Garden & Agriculture Archive

Turn Barren Soil into Black Gold: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching

Monday, March 31st, 2014

If you want to turn a barren lot into a permaculture paradise, you’ve got to start from the ground up.

Sheet mulching is an easy way to start. You start with a biodegradable weed barrier like cardboard, and from there build a thick, layered substrate for your garden with compost and mulch. As the materials break down, worms move in, softening the soil below, and creating a healthy, aerated planting bed where once there was compacted, dead clay.

Eric Toensmeier transformed his rocky, desolate tenth of an acre into a modern-day Garden of Eden with this and other permaculture methods. He shares the skills and tips you need to do it yourself in his best-selling book Perennial Vegetables. For the visual learners out there, Toensmeier also has a DVD, which is available alone or as a set with the book.

For even more about the stunning transformation from bare ground to lush garden, Toensmeier’s memoir Paradise Lot tells the whole story of how he not only made a little patch of earth a little greener, he found love, too.

So, without further ado, here’s Eric Toensmeier’s simple 9-step method for sheet mulching!

The following is an excerpt from Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier.

Sheet mulching combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop.

This technique, also known as lasagna gardening, can build remarkable soils in just a few years. There are several key components.

  • First, a weed barrier like cardboard is laid down to smother weeds. In theory (and quite often in practice) the cardboard decomposes after the weeds have all died and turned into compost.
  • The second ingredient is to add compost, or build a layered compost pile that will enrich your new garden bed.
  • The third step is to add a thick layer of mulch on top, to keep new weeds from getting established.

I have had great results with sheet mulching, although sometimes the first year is a bit rough on delicate species, until the raw materials break down. You can use sheet mulching to turn lawns or weedy waste areas into gardens in just a few hours, or even to build soil from scratch inside built frames for raised beds. Sheet mulch can range from just a few inches thick to 2 feet or more, depending on how bad your soil is and how much raw material you have available (it will cook down and settle quite a bit). For more information see Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening, or Edible Forest Gardens.

Nine Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching

  1. Mow or cut your lawn, weeds, or other vegetation right down to the ground.
  2. Plant any crops that will require a large planting hole (including woody plants, perennials in large pots, and large transplants).
  3. Add soil amendments (as determined by your soil test).
  4. Water the whole area thoroughly. You are going to be putting a layer of cardboard or newspaper over it, and rain and irrigation won’t soak through very well until that weed barrier breaks down. Water also helps the decomposition process get going.
  5. If you have compost materials that may contain weed seeds (like fresh manure, leaves, or hay), spread them in layers on the ground. Put a dry, carbonaceous layer of hay or shredded leaves below any manure layer. Avoid thick layers, and make sure to get a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio just as if you were building a compost pile. Water this layer well.
  6. Lay down a weed barrier. I prefer to use large sheets of cardboard from appliance stores, because these last longer and are quicker to lie down. You can use layers of wet newspaper too. Make sure to have a 4- to 6-inch overlap where sheets meet so buried weeds can’t find a route to the surface. If you have already planted crops, or have other preexisting plants, don’t mulch over them. Cut holes in the cardboard to make some breathing space for each plant (or leave some room around each plant when laying newspaper).
  7. Now you can add your weed-free organic materials. I like to keep it simple, and just add a nice layer of compost. You can also do some sheet composting here, alternating layers of nitrogen-rich materials like fresh grass clippings with carbonaceous materials like weed-free straw.
  8. Now you add your final top mulch layer, at least 3 inches thick. Water the whole bed thoroughly once again. Your sheet mulch bed is complete.
  9. You can plant right into your bed if you like. To plant tubers or potted plants, just pull back the top layers until you get to the weed barrier. Cut an X in the cardboard or newspaper. If you are transplanting a large plant, peel back the corners of the X. Throw a double handful of compost in the planting hole and then put in the plant. Pull the layers and top mulch back around the plant, water well, and you’re all set. Planting seeds is easy too. Just pull back the top mulch to the compost layer and plant your seeds. You may want to cut through the weed barrier below first, depending on weed pressure below the barrier. If you are planting seeds, be sure to water regularly, as compost on top of cardboard can dry out quickly.

