By Christy Wilhelmi
1. Start with the soil – the foundation of a good organic garden literally is the soil. If you have healthy, nutrient-rich, living soil your plants will outgrow or combat pests and diseases much more easily. Good soil is comprised of ingredients like peat moss (or coir – pronounced coy-yer – a more sustainable option made from the outside fibers of a coconut shell), vermiculite or perlite, and compost. Other nutrient-building ingredients are spent coffee grounds, composted animal manures, worm castings, and wood ashes. All of these help achieve what we call “loam”, the ultimate soil texture every gardener seeks.
2. Compost is your friend – Whether you have clay or sandy soil, both types of soil can be improved by adding compost. Composting is also a great way of recycling your kitchen and yard waste into a usable resource for your garden. You don’t even need a bin, just a 3 x 3 foot area to pile up layers of browns (dried leaves, pine needles, straw, corn stalks, and other dried yard waste) and greens (grass clippings, kitchen scraps except for animal proteins, coffee grounds, weeds – before they bolt to seed – and other green material). Turn garbage into black gold, and close the loop on waste.
If you don’t have room for a compost bin, maybe a worm bin is more your size. They take up less room and can handle most household kitchen scraps. If neither of those options works for you, check with your local city Bureau of Sanitation to see if they offer free compost from city tree trimming projects and yard waste collection, otherwise you can buy it from your local nursery or garden center.
3. Use organic fertilizers – FYI – Miracle Gro is not organic. Synthetic fertilizers are processed using natural gas and petroleum and are therefore not sustainable. Organic fertilizers have far less environmental impact on the earth and yet still supply plants with the life-giving nutrients they need. To identify organic fertilizers, you should be able to pronounce the sources on the label (mostly animal by-products like bone and blood meals, kelp and fish meal, etc). There are plenty of trustworthy companies out there who provide organic gardeners with the supplies they need.
4. Grow from good seeds – If you really want to go full-speed organic, start with organic seeds. Many companies offer untreated seeds and organic seeds. Growing heirloom seeds increases our planet’s bio-diversity. Hybrid seeds can offer strong varieties, but avoid them if you plan to collect seeds from your harvest, as hybrid seeds won’t produce the same results from year to year. If a seed catalog doesn’t specifically say that they don’t use genetically engineered seed, then there is a chance that they do use genetic engineering in their seed production. Use your best judgment about whether you want this in your garden or not.
5. Fight pests with nature – Organic pest control is a vast subject, but the idea is universal: Use pest controls that don’t cause more harm than good. Natural predators like lady bugs, lacewings, decollate snails and others will go after your aphids, snails and slugs. Marigolds will help keep pests away. Organic horticultural oils (like neem and canola based oils) can be sprayed to help prevent scale, white fly and some airborne fungi. The OMRI – Organic Materials Review Institute has a great site for information about organic pest control if you want to investigate further. Visit www.OMRI.org to get the low down.
The key to organic gardening is to get connected to your soil, plants and the environment. You can’t help but do this as you nurture little seedlings along their way. Start small, embrace learning experiences (A.K.A. mistakes) and have fun. Your garden will reward you in more ways than you can imagine.
Christy Wilhelmi is founder of Gardenerd, the ultimate resource for garden nerds. She is a board member of Ocean View Farms Organic Community Garden in Mar Vista, California, and gardens almost entirely with heirloom vegetables. For organic gardening classes, hands-on garden consulting and food garden design, visit www.gardenerd.com
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