If you’ve ever wondered about starting an organic garden but didn’t know where to begin, here’s a guide for you. Starting an organic garden is probably far easier than you imagined it would be. Forget about all those rules and regulations that commercial gardeners have to follow to earn the “organic” label. For a home garden to be considered organic, all you have to do is forgo unnatural chemicals, like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, in lieu of healthier choices. Read on to find out how you can begin your organic garden today.
Benefits of Organic Gardening
Organic gardening can be a bit more labor intensive than non-organic gardening, especially when commencing, so keep in mind your motivation for starting an organic garden in the first place:
- Organic gardens provide safer food for you to eat when you grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
- Not handling pesticides and harsh chemicals is healthier for you as a gardener.
- Organic gardens attract more birds, butterflies, bees, dragonflies and other natural elements that you want in your yard.
- Kids and pets are safer when playing in or around an organic garden, and wildlife won’t be in danger either.
- Organic gardening can save you money at the grocery store, as organic foods tend to be pricey, and at the garden center, where you’ll be purchasing fewer products to get rid of weeds and bugs.
The first thing you need to do when starting an organic garden is evaluate your soil. You need to check it for several different things. First the quality and texture of the soil should be assessed. If it is too sandy, compost or organic topsoil can be added to give it more heft (see below). If there is too much clay, sand or organic material can be added to provide more room for oxygen and water to circulate.
If water drains through your soil very rapidly and you can see lots of small mineral flecks in it, it’s likely very sandy. If the dirt clumps when it’s wet and water pools on top of it when it rains, you’ve got clay soil. Another sign of high clay content is that when the soil becomes extremely dry, it hardens like ceramic and is very hard to break through.
You should also check the acidity of your soil. Some plants like a more acidic environment (below 7), while other like alkaline soil (above 7). Soil pH is one of the simplest things to test yourself with a kit purchased online or from the local nursery.
There are a limited number of accurate home tests to check for heavy metals and harmful chemicals in your garden soil. Therefore, you may want to ask a professional landscape company or your area university agriculture extension program to do further testing for you. Of course, if you know that the garden has never been treated with pesticides and is unlikely to contain chemicals or dangerous elements, you can probably assume it’s fine for your purposes as a home organic gardener.
You may want to consider having several beds with different pH levels and different types of soil to accommodate the growing preferences of various species. Carrots, for example, like sandy soil, while tomatoes prefer a more rich, loamy earth. If you’re going to grow flowers organically (a great idea, and there are many types you can actually eat), plants like hydrangeas vary their bloom color with the soil acidity, becoming more blue-violet in acidic soil and pink in alkaline.
Soil Improvement with Composting
Even if your soil is the right consistency and acidity and is free of chemicals, you will probably want to improve its nutrient content. You should do this both before planting and as your garden grows, as the plants will pull nutrients out of the soil and into themselves. That’s what makes them so healthy for you to eat!
Improving your soil is easy when you think of it as simply adding decomposed natural materials. You can do this quite simply and effectively with a compost bin or pile. A compost pile makes quality soil from biodegradable things you toss out:
- fruit and vegetable peels and cores
- coffee grounds
- grass clippings
- other garden waste
- pet or human hair
- unbleached shredded paper
You can purchase a small bucket to keep in your kitchen or back porch to collect refuse. Don’t include bones or other things that are likely to attract vermin. When your bucket is full, add it to the bin or pile in your yard. (You can purchase compost bins at the garden center or build one yourself.) The heat generated by the decomposing material helps it break down faster, as does turning it over once in a while. Once the compost looks just like regular dirt, it’s ready to use in your garden.
You can also add elements to the soil, like earthworm castings (earthworm droppings that make great fertilizer), peat moss, decaying mulch (see below) and manure. You always want to use aged manure that has been sitting at least six months, rather than fresh manure. You can purchase ready-to-use manure at the nursery. If you purchase manure from a nearby farm, make sure to ask if it has been aged or if you need to do that yourself first before applying it to the garden. You want to stay away from chemical fertilizers that are not in keeping with the natural process of organic gardening.
Here’s a very thorough video about leaf compost:
Other Methods of Improving the Soil: Raised Beds and Container Gardening
If improving your topsoil feels like an overwhelming task to you, you have several good options. You can construct raised beds and fill them with organic soil that already contains good nutrients and no chemicals. Raised beds can also mean less bending and lifting for you, and they limit the presence of invasive plants that spread via their root systems. They provide a barrier to your garden to keep pets and kids out and when planned correctly, afford a clear pathway through which to walk in your garden space.
