In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

Starting a Community Garden? 3 Things You Need to Know

If you’ve long wondered about the impact a community garden could have in your town or city, now is the time to find out. According to the National Gardening Association, the number of Americans growing their own food increased by 17% between 2008 and 2014, and community gardens saw a 200% increase in participation during the same period. Americans are taking up gardening at a growing rate, and much of that added participation comes in the form of younger gardeners passionate about knowing where their food comes from.

The presence of community gardens has also proven to directly increase participants’ fruit and vegetable consumption, especially in rural areas. Before you get started, make sure you know the answers to these three questions to set your project up for success.

produce in basket
Photo by Pixabay/jill111

1. How Interested Is Your Community?

Depending on where you live, you might already be involved with a dedicated, city-wide community gardening organization, or you could be pioneering the first community garden your area has ever seen. As you reach out to your community to gauge interest and commitment levels, be open and welcoming to different perspectives. You’ll need an enormous amount of help between thinking about a community garden and harvesting your first heirloom tomato, so be prepared to lead in a welcoming, inclusive way.

If your area already has an established community garden organization, your process will be much easier. Residents will be more familiar with the concept of communal gardening, and you might have access to an established process as well as assistance starting, funding, and publicizing your garden if you start your garden as a chapter within a larger organization. However, if you’re completely on your own, take advantage of numerous online resources like the American Community Gardening Association to help you along the way. 

2. Where Will Your Garden Be Located?

This is a simple question, but depending on how much help you have, answering it could be very time-consuming. If you’re working within a larger organization, you may receive financial assistance as well as help choosing and negotiating use of a lot. Working on your own, you’ll need to leverage connections in the community and reach out to property owners and businesses to help you select, pay for, and insure a plot of land for future use. Buying or leasing are both viable options, depending on your garden’s financial assets. Here are a few important factors to keep in mind as you evaluate the viability of a space:

• Drainage
• Light access
• Future building and development that could affect the location
• Zoning laws
• Water access
• Lot size

Urban gardens are more subject to space constraints than rural ones, but don’t be discouraged if your finances only allow you to set up on a small plot. Using space efficiently is far more productive than having several acres and wasting their potential. 

3. How Else Will You Serve Your Community?

Hopefully, you’re fortunate enough to generate a wealth of community interest in your garden right away. Regardless, not everyone will have the time, disposable income, and prior gardening experience to be able to take care of their own plot right away. Your garden should be a gathering place for all members of the community, even those who aren’t sure how much they want to be involved. One easy way to do that early on is to set up a community composting area.

If your garden has space, reserve an area for community members to bring food scraps. Be sure you clearly outline what types of food remains are appropriate for composting so that participants unfamiliar with the process understand what they should and shouldn’t bring. Composting takes time and patience, as well as an initial investment in bins to store compost at different stages. But as seasoned gardeners know, it’s worth the investment. You’ll be able to introduce new community members to your garden, reduce landfill waste in your town, and eventually generate nutrient-rich soil for your garden at a low cost.

As you dive into your community garden planning process, you’ll encounter many other questions and factors to consider. Use these three to foster practical, actionable planning, but leave time for more research and more abstract questions, such as what your garden’s mission statement might be, or what guidelines you’ll put in place. Starting a community garden is hard work, but it will reward you and your community with a bounty of positive results.

If you’ve started a community garden, participate in one, or are thinking about starting your own, what has worked well for you? What would you avoid doing in the future? Add your insights, hacks, questions, and stories below to help others as they work to make the world a greener place. 

Wildcrafting: Where To Go

In my last blog entry, I introduced the topic of wildcrafting. Let’s go a bit further and explore where to go to find dynamic herbal medicine in the wild.

