Using A Four-Year Cycle, By Plant Family

Written By James J. Sagmiller

This listing is based upon the Linnean botanical classification of plants into family, genus and species.  Each family of plants represents a genetically related group that usually prefers similar soil and growing conditions in the garden and is frequently subject to the same pests and diseases. 

Growing the same annual vegetable crop in the same place year after year depletes soil nutrients and renders plants more susceptible to pests and diseases.  By rotating which types of plants are planted in a particular spot, the garden soil will be improved and plants will be healthier.  Some vegetables, especially peas and beans, fix nitrogen in the soil.  They prepare the soil for the second year’s crop of nitrogen-hungry Brassica family members, such as spinach and kale.  These are followed in the third year by the Solanaceae family, including  tomatoes and potatoes, along with others that enjoy a soil rich in phosphorus.  The fourth year rotation is made up of vegetables that tend to be less heavy feeders, such as onions and carrots.  

A simple way to set up a garden plot for rotation is to make a garden plan with four sections of beds or simply four beds if the area is small.  Start the first year by planting vegetables from the list in its proper section (or quadrant).  In the second year shift the placement of everything from its previous location into the next section, and so on each year.  By the fifth year, the vegetables from the first season would be planted where they were the first year.  

This guide list is a practical way to build your soil and thereby grow the healthiest vegetables you can.  In rotation 3 the herb sweet basil is included because it enjoys similar garden conditions as members of the  Solanaceae family.  I have also listed some annual flowers that are grown in vegetable gardens and these benefit from rotation as well.  In rotation 4 are nasturtiums, marigolds and zinnias.  Nasturtiums and signet marigolds can be used as colorful, flavorful additions to salads.   Zinnias attract pollinating insects (especially the single or semi-double forms) and make delightful cut flowers, but are not edible.  

Garden Bed Section 1. 

Fabaceae, Polygonaceae, Tetragoniaceae, Portulacaceae










New Zealand Spinach

Green Manures (all Fabaceae):


Crimson Clover

Rose Clover

Berseem Clover

Purple Vetch

Austrian Winter Peas

Garden Bed Section 2.

Brassicaceae and Chenopodiaceae




Brussels Sprouts


Cabbage, Chinese














Swiss Chard



Garden Bed Section 3.

Cucurbitaceae, Lamiaceae, Poaceae and Solanaceae





Squash, summer

Squash, winter


Sweet Basil


Corn (maize)






Garden Bed Section 4.

Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Liliaceae and Tropaeolaceae






Parsley Root



















Garlic is planted in fall and carries over into summer for harvest, so it is in the same place for nearly a year.  If it is planted in fall in rotation 4, the space it takes will reduce the beans and peas planting space in rotation 1.  When it is harvested in late July or August, garlic can be followed by a green manure crop or by a late planting of peas.  


Coleman, Eliot, 1992. Four Seasons Harvest.  Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont.

Gettle, Jere and Emilee, 2015. The Heirloom Life Gardener.  Hachette Books, New York.

Jabbour, Niki, 2011. The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.  Storey Publishing, Massachusetts.Poisson, Leandre and Gretchen, 1994. Solar Gardening.  Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont.



Top picture: A nineteenth century hand-colored engraving of the Egyptian Blue Waterlily Nymphaea caerulea.

Middle Picture: A photograph of the blue waterlily.

Bottom Picture: A wall painting of an ancient Egyptian garden from the tomb of Nebamun from the New Kingdom Period, about 1350 B.C.



The blue water lily is native to the Nile River delta and Nile tributaries.  It is truly an heirloom plant as it has been known for more than 4,000 years.  Representations of the blossoms appear in Old Kingdom Egyptian paintings and carvings of the period 2686-2181 B.C. and are depicted in Egyptian art through the Roman period to about 400 A.D.  A wall painting from the New Kingdom period from the tomb of Nebamun dating to 1350 B.C. shows an Egyptian garden with date trees, grape vines and a square pool filled with fish and flowering blue water lilies.  Presumably, the gardener either moved wild plants into the garden or started them from seed. The painting is evidence that blue water lilies were cultivated in gardens 3,360+ years ago.

Sometimes the blue Egyptian water lily is referred to as the “blue lotus,”  but this is incorrect; lotus belong to the genus Nelumbo, while the true Egyptian water lily known to the ancients is Nymphaea caerulea, a true waterlily.  

The ancient Egyptians regarded the blue water lily as a symbol of creation.  In the ancient mythology, the blue lily was the first object to emerge out of chaos.  It was associated with the sun god, Ra, who emerged from the blossom in morning and retreated to it at night.  This parallels the habit of the flowers, which open in the morning and close in late afternoon. The ancient Egyptians cut blue lily flowers and wove them into wreaths, garlands and necklaces and to be placed in tombs.  King Tutankhamun’s body was covered with blue lily blossoms when his tomb was opened in 1922. In tomb paintings from Old Kingdom period until the Roman period we see people wearing, carrying and sniffing the flowers. Indeed, the flower is very fragrant, with a heady, rich scent unlike the aroma of any other.  

Another interesting attribute of the Egyptian blue water lily is that it has psychoactive properties.  The flowers contain apomorphine, nuciferine, nupharine and nupharidine, plus alkaloids. There is an ongoing contemporary conversation among archaeologists as to whether or not the ancient Egyptians new of the mildly narcotic effects of the blue lily. It is probable that they did, because lily flowers are often shown (in ancient Egyptian paintings and carvings) with symbols for poppies and mushrooms, both psychoactive plants. In pictures and carvings blue lily blossoms are shown sitting on top of and twined around wine jars.  The effects from consuming tea made from boiled flowers or wine in which these flowers have been soaked are mildly sedative, mood-enhancing and euphoric. Many ancient civilizations or cultures used various herbal substances in ritual, initiation, and other ceremonies.

Today, the blue Egyptian water lily is a critically endangered plant in its original, native habitat of the Nile delta.  The decline of this beautiful native plant is due to pollution from nitrogenous fertilizers and phosphates combined with the changed flood effect of the Aswan Dam, which has reduced the seasonal cycle of the river’s inundation.  The annual flood brought with it new, fresh soil and clean water. Organic agriculture over a period of more than 4,000 years preserved the habitat of this plant, but the use of modern chemical fertilizers and the effects of the dam have brought it to near extinction just since the mid 1960s.  A few nurseries in the world today grow plants of Nymphaea caerulea today and a few offer seeds.  If you plan to purchase seeds, read the description carefully.  Another species of Nymphaea, the South African blue waterlily, N. nouchali var. caerulea (N. capensis) is sometimes confused with the true Nymphaea caerulea.  

I have grown Egyptian blue water lilies from seed and from purchased rhizomes.  I grew the plants in large tubs in the desert climate of Palm Springs, California.  Nymphaea caerulea is considered a tropical water lily, hardy in USDA climate zones 10-12, or anywhere Citrus are grown.  Plants grow in still, warm water of at least 70 degrees F.  

If you purchase plants, pot them in a moderately rich organic loam and clay soil mix in a lily crate (a webbed type of pot) about 12” x 12”.  Place the rhizome at a 45 degree angle but with the growing point slightly above the soil level. Mulch the pot with about ⅓ to ½ inch of pea gravel, to keep soil in and keep water clear.  Place the pot so it is in at the very least 9-12 inches of water, but no deeper than 16 inches over the rim. Add oxygenating plants and an air pump if desired, to keep water fresh. Fish, especially small ones, can be kept in the same large tub or pond.  They will eat mosquito larvae if they appear. If you do not have fish, you will need to check frequently for mosquito larvae and use mosquito rings (Bacillus thurigensis israeliensis) to control them.  It appears from ancient wall paintings that the Egyptians kept fish in their ponds with the blue lilies.  The leaves of the blue lily float on the surface of the water, while the flowers are held above water on stems.  Flowers can be cut and will fill a room with fragrance. A few drops of candle wax will keep the flowers open, if dropped around the stamens.

