How to Start an Organic Vegetable Garden

Follow these basic organic garden tips for beginners and experienced gardeners alike and make the switch to organic.

Growing organic vegetables means your family can enjoy healthy, tasty, fresh produce free of synthetic chemicals or pesticides. Some of the organic gardening basics are the same as nonorganic. Plant in an area that gets full sun, at least six hours a day (eight to 10 hours is even better). Since all gardens require frequent watering, make sure you have a spigot and hose that will reach all corners of your plot.

filling garden with mulch

Start With Organic Garden Soil and Mulch

For a healthy organic vegetable garden, you need to start with healthy soil. The most important component in soil is the organic matter, such as manure, peat moss, or compost—the latter is the best option, because it contains decayed microorganisms of previous plant life. Those microorganisms supply plants the nutrients they need. You can create your own compost pile by designating an area or bin where organic matter will decompose. Or you can buy it in bulk if you have a large garden, or use bagged compost available at garden centers and home improvement stores.

Reduce weeds by spreading a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of mulch on the soil. It creates a barrier that prevents weeds from getting sunlight and from germinating. This mulch layer also prevents fungal disease spores from drifting onto plant leaves. Use an organic material (such as cocoa hulls, weed-free straw, or newspaper) as mulch so as it decomposes it adds beneficial organic matter to the soil.

iron pellet fertilizer

Use an Organic Garden Fertilizer

Fertilizing your vegetables will help them grow faster and yield larger crops. Types of organic fertilizer include well-rotted manure from plant-eating critters (rabbits, horses, sheep, chickens) and prepackaged organic fertilizer bought online, or at your local garden center. You can also find a variety of organic fertilizers at garden centers and home improvement stores.

Editor's Tip: If you already have rich soil, consider skipping the application of fertilizer. Too much of a good thing can make your plants put on lots of lush, soft growth loved by pests.

Seedling Shopping Tips

When shopping for seedlings, extension service experts recommend choosing plants that have a healthy color for the species with no yellow leaves. Avoid droopy or wilting leaves. When you're shopping for transplants, gently tap the plant out of the pot to make sure the roots are well-developed and white. Avoid plants that are already budding or have flowers. If you can't avoid them, pinch buds and flowers off before planting to ensure the plant energy stays focused on setting new roots.

gated vegetable container garden

Organic Raised Beds

Elevated plots are popular because tending to them is easier on your back. Keep the bed small so you don't have to reach far or step on the soil.

country vegetable and flower garden
Robert Cardillo

Practice Crop Rotation

Because many closely related plants are affected by the same diseases, avoid planting them where their relatives grew the year or two before. Two of the biggest families to watch out for are the tomato family (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant) and the squash family (squash, pumpkin, cucumber, watermelon). Rotating crops to different parts of the garden helps limit disease development and depleting the soil of nutrients.

digging out weeds from garden

How to Pick Weeds

Oh, those pesky weeds. They seem to pop up overnight. Gardeners should plan on almost daily weeding. Pulling weeds by hand is easier after rain or watering. (If the soil is really wet and muddy, wait until it dries out a bit.) There are a couple of ways to pull a weed. One is to pull the root out while gently pinching the base of the stem. Or use a weeding trowel to lever out the root system. You can also use a hoe to scrape the top of the weed off, being careful to not damage any vegetables. Note that weeds can grow back if the roots aren't removed.

Weeds not only compete with your plants for water and nutrients but attract pests. Many insects spread diseases as they feed and move from one plant to the next. The most organic (and easiest) way to control insects in your garden is to pick them off by hand. If you're squeamish, wear gloves.

Keep Your Garden Clean

Many diseases spread rapidly in dead, fallen foliage. So once a week (or more often if possible), walk through your garden and pick up shed foliage. You can sometimes prevent a disease from spreading through an entire plant by picking off an infected leaf. Throw dead or diseased leaves in the trash, not in your compost pile.

soaker hose around garden plants

Water Wisely and Give Plants Air

Wet leaves, especially in the afternoon or evening, foster the growth of mildews like powdery or downy mildew. Instead of watering from overhead, use a water-saving soaker hose that delivers water directly to the roots and prevents splashing.

Be sure to follow the spacing requirements on seed packets to avoid crowding. Good airflow between the plants can help prevent many types of fungal diseases.

violet bachelor button flowers

Best Plants for Attracting Beneficial Insects

Plant these flowers around your vegetable garden to attract helpful insects, including bumblebees to pollinate plants and lady beetles and praying mantis to chow down on harmful insects.

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