Organic gardening is a way of life that not only is good for sustaining the planets’ ecosystem, but also for optimizing your health. Eliminating synthetic chemical insecticides, herbicides, & fertilizers from use in your vegetable garden & landscape heals the earth by allowing the soil food web to flourish. There are thousands of living creatures in every square foot of soil that are not only dependent on each other, but also work symbiotically to enhance the vitality of plants. Microbes, bacteria, fungi, worms, nematodes, insects, and even larger burrowing creatures all have an essential function to the support of our natural ecosystem. All too often many of these creatures are harmed or eliminated through use of the above groups of synthetic chemicals. By adopting more natural practices of gardening you are able to facilitate the growth & success of these innate alliances between all the inhabitants of your garden, not to mention reap the rewards of bountiful produce, thriving plants, and a safe chemical free landscape you & your family can freely enjoy.
The first steps if you don’t already have a cleared out landscape or garden is to select an area & make it ready so you can put it to good use. There are many easy ways of doing this without disturbing the soil heavily or breaking your back. Whether you are creating a vegetable garden or landscaped garden you can save labor by covering over pesky weeded or grassy areas with a layer of black plastic. I am generally not a fan of plastic however this step is temporary and the plastic can easily be saved to create another garden area or for later use. I bought a roll of 2 mil plastic from home depot 4’x 100’, however you could get the size that would work best for your area (2 mil thickness is fine more is ok too, but not necessary). Remove larger tree suckers before laying down the plastic and weigh it down with bricks, rocks, or anything heavy. I tried using fabric pins & found myself soon using rocks as the plastic tried to blow away. Leave this plastic down for at least 3 months until the growth underneath is well browned and yellow. Even better would be to leave it over winter. When the plastic is ready to be removed add a thick layer of compost over the whole area at least 3, but even better 4 or 5 inches thick. This not only acts as a layer of rich nutrients, but also smothers any remaining growth that may try to respring up. Ontop of that layer add at least 2 inches of good soil. *Raised beds for vegetables are another great option for areas with drainage issues or just to prevent back strain when tending, just make sure to use untreated wood or a secure rock layer.
It is important to get quality compost and soil whenever possible. Compost that is made from leaf hummus is fine, but should be well decomposed and have a nice earthy smell to it. Even better would be vermicompost, however this is often too expensive an option and by not disturbing the soil we are allowing the worm population to thrive. Soil should have some sort of aggregate in it for good aeration and often comes with some amount of compost mixed in for added benefit.
After layering in the dirt you are ready to plant. If you have a raised bed it should have as much good soil ontop of the compost to fill the bed ¾ to 4/5th of the way full. In a vegetable garden you can plant directly into the soil, if transplanting I often include a handful of compost or vermicompost into each hole for any plant I plant. For landscaped gardens, perennials can be planted directly where you want them. For plants that are already larger you might have to break into the untilled soil below. This is fine, dig the hole at least 2x the size of the root ball or container you wish to plant for shrubs and exactly the size for trees. Crumble any thick chunks of soil from the underlayer into the surrounding bed area.
Whenever possible buy organic or heirloom seeds to assist with biodiversity. There used to be thousands of varieties of every vegetable imaginable, now their numbers have dwindled significantly, threatening the extinction of many fun & exciting selections. Not only this, but as biodiversity decreases the viability and success of the remaining varieties also declines leading to further issues. As only a few particular varieties become the norm, often insects and diseases take hold more quickly, finding preferences in the lack of selection and decimating the most preferred and planted varieties; which all could have been avoided if we had encouraged the use of numerous varieties and the creation of new cultivars. And don’t even get me started on the patenting of seeds by large corporations that create terminator seeds. When those patented terminator varieties cross pollinate & overcome the non terminator seed varieties' genetics, they turn up in the fields of the mega corporations list of unapproved farmers. Those farmers that have saved their own seeds for years are now thrown into a battle with the large companies, harrased & sued for patent infringement that is out of their control. The poor farmers’ families & their businesses usually are decimated because they can’t afford to pay the legal fees against a large entity such as Monsanto.