Other choices to get around the chore of major soil improvement include hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient-rich solution or medium) or container gardening. Container gardening is a perfect solution if you have a small yard or only a terrace on which to garden. You can move the containers around to follow the sun or shade with the seasons, and they are an attractive, flexible way to garden as much or as little as you like. If you have a spate of bad weather or early frost, you can move the pots indoors, and you can always bring in herbs to winter over in colder climates.
You can grow large plants in containers too; it just takes a little more planning. Since heavy containers can be hard to move, set them where they will do well throughout the entire growing season, or put them on plant dollies to make moving less strenuous. You don’t have to use expensive ceramic pots. Look for containers like half wine barrels that won’t leach chemicals into your organic plants.
If you grow your plants in containers, you still have to add nutrients to the soil periodically, just like with beds or plots. You can do this by making fertilizer tea or working small amounts of compost or earth worm castings into the dirt.
The Planting Process
Once your soil has been prepared the way you like it, it’s time to start planting. It’s much less expensive (and often more fun) to start plants from seeds. There are not that many plants that can be sown in place, given the short growing seasons most gardeners face.
You can easily start trays of seeds indoors before planting season and grow them under artificial lights. Once your almanac or garden center says it’s safe to plant outdoors in your region, you can set the baby plants in the garden.
Of course, you can also find starter plants at your local garden center. You just want to make sure they’re organic, so you’re not introducing chemicals or pesticides into your carefully prepared soil.
When transplanting your starter plants into the garden, take care to allow enough room for the plants when they’re fully grown. You may want to measure and mark this out in advance. Make sure the soil is moist before gently removing the plant from its container.
After placing it in a small hole in the ground, carefully repack the soil around it, along with any mulch you have protecting the area. Keep a little space between the mulch and your seedlings to prevent rot. You can give the general area a light watering to help the plants settle in. Many gardeners like to plant their seedlings in the late afternoon or evening to give the little plants time to adjust before being subjected to the harshest sun of midday.
Water and feed your plants according to the directions on the seed packet, label or instruction sheet from the nursery. Watering is most efficient if done in the morning, so the moisture doesn’t evaporate. If using a hose or watering can to water your garden, try to water the roots of your plants, not the foliage. A drip irrigation system that runs a hose with holes in it along the ground makes this easier.
One of the elements of organic gardening that differs the most from conventional gardening is the management of weeds. Since you can’t use herbicidal sprays or powders to keep weeds at bay, you have to use other methods. Many gardeners like the immediate gratification and exercise they get by hand pulling or hoeing weeds. This requires more work when the plants are young and spindly than when they fill out more later.
You can also use mulch to keep weeds down, and it has the added benefit of adding some organic material to the soil as it decomposes. Popular mulches include:
- wood chips
- seed hulls
- organic straw
- shredded unbleached paper
- grass clippings
- pine needles or evergreen boughs
Like mulch, black garden screening material can keep weeds from sprouting too. You need to make sure it’s of a variety that won’t let any chemicals seep into the ground and allow large enough holes to accommodate your plants when their stems become larger.
Pest Control Options
Pest control is another area that differentiates organic gardening from many other processes. You have many more options than you might think when it comes to pest control. If your pest problems are relatively minor, you may decide to just live with them, rather than go to any further trouble. You may also find some simple solutions, like using saucers of beer to kill slugs, work fine.
Some other ways to deal with pests naturally include:
- installing nets, screening or wire to keep out birds and other wild animals
- using beneficial predators (insects that eat or kill other insects)
- sprinkling cayenne pepper on the ground to discourage bugs and rodents
- spraying plants with natural soaps to deter insects
- using row covers (polyester fabric) to keep out caterpillars and beetles
- placing pheremone traps to entice insects
- using sticky traps to collect small winged insects
- using Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) to kill insects that eat it (many caterpillars, borers and beetles)
You may have to use a combination of some of the above suggestions to effectively target all the pests in your garden.
Once you harvest your first vegetable crop or cut your first bunch of organic flowers, your efforts will be well worth it. You’ll know you and your family are eating healthier foods, and animals in your yard are protected as well. Try organic gardening today, and you may just spark a trend in your entire neighborhood.