allow you to get your seeds started outside earlier each year by protecting your frail seedlings from cold weather, excess water and wind. By using a cold frame, you could extend your growing season for a month or two, depending on your area. Getting your plants an early start could help you avoid the problem of too many tomatoes at once coming out of the garden at the end of the planting season.

Some of the best plants for cold frames are lettuces, parsley, spinach, radishes, turnips and other root vegetables. Once you've got your seeds started in your cold frame in the early spring, you can either leave them there or move them into your garden with the rest of the plants you planted that year. If you elect to remove them, make sure to fill your cold frame back up, as cold frames can still produce great quality vegetables and salad greens well into December and January!

One thing to watch out for with your cold frames is heat. If you let the temperature inside the frame get too warm (above 60 degrees), you could do damage to the plants that you're trying to protect.  If you're going to be gone all day and are unsure about the temperature inside your cold frame, you should play it safe and vent the frame. 

Cold frames are simple and inexpensive to make, and can easily extend your growing season with little work to do on your part. Once this spring rolls around, I'll have mine ready to go and planted with yummy stuff for the dinner table. 

Jeff started the website in 2009 to talk about sustainability and chronicle his journey to a more sustainable life. He currently resides in Wyoming with his wife and dog.  


Living in a brick loft in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, two blocks over from Skid Row, the largest homeless shelter in the country, may not seem the ideal place to start one’s journey toward becoming an urban farmer, but dreams can begin anywhere.

The idea started when my 97-year-old grandmother, who comes from the seasonal foothills of the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, had sent me a copy of Capper’s magazine. It was completely different than what I usually had to read for work—fashion, action sports, and lifestyle magazines—and I was intrigued. After browsing through her Capper’s which was filled with her colorful commentary on Post-its, I started to wonder about the possibility of raising a chicken on the fire escape stoop outside my window. After all, I did have a couple of geraniums out there and a row of herbs.

lemons, kale and strawberries
Lemons, kale and a Valentine's Day strawberry! Photo By Kathleen Gasperini.

However, it was apparent that a chicken on a fire escape stoop wouldn’t be “free range,” and anyways, I had two cats—but my second idea, which was still a long-shot, became embedded in my bones. Maybe, I thought, I could grow, like, kale or something, and become an “urban farmer.”

Fast forward three years and three moves into three different lofts, all within the same five-block radius, and I found myself in a penthouse with a small roof patio. Here, I thought, I could grow my roof garden and be a real urban farmer. Maybe even have three tomato plants and kale.

By this time, rooftop gardens were sprouting up on top of some of the refurbished old buildings in the area, cared for by local organic restaurants, or citizens dedicated to greening LA’s rooftops. After deciding that chickens on the fire escape landing wouldn’t work and trying to grow a tomato plant indoors (which grew and grew but never produced), I too, had joined forces with other rooftop garden neighbors and helped with one such plot where we grew tomatoes and flowers and even had a huge compost tumbler on the roof.

One sunny LA day, while dumping some coffee grinds into our tumbler up top, my friend Minh Son and I felt a huge jolt. We looked at each other and knew that we were in for it. Rooftops are not the spot to be for an LA earthquake since most do not have railings, among other reasons.

Within five seconds of the jolt, and just before we got the cover tightly back on the composter, the building started rolling like a double-masted schooner on the high seas, heaving up and down on what felt like huge, rippling waves. Keeping our balance was a chore, and unfortunately, I looked up across the city and noticed the tallest buildings in downtown swaying even more, which added to my growing sense of vertigo. This was not a good situation. We might get flipped over the side, drowned in the sea of asphalt eight stories below.

We gradually made our way to the fire exit on the roof and ran down flight after flight after flight of stairs and popped out into the street along with everyone else in our building. Only I was carrying a crushed tomato and Minh Son was carrying a spade. Suddenly she freaked out, “The cover’s not on the composter!” A quick-witted fireman at the building stopped her before she darted back up to the roof. Minh Son is a rooftop farming genius, but had lost a bit of perspective in the mayhem.

