Getting Started in Organic Gardening

At its most basic, organic gardening is simply a set of practices designed to nurture a garden’s ecosystem while meeting goals for production.  The idea is to cooperate with nature, rather than working against it.  Almost anyone can understand the concept and enjoy the benefits.

Why garden organically?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Don’t eat poison: Industrial farms usually spray their crops with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  These chemicals are known to cause problems in the environment, and they are likely unsafe for people as well.  Although the insecticides may be present in trace amounts, do you really want to eat something that’s designed as a poison?
  • Save money: Growing food at home lets you bypass the high prices of the produce section, while still enjoying better quality veggies.
  • Eat more healthily: It’s much easier to eat your veggies when they’re grown just feet away.  The health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables are well-known, and many people also find that homegrown produce tastes better than what they find in a store.
  • Get some exercise: You might be digging holes, pushing wheelbarrows of compost, or pulling weeds.  Or you may prefer less physically demanding tasks like scattering seeds and watering.  Either way, you’ll get a healthy dose of fresh air and sunshine.
  • Help the planet: While improving your own lifestyle, you’ll also be doing your part to keep the world around you healthy.  Trucking produce to a supermarket generates a lot of pollution, and industrial use of fertilizers causes environmental problems such as ocean dead zones.  By gardening organically, you’ll be part of the solution to large-scale issues like those, and you’ll also help your local ecosystem.

How to get started:

  1. Plan the size of your garden. This can range from a few containers on a porch or balcony, to a modest backyard plot, to several acres.  If you don’t have time to tend a large garden, there’s nothing wrong with starting small.  You’ll be surprised how much fruit a few healthy plants can produce.
  2. Choose which plants you want to grow. Herbs, potatoes, beans, carrots, and peppers need different amounts of space, sunlight, and nutrients.  It’s also a good idea to check which varieties thrive in your area.
  3. Prepare the planting area. This can take a few minutes or a few days, depending on your garden’s location.  If you are planting in a flower pot, you only need to add soil.  On the other hand, grassy areas will probably need to be tilled.  The next step is soil preparation.  You might want to test the soil and adjust the pH, if necessary.  Many gardeners add compost (easy to make yourself) or manure (never from meat-eating animals).  If you have poor soil, consider using raised beds with soil piled a few inches above the ground level.  You can learn how to build them here.
  4. Select your plants. When buying seedlings, look for plants raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  It’s best to buy stocky seedlings with few blooms yet and with roots that don’t look crowded.  Many plants grow better from seeds, such as lettuce, sunflowers, and dill.
  5. Plant your garden. After you bring your plants home, give them a good drink of water, even if you plan on planting them immediately.  The actual planting is straightforward; simply dig a hole of the proper size, put in the seedling, and fill in the hole.  You might want to check the packaging for special directions.  For instance, it is recommended to plant tomato seedlings deeper than others, burying up to two-thirds of the plant.  The packaging itself is often recyclable or can be planted along with the seedling so that it breaks down as the roots grow.  Another note:  Be sure to leave plenty of space between your seedlings.  Remember, they will get much bigger!
  6. After planting cover your garden in a layer of organic mulch to help keep weeds down.  You can use the tags that came with your seedlings to label the planting areas, or you can make your own signs (this could be a fun craft).
  7. Take care of your garden. Gardening organically doesn’t mean leaving your plants to fend for themselves.  Weeding regularly (at least once a week) will keep the work manageable.  You can also protect your plants from pests and disease without using toxic chemicals.  If your plants are being assaulted by pests, first make sure your garden has enough sunlight, water, and nutrients.  Remember that predators like such as frogs, toads, lizards, birds, and even bats will help keep your garden healthy.  Beneficial insects, especially ladybugs, can be your best friends.  Also, feel free to ask your friends and family for tips on combating garden pests.  More often than not, you will find a healthy and natural alternative to pesticides.

Composting is a great way to improve your organic garden.  Compost feeds plants, reduces weeds, and keeps food and yard waste out of landfills.  To make your own compost, just pile alternating layers of carbon (or brown) material — leaves and garden trimmings — with nitrogen (green) material, such as kitchen scraps.  For more information of composting check out the links below.

Whether you’re just starting out or have years of experience, it’s easy to find tips and new ideas.  Many home and garden magazines provide useful info, and a quick Web search for “organic gardening” reveals plenty of helpful sites.  Here are some of our favorites:

You’ll find even more links on our Activities page.

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