Organic gardening can seem a little intimidating if you don’t have much experience with it. The idea of growing things without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers sounds great. But you might also be thinking – There has to be a reason people use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, right?
However, today, that kind of thinking is a little outdated. In most cases, reaching for the chemicals has become more of a societal habit than anything. That’s why for this article, I chose to focus on organic gardening basics. You’ll see that it’s not the complicated, and once you have the basics down, you can start experimenting.
Whether you’re growing a garden to make your home more beautiful or for growing your own food, organic gardening is the way to go. Not only will your produce taste better, but you’ll be creating a mini ecosystem that is healthier for you, your family, your pets, your neighbors, and local wildlife.
Leveraging Mother Nature’s Help
The theory behind organic gardening is actually quite simple. You’ll just be leveraging the things that Mother Nature has perfected for eons instead of reaching for the chemicals. People have been using organic gardening methods for centuries. And while it still takes work (and is good exercise), it can be less expensive, less labor-intensive, less water-intensive, and much less complicated than non-organic gardening.
Here are some organic gardening basic that will help you create a garden that will flourish without pesticides and chemicals!
1. Evaluate your soil.
One of the most important things you can do when starting or changing a garden is to evaluate the soil. Soil is a mixture of three things:
- Organic material
The exact combination of these three materials has a huge impact on how water and nutrients move through the soil. This can affect a plant’s ability to grow and its overall well-being.
A good way to gauge your soil composition is to dig a hole a few inches deep and collect some soil. Mix it with a bit of water and try to form a small ball. Sandy soil will not hold together at all. Clay soil will form a ball that stays together when wet. And good, healthy soil will form a ball when wet – but not when dry.
Amending the soil to get it to an ideal consistency for what you want to grow is a big topic unto itself. But it’s a basic fact that clay or sandy soils will need organic material added in to make them more nutrient-rich. This organic material can be compost, leaves, mulch, manure, or a combination of all of them. The organic materials will break down and help the soil hold water, as well as deposit nutrients and feed microorganisms, all which improve soil health.
2. Get a soil test.
Another step that can be really useful before you start planting is to do a soil test. These tests determine the acidity of the soil as well as any nutrients that may be lacking. This information can help you determine exactly what kinds of soil amendments and fertilizers you need for successful organic crops.
You can outsource soil testing, and generally, the tests are inexpensive. In fact, many counties and local colleges offer free soil testing. This is a very accessible step for anyone who wants to improve their garden and give their plants, fruits, and vegetables the best shot at thriving. The data you get from the test will help you to understand the best way to organically fertilize your garden.
3. Feed your plants.
Another organic gardening basic is feed your plants with plant food and fertilizer when needed. Even with good soil health, plants need food and fertilizers from time to time. Being smart about when and what you give your plants will give them the best odds of thriving in a totally organic environment.
The 3 types of plant foods that most plants need are:
Nitrogen promotes green leafy growth in plants. Long-lasting and heavy-feeding plants may require additional nitrogen applications. Use only a small amount at a time, as over-applying nitrogen can cause fruit production to drop and it can even burn the plant.
Phosphorus helps plants quickly develop a healthy root system, which is vital for photosynthesis. This compound allows the plant to store energy, which then moves throughout the plant.
Phosphorus is often used to help jump-start healthy growth at the beginning of the year. However, as with nitrogen and many other nutrients, over-feeding can cause problems. Excess phosphorus can actually reduce the plant’s ability to absorb important micronutrients, such as iron and zinc. Soil tests may reveal there are adequate amounts of those nutrients in the soil, but if the plant can’t absorb them, they don’t do much good.
Potassium helps plants retain and use water. Obviously, water is a key element in growing organic fruits and vegetables, as well as plants. Water-retention levels will affect the size and quality of produce. When this is lacking, the overall health and appearance of the plant will suffer.
Most fertilizers contain a mixture of these three compounds, with different ratios and uses. Be sure to check the specific needs of the plants you plan to grow so you have the optimal food for them. And it’s a good idea to test your soil before adding fertilizer or plant food. Different soils will require different balances to best promote growth.
Look for Organic Fertilizers and Plant Foods
For organic gardening, when you purchase fertilizer and plant foods, make sure its organic as well. Not all fertilizers are, so it’s important to read labels carefully or ask the staff at your local nursery.
Making Your Own Plant Food
If you’re more of a DIYer, you can make your own plant food. I like this article from the home advice site Bob Vila.
4. Water smarter, not harder.
Another organic gardening basic that will foster a healthy organic garden is to utilize drip irrigation or weeper hoses (also called soaker hoses.) These systems put water right where it’s needed, on the ground by the plants’ roots. Using a system like this prevents evaporation and provides a more effective and easier way to water. When covered in a natural mulch, these systems work even better since they are protected from direct sunlight.