The author’s Massachusetts front yard before sheet mulching. The soils are very poor fill from new construction.

Addition of rotted leaves below thick paper bags as a weed barrier with a layer of compost and mulch on top—just a few hours of work.

By mid-summer the garden is thriving with sweet potato, taro, edible hibiscus, and hardy bananas (yes, they over-winter in Massachusetts, but they don’t fruit here).

Jonathan Bates enjoys the results of our first year of sheet mulching. This garden has just gotten better each year. Note the fantastic growth of hyacinth beans!

Perennial Gardening: Grow More Food with Less Work!

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Perennial vegetables are a food gardener’s dream. Plant them once, treat them well, and they’ll keep feeding you year after year.

If you’re looking for some new crops to liven up your garden and your palate, give perennials a chance. You’ll have plants you never dreamed could be dinner. We’ve included below some perennial inspired projects to get you started! 

25% Off Entire Selection of Gardening Books until March 31st.

In cased you missed our previous “Garden Series” projects you can take a look here and here. Everything from building fertile soil, planning the best garden, starting seedlings and crop selection – we have you covered.

Looking for more backyard projects? Learn the basics of seed saving here and beekeeping for beginners here.


Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books already on sale for example.
Free shipping for orders $100 or more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only). 

Perennials Perfect for Shady Spots
VIDEO: Four Perennials Perfect for Shady Spots

Eric Toensmeier is the reigning expert on these easy-to-grow crops, and his new DVD takes you on a plant-by-plant tour.

In this video, Eric introduces four perennial crops that do well in shady spots. Watch and learn more about these versatile veggies.  Plant it »»

Backyard Permaculture Paradise
Building Your Backyard Permaculture Paradise

As you look out on your snow-covered (or just barren) backyard, here is how Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates approached those initial phases of transformation–along with their site designs.

We hope this provides you with plenty of spring planting ideas and inspiration for the coming gardening season. Plan it »»

Perennials are the Best Bang for Your Buck
6 Reasons Why Perennials Are the Best Bang for Your Buck

If you’ve ever debated whether perennial plants are right for your landscape, author Ben Falk is here to help.
 Plant it »»

The Grafter's Handbook
How to Graft the Perfect Tree

Trees are the ultimate perennial and with care will continue to produce for years and even decades.

Learning the art and science of grafting fruit trees can give an old tree a new life, or perhaps give some continuing life to a variety you love. Learn it »»


~ ~ Garden Savings: 25% Off  ~ ~
Perennial Vegetables SetRetail $59.95
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Paradise Lot
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The Resilient Farm and Homestead
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Gaia's Garden, 2nd Edition
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The Grafter's HandbookRetail $40.00
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Natural Beekeeping, Revised and ExpandedRetail $34.95
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Sepp Holzer's Permaculture
Retail $29.95
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Food Not Lawns
Retail $25.00
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Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
Retail $150.00
Sale $112.50
The Permaculture KitchenRetail $22.95
Sale $17.21

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6 Reasons Why You Need to Plant Perennials…Like Now

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

If you’ve ever debated about whether perennial plants are right for your landscape, author Ben Falk is here to help. And, as a recent winner of an American Horticultural Society 2014 Book Award, you can be sure to trust his expert advice.

Falk’s award winning book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead, offers readers the lessons he’s learned about perennials on his Whole Systems Research Farm and explains the six reasons why gardeners and farmers should not overlook these permanent producers. One advantage, according to Falk, is their resilience to climate change. Perennial plants are able to both avoid and bounce back from climate stress like drought and flood. Want to know more? Read Falk’s entire list of perennial plant benefits in the excerpt below.

For more guidance on growing perennials, take a behind-the-scenes look at how Paradise Lot authors, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, transformed a desolate urban backyard into a permaculture paradise and go on a virtual tour of their garden to learn about four perennial vegetables that thrive in the shade.


