The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening

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The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening

How to Create, Maintain, and Enjoy Your Organic Garden

Topics we'll cover:

  • What is organic gardening?
  • How to prep your soil
  • Using organic compost
  • Organic seeds and plants
  • Organic pest and disease control
  • Organic weed control

What is Organic Gardening?

Organic gardening is gardening without the use of chemical fertilizer, chemical pesticides or chemical herbicides. It is staying true to nature and natural growing methods as much as possible. Organic gardening keeps the soil you use to grow clean and uncontaminated by chemical products that may remain in the ground for years. This type of gardening starts with organic seeds and plants that are non-GMO. Organic gardening is producing the cleanest fruits and vegetables of the highest quality and nutrition possible. And because organic gardens are free of pesticides and herbicides, they contribute to overall healthier ecosystems. These chemical-free gardens create a small, natural oasis for pollinators like bees and butterflies and help keep the soil clean by eliminating chemical runoff effects. The benefits have a cascading and outward effect, improving the overall environment in which the garden is located.

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If you are new to gardening, you have the opportunity to start organically. If you have an existing garden, it may or may not have been kept organic. Each step you take towards organic growing will improve the soil and improve your family's health and nutrition. It doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Each step you take towards growing organically will be beneficial. That is the beauty of a home garden. It is a process, and each year, you become a better gardener as you learn about your soil. You'll discover the soil's microclimate, what things grow easily and happily in your garden and what things need extra attention. While growing organically is extremely important–as you will consume the food you grow–don’t limit your organic growing to the vegetable garden. Your perennial beds and annual flower beds can be organic also. Even a healthy lawn can be achieved organically.

As an organic gardener, you will learn about your soil and how to keep it healthy and keep adequate amounts of nutrients available to the plants growing in your soil. You will become more aware of weather and how it will impact your plants positively and negatively. You will learn about the different varieties of each plant and which is the preferred one for you and your family, knowing that new types will be developed each year. Organic gardening will help you determine which insects are harmful and which are beneficial in the garden. Additionally, organic gardening will teach you the life cycle of insects, control those that cause damage, and attract beneficial insects. As an organic gardener, you will be much more in tune with nature as you learn more about your garden each year.

How to Prepare Your Soil

If you have an existing garden bed and like the location, you can change your garden to an organic garden. If you are starting a new bed, choose a site with as much sunlight as possible. You will also need access to water for those days that there has not been adequate rainfall. An organic garden requires regular attention, so having the vegetable garden near the house will make that easier. It also allows you to see what is ready to harvest and incorporate into your meal planning.

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Once you have selected your garden site, decide if your garden will be a raised bed garden or a traditional in-ground garden. Some gardeners do both types. If you are going to garden in raised beds, you will have to build the boxes and use organic soil to fill them. If you are going to garden in the existing ground, you will have to remove the sod first. Then, dig up the soil, removing any large stones, weeds or other debris. An alternative to removing the sod is to cover it with a heavy tarp or flattened cardboard to keep light from the grass. After several months, all the vegetation, including the grass, should be dead and dug into the soil. This method is best done in the fall so the garden is ready to dig in the spring. Add organic material, including compost and manure. Organic material such as compost will help all soil types. If you have clay soil, water has difficulty being absorbed by the soil. Adding organic material will provide pockets for air and water to enter and be absorbed. If you have sandy soil, the water leaches right through the soil, taking nutrients with it. The organic material will hold the water and nutrients in the soil. Use caution when adding manure to the garden. Be sure it has aged for a year or more. Fresh manure can burn and kill young seedlings.

Lastly, perform a soil test. Soil tests will give you the amount of the three primary soil nutrients–nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium–and other necessary nutrients found in smaller quantities. Your soil test will also give you the pH of your soil. The results will tell you what the levels are of all the necessary nutrients and advise you on how to amend your soil to bring all levels to the optimum level for your plants' health. Park Seed carries home tests that are easy to use and allow you to keep track of your soil health throughout the season.

Using Organic Compost

One of the best amendments for your garden is compost. It is almost impossible to add too much compost, and it’s free if you make your own. Compost can be made by making a pile of the ingredients, but most gardeners like to have the pile contained in a bin or a barrel. Most bins are a simple three-sided structure, with each side measuring to be about three feet minimum height and depth.

