As many know, organic food comes from healthier plants. Healthier plants do not need pesticides. It is just better eating, all around. Grocery-store organics can get pretty pricey but organic gardening allows a person greater freedom in his/her diet and it can be fun to learn new skills as well. It does not take that much effort to start. Start small. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect the first time.
PREPARING THE SOIL
Prepare the soil for the best results. Plants have to eat too, and properly-conditioned soil gives them the right diet. With the right diet, particularly plenty of minerals, plants will grow strong, and their produce will be flavorful and nutritious. Chemical soil treatments not only seep into the food, but also harm beneficial bacteria, worms and other microbes in the soil which continue conditioning it, breaking down raw materials into compounds the plants can absorb.
In the fall, test the quality of the soil by using a home testing kit or better yet, send a sample to the local agricultural extension office. For a modest fee, they will provide a complete pH breakdown — too acid or too alkaline, plants do not thrive — and nutrient levels. If they know the test is for organic growing, they can make recommendations. Apply the recommendations before winter.
Even if testing is not an option, make sure the soil has plenty of humus — organic matter. Add horse or cow manure. Some people add leaf and grass clippings. But the best is compost.
All gardens benefit from compost. It provides nutrients, conserves water, cuts down on weeds and returns waste to the Earth from whence it came.
Composting is also known as “manuring” because the dead vegetable matter is “digested” by microbes native to the air and the earth. The resulting “excrement” is that rich, dark, and what some describe as dark-earth-smelling stuff called “Compost.”
Compost contains abundant minerals. Minerals cannot be stressed enough. Without proper minerals, a plant, not to mention a human being, will be sickly. It isn’t just ‘dirt’, it is the minerals in the dirt that plants feed on. It is minerals that make the wonderful flavors and nutrition. Human bodies need minerals, hardly stressed enough in ‘modern’ nutrition and medicine. If the soil is deficient, the produce, the fruits and vegetables, will be deficient too and a person could just as well be eating cardboard. Gardens benefit from compost; humans do too.
MAKING GOOD COMPOST
Compost is produced, as mentioned above, by tiny organisms consuming dead matter. As part of their digestion, minerals are made available again to the crop being grown.
“How to Compost” can be found in numerous publications. Looking them over, it seems almost impossible to mess it up too badly but there are a few things to watch for.
- Have a large enough “heap”. Too small and the critters cannot make a nice colony. They die off before they get started.
- Mix carbon-rich (brown, like dead leaves) material with nitrogen-rich (green, like lawn clippings). The little critters need both to live.
- If the heap is too rich in nitrogen material, it will stink — really stink. Many people say they do not want to compost because of the stink. The stink is caused by too much nitrogen material. Mix in some carbon materials. Add sawdust, chopped woody prunings, pine needles, leaves, shredded paper, paper napkins.
- If the heap is too carbon-rich, it will become cold. Add some nitrogen material, such as tea bags, coffee grounds, lawn clippings, fruit and vegetable trimmings, horse or bovine manure. Manure can be over-used, because it will make the soil too salty.
- Adding existing dirt is not necessary, but many folks recommend it. It does seem to create air pockets.
- Add water. The heap should be, it has been said, as wet as a wrung-out dish towel. Not dripping, but moist.
- Turn from time to time. The purpose of turning is to get air into a ‘hot’ heap (described below). The critters need air as much as humans do.
- When the colonies of critters are hard at work digesting refuse into ‘black gold’, heat is generated. On a cold day, a hot heap can steam while being turned. That is a good sign, as long as it is not getting stinky. If it also stinks, add carbon materials. A cold heap is also working but it’s not quite as exciting.
- The heap can produce usable dirt in as little as two weeks but if it is taking longer, no worries, it is getting there. Review the points above and see if an adjustment is needed. Or don’t; it’ll get there eventually.
- Some things do not do well in composting: meat, fish, dairy, grains, bread, plastics, glue — such as the glue used to make plywood. Plywood sawdust should be avoided. Dog, cat and bird feces do not compost well. Some sources do not recommend fruit and vegetable trimmings for open-pile heaps; they are apparently rodent magnets.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PLANTS
Select the plants that thrive in the specific climate. As a general guide, check the USDA’s Hardiness Zones, or check with local nurseries, or the local farmers’ market. Or simply observe the plants growing in the area. If wild blackberry bushes abound, it is safe to assume similar berries will also grow.
Do make sure, for each plant, that the spot in which it is planted has the sunlight, the moisture, the drainage and the soil it needs (mixing in compost if necessary!).
Although many plants are grown from seeds, seedlings give a good jump-start. When buying seedlings, ask if they are raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Get stocky seedlings with few, if any, blooms, and that are not root-bound (roots that look crowded).
PLANT CROPS IN WIDE BEDS
Plants that will be harvested, such as vegetables or cutting flowers, are best grouped tightly in beds that will not be trampled. Raised beds are recommended. Grouping reduces weeds and holds water better. It also allows easier targeting of compost.