Building Your Backyard Permaculture Paradise

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The award-winning Paradise Lot takes a behind-the-scenes look at how two plant geeks transformed a desolate urban backyard into a permaculture paradise. At the same time, the pair were hoping to each find their own Eve for this special garden adventure. They succeeded on both fronts–creating an urban, food-producing oasis on a tenth of an acre, and finding life partners.

As you look out on your snow-covered (or just barren) backyard, here is how Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates approached those initial phases of transformation–along with their site designs. We hope this excerpt provides you with plenty of spring planting ideas and inspiration for the coming gardening season.

* * * * *


One of my favorite phases of any design is assembling a species palette, a master list of all the species you might use to paint a living and productive landscape onto your site. The “guild-build” process that Dave and I developed for Edible Forest Gardens helps gardeners assemble a master list of species for all necessary niches.

The first phase of guild-build is to make a list of all the things you hope to grow. The woody plants Jonathan and I were most excited about were American persimmon, pawpaw, chestnuts, Asian pear, and hardy kiwifruit. We already grew most of the herbaceous species that we were keen on, from good King Henry to strawberries and perennial ground-cherries.

After you have analyzed your site, you look at your list of desired species to see what’s realistic and what’s not. Sadly, some species are usually cut at this point. For us, the list was long and, particularly with the trees, impossible. There simply would not be space for chestnuts: the two full-size trees required for pollination would fill up almost the entire yard. We also regretfully closed the door on nut pines, the macadamia-like nuts of yellowhorn, and figlike che fruits. In fact, given the small size of our lot, we were going to have to work hard to achieve our goal of a double handful of fresh fruit every day from May to October.

To do that, we would have to focus primarily on fruiting shrubs and dwarf trees. Besides space, our other primary limitation was shade. We were going to be able to grow only a few species that required full sun; we had more room to stretch out and explore the range of shade-loving edibles.

Another part of the guild-build process is determining what uses and functions are called for and cross-checking it against the list of everything you hope to grow. We were going to need groundcovers, nitrogen-fixing species, and insect nectary plants. Jonathan and I looked for gaps in our list based on the roles we wanted our plants to serve in the garden. Did we have nitrogen-fixing species for shade? Had we included any evergreen groundcovers? We went back to the tables in Edible Forest Gardens (still unpublished at this point) to select species to fill the niches that we had left open.

Jonathan and I were guided by the principle that everything we planted should have multiple functions and should be edible whenever possible. We also wanted to begin our search with native species and expand outward from there. The challenge was that maximizing diversity was also a priority for us; we wanted to sample the range of possibilities, especially for smaller plants like herbaceous perennials.

Jonathan and I knew there would be core native edibles in our garden that would serve as anchors in our species palette. The native fruits we chose to include were American persimmon, pawpaw, beach plum, clove currant, various blueberry species and hybrids, multiple juneberries, and many more—a total of twenty native fruit species in fifteen genera.

Not bad for a tenth of an acre. We set out for about half of our garden to be natives, which would mean a hundred or more representatives of the eastern flora.

Most nut trees were too large for our garden, but we tracked down two chinquapins (native bush chestnuts) from a small nursery in Georgia. And we included many species of native herbaceous wild edibles, from sunchokes to giant Solomon’s seal. Though none were as far along in domestication and productivity as a perennial like asparagus, we felt it was important to include them. From nearby forests we collected seeds of native nitrogen-fixers, like tick trefoils, hog peanuts, and wild sennas, and nectary plants, like the impressive cow parsnip.

Collecting seed of wild plants is fun and, as long as the plants are not rare and you leave plenty of seed, nothing to feel bad about. In fact, by taking the plants into cultivation, I feel we are reducing pressure on wild stands. I’d been exploring the areas behind bowling alleys and beneath highway overpasses for a decade and knew right where to watch while driving by. When I saw seed drying, we pulled over (perhaps sometimes recklessly) and added to our collection.

