What is organic gardening?
There is no clear definition of organic gardening. For beginners, it is the way to grow plants without using any synthetic products.
Some see it as the connection a gardener builds with nature. It is somewhat a symbiotic relationship within the surrounding environment. Others think it is more about helping nature do its best to produce more and better.
As a general rule, organic gardening looks after nature and thrives to keep it balanced and healthy. For this reason, it prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals in the form of pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer.
Organic gardening vs organic growing
Organic gardening is different from organic farming. Gardening is on a small scale where people grow food for their personal use, while organic farming is a mass-production practice.
Organic practices are widely different for each. What might work for a home gardener might not for the organic farmer. Also, a gardener has more freedom on what to do in his garden, while the organic farmer has to follow a set of governmental rules to the letter.
Top Organic gardening methods
There are many ways of organic gardening. The following is a list of the most common.
Traditional organic gardening
It is the common gardening way using traditional techniques such as single tilling, double tilling, to work in the organic matter into the soil before each growing season. This method also uses manufactured fertilizers and treatments that are certified organic as well as homemade ones.
The no-dig method focuses on preserving soil life by avoiding tilling. It states that such practice has many negative effects on soil composition. Turning the soil disturbs the living organisms in it. Also, it encourages weed growth by exposing the dormant seeds to sunlight.
The no-dig method believes in building up the soil by adding a four-inch layer of compost every growing season. In the case of a new garden, a thick layer of cardboard is used to suppress weeds and grass before topping it with compost.
With the regular use of this method, soil texture improves gradually and becomes rich in micro-organism and beneficial fungi. As a result, plants will also be healthy, which will make them less susceptible to disease and pests.
However, the no-dig method does not mention any specific way of dealing with pests and diseases. For that matter, it is no different from the traditional way of organic gardening. A gardener may use organic pesticide or physical barriers to deal with harmful insects.
Back-to- Eden method
Paul Gautschi is the founder of the Back-to-Eden gardening method. He believes that the right approach to gardening is by imitating nature, specifically the forest floor. The latter is never bare or exposed. It is always covered with organic material, mainly tree bark and leaves.
This method is similar to No-dig by improving the soil without disturbing the living organisms within it. The main difference is that this method uses exclusively wood chips instead of compost.
It starts by laying a thick layer of wood chips during the dormant season and allowing it to settle and start breaking down. The mulch gets pulled back for planting to reach the rich soil down under.
The wood chips help existing soil retain moisture by reducing evaporation. It also reduces weed emergence by blocking the sunlight from reaching the buried weed seeds. And since there is no digging involved, soil life is safe. As a bonus, the wood chips naturally carry fungi spores, which add to the enrichment of the soil.
Click here to watch Paul’s explanation and how came up with this method.
Permaculture is short for permanent culture, found by the Australian professor Bill Mollison, carried by David Holmgren.
Principles of permaculture
- Care for earth
- Care for people
- Set limitation population and consumption
It focuses on the design and arrangement of the natural elements creating a sustainable and energy-efficient environment.
Having goats to eat weeds and clear up a piece of land. The goats in this case are well-fed making them ready to produce milk. The leftover twigs and branches are used for fire. The freshly cleaned land gets planted with crop-producing plants.
In permaculture, everything gets used. Waste has to be reduced to almost nothing since any unused energy is a form of pollution.
Basically, in this method, the gardener has to consider every aspect of his surroundings, including people. Permaculture design takes into account topography, climate, rain, water surfaces, wildlife, dwellings, and so on.
It also encourages us to take things slowly. Setting a garden is a progressive process that changes or develops as you learn more about your surrounding.
You might check out this work by Oregon State University on Youtube. It is very informative and self-explanatory. Click Here
How to start an organic garden?
To start an organic garden, it is important to put together a plan. First, any garden needs a sunny location, with at least six hours of direct sunlight. Then it has to be in proximity to a water source.
It is important to make sure that the soil is organic, and no toxins were applied to it. Testing a soil sample is a good start. Otherwise, with consistent organic practices, the soil will build itself along the way.
