If you ask a group of gardeners for a definition of “organic gardening,” you’ll likely get many different answers. Instead of using synthetic or toxic chemicals, organic gardeners create a garden ecosystem that sustains itself. Some will use only commercial products approved as USDA Organic or listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
Others will go a step further and not use any commercial or manufactured products at all, choosing only natural composts, manures, and plant oils. Still other organic gardeners embrace the idea of permaculture, bringing in nothing from outside and cultivating a garden using only the resources of their own land.
In short, regardless of the degree to which it’s taken, organic gardens give more to the earth than they take away. More than anything else, organic gardening requires altering your mindset about gardening. Once you change the way you approach gardening, it will be easy to change what you do.
Rich soil is the key to organic gardening.
Rule #1: Feed the Soil
If you only take away one idea on organic gardening, it should be: Feed the soil, not the plants. Chemical fertilizers are like having a candy bar for breakfast; it delivers a fast boost but quickly fades to leave you feeling worse than you did before.
Instead, enrich your soil with organic matter, which improves the texture, water retention, nutrient content, and beneficial microbes to create a virtual plant paradise. If you put your energy into enriching your soil instead of feeding your plants, your thumb will turn so green you’ll think you dipped it in paint!
Instead of reaching for fertilizer or chemicals, consider:
Add Organic Matter: Spread compost, manure, and other organic matter on your garden before tilling it.
Enrich Your Lawn: Aerate and top-dress your lawn. Mulch your grass when you cut to leave the grass clippings to decompose.
Dig It Up: Deeply dig a new planting bed and work in a rich helping of organic matter before planting.
Plant Cover Crops: Green manure cover crops (such as alfalfa or peas) increase nitrogen in the soil during the off-season and can be tilled under for extra compost.
Add Mulch: Deep mulches around plants break down slowly to improve the soil.
Avoid Losing Battles: Avoid cultivating areas that have notoriously poor soil or erosion problems.
Recycling is nature’s way of saying, “Life goes on.”
Rule #2: Recycle the Nutrients
Embrace the cycle of life by feeding your garden with nutrients recycled from other living things. Whether you recycle your shredded leaves or purchase an organic garden product, be sure the nutrients are coming from decaying organic matter or natural sources. Many commercial garden chemicals are manufactured from fossil fuels while others consist of highly processed mineral salts or synthetic compounds.
Here are some great ways to recycle nutrients:
Start a compost pile to recycle plant debris and kitchen waste.
Feed your garden with manure.
Make your own nutritious mulch out of grass clippings, leaves, and wood chips.
When shopping for garden products, look for:
Fertilizers made from manure, worm castings, seaweed, or other organic materials.
Soil amendments such as kelp meal, cottonseed meal, bone meal, or blood meal. Make sure you understand and are comfortable with the manufacturing process of whatever you’re using – some are byproducts of the meat processing industry while other products can contain preservatives or involve additional processing.
Mineral supplements from naturally occurring sources, such as greensand, wood ash, and granite dust.
Fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides made from plant oils and natural elements.
Products certified by OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute).
Beneficial insects are affected by pesticides, too.
Rule #3: Embrace the Ecosystem
Our gardens were naturally full of life long before we started digging in them! Nature has quite an effective system for maintaining itself which is often destroyed when we use chemicals and sprays to try and create an unnatural, artificial environment. Organic gardens restore this balance by encouraging a wide range of plant and animal life, which in turn creates a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Ways to boost your garden’s ecosystem include:
Plant Smart: Practice companion planting and crop rotation to reduce disease and pests. For instance, lining the perimeter of your garden with garlic and onions will help discourage nibbling critters. Moving tomato plants from year to year will keep early blight on the run.
Encourage Pollinators: Include a variety of flowering plants in your vegetable garden to attract birds, bees, and wasps. They in turn will pollinate your plants and feast on the grubs and insects that threaten fruits and vegetables.
Tend the “Microherd:” Healthy soil is full of beneficial microbes that break down and transfer nutrients to the roots of your plants. Those microbes also serve as an underground immune system against plant diseases. Soil rich in organic matter and free of chemicals promotes a healthy microherd that is naturally disease-resistant.
Go Native: Grow native plants that are well suited to your climate, rainfall, and soil type. They’re also more disease resistant and will be more attractive to beneficial insects.
Outsmart Pests: Practice organic insect control using row covers, plant collars, natural predators, plant oils, and natural soaps – not to mention old fashioned trapping and squishing! If a particular insect threatens your harvest, choose an organic control product that specifically targets that pest, rather than applying chemicals that kill indiscriminately.
Reduce Weeds: Keep weeds under control using organic mulches and regular cultivation. Choose natural weed killers such as vinegar, boiling water, and solarization.
Welcome Creepy-Crawlies: Make peace with frogs, snakes, praying mantises, wasps, and spiders – they’re feasting on a buffet of plant destroying pests!
Stay Vigilant: Many insect and disease problems can be nipped in the bud if caught early.
Embrace Imperfection: Organic gardens don’t have to be messy, but they’re often less pristine than a chemically altered landscape. However, the occasional worm in your tomato, dead leaf, or nibbled plant are only a small nuisance if your ecosystem is functioning properly.