Our search for multifunctional species led us down some unexpected paths. For example, we didn’t feel we could sacrifice much space to nitrogen-fixing plants that were not also providing food. This led us to hog peanuts, a shade-loving native with edible underground beans. They are quite lovely and often seen alongside the path on New England hikes, but except at Tripple Brook Farm I had never seen hog peanuts growing in anyone’s garden. It is the perfect example of an underappreciated native species, which gains importance in a garden that prioritizes multifunctional plants to fill specific niches.

Not all of our choices were as easy.

For example, there is no eastern native nitrogen-fixing shrub with decent edible fruit. We asked ourselves what we should pick instead: a native nonedible like sweetfern, a nonnative edible like goumi, or even a nonnative nonedible like Siberian pea shrub? Given our space constraints, we went with goumi, a relative of the maligned autumn olive, because it both fruits and makes fertilizer, which no Massachusetts native species could do. This medium-sized Asian shrub is a great nitrogen-fixer and grows well in the Northeastern United States.

Up until we completed the species palette, Jonathan and I did not need to show much originality in our design. Our goals were our own, but the final analysis and assessment map we created, though it included a few suggestions about what might happen where, was basically a final report to ourselves about our yard.

We decided to use the south alley for our access road: both alleys had equal shade and width, but the southern alley would do a better job draining frost from our garden.

Its bad soil and full shade made it ideal for offloading and storing piles of compost and mulch. The north side of the garden, with summer shade, would become our woodland edge habitat, with shade-loving species like pawpaws, gooseberries, and wild leeks growing under Norway maples. We would build a shed in the area with terrible clay soil and summer shade on the north side of the property.

We already knew where our greenhouse had to go: in the small year-round sunny spot between the summer sun and winter sun areas, and we decided to lay our main path leading from the house to the greenhouse along the line between the summer sun and summer shade areas. The summer sun areas would mimic the old-field mosaic habitat behind Kmart and feature shrub and perennial beds alternating with annual beds.

It was clear that Jonathan and I had found the challenge we’d been looking for. Could we bring about an edible paradise on our blighted lot? Could we regenerate soil, bring back birds, and meet all of our goals on only a tenth of an acre without cramming everything in too tight? And might we ever meet women who could appreciate guys who spent more time on the Plants for a Future online database than singles websites? Time would tell.

Four Perennial Vegetables Perfect for Shady Spots

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Perennial vegetables are a food gardener’s dream. Plant them once, treat them well, and they’ll keep on feeding you year after year.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, is the reigning expert on these easy-to-grow crops, and his new DVD takes you on a plant-by-plant tour through his garden in Massachusetts, as well as edible landscapes in Florida and Mexico. If you’re looking for some new crops to liven up your garden and your palate, Toensmeier will show you plants you never dreamed could be dinner.

In this clip from the DVD, Eric introduces four perennial crops that do well in shady spots:

  • Edible Shoot Bamboo – Harvest the young shoots and eat it like asparagus, it’s also a useful plant for making garden stakes and other projects.
  • Giant Fuki – A Japanese vegetable that loves damp shade. Harvest the stalks, boil them, peel them, then add them to soups or tempura.
  • Edible Hosta – Typically sold as a shade-loving ornamental, Hosta is a popular vegetable in many parts of Asia. Harvest the curled shoots that emerge in early spring.
  • Giant Solomon’s Seal – A beautiful ornamental that’s also a delicious vegetable. Harvest the shoots, cut off the leaves which are bitter, and prepare it like asparagus. Solomon’s Seal also produces edible tubers that you can cook up like potatoes.

Watch the clip to learn more about these versatile veggies:

Hemp, Hemp, Hooray! Get Ready for America’s Next Agricultural Revolution

Monday, March 24th, 2014

You can eat it, drink it, read it, tie it, wear it, drive it, live in it, and make money growing it, all while saving the soil and protecting the climate.

What is it?

Hemp. That’s right, hemp.

