Growing goldenberries and ground cherries

By Michael Brown
This story first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Farmers are always looking for the next new product to entice their customers and expand sales. Physalis is one of those crops that might be worth considering. Physalis is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family, which also includes tomatillo and is more distantly related to peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. They grow in warm temperate and subtropical regions of the world, primarily in the Americas. One of the most notable features of the genus is a thin, paper-like husk that encloses the fruit.  Farmers and consumers are most likely to be acquainted with them as ground cherries.

Carol Mucher, garden director at the NB Community Harvest Garden in New Brunswick, Canada, has been growing ground cherries for a number of years. “They go over very well with our customers,” she says. “Parents usually send their kids foraging for the fruit because the plants are quite low to the ground and the fruit tends to fall from the plant.”

This more or less sums up the general situation with ground cherries — attractive to customers but not very easy to harvest. This attractive fruit (Physalis pruinosa), encased in a paper-like husk, is usually grown by farmers in relatively small quantities and can be found at farmers markets or as part of a CSA share. Occasionally the fruit, mostly from South America, will be available in larger supermarkets.

The ground cherry’s big brother, sometimes referred to as goldenberry (Physalis peruviana), is much less frequently grown. Growers are hampered by lack of reliable information on best growing methods, confusion about suitable cultivars and lack of reliable sources of seed. That may be about to change.

Goldenberries are a relative of tomatillos.

HortFarm 3 in East Brunswick, New Jersey, is a short drive from Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. The expansive fields are home to a variety of fruit, nut and vegetable trials aimed at increasing the choices for New Jersey farmers and determining best growing practices. Here, on two acres, among hot pepper and hibiscus trials, is the largest planting of goldenberry on the East Coast.

Dr. Ed Durner, a professor at Rutgers, has been trialing goldenberry for the last several years, with the goal of identifying promising strains and creating production guidelines for farmers interested in exploring this tasty and nutritious fruit. Dr. Durner recently received a grant to help introduce this plant to farmers with CSAs and farmers markets in the Northeast.

When I first started reading about ground cherry and goldenberry, it quickly became apparent that there is pervasive confusion between the two main species — Physalis pruinosa and Physalis peruviana. One of the first goals of understanding the choices available to growers is getting the nomenclature correct.

The fruit commonly referred to as ground cherry, cape gooseberry or goldenberry (among many other names) actually consists of two different species — Physalis pruinosa and Physalis peruviana. The confusion begins in seed catalogs, and in the literature in general, when referring to these two varieties and assigning them common names. In fact, in the literature Dr. Durner distributes to growers, he lists over 40 common names for the two species.

For this article, I will be referring to the Latin names for better clarity. Following are very basic descriptions of how they differ and the most common name as reference. One note: In the literature, “cape gooseberry” is referred to as both P. pruinosa and P. peruviana. I am therefore sticking to the terms ground cherry and goldenberry.

P. pruinosa – ground cherry: prostrate, spreading plant with approximately ½-inch fruit that falls from the plant when ripe.

P. peruviana – goldenberry: large, upright plant (4-6 feet) with approximately ¾-inch fruit. Fruit must be pulled or cut off the plant.


Seeds should be lightly covered with soil or some other planting medium. Optimum temperature is around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but a range of 75-90 degrees Fahrenheit is safe. Temps below 65 and over 95 will significantly delay germination. Seeds should germinate in 2-6 weeks. Seed should be started early, around the same time as peppers or tomatoes, and planted outside after the temperature warms.


Physalis is native to South America and so needs to be treated as an annual in temperate regions, as with tomatoes or peppers. Though seedlings can withstand a light frost, they will be damaged by temperatures below 30 degrees F. Production is best on well-drained, “poor” soils. Plants are not drought tolerant and growth and production will be compromised without consistent irrigation. It is therefore important to emphasize that both P. pruinosa and P. peruviana may not be good candidates for dry field growing. Development and ripening of fruit will be significantly impacted without consistent irrigation of about an inch a week.

Fruit is ripe when it turns a golden color, which is usually visible through the husk. At the time of ripening the husk will be yellowish-brown and translucent. Fruit will not continue to ripen after harvest, so an effort should be made to pick fully ripe fruit. Fruit should be picked dry, as moist fruit tends to get mold. Fruit left in the husk will keep at room temperature for up to three months. Good air circulation also helps prevent mold. This eliminates the pressure of selling fruit immediately before it spoils.

P. pruninosa starts to fruit after about 75 days from transplants. P. peruviana needs a much longer season of about 120 days, and so plants started inside in New Jersey (zone 6b) in late March will start producing fruit around the end of August.


The most serious pest of Physalis is the 3-lined lema beetle, also referred to as 3-striped potato beetle (Lema trilineata). Andrew Ristvey, researcher at the University of Maryland, has also identified hornworm (Manduca species) as a pest on some P. peruviana plants.

Pros and Cons

P. peruviana: One of the main drawbacks of P. peruviana seems to be the long growing season required before fruits can be harvested. Production of fruit can also be somewhat moderate. In addition, reliable sources for seed are limited. Some of these issues are being addressed by Dr. Durner in his trials.

An advantage of P. peruviana is that the plants are larger and more upright and that the fruit does not abscise when ripe, giving more control and easier conditions (not stooping on the ground) for harvesting. On the other hand, because they don’t abscise when ripe, they must be cut off the plant, which makes harvest more time consuming.

P. pruinosa: Ground cherry gives the grower a much longer harvest window and seems to be more productive than P. peruviana. There is also ample and varied sources of seed, though there is little documentation about specific differences between varieties. The major disadvantage of P. pruinosa is the very low, sprawling habit of the plant, which makes harvest difficult.

Mike Brown is the owner of Pitspone Farm — a small-acreage berry farm and nursery in central New Jersey.

Regional Crops: Preserving Diversity

By Tamara Scully

Regional crops that fed our ancestors and provided a sense of place are disappearing, but some growers and researchers are dedicated to the continuation of these old favorites, refusing to allow them — and our food roots — to disappear.

Whether indigenous or introduced, wild-harvested or cultivated, these food crops at one time held great importance in their various localities. Interest in less commonly known specialty crops is increasing, even while their growing popularity is sometimes accompanied by controversy.

This article will examine four of them.

pollination experiment on beach plums
Jenny Caleo performs a pollination experiment on beach plums.

New England Roots

It goes by many names: Cape White turnip, Westport turnip, Eastham turnip. These names — all taken from New England locales — are used in lieu of its official one: the Macomber rutabaga. Traditionally a part of southern New England Thanksgiving celebrations, this rutabaga is a New England notable, although rutabagas — a hybrid between turnips and wild cabbage — are not native to the United States.

“It’s very similar to parsnips,” said Chris Clegg of Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts. “It is not nearly as bitter as purple top rutabagas or bland as yellow rutabagas,” and is quite popular in the region.

Most people prepare the dish as a holiday meal rather than for everyday use. The extremely short season this rutabaga is in demand, combined with the lack of knowledge of the crop outside of this small region, contributes to only a small number of farmers growing the crop.

Clegg selects the best plants — no disease and the most attractive shapes — for seed, which can last for several years when properly stored.

rare rutabagas
These rare rutabagas are known to southern New Englanders as a Thanksgiving staple.

He has multiple storage locations, including some refrigerated seed, to protect against loss.

His Macomber rutabagas are bred to be the best for his growing conditions, and he says he isn’t taking any chances.

“My sales are very consistent from year to year, so I think the market is saturated,” said Clegg. “They are difficult to sell out of season, and it is a very short season. Eighty percent of my sales are for the weeks prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Growing a specialty crop, particularly one rooted to the food traditions of a given community, is vastly different than growing a commodity crop. When specialty crops begin to become commercialized, the risk of losing their identity and variability is often at odds with the desire to develop a crop suitable for widespread production and introduction outside of its home range.

Go Wild For Rice

Native wild rice is an annual aquatic grass with roots that grow in the soils beneath shallow waters. Wild rice species are found in very specific habitats in limited areas of the United States. Texas is home to a speci

es that only resides within the state. Two species — Zizania aquatica and Zizania palustris — are found primarily in the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, as well as in parts of Canada and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts where conditions are favorable.

wild rice harvest
A wild rice harvest in Michigan.

Wild rice paddies play important roles in conservation, providing wildlife habitat and a food source for numerous species of birds, mammals and fish. These wild rice beds protect water quality by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients and acting as windbreaks.

Natural wild rice-growing areas are being endangered by development, pollution and the pursuit of recreational activities, and work to re-establish and protect these habitats is ongoing in some regions. Michigan’s largest wild rice bed is a mere 700 acres. Historically, numerous 4,000-acre beds were common in the state’s coastal marshes, now dredged and unsuitable for the plant.

Harvesting wild rice is labor-intensive. For every 100 pounds of harvested seed there will be about 40 pounds of finished wild rice. The crop is gathered in late summer, when the seed is gathered by hand from canoes. The grain is then dried in the sun and parched over a fire, de-hulled and winnowed.

One reason this wild food is disappearing is, perhaps ironically, the cultivation of the plant. Cultivation isn’t simply creating a viable market crop, which in turn could offer some protection to the remaining wild rice stands or increase interest in restoration of historic beds. Instead, it involves taking the wild rice and altering its traits to fit the demands of modern farming.

This altered rice is offensive to Native American tribes, to whom the plant and the customs and rituals associated with it are sacred.

“The reason [Native Americans] are here is because of wild rice,” said Barb Barton, endangered species consultant and author of Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan. “All cultures have wild food traditions associated with them, and now they are all disappearing.”

Cultivated wild rice paddies have been established in the Great Lakes region, but the majority of the wild rice found in stores today is grown in California.

wild river rice Zizania aquatica
Efforts are underway by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians to restore the state threatened wild river rice Zizania aquatica from Nottawa Creek to the Pine River Creek Reservation. Photo by Barb Barton.

In order to make wild rice a viable farm crop, the wild rice plant has been bred to mature at one time for ease of harvest, to produce higher yields, for shorter plants, to resist disease and to have seeds that are viable when stored dry. These traits have resulted in varieties that can only survive in cultivated rice paddies. If these cultivated plants crossbreed with wild natives, the survival of the wild rice plants in their natural habitat is at risk.

There is, however, a market demand for wild rice. Chefs are extremely interested. There are only a few remaining stands that produce enough rice to meet this demand. Instead, cultivated wild rice fills the gap. Domesticated varieties are less intensive to harvest and process and therefore sell at a lower cost per pound than the native wild rice that makes it to the market.

To the Native American tribes, the main purpose of the wild rice plant isn’t to make money, but rather “to feed your family and elders in your community, and have it available for ceremonies,” Barton explained.

Wild rice grown in its natural habitat, hand-harvested and processed via traditional means, retains its intrinsic values as a nutrient source, its role in conservation and its role in religion and in community. That value is of the kind that doesn’t carry a price tag. Ideally, natural wild rice habitats would be abundant and would allow for the sale of rice not needed by the foragers, keeping its identity intact.