To start Nymphaea caerulea from seed place seeds in a low bowl with sand in the bottom in a warm, sunny place (or under lights 14 hours each day).  The optimum water temperature for germination is 73 to 81 degrees F. As with many species of plants, seed germination rates vary.  I have had seeds germinate within a week, or had them take as long as 4 weeks. Grow your plants on in water until about 2 inches tall, then pick them up by the leaf and pot them into 3 inch pots in a mix of 1 part loam to 1 part clay.   Pure clay cat litter without anything added makes a good clay element for the soil mix. The depth of water over the leaves has to be gradually increased as the plants grow. When stems stick out of water 2 or 3 inches re-pot again into 6 inch pots with about 4 inches of water over the rim by now.  As the plants grow, the depth can be increased to between 12 inches and 16 inches. The plants grow and bloom best in full sun, with afternoon shade in the desert in summer, when the temperature is over 105 degrees every day.

As the blue waterlily is a tropical plant, it will need to be lifted in fall, before first frost. Put the pot in a dark, cool place that will not freeze. A dark basement 50 degrees to 60 degrees F. is excellent.  Let the pot dry for several weeks, then carefully remove the rhizome and wash it.  Place the rhizome in damp sand or peat moss and keep it in the dark in the same temperature range until spring.  The rhizome can be re-potted in a fresh soil mix before planting out again in a pond, pool or large tub with water at least 70 degrees.

I found the Egyptian water lily to be a well-adapted plant here in the low desert.  I attempted to grow true lotus, Nelumbo species, but it resented the desert’s alkaline soil and water.   But the blue water lily of Egypt, Nymphaea caerulea, is adapted to the heat and alkalinity and thrives in those conditions.  




A note to readers: I apologize for the hiatus in writing this blog; the organic greenhouse/nursery I managed closed its doors and I embarked upon a new life adventure. I now work as a Collections Gardener at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California. There, I am helping to preserve, protect, and propagate rare and ubiquitous plant species from deserts of North America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar and Australia. I am involved in the conservation of plant and animal species facing extinction. I will continue to contribute to this blog about heirloom plants grown organically. Organic gardening is part of the best future for our planet; organic gardens actually directly capture carbon rather than indirectly and directly release carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. I urge you to do your part to capture carbon and minimize emissions. Together we can save Earth for future generations of all life forms!


By James Sagmiller

Aloe vera is one of our oldest cultivated plants and was primarily grown for use as a medicinal plant. It is mentioned in the “Ebers Papyrus” dating to the 16th century B.C. in Egypt. It was well known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Alexander the Great’s time, about 330-360 B.C., a center of cultivation was the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and about 240 miles from the Arabian Peninsula. (Aloe vera is carefully illustrated, described, and its uses listed in a herbal written by Dioscorides about 78 A.D., De Materia Medica. It is known to us through a copy included in the Codex Anicinae Julianae of 512 A.D. Dioscorides recommends Aloe vera be used topically for coagulating blood, staunching wounds and for hemorrhoids. He suggests mixing it with wine and honey to use as a rinse for tonsils, gums and sores of the mouth. He says it may be ingested as a “purgative” (laxative). He states that the plant was grown in India, Arabia, Asia, Apulia (Italy), and Andros.

Our illustration above is from The Greate Herball of Gerard (1633 revised version) page 507. The plant on the left is Aloe vera, on the right is Agave americana, a plant often confused with various species of aloe. Gerard repeats the medical uses of Dioscorides, but adds that Aloe vera, when ingested will cure worms also. It is interesting that Gerard recommends hanging live aloe plants from the ceiling, mentioning it will stay alive for months. In cottages in England at that time the warmest area (and probably least prone to frost) in a house would have been near the ceiling.

Indeed, Aloe vera is a tender plant in northern climates. It is actually hardy to about 25 degrees F. when it is grown on well-drained, dryish soil. Plants are commercially grown today in the West Indies on islands such as Curacao and Barbados. The old, incorrect name Aloe barbadensis may derive from the assumption that the plant originated in the West Indies, but Aloe vera is thought to be native to the Arabian Peninsula or possibly North Africa.

Medical use of Aloe vera today is quite controversial, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD). Topical use is generally accepted as safe for use in cosmetics and for burns, sunburns, wounds and mouth rinses. Most of the controversy concerns ingestion of  Aloe vera for various ailments, such as psoriasis, weight loss, constipation, HIV/AIDS, and Herpes simplex. Results of several studies are conflicting, so it is advised to ingest Aloe vera with caution and awareness of risks involved. Aloe vera as ingested is not recommended for lactating women, or within two weeks of surgery, and will react toxically with the drug Digoxin.

I personally have found the fresh, live juice to help heal sunburns and other burns quickly. The fresh gel acts as a moisturizing, protective layer on the skin. The fresh juice contains vitamins C and E plus various minerals. It may be that Aloe vera is most effective only when fresh and “alive” and may change chemically and in effectiveness when dried, pasteurized, or otherwise processed, much as is the case with fresh, as opposed to processed garlic.

Fortunately, Aloe vera is easy to grow! Plants produce prodigious stemless offsets which can be easily used to produce new plants. Take offsets and place them in a shady spot in a temperature of between 60 degrees F. and 90 degrees F. Let them dry off for two or three days, then prepare to pot them up. An organic cactus mix will work, but should not be too alkaline (high pH). If that is used, mix 2 parts cactus mix + 1 part organic potting soil + 1/3 part perlite + 1/16 part coffee grounds + 1/16 part bone meal and mix all together. To make your own organic mix, use 3 parts organic potting soil (or organic compost plus rotted bark or peat) + 1 part sharp grit (such as #2 chicken grit) + 1/16th part bone meal. A clay pot is really best, as the roots of Aloe vera need air. Try to think of a plant’s roots as its lungs. It needs a moist, airy environment to survive. A plastic pot may be used for an aloe plant, but place gravel or perlite in the bottom ⅛ of the pot for drainage. Make sure the pot has drainage holes for excess water to drain away. A mulch of rock chips or grit is excellent and attractive around an aloe plant, and serves to hold new offsets in place until well-rooted, but is not necessary. Room (or greenhouse) temperatures of 65 degrees F. to 90 degrees F. are preferred for this aloe. Aloes grow faster with more light and heat.

Plants can be grown in full sun as we do here outside in the low desert of California’s Coachella Valley, but Aloe vera is adaptable to light shade or part shade and fine plants may be grown in lower light conditions. Just be sure to take care not to over water your plants in shade or dark rooms. The best indoor plants I have seen were grown in east or southeast-facing windows.

Once a year, in mid-spring, top dress your potted plants with bone meal and a thin layer of fresh compost, or repot them one pot-size up.

It is great to have fresh Aloe vera on hand for burns and minor cuts, and the plants are quite beautiful with their blue-green foliage. In full sun, the foliage turns reddish. If lots of light is available, your Aloe vera will bloom with stalks of lovely yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds.



Cherry Ulster




By James Sagmiller

There are three types of cherries grown in home gardens and commercial orchards in Montana.  Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) are grown in Montana’s mildest climates (USDA Climate Zone 5; hardy to about -20 degrees F.) and do well around Flathead Lake.  Tart Cherries (Prunus cerasus) are hardier trees (USDA Climate Zone 4, to about -30 degrees F.) and are grown over much of the state, though are not really hardy enough for parts of Montana in USDA Climate Zone 3.  Canadian bush cherries are a new kind of bush cherry with tart-sweet fruit made from crosses of tart cherries and Mongolian bush cherries (Prunus fruticosa).  These are hardy to -40 degrees F.  Sweet cherries grow to 30 or 40 feet tall on standard rootstocks, though are usually pruned to be shorter for easier picking.  Tart cherries grow 18 to 20 feet tall and Canadian Bush cherries 6 to 8 feet tall.   Most cherry trees live and produce for about 35 years. 


