Organic Gardening is as Old as Dirt
Organic gardening seems to be all the rage these days, but it’s nothing new. It’ been around since mankind first scratched the soil with a hoe. In fact, up until the 1840s it was the only way to grow plants.
However, people still seem to have questions about what organic gardening is. The definition many times depends on who you talk to. Some believe it was part of the 60s culture and others think it was a fad created by baby boomers. There’s a grain of truth to both.
Simply put, organic gardeners use only natural animal or vegetable fertilizers, no synthetics. It also means natural pest control…no backyard equivalents of “Agent Orange.” Sound simple doesn’t it? But, wait. There’s more to it. Organic gardening is also a philosophy. It means knowing how to improve your soils’ natural health, what plants are conducive to your area and working with nature to get the best results.
So, why do people want to grow their own gardens organically rather than buying them in a store? For starters, organic food greatly reduces the ingestion of harmful chemicals. Such things as pesticides, growth hormones, fertilizers, or toxic artificial additives like flavoring, coloring or preservatives.
A study by the University of Washington revealed children on a diet of organic food had a level of pesticide six times lower compared to those eating inorganically grown food. Other studies have shown organically grown food to be significantly higher in essential vitamins and nutrients the human body uses in defense against cancer. It also stores and tastes better as well as being more environmentally friendly.
Not enough reasons to get you started? Here’s some more food for thought. There's actually something called “horticultural therapy.” It's a form of relaxation and exercise which uses gardening to help people become physically and emotionally fit. Like any other physical activity, gardening can reduce the risk of a host of health related problems.
Your next question is probably “What will this cost me?” Organic doesn't necessarily mean more expensive. Chemical fertilizers cost about the same as natural ones. Besides, much of your typical gardening expenses can be eliminated with do-it-yourself projects, like composting kitchen scraps to make your own fertilizer.
Pesticides and herbicides, can be another major expense of gardening. But with a little planning, this too can be reduced or eliminated.
Choosing plants that thrive in your particular environment can enhance a plant’s natural predator defenses. Additionally, introducing certain insects to your garden can provide long-term pest control. Many plant destructive insects can be warded off by using things they have a natural aversion to. For example, cucumber peels will keep ants at bay.
However, before growing anything, healthy soil is needed. Experienced growers know a good garden starts with the soil.
Healthy soil is the basic building block of good organic gardening. Feed the soil…feed the plants. Healthy soil will produce plants better able to resist predatory insects and disease.There's only one way to find out what your soil needs and that’s to get it tested. The results will determine the soil's pH and what nutrients are needed. Soil tests should be done every two to three years. Test laboratories will do it for a minimal cost, or you can do it yourself with an inexpensive soil test kit.
Once it’s known what the condition of the soil is it can be prepared by mixing organic material such as compost and natural soil enhancers. This will improve soil structure, texture and aeration, add needed nutrients and allow soil to retain water.There are a variety of soil amendments derived from natural sources like bone meal, greensand or rock phosphate with each being suited to a particular need.
The next thing to consider is the pH of your soil. This is simply a measure of acidity or alkalinity. But soil pH is extremely important and directly affects nutrient availability. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Numbers less than 7 show the acidity while numbers over 7 indicate alkalinity.
Soil pH is only one of several environmental conditions affecting plant growth. The basic reason pH is important is, plants absorb nutrients in water soluble form. If the pH is too high or low, nutrients can remain insoluble, or incapable of being dissolved. Most do best in a slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.8.
As earlier stated, one reason to grow organically was to eliminate chemical pesticides posing health hazards. Today, use of these products have increased by 50% over the last 30 years. That equals roughly 2.5 million tons applied annually! What many don’t know is using pesticides create secondary pest problems. Although pesticide usage has increased, crop yields lost to insects have also increased. How can that be?
The answer is chemical insecticides are rarely selective and will kill helpful insects along with destructive ones. Some destructive pests will also be left without natural enemies…meaning their population will increase. All this is in addition to the fact insects build up a resistance to many of these chemicals.
But, let’s return to making your garden. A good place to start is with your compost. Compost feeds earthworms and microbial life in the soil, which supports your plants. But, no matter what kind of soil you have it can be improved by adding compost.However, there are some dos’ and don’ts here.
Almost all organic matter can be composted. Garden cuttings, vegetable peelings and even eggshells are good examples. Tea leaves and coffee grounds are also great. They contain caffeine, a natural herbicide. However, meat scraps and dairy products should not be. These attract rodents and stray animals and will also cause unpleasant odors.
How much compost your garden needs will depend on several factors. Soil health, length of gardening season and amount of rain determines the amount . A good rule of thumb is: The longer the growing season, the more compost needed. But remember, in rainy climates some will wash away.
But, to have compost you must first know the proper way to build a compost heap. Building a Compost Pile involves mixing kitchen, yard and garden waste in a way that encourages decomposition. Decomposition is the process that will produce a rich organic fertilizer. There are rules and regulations that must be followed to prevent creating a public health hazard. A compost heap should be at least 3' x 3' x 3'. Smaller piles may not decompose properly and larger piles can be unmanageable and hard to mix. Here are a few more tips:
· Moisture content should be between 40 and 60 percent. It should be moist, but not sopping wet. Keep your pile aerated by mixing it. Oxygen helps microbes that cause decomposition. Turn and mix the pile often or it will break down slowly.
· Include carbon-rich "brown" materials, like leaves, straw, sawdust and nitrogen-rich "green" materials, like grass clippings, vegetable peelings and manures. But not pet feces. Try to mix a ratio of three parts brown material to one part green. This will ensure quicker decomposition and avoid a slimy, smelly heap.
· For best results, add compost two to four weeks before planting. That will give it time to integrate with the soil. Work the compost in at least six to eight inches and try for a ratio of compost to soil of about half to half.
Some organic gardeners use a “compost tea” by mixing equal parts of compost and water and letting it sit. They pour the resulting "tea" directly onto the soil around their plants. For use on smaller seedlings dilute it to four parts of water to one part compost. The advantage is just pouring it on without having to spend time working it into the soil. If you don't feel like brewing your own, there are commercial teas on the market.
A complete composting guide can be found at: http://www.composting101.com/
How big should your garden be? That will depend on how much horticultural therapy you’re willing to engage in.