The organic movement has been gaining advocates since the advent of agricultural chemicals. Coined by visionary publisher J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Institute and Organic Gardening magazine, “Organics” today represent the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry. The organic trade association reports an increase in sales of 20 percent annually over the past decade.
There are good reasons for this interest in healthy, tasty food free from synthetic contamination. Conventional farmers tell us it’s more difficult and more expensive to grow without fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, but organic enthusiasts say just the opposite – that utilizing the harmony of nature to produce healthy harvests is easier, cheaper, and more rewarding.
Regardless, you can apply organic growing principles in your own garden and reap the rewards!
|One of the best reasons to garden organically is to protect the natural benefits provided by some bugs, worms, and other garden creatures.
Begin by having the soil tested by your local cooperative extension office. Be sure to let them know what you’re planning to grow in your garden. Most vegetables prefer a slightly acidic soil of 6 to 7.5 pH, and you can ask the soil analyst to recommend organic ways to restore the pH balance of the soil once it’s been tested. You might add organic sulfur to increase acidity or use lime to make an acidic soil more alkaline.
Prepare the soil by hoeing or using a shovel to churn up the top eight to ten inches, adding some compost to enrich it. You may choose to raise the garden bed by adding six inches or so of soil, then create a frame around the bed to support it, using wood or rocks. Or you can create an earthen plateau. Raised beds help improve soil drainage.
James Steele, who owns The Herb Garden in Melrose, Florida, and is a gardening instructor, advises amending your garden bed with a layer of finely ground bone meal to enrich the soil with phosphorus and with a layer of cottonseed meal to add nitrogen. Both will break down slowly in the soil, providing a gradual release of nourishment that should last through the growing season. Steele says that the right blend of soil, fertilizer, and water is essential to striking a balance for healthy plant growth. Water helps dissolve the nutrients, and the soil holds them against the roots for uptake into the plants. Too much or too little fertilizer or water will result in damage to the plants.
Three Photos Below: Courtesy of Trish Riley
“A healthy, complex soil is the best thing you can have for a garden, and composting is the best way to achieve that,” Steele said. “Having a compost pile is like raising a pet. It is alive. It gets thirsty and needs food and oxygen. It is a gardener’s best friend. Feed your soil, and the plants will feed you.”
Consult local native plant nurseries or your extension office for recommendations on plants that are known to thrive in your local environment and for planting schedules based on the frost and season in your area. Once you have plants placed in the beds, surround them with organic mulch, such as grass clippings, leaves, straw, compost, or bark to retain moisture and to protect tender plants from the elements. Mulch nourishes the soil as it biodegrades and keeps weeds from growing around the plants.
Companion planting: selecting plants that help one another by enriching the soil and fighting off pests. Tall plants help shade those close to the ground, and some flowers attract bugs that prey on aphids and caterpillars. Other plants, like onions and garlic, help repel pests.
Steele plants marigolds around tomatoes and corn and creates a vertical fence for cucumbers to climb high above his garlic patch.
Increase the number of nectar-producing, flowering plants to help attract beneficial insects to your garden.
Fennel, cilantro, parsley, and buckwheat attract some insects, while straw mulch attracts spiders. Planting marigolds and other insect deterrents in unused beds creates a ground cover that will add organic matter when folded back into the soil after the blooms have faded.