When I began organic gardening I didn’t really know I was organic gardening. I just didn’t like the idea of expensive chemical fertilizers.
As I learned more about organic gardening I started to understand that it’s more than just avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic gardening is a way of growing food that is in harmony with nature.
It creates and supports tiny ecosystems that work together to support healthy crops and wildlife. Right up my alley!
Organic gardening is what our grandparents did (they just called it gardening though) and is the easiest, least time consuming, most inexpensive way to grow your own food when done right.
Are you ready to get started growing healthy food for your family? Let’s get started!
What is organic gardening?
Plants need sunlight, water, nutrients, and good soil to grow. Chemical gardening uses synthetic substances to “fake” some of these conditions. Organic gardening strives to support natural ecosystems so that these things can happen naturally.
We add compost or manure to improve soil and feed the plants which supports healthy roots systems, and in turn, helps avoid pests and disease.
We plant certain crop near other crops to attract or repel insects. We see how nature provides for these crops and we try to mimic it as much as possible.
Choosing your garden space
Where are you going to start your organic garden? Even if you don’t have a large yard you can still grow an organic garden. You need a garden plot that:
- Gets at least 8 hours of sun a day
- Is well drained (not swampy)
- Good quality soil (though you can usually improve it)
When choosing a location, be sure to keep your garden close to the house so you can run out and grab fresh produce whenever you need it. This can increase the amount of fresh veggies you eat when you only have to step outside to harvest!
For some locations a raised bed might be the best choice, particularly if your soil is bad. You may also decide on container gardening as well.
Container gardening is great for small spaces or for beginners who aren’t sure if they’ll enjoy gardening (you will).
If you’re just starting out you may decide to buy soil especially if you are doing raised beds or containers. If you want to go in ground you’ll likely need to amend your soil (more on that below).
You can get organic compost and manure at your local garden supply store or local farm if you don’t have any. If you choose to raise chickens too you can have your own source of free manure!
Though raised beds are less labor intensive (at least at first), starting a garden in sod is possible. Some people choose to use a rototiller to break new ground (which works well and is an easy way to get started) while others prefer to keep the soil layers intact and instead double dig a new garden plot.
Another option is broadforking and laying mulching material over your new garden (to kill grass). I have always used raised beds but the more I research, the more I believe an in ground garden can be very low labor. This spring I will be starting an in ground garden with the help of a broadfork, mulch, and my chickens.
Feed the soil
Feeding the soil will feed your plants. Find out what your soil needs and give that to it. This will help you to avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Your soil needs aged, rotted organic material. Compost is one way of feeding the soil. If you don’t already have compost you can buy organic compost to use on your garden. If you use your own compost I recommend using compost from a hot composting system.
This just means that the compost was piled in a 3-4 ft square space with the right ratio of green to brown material so that it heats up enough to kill bugs, disease, and seeds. I have used cold composted material as well and haven’t had any explicit issues.
Compost contains all kinds of nutrients and trace minerals so if this is all you do for your garden you’re doing great!
Many gardeners use soil tests to decide what their plants need. It measures the pH of the soil and the abundance of nutrients.
I haven’t ever done it. I find that it’s simplest to add plenty of organic material (e.g. compost), plant my plants and then reevaluate if they aren’t doing well. If you want to try a home soil test you can get them at garden supply stores.
Different plants need different nutrients to grow.
Leafy greens and brassicas (like broccoli) love nitrogen. If these plants are growing well consider giving them some nitrogen rich amendments like manure tea, coffee grounds, grass clippings (also doubles as mulch), or blood meal.
Fruiting plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, and melons need lots of phosphorus but not so much nitrogen. To add phosphorus to your soil consider adding rock phosphorous or bone meal.
Roots like carrots, potatoes, and beets need lots of potassium, and not so much phosphorus or nitrogen. If you are growing these consider adding wood ash or kelp meal.