How can a single plant possibly live up to all this hype? Glad you asked. Here’s just a sampling of what this incredible plant can do: 


    • Hemp fibers can be stronger than steel and are found in today’s BMW, Mercedes and Dodge door panels;
    • Hemp plant by-products can be used as a biofuel and, with more research, could create sustainable energy independence in the US. According to a recent study, an acre of hemp can produce power equivalent to a thousand gallons of gasoline;
    • With foot long, soil-restoring taproots that require half the water of a corn crop, hemp can be used as a successful rotational crop;
    • Hemp-fed laying hens can pass on the plant’s impressive essential fatty acid profile (omega-3 and omega-6) into the eggs we eat; and,
    • Hemp can be used as a construction material to build new homes that create a carbon-negative foot print.

Given this impressive list, is it any wonder that after 77 long years of prohibition, hemp supporters across the country are shouting, “Hemp, hemp, hooray!”

Check out this video to see some hemp applications in action. Click here to test your hemp knowledge with our Pop Quiz and to dig even deeper into the History of Hemp.

2014 Farm Bill

In February, President Obama, together with the US Congress, passed the 2014 Farm Bill which included an amendment allowing hemp to be cultivated for university research.

This is a huge first step in hemp’s domestic comeback, officially distancing itself from its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, and growing across party lines — from conservative Senators Mitch McConnell  (R-KY) and Rand Paul (R-KY) to liberal Congressman like Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Even the American Farm Bureau has jumped on the bandwagon and opposed the classification of industrial hemp as a controlled substance. This is an important action according to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer because, “It shows the growing movement by agriculture leaders to embrace industrial hemp as a crop of the future.”

Author Doug Fine, for one, is ready for that future. In his latest book, Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, Doug explains why one of humanity’s longest-utilized plants is poised to rejuvenate the U.S. economy and help save the planet.

Praise for Hemp Bound

So, what are people saying about it?

Willie Nelson (yes, the Willie Nelson) calls it “a blueprint for the future of America.” Put that in your pipe and … oh, never mind.

Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Boing Boing calls Doug’s book, “engrossing and eye-opening.” While William Martin, senior fellow, drug policy, at Rice University’s Baker Institute agrees: “This is an important story, engagingly told.”

Fine’s enthusiasm for the subject leaps off the page when he advocates for hemp. “It’s effective because it’s all true,” he said. “I’ve found that anytime someone gives me five minutes, and I get to discuss the facts, hemp’s role in the founding of our country and where we’re going next as a nation, that person is a convert. I think I’m batting a thousand on that.”

Whether you are a farmer, entrepreneur, investor, or just a curious reader, this book could turn you into the next voracious hemp consumer and leave you wondering why we ever stopped cultivating this miracle crop in the first place.

Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution is available now and on sale for 35% off until March 30th. Also, check out Doug Fine’s emerging Post-Prohibition Hemp Planting Tour with stops in Colorado, NYC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, DC, and more.

Think You’re Hip to Hemp? Take Our Quiz

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Looking for something to talk about at your next dinner party or social gathering? Impress your friends with some hemp trivia by taking this pop quiz. You’ll have interesting facts to share like how long ago humans started using hemp and which hemp farmer became Kentucky’s first millionaire. Trust us, people will think you’re cool.

For more information about the incredible array of hemp applications, check out this previous post featuring Doug Fine’s new book Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution. For a lesson in hemp history read a full chapter from John Roulac’s 1997 book Hemp Horizons: The Comeback of the World’s Most Promising Plant (now out of print).

Pencils Ready? Begin!

1) How many years ago did humans start using hemp?

a. 12,000 years ago
b. 1,200 years ago
c. 200 years ago

2) What important U.S. historical document was drafted on hemp paper?

a. The Emancipation Proclamation
b. Pres. John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
c. The Declaration of Independence

3) Name one way Colonists used hemp?

a. As a currency to pay their taxes
b. As a thread to weave textiles
c. Both

4) Who was Kentucky’s First Millionaire? Hint: his fortune came from hemp

a. Abraham Lincoln
b. Daniel Boone
c. John Wesley Hunt

5) When did the U.S. government sponsor hemp production contests?

a. In the 1720s
b. In the 1820s
c. In the 1920s

6) Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which U.S. state produced the best hemp in the world?

