If you've been thinking of ditching the chemicals and going organic, this is the year to do it! There are many good reasons to grow an organic garden, but health tops the list. The food is fresher and more nutritious, plus you want edible crops free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Here are 8 simple steps for starting an organic garden.
Our grandparents grew "organic" without even using the word. Organic produce has superior taste, is free from toxic chemicals, is more nutritious, and is good for our environment and nature. No groundwater is being polluted by chemicals, topsoil is being created instead of lost, biological diversity is strengthened, and the natural balance between predator and pest is promoted.
8 Steps Toward Organic Gardening
Here are 8 simple steps toward growing an organic garden:
- Get a soil test.
- Start a compost pile.
- Use organic seeds and plants when possible.
- Practice good garden sanitation.
- Rotate plant families every year.
- Use physical barriers and traps to thwart bad bugs. Handpick offending insects when possible.
- Scout for problems daily.
- Safely dispose of leftover chemicals.
Organic gardening is not difficult. Think of it as a cycle. The gardener feeds the soil, the soil feeds the plants, and the plants feed the gardener.
1. Soil Test
The first step in going organic is to get a soil test. From it, you will learn the basic texture of your soil and its acidity or pH level. You'll be able to learn the amounts of nutrients already in your soil, as well as which nutrients it's lacking. Plants that are forced to grow in poor soil are usually stressed, making them weak and more vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases. See my post on how to take a soil test.
If you don't already have a compost pile, start one now in the corner of your yard. Compost is the best soil conditioner and slow-release plant food that you can use—and it's free for the making! Rich in micronutrients, it encourages the growth of beneficial soil organisms, builds soil fertility, and improves the structure of any soil type. See how to compost.
It doesn't take long for your leaves, plant debris, and kitchen scraps to turn into this lovely compost—brown gold!
3. Seeds and Plants
When shopping for seeds and plants, look for resistant varieties. Use organic seeds whenever possible, but also avoid ones that have been treated with chemicals. (It should state that on the package.) Always purchase organically-raised transplants or start your own. Most commercially grown plants are raised in a bath of chemicals.
To avoid spreading diseases in your garden, don't work in it when the plants are wet. Promptly remove sickly plants and clean up spent plants.
Also, you MUST remove debris at the end of the season, too. They may harbor pests and diseases that could winter over and return to plague you next year.
If this is not your first year of gardening, be careful where you place your plants. Do not grow the same plants in the same garden bed year after year. Rotating planting areas prevents your soil from being depleted of the same nutrients each season, and it also helps to head off diseases and break the cycle of insect infestation.
Try a 4-year rotation by moving brassicas, cucurbits, nightshades, and root crops to a new bed each year. Learn more about crop rotation.
6. Barriers and Traps
Barriers such as row covers and cutworm collars work well to keep insects from attacking your plants, especially when the plants are small.
Sticky traps can attract and catch offending insects, and slugs can't resist a saucer of beer.
Using row covers got these squash plants off to a good start by warming them at night and keeping bugs at bay until the plants were large enough to survive attack.
This huge hornworm will eat tons of foliage and fruit before you know it! It might be hard for some of you to touch him with your bare hands, so use a clothespin to grab him and pull him off your tomato plant.
Handpick and dispose of the beetles and creepy-crawlies you catch in the act. If you are squeamish about touching them, try knocking them into a pail of soapy water. Remember that not all bugs are bad, so get to know your enemy and encourage a healthy balance between predator insects and their prey. Here are the beneficial insects that eat pests. Don't kill them!
Try making a simple bug catcher from 2 jugs. Put some soapy water in the bottom and knock bugs into the funnel at the top. They will fall to their sudsy demise.
7. Keep Eyes Open and Hands On
Try to visit your garden daily to check your plants for any signs of trouble. Caught early on, many problems can be stopped before they get too big to deal with. Look under leaves for bug eggs and remove them before they can hatch out. Leaves also can tell you a lot about the health of your plants! Watch for brown edges, white patches, curling, and yellowing. Organic gardeners have to be aware of what is going on in their gardens. Managing a safe and sustainable garden will bring you closer to nature.
Mr. Toad is a garden ally. He will eat all kinds of bad bugs for you.
8. Toss the Chemicals
If you have any leftover garden chemicals, take them to the next hazardous waste collection day at your local transfer station to ensure their safe disposal. Getting them off your property also lessens the chance that you might use them in a "weak" moment. Time to step away from the spray, toss the 10-10-10, and sack the Sevin! A better garden and better health await!
While you may not use chemicals in the garden, that doesn't mean your plants fend for themselves. Use the tricks I mentioned above (such as cutworm collars) and also consider these homemade insecticide sprays and weed killers
- The first line of defense against pests should be an insecticidal soap spray or oil. See my post on five homemade organic pesticides to use.
- When it comes to weeds (unwanted plants), don't resort to cancer-causing herbicides in an edible garden! There are better ways to control competing plants while still keeping people, pets, wildlife, and waterways safe. See my post on 5 homemade herbicides to kill weeds.