Beginner's Guide to Organic Vegetable Gardening
Whether you are considering starting an organic vegetable garden to keep the grocery budget in the black or you just love gardening getting started is the hardest part. The amount of information that a beginning gardener has to sift through can be overwhelming. Here are the basic steps to creating a successful, productive organic vegetable garden.
What Exactly Does Organic Mean?
Organic gardeners grow food and landscaping plants without the use of any of the following chemicals:
- Synthetic fertilizer
This does not mean that you will have to accept small, malnourished produce that is covered in bugs! It just means that you will use alternative, all natural methods of achieving the same beautiful produce that those other gardeners do – and in many cases a much more productive garden.
This is achieved by preparing carefully, using compost and mulch, planting companion plants and encouraging beneficial predators to battle for you in the war against harmful pests.
First Things First – Location
Choose your location carefully. While you can move the garden somewhere else at a later date it is not an easy, nor a fun task. Best to begin carefully considering the optimum (and permanent) location.
Here are some things to consider.
Choose an area that is relatively close to the kitchen door if possible. This makes it easy to run out to snip a few lettuce leaves to add to the salad at dinner time. You also need it to be close to a water supply.
Your garden is going to need plenty of sunlight. Try for at least eight hours per day. If you live in a hot, dry climate then it is best if the garden has some shade in the hottest part of the day.
Do not create your garden on a slope if you can help it. Choose a level place on your property that has good drainage.
Away from Large Trees
You need to keep your garden away from large trees as much as possible. The roots can compete with your vegetables for nutrients and some trees like the Black Walnut secrete a chemical into the soil that can make it difficult for other plants to grow nearby.
Prepare Your Garden Bed
Once you have the area chosen you can begin to prepare your bed. There are two basic options.
In this style of gardening you will till the soil and plant your seeds and seedlings right into the garden in rows. You will need to weed, mulch, and make sure that the dirt does not get too packed around the plant. This type of gardening works well for people with larger garden areas and it is less expensive to begin than raised bed gardening.
Raised Bed Gardening
In this model you will create wooden boxes with no bottoms. You will place these in the area that you want to create a garden and then fill the boxes with compost and rich soil. It is best that you till the whole area before you begin so that there isn’t any grass or weeds to interfere with your vegetables.
This is a bit more expensive in the beginning because of the boxes however you will not have to weed much and the dirt will never be packed down. It works well in smaller areas.
Make sure the soil in your garden is crumbly and doesn’t have hard clumps or rocks in it. After you have tilled it up go through and remove the stones, clumps, and stray roots by hand.
Spread the tilled soil with a layer of compost and a layer of well-rotted manure and then mix it into the soil with a rake.
Choosing Your Plants
Choose organic seeds and seedlings for your organic garden. If you are very new to gardening stick with vegetables that are easy to grow. Spend some time talking to your county extension agent or an experience nurseryman about which varieties grow best in your area. Take heed of any suggestions that they may have as far as varieties, pests, and planting times.
- Green Beans
Plant them according to the schedule suggested by your county extension agent.
Mulching Is Important
Once the seeds are planted layer mulch thinly over the bed to keep it moist. Keep this layer thin, no more than an eighth of an inch. If it is too thick the seedlings will not come up. Mulch breaks down over time and will need to be replaced. Keep it on the thin side until your plants are well established and then a thick layer can keep the roots cool and moist.
Try to get organic mulch if possible.
You will want to add a little organic fertilizer about once a month or according to the instructions of the brand you buy. If you choose to make your own organic fertilizers or use manure then add it once a month.
Most vegetable plants need about an inch of water a week. When it is very hot they will need a little more. If you must water it is best to use a soaker hose at the base of the plants. This gives your plants the most useable water slowly so that it doesn’t run off.
Many vegetable plants do not like to have their leaves wet, especially in the evening and early mornings. It can cause rotting, blackspot, and other diseases. For this reason the soaker hose is the best way to water but if you do need to use an overhead sprinkler do it midmorning so that the leaves have a chance to dry throughout the day.
Companion planting is an important method used by organic gardeners. Some plants repel pests in the garden while others add nutrients to the soil. In any case, the companion plants benefit the other plant.
Name of Plant
Don't Plant Near
basil, parsley, tomato
beets, celery, chard, onions, spinach
strawberries, tomatoes, dill
lettuce, onion, peas, tomato
cabbage, onion, tomato
green beans, peas, sunflower
carrot, cucumber, radish
grow in a border to protect plants
beets, cabbage, carrots, lettuce
green beans, peas
carrots, cucumber, green beans, radish, turnips
beans,, cabbage, marigolds
cucumber, potato, sunflower
favo beans, strawberries
basil, garlic, parsley, onion,
cabbage, fennel, potato
More on Companion Planting
Dealing with Pests and Disease
No matter how careful you are you will more than likely have to deal with some pesky bugs and plant diseases. Rather than choosing a chemical product from your garden center do some research and try organic methods first.
For example, rather than spraying for tomato hornworms you can merely pick them off your tomato plants. Added bonus? They make great fishing bait for later in the afternoon. Aphids can often be washed off a plant by using a spray nozzle on the hose. Think of simple things first and then get more creative if you have to.
This is also when beneficial predators are helpful. Birds, praying mantis, ladybugs, and other predators will be glad to eat the pests on your prize vegetable plants. You may lose a tomato or two to a bird but the pests that they consume will more than make up for it.
By not spraying beneficial predators will flourish in your garden. Keep in mind that even when you spray with organic and natural pesticides all insects will be harmed. Use even the organic stuff only when you absolutely have to.
Plan on spending a little time weeding your garden each day. Early in the morning or late in the evening is usually the most pleasant time. Do not throw weeds in the compost pile – you will just be reseeding them next time you mulch.
Harvest early and often to encourage more production. Don’t let the green beans get too big or let the tomatoes stay on the vine longer than they have to. Frequent picking can increase yields significantly.
Even though you are using organic methods you should always wash your produce carefully before eating it.
Helpful Websites and Chat Groups
It is always a good idea to form relationships with more experienced organic gardeners. By sharing what they know they can save you a lot of heartache and time. Some of the best websites to network with other organic gardeners are:
- Environmental Protection Agency lists natural alternatives to chemicals in the garden
- Helpful Gardener
- Garden Web Yahoo Groups
- Homestead Gardening
Stay with It
Organic gardening is a skill that can be learned just like any other skill but you won’t learn it overnight. Give yourself time to learn the methods and allow yourself the freedom to fail. Not everything is going to work the way you want it to.
Understand that it takes several years to get an organic garden to its optimum health and productivity. Be willing to put in the time now so that you have a productive garden later.