“You can’t make a wild food a commodity,” said Barton. “It is not a domesticated crop where you have a monoculture. When you start to take these wild foods and then turn them into a money-making venture … there is always a loss.”

Regional Crops: Plum Crazy

Beach plums, or Prunus maritima, are native to New Jersey as well as other locales along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Maryland. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent Jenny Carleo and Joseph Goffreda, director at the Rutgers Fruit and Ornamental Research Extension Center, where 1,000 or so beach plums grow in the orchard, have been working to promote this crop to growers and eaters alike.

While the beach plum evolved on the sandy coastal soils, “Anywhere you can grow a peach you can grow a beach plum,” said Carleo. Interest from New Jersey farmers is “growing slowly, as we are getting more information year after year on how to grow this other commercial crop.”

Farmer Matt Stiles
Farmer Matt Stiles on a tour of Plantation Farm, run by CMCBPA President David van Vorst.

The highbush blueberry had a similar history in New Jersey — a native wild plant that was bred for traits to make it a desirable crop for farmers. The success of the blueberry — now a staple food in our diet — is hard to ignore. It’s the goal of the Rutgers program to usher in the same results for the beach plum.

Rutgers University introduced a new beach plum variety, “Rutgers Jersey Gem,” in 2017. It is a cross between a beach plum found on the dunes of Long Beach Island and a named variety, “Premier.” Scions are available. They are currently seeking a fruit tree specialty nursery grower to propagate the plant for widespread sales.

Carleo has surveyed customers who have tasted beach plum products, with positive results. Over 90 percent of tasters indicate that they will likely try beach plum products again. Wild-harvested beach plums, as well as those grown on several farms in the South Jersey region, are made into value-added products that “pretty much sell out every year,” she said.

Beach plum genetics need to be improved to make the crop suitable for orchard growing. Breeders are trying to select for better growth habits, simultaneous flowering, annual production and enhanced taste and quality. Propagation occurs via root cuttings due to extreme variations with sexual reproduction.

The existing native beach plum stands seemingly aren’t in any danger from the breeding of cultivars suitable for orchard commercialization. In fact, promoting their fruits might help to save wild stands as they gain increased recognition as a native coastal plant valuable for food and the environment.

The beach plum isn’t the only native fruit tree with potential for commercial production. There are other native plums, such as the Sand Hill Plum, Prunus angustifolia, which is native to much of Kansas, that might someday be common in grocery stores.

Regional Crops: Mayhaw Madness

“The mayhaw, being a native fruit tree, growing in swamps and flatlands near practically every rural settlement in much of the South, plays an important role in southern culture,” said Johnny Smith.

Johnny Smith with a mayhaw tree
Johnny Smith with a mayhaw tree loaded with fruit.

Located in Singer, in southwest Louisiana, Smith’s J & D Mayhaws is dedicated to finding the best of the best of the wild mayhaw trees and cloning them via grafting so their fruits can be propagated by orchard growers. It takes seven or eight years for a mayhaw to fruit when grown from seed, and collecting wild seedlings is time-consuming and they are often less fruitful than anticipated.

“A wild mayhaw seedling is often called a ‘chance mayhaw’ because there may be one chance in 100, or one in 1,000, that it will turn out to be a remarkable tree,” said Smith. “By grafting, I know what I’m getting.”

Wild mayhaws are selected for propagation based on fruit size, color, quality, ripening, reliable harvest dates, the ability to hold the fruit on the tree until fully ripened, yield and disease resistance. Smith also hybridizes new cultivars.

The fruit is traditionally made into jelly. Juice is extracted by steaming and pressing berries and is typically sold frozen by the gallon. Demand for the fruit is increasing and cannot currently be met by existing suppliers.

“The fruit is simply not available — at any price,” said Smith. “We harvest anywhere from 1 to 25 gallons per tree,” with production varying based on age, weather and individual cultivar. “The wide variety in production between cultivars is another reason to graft select varieties.”

Large orchards are being planted in the region in an attempt to satisfy some of the demand. Some mayhaw trees are viable outside of their native moist and swampy habitat, but most favor the hot southern climate.

Regional Crops: Risks of Commercialization

The renewed interest in heritage and regional foods is bringing crops such as the Macomber rutabaga, wild rice, beach plums and mayhaws into the spotlight, allowing us to enjoy and preserve important parts of our food culture. Increased exposure to these important foods does carry risks, though. Selective breeding for storability and shelf life could decrease flavor, as it has for tomatoes and other common produce items. They could also lose their luster and regional uniqueness if they one day become so commonplace that they end up in chain restaurants or grocery stores.

Foods with real roots — ones that have an identifiable place in our history — deserve to remain a part of our lives. Balancing their preservation with our quest to domesticate them may be the best way to move forward while keeping an eye on our past and working to enrich our future.


Barb Barton’s books, articles, music & information on wild rice:

Chris Clegg’s Four Town Farm

Rutgers Beach Plum information

J & D Mayhaws, LLC

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

America’s Native Bamboo

By Jill Henderson

Mention the word “bamboo” and visions of China, panda bears and exotic jungles readily come to mind for most of us living in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the majority of the 1,450 species of true bamboo found throughout the world originate in Southern and Southeastern Asian countries, with a few scattered species found in Africa and the beech forests of Chile in South America.

Some bamboo species grow more densely than any forest you can imagine and produce giant canes as big around as a small tree, while others are as diminutive as a clump of native big bluestem prairie grass to which all bamboo is related. In fact, bamboo belongs to the true grass family Poaceae which contains some 10,000 recognized species and represents the fifth-largest plant family on Earth.

The United States is home to three very distinct native species of bamboo, which are collectively known as cane.

Native Bamboo: Cane History & Ecology

When the first Europeans set out to explore the New World they encountered massive canebrakes so dense they were nearly impenetrable. These natural obstacles were so massive that explorers had to navigate around them, sometimes for miles. While cane was present in much of the southern and southeastern half of the United States, the largest canebrakes in North America were found along the edges and floodplains of major rivers such as the Mississippi and its tributaries.

giant cane
River or giant cane is the largest and most noticeable of the three native types of bamboo.

While these great brakes were a boon for wildlife and native peoples alike, early explorers and settlers found them little more than an impediment to travel — until they learned that cattle not only loved to eat river cane, but quickly grew fat on it. Soon enough the brakes would be eradicated by overgrazing and the settlers’ desire to farm the rich, fertile soil that the cane helped produce.

Native Americans admired the rich soil found in canebrakes, often clearing small plots along the edges to grow corn, beans, squash and melons. Native people took great care in nurturing and protecting the canebrakes because they also supported a wide array of bird and animal species that were another source of food.

As in all early indigenous cultures, plants served many roles within the society. River cane was not only a subsistence crop, but a source of strong, straight and sturdy material used to construct an array of tools, weapons, basketry, traps, cages, footwear, bedding and even lodging.

Environmentally Sound

Unfortunately, like so many of the abundant natural resources found in the New World, early settlers quickly decimated river cane through overgrazing and farming. This was the beginning of the end for American canebrakes.

Today a whopping 98 percent of America’s native bamboo has been extirpated from the landscape, raising concerns for the future of the infinite life forms that rely on the habitat created by them. A. J. Hendershott, writing for Missouri Conservationist Magazine in 2002, succinctly describes the importance of canebrakes: “Cane thickets make great wildlife cover. Indigo buntings, cardinals, hooded warblers, evening grosbeaks, water thrushes and other songbirds use it for refuge from predators. Golden mice, southeastern shrews and other small mammals hide in cane stands, too. Swamp rabbits use canebrakes for cover and food, hence their nickname: canecutters.”

Cane also helps build and prevent the loss of topsoil along the river’s edge, while reducing the introduction of sediment to the river system through deforestation, road-building and farming. Sediment buildup can clog gravelly or rocky riverbeds that fish and other native aquatic species need to reproduce.

Needless to say, native bamboo isn’t just for the birds. Cane growing along embankments and floodways improves water quality by controlling erosion and stabilizing embankments, particularly during times of flooding. In fact, cane’s deep rhizomes hold soil better than any riverside plant, including trees.

Identification & Culture

With such an important role in the ecosystem, the call to restore native bamboo was quickly acted upon and many riparian areas are once again home to these native plants. It also brought about the discovery of a new species of cane found in the Appalachian Mountains in 2007. Appropriately dubbed, Arundinaria appalachiana, hill cane joined river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and switch cane (Arundanaria tecta) to make up the only temperate native species of bamboo found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Although typically referred to as canes, these three distinct species are true bamboos that are very closely related to species found in Asia and parts of South America. All three are “running” bamboo, which means they spread via creeping rhizomes.

River cane spreads into large patches or thickets.

Even with extensive restoration efforts and native cane becoming more common, most people don’t know the difference between the three native species and any number of non-native ornamental species.

If you’re driving down the highway and see a thick stand of brightly colored giant bamboo, chances are you are witnessing what I call “landscape renegades” of Asian origin.

According to Margaret Cirtain from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, the most common and aggressive species of non-native bamboo found in the wild is golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), sometimes referred to as yellow or fishpole bamboo. Her article, “Identifying Native Bamboos,” found on the Native and Naturalized Plants of the Carolinas and Georgia website (, is an excellent and detailed resource for anyone interested in learning how to tell the difference between native and non-native bamboo species.

America’s native bamboos were originally found growing in various parts of the southeastern United States, depending on the species: from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on the western edge, along the southern boundaries of the Great Lakes north and east to New York and south along the coastal region to southern Florida and every state in between.

River or giant cane is the largest and most noticeable of the three natives. This lowland species prefers growing on the banks and along the floodplains of large rivers and their tributaries. The more sedate and diminutive switch cane and hill cane, found primarily in the southern states, prefer the drier and partly shaded woodland settings found at the edges of seeps, springs, small creeks, draws and wet-weather streams.

Grow Your Own

Humans can enjoy native bamboo as a privacy screen or windbreak, to create shady nooks or hide unsightly obstacles such as propane tanks or ugly fences. Native bamboo often grows where grass won’t and is a great help at slowing down water and preventing erosion. When dried, the canes make wonderful building materials for garden trellises and plant supports, as well as a myriad of crafty and useful items. Like all true bamboos, native species spread via an underground system of segmented rhizomes from which their roots grow. All bamboos are classified as “clumping” or “running.”

Clumping bamboo tends to grow outward in a circular fashion, rarely moving far beyond its original planting site. On the other hand, running bamboo seeks out new territory via creeping rhizomes that spread in all directions, often creating dense screens or stands. Although all of our native species are running bamboo, river cane is larger and much more aggressive than the other two, especially when it is grown in rich, moist, loamy soils — the ideal of conditions for any bamboo species.

Planting native cane, particularly hill and switch cane in heavy soils or in areas that are excessively dry or sunny might somewhat curtail their growth and hence, their wandering habits.

