Organic Gardening 101
Pesticides on our produce, genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) in our food… how do we protect our families? Grow your own. Here’s everything you need to get started, the basics on how to garden, so you can enjoy the benefits of this healthy family activity and a harvest of tasty, bountiful, organically-grown vegetables straight from your own backyard.
Organic gardens are gaining in popularity as people realize the many benefits to themselves, the environment and other living creatures. Organic gardening simply means not using synthetic or chemical fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides. Instead, organic gardeners stick to fertilizers made from animal or vegetable by-products and get creative when dealing with unwanted pests — often utilizing beneficial insects or plants that deter the unwelcome visitors.
Not only does an organic garden cause less harm than conventional-type gardening, it actually has many benefits.
- Organically grown food helps defend against cancer with its higher essential vitamins and nutrients.
- By eating organically grown food, you ingest fewer chemicals.
- Organic gardens feed the soil rather than depletes it.
- Most organic gardeners use compost, which reduces the amount of waste going to landfills.
Planning Your Garden
Sight and Light
Take a look around your yard at all times of the day (and the year, if possible) to determine where the sun hits and for how long. When deciding what plants to grow, the amount of sun an area gets is crucial.
Seed and plant labels list how much sun is required to grow the plant. Here’s what they mean:
“Sun” means direct sunlight at least eight hours a day.
“Shade” means less than four hours of direct sunlight.
“Partial Sun” means between four and six hours of sunlight a day.
Before you plant, make sure your soil is in the best shape it can be. The healthier your soil is, the less work you’ll have to do keeping your plants happy. Read more about preparing garden soil below, but if you have an area in your yard that has good soil (and gets enough sunlight) that may be the place to grow your garden.
Now for the fun part! Flipping through a seed catalog or browsing plants at the nursery are activities most gardeners love.
Plant Natives – Consider choosing plants that are native to your area. It’s easier to grow plants that are adapted to your soil and climate than trying to change your yard to match the needs of an exotic plant.
Check with the local Cooperative Extension Service to discover what grows best in your neck of the woods.
Other resources for finding out what grows well locally are your neighbors. See what’s growing around town and talk to folks with gardens.
Perennials Keep Going and Going – when you plant perennials (plants that come back year after year) you don’t have to worry about redoing the garden each spring.
Companion planting – Some plants, when grown together, help each other out. For example, leeks repel carrot fly and carrots repel onion fly and leek moth. By growing leeks, carrots and onions together they deter each other’s pests. Other plants replenish nutrients that another plant loses (read more about companion planting here).
Attracting Bugs – Not every insect is a bad insect. Many bugs will help fight garden pests. For example, ladybugs eat aphids, and they like sunflowers and lupine. Plant these two flowers and you’ll invite the critters that will take care of your aphid problem.
By attracting or introducing beneficial bugs to your backyard you can let someone else do the work for you.
Do as little or as much as you want with this one. Some people love to plan where every plant will go. Others would rather just stick a bunch of plants in the ground and see how it looks. If you do want to spend some time designing a garden, think about the following:
Height: You can add height to your garden with
- Raised beds or containers
- Climbing flowers or vines
- Tall flowers such as hollyhocks and sunflowers
- Trees and bushes in the middle of a flowerbed (make sure they will be manageable in twenty years!)
Color: Use a color wheel to see what flower colors will look good together, or choose contrasting colors.
- Blue, green, lavender and other “cool” colored blooms grow better in shady spots.
- Monochromatic gardens (all one color) are considered harmonious.
Texture: What is texture? It is the perceived surface structure of the plant. Are the leaves fine or coarse? Is the plant open and airy or dense?
- Look for a variety of foliage — wide, flat leaves; tall narrow blades — what ever suits your fancy.
- When the rest of your garden is brown, ornamental grasses add color, as well as texture.
Scent: Flowers like gardenia and plumeria will add a pleasing aroma to the garden.
Soil is literally the foundation of your garden. Healthy soil will promote strong, vigorous plants that
- Resist diseases
- Resist insect attacks
- Need less (or no) fertilizing
All soil is made up of sand, silt and clay, but the ratio of each varies from place to place. The ratio of these three soil ingredients also determines how well the soil will hold water, its aeration and its ability to drain.
Gardens with high soil quality will be:
- 25% air
- 25% water
- 40% mineral matter
- 10% organic material
- sweet smelling
- compress into a loose lump in your hand when moist
- full of earthworms
While no soil is perfect, the best thing you can do for your garden is build up a healthy soil.
First, get your soil tested or check it yourself with a garden soil test kit to find out what its’ current state is, and what you need to do to improve it.
1.) Add organic matter Mixing compost (read more on compost below) with natural soil amendments improves soil structure, texture and aeration — and adds nutrients. Adding organic matter is one of the best things you can do for your garden.
2.) Get the correct pH. Most garden vegetables, grasses, and ornamentals do best in a slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.8. Adjusting soil pH to within this range, allows roots to absorb and process available nutrients.
Increasing Soil pH. Adding limestone is probably the easiest way to increase the alkalinity of soil.
Decreasing Soil pH. Elemental sulfur is most commonly used by organic gardeners, but it takes awhile to kick in, so be patient.
