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Here’s how neem oil can do double duty for organic gardeners

Neem oil. It’s a thick, tan-colored oil extracted from the mechanically-pressed (or chemically-processed) seed of the neem tree. Neem is one of those plants that is almost certainly under-utilized across most of the world. It’s all-natural and vegan. You can use neem oil for organic pest control but wait, there’s more…

Organic neem oil benefits and uses. Read more at farmstand

Don’t eat the neem

Yes, I know that the very young shoots and leaves are prepared in dishes in some countries, but long term ingestion of neem is likely to harm internal organs. Neem is toxic to children and pregnant women. Avoid ingesting neem if you are pregnant or nursing.

If you keep neem in your house, ensure that it is out of the reach of children.

What’s the “double-duty” then?

#1 duty: Use neem oil for organic pest control in your garden. I get a ton of pests in my garden in the summer. I pick them off the leaves and use all sorts of preventative measures, like broken egg shells, jute rope, copper tape and a solar-powered owl, that looks fun but is mostly ineffective.

There’s only two organic-friendly garden treatments that offer me any success. One is neem oil. The other is coyote urine. If I have to choose, neem oil smells better but not by much.

It’s not a good idea to eat a lot of neem oil, but it also breaks down quickly in the environment. I spray my plants on a day when I know two things are not going to happen.

  • First, I won’t be harvesting and eating the veggies for at least two days. That’s the half life of neem’s active component, Azadirachtin.
  • Second, it’s not going to downpour and wash away some of the protective oils. Water makes the Azadirachtin breakdown faster.

Neem oil in organic gardens

Every two weeks in the summer, I fill a spray bottle with warm water and add a cap full of neem oil. I shake it up and spray it all over my backyard garden. For my 20′ x 60′ garden, I need to fill the bottle twice.

Neem deters and kills aphids (they’re garden enemy #1 at my house), snails, nematodes (that’s too bad, I kind of like them), cabbage worms, gnats, moths, cockroaches, flies, termites and mosquitoes.

Some internet sites list Japanese beetles as one of the bugs killed or repelled by neem; however, in years when the infestation is really intense, all kinds of beetles power-through my neem defenses. It might help, but it’s no cure-all.

The great news is, neem oil is practically non-toxic to bees, birds, fish and plants! I would never harm my neighbors’ honey bees. Look how cute they are.

Looking for more technical info on neem oil? Here is a great cheatsheet from Oregon State University.

Another use for neem oil

I did say neem could do double duty for you. In addition to using it in your organic garden, you can use neem oil to make homemade soap. It’s cleansing, moisturizing and deodorizing!

One piece of advice, don’t use too much neem in your soaps. It can feel a little bit heavy on your skin if you overdo it.

When I make soap, I usually use a base of olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter. Neem oil works best if it’s less than 10% of the total oils in your recipe.

Nutmeg butter soap Homestate soap Handmade vegan soap
Homestate nutmeg handmade soap

Here are some tips on how to use almost any oil laying around your house to make soap. You really just need a basic recipe and a little practice with a soap calculator. I use the calculator at for all of my homemade batches.

Nutmeg and Neem vegan handmade borage and babassu soap

Bonus: since a little goes a long way, one bottle of neem lasts me more than a year!

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How should a gardener feel about the first Fall frost?

Boy making paths through a frosty New England field

I woke up this morning to our first Fall frost. It’s fine. It’s ok. I expected it, of course. I’m not going to get worked up about frost on garden plants.

But, it stayed on my mind.

As the kids were getting ready for school, I walked through the chaos thinking about the tiny, frosty icicles dragging down the sage leaves and smothering the nasturtiums. Doesn’t everyone?

I made my tea and walked the kids down to the bus stop. The steam was beautiful in the chilly morning air.

The kids noticed the frost. To them, it was an opportunity, not an obstacle. My son immediately jumped the fence and began to track paths through the frosty fields. My daughter climbed up on the railings and shouted directions to him. Two little frost artists. I captured some moments in photos.

