Beginner's Guide: An Organic Garden

Melinda How To: Organic Garden

How to begin...

Growing an organic garden like any other gardening strategy starts with the soil beneath your feet. Creating a healthy soil foundation promotes healthier plants better able to withstand insects, disease and environmental stresses like drought.

One way to improve the soil at the start of the growing season is to incorporate several inches of organic matter such as compost, peat moss or composted manure into the top 8 to 12 inches of soil. This improves drainage in clay soil and increases the water holding ability of sandy soil. Adding organic matter also builds the soil eco-system that helps feed your plants.

Incorporate an organic fertilizer into the soil at the same time. Organic fertilizers are derived from plants, manure or by-products of once living organisms. Microorganisms help break down the organic material into nutrients the plants can absorb. Small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) but also provide nicronutrients used by plants. Organic fertilizers feed plants and improve the soil.

Select plants that will thrive in the growing conditions. Check seed packets and plant tags to make sure the plants you select are suited to the amount of sunlight, type of soil, weather and will fit the available space once mature.

Place plants in the garden at the recommended spacing. This allows sunlight to reach all parts of the plant and air to freely circulate around the plants. Proper spacing helps reduce the risk of some diseases like powdery mildew.

Once in the ground make sure the plants receive sufficient moisture. Water thoroughly and often enough to keep roots and surrounding soil slightly moist. Gradually extend the time between watering but continue to water thoroughly to encourage deep roots.

Spread a layer of shredded leaves, evergreen needles or other organic mulch over the soil surface. Mulching helps suppress weeds, conserve moisture and improve the oil as it breaks down. This is better for the plants and means less work for you.

Remove weeds as they appear. These unwanted plants compete with your desirable plants for water and nutrients. Many also serve as  host for insect pests and disease increasing the risk to your garden plants.

Pull weeds by hand, dig them out with a weeding tool or slice them off at the soil surface with a hoe. Just be careful not to damage the roots an shoots of your garden plants. Removing weeds when small makes the job easier and prevents them from going to seed producing hundreds more weeds for you to remove. Regularly weeding the garden also keeps this task from becoming overwhelming.

Check plants often for insect pests and disease. managing problems when they first appear, just like the weeds, is much easier and usually more effective.

The first step to managing problems is problem diagnosis. Some insects are good guys eating the problem pests while others are just a nuisance or inflict only minor damage and do not warrant control. Tolerating a bit of damage while waiting for lady beetles, praying mantises and other beneficial insects to move in and manage the problem may be the best and easiest solution. Removing small insect pest populations by hand as needed or knocking them off the plants with a strong blast of water may be all the control that is needed.

Early detection is also important when managing diseases. Removing an infected leaf, branch or plant may be all that is needed to prevent the spread to the rest of the plant or its neighbors. Keep in mind the growing conditions and your care can also cause similar damage. Over and under watered plants or those growing in poorly drained soil may also develop yellow and brown leaves. Adjusting watering and improving the soil may be what is needed.

If chemical intervention is needed, look for products labeled organic and recommended for managing the insect or disease you are trying to control. Fungicides, organic and synthetic, are generally preventatives and protect uninfected plants or portions of plants from the fungus. Keep in mind organic products are designed to kill insects or disease organisms and should be used according to label directions and only when needed.

Investing time preparing the soil, selecting plants that thrive in the growing conditions and getting them off to a healthy start is the best way to create your organic garden. As you work with nature you will find more pollinators and beneficial insects visiting your garden. These help increase your enjoyment as well as the health and beauty of your garden.

Written by gardening expert, Melinda Myers. Melinda Myers is a nationally recognized gardening expert with more than 30 years of horticulture experience. She is a wealth of knowledge and we are pleased to share Melinda’s Beginner's Guide to Gardening with you!