a. California
b. Kentucky
c. Colorado

7) What law effectively banned hemp in the U.S. in 1937

a. The Marijuana Stamp Act
b. The Food and Drug Act
c. The Hemp Prohibition Act

8) In 1942, an 11-minute film extolling the versatile uses of hemp—and how it can be grown and processed in the United States—was released to movie audiences. What was it called?

a. Hooray for Hemp!
b. Hemp for Victory
c. Hemp, Hemp and Away

9) What was the parachute harness rope made out of that saved George H.W. Bush in World War II?

a. Cotton
b. Nylon
c. Hemp

10) In an executive order, which president included hemp among “the essential agricultural products that should be stocked for defense preparedness purposes.”

a. Bill Clinton
b. Barack Obama
c. George HW Bush

11) When did Canada re-legalize hemp cultivation?

a. 2014
b. 1996
c. hemp cultivation was never illegal in Canada


1: a) Humans have used hemp for the past twelve millennia for clothing, food and medicine. And, just recently, a Stanford-led research team uncovered hemp clothing in good condition from a 9,000-year-old Turkish village. This stuff is durable, to say the least!
2: c) In 1776 Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Though, if you guessed “a” you were close: President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation under the light of a hemp oil lamp.
3: c) Hemp fibers were used in many textiles, but perhaps more surprisingly, hemp was so valued during colonial times it was used as a currency to pay taxes.
4: c) Hemp created Kentucky’s first millionaire, John Wesley Hunt. Today the global hemp market is growing more than 20 percent annually.
5: b) In the 1820s, the U.S. government sponsored contests to produce domestic hemp that could compete against expensive imports.
6: b) From the 1850s-1930s, Kentucky hemp germplasm was considered the world’s finest.
7: a) The Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937
8: b) Hemp Prohibition got off to a poor start in 1942 when the government sourced large quantities of hemp due to wartime Navy rope rigging needs. To make the decision legit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the 11-minute film titled “Hemp for Victory.”
9: c) OK, that was an easy one. It’s hemp, of course!
10: a) President Bill Clinton included hemp in his 1994 executive order.
11: b) Canada re-legalized hemp in 1996 and now has a booming industry that is worth a billion dollars annually and growing 30 percent per year.


Photo 3: Courtesy of

Hemp History 101

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The historical prominence of hemp can be seen in dozens of American towns that still bear its name, including Hempfield, PA, Hemphill, KY, Hempstead, NY, Hempfork, VA, and more.

How did humanity’s longest utilized plant, that has more than 25,000 uses and so many towns named after it, end up nearly extinct in the U.S.?

We first explored hemp’s potential in 1997 with the publication of John Roulac’s book, Hemp Horizons: The Comeback of the World’s Most Promising Plant. Roulac, Founder and CEO of Nutiva, was ahead of the curve when this book was published, and is now a leader in the lucrative superfood industry in which hemp plays a major role. We’ve resurrected a chapter of this now out-of-print book to give readers a glimpse at hemp’s many uses throughout history (from the dawn of civilization). In looking back, we get a sense of what could be in store.

Speaking of which: We return to the promise of hemp — environmentally, agriculturally, and economically — this year with investigative journalist and goat farmer Doug Fine and the publication of Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution. In this book, Fine introduces readers to a variety of innovative hemp applications from riding in a hemp-powered limo to testing hemp-based building insulation.

To learn more about Doug’s book and just how hemp could be the next billion-dollar plant that’s going to change our diet, restore our soil and wean us from petroleum, check out this post. And, test your hemp history knowledge with this Hemp Quiz.

Hemp Horizons: The Comeback of the World’s Most Promising Plant by Chelsea Green Publishing

Photo: Courtesy of

Spring is Here! Get your Garden Started

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Congratulations, you survived another long winter! It is officially spring and time to get your garden started.

Let us help you on your way with some of our key gardening books. Learn tried and true techniques from our expert gardening authors so you can reap a plentiful harvest this fall.

We’ve included some tips and projects below for some inspiration in your garden planning and preparation; from creating fertile soil, to building the edibles-producing superstar, selecting the most promising veggies, and garden tips for the urban dweller.