I strongly suggest planting any of these species in a place that will not infringe on neighboring property or wander into flowerbeds, under landscape blocks, or other sensitive areas. Plan to mow at least 4 or 5 feet around the entire patch, just in case.

In general, native bamboos are heat- and cold-tolerant perennials that prefer rich, consistently moist, slightly acidic soils with a pH of 6-6.5. All but hill cane are evergreen in their native habitats, though the leaves may brown slightly during the winter months.

River cane is the largest of the three native bamboos, reaching heights of 6 feet and spreading as far as it is allowed by soil and water conditions. When mature, river cane can tolerate periods of running or standing water and full sun.

Switch cane generally grows to heights of around 6 feet at maturity when grown in excellent condition found in consistently moist soils and partial-shade generated by large trees like pine and oak. Hill cane, which is deciduous, also reaches up to 6 feet, but prefers full shade from mature trees and well-drained slopes or swales. Hill cane is especially fond of seeps and springs in its native habitat.


The two biggest problems homeowners face when growing native bamboos include the scarcity of authentic nursery plants and the length of time it takes them to reach maturity. Keep in mind that removing plants from public lands is often illegal without a permit and may degrade the size or quality of the stand. The simplest method is to locate a reputable native plant nursery and buy from them.

If you’re having a hard time finding a nursery specializing in native bamboo, try contacting your local conservation department. Whatever you do, do not buy bamboo “seed.” Bamboo rarely, if ever, blooms and produces seed, so either the advertisement is a scam or the person selling the seed has been misinformed.

Switch cane generally grows to heights of around 6 feet at maturity.

Should you have a private, identifiable source of true native bamboo, or are interested in dividing specimens you already have, take care to dig them carefully. Take only clumps that include a large portion of culms, rhizomes and roots while still retaining as much natural soil around them as possible.

Transplanting is best undertaken in late winter or early spring. Start by digging a hole at least twice as deep and wide as the rhizomes you are working with and backfill with high-quality loamy soil. If your soil is less than ideal, adding plenty of shredded organic material at planting time is helpful to get new roots growing quickly. Much like irises, the rhizomes of bamboo must be covered with only a few inches of soil. If buried too deeply, they can rot.

As the bamboo matures, spent leaves fall and accumulate around the base of the plants. These leaves make perfect mulch, containing high levels of silica and other chemicals that the plants recycle into the nutrients they need to grow. Until this occurs naturally take steps to provide young plants with 2 inches of organic mulch, which helps keep the soil consistently moist and cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Because bamboo is related to grass, which contains high levels of nitrogen and silica, any kind of grass also makes excellent mulch for bamboo. Otherwise, hay, wood chips or leaves work well.

In addition to mulching, newly planted bamboo may need to be shaded from the hot summer sun for a short time to prevent leaf scorch. They will also need regular, deep watering to ensure steady growth. This is especially true in the early period after transplanting and on very hot or windy days in the first year after transplanting.

Although mature river cane can tolerate periods of inundation by water, none of the three native species ever grow in standing water, and young plants that are watered too much or planted in water-logged soils suffer as much as those not watered enough. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.

If you are concerned about bamboo running amuck through your neighborhood, plan for that before you plant. Utilize natural barriers that are at least 6 inches deep and span a large area, such as along concrete driveways, roadways, rocky embankments and cement foundations. Planting bamboo within an area of lawn can also be helpful, as regular mowing will prevent rhizomes from spreading out-of-bounds.

Another alternative is to install impenetrable bamboo barriers at planting time. Visit any nursery that specializes in bamboo for more information on installing barriers. If you don’t have naturally loose soil in the area in which you are planting, avoid creating a deep bed of loamy soil at planting time. Keeping the relatively hard native soil beneath bamboo rhizomes can help stop the rhizomes from ducking under barriers. The Bamboo Garden website (bamboo, has a lot of useful information on planting and containing bamboo.

Native Bamboo: Beyond Aesthetics

Once your native bamboo is mature, you can selectively harvest canes for a variety of uses. The shoots of all three native bamboo species are delicious, having a crunchy texture and a taste akin to raw sweet corn. They’re also nutritious and low in fat and calories.

According to a brochure by Cooperative Extension Service at Washington State University, one cup of bamboo shoots is reported to contain approximately 14 calories and half a gram of fat. They are also high in fiber and a good source of heart-healthy potassium (640 mg per 1 cup serving).

Fresh bamboo shoots also contain healthy phytochemicals that have antioxidant, antimutagenic, antibacterial and antiviral actions. They also include lignan, a natural phytoestrogen, and phenolic acids, which are known to be powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Besides being tasty and good for you and the environment, growing and selling native bamboo rhizomes, potted plants, cane poles and delectable young shoots, can also bring added income to your farm business.

America’s native bamboo is as important and valuable today as it has ever been. It is an important natural and cultural resource that Americans should employ, both in the home landscape and in the wild. By avoiding exotic Asian cultivars and planting only America’s native bamboo species, we do ourselves and our environment a great service.

This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Growing Beans: A How-To Guide

By Anne Van Nest

Staple and comfort food icon, the bean has played an essential role in the survival of people and animals since ancient times. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that old-world legumes (len­tils, peas, broad beans, chick peas, and soybeans) were used as food for more than 10,000 years in eastern Asia. Caches of lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs, signifying the reverence paid to this plant. In “His­tory of Legumes: Man’s Use of Legumes” (, Jason Ladock writes that “Legumes are second only to the cereal grasses as sources of human food and ani­mal forage.”

Growing beans is easy, and, when dry, they can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment.
Beans are easy to grow, and, when dry, can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment.

Why are legumes so popular? Le­gumes, members of the bean or Fabaceae plant family, have many significant at­tributes. Beans are high in iron, potassium and magnesium, and are also an important source of protein and fiber. They are easy to grow, and, when dry, can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment. Beside their nutritive benefits, the USDA Soil Quality Institute reports that beans have an ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen with the help of symbiotic Rhizobia bacteria living in their roots.

An inclusive term, “beans” commonly refers to large-seeded plants that include peas, soybeans, peanuts, and vetches. Beans are generally a summer crop that needs warm weather to grow (as opposed to the growing conditions of the group of plants we call peas). Other than growing tem­peratures, beans and peas are very similar.

Growing Beans: Bean Types

Green Beans (fresh)

Known as snap beans / string beans / runner beans / squeaky beans / French beans / stringless pod / filet beans / yellow wax beans / Romano beans / Italian snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).

Available in bush or pole forms with round or flat pods, these are used as an edible pod or shelling bean. Grow the pole types where space is limited. Cornell Univer­sity reports that these will yield two to three times as much as the bush types in the same space. Some green beans have purple or yellow pods and often are quite decorative with swirls of color. They are very easy to grow.

Fresh green beans are not native to North America. They have been cultivated for more than 7,000 years and originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru and the Lerma-Santi­ago River basin of Jalisco in west-central Mexico.

when to plant beans
Beans do not like to be transplanted and therefore are best direct-seeded into the garden.

Green Beans (dry)

Known as common beans / shell beans / kidney beans / navy beans / soldier beans / pinto beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Used predominantly as soup beans. Harvested dry.

Lima Beans (Phaseolus lunatus)

Both bush and pole varieties exist. Available as white, black, red, orange, and mottled seeds.

Small-Seeded Lima Beans

Known as butter beans / Dixie beans / Henderson beans / baby lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus — Sieva type). Bush or climbing varieties. Warm temperature crop. Seeds often eaten fresh. Grown similar to lima beans.

Tepary Beans

Known as Pawi / Pavi / Tepari / Escomi­te / Yori Mui / Yori Muni (Phaseolus acuti­folius). A drought-resistant bean native to southwest United States and Mexico.

Runner Beans

Known as scarlet runner beans (Phase­olus coccineus). A vining plant that is great to use in edible landscaping situ­ations. Decorative red or white flowers with white or multicolored seeds. Pods are edible when young. Seeds used fresh or dried.

Broad Beans

Known as fava beans / horse beans / English beans / European beans / Windsor beans (Vicia faba). Best if grown during a long, cool growing season.


Known as Southern cowpeas / Crowder peas / blackeyed peas (Vigna unguiculata). Available as vining, semi-vining, and bush types. Best grown in warm, humid weather. Grow like lima beans.

Yardlong Beans

Known as asparagus beans / Bora / long-podded cowpeas / Chinese long beans / snake beans, (Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis). A type of cowpea that is eaten as immature pods like snap beans. A vigorous climbing vine for warm cli­mates. Harvest 65 to 80 days after plant­ing.

Edible Soybeans/Edamame (Glycine max)

Grown similar to lima beans. Requires 90 days to harvest.

Hyacinth Bean

Known as Indian bean / Egyptian bean (Lablab purpureus). A vining plant to 20 feet with purple flowers and vibrant electric-purple seed pods. Great to use in edible landscaping. Fast growing, and flow­ers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Has edible leaves, flowers, pods, and seeds.


Known as garbanzo beans / chestnut beans / Egyptian beans / grams (Cicer ari­etinum). Technically not a pea or a bean. They need a long, warm growing season of about 100 days.

Winged Beans

Known as asparagus peas / goa beans / four-angled beans / winged beans / princess beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus). A vining plant with almost all parts being edible. Mature pods are six to nine inches long with a high protein content.

Growing Beans: Planting Times

Beans are sensitive to cold temperatures and frost and should be planted around the average last frost date in the spring. The exact date depends a lot upon the condi­tion of the soil — it must have warmed to 60°F and started to dry out. Seeds should be planted about one inch deep. Plant bush beans about two to three inches apart in rows two feet wide. Pole beans can be planted four to six inches apart in rows three feet wide. Alternatively, four to six seeds can be planted in hills centered about 30 inches apart. Plan to plant suc­cessive crops every two to four weeks for an extended harvest season (usually until late July in northern areas). Inoculating the seed with rhizobium bacteria may increase yields if you have alkaline soils (Colorado State University Extension reports that acid soils are a challenge for rhizobium bacteria) and use the correct bac­teria for the legume type. The rhizobium bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with legumes. The bacteria invade the plant root hairs and multiply while the plant produces a protective nodule enclosure and energy for the bacteria. Payback in this mutually beneficial situation occurs when the bacteria convert nitrogen gas to ammonia in the nodules. To check on the effectiveness and quantity of rhizobium bacteria in your soil, excavate some bean roots. Upon slicing open a nodule, those that are actively fixing nitro­gen will be pink to reddish, rather than tan (ineffective) or green (dying). Also be sure to check the expiration date on the inocu­lant package before applying, as the living rhizobia have a finite shelf life.

how to plant beans - growing beans
Beans have an ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen with the help of symbiotic Rhizobia bacteria living in their roots.