There is no experience quite like harvesting your own plants in the wild for medicine and food. Buying herbs in a store or through a mail order company never comes close in quality to what you can gather yourself. Locating harvest places outside of the footprint of others is nothing less than an enjoyable treasure hunt. I call it herbal reconnaissance. The vistas to be seen, birdsong, the calls of small animals, fresh air, bees buzzing, feet on the ground, and the occasional deer and waterfall all add up to an encounter that is like none other. The all-around beauty is exquisite, and the plants are the freshest you can possibly get. Nothing can beat a plant picked at the right time from a healthy stand for strong medicine and nutritional content. I teach my students that just being out in nature is healing in itself. That we get to harvest plants is a bonus for which we are always grateful.

harvesting valerian
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

One of the most frequent questions I hear from my students is where they can go to harvest plants in the wild. The places where I take students is off limits to them, their family, and friends. It’s the number one rule at the Cedar Mountain Herb School! Thinking it through, if the thousands of students I’ve taught over the last 30 years all came back to harvest at the same places where I’ve shared with them for study, and brought their friends, who bring their friends, where would the plants be? They would all be gone, and their ability to generously give of themselves for healing would be taken away. Respect the plants, the stands, the animals who also need the plants, and the time it took for the teacher/harvester to find the locations.

Planning is key before harvesting plants. Knowing the medicine of the plants, when to harvest for the best quality of constituents, what part of the plants, the harvesting tools needed, how long it takes to process them after picking, and best ways to preserve them are all things to make note of before any harvesting is done. After harvesting, look at the stand and ask yourself if there are clear signs of harvesting. If so, be more mindful of using a lighter touch.

wildcrafting near stream
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

Where to Go Wildcrafting

Check with your local Forest Service for topographical maps and locations where plant harvesting is allowed. Cultivate a friendly relationship with them, and they’ll often show you on the maps where to safely go, and what to expect while on the land. 

Private land. Always check with the owners before entering private spaces and harvesting. For many years, my students and I enjoyed harvesting dandelions on an organic farm because I knocked on the owners’ door one spring day and asked permission. After they got over their initial shock that someone not only wanted to “weed” for them, but bring a crew, they heartily agreed to allow us access to 40 acres of prime organic riverbed soil. Digging dandelions there was so easy and fun! We were happy to know that the plants we dug were free of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, and they received the benefit of free labor. The vibe was great all the way around!

state park landscape
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

State Parks. Look up the regulations for harvesting in parks in your state. Rules can vary from state to state and park to park, so it’s best to know for sure what is allowed. In my state, harvesting up to a gallon of plant materials at a time is permissible at some parks and at certain times of the year. That means one-gallon total, not a gallon of each plant. Make sure to ask whether chemicals of any kind have been sprayed in the park where you wish to harvest. If so, do not harvest there. Plants take up and hold on to chemicals which we don’t want in our bodies, correct?

Tree farms. I have a key to the gates of 76,000 acres of land that has been a timber farm for 100 years. No other herb school or organization has been granted access to the land. The pioneer plants that sprout and thrive where trees have been cut are a wealth of herbal medicine. The trees on parts of the land that have not been harvested in decades provide so much fertility as the deciduous plants and conifers drop their leaves in the fall to decompose and add to the richness of the soil. The plants at the tree farm are happy and robust. I’ve fostered a very good relationship with the owners by respecting their rules and taking care of the land like it was my own.

Something to consider is to avoid harvesting in places where there are posted signs of chemical spraying and/or biosolids, where there is evidence that people have dumped vehicle liquids such as motor oil, antifreeze coolant, and transmission fluid on the ground, or other garbage. The plants growing near will be poisoned and rendered unusable for medicine or food.  

Coming up soon, look forward to information on tools needed for harvesting, gathering tips, how much to harvest at any given time/place, and more. Until then, big love to you all, and as always, I’m Wild About Plants!

Ideas for Cultivating Year-Round Permaculture

Transitioning from spring, summer, and fall gardening to year-round permaculture can be a jump for fair weather gardeners. However, if you’re an avid green thumb, you’ve probably wondered how to start growing veggies throughout all seasons. While it may take some trial and error, especially if living in below freezing winter climates, this change simply requires a few adjustments and additional materials from your regular gardening routine.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Pros of Year-Round Permaculture

Cultivating your own fruits and vegetables is not only a delicious hobby, it’s also a great way to grow exactly what you need. Growing your own vegetables puts you in more control of the food you consume and waste, and is a great way to save money on groceries. By creating meal plans around the produce you’re expecting to ripen, you can prepare or purchase any additional foods you may need to develop well-rounded meals.