Meanwhile, I’d spent a pretty penny on my new penthouse roof patch, bought a tiny lemon tree and a wine barrel for its home, hauled bags of soil up my narrow spiral staircase, and dragged a bookcase rack from a previous tenant out to the patio to hold an assortment of plants, one of which was kale. Unfortunately, about a month into living in this loft, I quickly realized that at 10 stories high, winds were a problem, there were rarely any birds other than cool soaring city hawks, and the sun scorched the cement, radiating unbearable heat and causing a hardship for my potted garden and the hardy kale. In the end, my total crop yield was one lemon.

So, I moved again. This time, to the beach. With my little lemon tree in a barrel.

Even though it’s still considered Los Angeles, Venice Beach has its own vibe, and best of all, its own community garden! I applied and waited for months until there was an opening. Once a plot came available, I couldn’t wait to start my little patch of a raised garden bed and of course, planted kale.

Perhaps it was the result of my pent-up years of trying to be an urban farmer in a loft coupled with visiting the farmer’s market each Friday and paying some $2.50 for a bunch of kale that was at the root of the cause of why I ended up planting so much kale in my little plot of urban-farm-landia. Curly kale, Dinosaur kale, Siberian kale…it all grew to such abundance that kale ended up in at least one meal a day for weeks, not to mention numerous smoothies.

Kale, beets, strawberries, mint and lemons from my urban garden. Photo By Kathleen Gasperini.

I had so much kale that I started bringing it into work—in a trash bag. I got everyone hooked on kale. We’d have kale chips for our weekly conference meeting snack. Clearly, the nickname “Miss Kale” was not too much of a stretch.

However, I’m happy to say, thanks to my grandmother’s Capper’s, and since then, my Mother Earth News subscription, and now Mother Earth Living, I feel confident that I’ve become an urban farmer. My little lemon tree survived and I’ve gotten her a little brother—a dwarf avocado tree. I even grow strawberries.

Kathleen GasperiniKathleen Gasperini is internationally acclaimed as an industry leader when it comes to global youth culture marketing, research and branding strategies. She is the co-founder of Label Networks, the leader in global youth intelligence and branding for clients ranging from Apple Computer to Adidas Originals. Formerly Kathleen worked among leading youth culture magazines, as the Senior Editor of Powder and Snowboarder magazines, and the editor of Women's Sports & Fitness. She was the technical writer for the IMAX movie “Extreme,” and is the co-founder of the non-profit youth-focused foundation, Boarding for Breast Cancer, for which she received a Humanitarian Award from Snow Sports Industries of America.


I’ve spent a lot of energy and time making splashy flower gardens. I’m a gardener, but I don’t always get to say the important stuff, the nuts and bolts stuff of organic gardening. In this blog, I plan to write about the things that don’t get people’s attention. The slow, sure, soulful gardening techniques that get obliterated by instant, project-oriented, consumer-oriented stuff that passes for gardening. The slow stuff, namely caring for our dirt, makes our flower farm a really special place and definitely, as far as the South goes, an experimental place.

For about ten years, I’ve been enthralled with the teachings called Soil Food Web. Just this summer, I discovered mushrooms. Not as food, not grown on logs or sawdust bags, and not scavenged out the woods, but as garden plants and soil builders. We can grow mushrooms, for food, medicine, minerals and beauty right in the garden, right beside any other plant, or in a pot on a deck, or even in the median or parking lots that belong to someone else.

King Stropharia mushrooms
King Stropharia mushrooms growing in the ground. Photo By Fluffymuppet/Courtesy Flickr.

This past summer, among a row of lilies, Tom and I made a little bed and inoculated it with mushroom spore, according to the directions of Todd and Olga from Mushroom Mountain. It cost me about 40 bucks to get started.