Contrary to popular wisdom, do not soak seeds — beans tend to germinate poorly if they absorb too much water and crack. This also applies to planting seeds in overly wet soil conditions. Instead, water after planting or plant before a heavy rain.

Beans do not like to be transplanted and are therefore best direct-seeded into the garden. But if done carefully, they can be successfully started indoors in peat, newspaper, or soil pots and transplanted into the garden. Gardeners with short growing seasons, cold and wet soil, rot­ting issues, or early insect pressure may want to start seeds indoors three weeks early to overcome these situations.


The best sites have full sun (partial shade is tolerated but will reduce the yield), well-drained soil (but consistently moist), average fertility (too rich of a soil will produce an excess of foliage at the expense of beans), slightly acidic soil pH (6 to 6.8), and good air circulation.

If bean diseases have been a problem in previous years, do not replant in the same location, since overwintered bacterial and fungus diseases can strike again.


Watch that close cultivation or hoeing doesn’t damage the shallow, brittle, weak bean roots. Fertilize sparingly and avoid using ni­trogen to promote lush growth. Extend the harvest by succession planting several sowings.

Plants under heat or water stress are more prone to becoming stringy. Mulching after the plants are about 6 inches tall will help conserve soil moisture.

Hot, dry, stressful weather conditions can cause bean blossoms to fall and fail to produce pods. Water regularly if no natural irrigation occurs. Beans need about one inch of moisture every week (especially when flowering and develop­ing pods). To minimize disease problems, avoid wetting the foliage for prolonged periods. Water early in the day for the fastest drying time.

Consider using bush beans as cover crops.


Edible Pod Peas for Fresh Eating

The best time to pick the various snap beans is when they are still young and aren’t tough and stringy (July to frost).

Since beans ripen at different times on the same bush, it is best to check them daily. Picking the beans frequently encourages more to form. Skipping a day may send some pods into the inedible category and slow down production since the plant thinks it has accomplished its goal of producing seed.

Most beans should snap nicely from the plant. Select beans that are firm, pencil thickness (or less), tender, and medium green. Harvest only when bean plants are dry to avoid bacterial blight, a serious bean disease. Cut off the tougher stem and tip end and they are ready for cooking (or eating fresh). Store pods unwashed in a tight container in the refrigerator, then wash and use as soon as possible. After several days beans may get wilty or tough. If they can’t be used fresh within three or four days, the pods can be blanched and frozen, canned, or pickled.

Dry Beans for Longer Storage

Shell beans can be harvested at three different stages. They can be harvested young in the pod before the seeds are visible from the outside (bump free) and eaten like snap beans. They can also be harvested when a little more mature (but still green), when the beans inside have formed significantly but before the pod is dried. These tender beans (shell outs) are separated from their shell and cooked. The more common way to harvest shell beans is to leave the pods on the plant until they are hard and dry (but before the pods split and drop the seed). The dry beans can be shelled by hand or threshed by beating the pods until they break and release the beans. Another method is to uproot the bean plants and hang them upside down inside a large garbage bin while beating them against the sides. The seeds, once removed from the pod, can be stored in a cool, dry place for months.

If snap beans are not harvested at the young, tender stage, they can be left on the plant to form shell outs or even left on to use as dry beans.

Growing Beans: Preventing Bean Pests & Diseases

Mexican Bean Beetle & Bean Leaf Beetle

Look for clusters of yellow eggs hanging vertically from the underside of the snap or lima bean leaves (they also like soybeans and other types, too) in early summer. Soon fuzzy, bright yellow insects will appear and start feeding on bean leaves — these are the Mexican bean beetle larvae, which are very destructive as they skeletonize the leaves. The adult does less damage and looks like a yellow-orange ladybug with eight black spots in rows on each wing. The adult is a good flyer and can travel far to find new bean fields. The beetles overwinter in moist, protected debris. Control measures include cultivating to destroy overwintering locations; handpicking eggs, larvae or adults; using floating row covers; planting a heavy bean crop in the spring (beetle popula­tions are heaviest later in the summer); using a trap crop; using predators; spraying with azadirachtin, garlic, cedar oil, or mineral oil; and planting less-preferred types like mung beans, cowpea, and soybeans. This is one of the top insect pests in many areas.


Leafhopper feeding shows up as a browning (called hop­perburn) and curling of the leaves with the greatest damage on young plants. Most of this damage is the plant responding to saliva from the sideways-walking, wedge-shaped insect, which is long gone by the time damage shows. The leafhopper is a major dry bean pest in many areas of the country and can have four to six generations during the sum­mer. Control includes floating row covers, not planting beans near alfalfa fields, and successive plantings.

Cutworms & Army Worms

The Western bean cutworm is march­ing eastward and is causing significant in­jury on dry beans as the larvae chew holes in the pod walls and developing seeds. Most feeding occurs on cloudy days or at night. Controls for the cutworm and armyworms include plowing to reduce overwintering larvae, encouraging bird and skunk feeding, and using Bt on larvae.

Bean Blight

Several bacteria attack beans, and for many the early symptoms may look like anthracnose (a fungus). Later symptoms include enlarging, irregular brown patch­es with yellow edges on the leaves. Many bacterial diseases are seedborne and can overwinter in bean debris and spread fast and far via the rain. Humid and moist conditions favor the spread of these dis­eases. Control includes using certified seed, planting on a rotation (avoid re­planting beans in the same place for three years), avoiding harvesting or working the bean fields with leaves that are wet, plowing down bean stubble, planting re­sistant varieties (if available), and spraying with copper (check the label for recom­mendations).

Root Rot, Seed Rot, & Damping Off

Root rots, damping off, and seed rots are all destructive at the time just before seedlings emerge and are caused mostly by fungi present in the soil. Significant losses may occur, especially if cool, wet weather just after seeding is followed by hot, dry weather.

Controls include crop rotation (don’t grow beans in the same location for four to five years if these diseases are a problem), improving drainage and breaking up hard pans, hydrogen peroxide or dioxide spray or soil drench, and delaying planting until the soil is over 65°F.

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Companion Planting: The Magic of Corn, Beans and Squash

By Jeff Poppen

Companion planting is an important part of any gardener or farmer’s planning.

Recent discoveries in quantum physics, microbiology and ecology verify something gardeners have long known. Everything in nature is related. There are no solid lines between the plants’ roots, the soil and the bacteria and fungi tying it all together. To help understand why garden crops do or do not thrive, we are led into the enigmatic field of companion planting.

Just as we work and feel best around our friends, plants will grow better in their preferred company. Although the reasons may be obscure, a lot of observation and a little intuition can reveal mutual attractions and aversions. The garden teaches us the value of old-time practices, fresh experiments and keeping our eyes open.

Companion planting
In the spring garden lettuce, carrots, peas, beets and radishes all grow well together.

Following the advice of Steiner, Albrecht, Howard, Rodale, and others, we build up a live soil humus with an inherent microbial intelligence. Native Americans did not have to do all that reading; they simply did not plow, compact, or put chemicals on their soils in the first place. Right off the bat, they taught us companion planting with the “three sisters” — corn, beans and squash.

Corn belongs to the grass family. Its shallow, fibrous root system requires extra nitrogen. Beans, on the other hand, have a deep taproot and a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria that accumulate nitrogen. Squash grow well in the shade of the beans, which climb up the corn stalks. The big squash leaves provide shade that keeps the soil moist and the weeds from sprouting. An Iroquois corn patch produced three times as much grain per acre as European wheat farmers were getting, along with extra vegetables to boot.

In the spring garden lettuce, carrots, peas, beets and radishes all grow well together. Although carrots are companion plants with peas as well as onions, peas do not grow well next to onions. The pea and bean families do not like the onion family, which includes garlic, leeks and shallots. Radishes repel cucumber beetles and are harvested quickly.

Cabbage grows well with beets and potatoes; they can be planted together in early spring. We grow kale and Chinese cabbages in the fall for several reasons: they like cooler weather, and are not bothered by bugs as much then.

In our crop rotation, potatoes follow a grass or clover sod because untilled land has more fungal activity underground. Plenty of compost and loose soil keep the potatoes from attracting beetles. After a season of cultivating, the microbial domination has shifted in favor of bacteria. This is well suited for the cabbage family. Companion planting is related to crop rotation, since certain crops prepare the soil for the next one.

Potatoes and beans planted together help to repel each others’ pesky beetles. However, they are planted in different seasons, so we do not use this particular combination. We plant alternate rows of bush beans and cucumbers. Along with their mutual attraction, the timing works well. The quick-maturing beans yield a few pickings before the cucumber vines invade their rows and hide the future pickles in their shade.

Cucumbers also like dill in the garden and in the jar. Similarly, basil and tomatoes grow and taste good together. Herbs add a whole new dimension, aroma and beauty to the garden. They have also long been observed to be good companion plants. Parsley and her sisters in the Umbelliferae family have blooms that supply nectar to beneficial insects. Fennel and wormwood are the herbal exceptions, as other plants generally do not like them. When folks see flowers in the garden, they often think we are trying to keep bugs away. Nothing could be further from the truth. We love flowers because they attract insects, most of which are beneficial. Marigolds excrete a toxin for certain nematodes, but flowers are grown for the birds and the bees.

Companion Planting, by Helen Phibrick and Richard Gregg, was published in 1966. It became a source of conversation and experimentation in my parents’ organic gardens. It makes sense that plant species will show signs of sympathy and antipathy with each other. The garden combinations of flowers, herbs and vegetables are endless. Therefore, we must consider this a recent science wide open for exploration. Every garden and every year is a new opportunity to marvel at and unearth nature’s mysteries, wisdom and interconnectedness.

By Jeff Poppen. Biodynamic farmer Jeff Poppen lives, works and writes at Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. For more information visit

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

How to Grow, Harvest and Use Lemon Balm

By Jill Henderson

I always get excited when I talk about herbs, especially when I talk about medicinal culinary herbs like lemon balm. Lemon balm’s simplicity, beauty, flavor, ease of care, and exceptional medicinal properties make it one of my favorites.

I particularly like the way lemon balm attracts beneficial insects and butterflies to my garden, and occasionally even the hummingbirds find it intriguing.

I am also partial to lemon balm tea, especially on a cold winter night, when its deep, earthy, lemony flavor brings back a touch of summer sunshine.

Sometimes referred to as Melissa or Sweet Melissa, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, of plants. Like other mint family members, lemon balm has scalloped, oval- to heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite one another on square (four-sided) stems. Its leaves are bright green on top and whitish below.

Lemon balm is a great herb to share with kids because the leaves are wonderfully fuzzy to touch, and they leave a trace of lemon scent on the fingers. Most people don’t stop to look at the flowers of lemon balm because they are very small. Up close, the tiny white to pale pink two-lipped flowers form whorled spikes that are quite pretty.

lemon balm
Harvesting the long stems of lemon balm.