Cherries prefer sandy or sandy loam soils; with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 (6.2-6.8 is ideal).  Clay soils would need to be significantly lightened with gypsum and organic matter and still might be too heavy.  If soil is too heavy the trees can be prone to diseases, such as Phytophthera.  Siting of a cherry orchard is important, especially for sweet cherries.  A sloping site is best, because cold air is heavier than warm air and can drain away from the trees when in bloom.  Better air circulation also helps prevent foliage diseases, such as powdery mildew, and fruit diseases such as brown rot.  In winter, a sloping site will be slightly warmer than low spots and this might protect bark from freezing and thawing.  On a site sloping to the south or southwest, bark is especially susceptible to winter damage, which can lead to bacterial canker.  All tree trunks should be painted with N.O.P. approved whitewash (no latex paint for organic growers).  Here in Montana we do not have to worry about the number of chilling hours, because of our long cold season.  Our relatively cool summers, lower summer humidity, and drier conditions around harvest time are all benefits to growing top quality cherries.


Cherries have been grown grafted onto rootstocks since ancient Greek and Roman times.  The oldest rootstock is ‘Mazzard’, which dates to Roman times, is still used, and makes a 15 to 20 foot tree with high yields.  ‘Mahaleb’ rootstock is slightly dwarfing and was first used in the 1700s in France.  It is still used today.  The ‘Gisela’ series of rootstocks, developed in Europe, have not proved reliable in the Western U.S., except perhaps on the Pacific coast.  Some of the ‘Gisela’ rootstocks are very dwarfing, creating a tree that only grows 8 to 10 feet tall.  These very dwarf trees need more consistent irrigation than standard types and staking because of heavy yields.  The rootstocks are patented also, so a large scale grower cannot produce them legally without paying expensive royalties.  ‘Colt’ and ‘Performer’ rootstocks grow trees about 70% and 80-100% the size of ‘Mazzard’, respectively.  These two have proven moderately resistant to bacterial canker and are somewhat tolerant of heavier soils.  ‘Colt’ is resistant to Phytophthera, moderately resistant to viruses, but is moderately susceptible to Armillaria.  Spacing for trees on ‘Mazzard’, ‘Mahaleb’, should be 15 to 20 feet, slightly less for ‘Performer’ and ‘Colt’.  Very dwarf trees on ‘Gisela 3’ and ‘Gisela 5’ could be planted 9 to 12 feet apart. 



There are many sweet cherry varieties available.  When choosing from those available, keep in mind that most sweet cherries require another named variety for pollination.  Some kinds are self-fruitful, but most require another pollinizer, while others cannot be pollinated by certain specific varieties.   I will list popular cherry varieties below with their characteristics and pollinizers:

‘Bing’ is an older variety with large, flavorful fruit.  The cherries crack easily if watered too much when nearly ripe, the tree is not quite as winter hardy as others, but the fruit is among the highest in anthocynins.  ‘Bing will not pollinize ‘Kristin’ or ‘Emperor Francis’.

‘Black Tartarian’ is a robust, early-bearing variety that bears red-purple-black fruit with great flavor.  It is also a very good pollinizer.

‘Emperor Francis’ has yellow fruit with a red blush and bears early in the season.

‘Kristin’ is a very winter hardy sweet cherry with large, dark red fruit.  The tree is resistant to bacterial canker.  ‘Kristin’ will not pollinate ‘Bing’.

‘Lapins’ is self-pollinating (self-fruitful), a heavy bearer, and the tree is resistant to bacterial canker.  The fruit is large, firm, dark red and crack-resistant with a good, sweet flavor.

‘Rainier’ has large yellow cherries blushed with red.  The tree can be pollinated by ‘Bing’, ‘Van’ and ‘Black Tartarian’.

‘Royal Ann’ (‘Napoleon’) makes a large, spreading tree with yellow fruit blushed red.

‘Stella’ is a self-pollinating (self-fruitful) sweet cherry with very dark red, elongated fruit.

‘Van’ is a heavy bearer, tasty and reliable, with cherries somewhat smaller in size than ‘Bing’. 

Several tart cherry varieties are grown in Montana.  All of them are self-pollinating:

‘Montmorency’ is an heirloom variety grown primarily for pie or juice.  It is a heavy bearer. 

‘Morello’ is another heirloom tart cherry, from England.  Fruit is heart-shaped and ripens late.

‘Northstar’ is a heavy producer of tart cherries.  The tree is disease-resistant.  

The Canadian bush cherries are so new that is difficult to find them in catalogs and local garden centers. 

‘Carmine Jewel’ is one variety available now.  It is self-fruitful, with semi-tart cherries on dwarf, bushy plants.  It ripens earlier than other tart cherries and is hardy to USDA climate zone 3. 


After an orchard site is chosen, a soil test has been made, and organic amendments have been added, it is time to plant.  Spring planting is most common, but late fall (early November) is a good time also.  Amendments and techniques used need to follow organic certification requirements if certification is desired.  Dig a hole larger than the root span and add some organic compost to the bottom of the hole.  Make sure the bud union (graft) is at least three inches above the soil level.  Fill the hole with soil and water the tree well.   Paint the trunk with whitewash to protect it from freezing and thawing during winter.  Place a tree guard made from a rolled piece of ¼” hardware cloth around the trunk, extending from the soil level to at least 18”.  This will protect the bark of the tree from being stripped in winter by voles.  Stake young trees with a stake pounded 18” into the soil and extending about 18” high.  Place the stake at a 45 degrees angle next to the tree with a soft tie made from a rubber hose or cloth attached to the tree.  The stake is best placed in a direction so that prevailing winds will drive it deeper into the soil.  Do not use wire or hard twine to tie the trunk to the stake because they will damage the bark.  In growing cherries, it is important to always avoid any injury to bark, to avoid bacterial canker.  In terms of irrigation, a drip system is probably the most efficient and water thrifty.   Some seasons in Montana can be very dry and a person needs to be prepared.   Watering is usually not needed until sometime in June and watering too much or too early can promote powdery mildew. 


There are two periods in the year when you can prune cherries.  Several sources recommend spring pruning (after flowering) as a way to avoid bacterial canker.   The other time to prune is in late winter, while trees are dormant.   Always prune cherries in dry weather and sterilize tools before and after each tree.  If cutting out diseased wood, sterilize tools between each cut.  A 10% bleach or Lysol solution in water is effective; or isopropyl alcohol.  Prune cherry trees into a vase shape with a central leader.  Leave alternate, staggered branches as if you were making a tree that would be good to climb.  The aim is to give branches air circulation and light, and prune out all branches shooting straight up, except the central leader.  Seal all pruning cuts. 


In Montana the most serious pest on cherries is the western cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis indifferens Curran).  The species is native to the Pacific Northwest and occurs only on cherry.  The public, and therefore packing houses/wholesalers, have a zero tolerance for cherry fruit fly maggots in cherries.  Packing houses check all incoming fruit for maggots; if one maggot is found in a shipment the whole truckload is refused.  Cherry fruit fly larvae are rarely found; in Washington State for example, larvae are found perhaps one to ten times a season from over 35,000 acres of cherries grown for commercial sale.  Western cherry fruit fly has only one generation per year.  Pupae overwinter in one to six inches deep in soil under cherry trees.  The first flies emerge in late May and the number of flies emerging peaks about cherry harvest time in July.  Adults feed on micro-organisms, pollen and bird droppings, aphid honeydew, and wounds on cherry fruit.  This feeding and mating period lasts about 10 days.  Females can lay 100 to 300 eggs over a period of 30 days, placing one or two eggs per fruit.  Most flies stay on the host tree, but a few may travel as much as several hundred yards to neighboring cherry orchards or isolated trees.  Eggs hatch in about eight days and the fly maggot eats the pulp of the cherry for 15 or 17days, or longer if weather is cool.  At the end of feeding period, the maggot exits the fruit and drops on the ground.  The larva burrows into the soil one to six inches deep and pupates for about 10 months, until next season.  A few pupae overwinter twice and emerge the second season. 