Being in control of the produce you grow can also be helpful in ensuring you are eating the vitamin heavy vegetables your body needs. Beets, for example, are loaded with antioxidants and have been noted to help prevent heart disease and inflammation. If you’re unsure of what vitamins and minerals are missing from your diet, nurses are experts in preventative health care and can help guide your nutrition goals on your next doctor visit.

Growing produce year-round gives you more time to grow new vegetables that may grow better in the winter than in warmer months. This can help reduce your grocery bill in the winter months and can help keep your garden active all year. It’s also a good way to stay in control of the produce in your diet throughout the winter, which can help your preventative health goals.

Winter Adjustments

There are a few adjustments needed for winter gardening, and depending on your current gardening situation, they may be minimal. Gardening beds that are slightly underground are helpful in regulating the temperature of your crops both in the winter as well as summer. If your produce boxes are in the ground, you may need a simple cold frame — a window to let the sun in and keep the cold out — and some additional mulch to keep your vegetables warm throughout the winter. Hoop houses are a similar concept, but with plastic rather than glass.

Once you’ve taken the measures to maintain the ecological balance of your plants, it’s important to consider the kinds of produce you’ll grow. Depending on the climate you live in, during the winter, chances are you’ll have to skip the fruits and stick to exploring a variety of vegetables, as fruits can be difficult to grow in climates that aren’t warm. However, there are tons of tasty veggies to grow and eat through the winter.

Some resilient winter vegetables include: winter squash (of course), onions, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and celeriac. There are several other vegetables that will grow in the winter time; these are simply a few versatile vegetables can be used to make all sorts of hearty winter meals. Growing year-round herbs can also help spice up your winter dishes.

Year-round permaculture is very different than warm weather gardening; it’s an in-depth, sustainable subculture that involves cultivating an environment for plants to thrive in. There are several benefits to giving this endeavor a try, including having control of the produce you consume during the winter, staying healthy, and giving winter vegetables a home on your dinner plate. As we ease into spring, consider ways to incorporate year-round permaculture into your gardening lifestyle.

3 Epic Ways to Conserve Water in Your Garden

As a gardener, water supply is one of the first marks on my checklist for success. When planning the layout for any new gardening adventure—and yes, gardening is an adventure!—you need to incorporate several key components. Sunny location. Check. Well-drained organic soil. Check. Nearby water supply. Check.

These are the necessities for plant life. And while Mother Nature is usually cooperative when it comes to providing plants the basics they need, she can sometimes skimp on the goodies. Now I’m not one to complain when she pulls the drawstrings on her environment a little tighter. I understand this is a give and take partnership between us. Besides, I have access to technology. I can use grow lights when the sun won’t shine. I can “make” my own dirt by tossing kitchen scraps into a pile along with garden debris. But water?

That’s a bit more tricky. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t learned the secret to creating water. But I have learned how to conserve it for my garden, beginning the old-fashioned way. When it rains, I collect, and save it for an “unrainy” day!

mulch in garden
Photo by Dianne Venetta

Homemade Cistern

Harvesting the rain that Mother Nature showers upon us is the first way to conserve water. Simply put, you need a method for redirecting the rain to a collection bin. Now this can be as simple as using the gutter around your roof to collect the rain, then direct it into a downspout funneling the water into a barrel. Add a spigot at the bottom of your barrel and you’re in business.

Simple, right? One crafty inventor by the name of Bas van der Veer took it a step further adding his own elegant flair to the basic model by creating the Raindrop. This fancy version of a cistern incorporates a watering can into the downspout, allowing for the collection of rainwater with the convenience of a built-in watering can. It’s lovely enough to showcase on your patio. Genius!

seed tray from take-out
Photo by Dianne Venetta


As an avid recycler, I try and reuse everything. Literally. From the coffee grounds leftover from brewing my morning cup of java to the leftover water from my kids’ school lunches, I reuse it all. The first feeds, the second waters my houseplants. Waste not, want not, is my motto. And while we strive to reduce our usage of plastic bottles, invariably there is always one or two lurking about.

Solution? Take it to the garden! Now I’ll admit there are numerous ways to utilize those plastic bottles in the garden, like for mixing your organic pesticide or fish emulsion, but have you ever used one as mini-cistern?

