Gardening the Natural Way
By Neil Moran
For some of you savvy seniors, gardening organically may be old hat. Like me, you may have learned how to do it in the ‘60s or ‘70s. For others it may seem like a mysterious, daunting thing like learning basket weaving or chess. Actually, it’s not that hard to learn how to garden organically. The potential benefits are fresh, tasty, vitamin-packed vegetables without all the chemicals.
When I noticed the chemical behemoth Ortho selling plant-based insecticides in the big box stores, I knew organic gardening had hit the mainstream. However, I’m sure some folks are still a little unsure about how to garden organically. For one thing, it is more than just substituting inorganic for organic fertilizers and pesticides. It is also about understanding soil and the microscopic creatures that inhabit it.
There are many benefits to organic gardening, both for the consumer and the environment. I think it goes without saying that all those pesticides and preservatives in foods aren’t really good for us. And while I respect the awesome job the conventional farmer has done at feeding the populace, even some of these farmers are starting to question the massive use of chemicals and the effect it has on the land and the water we drink.
So if you’re interested in gardening without harmful chemicals, read on as I explain how to plant your first organic garden.
The first thing that needs to be done is to work up a spot in your yard. If it’s your first time gardening, start off with a small garden, say 8’ x 10’. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew or hoe. The site should receive at least eight hours of direct sun. The next step is to remove the sod with a sod cutter or sod shovel. Now work up the soil two or three times with a rototiller or double dig with a spade. Last, bring in quality topsoil to raise the area back up to the level of the surrounding turf, or slightly higher.
In some locations around the Bay Area the soil may be unsuitable for growing a good garden because it contains too much sand, clay or heaven forbid, rocks. If this is the case in your yard you may want to build a 12-inch high raised bed and fill it with loamy topsoil. Topsoil can be purchased from most general contractors. Be sure the soil is nice and dark. A good test is to squeeze it in your hand. If it forms a firm ball, and then crumbles it is good soil. If it doesn’t form a ball, it is probably too sandy. If it forms a tight ball without crumbling apart, it is probably clay-based. For information on how and what to use to make a raised bed, check out Cubed Foot Gardening: Growing Vegetables in Raised, Intensive Beds, by Christopher O. Bird.
Gardening organically requires a deep (pun intended) understanding of soil. Soil is to the organic gardener what money is to those Wall Street types. While the conventional gardener relies almost exclusively on inorganic substances to provide all the nutrients for plants, organic gardeners dream of soil teaming with tiny microbes and juicy earth worms.
It’s these underground critters that determine, to a large extent, how well an organic garden will do. And to encourage these soil do-gooders you will need to add organic amendments to your garden. Compost and well-rotted manure is the ticket to a productive organic garden. You can make your own compost with everything from grass clippings to potato peels. The finished product will encourage microbial and worm action while providing improved soil aeration and the retention of moisture and nutrients. For more on composting check out www.HowToCompost.org
One of the biggest benefits of gardening organically is knowing your food was produced without harmful pesticides. Fortunately, we can control the pests in our gardens without taking aim with the big chemical guns.
As mentioned earlier, stores are starting to carry organic-based insecticides, such as those made by Ortho and Safer. These insecticides are sold as “indoors” or “outdoor” insecticides and usually contain pyrethrum and/or soluble oils. These are examples of plant-based insecticides that are pretty safe for you and the environment. Copper-based fungicides are a good alternative to some of the more toxic compounds used to control fungus on roses and other plants. To avoid the use of inorganic pesticides we can also rotate our crops every three to four years, plant lots of flowers nearby to attract the beneficial insects and keep the garden well cultivated and free of weeds.
Likewise, there are several organic fertilizers we can use. These won’t harm soil microbes, unlike inorganic fertilizers that can fry soil microbes with their heavy concentration of salts. Look for things like fish emulsion, bone meal, Milorganite and even sugar beet juice to feed your hungry plants organically. For more information or to purchase organic fertilizers and pesticides check out www.GardensAlive.com and www.ArbicoOrganics.com
Some organic gardeners even rely on growing certain plants together as an organic pest control strategy. For instance, carrots and leaks planted together will repel the insects that plague each other. If you’re interested in finding out more on this concept and more helpful organic gardening tips, pick up the classic book by Louise Riotte, Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening
Check out Neil’s Web site and articles at www.neilmoran.com