Most cherry fruit flies are found on home garden sweet or tart cherry trees.  This highlights the importance of controlling and preventing this pest in home gardens.  It is important to protect our Montana cherry industry.  Prevention is one way of helping control western cherry fruit fly.  If all fruit is picked from trees before flies emerge to drop on the ground, and this is undertaken at least two years in a row, the tree will be free of this pest until reintroduced.  It is best to not allow fruit to be left on isolated trees.  Beneficial nematodes have been used to control pupae, but they are only about 80-88% effective, so must be augmented with other organic controls.  Yellow sticky traps are used to monitor fly populations, but are not really successful in controlling them. 

An N.O.P. approved bacteria marketed as Spinosad is an effective control of western cherry fruit fly.  A bait known as GF-120NF contains bait for newly emerged adult flies to feed on plus Spinosad.  The bait is sprayed or squirted on the leaves after emergence (or when fruit is straw-colored) and again every ten days.  The bait is rather thick when mixed, and a sprayer must be cleaned well after use.  It is highly effective.  Another effective product is Entrust, also made with Spinosad, and it is sprayed every seven to ten days after flies emerge.   At the end of harvest, pick every single cherry and leave none on the tree or on the ground.

The plum curculio is an insect problem on cherries in the Eastern U.S.  Organic controls include: PyGanic (a pyrethrum-based product), and Surround (a crop protectant made with kaolin clay.  The American plum borer is another pest affecting tart cherries in the eastern half of the U.S.  Infestations are common on trees with mechanical damage to bark and branches.  Borer larvae have to be dug out of the bark and no organic controls are available yet. 

Spotted-winged drosophila is an invasive species of vinegar fly from Japan.   It has become established on the east and west coast and is moving inland.  It is another fly that lays eggs in the fruit that hatch into maggots.   Lure traps by Trece and Scentry available for this pest.  For organic cherry orchards, use a combination of GF-120 bait plus Entrust and/or PyGanic.   Read label directions of all products carefully because the treatment schedule can be complicated.  In organic pest control, it is sometimes required to alternate product applications. 

For pear slugs (cherry leaf skeletonizers) a forceful blast of water will wash them off trees; or diatomaceous earth is an effective control.  Aphids can be washed off tree leaves also, and controlled with insecticidal soap.  A dormant spray in winter with horticultural oil will smother aphid eggs.  Tent caterpillars can be controlled with BT (Bacillus thurigensis) a bacterium that affects caterpillars.  


Bacterial canker is by far the most important disease affecting cherries.  The bacteria Pseudomonas syringae affects cherry roots, bark, branches, twigs, leaves and fruit.  This disease can appear after any one of several stresses on trees, including: drought, frost, pruning wounds, nematodes and other diseases.  As with many other organic pest controls, prevention is very important.   Resistant rootstocks and resistant cherry varieties help.  Older trees can harbor disease, so it is best not to plant new trees among old established trees.  Avoid allowing irrigation water to hit bark, branches, or leaves.  Try not to damage bark or branches and paint trunks with whitewash to prevent freezing and thawing in winter.  Prune in summer if possible, rather than in winter, and only in dry weather.   Keep weeds down, especially grasses, as they host the bacteria.   White Dutch clover or a low growing vetch is better as a groundcover in a cherry orchard.   Test for harmful nematodes before planting.  A control most often used for bacterial canker is copper, but several strains of Pseudomonas syringae have become resistant to copper, especially in California and Washington. 

Black Knot, caused by Apiosporina morbosum is a fungal disease that shows up as knot-like structures on branches and twigs.  These should be pruned out of the cherry trees as soon as noticed.  Cut three to four inches below the knot with sterilized tools (10% bleach or Lysol in water, or isopropyl alcohol).   Sterilize tools again after each cut.  A lime-sulfur spray in the dormant season will help control black knot. 

Phytophthera root rot is very common problem for cherries on heavy poorly draining soils.  Try to plant cherries on sand or sandy loam and do not plant cherries on clay soils.  Affected trees will show loss of vigor.  The cadmium layer will be reddish-brown in color and root growth will be poor and shallow.  ‘Mahaleb’ rootstock is the most susceptible to root-rot, while ‘Mazzard’ and ‘Colt’ are somewhat resistant.   

Armillaria mellea is the organism that causes a fungal disease called oak root rot or honey rot.  It can affect cherries on any kind of soil, and is sometimes present in old roots from dead trees or shrubs.  Recently cleared land can harbor this disease.  The only known control is to avoid planting on newly cleared sites or sites known to have Armillaria. 

Brown rot (caused by Monilinia fructicola and M. laxa) can appear if weather conditions are wet, warm and humid.  Here in Montana, we historically did not have much of that type of weather, but as the climate changes, we are having more and more such days each summer.  Brown rot affects blossoms, fruit and twigs.  A first indicator of brown rot is blossom blight; if left unchecked, symptoms will reappear anytime during the period from about three weeks before harvest through harvest and storage.  Temperatures in the 70s F. with rain and higher humidity favor development of brown rot.  Keeping the orchard clean of fallen twigs, leaves and fruit helps discourage brown rot.  A sunny site or slope with good air circulation is helpful.  An open area planted with clover or vetch between the orchard and woods is helpful also.  Thinning out branches on the cherry trees in summer and during dormant season will increase air circulation as well.  Sulfur is the traditional remedy for brown rot and organic growers can use it.  The first application is best done before the first flower petals open.  Follow up with another spray 7 days later, at petal drop and a third time about 10 days later at sepal drop.  More applications might be necessary in the case of frequent and heavy rains. 

Another disease affecting cherries is botrytis blossom blight, but this is rare here in Montana and more common near coastal areas.  To prevent botrytis, keep the orchard clean, pick up all “mummy’” fruit. 

Powdery mildew, a fungus caused by Podosphaera clandestine, is occasionally seen on cherry leaves and twigs.  It is more prevalent in high heat with humidity, so more common in the eastern U.S.  Powdery mildew will cause loss of vigor and yield.  Open pruning, creating a central leader with alternate branching, discourages mildew.  Resistant varieties will help with this problem; ‘Bing’, Black Tartarian’ and ‘Rainier’ are especially susceptible to powdery mildew.  Most tart cherries are susceptible, too.  Sulfur made into a spray will also control powdery mildew, but also will a spray made with baking soda. 

Leaf spot, another fungus primarily affecting tart cherries, is caused by Blumeriella jaapii.  This fungus causes leaves to turn yellow and later, holes to form in the leaves.  It is more common in humid climates than here in Montana, but sometimes is seen.  Orchard sanitation is a good preventative.  The fungus overwinters on fallen leaves, so these should all be raked up and destroyed in fall.  Copper fungicide sprays will control this disease.  Spray at petal fall, again when dead flower petals fall off fruit (shuck fall), and again two weeks later.  Copper sprays can damage tree foliage, especially in temperatures above 80 degrees F., so should be used in cooler weather for best results.


Birds love cherries as much as we do, so measures must be taken to protect fruit.  Netting is very effective, but expensive for large-scale growers.  A combination of noise-makers and visual deterrents are used by organic cherry growers.  Stationary electronic devices are available that emit loud distress calls that scare birds away. Also available are gas cannons, bird whistles and bird-bombs.   Old CDs or metal pie plates tied among tree branches, and scare-eye balloons all are effective in frightening birds away.  Usually one or another of these deterrents works for a week or so.  Then you must use a different deterrent or rearrange them because birds get used to them. 

Deer will browse on cherry trees in winter and eat leaves and fruit.  The best way to prevent damage from deer is an eight foot fence.  Repellents have only limited effectiveness.  Gophers have become a problem in recent years and the best way to control them for an organic grower is to trap them.  Voles can be trapped also, and be sure to place hardware cloth tree guards around trees before winter.  If commercial plastic tree guards are used, remove them within two weeks after snow melts because condensation will take place between the plastic and the bark, creating conditions that promote bacteria.


Yields from each cherry tree 3 to 5 years after planting will be from 40 to 120 pounds of fruit.  Pick cherries gently when fruit is ripe.  Twist the cherry lightly and move your hand in an upward motion to separate the stem from the spur.  Be careful not to tear off the fruit spur as that is where next year’s flowers and fruit will form.  If you are harvesting for immediate home use, you can pick the cherries without stems.  Cherries are picked commercially with stems attached because they last longer after picking.  Harvest fruit every other day, for about a week, from each tree.  Keep picked fruit cool.   Cherries last for about 10 days in the refrigerator.


