How Does Your Garden Grow?

There are a million and one reasons to start gardening organically. So what are you waiting for?

Organic lifestyle expert Eliza Sarasohn — author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living — tackles your questions on the ins and outs of living la vida organica

If you’re like most people, you spend a certain amount of time with your hands in dirt. Your interaction with the brown stuff might be limited to sticking some flowers in the pots on your balcony each spring, or you might be an avid gardener tending to thousands of square feet of turf and beds. But no matter who you are, you probably have some sort of green, living things around you that you bear some level of responsibility for taking care of.

Whether it’s a longing to reconnect with our agrarian past or simply the desire to create beautiful surroundings and be personally responsible for doing so, there’s no denying that gardening is one of the great American pastimes. In fact, statistics show that gardening ranks high on the list of favorite activities in some 90 million American households. That’s a lot of soil being moved about.

Statistics also show that, if you’re like the majority of Americans, you’re not an organic gardener. According to a 2004 national survey, only 5 million homeowners considered themselves to be organic gardeners—meaning they use only organic yard practices and products. Another 35 million reported using both toxic and non-toxic materials.

Taking your yard natural—learning how to work with it, not against it—can take some time and effort, but the results are definitely worth it. Employing organic or biodynamic practices can reverse the negative effects of the synthetic, petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers that have been used in and on your yard. It can reduce pollutant levels inside your home. Over time, the money you spend on things like chemicals, water, and waste disposal will go down. And, since working with nature is easier than working against it, you’ll save time in the long run as well.

Some of these benefits, such as improvements in indoor pollutant levels, you can realize right away. Others, such as reducing the after-effects of pesticide and fertilizer use, can take months or even years. It all depends on the condition of the soil when you start and how much time and energy you wish to invest.

Integrated pest management, or IPM, might be an unfamiliar term to you now, but you’ll get to know it well when you garden organically, as it’s one of the key ingredients in this approach. Begun back in the 1960s, IPM takes a “least-risk” approach to preventing pest problems—including weeds, as well as insects and diseases—and to responding to them if and when they arise.

No matter what kind of pest is at hand—plant, insect, or animal—IPM emphasizes controlling them with means other than chemical use. Chemicals aren’t completely out of the question, but they are the choice of last resort, the approach you take after you’ve tried everything else, not the first line of defense.

Following IPM rather than going gangbusters with chemical applications means spending more time working on your yard, but you’ll get a healthier yard as a result. You still might have to use herbicides, especially if you’re dealing with weeds that are high on the tenacity ladder, but once issues are under control, you can rely on kinder, gentler IPM measures to keep things that way.

Here’s what an IPM approach for organic gardening looks like:

  1. Preventing. You’ll work to prevent problems before they erupt by managing and monitoring site and soil health. This means regularly inspecting your yard for problem spots, keeping tabs on what’s going on in your soil by digging into it regularly and testing it from time to time, and anticipating weather-related and seasonal issues by keeping an eye on the sky and the calendar. Prevention also includes a solid lawn-care program. We’ll look at this in more detail in next week’s blog post, but it basically means balancing three key lawn-care practices—mowing, watering, and fertilizing.
  2. Diagnosing. This step includes identifying the cause (or causes) of the problem and deciding when to take action. As an example, maybe it’s been a wetter summer than usual, and you’re now seeing what looks like patches of powder on some of your perennials. This is most likely powdery mildew, which is a fungus that sometimes attacks certain plants when moisture levels are high. Simply waiting for things to dry out is usually the best approach, as powdery mildew is more unsightly than anything else. But if things remain wet and your plants are really suffering, you might need to do something about it.
  3. Correcting. Correction begins with a critical look at how you’re taking care of your plants, as things like watering too much or too little, or feeding too much or too little, are often what cause issues in gardens and lawns. Correcting also includes specific controls based on the type of pest, including:
  • Physical or mechanical removal. This usually means getting your hands dirty or using your muscles in another way to physically attack the problem. As an example, you might pluck bugs from plants if there aren’t many of them and if your research tells you that’s the safest way to get rid of them. Weeding by hand also falls under this approach.
  • Biological control. Biological control involves using naturally occurring organisms to combat pest problems—in other words, you call in the natural enemies of the pests in your yard to control them. Gardening organically naturally attracts some great pest-busters, such as ladybugs and birds. One of the best biological controls is healthy soil, which is a topic I'll tackle in future blog posts.
  • Biological (natural) pesticides. Surprised to see pesticides on the list? Don’t be. Products like herbicidal soaps and corn gluten meal have proven effective on some weeds and in some situations. Even more effective are pesticides derived from plants and minerals. They’re more toxic, which means you’ll want to limit their use, but they break down more rapidly than many synthetic pesticides and are safer to use when applied correctly.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.

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