Finding an organic supplier of perennials, shrubs, and trees is difficult in todays’ modern nursery industry, but whenever possible support any local organic nursery that might be in your area. Ordering online is one possible solution for this, however you may have to settle with younger & smaller plants.
Next you are ready for mulch which is essential for moisture retention, extra protection for bugs and root systems, & an excellent amendment to the soil as it breaks down. Pine bark mulch is fantastic and natural, breaking down to feed the fungi in the soil which is especially beneficial to landscape plants. If regular mulch appeals to you more it is best you buy an undyed mulch that has been double shredded so that it breaks down more quickly and allows more airflow. When using bark mulches be sure to cultivate and break up the mulch to get additional oxygen to the root systems of your plants at least twice a season. For the vegetable garden straw is fine, but try to find a source that has not used chemicals on theirs to be truly organic. Also be aware that straw often has wild seeds within it that may germinate and cause excess weeding.
Starting a compost bin to continually feed your garden is a great solution for generating free organic nutrients and easing up on the amount of garbage you put in the landfill. Over winter I often dump my scraps and trimmings directly into my raised beds and garden allowing the freeze and thaw cycles to break it down naturally. At times some scrap tidbits may remain after winter, however don't worry as these bits usually can be topped off with extra soil, compost or mulch in spring, eliminating the need for any excess cleanup. In fact, as I am more liberal than most in my garden I often find myself dumping my scraps throughout the garden and landscape all season long in areas that I feel need a little boost. I usually never have an issue with smell but there may be flies at times. This doesn’t bother me so long as I save the labor of turning over the compost pile, besides there would be flies either way.
Because all my new landscape plantings are a big investment and I am determined to have them thrive I use mychorrhizal fungi at planting. These amazing fungi work symbiotically with the plant root system to ensure survival & success. In exchange for some sugars from the plant the fungi hyphae reach down deeper than the plant roots can and bring up extra, sometimes hard to reach nutrients. In addition the fungi also are able to prevent under and overwatering by holding off excess water in times of too much rain & getting unreachable water in times of drought. Many nurseries are even beginning to use these fantastic little helpers to ensure the survival of their stock. However it is pointless to use the mychorrhizal fungi with synthetic fertilizers which will burn them and render them dead/ineffective.
Each season there is much to consider when applying organic principles to typical gardening. In spring hold off on removing every bit of debris in the garden, leave some behind to be covered up with mulch to decompose. (In vegetable gardens often the previous years’ growth should be removed to prevent disease, but tree leaves are absolutely fine!) There is a saying among organic gardeners, feed the soil not the plant, and it is the key to a happy garden. Applying a layer of compost around any newer (3 years or younger) perennials, shrubs, or roses or any that seem like they are struggling acts to do just that, feed both the soil and plant. Manure may also be used and is an excellent feeder. Many premade manure and humic acid fertilizers are available and are an excellent replacement to traditional synthetic fertilizers.
Now is the time to divide and transplant any larger clumps of perennials, which with many varieties helps their vitality and improves appearance. Avoid chemical weed preventers such as Preen which again disable the soil web and through testing I have found to be ineffective. Preen only prevents seeds from germinating from the soil underneath, seeds that land from above as many if not most do will still germinate. Not to mention that it too hurts the soil food web by adding unnecessary chemicals. Even weeds have a place in the larger spectrum of things and act even when small to break up the soil with their root systems, improving aeration and percolation of water, even if they are pulled out eventually. Also for lawn care consider utilizing organic methods or finding a company that does so as this is a growing industry and many new companies that offer healthful lawn care are popping up all across the nation.
As spring turns to summer new tasks become the norm including weeding, preventing pests, and maintaining appearances through pruning. Herbicides are not only harmful to our friends in the soil, but also to your own health. It has been proven that even a small amount of Roundup exposure over a long period can cause liver damage and could even cause cancer. Many nations such as Germany have banned the use of Roundup and other similar herbicides for just this reason. The best way to stay on top of weeds is to keep up with them and make weeding a part of your weekly or biweekly routine to make things easy. Worst case solutions for pesky weeds that won’t go away or come out of tough areas are to cover with black plastic for a shorter period (1 month) or spray with a high strength vinegar solution.