Compost is made from your garden and kitchen waste. There are two ingredients: high carbon “brown” plant material and high nitrogen “green” material. Brown material includes dried leaves in fall, straw, dried grasses and paper. Green material includes freshly cut lawn clippings, food scraps like potato peels and apple cores and garden debris like the bean plant after harvesting the beans. The green and brown material is layered with a shovel full of soil added to provide the organisms that will break down the material into compost. Keep the material damp and turn the pile occasionally. In as little as a couple of months, you will have compost ready to use in your garden and planting containers. There are also barrel composters available for purchase. These are barrels with a sealable door to add and remove the material. This type of barrel is attached to a frame that allows the barrel to rotate and mixes the material.

Not only is compost the best additive for your garden, but by turning organic waste into usable compost, all the waste material is kept out of the landfills. Compost is not only a benefit to your garden but also the environment.

Choosing Organic Seeds and Plants

Now that your soil is prepared, it is time to plant. Start with organic seeds. Look for a seed source that offers not only organic seeds and plants but also organic heirloom plants. These heirlooms have survived the test of time–both in flavor and in disease and pest resistance. These plants were first grown before chemical interventions and when growing your own food could have been a matter of survival. Heirloom plants have proven their worth.

Consider starting seeds indoors with a seed starter kit. Longer season crops like tomatoes and peppers can be started indoors. If you have space and can provide your seedlings with adequate light and warmth, you can successfully start plants indoors from organic seeds. This way, you will have control over your plants from start to finish and you will know that they have been grown organically. It is not difficult to start your own plants, and the advantage is that you will save money and have many more varieties to choose from.

Organic Pest and Disease Control

Growing organically does not mean you have to accept food that is chewed on or full of unwanted critters. There are a variety of methods to control pests and diseases without the use of chemicals. Each year that you garden, you will become more knowledgeable on what your main pest problems are. You can anticipate when to watch for a certain pest and proactively treat your plants. First and foremost is to grow healthy, sturdy organic plants. Bugs like nothing better than a weak plant. This is one of the reasons why your soil prep is so important. Here are some tips for fighting disease and pests organically. tips for fighting disease and pests organically

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Early Detection. The sooner you discover a problem, the better. It will be easier to eliminate a small problem than a big problem. Walk around your garden every day. Keep alert for any sign of distress and investigate for the cause.

Barriers. Use row covers and other plant protection products to provide a physical barrier between your plants and the bugs that want to eat them. A row cover is a thin cloth that the sun can penetrate, but the bugs can’t. This is an ideal method if you have a bug that is difficult to control. Row covers are usually draped over hoops that fit over the plants; however, they can be draped right over the plants. Remember that a row cover has to be placed over the plants before the bug attacks, or you’ll just be trapping the bug in its private dining room. Your gardening experience will help you to determine when to cover your plants.

Natural Predators. Ladybugs eat aphids. The larvae stage of the ladybug has an even more voracious appetite for aphids than the adult ladybug. Many insects eat other insects, and you can even purchase these insects if you have a severe problem. After releasing them in your garden, they can eliminate a problem very quickly. The predator bug will stay as long as there is a supply of food for them. They may move on once they have eaten the bugs in your garden.

Companion Planting. There are many benefits to companion planting, and one is to deter feeding insects. For example, many insects find the marigold toxic, and they will never try to eat a marigold. Often, just planting a marigold next to the targeted plant will deter the harmful insect.

Other Methods. These include methods that may involve using a chemical but one that is still considered organic. For instance, if you see Japanese Beetles, tap the branch or leaf they are on and they will fall into a cup of water with dish soap you hold under the beetle. This will kill the beetle. This method is most effective in the early morning when the beetle is not very active. When it warms up, the beetle may fly away instead of dropping into the cup. Bt, a biological pesticide, kills cabbage worms and Neem Oil protects against mites, fungus and insects. They are made from plant material and are considered organic, but some organic gardeners choose not to use them.

Plant Disease Resistant Varieties. Certain varieties of plants, over generations, have achieved a certain amount of resistance to specific diseases. This doesn’t mean they won’t get that disease; however, they are less likely to than other varieties. Also, always remove the entire diseased plant from your garden. Do not compost it because you will now spread that disease throughout the garden via the compost. Place any diseased material in the trash or burn it.

Organic Weed Control

If you want to garden organically, you cannot use herbicides. Instead, use mulch such as straw or untreated lawn clippings. Newspaper or cardboard can also be used between the rows. Pull weeds by hand to remove them–root and all. There is nothing like the old traditional hoe to solve a weed problem quickly. Keep your hoe sharpened and use it while weeds are small to minimize the work involved.

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With good garden preparation, using organic seeds and plants, including organic heirloom plants, and maintaining and protecting your garden with organic methods, it won’t be long before you will be enjoying great organic produce fresh from your garden.