Lemon balm is one of those herbs that isn’t thought of all that much beyond tea. But in reality, this sometimes rambling and invasive “mint” has played a crucial role in the health and well-being of humans and animals alike for thousands of years. It’s easy to grow, looks nice, and smells and tastes even better! If you have a little room to spare in the yard or garden, you might want to give this little herbal gem a try.

How to Grow Lemon Balm

Depending on the type of soil you want to build and amount of sunlight, this spreading perennial herb can reach heights of 1 to 3 feet with an equal spread. Like mint, lemon balm is quite hardy and can be overwintered as far north as hardiness zones 4 and 5.

Lemon Balm growing in garden

It is always a good idea to mulch plants year-round, but winter mulch is of the utmost importance. Mulch helps keep the ground frozen in areas where the ground freezes and keeps it warmer in areas where it doesn’t. Mulch also helps prevent the plant from being heaved out of the ground in times of repeated freeze and thaw cycles. Lemon balm will grow almost anywhere in the garden and isn’t particularly fussy about the quality of soil it grows in.

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In general, your plant will be larger and more productive when grown in full sun and fertile, loamy soil. In regions with very hot or dry summers, lemon balm appreciates a bit of afternoon shade and soils that retain moisture. If you plant lemon balm in soil that is both very fertile and loamy, it will spread like wildfire throughout your garden. We have a lot of red clay soil here in the Ozarks, and I find that my lemon balm not only grows well, but that it also stays relatively close to where I plant it. And while lemon balm prefers moist soil, healthy and mature plants easily endure extended periods of heat and drought.

Like most mint family members, lemon balm is easily started from seed. For outdoor culture, seed can be sown either in mid-spring after all danger of frost has passed or in early fall to late winter.

While both are good, I personally feel that winter sowing has advantages over spring sowing. Winter-sown seeds have a feel for the seasons and germinate only when the weather is optimal. They also have higher germination rates, and their seedlings are hardier and grow more vigorously than those sown indoors. But best of all, winter-sown seeds don’t take up any room in the house or require artificial heat or light.

To start lemon balm indoors, sow seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost. Start with small pots filled with a light seed-starting mix and barely cover.

I prefer to sprinkle seeds on the surface of the soil and then lightly scratch them in before watering. Seeds take seven to fourteen days to germinate at 70°F, but longer if indoor temperatures are cooler.

Once seedlings have their second set of true leaves, either thin them to one or two per pot or repot individual seedlings into larger containers. After all danger of frost has passed, seedlings should be set in the garden 12 to 18 inches apart.

Although sowing seed has its advantages, there is one crucial drawback that most gardeners are not aware of. As is the case with many herbs, each lemon balm plant that is grown from seed will be slightly different. They will generally look alike, but they may not smell or taste the same. This is why I highly recommend starting lemon balm from established plants, be it rooted stem cuttings, root divisions, or seedlings from a nursery. This way, you can smell and taste the leaves before investing a lot of time and money into a plant that has an inferior smell and taste.

Be sure to leave ample space between lemon balm and nearby plants, as it has a penchant for sprawling and crawling.

To keep plants tidy and within bounds, pinch or cut the stem tips back regularly throughout the growing season. And to prevent scraggly or spindly growth, divide mature plants every three to five years.

How to Harvest Lemon Balm

Many gardeners like the idea of planting an herb garden, but aren’t always sure what to do with the herbs once they are mature. You can harvest handfuls of lemon balm leaves for fresh use almost any time during the growing season. For a large harvest of leaves that will be dried for tea or medicinal use, it is preferable to wait until the plant begins to put on flower buds or just as the flowers begin to open. This is when the volatile oils in the leaves are at their greatest concentration.

When you are ready, cut each stem just above a pair of leaves using a very sharp pair of scissors or pruning shears. You can cut the plant down to within six to eight inches of the soil. A good rule of thumb is to remove no more than two-thirds of the vegetative growth at any one time. Finish the job by pruning stray stems and shaping so the plant looks tidy, and then water it deeply.

A second harvest may be possible in the fall if the plant is healthy and has regenerated many new leaves, but the first harvest is always the sweetest and most fragrant.

How to Dry & Store Lemon Balm

Once you have your basket full of cut stems, you will need to process them for drying. There are many ways to dry herbs, all of which are a bit tedious, depending on where you live and how you approach it. Drying is the only way to preserve the quality and flavor of lemon balm for long-term storage, though.

Over the years, my husband, Dean, and I tried many methods of drying herbs until we finally found one that suited our schedule and our taste buds.

lemon balm leaves
The author dries lemon balm in stainless steel metal baking pans.

We start by stripping the leaves from the stems. Yes, this can be a bit monotonous, but trust me: it saves a lot of time later on and your leaves don’t get crushed in the process.

To strips the leaves quickly (relatively speaking) we ‘zip’ the leaves off with our fingers. To do this, start by holding the tip (top) of the stem firmly between your left thumb, index, and ring fingers. With the same three fingers of your right hand, pull firmly downwards along the stem.

This zipping technique quickly pulls off all leaves and branching stems in one fell swoop. Repeat the ‘zipping’ with all stems until all leaves have been removed.

At this juncture, tradition has it that you should use a dehydrator to dry your herbs, or that you should spread the leaves on screens or hang them in bunches and dry them in a cool dark place. The problem I have with these methods are: a) I don’t have a dehydrator, nor do I want one; b) a dehydrator can’t possibly hold the quantity of leaves we process each year; and c) my climate is too humid to properly dry leaves in a “cool dark place.”

When I lived in the drier areas of the north and northwest United States, drying herbs was a snap, even in the shade. Here in Missouri, though, summers can be unbelievably humid. Because of this, I have come to rely on a very unconventional drying method.

After some disappointing attempts at drying basil and sage (two of the trickiest herbs to dry properly) the traditional way, my husband suggested we try a different approach. He had noticed how some of the leaves from the “zipping” process that we had left on the concrete walkway dried up extremely quickly. He proposed that the rest of our herbs would dry there just as quickly.

After so many trials and mediocre results, I was game for anything. We laid our stripped leaves in a single layer on shiny stainless steel baking pans, which we then set on the concrete walk in the sun. Most often the herbs dried in one day — in some cases within hours. In every batch, the herbs came out vibrantly green and extremely fragrant.

Let it be known that I fully understand that the standard rule for drying herbs is to never (ever) dry them in the sun. The theory is that prolonged exposure to high heat and bright light can evaporate the delicate volatile oils that make herbs flavorful and medicinal. I hated to ignore the herbalist in my head, but the method worked so beautifully that, 15 years later, I can’t even imagine doing it any other way.

In order to clear my conscience, I placed two different thermometers in the pan to see how hot the herbs — and the pan — actually got during the course of the day. The pans were placed in full sun on a 92°F (33°C) day and only reached 130°F (54°C), which is absolutely acceptable in terms of drying temperatures for herbs.

To retain maximum medicinal value in the leaves, the temperature should have been a little lower, but that can be easily achieved by choosing a cooler day or by placing the pan in dappled shade. If you decide to try this method, it is very important to monitor the herbs in the pan just as you would if you had a cake in the oven. Use a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature, stir the herbs often, move them into the shade when they start to get crisp, and always allow the herbs to cool completely before storing.

When the leaves crumble to pieces when pressed, they are ready to store in airtight jars or plastic bags in a cool, dark place. Keep in mind that whole herbs retain their flavor and medicinal properties longer than those that are crushed or ground.

How to Use Lemon Balm

Lemon balm or Melissa Essential Oil

The smell and taste of common lemon balm is not as sharp or crisp as a lemon, but is rich, deep, and woody, especially when dried. Newer cultivars have an improved lemony aroma. Lemon balm is wonderful when used to make hot or cold tea, and its flavor blends very well with black tea and other herbs such as apple mint, lemon verbena, anise, fennel, and fenugreek. The leaves and flowers make unique, flavorful jelly or herbed vinegar. They can also be added to creamy dressings, dips, and spreads. Add young leaves to fruit punch and green or fruit salads.

One of my favorite things to make with lemon balm is shortbread or sugar cookies. Simply pick out your favorite generic recipe and add to it a handful of fresh, chopped lemon balm leaves and a few toasted nuts.

Although there are many great ways to use lemon balm in the kitchen, the real magic of this sometimes-beguiled herb lies in its medicinal properties. And make no mistake about it: lemon balm is a powerful and useful medicinal.

Lemon balm tea

To begin with, lemon balm is a super-strong anti-inflammatory and gentle sedative that can help relieve mild insomnia, depression, and tension. Herbalists also recommend it to treat infection and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and to reduce symptoms of cold and flu. It is especially effective at soothing indigestion, heartburn, and stomachaches. When taken orally, lemon balm has similar actions to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, without these drugs’ dangerous long-term side effects.

Lemon balm also contains constituents that fight all kinds of viral infections, and it is one of the very best treatments I have ever found for the treatment of cold sores. In fact, scientific studies have proven that internal and topical application of lemon balm reduces the severity, duration, pain, and recurrence of cold sores, mouth ulcers, and other viral eruptions like shingles, which are all caused by the herpes virus.

For many years, I was plagued by repeated outbreaks of large, painful cold sores on my lips and around my mouth. On two occasions, cold sores on my mouth were infected by Streptococcus bacteria and resulted in impetigo, a very serious and contagious skin infection.

By applying a strong infusion of lemon balm to the affected area at the earliest onset of symptoms, and by consuming up to three cups of lemon balm tea every day for the duration of the outbreak, I was able to rid myself of both the cold sores and the severe case of impetigo. Within a few months of using lemon balm to treat recurring outbreaks, the herpes simplex virus literally went dormant. And thanks to lemon balm, I have had no more than a half dozen cold sores in over 15 years. The few that I did get were relatively small and short-lived.

In addition to reducing the severity of cold sores, lemon balm also appears to speed healing and to reduce or inhibit secondary infections. Externally, it can be used to treat rashes, hives, insect bites, swelling, and minor wounds. Researchers are reportedly even using extracts of lemon balm to try to treat mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Although it has been suggested that lemon balm may support normal function of the thyroid gland, anyone with hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), goiter, Hashimoto’s disease, or those taking any kind of thyroid hormone such as anti-cholinergics or cholinergics should not take lemon balm in medicinal doses without first consulting a professional.

Lemon balm is an exceptionally attractive herb that lights up any garden path. And while the flowers are not excessively showy and can at times give the plant a leggy or ragged appearance, they attract many beneficial insects to the garden. Lemon balm is not only a fragrant and flavorful culinary herb, but also a powerful medicinal that deserves a spot in every garden. If nothing else, the simple beauty of its soft, sculpted leaves and pleasant smell will do much to cheer up any gardener.

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is currently the editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants, and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country, and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

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Shiitake Mushrooms as Specialty Crop

By Barbara Berst Adams

The flavorful shiitake mushroom is native to Asia where it has been harvested wild from forestlands for centuries.