Keep checking our website for the month of March with more posts as part of our “Garden Series” for planting tips and tricks for the coming gardening season. You can browse the first round of tips and projects here.

Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books already on sale for example.
Free shipping for orders $100 or more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only).
Fertile Soil for an Abundant Garden

Compost is the key to a lush, abundant garden. Do you know how to turn kitchen scraps and yard waste into fragrant, crumbly, plant food? If not, your garden is missing out!

It’s not difficult. Compost wants to happen. Plan it »»


Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.

With so many options to choose from, proper planning techniques are key for an efficient (and blooming) garden.

Master grower Eliot Coleman outlines the most promising crops and charts the harvesting seasons to help you decide when and what to plant. Plan it »»

Build an Herb Spiral:The Ultimate Raised Bed

The herb spiral: A beautiful year-round focal point for your garden that is easy (and fun) to build and saves both space and water.

Get ready to plan and build this edibles-producing superstar. Build it »»

No Space? No Problem. Gardening Tips for the Urban Dweller

Interested in growing fresh food, but worried about lack of space? Not a problem. 

Choosing the right crops based on climate and light, joined with a companion planting strategy, can help maximize food production with limited space. Transform your urban space into productive garden! Grow it »»

~ ~ Gardening Sale: 25% Off  ~ ~
The Resilient GardenerRetail $24.95
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Fresh Food From Small Places
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New Organic Grower
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The New Vegetable Growers Handbook
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The Organic Grain GrowerRetail $45.00
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Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture TwistRetail $24.95
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The Holistic Orchard
Retail $39.95
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Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties
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Growing Healthy Vagetable Crops
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The Winter Harvest HandbookRetail $29.95
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Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
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The Buzz: Beekeeping for Beginners

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years, and Ross Conrad’s book Natural Beekeeping has become a must read for enterprising apiculturalists who want to learn how to care for bees holistically and organically.

This is the first of two adaptions from the revised and expanded edition of Conrad’s book, and offers beginners some key tips on what to do long before they buy their first bees as well as specific instructions on how to open and inspect a hive. The next piece will examine how to obtain bees and get your first hives started.



When addressing beginner beekeepers, I like to emphasize the importance of not getting started in beekeeping unless they are ready and willing to fully commit to taking the time to properly educate themselves about honey bee biology and proper care. I also ask people to carefully assess whether they are ready to devote adequate resources of time and money to ensure that the hive will be properly cared for year after year.

What’s needed is an apicultural ethic that does not place the needs of the bees below human needs. I am not saying that beekeepers should put bees’ needs above human needs. Rather, let’s give them equal importance, striving for a give-and-take, a win-win situation where both parties benefit roughly to an equal extent. Following this approach, for example, one would not secure a hive of bees in the spring, rent them out for pollination, harvest all their honey, and then allow them to die in winter with the plan of purchasing new bees the following spring, simply because it is economically advantageous to do so.

The initial learning curve in beekeeping is fairly steep, so it is wise to start learning well in advance about bees and the role that a beekeeper can play. Beginning to read beekeeping books and journals and take beekeeping classes and workshops a year ahead of setting up your first hives would not be overdoing it. Joining your local or state beekeeping association can be a huge help in this regard too. Busy modern lifestyles often get in the way, and if you allow too little time for education beforehand, you may find yourself unprepared when your bees arrive. At that point, your first year of beekeeping will end up unfolding haphazardly, and you won’t have the kind of experience and good results you dreamed about.

Best Way to Learn About Beekeeping

The best way to learn about beekeeping is to work for a commercial beekeeper. I found out the hard way that it is much better to get paid to learn through an apprenticeship-type situation than to pay for the privilege of learning through a university or the school of hard knocks. If this is not an option, then it is very helpful if you can find a local experienced beekeeper willing to act as a mentor. A mentor can answer questions, guide you through the transfer of your bees into new equipment, and assist you with your first hive visits. Another recommendation I offer the would-be beekeeper is to start with two hives instead of one. Two hives are only a little more work, and not a whole lot more money, than one hive, and yet the benefits are substantial. Two hives help greatly with the steep learning curve all beekeepers must go through: it doubles your experience level and allows you to make comparisons between the hives.