Ample space between rows promotes air circulation which repels fungus and allows the plants to grow. As they grow, thinning needs to be done according to nursery instructions.
According to Leslie Land, the following are winning crops for limited space and time:
- Intermediate tomatoes, so named because the vines grow and produce fruit until they are felled by frost. Harvest as they grow.
- Non-hybrid (old-fashioned) pole beans which continue growing and producing until frost. Harvest as they grow.
- Zucchini is a favorite, growing easily.
- Swiss Chard can have the outer leaves broken off for months, each leaf still tender, but watering is often needed.
- Tall Snow Peas and Sugar snaps also grow readily.
The best time to water is in the morning because it is the cooler time of the day and (usually) less windy. Evaporation will be less. The water has a chance to soak in. Watering in the evening, or at night, will make the plants damp overnight, allowing fungal and bacterial diseases a foothold.
Watering the roots is better than watering the greenery, which is easily damaged. A drip or soaker system works well, or simply watering the bases of plants by hand will also work. However, it can also be said that the plant’s foliage is designed to spread rain to cover the root system. Light watering of the greenery will allow water to seep in the way God (or Evolution or Mother Earth) intended.
Most experts recommend infrequent, but substantial, watering for established plants — about one-inch of water a week, including rain. Infrequent waterings also encourages deeper rooting and subsequently stringer plants. Air-temperature water, not too hot, not too cold, avoids shocking plants. Sudden changes in temperature are no more welcome to a plant than a cold shower is to a human.
Weeds choke out garden plants. They have to be removed so the desired crop can thrive. From time to time, inspect the beds and rows. Look for other plants that should not be there. Pull them out.
The number of weeds can be reduced by mulching: add a layer of material over the soil so the weeds cannot get to the soil and take root. Wood chips are a favorite but some woods could leach into the soil. For instance, pine wood can make the soil more acid. Straw is a cheap. Lawn clippings can be used, but they sometimes include weed seeds which seems to defeat the purpose. Landscaping fabric, burlap and other materials can also be used. Dead leaves also work.
The upshot is that weeds happen. Someone has to pull them out.
PROTECT PLANTS WITHOUT TOXIC PESTICIDES
Pests attack plants all the time. Healthy plants are usually not affected. Weakened plants, however, are.
Plants, like humans, have systems and mechanisms to ward off disease and pests. Human bodies have immune systems; so do plants. Nicotine is the tobacco plant’s natural poison and defense against pests. THC is the cannabis family’s equivalent, a poison to ward off pests.
If the plant is not getting enough sunlight, or water, or minerals, or other nutrients, to make its pest-repelling compounds, the pests, always ready for a good meal like a fox looking for chickens, will start eating. Make sure plants have what they need to thrive.
Pests also have their own predators. Make your garden welcoming to frogs, toads, lizards, birds and even bats. Leaving a small source of water out can attract them.
Nets and row covers can also reduce the number of pests.
However, if a garden is infested, there are non-toxic (to humans, pets and plants) alternatives. Local garden shops or nurseries will be familiar with the problems specific to local conditions and can advise on healthy alternatives, but many “old-wives” remedies can work too, like garlic and hot-pepper oils.
The best remedy, always, is prevention. Have healthy plants. They were designed to ward off pests.
Whether for sale, for personal use, for barter or gifts, the more that is harvested, usually the more the plants will produce. It is as though the plant is being told, “we like your produce” and it then produces more. During peak harvest time, check for ripe produce daily.
Herbs can be picked right before used, but many, such as rosemary, get stronger as they dry. For drying and storing, the oils of herbs seem strongest — and it is the oils that are the flavor — right before flowering. Gather herbs, all except basil, in the mid-morning, after the dew has dried. Gather basil in the afternoon as it seems to do better after being in the sun. Do not wash them before drying for two reasons: first it removes some of the oils and two, if they do not dry quickly, fungus can grow. Some say to dry in a low-heat oven, some say to dry in the air. Low heat will speed up the process but requires an appliance and watchfulness. Either way works.
Green leafys should be harvested by picking sporadically from the entire crop, a little from each plant.
Broccoli is harvested after the central head is as large as it will get before sending off buds to flower. Cut it off right above the leaf node. That way, the rest of the plant will produce better. Cut it cleanly with a knife or scissors rather than ripping it by hand.
Throughout the season, sick plants will need to be removed. Pull up the entire plant, roots and all. Rake up any diseased leaves. Put all infected materials in a hole in the ground, at least a foot deep, deep in the woods, or burn in a fire.
Healthy plans, or those who have run their course and died in the bed can be left in place over winter. The garden will provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife and the roots hold the soil for the next year. Chop off annuals rather than pulling them out. That keeps the soil intact and reduces the chance of future weeds.
Next spring, it will be ready to start again.