Crop rotation is another way you can give your plants what they need (and not too much of what they don’t). The general idea is to plant leafy vegetables in a spot, followed by fruiting plants the next year and roots the following year.
Read more about easy crop rotation here.
When it comes to purchasing seeds there are a number of things to keep in mind. I go over it more in detail in this post. The basics are that you’ll want to:
- Stick with organic seeds when possible
- May want to choose open pollinated heirloom seeds when possible (but hybrids are ok, they aren’t GMOs)
- Stick with easy to grow veggies and fruit like zucchini, green beans, and swiss chard
- Choose things that grow well in your gardening zone
- Stick with varieties you LOVE!
- Don’t go overboard! Choose just a few things to start with, get good at growing those and then add more next year.
Here in New Hampshire the summers are short so we start as much as possible indoors.
When it’s time to plant outdoors, or if you’re planting directly into the ground (like with carrots or lettuce) grab your garden planner and place your plants or seeds in the areas that you want to plant them.
Then it’s easy to pop the plants in after everything is arranged.
What’s a garden planner?
It can be as intricate or casual as you want. There are apps you can use but you can also just use a notebook. Start with a piece of paper and outline your garden space.
Then mark off where each plant will go. This is a good time to note whether some of the crops are near companion plants or near adversary plants (plants that they don’t grow well with) — move these ones.
Keep this paper to make notes of which plants did well for next year. I go the super informal route and use a piece of paper ripped out of an old notebook!
Plants need water but not too much water. As long as you get about an inch of rain a week you are probably good. If you get less than that you may need to supplement by watering with the hose or watering can.
Just be sure to water the soil and not the plants as this may cause fungus and rot.
Dealing with pests
First, not all bugs are bad. Many are actually good, like ladybugs. Organic gardening encourages beneficial insects while discouraging pests.
Crop rotation is one way to deal with pests. The idea is that when the pests wake up in the spring, their favorite snack is now in a completely different location, far away (at least in bug distance).
When bugs do start plaguing your garden, sometimes the best thing to do is to pic them off and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. You can also use a natural homemade pest spray that is easy to make, safe, and works really well.
Just be aware that this kind of spray kills or repels all insects, including beneficial, so it’s more of a last resort.
Plant sacrificial plants
Sacrificial plants are ones that bugs like more than your garden plants, or ones that attract or repel certain insects or animals. Dill, coriander, parsley, nasturtiums and marigolds attract beneficial insects.
Aphids love lupines and may leave everything else alone. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, sage, and rosemary are thought to deter cabbage worms.
If you find you have a certain pest, you can search for natural ways of deterring them and can easily come up with companion or sacrificial plants for your garden.
Dealing with disease
Crop rotation can also help with plant disease. Some diseases live in the soil from year to year. Moving crops stops the disease from building up in the soil.
Also, crop rotation keeps the soil healthy and healthy soil is less likely to harbor disease to begin with. Here are a few other tips for preventing disease:
- Give plants enough space. Air circulation and enough space for healthy roots can help.
- Water the soil, not the plant. Watering the leaves of the plant may spread disease.
- Mulch helps keep in moisture while reducing the amount of water that splashes on the plant.
- Burn or “hot compost” diseased plants.
- Sterilize garden tools.
Dealing with Weeds
If you’re organic gardening you obviously don’t want to be using commercial weed killers. So are you doomed to weed all day long, all summer? Nope! You have options.
- Hoe your garden. Hoeing cuts the weeds from their rots just below the soil surface. As long aa s the weeds aren’t going to seed this is a good option.
- Start plants inside. By starting plants inside (or in a greenhouse) your plants have a jump on the growing season and any weeds are not as likely to cause any problems.
- Mulch helps suppress weeds by blocking sun. Leaves, wood chips and organic straw are some options that are safe for your garden. Mulching also helps avoid disease and keep moisture in the soil.
Getting started with organic gardening
Now that you know the basics how can you get started? Here’s a printable checklist for your first organic garden.
What are your biggest questions about organic gardening?
Tell me in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!