Starter Hive

Another choice you’ll need to make in advance is which type of hive to use. I recommend that novice beekeepers begin with a Langstroth-style hive. After you have a couple years of experience under your belt, you may wish to experiment with other styles such as the top-bar hive or Warré hive (the Warré hive, also known as the People’s Hive, is a vertical top bar hive developed in France by Emile Warré and outlined in his book Beekeeping for All). There is much more information available on the use of the Langstroth hive than there is for top-bar hives or Warré hives, and there are far fewer beekeepers who have experience with the latter two options should you have questions or need the help of a mentor.

Whenever possible, it is advantageous to purchase local bees and even more important to buy types of bees that have some level of resistance to mites and diseases. And it is far easier to start with a nucleus colony or nuc, if you can get one, than to start with packaged bees. Due to the high demand and short supply of bees, it is a good idea for beekeepers to place their orders for packaged bees or nucleus colonies early to ensure that the bees they want will be available at the desired time. Since the advent of colony collapse disorder, many beekeepers are finding that January is not too early to place orders for bees for spring delivery. On some occasions waiting until January may actually be too late, because some bee suppliers sell out well ahead of time, and the best they will be able to do is put you on a waiting list in case they receive order cancellations, or place you on the list for next year. Whenever you place an order, please be sure to assemble and prepare all your equipment before your bees arrive. The experience of long-distance shipping or being crowded in a small nuc box is stressful for bees. To keep stressed bees contained for several more days or weeks while you rush to order, assemble, or paint hive equipment is not a good situation.

Final Thoughts

The final piece of advice I like to offer first-year beekeepers is to open up and check on their hives on a regular basis. Some beekeepers might tell you to leave your hives alone and keep colony inspections to a minimum. Back in the old days before mites, small hive beetles, and a host of honey bee diseases surfaced on the North American continent, this advice would have been appropriate. Today, however, the environment that bees have to navigate and the interior of the hive cavity have been so manipulated and changed by humans that in most of the country, to leave hives alone is more likely to lead to colony death than to aid in its ability to thrive.

I check my bees every 7 to 14 days. While doing so, I try to keep the disturbance of the hives to a minimum. Nevertheless, I encourage new beekeepers to open hives, remove frames, inspect the brood area, look for eggs, try to find the queen, and observe the levels of pollen and honey within the hive every one to two weeks during the first year. That’s right, every week or two if possible! Your goal is to get a sense of whether the hive is doing well and developing normally or not.

There is a limit to how much you can learn about beekeeping from classes, workshops, articles, videos, and books. In the end, to become a successful beekeeper you have to actually open hives and handle frames of brood and bees. After the first year of handling the bees regularly, you should not have to go through your hives and disturb the bees so frequently. Instead, you can limit your weekly or biweekly hive checks to simply taking a quick look under the inner cover.

Opening and Inspecting the Hive

Here are the basic steps to take, in the proper sequence, whenever you open a hive.

  1. Figure out why you are going to open the hive and what you want to accomplish.
  2. Don clothing and headgear that will make you feel comfortable working with the bees; then light your smoker.
  3. Approach the hive from the side or the back, not the front, where you may block the flight path of the foragers and make them defensive.
  4. Smoke all entrances. Allow the smoke to always proceed you and announce your presence prior to entering any part of the hive.
  5. Remove the inner cover, and always check it for the presence of the queen before you put the cover down. She could be anywhere!
  6. If you decide to remove a frame, make sure to choose one of the outermost frames (or one next to the outermost) first in order to reduce the chance that you will injure the queen.

Your goal is to be a beekeeper, not a bee haver. This is accomplished by working in partnership with the colony and never abandoning the hive to its own devices, which might result in the hive starving or dying from disease. The ancient craft of beekeeping can be incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable as long as one is committed to following through, overcoming the various frustrations that may be encountered, and persevering even when a task occasionally seems overwhelming or intimidating.

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