Within eight weeks, two amazing things happened. First, our lily leaves turned dark green. Second, beautiful pewter and burgundy mushrooms erupted from the ground. The coolest thing is that they’ve never stopped. Slowed down yes, but even on New Years’ Eve, I took this picture and we made a salad with everything from the winter garden. We sautéed the mushrooms, as peoples stomachs are not well prepared to digest, or absorb nutrients from raw mushrooms. (Hence, I always cook them.)

cardboard for growing mushrooms in the garden
The white powdery mycelium will infect the cardboard, which is then moved to start new beds. Photo By Jenks Farmer.

Since we started, we’ve expanded our mushroom bed tremendously. It’s not like we have this giant bed given over to ‘shrooms. It’s a mixed planting. It has needle palms as a background, mustard and coriander coming up in it for winter greens and, of course, crinum lilies. Expansion is really easy. We just put some wet cardboard down in the existing area. Within weeks, it’s covered by this beautiful white creeping hair like fibers (called mycelium). Actually, I’ve given some to friends and put some in a public landscape that’s mulched with those crazy red painted chips—just to see what will happen.

Having mushroom omelets all fall has been sweet. But the real reason we started growing and fell in love with this idea is that mushrooms make soil so much better. Remember I said our lilies turned green? Mushrooms have the cool ability to access nutrients in woodchips and other things, and not only turn them into but deliver them directly, like a shot in the arm/root, to plants.

Mushrooms make great dirt.

Jenks FarmerJenks Farmer is a horticulturist and writer who spent his career building public botanical gardens in the South. Now, on the 18th-century farm where he grew up, he’s learning new stuff and starting over as a complete organic—and looking toward truly earth-friendly, dirt-inspired gardening. Jenks says, “We grow mostly lilies, a few herbs and almost all of our veggies. Take a look at videos, pictures and articles about our farm and gardens at”


One of the things that I'd been waiting to start until I moved into my own house was composting.  I’ve always heard that composting was smelly and more effort than it was worth if you didn’t have lots of space. Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. You can compost if you live in an apartment, and it won’t smell bad.

The most common way to compost in an apartment is called vermicomposting, which is basically just composting with worms. The worms eat the scraps quickly, reducing the amount of food breaking down in your apartment. You can use any size of container you like based on what will fit best in your space, but keep in mind that some metal containers could release heavy metals into your compost, possibly killing your worms—and most likely defeating the whole purpose of your composting in the first place.

worms in dirt
Photo By Organic Nation/Courtesy Flickr

The best containers that I've seen for doing in-home vermicomposting are the 18-gallon totes with lids that you can get at just about any home or hardware store. You'll need two of them: the top one for the scraps and the worms, and the bottom one for the “compost tea” that is produced, which works great for watering plants as it's full of nutrients. Drill somewhere between 12 to 16 holes in the bottom of one of the bins with a 1/8-inch drill bit. This will be your top bin with your paper scraps, food and worms. Then nail two two-by-fours together for support for the top tote and place them in the bottom tote. Put the tote with the holes into the tote you put the two-by-fours in, and you're ready to go.

Once you've got your worms, make them a nice bed with some newspaper or paper scraps from junk mail. Add your food scraps as you generate them, and add a bit more paper when you add the food. You can get them a bit damp if you like, but typically the food scraps have enough moisture to keep the paper scraps wet and the microorganisims that are doing most of the composting happy. 

The best stuff for your worms is fruit and veggie scraps. Make sure not to put any meats, fats or bones in the bin—they won’t break down properly and will start to smell. When you're all ready, take the compost and spread it around in your garden or wherever you're trying to grow this year. 

Jeff started the website in 2009 to talk about sustainability and chronicle his journey to a more sustainable life. He currently resides in Wyoming with his wife and dog. 


I previously wrote about the uses of the vervain plant, a well-respected herb that has been revered for more than 3,000 years throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Here is part two of my vervain profile, in which I describe this beloved plant's personality.

