Organic Gardening – Alive and Well
by Joyce Schillen (copyright 2004)
Organic gardening has been around long enough now to prove it isn't just a fad. Misconceptions do exist, though, about just what "organic gardening" really is.
A check of several organic references doesn't turn up a quick and easy definition. One organic gardener I know had it right, I think, when he said it's "gardening with nature." That means without synthetic chemical sprays or artificial fertilizers. It's an attempt work WITH nature rather than trying to dominate it, although it has to be acknowledged that once you put a single seed into the ground, you've already tampered with nature.
The basis of successful organic gardening is improving the soil so that it's healthy and alive, because healthy soil grows healthy plants that resist diseases and even insects.
You improve soil by adding compost and by growing "green manure" cover crops that are tilled into the soil. It can be done on a large or small scale. Compost makes an excellent potting soil for container gardening, both indoors and out.
Composting is the process of turning garden and kitchen refuse into usable, decomposed material that makes a great soil amendment. Composting can be done in a "scientific" way with specific types of materials added in certain quantities, and then maintained properly and turned at just the right times.
Or if you don't want to follow the complicated directions (they're widely available), or you don't have a lot of time to put into it, you can simply pile it up and let it rot. The materials will just take longer to decompose if you do it that way. And it looks messier.
Materials suitable for composting include grass clippings, leaves, flowers, old plants, old potting soil, twigs, annual weeds that haven't gone to seed, veggie scraps, coffee filters, and tea bags. Try for a mix of brown and green materials. A thin layer of garden soil sprinkled on top keeps odors down and adds organisms that get the whole process started.
Avoid adding diseased plants, weed seeds, invasive weeds like quack grass and morning glory, foods such as bread, meat or fish parts, dairy products, and grease or oil.
Shredding the materials first before adding them to the pile speeds up the decomposition process. So does turning the pile periodically to introduce air; and maintaining moisture levels so the pile stays slightly damp. Cover it with black plastic in all seasons to keep it evenly moist.
Backyard composting barrels, including some that tumble to mix things together, are available for purchase. They make composting an easy thing to accomplish in the city.
Finished compost takes from a month to a year to produce, depending on how you manage the pile. When it's dark and crumbly and smells like fresh earth, it's ready to use in pots or dig into a garden bed.
Another nearly magic way to quickly improve soil is to grow cover crops over the winter time. Cover crops planted in early fall will germinate and grow slowly over the winter, taking off again in spring. Several weeks before planting in mid to late spring, they're tilled in so they'll have a chance to decompose before planting time. You can grow cover crops in raised beds with good results, turning them under by hand.
Cover crops add organic matter to soil from both the root mass and from the top growth when it's turned under. In addition, legume plants such as annual clovers, fava beans, and vetch fix nitrogen into the soil, if they're allowed to bloom before tilling in. That nitrogen will be available to whatever plant comes next in that spot. Please, make sure it isn't a weed.
To further boost your organic garden's fertility, use fertilizers such as fish fertilizer, worm castings, manure and manure tea, and organic mixes. You can make your own organic fertilizer by combining 3 parts seedmeal (cottonmeal, alfalfa meal), 1 part bloodmeal, 1 part kelp or greensand, and 1/2 part bonemeal.
It's surprising to some people that "organic gardening" is not synonymous with "no spraying". Spraying IS allowed under organic certification programs, but instead of using manufactured chemicals, organic farmers, when justified, use pesticides that are made from botanical or biological sources.
Some that might be used include rotenone, pyrethrum, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), and pesticidal soaps. Home gardeners should always read and follow label directions before using a pesticide, because even organic sprays can be highly toxic to people, pets, beneficial insects, wildlife, and the environment – they should be used only when absolutely necessary. Ratchet-up your tolerance for a little bug chewing in your garden if you have to.
You can prevent or greatly reduce the need for spraying by growing healthy plants in healthy soil, and by encouraging beneficial insects, toads, snakes, birds and lizards to take up residence in your garden. Plant perennial herbs to attract beneficial insects, and provide wet spots or mud puddles for the butterflies.
Your garden will come alive!