Composting both improves the soil and turns household waste (that would otherwise end up in the landfill) into “black gold.” (Learn more about the benefits of composting here.)
Adding compost to the soil:
- improves soil tilth (a.k.a. the general health of the soil)
- helps maintain a neutral pH
- helps soil hold more water and nutrients (compost can quadruple the amount of water soil holds)
- feeds microbes and earthworms that support plants
Almost all organic waste your household produces can be used for making compost. That includes: grass clippings, vegetable peels and scraps, egg shells, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Meat and dairy should not go in the compost pile.
How much compost your garden needs depends on the soil health, length of your gardening season, and amount of precipitation you get.
You can apply compost any time of the year — it won’t burn plants or pollute the water the way synthetic fertilizers can. For best results:
- Add compost 2-3 weeks before planting
- Work compost 6-8 inches deep
- Try to get a compost to soil ratio of 50:50
- Side dress quick growing plants in late spring or early summer
- Consider watering your plants with a compost tea:
How to Make Compost Tea
1.) Fill a bucket about 1/3 full with finished compost.
Starting Your Own Seedlings
Starting plants from seeds takes a little more time and effort than buying starts from the nursery, but it is less expensive and rewarding (see Seed Starting Indoors). Plus, it’s fun to watch those little guys grow!
1.) Select a container that is 1-2 inches deep and has drainage holes.
2.) Choose a planting medium that is fast draining, but holds water. Soilless mediums such as vermiculite, perlite or peat moss work well, as does actual soil.
3.) Add warm water to the potting mix and give it time to absorb as much water as it will hold. If the mix holds together when you squeeze it, but doesn’t drip — it’s perfect.
4.) Fill the container until 1/4 inch from the top.
5.) Put a seed or two in the container.
6.) Top with a light layer of potting mix.
7.) Mist the soil lightly.
8.) Water seeds daily (or more) so the soil mix does not dry out.
9.) Make sure you provide adequate light. This may mean installing an indoor grow light since seeds need more light (16-18 hours) than mature plants.
11.) When the seedlings become too big for their container, transplant them to a bigger one. The best time to do this is when they grow true leaves (usually the second set of leaves).
In 5-10 weeks the seedlings should be ready to move to the garden.
1.) Harden plants off before sticking them in their new home. Start by putting them outside for a few hours a day during the warmest part of the day. Gradually increase the time they spend outdoors.
2.) Transplant on an overcast day — or early in the morning or late evening — when the sun is a little weak.
3.) Carefully remove the seedlings from their containers — try not to disturb the root balls.
4.) Plant them one at a time in pre-dug holes that are about twice the width of the root ball.
5.) Tamp the soil around the roots gently, but firmly.
6.) Right away, water with a seaweed extract to seat the plant and prevent shock.
7.) Keep the plant evenly moist for 1-2 weeks.
Planting Your Garden
• 40° — plant cool season crops
• 50° — plant warm weather crops
• 60° — plant hot weather crops
1.) Next, prepare the garden soil by digging as deeply as possible (double digging works well), and mixing in compost if needed. Rake the garden over to get rid of any clumps.
2.) Sow your seeds according to the directions on the seed packet in terms of depth and distance apart. Spread a little soil or mulch on top of the seeds, and then water well. (If you are transplanting seedlings see the directions above.)
3.) Water a bit every time the soil surface is dry. To encourage deep roots and prevent many plant diseases, water in the early morning (once the garden is established) so plants can dry out during the day.
Foregoing a chemical fertilizer for an organic one determines whether you harm the soil or make it healthier. Healthy soil is essential for healthy plants, so use an organic plant fertilizer.
Better than synthetic fertilizers, these organic fertilizers won’t burn your plants, and foster growth of important soil microorganisms while they fertilize.
Timing is everything when fertilizing because plant nutrient needs change as the plant grows. Annual plants, for example, benefit most when fertilized with a solution high in nitrogen when they are first planted (for growth and leaf development) and then switched to a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous solution to encourage blooming.
There are easy and efficient ways to manage pests in your garden without resorting to chemical pesticides. (If you don’t know why you’d want to avoid chemical pesticides, read Are Pests the Problem — or Pesticides?)
Before you start, make sure you know what you are dealing with. Figure out what insect is doing the damage. Next, decide how much damage you are willing to accept before treating your garden.
Cultural Controls: Make small changes in your garden to favor beneficial insects and deter detrimental pests. You might adjust the soil pH, select pest-resistant plants or water more or less.
Beneficial Insects: Predatory and parasitic insects attack only other insects; they won’t bother plants, pets or people.
Biological Pesticides: In most cases, these natural insecticides are specific to a certain pest. They are either living organisms (beneficial garden insects, bacteria, protozoa) or are the toxins produced by them. They have minimal impact on beneficial insects, and will not harm the environment.
Soaps, Oils and Abrasives: These controls smother or dehydrate insects, but they do it to all insects — not just the “bad” ones. On the other hand, they do break down quickly and don’t harm the environment.
Botanical Insecticides: Organic pesticides are derived from plants. They are not selective (they harm both beneficial insects and pests), but are considered better than chemical pesticides because they break down rapidly.