Bugs and diseases are inevitable at some point in a garden, but there are some organic solutions. First, healthy plants full of vitality are less susceptible to damage from disease and more likely to recover from insect damage. Ensure you are giving your vegetables and roses a healthy dose of organic fertilizer throughout the season, typically weekly at first then biweekly and monthly as the season goes on. Interplanting vegetables with beneficial flowers and herbs such as marigolds, parsley, mint (in a pot as it spreads), oregano, citronella, nasturtiums, & morning glories among many others repels damaging bugs away from the plants you wish they wouldn’t touch & aromatically repels them. No matter how many defenses you put up be aware that often it is just nature’s way that bugs eat plants. I often found the horrible Japanese beetles in my yard devastated plants, skeletonizing them when there wasn’t a large variety, however as I increased my diversity there still was damage, but it was much more spaced out, allowing nothing to be too far destroyed and going with the flow making everyone happy. So far as diseases go sometimes a spray of dish soap and water in a 10/1 ratio can help alleviate issues especially dusty mildew. However if a disease is prone in your area it will be less hassle for you to find resistant plant varieties rather than have to spray each time it rains or you use overhead watering.
During fall leave those leaves alone and shred them whenever possible to better incorporate them into the garden. If there are just too many add them to the compost pile. I can usually get away with a 1inch layer of leaves in all my flower beds; even more in my vegetable beds. They are a godsend and a valuable resource feeding, you guessed it, not only the plants but the soil food web as well. How do you think forests thrive so well without our endless care? Leaves! As the forest trees shed their leaves and they accumulate and decompose on the ground a nutrient rich layer of supreme quality humus is created, a deep dark rich colored layer of soil that is highly coveted and appreciated by all surrounding plants. The compost you buy at the store is most often made from decomposed leaves, however the quality from a forest is infinitely better (do not steal forest hummus however tempting lol). During fall do not cut down perennials as many can be left up for winter interest, seed for wildlife, and to add an extra layer of protection rather than opening a new wound for water to freeze inside of the perennial. Shrubs that you typically cut down should also be left up for extra protection including butterfly bushes, roses, caryopteris, et cetera. Apply a doughnut of compost around new and tender perennials 3 inches high leaving a small gap around the actual plant to add a little winter jacket to protect the young root systems of those plants. For roses mound the compost within and around the plant at least 2 feet high. Both of these steps will not only protect, but will add an extra boost of nutrients, just remember to remove and smooth out the compost to the surrounding area come spring.
Winter is not a season to ignore your plants, but to give them a good pruning! Dormant season pruning improves the health, structure, and appearance of plants by eliminating dead and diseased wood, crossing branches, thinning for better air flow, and shaping to control size and growth. Some plants are best pruned in the dead of winter, others more towards the end of it. Consult articles online or books to see exactly how to prune the plants in your garden. Shearing is never a great pruning method because it tends to create thick undesirable growth often seen on taxus that have been sheared for years leaving dead centers and oversized shrubs that now look awkward in the landscape. Each branch the shears cut encourages more growth, where one branch was now several may sprout contributing to the thickness of the plant, causing the inside to die & overtime for the plant to grow in size while being unable to be sized down. Proper pruning avoids this, but takes time, carefully pruning only those branches that are necessary. Read up on it, take your time, and have confidence as sometimes it may seem daunting to a beginner, however it is great practice learning the growth habits of different plants.
I have been a hobby gardener for over ten years and a professional one for five years now and I love applying organic practices that work with nature not against it to all of the gardening I do. I am always trying to incorporate these methods into professional landscaping, improving how the industry does business one step at a time. I love what I do and working with the earth and am saving to start my own nursery one day. I am passionate about being organic and living healthfully, working as a co-owner to Wildcraft Apothecary helps me pass along the recipes and solutions I have found onto others who are just as passionate about the earth and living organically as I am. I hope this article is useful and I welcome any questions.