Commercial production was introduced in the 1930s first by inoculating select logs, and later by growing mushrooms on sterilized sawdust, which sped up production. As its taste and nutritional value become more and more known and desired in North America, shiitake mushrooms present another possible niche farm crop to consider.

Shiitake can be sold in a variety of ways, including as fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, pre-inoculated shiitake logs or sawdust blocks for backyard or tabletop shiitake mushroom growers and of course as value-added culinary products that contain the mushrooms. Even the resulting “mushroom compost” can be a valuable product. For actual spawn production, a sterile or at least very clean laboratory-type environment is preferable.

But the purchase of spawn is relatively inexpensive. Also, in some states, a certified kitchen is required to produce and sell value-added food products such as mushroom soup, but the production needs of the other shiitake products can usually be set up on a typical working farm.

Cascadia Mushrooms of Bellingham, Washington, is a USDA and Washington State Department of Agriculture certified organic producer of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, including shiitake. It was founded by Alex Winstead, who studied mycology, botany and organic chemistry in college before starting the mushroom farm in his rented suburban basement and garage. Eventually moving to its current location, Cascadia Mushrooms now offers fresh shiitake and other mushroom varieties directly to consumers and professionals through the farm’s website, farmers’ markets and relationships developed with chefs and grocers. The farm sells mushroom kits and spawn through farmers’ markets as well as online through its website and garden centers. The farm holds mushroom-growing workshops and also sells medicinal mushroom products. Finally, Cascadia Mushrooms sells mushroom compost in limited quantities, by appointment, direct from the farm.

shiitake mushrooms specialty crop

“Shiitake is such a great mushroom to grow and eat for many reasons,” said Winstead. “They are well-adapted to the Pacific Northwest maritime climate — this makes the growing season fairly long without the use of supplemental heating or cooling — they like to grow between 55 and 75 F.”

They also have an excellent shelf life. Fresh shiitake can be cooked and eaten with a freshly harvested flavor up to 7 or 10 days after picking. Dried shiitake can last for two or more years in a sealed container.

“Of all the specialty mushroom varieties, shiitake is the most recognized and popular in the American diet,” said Winstead. “Compare this to diets of some European or Asian countries where more than 10 varieties are eaten regularly — both wild and cultivated species.”

Shiitake Strains

In the wild, shiitake mushrooms grow on fallen forest hardwood logs, and there are many different strains of shiitake. The Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center of Lanesboro, Minnesota, for example, researched 52 different strains of shiitake to determine the best for cultivation on hardwood logs. Spawn suppliers offer warm weather, cold weather and wide range strains based on the temperatures needed for fruiting. For example, some cool season strains fruit between 41 and 68 F. Warmer season strains can fruit in temperatures as high as 86 F.

Growing Debate

It’s widely asserted that log-grown shiitake versus sawdust-grown most closely mimics nature and is a desirable choice as compared to large, commercial sawdust-grown shiitake.

Log-grown shiitake have commanded higher prices over sawdust-grown shiitake, with log-grown enthusiasts insisting the flavor, nutritional value and texture are superior.

Cascadia Mushrooms has a different theory and grows only a small portion as log-grown, using sawdust as the growing medium for most of its crop. Winstead says that growing them “indoors versus outdoors” also plays an important part in the quality of the mushroom.

“We grow almost all of our mushrooms on alder sawdust that is supplemented with bran and rye,” said Winstead. “In my experience, it’s not the log itself that grows a different mushroom but whether they are grown outdoors or indoors, the climate and temperature at the time of growth and the shiitake strain being cultivated.”

Winstead explained that natural UV light, the wind, shifting temperatures and so on seem to play a part in the difference in mushroom quality when grown outdoors.

Winstead said 99 percent of the fresh and dried shiitake available at stores and restaurants are grown indoors on sawdust. The industry shifted to growing primarily on sawdust under controlled conditions over the last 25 years.

“If you take one of our shiitake sawdust blocks and grow it outdoors it will be almost identical to those grown on logs,” said Winstead. “Conversely, if a log is grown indoors under controlled conditions the opposite will be true and the mushroom will resemble a typical commercial sawdust-grown shiitake. Sawdust growing has a greater potential to create a sustainable and profitable farming enterprise where shiitake or other mushrooms are the primary product. On the other hand, if someone is looking for supplemental income that is seasonal and requires little up-front investment or they want to enhance other farm offerings, shiitake log farming is a good choice and can add diversity to a small farm operation. I have chosen mushrooms as my sole farm product, so growing on sawdust was the right choice for me.”

While Winstead grows in a farm setting, timberland owners looking for alternative sources of income may also want to consider log-grown shiitake.

Cornell University in New York State has studied eastern forest-grown shiitake and provides educational materials and workshops for those interested in pursuing such an enterprise if their timberland supplies sufficient hardwood. The hardwood species suggested for shiitake production include oak, chinkapin, hornbeam, sweetgum, poplar, alder, maple, ironwood, beech and birch.

Besides assessing one’s local log or sawdust resources for deciding which to use for growing shiitake, an aspiring mushroom farmer should also consider potential customers. Is log-grown specifically in demand in the farmer’s customer base? As with direct-sale local farmers who grow vegetables, the “know your local farmer” trend also plays a part in whether a farmer chooses to grow in sawdust or on logs (or both). If the farmer can explain his or her operating method directly to customers — such as the unique quality of the local trees used for sawdust or the natural outdoor mushroom fruiting conditions, customers can come to understand the quality and sustainability of each individual farmer’s growing methods on a more refined level.

Sawdust-Grown Shiitake

The growing medium for sawdust-grown shiitake, called substrate, includes hardwood sawdust and sometimes a variety of other dry ingredients such as straw, bran or rye. Choice of substrate formula depends on what is available locally, the regional climate and the strain of shiitake grown. Alder, for example, grows plentifully in the region of Cascadia Mushrooms, and Winstead gets his alder sawdust from a local sawmill.

The dry ingredients for the substrate are mixed together with water and then placed in small transparent mushroom bags that are heat-resistant and breathable. The bags are then heat sterilized to eliminate spores of other types of unwanted fungus lurking in the material. The resulting sterilized sawdust is inoculated with shiitake mycelium and the bag set aside, often in a growing room, for the mycelium to grow or “run” — doing its natural job of breaking down wood.

That period can last from one to four months. Once proper growth in the spawn has been observed, various shocking methods — such as temperature change or physical agitation — induce mushroom fruiting for harvest.

Log-Grown Shiitake

For log-grown shiitake, mushrooms are grown on hardwood branches or logs usually cut late fall to spring during the dormant season so the logs have the best possible moisture content.

The size of the logs, sometimes around 3 to 4 feet long for easy handling and 3 to 8 inches in diameter, depends partly on the source of logs, how they will be inoculated, stacked or leaned once inoculated, and otherwise tended to once they are filled with spawn and waiting for harvest.

Sources of the logs are usually either the farmer’s own woodlot or logs resulting from timberland improvement. A row of holes is drilled into the log 4 to 8 inches apart and about 1 inch deep. Once that row is complete, the log is rolled to start another row 2 inches away, and this is repeated until the log is covered with as many holes as possible without them being too close together. Every other new row starts halfway between the previous row’s holes so distance between holes is staggered and a diamond shape is created by the holes once the drilling is complete. The holes are filled with loose sawdust spawn, which is a mixture of sawdust and the chosen fungal mycelium, then sealed with food-grade wax.

Alternatives to loose sawdust spawn for log inoculation include shiitake plug spawn, which are solid plugs that are hammered in. Also, thimble spawn is available. This type of spawn replaces the need for waxing by providing styrofoam caps already attached to the spawn. The drilling and filling process is slightly different for these alternatives, but the overall process is similar.

The inoculated logs are then set, leaned or stacked in their waiting location or “laying yard” to colonize the log, which can take six to 16 months.

Once colonized, logs may naturally fruit, depending on the local climate, or can be “shocked” by being soaked in cold water for 24 hours. This will force mushrooms to fruit within about a week.

“Outdoor-grown shiitake logs like shade,” Winstead said. “In our area this is not a very hard thing to find. We grow ours in stacks in a grove of cottonwood trees. The trees provide a nice shady canopy during the summer when it’s most crucial, and during the winter months, rain is able to fall unhindered on the logs because the cottonwood leaves have fallen. During dry summers we cover our stacks in 60 percent shade cloth, and I turn a sprinkler on them once a week for a couple hours when it’s not raining. Summer is also when most of the logs are in their fruiting cycle, so we submerge them in water for 24 hours about once a month to stimulate mushroom growth.”

Winstead said there are many options for outdoor growing areas: pine/fir forest, shade structure, shaded greenhouse with irrigation, barn or outbuilding with some kind of misting system. Almost any basic structure can be adapted for growing shiitake.

Learning the Process

For the aspiring shiitake mushroom farmer, live workshops, preferably in a similar bio-region, can be invaluable.

Shiitake mushrooms

Regional hardwood sources, local climate, including humidity, and sometimes the locality’s other native fungi species, all play an important role in how a farmer will produce shiitake. Plus, there are numerous variables and precise applications to preparing sawdust or choosing and inoculating logs which benefit from a hands-on and locally adapted approach to learning.

If workshops aren’t available nearby or if they are otherwise not possible to attend, a new mushroom farmer can also get a feel for shiitake growing in a learn-as-you-go way by obtaining pre-inoculated shiitake logs from a supplier and practicing growing shiitake within their own farm’s environment, asking the supplier questions along the way. Some suppliers who give live workshops also offer consultation as well as print and online learning resources. Once farmers are certain shiitake will be a good fit, they may be able to continue to learn how to prepare the sawdust or logs themselves by learning from a distance. For example, the owners of Field and Forest, a mushroom farm in Wisconsin, offer a helpful free video on their site which shows the process of inoculating logs with all three types of shiitake spawn — sawdust, plug and thimble.

Aspiring shiitake farmers can also check local agriculture extension services.

Cornell University has very recent publications and free videos on eastern forest log-grown shiitake cultivation. Some of the information can be adapted to any location. A search for “shiitake” at the university’s website will lead to these resources.

Marketing Shiitake Mushrooms

One of Cascadia Mushrooms’ marketing secrets is very similar to successful vegetable farms. Winstead communicates directly with his buying community.

“My first customers were at the Bellingham Farmers’ Market (in northwestern Washington State),” Winstead said. “I began Cascadia Mushrooms at such a small scale that my first harvests wouldn’t even last a full day at the market.”

This gave Winstead the opportunity to try growing different varieties of mushrooms and test which ones people liked the most and which ones he could grow successfully.

“It was a few years of trial and error, and after lots of growing and testing it was clear that shiitake was where I wanted to focus most of my efforts. Once I was able to produce more shiitake, my mushrooms got the interest of Bellingham’s Community Food Coop and the Mount Bakery Cafe, both of which have supported my farm and me from the get-go and continue to this day to be some of my favorite and best clients. Connecting with the community and telling folks my story has always been my best sales strategy. People today, especially in our region, want to be connected to their food and the people who help bring it to them. Being a part of people’s lives and sharing my work with them is the most rewarding part of my job, and it’s really the reason my business exists.”

