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Organic Gardening 101
What’s better than feasting on fresh fruit and vegetables handpicked right from your very own garden? According to the National Gardening Association (NGA), 80 million U.S. households (that’s three out of four!) participated in at least one type of lawn and garden activity annually for the last five years.
With all that growing going on, you can’t help but wonder just how much of it is sustainable. “Anytime you introduce a foreign substance into an ecosystem, it can throw a wrench in the works. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are foreign substances that start altering the garden ecosystem the moment they are applied,” says Jessica Walliser, co-author of Grow Organic.
Many have heard of commercial farms using organic growing methods, but these methods can be applied to the lawns and gardens of individual homeowners and apartment dwellers as well.
The easiest way to enjoy your growing experiences and support a sustainable planet at the same time is to grow organically. What exactly is organic gardening? Many debate the difference between using fewer chemicals and no chemicals, but one thing about organic gardening is clear: strong soil. “[Organic gardening] means building up the soil through compost and mulch. The heart of organics is healthy soil,” says Jeff Gillman, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota and author of The Truth About Organic Gardening. “The key is to build the soil up by adding organic matter [i.e. leaves, newspaper; anything that can be composted or will decay] each year. When the soil is fertile, plants will outgrow just about anything,” says Walliser’s co-author Doug Oster.
No matter what you plan on growing, you’ll likely be investing in fertilizers, weed control and pest control to help your plants develop strong and healthy – but are the organic versions of these products as effective as the conventional, chemical-laden ones?
“Organic fertilizers are more effective in the long run; less effective in the short run, ” says organic gardening coach, writer and blogger Susan Harris. “Natural pest and weed products are definitely not as effective as the synthetic crap, which is why people have to get used to imperfection in their plants and lawns.”
Walliser had this to add: “The key to this is to understand that there is a transition process involved. Not only is there a learning curve for the gardener, but there’s a junkie-issue for the plants themselves. You almost have to think of it as weaning your plants off ‘drugs.’” This process can take anywhere from three months to three years, depending on the size of your garden and use of chemicals.
Oster says that it’s worth the time and effort to wean your plants off chemical products. “There are lots of studies out there telling us that exposure to many garden chemicals is harmful to our health and adversely affects the environment.”
Books and websites about organic and sustainable gardening techniques continue to flourish. Don’t know where to start? Try these expert tips for growing lawns, flowers and food organically.
1. “Cut your grass high. By setting your mower blades to a height of 3-3½ inches, you’ll be allowing your turf to develop a more extensive root system, thereby reducing the need to water and fertilize. Deep, healthy roots enable the plants to access more of their own nutrients. Conventionally grown grass will have a root system measuring only 3 inches deep; the roots of an organic lawn will reach down 2-3 feet!” – Jessica Walliser
2. “Use compost, add clover, and leave your grass clippings on the lawn.” – Susan Harris
(Note: By adding these natural sources of nitrogen to your lawn, you will not only enhance the quality of the soil, thanks to adding trace elements you don't ordinarily find in commercial fertilizers, but also the health of your overall lawn.)
3. “Choose your grass wisely. A big part of organic lawns/gardens is selecting appropriate plants for the conditions. When you plant the most appropriate grasses and plants for your conditions you have fewer problems with disease, insects and weeds.” – Jeff Gillman
1. “Use organic mulch religiously, keeping a good two inches of mulch around your plants and replenishing the mulch as needed -- depending on how fast the kind you use decomposes. And water correctly so as not to induce drought-stress.” – Susan Harris
(Note: Most plants need to be watered daily, which is best to do in the morning so you don’t risk the moisture being absorbed by the mid-day sun. Some plants, labeled as “drought-resistant,” need to be watered only weekly or even monthly.)
2. “Follow good cultural practices. Prune plants at the right time of year (what that time is depends on the plant), water in the morning, keep the garden free of debris, stake or trellis taller plants, space plants properly and try not to work in a wet garden (this can spread disease and lead to soil compaction). It’s all those smart little things we can do to create a good environment for our plants.” – Jessica Walliser
3. “Promote biodiversity. Grow a lot of different plants; that way if a pest does strike, only a few plants will be susceptible. And, even if something fails, your garden will still be beautiful. Planting many different types of flowers will lead to an increase in the variety of pollinators in your garden as well as the number of beneficial predatory insects there.” – Jessica Walliser
Fruits and Vegetables
1. “Choose your fruits and veggies wisely. A big part of organic gardens is selecting appropriate plants for your local conditions. When you plant the most appropriate foods for your conditions, you have fewer problems with disease, insects and weeds.” – Jeff Gillman
(Note: Check out the National Gardening Association’s Zone Finder for details on your local growing zone and appropriate plants.)
2. “Use preventive measures like floating row covers [available at Gardens Alive] to deter pests like cabbageworms, cucumber beetles, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles and many other common pests. Paperboard collars [similar to a paper towel tube wrapped around the base of a plant] will help deter cutworms; aluminum foil collars [same as the paperboard collars, except made of aluminum foil] deter squash vine borers; and pheromone traps [uses a scent similar to the female of the species to attract the male and keep them from mating] and/or sticky traps help control pests in the orchard.” – Jessica Walliser
3. “Mulch properly. Using straw, hay, mushroom soil, untreated grass clippings, leaf compost, or even newspaper to mulch the vegetable garden cuts down on watering and weeding. When those materials are turned into the garden the following spring, they’ll help add even more organic matter into the soil.” – Jessica Walliser
Victoria Everman is a freelance writer, model, environmentalist, crafter and yogi in San Francisco, California.