That’s right. Simply poke holes in the sides of your plastic bottle, bury it next to your plant, and ta-da! You have a root watering system—very important for tomato and potato plants. Both hate water on their leaves because it can lead to fungus, and these plants hate fungus. Include squash and cucumber in that fungus-hating category. Come to think of it, include me. I hate fungus, too!

Speaking of recyclables and water conservation, when starting sprouts, why not build your own mini-greenhouse at home? I like to mimic the store-bought seed-starter trays by grabbing one of the plastic takeout containers dished out by restaurants, washing it well, then filling it with organic potting mix. Next, I dot the soil with seeds, cover with the lid and voilá—I have a mini-greenhouse complete with a condensation-building cover that will keep the soil consistently moist, providing seeds with the perfect conditions for germination. Oh, how I do love a multi-tasker!

No takeout? Use leftover eggshells for housing those sprouts. (The kids always love this one.)

seeds sprouting in egg shells
Photo by Dianne Venetta

Natural Remedies

For nature lovers, my number one go-to natural resource for water conservation in the garden is mulch. It comes in all forms—hay, straw, paper, leaves, bark, even newspaper. Basically, mulch provides a groundcover around your plants that will keep the sun from drying out your soil. A good companion for water-saving mulch is the soaker hose. Rather than installing sprinklers and spritzing your mulch with a wonderfully cool mist, not to mention the neighborhood-at-large, using a soaker hose or drip line can efficiently deliver water to the plant’s roots, the only place they really need it. Happy gardening!

Award-winning author D.S. Venetta lives in Central Florida with her husband and two children. It was volunteering in her children’s Montessori school garden that gave rise to her new series Wild Tales & Garden Thrills, stories bursting with the real-life experiences of young gardeners. Children see the world from a totally different perspective than adults and Venetta knows their adventures will surely inspire a new generation to get outside and get digging.

6 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Plant Remnants

If you’re an avid gardener or simply enjoy maintaining a neat and tidy lawn, you, without a doubt, have wondered what to do with plant remnants once you’ve clipped or trimmed them. While leaving these remnants on your lawn to rot may seem tempting, it can be detrimental in that decomposing plants produce mold and fungus, which can make you sick.

Luckily, there are countless other eco-friendly ways to dispose of plant remnants, so that you can help the planet while keeping your lawn looking fresh and tidy.

basket of plant remnants
Photo by Adobe Stock/prophoto24

1. Compost It

Composting is one of the easiest, and most ecologically friendly, ways to improve your soil and to dispose of old plant pieces. You don’t need any special equipment or building in which to place your plant remnants. Just make sure your compost pile is a decent space away from the house–it can start to smell if you add in other organic matter, such as kitchen waste.

Compile all of your discarded leaves, grass clippings, or plants. Make sure the pile is not too big, as you’ll need to be able to turn it with a rake or pitch fork. Keep the pile moist and turn it with the fork every few weeks to allow air to permeate through the mix. It should be broken down and ready to use as garden or potting soil within just a few months

2. Mulch It

You can use whole plant pieces, pine needles, leaves, or grass clippings as mulch if you need to, but a better way to dispose of plant pieces is to break them down into fine, uniform shavings by using the mulching setting on your mower. Mulch like this is great to use in flower beds or around trees.

If you decide to pursue this option, make sure you’ve allowed the plant pieces to “cure” in the sun for a few weeks to kill any seeds. If there are any living seeds still remaining in the mixture, you risk introducing unwanted weeds to your flower bed or garden.

3. Turn It Into Fireplace Fuel

While this should be done with caution–you should never burn plant matter outdoors when there is an active burn ban, or when it simply seems too dry–there is nothing wrong with burning plant matter if it is serving a distinct purpose. If you own a wood-burning fireplace—leaves, twigs, and other pieces of plants are a great way to get fires started. You don’t want to overdo it, as decomposing plants can harbor allergens such as mold that can make you sick if burned to excess.

