Growing your garden organically

Whether you plant vegetables, flowers, shrubs or threes, your garden and the larger environment benefit from an organic approach.

Gardens are, by and large, a better choice for the environment than a vast expanse of lawn, and they can give back so much more.  If you landscape and plant with wildlife in mind, too, your garden can help make up for the loss of their natural habitat.

Choosing the right plants can attract birds, bees and a host of insects that keep more destructive pests under control without the use of chemicals.

If you garden organically, you can keep a great deal of solid waste out of the waste stream and make your yard a much richer place for life.  Your own sense of enjoyment will also flourish.

What is organic gardening?

Organic gardening is much more than gardening without the use of pesticides.  It's a way of building and rebuilding the soil to encourage populations of desirable insects and birds that will sustain plantings year after year.

How do I garden organically?

Prepare the soil

It should be loose and airy and resemble fluffy bread crumbs.  If the soil is too dense, plant roots won't be able to penetrate it as freely and growth may be stunted.

Feed the soil

This is the secret of organic fertilization.   Bacteria present in the soil digest decaying plant and animal matter.  The digestive process produces acids that dissolve plant nutrients from rocks and soil particles and makes them available to nourish the plant.

So it's important to feed these bacteria, as well as the plants.  Compost feeds both, while synthetic fertilizers feed only the plant.

The concentrated nitrates and other substances they contain can't be completely utilized by plants.  The excess leaches into the soil, where it drives away or destroys earthworms and other helpful soil organisms and can pollute groundwater.

If you haven't started a compost pile or yours isn't ready to draw from, blend together an organic fertilizer of four parts blood meal, two parts bone meal and one part kelp, green sand or ground rock phosphate -- all of which can be found at your local garden center or nursery.

Adding peat moss, organic peat, manure or decomposed leaves will also boost the level of organic material in your soil.  To find your soil's pH (acid/alkaline) balance, along with any major elements it may lack, send a sample to your county extension agent or an agricultural school.  You can also buy soil test kits to do this yourself.

Mulch after planting

Mulch will save you the most work in your garden by controlling weeds, soaking up rain and holding moisture like a sponge.  It'll mean you water less frequently and can protect your plants during drought.

Water

In dry periods, apply the equivalent of one inch of rain once a week.  Early morning or early evening watering is generally best.   Drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses do a better job than sprinklers because there is less evaporative loss to the air.

Control bugs

Develop a tolerance for bugs first.  You can lose up to a third of the leaf area of many plants without harm. Expect some damage and plant a little more to compensate.

The first line of defense against bugs is to pick them off by hand or spray them off with a hose.  If you need something stronger, try insecticidal soap, a liquid household soap, quassia, pyrethrum or copper fungicide, depending on the pest you need to eradicate.

Clean up after harvest

Remove any remaining plant debris at the end of the season, or till into the soil any undiseased parts.  Mulch again to begin rebuilding the soil for next spring.

Buy organic, when you can

If you don't grow your own food, buy pesticide-free foods, foods in season, locally grown product or organically grown food.

Organic food is process, packaged, transported and stored to retain maximum nutritional value without the use of artificial preservatives, coloring or additions, irradiation or synthetic pesticides.  For more information, contact:

SOURCE:  Barbara Damrosch. The Garden Primer. New York, Workman Publishing, 1988.