My mother, Orla Hildahl Wiley, was organic before organic was cool. When she was growing up in the 1930s and '40s on a farm in northeastern Iowa, gardening was always organic. Her family plowed aged animal manure into the soil to increase fertility, picked off bugs, and weeded by hand.
Today, many gardeners are returning to that model. Although chemicals aren't always bad, we know that their overuse can pollute water, air, and even our bodies when we ingest products that are grown chemically.
Gardening organically is a good way to ensure that the food you eat is free of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and that the flowers, shrubs, and trees you grow will thrive without extra expense and danger.
Organic Gardening: Getting Rid of Chemicals
Once you've decided to start gardening organically, what do you do with all those chemical products stashed in your garage or shed?
You can use them up, carefully following package directions, and not buy more.
Or you can take unwanted chemicals to a local hazardous-waste disposal site, where they can be disposed of without danger to you or the environment. Never pour products directly down a drain, toilet, or storm sewer -- they can contaminate groundwater -- and don't recycle the containers that held the chemicals.
Organic Gardening: Feeding the Soil
It was so easy to reach for a carton of fertilizer. Now what?
To be a successful organic gardener, you need to learn about soil first. Every plant needs the right kind of soil.
Soil is made of many parts: weathered rocks and materials combined with organic matter, water, and air.
Organic matter improves the workability and structure of all soils. It helps break apart tightly packed clay particles and allows water and air to move through the soil. It also improves sandy soil, allowing it to better retain water and nutrients.
Organic matter is the most dynamic component of soil. It may be living or dead, or composed of plant or animal materials; particles may be easy to see or infinitesimally small. A teaspoon of healthy soil contains an entire universe of microorganisms. These microorganisms work to decompose plant and animal parts. When the organic matter stabilizes and stops decomposing, the result is humus -- a naturally rich, dark, crumbly material that increases soil fertility and helps retain water.
The ideal soil for growing vegetables is loam: a blend of 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay. Loam is ideal for growing many types of plants because it holds moisture and nutrients and has plenty of pore space for air, water, and roots.
So what is organic matter, and where do you get it? Compost is a good beginning. You can create your own compost beds to make your own, buy it in bulk, or add bagged compost.
Other organic nutrient sources include blood meal, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion, and a cover crop, such as annual ryegrass or oats, that is tilled into soil two to three weeks before planting vegetables or other garden plants.
Use organic mulch -- such as wood chips, cocoa bean hulls, straw, chopped leaves, and compost -- after planting to conserve moisture. As the mulch decomposes, it adds organic material to the soil.
Finally, you may want to test your soil to find out whether it is alkaline or acidic and to correct any other imbalances or deficiencies.
Organic Gardening: Pest Control
Like people, some bugs are good and others not so good. Some bugs act as tiny patrolling guards, while the bad guys can strip your plants and still not be satisfied until they take all your neighbor's plants, too. Diseases and other critters can also be considered pests.
The scientific term for managing insect and disease pests is integrated pest management, or IPM. IPM starts with the easiest methods and funnels down to using chemicals as a rarely used, very last resort.
The easiest approach of all is to prevent problems. Give plants the right soil, sun, and moisture. As you work in the garden, check for any problems, and use a variety of trusted sources, such as a local university extension service, to identify the source.
If you think a plant has a pest problem, decide if the damage is enough to warrant action. If so, start with the least toxic method of control first.
- You can physically remove affected leaves. Handpick bugs, tossing them into a bowl of soapy water. Remove small insects such as aphids and spider mites with a sharp blast of water from a hose.
- Floating row covers -- lightweight woven materials -- placed over plants can be effective barriers.
- Use commercial sticky traps to attract and capture leafhoppers, flea beetles, and whiteflies, but they may not be effective enough to control a large infestation. Many believe that Japanese beetle traps attract more bugs than they kill.
- Biological controls involve beneficial or predator insects such as ladybugs, nematodes, and praying mantises.
- Use chemicals (even organic ones) as a last resort, and buy only the appropriate chemical for the situation. There's no need to use an atomic bomb if a tiny shotgun blast will do.
Organic Gardening: Earthworms
Earthworms are a gardener's best friends. Their tunneling keeps soil loose, and their production of nitrogen-rich excrement adds fertility. Earthworms flourish in an organic garden and especially love a 2-inch-deep layer of compost atop the soil.
If your soil does not already have earthworms, take steps to improve the tilth -- proper soil structure -- with the addition of organic materials, then buy earthworms to release into your soil.
Organic Gardening: Weeds
The easiest way to prevent weeds is to add 2 inches of organic mulch atop the soil. It conserves moisture, adds organic material to the soil as it breaks down, and serves as a natural weed barrier. Newsprint can also be an effective weed barrier, but it usually needs heavier mulch on top to keep it from blowing away.
Plant your plants as close together as you can without crowding them. When plants grow thick enough, the leaves will shade out weeds, which also need sunlight to flourish.
Practice a little bit of hand-weeding every day. Many gardeners find weeding to be relaxing and oddly therapeutic. Regular weeding keeps weeds small and prevents large ones from setting seeds, creating hundreds of new weed problems.
To control weeds growing between hard surfaces, pour boiling water directly from a teapot. Be careful -- the hot water kills any plant it touches and can kill earthworms and other beneficial bugs.