Boy walking through a frosty New England field

Then, I got the idea to capture photos of the first garden frost to reframe my perspective. Frost brings a new and fleeting beauty to the garden. I’ll never forget my three-year old daughter waking up one morning, seeing frost on her windows and shouting, “the princess was here!”

The root veggies – beets, salsify, parsnip, carrots – they taste a little sweeter after a frost. You can’t get that wonderful change in flavor without losing the more vulnerable eggplants, basil and tomatoes to the chill.

Take a minute to view some of the frosty scenes from my garden this morning. It was beautiful. Then, the sun rose a little higher, and it was gone.

Beautiful, frosty garden tour

Carrots like a little frost
Carrots like a little bit of frost
Violas can handle the frost
Violas can handle some frost
Morning frost on strawberry buds
Season’s over for these strawberry buds
Frosty lavender turns silver
Frosty lavender turns silver
Frost overcomes a purple eggplant blossom
Frost overcomes a purple eggplant blossom
Clary sage plant in frost
Clary sage covered in frost

You may remember the clary sage from the forgotten herbs series. It looked a little different without its frosty blanket.

Blueberry plants vivid red in autumn with frost
Blueberry plants turn vivid red under the first Fall frost 
Calendula plant with frost in the morning sun
Calendula through the frost and morning sun

My third crop of calendula won’t survive the cool weather. It was featured earlier this year as one of my favorite forgotten herbs.

Frost on thyme leaves and lemon balm
Frost on the edges of thyme
garden cloche bell covered in frost
Sure, now I remember the garden cloche
last rose of summer covered in frost
Last rose of summer tinged with frost

Thank you for viewing my garden during our first Fall frost of the year.

You can see more forgotten herbs in the on-going series.

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Growing garlic from cloves in your kitchen

garlic cloves in a basket at Off Center Farm Stand Woodbridge

There are a lot of articles out there about planting and growing garlic. Makes sense. Autumn is garlic-planting time. Some of them argue that you have to or should go spend a good amount of money on starter garlic. Unless you are about to start a full out commercial garlic farm, I’m here to tell you that it’s a lot cheaper and easier than that.

Just look at the organic garlic you have at home or at your local farm stand, grocer or market. I’ve never tried non-organic, but online research tells me that it won’t sprout. If it has some pretty good sized cloves on it, snap them off and go stick them about 3 inches into the ground. You’ll get the best results if you add compost or manure to the soil, too, make it nice and rich. In cold climates, it’s a good idea to put leaves or straw over top of the garlic bed for an extra buffer from winter weather. You will get two harvests from garlic! In early Spring, you can harvest the curly scapes (green tops), and in late Spring, you can turn your garlic bulbs out of the soil with a pitchfork. I’ll take any wholesome excuse to use a pitchfork!

Here’s a great (but a little bit too advertisey) article on planting garlic.

Source: Growing Garlic from a Single Clove

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Is Autumn or Spring the better time to have kids help you in the garden?

Kid wearing purple rain boots

Until this year, I never questioned whether Spring or Autumn was the preferred season for kids in the garden.

Spring was the only season I imagined when I thought about brining kids to the garden with me. But, this year, I am open to reconsider.

person holding a green plant
Photo by Akil Mazumder on

Before I had kids in my life, I idealized visions of tiny fingers pressing seeds into the rich soil. I imagined them putting on their little rain boots on a warm Spring morning and following me to the garden to check on our pea sprouts and kale babies.

Then I had kids. Two, in fact, and I realized that in real life it is a little more stressful to bring kids to the garden with you.

Kids like to scatter seeds all over. Kids like to press seeds deeeep into the earth. Kids like to water delicate seedlings until they are drowning in a pool of brown muck. Kids trip and fall and squish things that are trying to grow.

But I realize they are both trying to grow, the plants and the kids.

