It’s really quite easy to plant and grow a flourishing organic garden. It all begins thinking of your organic garden as an integrated ecosystem built upon nature’s principles, not man’s laboratory creations.
The foundation for organic gardening is biodiversity. In the wild, a variety of plants and wildlife exist interdependently—providing shelter, moisture, continual bloom when pollen is available for insects, and support for all the creatures within the system.
You can apply the biodiversity principle at home by following these key steps in organic gardening:
- Build-up the soil
- Use natural fertilizer and pest control
- Choose companion plants for your climate zone
- Arrange plants so they provide a habitat for insects and wildlife that actually benefit garden health.
If you combine these principles with good gardening habits, you’ll soon have an organic green thumb (and lots of delicious, good-for-you vegetables to eat)!
It’s Not Just Dirt!
What’s the difference between how the organic gardener feeds a garden compared to the conventional gardener? The conventional gardener feeds the plant (with chemicals from a lab), while the organic gardener feeds the soil.
Soil is living matter full of as many as 50 billion microscopic plants and organisms! Soil, and the creatures living in it, requires air and water to thrive. If you don’t know the condition of your soil, contact your local master gardening organization, or university agriculture department—both will usually test soil for free or a nominal fee. When buying soil, you want it largely composed of organic material (read the package label).
To maintain and protect organic soil:
- Continually feed with organic matter—compost, manure, leaves, straw, and grass clippings.
- Weed regularly
- Incorporate companion plants that naturally tame weed growth.
- Check plant packaging or a regional organic gardening guide to learn how to properly select and space plants to best match the yield you want from your garden.
- Use mulch.
Protect Against Pests and Fertilize, Naturally
Synthetic herbicides and insecticides seep into groundwater, affect the health of wildlife and plants, and can contaminate your food. These chemicals also kill off beneficial insects that are part of nature’s pest control system.
Synthetic fertilizers are not recommended for an organic garden because residual chemicals, including salts, can interfere with plant growth and even build-up in lawns. For example, quick-release high nitrogen fertilizers produce lush foliage but damage root structure—a plant’s only way to extract nutrients.
Your best defense against pests is preventing a problem to begin with. You can accomplish this in a number of ways, all of which will invite natural enemies of pests into your growing area. Plus, these are great practices for any size garden:
- Carefully select plants for the your climate zone, build-up your soil, and plant in appropriate light/shade and space for the growing season.
- Water early in the day, not at night. Keep water in the root zone, not aimed at the plant.
- Maintain “plant personal space.” Prune plants and weed to maintain good air circulation and prevent crowding, which can spread disease.
- Use netting or chicken wire to keep out pests that scurry around your yard.
- Learn to properly use botanical poisons, chemicals extracted from plants or minerals that are toxic to plant predatory insects (ex. Neem, certain essential oils).
You can also search online for resources to help you with natural, integrated pest management (IPM). These resources can also help you resolve a pest problem.
More Ways to Earn Your Organic Green Thumb
Once your soil is in good condition and your ready to plant, follow these tips to start, and keep, your organic garden growing.
Prepare & Maintain: Clean-up your garden area in the fall. Remove all debris and weeds from a vegetable garden. Do not compost weeds—you might transfer seeds to your compost pile. Prep the soil. In spring and summer maintain weeding and mulching. If you don’t have a local seed supplier, check online for a seed catalog and order early.
Right Plant, Right Place, Right Time. Decide if you will start from seed or young plant. Planting time will vary. Choose plants based on your growing zone, which is shown on the seed packaging or found online. Consider a vegetable plant’s need for light/shade, moisture and the weather patterns typical for your area. Check the yield on the packaging for plants that you intend to grow. Some plants produce rapidly, such as cucumbers and tomatoes.
Go Native. It makes sense to use plants that are known to successfully grow in your area. Native species, seeds or plants, can be found at local growers and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. These farmers can also tell you if a native plant has been prone to disease in your area.
Go Disease-Resistant. Certain varieties of vegetables are the superheroes of disease resistance, and are easy to grow. A partial list: Green beans, snap beans, yellow wax beans, cucumbers, Zucchini elite, black magic eggplant, Lady Bell Pepper; Klondike Yellow Bell; Cubanelle, Italian Sweet, Cherry Sweet. Tomato- Jet Star, Jackpot, Supersteak, Supersweet Cherry, Cherry Presto.
Diverse Companions. Include, and properly space, a variety of companion plants—herbs and flowers—with your vegetables, according to your growing zone. For example, dill, parsley, and angelica, can be planted near your vegetable garden to attract beneficial insects and enhance biodiversity.
Keep a Garden Journal. Note weather patterns, combinations of plants and effects on growth and pest control. Record the yield from your plants and their quality (appearance and taste). Take photos throughout the growing season.
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Cornell University Cooperative Extension web page: “Organic Gardening” Monograph compiled by Cunningham, S.J. & Mazza, C.P. Accessed on January 6, 2016. http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/education/mgprogram/mgmanual/09organic.pdf Covers all facets of organic gardening from soil development, pest management, how to compost, pros and cons of various types of organic matter, natural fertilizer, and in-depth garden planning & practices.
Basics of Gardening.com. Accessed on January 6, 2015. http://www.basicsofgardening.com
The Old Farmers Almanac.com Vegetable Garden Planning for Beginners. Accessed on January 6, 2015. http://www.almanac.com/vegetable-garden-planning-for-beginners
Sideman, E. & English, J. Basics of Organic Vegetable Gardening. Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Accessed on January 2, 2016. http://www.mofga.org/Portals/2/Fact%20Sheets/TB%201%20Organic%20Gardening%20Basics.pdf
Up from the Ground: A Guide to Basic Organic, Flower, Vegetable, and Herb Gardening. Accessed on January 4, 2016. http://www.eagleheightsgardens.org/tips/garden_manual_v_1.1.pdf
Albrecht, A. Square Foot Gardening. Presented at University of Wisconsin (1999). http://taylor.uwex.edu/files/2010/05/SquareFootGardeningNew2009.pdf
Living with Bugs.com. Botanical Insecticides. http://www.livingwithbugs.com/botanical_insecticide.html
Klass, C. & Eames-Sheavly, M. “Nature’s Botanical Insecticide Arsenal.” Cornell University Department of Agriculture, Gardening webpage. Last updated on October 20, 2015. Accessed on January 6, 2016. http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/ecogardening/natbotan.html
Old Farmer’s Almanac Plant Hardiness Zones. http://www.almanac.com/content/plant-hardiness-zones
Native Plant Resources
Ecological Landscape Design. Kim Eierman, Environmental Horticulturist. Personal Correspondence, August 2015. Learn more: www.ecobeneficial.com
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center database is searchable by state and plant characteristics. https://www.wildflower.org
Native Landscapes and Biodiversity Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants, by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, professor, University of Delaware.