Ames, Guy K., 2014. Cherries: Organic Production. National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA).

Granatstein, David, Preston Andrews and Alan Groff, 2014.  Productivity, Economics, and Fruit and Soil Quality of Weed Management Systems in Commercial Organic Orchards in Washington State, USA. website, 2018.  Growing Cherry Trees Organically.

Hansen, Melissa, 2010.  Controlling Mildew in Organic Cherries.

Langer, Richard W. 1973.  Growing Cherries The Mother Earth News,  January/February 1973.

Lehnert, Richard, 2015.  Stinkbug Challenges Organic Growers.

Smith, Timothy J.,  Cherry Fruit Fly Bait Application.  Washington State University Extension.

Smith, Timothy J., Western Cherry Fruit Fly.  Washington State University Extension.

WSU Extension, 2014.  Spotted Wing Drosophila Control on Sweet Cherry. 




oats and field peas cover crop

Healthy, living soil is a vital component of an organic garden.  Soil covered with growing things draws carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in roots, stems, and leaves.  In sustainable, earth-friendly gardening /farming we do not allow land to fallow, but keep our soil covered with actively growing or dormant plants all year.  This is a win-win situation for your garden; you can have abundant crops yet at the same time help reduce the amount of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere. 

Cover crops build and protect your soil by increasing humus and nutrients.  Cover crops will add organic matter, smother weeds, prevent erosion, break up  compacted soil, provide livestock forage and attract beneficial insects.  In dry summers or dry climates cover crops provide a kind of living mulch, preserving soil moisture. 

The timing of planting and turning under of cover crops is varied, depending on climate, soil requirements, and time of year.  Here in the north (Western Montana) our growing season is short so we have to be precise in our timing of planting, cutting and turning under cover crops.  After vegetables are harvested in the fall a cover crop can be planted immediately.  First, remove vegetable debris; second, till or rake and prepare a six-inch deep seedbed; third, irrigate to moisten soil; and finally, plant your cover crop.  Fall planted cover crops might include: hairy vetch, field peas, crimson clover, summer alfalfa, Mammoth red clover, annual rye grass, winter cereal rye, winter barley, winter wheat, winter oats ,or winter triticale.  Peas or hairy vetch planted together with one or another of the fall/winter cereal grains will add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.  Oats and peas planted together or hairy vetch and winter rye together are quite effective combinations for fall cover crops.  The grain will protect the legumes somewhat from winter damage, though peas will probably winter kill.  Hairy vetch will vigorously regrow in the spring and can be mown and turned under.  Any cover crop of the grass family, such as cereal grain or annual ryegrass needs to be turned under at least three weeks before a vegetable crop is planted.  Some cereal grasses are allelopathic, which means they release growth inhibiting chemicals that prevent seed germination of other species.  It takes three or more weeks for the chemicals to dissipate.  Since our spring is often late, and short, and sometimes wet, the timing of turning under your cover crop is very important.  In a home garden, if you plan to plant some cool-weather crops early, such as onion sets, cole crops, or spinach, you can pull up or chop out a (non-grass family) cover crop in early spring just before you plant.  It is easy to hoe out hairy vetch by cutting it off below the crown.  You can then prepare the soil and plant immediately. 

Several cover crops can be planted in spring if you have about four to six weeks’ time before you plan to plant a crop.   An example might be if you plan to put in a warm-season crop such as peppers or tomatoes.  A cool-weather cover crop could be put in as soon as the soil could be worked (sometimes as early as April 10 or as late as May 5).  Some useful, early spring cover crops include: crimson clover, medium red clover, Mammoth red clover, white clover, or field peas.  If you have four to six weeks growing time plus three weeks’ time after taking down a cereal grass before you plant you could put in spring oats and field peas, or annual ryegrass.   The plot would be ready to plant your vegetable crop by mid to late June in our Montana climate.  This would limit your choices to fall-maturing cool-weather crops such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, carrots, etc.

If you plan to have a cover crop during the warm season, buckwheat , mustard, turnips or phacelia all work well in our climate.  Remember to cut mustard or buckwheat when in flower so it will not reseed.   Phacelia will reseed also, but has a long blooming season and is a great pollinator attractant.  Turnips are biennial, so will not reseed the first year. 

In a home garden cover crops need to be considered in crop rotation.  It is best not to plant a cover crop of the Brassica family (Cole crops, such as turnips, mustard, radish, cabbage, etc.) where cole crops are to be planted the following season.  The rule of thumb is to rotate crops so that members of the same plant family are not grown in the same spot for three years or more.  In our certified organic market garden we use a nine year crop rotation plan.  A more practical home garden rotation plan might be only four-years. 







By James J. Sagmiller



During the period of Spanish exploration of North America (1542-1769) and the Spanish Colonial period (1769-1821) the area we presently call California was known as “Alta California,” which translates to “Upper California.” Baja California, or “Lower California” retains its original name today. The policy of the Spanish crown was to establish Catholic missions to convert native peoples and exploit them for labor. Priests were sent out in pairs, usually with regional support of the military. The first successful, permanent mission in the area was founded in Baja California: Mission Nuestra Senora de Loreto Concho, on Oct. 9, 1697 by Jesuit priests. The king of Spain expelled all the Jesuits in 1768, responding to rumors they had become too powerful. The Jesuits were replaced by Franciscan friars who, as part of the philosophy of their order, are required to take a vow of poverty. Around this time, the Spanish crown decided to establish missions and develop ports in Alta California. Mission San Diego Alcala was the first of these, founded July 16, 1769.


Several criteria were important for a successful mission: fertile soil, water available for irrigation and drinking, standing timber for building, and a native population that could be converted to Christianity and used for labor.

Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded September 8, 1797 by Padre Fermin Fransisco de Lasuen. It was the seventeenth of the missions founded in Alta California. A man named Francisco Reyes already had a ranch at the site of the mission and it was worked with Native American labor. He decided to donated his land to the church. At an elevation of 1,100 ft., with reliable spring water, a mild coastal climate and twelve inches of rain a year, this was an excellent place to start a mission. The native population originally were hunter gatherers who exploited the rich flora and fauna of the area. Several tribal groups lived nearby, but the two most numerous were the Gabrielino and Tataviam Indians.


The site plan of Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was of a design typical for Spanish missions. The main focus of the mission complex was the chapel, with its rectangular central nave with altar, and a bell tower adjacent. Other buildings, mostly workshops, were arranged in the pattern of a quadrangle around a large patio (now known as the East Garden).  A soldier’s quarters were located behind, next to the chapel, and a cemetery to the north. A building designed as priest’s quarters and for guest lodgers was the well-known and much-photographed structure with an arched arcade known as the “convento.” The arrangement of buildings in the compound was designed for efficiency but also for protection from bandits, wild animals, and livestock. Irrigated gardens benefited from this protection and were convenient to the kitchen.

The buildings at the mission were built of adobe bricks, made from a mixture of mud and straw and had very thick walls made to support heavy beams and tile roofs. Pine logs were used for beams and the rafters made from sycamore. Eaves were very wide, to protect the adobe from rain.


The mission was, of necessity, primarily self-sufficient. Natives were trained in many trades, including: blacksmithing, farming, ranching, carpentry, weaving, leather-making, brick-making, and soap-making. Wine was made from grapes and olive oil as well. By 1804, 1,000 Native Americans lived and worked at Mission San Fernando Rey, producing hides, fine leatherwork, tallow, soap, cloth, and wine as well as all the crops needed to support so many. By 1819 there were 12,800 cattle, 7,800 sheep, 176 goats, 45 pigs, 144 mules, 780 horses. The mission was a popular resting place for travelers on El Camino Real (the Royal Road).