It’s important to bring kids to the garden in the Springtime. You just have to do it with strategy and forethought. You have to be willing to let go of perfection and accept that you will lose a few plants along the way.


in the Autumn, you don’t have to worry as much. It is pretty obvious that the cucumbers and zucchinis are long past their prime. Let the kids pull those dead plants out of the ground and bring them to the compost pile for you. Yeah, kids! Thanks, that’s actually useful work.

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Do you like to turn your soil and spread cover crop in early Autumn? This year, let the kids do it.

Children are perfectly suited to get their hands dirty mixing compacted soil. The kids in your life will be happy to scour the shadows between leaves and vines for the last remaining fruits and veggies. It’s a garden-time scavenger hunt. They dream that one day someone will hand them a huge bag of alfalfa seed to spread with abandon.

Check the weather. If there will be a day or two of rain the forecast, let the kids toss those alfalfa seeds all over the raised beds or garden plots. Sounds like fun to me, and I’m a certified grown up. Although, to clarify, if you don’t want the entire bag of seed dumped in one spot, you’ll have to guide and oversee. Or give out the seeds in little scoops.

Six jobs kids can help with in your Autumn garden:

1) Mix soil that’s been compacted by the Summer rains
2) Scatter cover crop seeds
3) Rip out dry and dead plants
4) Carry, wagon or power wheels plant matter to the compost pile
5) Cut batches of mint or parsley, tie the stems tightly and hang them upside down inside to dry
6) Collect and separate seeds

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Worst gardening mistake I ever made

Don’t read this post. It will ruin the whole illusion for you. Right now, as far as you know, my garden grows weed-less. My flowers are always crowned with a glistening morning dew. My local farm stands always have lush offerings, and my hair always holds a perfect curl.

Why are you still reading?

Ok, fine.

I brought it on myself, really. It’s not like I don’t know what happens when seeds fall into soil and water lands on them.

Last year, I had a beautiful chive plant. It grew nearly 4′ tall and blossomed snow-white flowers. Those flowers were the trendiest new bar in town for my neighbor’s honey bees. We were all so happy. Me, with my beautiful flowering chive, and the bees with the nectar.

chives stepped back

In fact, those flowers were so pretty, I let them stay in bloom in September.

And since there were a few late bloomers, I didn’t cut them down as they went to seed in October. Oh wow, did that chive plant know how to make seeds.

We were in the middle of a major renovation of the first floor of our farm house, which is probably why I got lazy. I never did go back and clear out that dry, seedy chive plant.

And those seeds went everywhere.

Boom. Seedling explosion.

The following Spring, roughly 10,000 baby chive plants sprung up all around my garden. It was intense. A 4′ diameter around the momma chive blanketed with her hairy little babies.

chives wild.JPG

Tough little suckers, too. I could pull and tug. Those seedlings just snap in half and grow a stronger, chunkier root ball.

I spent some time digging around the garden bed with my bare hands to pull up the chives. Maybe, I got 8,000 of them. Mostly I just gave up and planted some hearty green bean seeds in the bed with the chives. Figured some sturdy, little green beans would be capable of bursting through the chive forest. And they more or less did.

I’d like to say that if I could go back in time I would cut down those pretty white flowers before they caused me trouble. But, I probably wouldn’t. Circumstances being what they were. My family knee deep in construction debris, and me spending my evenings shimmying between towers of moving boxes to microwave frozen burritos.

Update! How I fixed it

After following a cycle of sprout-pull-resprout for a summer season with those chive seedlings, I was able to clean out the chive bed. In the early Autumn, I went in and dug through that bed with my bare hands. First, I pulled everything out that wasn’t a chive. Then, I went inch-by-inch through the garden soil, driving my hands below the surface, feeling for chive roots and lifting them out completely.

An half-hour later, there was a pile of little white chive root balls and green shoots in our compost bin. My back ached for two days, but I got a great leg and shoulder workout. I suspect there will be a few more chives to pull out next season. I’ll be ready. Of course, that would mean that letting one plant go to seed one time cost me two seasons of work to undo.

Oh well, only time will tell if the chive baby bomb retains its place as the worst mistake I ever made in the garden. But for now, champion crowned.