Converting to Organic

Organic GardeningMaking the switch to organic gardening is as much an act of will power as it is work. But the rewards — feeding your family vegetables, herbs and fruits untainted by pesticides, herbicides and the residues of chemical fertilizers — are priceless. Where do you begin?

First by making a commitment. You must promise to learn as much about organic practice as you can. This is really a life-long process. But when you consider that a little organic knowledge (the basics) goes a long way and that the details bring you closer to perfection, you begin to understand how easy it is.

The second commitment is the promise never to go back. No matter how many problems you encounter — and it’s important to remember that even conventional gardeners encounter failure, and lots of it — you will not go back to your old, chemical ways. When the neighbor points out that he doesn’t have any bugs in his garden and you do, it’s time to be strong. (It may also be helpful to point out that he doesn’t have any beneficial bugs in his garden, as you do.) When he says you spend a lot more time in your garden than he does, smile. In a year or two of organic gardening, that probably won’t be true. When he says that turning that compost pile must be a lot of work, put your hand on your abs and then look directly at his belly. Or maybe stretch out your muscled arms.

Once you’ve made the commitment, it’s time to move on to the specifics. We’ve dealt with many of these issues in previous posts and you can consult them as you begin the transition. But here’s general guidelines to get you thinking.

–As Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser point out in their book Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More For First- Timers and Old-Timers Alike (now that’s a title!), it’s best to start from the ground up. This means improving your soil, freeing it from its addiction to chemical fertilizers and healing it with plenty of organic matter. And that means compost.

Sure, after testing, you may find your soil needs bolstering with certain minerals and other components, especially in the early stages of transition. And you’ll want to make sure the pH level is perfect for the plants you’ll be growing. But soil building with organic material is an ongoing process that results in growing rewards as the seasons progress. Your goal? To make your soil come alive. Remember, the more microbial life in your soil, the less problems you’ll have with poor growth, disease and insects in the future.

–Plant carefully. Whether sowing seeds directly in your garden or setting out transplants, give your plants enough room. Crowded plants don’t grow as quickly and healthily when they’re forced to compete with other plants. Previously, you may have just poured more fertilizer to your crowded plants and hoped for the best. Often this resulted in disease and pest infestation which sent you for the sprays. Not any more. Also consider sunlight and watering needs. And don’t forget to utilize companion planting where you can. A well-planned garden is a well-grown garden.

–Deal with weeds as soon as you spot them. Get on all fours and weed that garden! Learn to prevent weeds with mulch.

–Learn to identify insects. Not all are bad; in fact, some may help you rid your garden of those that will do damage. Learn to tolerate a few bugs… even the most heavily sprayed gardens have them. Get down with your garden (yeah!). Examine your plants, top and bottom. Learn to look for damage so you can apply proper, organic solutions. And if you see a bug doing harm, don’t be afraid to squish it beween your fingers or under your garden shoes. Some of us believe (without any proof but with plenty of faith) that a smashed bug discourages other bugs. Whatever…

–Learn and practice preventive measures. If you had trouble with mildew on your cucumber or squash vines in the past, hit them before fungus starts with a mild soap and baking soda solution and continuing spraying them every couple of weeks.

–Monitor your garden carefully, not just for bugs, but for moisture levels, the need for shade and other complications. Take care of problems as soon as spotted. Getting close to your garden, watching it carefully as it changes from day to day, is one of gardening’s great joys. And it’s the best way to guarantee success.

–Keep a journal. Make an entry every day or two. When did the tomatoes make a growth spurt? How deeply did you water and when did it rain? When did grasshoppers make an appearance? Were those ladybugs effective on aphids? And don’t forget aesthetics: Just how tasty were those homegrown tomatoes?

Converting your existing garden to an organic garden is something of an adventure. Remember: the most important step and the first to make after making the commitment, is to improve your soil. From there on, it’s not that hard; certainly no harder than conventional gardening. Converting to organic gardening is mostly a process of becoming a better, more knowledgeable, more effective gardener. And isn’t that what we all want?

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