Every mission had to produce as much food as possible to feed its large labor force and create a reserve to act as insurance for famine. Each of the missions planned extensive gardens. These gardens were not the primarily ornamental ones we see today at the missions, but were subsistence gardens of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, all grown together. A garden of this type was referred to as a “huerta.” A literal translation would be “orchard garden.” These gardens looked quite different than modern gardens. They had geometric beds set into dirt or gravel paths, filled with plants grown together in a practical fashion, watered by flood irrigation from “acequias,” small irrigation ditches of gravity-fed water. There was no lawn grass. Everything grown was used for some purpose, such as for food, medicine, dye, cosmetics, wine, or oil.


An early photograph shows the East Garden in a ruined state before the workshop buildings were reconstructed. A fountain was originally in the center of the garden, but it was moved about 30 feet to the west and the original design of the garden obliterated as the workshop buildings were rebuilt. What we see now in the East Garden are cement paths set into grass, with various hedges and shrubs, and olive, pine and palm trees. I am presenting here a design for the reconstruction of the huerta that originally occupied the space that is now the East garden, as it might have appeared circa 1804.


In my design for a reconstructed huerta at the mission, the fountain would be returned to the center of the design, with paths leading in four directions from the fountain as well as a path to each of the four corners of the quadrangle. All lawn grass would be removed, and original gravity-fed irrigation ditches, called “acequias,” would be reconstructed as well. The mature olive, palm and pine trees would be left in place, as the use of those species were very much a part of original plantings at the 1797 mission. Paths would be made of ¼ inch gravel and geometric beds would be flood irrigated just as they originally were. Every effort would be made to source seeds and cuttings of original plants known to have been grown at the California missions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Plants requiring irrigation were the most likely candidates to be grown in the huerta, such as fruits, flowers and vegetables.


Wheat, corn (maize) and barley were grown at Mission San Fernando Rey, but most probably in outer fields or dryland farmed.  Vegetables that were probably grown in the irrigated huerta and appearing on mission records include: peas, beans, fava beans, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, onions, tomatoes and chili peppers. Several fruits were grown at the mission: oranges, melons, pears, grapes, pomegranates, apples, quinces, plums, peaches, apricots, figs, olives, avocados and watermelons. Wild plants were also used at the mission. Presumably the Native Americans introduced the padres to them, for they are an excellent, readily available food source. Wild plants and seeds known to have been used at the mission are: chia (Salvia hispanica), sunflowers, acorns, pine nuts, sage, tunas (the fruit of Opuntia spp. cacti), clover, screw beans (mesquite; Prosopis spp.), “nopales” (leaves of Opuntia spp. Cacti) and agave. The chia was probably brought from Mexico.

In a reconstruction of a huerta for Mission San Fernando Rey it was advantageous to consult historic documents from other, contemporary California missions. Records from Mission San Diego dated 1769, reveal that corn (maize), cauliflower, lentils and garlic were grown there. By the 1770s grapes, barley, wheat, lettuce, figs, peppers, squash and pumpkins were grown. By the 1790s, records show that apples, pomegranates, oranges were grown as well. Herbs grown at Mission Santa Barbara included: anise, basil, borage, cilantro, cumin, dill, epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), horehound, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, and valerian. Father Junipero Serra brought the castor oil plant to Mission San Diego in 1769 and the plant was used for its oil. Other early introductions grown at many of the missions (Padilla 1962; Streatfield, 1994) were: calla lilies, Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), the Castilian rose (Rosa x damascena bifera), the musk rose (Rosa moschata), jasmine, pennyroyal, wild cherry (Prunus illicifolia), Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), date palm Phoenix dactylifera), Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) and native fan palm (Washingtonia filifera).

Utilitarian plants known to have been grown at most of the missions include: agave, cotton, flax and hemp—all used for fiber. Teasel was used for making combs to card wool. Indigo was grown for dye and palm fronds were used for roof thatching and for making brooms. The giant reed (Arundo donax) was used in ramadas to provide slatted shade. Gourds were raised to be cured and carved into bowls and spoons and cat’s claw acacia and Peruvian pepper tree were used for glue.

At Mission Santa Barbara, Tina Foss, Curator of the mission museum and Jerry Sortomme, Professor Emeritus of Santa Barbara City College have been actively restoring a huerta in the mission grounds. They have sourced several plants that can be traced to one or another of the early mission gardens. A cutting from a grape plant known to more than one hundred years old from Gypsy Canyon Winery was tested for DNA. The plant was shown through the tests to be the original ‘Mission Grape’ (known as the ‘Criolla Chica’ in Argentina,’ ‘Negra Corriente’ in Peru, and ‘Pais’ in Chile; Robinson, 1999). Another (untested) grape cutting was obtained from San Ignacio Mission in Baja California from a grape vine known to be more than 250 years old, thus dating from the time of the establishment of the missions.  Ancient cuttings of pear trees from La Purisima Mission in Baja (circa 1800) and from Rio Hondo may prove be the original pear variety ‘Padre.’

Some varieties of vegetables originally grown at the missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s are still available in commerce, and some might be sourced from other historic collections. Most of the herbs are still available; several old varieties of beans, squash and maize are still to be found, as well as lettuces, gourds, melons and chili peppers. Very few peas, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, and tomatoes have survived; however, I have sourced at least one late eighteenth or early nineteenth century variety of each of these.


The drawings I have made show: first, the original layout of structures at the mission, taken from drawings made in a survey of the site in 1933. The second drawing shows the current, historically inaccurate East Garden with cement paths, grass and the fountain moved about 30 feet east of its original location. Third, my plan for the reconstructed huerta, showing overall design of paths and beds, with the fountain restored to its central location. My fourth drawing shows a detail of one of the beds with mixed vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, typical of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Spanish Colonial style. Existing large olive, palm and pine trees have been retained as part of the reconstructed design. The fifth illustration is a watercolor painting showing what the restored huerta would look like.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana.

Glybok, Shirley, 1972. The Art of the Spanish in the United States and Puerto Rico. NY:                  McMillan.

Brenzel, Katherine, Ed. 2001. Sunset Western Garden Book. Sunset Publishing, Menlo Park, CA.

Hayes, Virgina, Jan. 23, 2007. “A Huerta for Mission Santa Barbara” Santa Barbara Independent.

Padilla, Victoria, 1961. Southern California Gardens. Los Angeles: University of Caliifornia Press.

Los Angeles County Mission San Fernando.

Rivera, Jose A and Thomas F. Glick, 2003. Local Control and Discretionary Authority: Protecting     the Acequia Bordo. From a paper presented at the 51st Congreso Internacional de Americanistas,         Santiago Chile, July 14-18, 2003.

Robinson, Jancis, Ed., 1999. The Oxford Companion to Wine. NY: Oxford University Press.

Streatfield, David C., 1994. California Gardens: Creativity and a New Eden. New York: Abbeville     Press.







By James J. Sagmiller 

Every state in our nation has a number of historic sites.  The oldest are locations of Native American habitation dating to times before the Colonial Period—these are termed “prehistoric” rather than “historic.”  In order to recreate or restore a very early Native American garden, researchers must rely on archaeological evidence and oral traditions to determine what was grown and how it was grown. One such example is the Kipahulu Living Farm in Hana, Hawaii.  Plants grown in Hawaii by Native peoples prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 have been collected and preserved at this garden. Gardens like this are a fascinating, educational experience to visit.  Anyone seeking to recreate or restore a garden from the Colonial Period or later would be able to consult written records of various types as well as archaeology and oral traditions.   

The United States National Park Service has developed methods and techniques for the preservation, restoration, reconstruction and rehabilitation of the gardens and architecture of historic gardens.  Charles Birnbaum ((1996) has written a book for the National Park Service outlining four defining methods of approach to restoring and recreating a historic garden.  In the approach of preservation, nothing is added or taken away from the garden; what is there is protected and preserved for the future.  The William Gibbes House garden in Charleston, S.C., designed by Loutrel Biggs in 1929, has been carefully preserved in its original form to the present day.  A second approach is restoration, in which a garden is made to accurately reflect the landscape at a specific time period of historical significance. The Borroughs Plantation in Hardy, Virginia (where Booker T. Washington lived as a slave around 1860) is a good example of the restoration of a living historic farm.  Reconstruction recreates a garden or part of a garden that has since disappeared, except perhaps for the knowledge of where it was located.  This has been done at Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA., where the historic mission huertaor orchard garden, has been reconstructed using cuttings and seeds of plants grown at the mission in the late eighteenth century.  A fourth and final approach to a historic garden is rehabilitation, which brings elements from the past history of the site and applies them to a new use of the property—an adaptation to its use in a new way. This has been done in many places in the U.S., such as in Monterey, California where private businesses have been allowed to occupy as well as preserve historic buildings and gardens.    