Drip systems usually require professional installation. Weeper hoses, on the other hand, are readily available and easy to use. Plus, they provide many of the same benefits to plants as an installed drip system.
5. Use mulch, cover, and feed the soil.
Mulch is another organic gardening basic. Using a mulch to protect the soil around vegetable plants is ideal in organic gardening. Mulch helps retain warmth, holds water well, and breaks down in the soil while providing vital nutrients for plants.
Most mulches should be applied in a layer that’s 2-3 inches thick, with a bit of space left around the base of the plants. But it’s a good idea to do additional research for the specific crops your planting, as mulch depth and proximity will vary based on the type of plant.
Many different materials can be used for mulch, from leaves to grass clippings to straw and wood chips. For organic vegetable gardens, straw or leaves make ideal mulch because they break down quickly and can be tilled into the soil to deliver nutrients.
6. Plant companion plants.
Another important organic gardening practice is to plant companion plants. Companion planting groups different types of plants together that will form a symbiotic relationship. This relationship not only helps the plants to nourish each other, but it can also help to maintain an ideal moisture balance in the soil.
Beans are a great example of a companion plant, as they put nitrogen back into the soil. This makes them ideal companions for a variety of plants, especially those that require a higher amount of nitrogen, like broccoli.
The 3 Sisters of Companion Planting
You might have heard of the “Three Sisters” of companion planting. These are corn, squash, and beans. Corn provides shade and support for beans, while the beans feed nitrogen into the soil. Squash shades the ground, keeping the soil moist while mitigating weeds. This symbiotic relationship allows all three of these crops to thrive, even if you don’t have a lot of space.
Another excellent plant to pair with almost any plant (except beans or squash) is marigolds. While they don’t provide food, marigolds excel at repelling or distracting many different types of pests, including rodents and insects. They also add a splash of color to the garden.
Basil is another great companion plant, as it will help to enhance flavors when planted with peppers and tomatoes. But these are just a few examples. There are many other potential pairings that will help your garden to thrive. So, once you select the foundational plants you want to grow, you can do some research to see which plants are their ideal companions.
Another basic tip is that you can pair plants that grow and a ready for harvest at different times, which will allow you to optimize garden space. Depending on your growing zone and goals, the exact mix of plants will vary. Careful research and experimentation will help you determine the best combinations for your garden.
7. Prevent weeds the practical way – with cardboard.
You may not have considered cardboard to be an organic gardening basic, but it has great functional use. When converting or starting a large area of a yard into a garden plot, sheet mulching is an effective way to kill weed banks, while improving overall soil health.
Sheet mulching uses a combination of cardboard and mulch to cover and then kill seed banks of weeds. The heat from the sun will be trapped under the cardboard, and the trapped seeds will perish. Some weeds will probably poke through at the edges of poorly covered spots, but it will be at a manageable level.
Here are the basics to applying sheet mulch:
- Gather cardboard boxes. You can use the bigger ones for large areas, and small areas can be covered with smaller boxes or even newspaper.
- Get some stakes. Small stakes can be used to pin ground cloths to the ground.
- Weed whack or trim any tall plants in the area. If there is a plant you want to save, don’t trim it, just work around it. For everything else, chop it down as close to the ground as you can.
- Trim any edges. If the mulch will run along the sidewalk, it helps to edge a small trench to prevent it from spilling over.
- Lay down the cardboard. This is the most tedious part of the process. The boxes must be broken down flat and laid over the ground, without leaving any soil exposed.
- Use pins to hold the cardboard down and prevent it from blowing away or sliding around. This is especially important around the edges.
- Water the cardboard to start the decomposition process.
- Mulch over the cardboard. Using a fine wood mulch with lots of organic material will allow the mulch to “mat up,” creating a locking effect that helps prevent it from moving around too much. Mulch should be thick, about 2 to 3 inches thick.
- Make sure the mulch is smooth and raked out, then water it in thoroughly with a hose. This starts the decomposition process and helps the mulch lock together.
Not only does this method kill weeds, but it also improves soil health. The cardboard and mulch will both break down over time, providing nutrients to the soil. Additionally, this method can drastically reduce the amount of water needed to keep plants alive (especially if a weeper hose is used) since the mulch and cardboard help retain water.
It’s worth noting that you should only use this method in areas where you do not plan to seed plants directly into the ground. The reason is, mulch can take some time to break down, and sprouts may not be able to grow through it. However, you can always mulch the plants after they’ve sprouted.
Different conditions, from climate to humidity to soil quality, will all play a role in how your garden grows. But once you have the basics down, you’ll be ready to start planting. And no matter what your level of knowledge is, most people will agree that planting an organic garden is extremely satisfying.