Winstead’s Cascadia Mushrooms has prospered from the increasing popularity of shiitake. This mushroom has gained a lot of culinary ground since it was once wild harvested in the forests of Asia. There are many particulars involved in growing shiitake, from finding a reputable spawn supplier to recognizing the ideal moisture content in local logs used for inoculation, but growers say it gets easier. Once the basics are understood, a grower can then adapt somewhat to his or her own growing region and goals for the farm.

“I have fully fallen in love with shiitake,” said Winstead. “It is both a pleasure to grow with a fascinating life cycle, and it is my favorite mushroom to eat day-to-day. When I began growing mushrooms I wanted to focus on the even more exotic varieties and not something as popular as shiitake, but over the years (partly inspired by market demand) I have focused more than 90 percent of my business on this mushroom, and it is the one species I will eat any day of the week.”

Winstead continued, “Shiitake is one of the most used and studied of the medicinal mushrooms. Its history dates back thousands of years and research continues today on the beneficial effects of shiitake in combating cancer and viruses as well as being an excellent source of vitamin D, beta glucans, healthy protein and amino acids.”

As suggested above, aspiring shiitake growers with a source of logs or growing medium may want to experiment on a small scale at first with a few logs or sawdust-grown mushrooms.

This will let them know if the labor and local resources for growing appear to be workable, while the particulars for growing shiitake in their climate are learned at the same time. Eventually, shiitake mushrooms may become a prosperous main crop as they have for Cascadia Mushrooms, or perhaps a valuable addition to other crops on the farm.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A. 

Barbara Berst Adams is the author of the books, Micro Eco-Farming, and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm. She also writes for the Micro Eco-Farming Center.

Suburban Farming: Growing Berries & Small Fruit

By Mike Brown

The more I explored the world of growing berries, the more I began to understand how limited most American consumers are in their knowledge and experience of these healthy and tasty foods. Additionally, many of the berries and small fruit I grow are unavailable to consumers, even in high-end supermarkets.

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve seen large expanses of former farmland transformed into seemingly endless residential sprawl. While this doesn’t bode well for open space (as well as a host of other things), it does present opportunity for those able to attract these new potential customers.

One way is by creating a suburban farm. Such a farm, on less than an acre, allows spry and innovative farmers to use small size and proximity to market to their advantage.

Eight years ago, after my youngest child neared the end of high school, I decided to expand my love of gardening into a business. I started off small — about a tenth of an acre in part of my backyard. I named my suburban farm “Pitspone Farm” — from a Hebrew word meaning very small. Over the years I slowly expanded, until at this point I’ve more or less taken over my entire backyard, about one-third of an acre.

red currants
Ripening ‘Red Lake’ red currants.

From time to time customers come to my farm to pick up produce or visit my operation. Invariably I’ll get a call as they sit in their car in front of my house: “Hi, I’m not sure we’re in the right place. This looks like a residential area.” At that point I usually come out from the back to greet and reassure them that they are indeed in the right place. From the front my home looks like a typical residence. All the action is in the back.

My goal has been, and continues to be, to explore the model of a small-scale suburban farm, both as an income-producing entity and as a contributor to the food supply. This model might be of interest to people in several types of circumstances:

  1. Not everyone is lucky enough to find large, affordable acreages for farming. However, many of us living in the suburbs have easy access to enough land for a suburban farm.
  2. A suburban farm can be a useful way to transition into larger acreage, by establishing markets and experimenting with various crops.
  3. A small suburban farm allows one to work a farm while holding down an additional job.

Growing Berries: Preparation

Because my property is zoned residential, one of the first things I did was contact my local municipality to ask about zoning. I explained what I wanted to do and asked if there would be any problems. The answer I received was: “If nobody complains, then we don’t have any reason to cause you problems.” With that in mind, I’ve labored to be a good neighbor — a good goal in any case. I produce no noise from animals or motorized equipment, I don’t spray chemicals, and any noise I do create (like hammering posts), I do at times that people are up and about. Once in awhile I do have customers come to my home, but they don’t cause a disturbance.

Improvements on my land include additional water spigots and fencing to keep out deer. I chose conventional stockade fencing common on residential properties. While deer can jump this fence, the fact that they can’t see over it, along with plenty of other food options in the neighbors’ yards, has prevented problems.

I am constantly amending the soil with horse manure (look for a nearby horse boarding operation), wood chips and leaves. In the fall I’ve been known to cruise around in my truck picking up bagged leaves that people leave by the curb. This does cause a small inconvenience because I can’t dump anything straight into the backyard. I bring in everything with a wheelbarrow.

By the way, one of my early purchases, and indispensable to me, was a small truck for hauling manure, plants, wood chips, etc.

Berries & Small Fruit

During my time farming, I have constantly been exploring the best crop mix and marketing strategies for my markets. I started out growing primarily vegetables for restaurants.

Eventually I decided that there might be other models better suited to my situation, and I became interested in small fruits and berries. I have now transitioned to only growing small fruits and berries — both fruit and plants.

My location in central New Jersey places me approximately 1 hour from both Philadelphia and New York, as well as within half an hour from several medium-sized towns or small cities.

Why did I decide on berries? First of all, my limited amount of land dictates a high-value crop. Since I’m a one-person operation, I need to grow high-value crops that also emphasize the advantages of proximity to markets, such as short shelf-life berries.

On the other hand, many berries can also be frozen, especially those used primarily for processing such as elderberry and aronia. This allows for greater flexibility in sales and reduces waste. I’ve also decided to grow a mix instead of just one particular crop. This allows me to proceed from harvest to harvest as each kind of berry ripens.

I begin with haskaps and end with fall raspberries. By having relatively small harvests I can sell much of my crop retail and also easily sell out each harvest.


Determining prices for berries can be a challenge, especially for berries that are not available locally and for which I am the only local grower.

One place to start is the 2012 Berry Pricing Survey from Cornell University, though it is somewhat limited, and perhaps dated. Grower associations can also provide guidance on pricing.

In the end, much of my pricing is trial and error and is dictated in large part by customer feedback.


‘Hinnomaki Red’ gooseberries that have yet to ripen.

Gooseberries come in an amazing variety of sizes, textures and colors. The plants are also diverse in their growing habit. Some plants are vigorous and upright, others are small and spreading. Some are very spiny and others have almost no spines. There is also a difference in disease resistance among the various cultivars.


Average yield for my gooseberries seems to be 3-5 lbs/plant. Once the plants reach full production I expect more consistency toward the top of that range.


Until I started growing gooseberries a few years ago I had never seen a gooseberry, much less knew what it tasted like or what to do with it. However, there are a lot of people within driving distance of my farm who are very familiar with gooseberries and who will eagerly buy them. Many of these people are buying memories — they remember their mom’s gooseberry jam, their grandfather’s berry bushes in the old country, or eating fresh gooseberry tarts as a youngster.

American growers have largely ignored gooseberries, but that doesn’t mean everybody else has also forgotten them. If you have any Eastern European communities near your farm, then there is an eager market for these fruits. The only problem I have with gooseberries is that I can’t seem to grow enough of them.

A word of caution before you jump into gooseberries, or any other crop for that matter: Start small. The market in my area is very diverse and upscale. Other markets may not respond in a similar manner.


I sell gooseberries both wholesale and retail. For wholesale I charge $5-$5.25/pint, which is about 12 oz. For retail I charge $7.50/pint.

Gooseberry Cultivars

Here are some gooseberry cultivars. All are vigorous and disease-resistant. They are presented in order of ripening. This is just a sampling. Many more cultivars are available.

‘Invicta.’ New variety that produces abundant yields of large, pale green berries. The plant is vigorous and spreading and is mildew resistant. It does have large thorns.

‘Hinnomaki Red.’ One of the most common cultivars, it is disease resistant and productive, though fairly thorny. I prune mine to create an open center. This both increases air circulation, reduces disease and eases harvesting of the reddish, medium-sized berries. The bush grows to about 4 feet tall and wide. If you are letting it grow as a multiple-stem bush they can be spaced about 4 feet.

‘Tixia.’ Not as common as ‘Hinnomaki,’ but certainly available at some nurseries. This plant is a bit larger — up to about 5 feet tall and 4 feet or so wide. It grows more upright. The berries are large, about the size of a grape, and they are suitable as a dessert berry when fully ripe. I’ve found production to be moderate. They are less thorny than ‘Hinnomaki.’

‘Black Velvet.’ Very vigorous upright growth with small/medium black berries. The plants are vigorous and the berry has very good flavor. The thorny bushes need to be kept pruned for ease of harvest.

‘Jeanne.’ Available in some nurseries. This cultivar was introduced several years ago by the USDA. The medium-sized red berries ripen late in the season and are a good variety to use to prolong the season. Also up to about 5 feet with spacing of 4 feet.


aronia berries
The author’s aronia berries.

Aronia has been touted as the next superberry, and indeed the health attributes of the berry are the strongest hook for sales. The berries are astringent and not particularly tasty, although they are pleasant enough in small quantities.

The plants grow vigorously, have few diseases or pests and are very productive.

They eventually reach a height of 6-8 feet. They should be spaced 4-5 feet. Aronia berries are used extensively for their juice and are usually mixed with other fruits or berries.

The main commercial cultivar is ‘Viking.’ Other cultivars include ‘Galicjanka,’ ‘Nero’ and ‘Mackenzie.’

According to Dr. Mark Brand of the University of Connecticut, all of the named aronia cultivars are genetically identical. His lab at the University of Connecticut recently began a long-term project whose objective is the breeding of improved aronia cultivars for the commercial fruit and ornamental industries.


My plants last year averaged almost 10 lbs/plant, and they are not yet producing at full capacity. The literature talks about yields of 15-20-plus lbs/plant at full capacity, which is after growth of seven to eight years. Within two growing seasons you can expect yields of 3-4 lbs/plant.


My customers generally put aronia in smoothies or in something like oatmeal instead of blueberries. They don’t generate the same memories as some of my other berries, but they are popular with some Eastern European communities to use in making tinctures or drinks and they are also in demand with herbalists. I’ve found a good deal of interest in my local Asian communities, specifically because of their health attributes.


I charge $4-$5/pound for fresh or freshly frozen berries but the price could be as low as $2-$3 for larger amounts for wine or jams.

Red Currants

Red currants are easy to grow and they are productive. I only grow red currants. Black currants are not permitted in New Jersey, though I do get a lot of requests for them. (Black currants are the most susceptible of the Ribes species for the rust fungus that causes white pine blister rust. Before you plant any Ribes — currant, gooseberry or jostaberry check your local regulations.)


My plants generally yield 4-5 lbs/plant. At full production, they can produce as much as 10 pounds or more per plant.


