How to Start an Organic Garden

Written by | Gardening

You’ve been trying to eat more organic foods, both to decrease the amount of pesticides you and your family consume and to help protect the environment. But take one look at your grocery store receipt and you know that buying organic can get very expensive, very fast. Luckily, there’s a way to grow your own delicious, fresh produce while having fun and learning at the same time: organic gardening!

Don’t know where to start? It is possible to hire someone to install and maintain a beautiful organic garden for you, but most of us can roll up our sleeves with a surprisingly low amount of effort. Remember, you can start small, even with just a single plant or two. Don’t worry if things aren’t perfect right away.

Organic gardening means you won’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but that doesn’t mean your plants fend for themselves. There are an array of tools you can use to bolster plant health and ward off pests.

Preparing the Soil

In order to get the best results with your new organic garden, you’ll want to make sure the soil is properly conditioned. You have to eat, and so do plants, so make sure your veggies get lots of fresh nutrients. Healthy soil helps build up strong, productive plants. Chemical soil treatments can not only seep into your food, but they can also harm the beneficial bacteria, worms, and other microbes in the soil.

The best way to gauge the quality of your soil is to get it tested. You can get a home testing kit, or better, send a sample to your local agricultural extension office. For a modest fee you’ll get a complete breakdown of pH and nutrient levels, as well as treatment recommendations; be sure to tell them you’re going organic. Typically, it’s best to test in the fall, and apply any organic nutrients before winter.

Making Good Compost

All gardens benefit from compost and you can make your own on site. Hey, it’s free! Compost feeds plants, helps conserve water, cuts down on weeds, and keeps food and yard waste out of landfills by turning garbage into “black gold.” Spread compost around plants or mix with potting soil — it’s hard to use too much!

The best compost forms from the right ratio of nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic waste, mixed with soil, water, and air. It might sound like complicated chemistry, but don’t worry too much if you don’t have time to make perfect compost. Even a minimally tended pile will still yield decent results.

1. To get started, measure out a space at least three feet square. Your compost heap can be a simple pile or contained within a custom pen or bin (some can be rotated, to improve results).

2. Add alternating layers of carbon (or brown) material — leaves and garden trimmings — and nitrogen (or green) material — such as kitchen scraps and manure, with a thin layer of soil in between.

3. Top off the pile with four to six inches of soil. Turn the pile as new layers are added and water to keep (barely) moist, in order to foster microbe action. You should get good compost in as little as two months or longer if it’s cold.

4. A properly maintained compost pile shouldn’t smell. If it does, add more dry carbon material (leaves, straw, or sawdust) and turn it more frequently.

Choosing the Right Plants

It really pays to select plants that will thrive in your specific micro-conditions. As a general guide, check the USDA’s Hardiness Zones. Choose plants that will adjust well to each spot in terms of light, moisture, drainage, and soil quality. Most gardens have gradations in these variables.

If you’re buying seedlings, look for plants raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A great place to look is at your local farmers’ market, which may also have native plants and varieties well-suited to your area. It’s better to buy stocky seedlings with few, if any blooms yet, and root systems that don’t look overcrowded.

Planting Crops

Plants that you will be harvesting, such as vegetables or cutting flowers, should be grouped tightly in beds that you don’t walk on. Raised beds work great. Grouping reduces weeding and water waste, and helps you target compost and nutrients. Ample space between rows helps promote air circulation.

Remember that seedlings won’t always stay diminutive, and you do want to limit overshadowing. It’s a good idea to thin crops based on nursery suggestions.

According to Leslie Land, if you want the highest returns of organic produce with limited space and time, these plants are typically winners:

1. Indeterminate tomatoes: so named because the vines keep getting bigger and producing new fruit until frost.

2. Non-hybrid (old-fashioned) pole beans: They keep growing and producing ’til frost — assuming you keep them picked.

3. Zucchini: Everything they say about avalanches of zucchini is true, especially of hybrid varieties.

4. Swiss chard: You can keep breaking off outer leaves for months, and every picking will be tender as long as plants get enough water.

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