Allow me to explain the type of "person" blue vervain is, as someone with this personality will most likely benefit from the herb.

People with a personality similar to blue vervain are generally people that are “nervous exhausted” and “can’t shut off,” as my herbalism teacher Lise Wolff so eloquently states. "Blue vervains" always put themselves under a lot of stress, always trying to accomplish more—and with their huge to-do list, they always feels like they have accomplished less, said Jim McDonald, a Michigan herbalist, on an herb walk I was on with him in August 2011. "Blue vervains" have very talkative minds, and may even talk outloud to themselves (best combine with agrimony); are control-freaks, extremely self-critical, responsible, reliable and loyal.

As a side-note "hoary vervains" are malnourished due to extended periods of time being overly stressed. This stress can lead to adrenal fatigue (paired with borage). Now, an imbalanced “blue vervain,” as Lise Wolff, an herb teacher, taught me during our talk about this plant, is idealist to the extreme, overly impatient, extremely self-critical (they won’t do something if they can’t do it perfectly), precise and organized. Physical ailments of this imbalance include extreme nervous-exhausting, risk of high-blood pressure and heart attack, asthma (due to controlling emotions—prickly lettuce), insomnia from over-thinking, sugar-cravings, hot flashes, heartburn and indigestion, OCD, depression and anxiety, and poor circulation.

The last mentioned ailment of an out-of-balance blue vervain personality is poor circulation, which can cause a slew of other ailments. Poor circulation can result in constriction of the blood, which can cause even more problems including cold extremities, IBS, headache and migraine and "‘female troubles," as Wolff taught us.

Vervain is also touted as a great herb for women's health issues, like heavy bleeding. Other herbs that mix well with vervain to help improve one’s menstrual cycle include lady’s mantle, red raspberry, vitex (as a relative to vervain, this herb is a great muscle relaxant and hormone regulator) and agrimony. Lastly, 7Song, an herbal acquaintance and friend of mine who is very interested in Ayurvedic medicine, says that an unbalanced vervain personality is usually a “Pitta-on-fire” type, meaning they are always planning. He states that vervain “seems to relax what looks like excessive neurotransmitting firing” for "vervains" who suffer from insomnia due to over-thinking. Finally, he likes to group this nervine with other ones with similar properties including California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), hops (Humulus lupulus ), Jamacian dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora).

I would like to end my vervain profile with stories from my herb teacher about her past “blue vervain” patients.

One of Wolff's patients came in complaining of an injured knee—a musculoskeletal injury. Wolff asked questions as to what she had done recently that might have caused this injury. Eventually, she  learned that this patient had went on a 100-mile bike ride to keep up with her pro-biker boyfriend. Wolff proceeded to find the best drop-dosage of blue vervain for her patient, and it healed her physical injury—and also helped with her extreme over-competitiveness. 

Now for a  very sad and touching story. A 5-year-old patient who had been separated from her mother for the first three days after she had born (she had suffered a seizure) visited Wolff. She noticed how passive and almost lifeless the girl had seemed when she was in her office, so Wolff positively tested her for blue vervain. This made the girl interested, curious and excited about everything as a 5-year-old should.

“You know who to give this [remedy] to.” —Herbalist 7Song, “Blue Verain (Verbena hastata)” article

*Statements herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and are not intended to treat or diagnose any disease or health condition. It is also recommended that patients check with their doctors before taking herbs, to ensure that there are no contraindications with prescription medications. 

Jennifer HeinzelFreelance writer, community herbalist and medicine maker, Jennifer Heinzel hails from the cold city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jennifer is an avid writer, especially for anything folklore or myth-related to herbalism. She has written for the Chequamegon co-op, the United Plant Savers' journal, and the NorthPoint Health & Wellness center. Visit Thymes Ancient Remedies to read more from Jennifer.

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