4. Artfully Repurpose It

This can be tough, and isn’t a good bet for large amounts of plant remnants. However, if you have just a few odds and ends you need to get rid of you can save them for arts and crafts projects. Dried leaves make great additions to festive autumn decor, while dried flowers and stems make heavenly scented potpourri.

5. Run It Through a Wood Chipper

If you are dealing with a lot of woody plant remnants, such as large branches, consider renting or buying a wood chipper. This is more suitable for heavy pieces, but is a great option for turning large amounts of yard waste into usable wood chips for walkways, garden beds, animal bedding, and other projects.

6. Yard Waste Pick-Up

This may not be an option depending on your location, but some towns have regular yard waste pick-up dates. These services allow you to simply rake your debris in a pile and then collect it into a designated bag. These bags are then brought to yard waste recycling centers, which grind the branches, brush, and leaves into usable mulch and resell it later on.

Don’t harm the environment by throwing your plant waste in the trash can. As it is, each human generates several pounds of waste each day—most of which cannot be, or simply is not, recycled. Dispose of your plant remnants by returning them to their natural state and breathe easy knowing that you have helped contribute to a healthier planet.

Do Your Vegetables Have Enough Space to Grow? Soil Depth and Seed Spacing

Over time, gardeners realize their plants are very similar to people. They need to be fed, cared for, protected, and given space to grow. Plants need ‘personal space’ so they aren’t fighting for nutrients and can stretch out as far and deep as they need. If crowded or in a shallow garden bed, then they won’t grow to full potential…or grow at all.

Each plant has unique spacing and depth requirements, which may sound daunting to new gardeners. Fortunately, online spacing charts, certain planting styles – like square foot gardening, and a general rule of raised garden bed depth, makes growing simple.

Square Foot Gardening & Garden Area Sizing

Traditional row-style gardening isn’t space effective for a typical backyard garden. The purpose of a row is to allow for ease of navigation between plants (e.g. walking); this walking row then of course can not be utilized for growing. Square foot gardening, on the other hand, maximizes space utilization, easily segments your plants and more efficiently utilizes water and nutrients in the garden when coupled with a grid irrigation systemBasically, with square foot gardening you plant by area instead of rows.

 grid irrigation system

Separating a gardening space into roughly square foot sections, gardeners then place the appropriate amount of plants within each square based just on the seed spacing needs (not the row spacing needs). This method, explained in greater detail in the spacing chart link at the end of this paragraph, allows for higher density of growth when compared to rows. However! A pivotal component of this planting method is the dimensions of your garden area/garden bed. To utilize square foot gardening to its best potential, your garden should always have a dimension of 4 feet or less (e.g. 4x12, 4x8, U Shaped with 4 ft ends, etc.) this sizing then allows you to reach the middle of your garden area from one side or another, without needing to walk into it (hence, why we don’t need rows!). Professionals have created square foot garden spacing charts like this one, The Comprehensive Plant Spacing Chart, so anyone can grow a diverse, healthy garden and plant with ease.

How Deep Your Soil Needs to Be

Depending on the vegetables you want to grow, you will need anywhere between 8 and 36 inches of usable soil depth. If you are using a raised garden bed, then use one that is at least 8 inches tall. That way plants can still grow even if it’s placed on concrete. However, garden beds need to be taller or placed on top of earth if you want to plant anything that needs more than 8 inches of soil. Seasoned gardeners will advise the you double-dig the soil beneath your raised bed as well, to ensure loose soil. Roots don’t like packed dirt, so digging two feet into the ground and loosing the soil guarantees roots can grow through.

Gardeners should also slightly overfill their garden beds. Over the course of the first few days of filling a new garden, the soil will compact as it gets weighed down from water and tiny air pockets in the soil collapse. A good rule of thumb is to add about 2 inches of soil above the top of your garden bed, wet the soil to see how much it compresses then add more to bring the level to the top of the bed if needed. There’s a good video explanation overfilling your garden bed with soil here.

 Overfill Raised Garden Bed Soil

Generally, the bulk of plant’s roots will need 6-8 inches of soil depth for healthy growth, with some larger root vegetables such as imperator carrot varieties needing a bit more. So, if you intend to grow deep rooting vegetables remember you can place your garden bed on top of soil or simply grow in a taller bed.