There are several research processes we can undertake to restore or recreate a period garden around a private dwelling or a national historic site.  The site should be surveyed, that is measured and carefully studied.  If possible, the garden should be observed over the period of several months to a year to take note of plants that may be dormant, or not visible part of the season.  An example might be spring-flowering bulbs that appear in March, go dormant and disappear by the end of May.  The site might be studied for architectural features such as remains or indications of paths, walls, fences, fountains, irrigation ditches, and the layout of beds.  Lawn grass may grow shorter over buried paving, paths, or fallen walls.   

Early engravings, photographs or postcards are invaluable for reconstructing historic gardens to a specific time in the past.  Occasionally, newspaper clippings, garden plans and/or plant lists are available as well.  During the 1870s many counties in the U.S. published atlases of important residences in their area.  These can be extremely useful in reconstructing a garden of that time period.   

Old herbals and antique catalogs can be consulted to identify plants still existing on heritage sites.  The style of the building(s) on the property will lend information to the period of the garden, or plants still remaining after buildings have disappeared can be studied and placed in historic context.  Rose or peony plants are frequently easier to identify than old perennials, because of the greater amount of contemporary information available.  The practice of ordering plants through the mail became common after about 1850, so old nursery and seed catalogs are valuable in determining what was obtainable. Period gardening and landscaping books will inform how plants were used and often include garden plans or designs.   

It is important to recognize that gardening styles as well as the purposes and use of gardens has changed and continues to change as time passes.  California mission gardens were created for subsistence—that is, for food (grains, vegetables and fruit) and for all the materials needed for medicine, the manufacture of trade goods and fodder for livestock.  The few ornamentals included were probably used for decoration of the altar, quite unlike the gardens we see at most of the missions today, which are strictly ornamental.  A historic garden that is recreated as living history would necessarily require a good deal of research and should be maintained with the tools and techniques of the specific time period it represents. A historic garden made for a period property and lived in by a modern family could be more easily maintained with modern tools and techniques, though an approach using organic methods would be both more in keeping with historic practices and better for the planet. 

Present day organic methods are not necessarily historic, though the use of chemicals did not begin until the late 1800s.  Nicotine was used as a pesticide from the mid-nineteenth century, and Bordeaux Mixture (copper sulfate) as a fungicide around the same period.  The great increase in the use of garden chemicals began in the 1940s and so is not really a significant element in garden care before that time.   

In the coming weeks I will present some research designs for several historic gardens of various time periods, including plant lists, site plans, and maintenance techniques.       







Above: The Blue-Podded Pea, dating to before 1596

Peas love good, rich, moist loamy soils.  Gypsum may be added to heavy clay soils to lighten them, and organic compost is excellent for building mountain and valley soils poor in nutrients.  Fish bone meal, alfalfa meal, and kelp meal are amendments that will provide the complete range of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash to your garden plot necessary for successful vegetable production.  Remember that organic soils are alive with microbes, so food tastes better, is more nutritious, and is safe to eat.  Also, organic soils capture carbon out of the air, reducing heating of our planet’s atmosphere. 

Peas have been grown as a garden crop for centuries and seem to have been a popular vegetable through all that time.  Several heirloom varieties of peas still exist:

‘Blauwschokker’ (Blue-Podded) pea is an ancient variety so old it was described in Gerard’s Herball  written in 1596.  Plants are very healthy and productive.  The pods can be eaten as snow peas when picked early, used as shelling peas later, and dry well for use as soup peas.  The vines of the Blue-podded pea grow 60 to 72 inches tall and require a trellis.

‘Alaska’ is an heirloom pea from 1880.  It is early, ripens all at once, and like many heirloom varieties will dry and keep well.  It is excellent for soup.  The vines grow about 30 inches tall.

‘Tom Thumb’ heirloom pea from 1854 is a miniature pea variety that does not need to be trellised.  The vines grow to 8 or 9 inches tall and are suitable for containers and for growing in cold frames early and late in the season. 

‘Lincoln’ is a famous variety from 1908 that is adapted to warmer American summers.  The vines grow to about 28 inches tall and the pods produce 8 or 9 peas each. 

‘Wando’ is very adaptable to differing climates.  It is more heat resistant than most peas and can be planted later.  ‘Wando’ dates to 1943 and the vines grow about 30 inches tall.

Because peas can take some frost, even while quite young, they can be planted early.  Some people living in milder climates than Montana’s plant their peas on St. Patrick’s Day; 17 of March. 

 Here in Western Montana we make our first sowing April 15 to 20 depending on the weather and the soil temperature.   A second sowing usually is made July 1 (after first crop is harvested.)  It is efficient use of space and easy picking if trellises are set up in the garden bed.  The first crop bears from around June 15 -July 1, and the second crop bears from about September 15-October 25.

Plant your peas in full sun for best production.  The ideal growing temperature is 55–70 F., with 60-65 F. being ideal (peas prefer cool weather).  The optimum soil pH for peas is 5.5-7.5.  Peas will germinate between 40-85 degrees F., but 60-75 F. ideal.  Germination may take 6-17 days.  Direct-sow pea seed 1 inch deep and 1 inch apart.  Plant a few extra at the end of the rows to fill in later as mini transplants.  

Water well; keep the bed moist, not wet.  For the second (midsummer) planting, plant seeds 2-3” deep 1 inch apart, otherwise the same as spring.   Do not let plants dry out at any time, especially during flowering!  Water peas early in the day only, allowing leaves to dry early in the day–steady moisture is best.    

Some pests of peas are: gophers, aphids, birds, mice, cutworms, mites, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, pea weevils, and various caterpillars.   Powdery mildew can be troublesome also, especially if soil becomes dry and air circulation and sunshine is limited.

To harvest: pick peas when the first pods reach full size: 4”- 5”, not smaller.  Pick snow peas before seeds start to swell.  Snap peas need to be picked when pods are full size, fat, and round with peas inside.  Check and pick every 3 days to keep plants producing.  The first peas ripen at the base of the plant—remove them carefully to not damage plants.  The harvest period should be 4-6 weeks long, for each planting.  Pick all (ready) pods to keep vines producing.  After harvesting keep cool, in high humidity and out of the sun. 

Keep freshly picked peas cool, in high humidity and out of the sun.   Store them in a cool location or in the refrigerator.  Picked pods last only 5-6 days.  Peas do freeze well and most varieties dry and store well. 






This winter was a “longie” with lots of snow, a situation which voles love!   In our market garden we discovered damage from voles on Campanula medium (Canterbury bells)—just the ones stored in pots in sawdust, but not those in the ground.  Also some potted Primulas, strawberries, and Echinaceas were completely eaten.  It was the same case with these last few; plants in the ground were unharmed, those in pots in sawdust were eaten.  It may be because plants all stored together serve a sort of “banquet” for voles, while those in the ground, mixed in with other plants are harder for the little critters to find.  I am experimenting with inter-planting Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperials) with plants that tend to be vole favorites, to see if they will help deter them.  Fritillarias are very odorous, and rodents do not eat them. 

April tasks:

Finish pruning and grafting of fruit trees if not already done.  Plant grapes and other fruiting perennials, shrubs and vines; fertilize and prune raspberries and blackberries.  Start many flowers inside for transplanting out and direct sow the last hardy annuals.  Direct sow many vegetables late in the month and into May.  April is characterized by ups and downs in temperature—watch for frosts!  Protect frames at night and admit air daily.  Place row covers on newly transplanted, slightly tender plants. 