Red currants are another berry well-known by Europeans and generally unavailable fresh.


I sell most of my currants wholesale at $5-$5.50/pint, which is about 8 oz. Retail is $7.50/pint.

By transforming your typical suburban yard into a productive small business, you can positively contribute to the local food supply, generate income and break out of the mold of the perfect weed-free lawn with manicured shrubs and trees.

Pitspone Farm specializes in a wide range of small fruits and berries — both fruits and plants. This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Clay Bottom Farm Turns Lean Principles into Profit

By Shawndra Miller

It’s a frigid March day in northern Indiana, but inside Clay Bottom Farm’s hoop house, Ben Hartman is planting onion sets. The work is done quickly with a Japanese paper pot transplanter — a wheeled cart with a slanted chute.

A tray holds a honeycombed square of paper pots that unspool as a linked chain of seedlings slides down the red chute as Hartman wheels it down the bed.

“Origami designers developed this tool,” he explains, as each paper pot slips into the soft furrow at evenly spaced intervals, to be tucked in by the transplanter’s slanted rear wheels.

Ben Hartman waters plants in his hoop house with his young son.
Ben Hartman and his son Arlo work in the hoop house at Clay Bottom Farm.

At the end of the row Hartman tears the damp paper linking the pots and turns the implement for another pass. The first seedling in a row gets planted by hand, but the rest are hands-off. “You’re supposed to use a used chopstick,” he says, staking the first paper pot with tongs to keep the line in place, “but we didn’t have any on hand.”


Onions for the Garden & Good Health

By Jill Henderson

Of all the vegetables, herbs and spices that are used to season food and heal the body, the unassuming onion is rarely given its proper due. For a plant that serves so many needs and desires in our kitchens, gardens and herbal pantries, the savory spicy-sweet goodness of onions in all their forms should be elevated.

Onions and all of their onion-like relatives have long been classified as belonging to the Lilly (Lilliaceae) fam­ily, but in 2009 botanists began using a scientific system known as phylogenet­ics to reorganize many plant families based on genetic testing.

The entire Allium genus was reclassified as being a part of the Amaryllis (Amaryllida­ceae) family of plants, which includes the lovely and highly regarded flow­ering perennials of the same name. Even so, botanists are still studying and debating the order of the genera Allium, which contains 15 subgenera and nearly 1,000 species!

Egyptian Walking onion plant
The flowers of Egyptian Walking onions will soon be transformed into bulbs.

Great Eats

Obviously, the most well-known onion is the common bulb onion, known to us botanical nuts as Allium cepa. Botanically speaking, cepa onions are all the same. The only comparable differences are in their shapes, colors and sizes, the day-length needed to grow them and their flavor and stor­ability. In general, cepa onions are most often categorized as “cooking,” “sweet” or “storage” types.

Yellow on­ions are generally referred to as cook­ing, storage, or winter onions because they hold up well during long periods of cooking and are excellent keepers. Next are the red salad onions, which are sweet and mild-flavored, making them the best choice when raw onions are desired. Lastly, there are the white onions, which tend to be a bit smaller than their red or yellow counterparts. White onions are sweet, very mild and do not store well. While they are really best for fresh eating, people who don’t particularly like onions tend to gravi­tate toward them for cooking, as well.

Egyptian walking onions make for fantastic scallions in late winter.

If you like onions but can’t grow them due to climate or soil condi­tions, or because you don’t have the space, you might want to consider one of A. cepa’s perennial cousins such as bunching onions or scallions (Allium fistulosum), potato or multiplier onions (Allium cepa aggregatum) and walking onions (Allium cepa proliferum). All of these onions are true perennials that come back year after year from a sin­gle planting to produce dense clumps of elongated fleshy stems and copious leaves and, in the case of walking and potato onions, small bulbs that readily divide.

Walk Those Onions

One of my personal favorites is the walking, or Egyptian walking onion. Some people also refer to them as tree- or top-setting onions. Walking onions reproduce vegetatively, either by the division of the underground bulb or through bulbils (also known as bulblets) that form atop the flowering stem. As the bulbils reach maturity, their size and weight pull the tall flow­ering stem to the ground where the bulbils then take root; slowly “walk­ing” away, season by season, from the parent plant.

I love my Egyptian walking onions so much that I no longer grow bulb onions. Walking onions are extremely hardy, will grow in almost any soil, and are heat- and drought-tolerant and day-length neutral. In fact, when we got our starts we didn’t have time to dig, much less amend the soil, and the only place we had to put them was in red greasy clay. It’s been four years now and I sometimes think of digging them up and doing right by that patch of earth that stays wet all winter and becomes hard as a rock in the dog days of summer — but the walking onions have absolutely thrived there.

The only caveats to growing walk­ing onions are that they have two dor­mant periods. The first is the deepest, coldest part of winter after a round of bone-chilling temps in the single dig­its. If you live in a place with long cold winters, expect walking onions to go dormant after a few hard freezes. The second dormancy comes in late sum­mer, some months after the bulbils have completely matured. Yet, as soon as the first cool breeze suggests fall is on the way, an abundance of new leafy growth appears and we’re back to harvesting as much onion “chives” as we can handle and digging up small bulbs throughout the winter.

onion bulbs
Egyptian walking onion bulbils.

Many people like to harvest the lit­tle bulbils for pickling or to give away to friends to start patches of their own. You can also use your bulbils to grow little storage onions. Gather the largest bulbils in late summer after they are mature and keep them in a cool dark place until early fall. Plant them sev­eral inches apart in a well-cultivated bed, mulch and forget about them un­til the next summer. When the plants send up flowering stalks, cut them off immediately. Allow the plants to go dormant naturally and harvest your well-cured storage onions.

My only advice for those seeking to grow walking onions, particularly Egyptian walking onions, is to try before you buy. Some cultivars are extremely strong in flavor.

Grow a Row

Common bulb onions are typically grown from either sets or plants. Sets are essentially baby onions that have been grown from seed and allowed to develop a small bulb. Once the bulb is big enough, the plant is pulled and the bulbs dried for replanting the follow­ing spring. Sets are probably the most popular methods of growing large storage onions. On the other hand, onion plants are grown from seed in late winter and allowed to grow only long enough to establish a good root system before they are dug up, bundled and sold fresh in the spring. If you decide to use onion plants, be sure they’re very fresh. Old, dried out and wilty onion plants don’t produce qual­ity bulbs. Some gardeners find that sets and plants allow them to produce harvest-size onions more quickly than those started from seed at home.

Onion chives in bloom are not only beautiful, but also delicious.

Keep in mind, all varieties of com­mon onions mature in relation to day length. Short-day onions need 10 hours of sunlight each day, while long-day types require up to 15 to trigger bulb formation. If the day length is not long enough for the variety, the bulbs will be small in size. In general, if you live in Zone 7 or below, you should grow only long-day varieties, while those gardening in Zone 8 and above will be best served by planting short-day varieties. Day-neutral onions can be grown in any zone and produce a nice-sized bulb. All onions are typi­cally harvested in late summer after the tops begin to yellow and fall over.

Onions that do not produce large bulbs, such as bunching onions, chives and leeks are always started from seed. Be sure the seed you use is very fresh — those over a season old probably won’t germinate. If the ground is al­ready frozen, start your seeds indoors on a windowsill roughly eight weeks prior to the last spring frost. Sow seed ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart, and allow 10 to 14 days for germination.

Keep the tops trimmed back to about 8 inches tall (this helps the plant put more energy into developing a good root system and keeps the planting manageable). Transplant your onion starts in the garden after danger of a hard freeze has passed and the soil is workable. If you’re worried about cold injury to your young plants, try cover­ing the bed with a single layer of light poly-spun garden fabric.

Of course, you don’t have to start onions from seed indoors to get a good crop, especially if you live in a long-day onion zone. The best way to approach direct-sowing is to prepare a bed in late fall to early winter and direct-sow the seed. If you time it just right, your seeds will germinate, produce a small root and then go dor­mant with the coming of hard winter weather. In early spring, you can ap­ply a cloak of poly-spun garden fabric to get your onions leafing out as soon as possible. Remove the fabric after danger of a hard freeze has passed. This method is known as “winter sow­ing,” and it works great on all cold weather spring crops.

To keep a perennial patch of non-bulbing onions going in your garden with very little work, simply allow a few plants of the same variety and spe­cies to mature and set seed. Keep in mind that onions that share the same species will cross-pollinate one anoth­er. So if you want to keep your onions true, be sure to allow only one variety of each species to set flowers and seed at a time, otherwise you might end up with an undesirable cross. Once the seed ripens you can either gather and scatter it by hand or allow the seeds to fall where they may. You’ll have some thinning to do come spring, but the bounty is virtually endless. Green on­ions, scallions and chives do especially well when treated this way.

An Ounce of Prevention

Simply eating onions on a regular basis can have a positive effect on your overall health, and because onions and garlic share many of the same chemical constituents, they are often used in similar ways.

ornamental onions
Giant ornamental onions are grown primarily for their showy flowers.

One of the best-known uses of on­ion is in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Used alone or with other herbs, onions can aid or ameliorate heart attacks, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, blood clots, high cholesterol and angina through their ability to increase blood cir­culation and viscosity by reducing the amount of fat absorbed into the bloodstream.

Onions also reduce inflammation and fight many types of infections, including fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. Onions are often used to ease the symptoms of colds and flu such as fever, cough and bronchial congestion. They also have strong antibiotic and antimicrobial proper­ties, which are used to inhibit or treat respiratory infections, staphylococcus, streptococcus, cholera, bacillus typhus and dysentery.

Raw or lightly cooked leaves and bulbs should be consumed whenever possible to promote overall health. A flavorful and healing infusion of onion is easily prepared using vegetable, fish or poultry broth. Use as much onion as is palatable.

As a precaution, those persons tak­ing blood-thinning medications or pre­paring for surgery should talk to their practitioners before using medicinal quantities of onion for circulatory dis­orders. Other than that, go ahead and indulge, literally, to your heart’s content.

Grow a Little for the Garden

Alliums are not only good for you, but they’re good for your garden, too. When planted in and among vegetables and flowers, Alliums can repel insect and animal pests while attracting beneficials like predatory insects, pollinating bees and beautiful butterflies. The same phytochemicals that make Alliums healthy and flavor­ful are also fierce fungicidal agents that can be used against powdery mildew and other leaf diseases. A simple tea made with the leaves can be sprayed on many garden plants, including peas and roses, with no worries of harming them, and it might even help repel bad bugs and a curious deer or two. Besides all of the other beneficial characteristics of Alliums, the abun­dance of bright white, pink and purple flowers does absolute wonders for the gardener’s soul.

I think we can all agree that onions are pretty amazing. With so many incredible, edible onions to choose from, there’s absolutely no excuse not to have at least two or three growing in your garden year-round. Get to know your onions, your health and your garden — your family will thank you for it.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gar­dener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide. This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.