Quality Soil = A Quality Garden

Finally, moist and nutrient-rich soil is a key element to a bountiful garden. Using soil from a gardening center is better than using foreign soil: soil with unknown elements from a yard or field. Soil needs to be cared for and a quality food source for your plants, without it all the spacing and depth won’t matter much.

In Summary:

So remember, when growing a backyard garden follow these tips to ensure your plants have the space they need and to produce the most in your garden area:

1. Plant By Area, Not By Rows
2. Ensure You Can Reach At Least Half Way Across Your Garden
3. Give Your Plants 8 Inches or More of Accessible Soil Depth (Garden Bed Depth, or Garden Bed Depth + Soil Beneath)
4. Overfill Your Garden Bed With Soil When Starting
5. Use Quality Soil For A Quality Garden

Wildcrafting: An Age-Old Practice Gaining Popularity!

woman in forest 

Wildcrafting simply means harvesting wild plants in their natural habitats. While harvesting wild plants for food and medicine has transpired since there have been people on earth, it fell out of favor during the mid-20th century, as common health practices gave way to relatively inexpensive modern medical conveniences of over the counter pharmaceuticals and easily accessible doctor visits.

In the 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement presented a culture of folks who brought back the old and, seemingly, more healthy ways; however, this was not the mainstream. For decades, herbal medicine has been counter culture. In the advent of today’s social media and its far reach, it’s become “boho” to wild harvest plants for medicine. With the rising popularity of herbal medicine, wildcrafting has come to the forefront of social consciousness.

With that new popularity, there has been a resurgence of folks foraging plants for home use, small herbal businesses, and commercial trades. To harvest sustainably and with clarity of purpose, it is important to know some valuable rules.

Wildcrafting is about harvesting wild plants in a wide variety of environments. What is central is to locate clean land, free of garbage and herbicide or biosolid use. The result is healthy plants with strong medicine. Personally, I prefer to forage as far away from the masses and their footprints as possible. Finding new harvesting places is always so much fun for me. I call it herbal reconnaissance. The land where one forages is held very dear as the wealth of herbal medicine, exquisite views, fresh air, sun, and clean water all combine to create incredible harvesting experiences, without worrying whether others will come behind to harvest in the same stands. Wildcrafting locations are sacred and a privilege to the person who took the time to find them.

field with purple flowers and mountains

When harvesting any plant in the wild, please follow these simple rules:

1. Keep in mind that it is of utmost importance to be 100 percent certain of plant identification before doing ANY harvesting. Pictures or artists’ renderings of plants in field guides and identification apps don’t always provide enough information to correctly identify a plant in the wild. There are look-alike plants, which can be confusing to both the novice and experienced. Knowing the plants is the difference between healing and harming. If you are unsure of the identification of a plant, take classes from reputable wildcrafters, or best yet, take one with you on your harvesting searches until you become adept at identifying plants on your own.

2. Take time to get to know your weeds! It is the gatherer’s responsibility to research the intended plants before harvesting, examine the habitats in which they live and the relationship the plants have with the neighboring wildlife, their medicinal constituents, and her/his impact on the stands and surrounding environment. Find out what part of the plant is used, when the best time of year is to harvest, cautions, and concerns. Never harvest a plant before knowing its medicine. This is how plants get collected and thrown away, or incorrect or mediocre medicine is made that can harm or be ineffective.

3. Harvest only enough for your needs. If you are uncertain about how much plant matter you’ll require in a year, start small and gain experience. Make a small amount of medicine and spend time learning its effectiveness. It’s better to harvest less and use it all, than to harvest too much and waste the lives of the plants. In the next appropriate season, you can harvest more. In the meantime, there may be other plants of similar or equal health applications that can be utilized that are ready for harvest in the upcoming seasons. Additionally, make sure to process the harvest either in the field, or as soon as possible. Plants that are left on the porch awaiting processing are plants that are swiftly losing their medicinal and nutritional value.

Happy harvesting, my friends, and as always, I’m Wild About Plants!

Check back to learn more about wildcrafting specific plants, their actions on the body, how to prepare them for best medicinal potency and applications, and recipes for using your harvested bounty.

Photos by Suzanne Tabert