Top 10 Tips For Starting an Organic Garden

Top 10 Tips For Starting an Organic Garden

What is an Organic Garden? 
In most basic terms, growing anything organically means that no chemical or synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides have been used to grow the plant material. This is also true of the soil that plants are grown in and it should be free of any chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or heavy metals.

These are the Mother's Best 10 Tips for starting an organic garden.

#1 Start a compost pile.
It’s free and easy and the best way to organically feed your plants. You can start a compost pile any time of the year, but spring offers some advantages of warmer weather and increased microbial activity.

  • Choose a relatively sunny spot for your compost pile that is well drained. Sun hastens the composting process and is good but it can also dry out the compost pile. It’s important to keep the pile moist, but not wet. 
  • Shoot for an area that is roughly 3 feet by 5 feet that can be filled to a depth of 3 feet. it is recommended to start your pile on bare dirt. Compost bins are available to start your heap of compost, but not required.  You can achieve satisfactory results by literally creating a pile on the ground as well. 
  • The bottom layer should be a layer of porous sticks, twigs, or something that will drain freely. Using a wooden pallet is a technique works well too. But add the ‘Brown’ or carbon material in as the first layer. Items such as dry leaves, twigs, small sticks, straw, sawdust or newspaper.
  • Next add ‘Green’ or nitrogen material such as food scraps, grass clippings, recently pulled weeds or manure. Cow, horse or chicken manure work best. Do not use dog or cat manure as they may carry unwanted parasites. 
  • Spread the layers evenly, and a good rule of thumb is around try to attain a 4:1 ratio of browns to greens.
  • Monitor your compost pile daily. Particularly in spring and summer and as the ambient temperature increases you should begin to feel heat arising from the heap. If it is not heating up, add more nitrogen or green matter. Should your compost pile begin to smell, it is advisable to add more brown matter.
  • As the ingredients begin to decompose you can add the material at the base of the plants. If you have a fair amount of compost, work it into the soil prior to planting.

#2 Test your soil.
Healthy soil is the key. You can test your soil any time before starting a garden, but optimally test it in the fall so you have a good idea of pH levels and what nutrients may be necessary to create an optimal growing environment. Soil test kits can be purchased at home garden centers or have the soil tested, often for free, or a small fee by your local agricultural extension office. It’s best to add any recommended nutrients before winter so they will have an opportunity to work into the soil profile before spring. 

#3 Choosing and Preparing Your Plot.
It’s best to start small in an area that is well drained and gets 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Use an organic soil amendment. If you do not have available compost just yet, buy a few bags of good quality organic soil and combine it with existing soil in your garden to a depth of 12-18” inches. 

#4 Consider a Raised Bed Garden.
A raised bed garden offers many benefits, but initially is a fair amount of work. Benefits include minimal soil compaction that allows water and nutrients to flow freely through the soil with enhanced drainage, a vast reduction of weeds and necessary weeding time, provides a barrier to pests like slugs and snails, and keeps soil from eroding during heavy rains. If soil tests prove the existing ground may be contaminated with chemicals, heavy metals or pesticides, raised bed gardens are a must. Remember, plants are a product of their environment and will uptake any materials that are in the soil where they are grown…which means you will eventually ingest them as well.

#5  Growing from seed or plant?
Most garden vegetables can be grown from seed in your own garden. Be sure to check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone () to check for more specifics on suitable plants for your area and the best time for planting. For beginning gardeners, plants such as beans, lettuce, carrots, beets, peas and cucumbers respond well when planted from seed. Plants that take a little longer to grow and mature like tomatoes, peppers and melons do well when starting with small plants. Depending on where you live, you may want to start the seedlings inside to give them a better chance for survival and move them to the garden after 6-8 weeks.

#6 Time to get a little dirt under your fingernails!
Now the fun begins! Experienced gardeners recommend planting the rows in your garden from North to South. Acclimating the rows this way helps to maximize sun exposure and air circulation. Organize the rows with the taller plants on the north side and the smaller plants to the south so the smaller plants are not shaded. Seed packages will help you determine the spacing of the plants or seedlings. Proper spacing encourages good air flow which discourages the growth of fungus or other diseases. If plants are too far apart, weeds can take over quickly.  If plants become too crowded, it’s ok to thin them out a bit by transplanting to ensure all plants can get the water and nutrients necessary for vigorous growth. 

#7 How to water. A garden’s best kept secret.
It’s best to water infrequently but deeply. Watering infrequently without the water permeating deep into the ground promotes shallow root systems that also become compromised in warmer weather. Shoot for 1-2” inches of water per week. Rain gauges and/or moisture meters are invaluable tools. Water in the morning when it’s cooler and before the sun begins hitting your garden. If at all possible, water by hand at the roots of your plants. Try not to let water stand on the foliage of your plants as this promotes fungus and/or bacterial disease. For this reason, it is also advisable not to water in the evening or at night. Also, in hot climates water left on the leaves of a plant can burn the foliage. It’s always a good practice to use organic mulch or compost to a depth of two inches to help keep the soil moist and evaporation to a minimum.

#8 Weekly weeding!  A must!!
Weeds are opportunistic invasive plants that should not be growing in your garden. Weeds compete with your plants for water and nutrients. Weeding by hand is recommended, quite therapeutic and good exercise!  Weeding after a rain when the soil is softened is the best time to get rid of these pesky invasive plants. Never use chemicals, other than certified organic weed control to keep weeds at bay in your garden.

#9 Beneficial predators.
The best way to keep insects and disease from your garden is to make sure your plants remain healthy.  Insects tend to seek out the weaker plants in a garden.  Inspect your plants every day or so, being sure to be aware of any unusual characteristics such as chewing on leaves, discoloration, or insect poop on your plants. Rather than using pesticides on plants that are producing food that you might eventually eat, try incorporating beneficial predators, or other insects into your garden. Beneficial insects include:

  • Ladybugs – control aphids and whiteflies
  • Ground Beetles – control slugs, caterpillars and cutworms
  • Soldier Beetles – control grasshopper eggs, aphids and soft-bodied insects
  • Wasps – control caterpillars and aphids
  • Bees – assist with pollination
  • Butterflies – assist with pollination

Beneficial insects can be purchased online and are very effective in helping control pests in your garden without using harsh chemicals.

#10 Companion Planting
Companion planting is the practice of growing complimentary plants together and in close proximity. Certain combinations of plants help each other grow healthy and even help repel pests. The Farmer's Almanac is a good place to investigate companions for your garden plants.  Here’s a brief list to help get your started:

Companions: Beets, Corn, Lovage, Nasturtium, Rosemary

Benefits: Nasturtiums can be used as a trap plant to entice aphids away from beans. Lovage and rosemary also great excellent insect repellent qualities.

Companions: Oregano, Brassicas, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower.

Benefits: Oregano has insecticidal properties. 

Companions: Cabbage, chives, rosemary, sage

Benefits: Chives improve flavor and the growth of carrots and deter aphids, mites and flies. Rosemary and sage repel carrot fly.

Companions: Basil, Carrots, Marjoram, Onions, Oregano, Tomatoes

Benefits: It is thought that basil, oregano and marjoram have a protective quality that helps repel insects.

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