If not done already, sow indoors, for transplanting out early in the month: basil, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, head lettuce, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, Asian cabbage, leeks, greens.  After the 15th, sow watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers into peat pots for easy transplanting. 

Direct sow these outdoors once weather permits and soil temperatures are above 45 degrees:  beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, thyme, oregano, sorrel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach, Swiss chard.  Sow corn (after the 20th). 

Harden-off vegetables in frames, or by exposing them outdoors a few hours at a time.  Transplant the following hardy vegetables outside around the middle of the month (they can take some light frost): asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, endive, leeks, lettuce, onion sets and plants, Asian greens, parsley.  


Sow indoors April 1 for transplanting out: Chinese asters (Callistephus), Cerinthe, Celosia, Craspedia, Calendulas, annual Centaurea, Cleome, Cosmos, Cynoglossum, Eragrostis, Panicum, Pennisetum, and annual grasses.  Late in the month: sow zinnias indoors. 

Direct sow outdoors all month: annual alyssum Lobularia maritima), Bupleurum, carnations, pinks, sweet Williams, Cynoglossum, stocks, rose campion, wall flowers, Lychnis, lupines, lavateras, columbines, valerian, polyanthus, auriculas, Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, honeysuckles, rockets, honesty, fox gloves, snapdragons, sweet peas, poppies, larkspur, cornflowers, nigella, Lavatera, poppies, valerian, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate, dill, morning glory, sweet peas and wildflowers.   

Weed and clean borders.  Divide perennials early in the month: carnations, Bellis, Achilleas, Asters, mums, Campanulas, Centranthus, Coreopsis, Dicentra, Dodecatheon, Echinops, Euphorbias, Gauras, Gaillardias, Gentians, Helianthus, hellebores, daylilies, Heucheras, Hostas, Lobelias, Papavers, Oenotheras, Phlomis, Monarda, Liatris, and Marrubiums

Start dahlia tubers this month and make cuttings if possible. 

Shade auricula primroses from intensifying spring sun.   This is when auriculas need the most water, but remember— never waterlog the compost.  The month of April is their peak bloom period and hybridizing can take place now.  Shows are held this time of year. 


By April 15, finish pruning /grafting/planting fruit trees; spray Bordeaux mix on fruit trees suffering from fire blight; check fruit trees for pests.  Spray superior oil on dormant trees (before leaf out).  Lime-sulfur will control anthracnose or blight on raspberries if applied when the buds first show silver, or on currants and gooseberries at bud break.  Wait three weeks if you decide to spray lime-sulfur (use caution) as a fungicide on roses, lilacs, dormant shrubs, fruit trees, evergreens. 

Weed fruit trees, strawberries, cane fruits.  Set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.


Lay out lawns by either direct-seeding or purchase turf and roll it out.  If the weather gets windy and dry, water your new lawn frequently. 

Finish transplanting roses and other shrubs (the earlier the better).  Prune established roses after severe frosts.  Cut out all dead and crossed wood, and seal the cuts with water-based glue to prevent the drilling wasps from destroying canes.   Dress rose plants with Epsom salts, wood ashes, compost, manure, alfalfa meal, bone meal, kelp meal, bunt earth, spent hops, etc. , but keep fertilizers 2 inches away from the canes at the base of the plant.  












The ground is thawed in the valley and soon the foothills will be snow free.  As soon as the earth dries out and wet turns to moist, you can work up the soil.  Dry organic amendments can then be forked into your beds.  Organic blood meal (13-0-0) is an excellent source of nitrogen and is quickly taken up by plants.  Alfalfa meal (3-1-3) will enrich soil with a moderate amount of nitrogen, small amount of phosphorous, and a moderate amount of potash.  Ground fish bone meal (5-16-0) also contains moderate amounts of nitrogen, but is a terrific source of phosphorous.  

Well-rotted manure (usually about 3-1-1) will add a good amount of nitrogen and smaller amounts of phosphorous and potash, but adds lots of beneficial, moisture-holding organic matter.  Be careful in sourcing manure as it may contain high levels of salt (especially if sourced from feed lots).  It is safest to use one year old, well-rotted manure on food crops.  Too fresh of manure will burn crops and can contain pathogens.  In our USDA Certified Organic market garden we are only allowed to use manure from grazed land that is at least one year old; and it must be applied at least 120 days before crops are planted.   Another option is to use manure that has gone through a heat of at least 160 degrees F. for 3 weeks; this kills harmful pathogens.  Compost may be spread on a USDA Certified Organic farm or garden but it must be made only from vegetable matter—no meats, dairy products or eggs, etc.  

If you are starting a new garden bed, spread cardboard, rotted moist straw, or tarps to kill grass out.  Newspapers will dry up and blow away unless anchored by rocks or chunks of turf.  You can till right into the turf to prepare your spot, but weeds will be present and you will have to keep after them.  Try to till only once, pull weeds out, add amendments and mulch the soil until ready to plant.  Too frequent tilling destroys the structure of the soil and causes it to release carbon.

Remember that healthy organic soils are alive with microbes and fungi that help plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.  By gardening organically you are helping the earth to gather and store carbon dioxide.  This is exactly the opposite environmental effect of conventional gardening, which uses chemical fertilizers and often features bare soil.  Chemical fertilizers require large amounts of carbon to make and bare soil causes soil organisms to die; with the result that soils lose carbon rather than pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. 

Forest, grassland and hedgerow soils pull the most carbon from the atmosphere of any land ecosystems.  In your garden, you can help this process by setting aside areas for wildflowers and grasses, shrubs, shrub borders and shelter belts or groups of trees with wildflowers and/or groundcovers underneath.  You will be providing habitat for endangered native bees, butterflies, birds and reptiles as well as building carbon storage. 

Now is the time to start your peppers, onions, leeks, tomatoes, tomatillos, and eggplants from seed to set out in May.  Wait until late April/early May to start squash, pumpkins, watermelons, canteloupes, etc.   If you plan to set out cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli or other cole crops in mid-to late April, start them from seed inside now also.   A soil free organic seedling mix can be made from: 3 parts peat, 2 parts vermiculite, and 1 part perlite.  Heat mats placed under flats will aid germination of crops that like warm temperatures, such as peppers and tomatoes.   An east facing window is satisfactory, or fluorescent lights hung a few (8 to 10 inches) inches above the flats. 

Soon containerized fruit trees, shrubs, roses, bulbs, perennials, plus annual flowers and vegetables will be available in your local organic garden shops.  This year, I have grown several varieties of Certified Organic shrub roses on their own roots, found on old homesteads here in the Mission Valley:

‘Great Western’, a Hybrid Bourbon shrub rose is a long-time favorite in our area.  This rose was introduced in 1838, named after one of the first transatlantic steam ships.  It blooms for about three weeks in late spring/early summer. The plant is tall and wide, about 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide.   The flowers are fully double; a blend of rich reds and purples, with wonderful fragrance.  My grandmother grew this rose and there are plants at the museum in Ronan.  ‘Great Western’ is a hardy, easy to grow shrub rose.  The plant spreads slowly. 

‘Laure’, a Centifolia rose from 1837, was found in Ronan, at an old home built in 1913.  It is a rather short plant, with fully double, fragrant, powder pink blooms.  It is also a once bloomer, with a flowering period lasting about 3 weeks in late spring/early summer.  The plant spreads once established, but this is an advantage if your garden has an abundance of voles.  When a young plant is put in, a vole cage could be placed around the roots, but the plant will eventually spread outward and in later years a plant with an abundance of root stems will survive vole trails.  

‘Double White Scotch Rose’ introduced in 1808, is another locally found variety.  It has pure white, double, fragrant flowers in late spring.  It is of the same rose family as ‘Harison’s yellow’ the popular, thorny, hardy yellow shrub rose.  ‘Double white is equally hardy and trouble free, and spreads on its own roots to form a beautiful large group of plants.  I have seen established plants about 7 feet tall and spreading to about 8 or 10 feet wide.

Have a great spring!