Here where it may get confusing, with all the labels we find on the seed packets from heirloom, hybrid, GMO, to organic. Let me simplify them for you.
- Organic seeds: are seeds collected from fruits that have not been treated with any synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, or insecticide.
- Heirloom seeds: are seeds collected from varieties grown for more than 50 years and handed down to generations. These seeds have been grown by families. Most likely, they haven’t been treated with any synthetic product, which makes them organic. But that’s no guarantee.
- Open-pollinated seeds: are from plants that get pollinated by insects, wind, humans, or any other natural mechanism. Every heirloom is open-pollinated, but not every open-pollinated is an heirloom.
- Hybrid seeds: are produced from a cross-pollinated plant. The first generation of seeds is called F1, and it carries the best genetic features of each parent plant.
- Genetically Modified Organism GMO seeds: are created in the lab by changing its genetic structure in a way that would not occur naturally. This alteration can be made between the same or different species. These seeds are not available for domestic gardening use.
For your organic garden, you may choose any type of seed. In the end, your growing practice is what makes your crops organic.
If you are using commercial transplants, you may consider organically grown ones if you can afford it. Otherwise, use whatever is available and take it from there.
Organic fertilizers are made of natural products such as fish, kelp, and seaweed. They are slow-release which allows the plant to use the nutrients only as needed. Since they are not salt-based, they do not kill soil biology over time.
With consistent organic practices, the need for fertilizers grows low. Soil becomes self-sufficient and will feed itself. To learn more about starting starting a home garden click here.
Organic Gardening practices
Many practices are involved in organic gardening.
1- Pest and disease control
Prevention is the first step towards pest and disease control in organic gardening. Using products to treat your infested or diseased plants is the last resort. The following are some preventative practices.
- Use companion planting to deter harmful insects.
- Plant flowering plants to attract beneficial insects.
- Use physical barriers, such as mesh covers or weed fabric.
- Set live traps or noisemakers to catch or scare rodents and birds away.
- Plant more disease-resistant varieties.
- Choose varieties that grow well in your area.
- Practice crop rotation to allow the soil to recover.
- Sanitize gardening tools to prevent cross-contamination.
- Use proper planting distance. Crowded planting reduces airflow, which can favor disease spread.
- Water early in the morning to allow soil and plant foliage to dry out. This decreases fungal diseases and sunburn.
Pest and Disease Control
In case all the preventative measures fail, follow these steps before applying any treatment.
- Identify the problem: this crucial to be able to determine the way of intervention.
- Scale the damage: if the damage is not significant, there might not be a need for treatment.
- Determine treatment method: after scaling the damage, it becomes easier to decide how to deal with it. In case of a small damage manual or spot, treatment may be enough. Use commercial products only in dire need.
2- Weed control
Unfortunately, there is no ultimate organic weed killer that would eliminate them. But some good habits may reduce their appearance.
- Handpick regularly the weeds, especially after rain. Roots are easier to pull in wet soil.
- Solarize the soil: hot summer days are ideal for solarizing. Lay a thick plastic or a tarp over the weed area. Secure it with landscape pins or rocks. It takes around seven to eight weeks to bake the area and kill the living soul in it.
- If putting down a garden bed, you may use cardboard before adding soil. This suppressed the weeds and grass under the grow bed.
- Do not allow the weeds to reach the flowering stage. Flowers are future seeds that will spread everywhere.
The previous practices work are effective on most weeds. However, some tough varieties are almost impossible to eliminate, such as sedge and Bermudagrass.
3- Good watering habits
Water management is very important in organic gardening.
- Watering deeply once a week is better than daily shallow watering. It encourages deep roots resulting in healthier plants.
- Using the right watering system is important as well. Hand watering may be enjoyable, but it is not efficient. It takes a long-standing time to be able to soak the soil. Using a timed drip system is more effective with less water waste.
- It is best to water early in the morning to reduce water evaporation.
- Know your landscape and group plants according to their water needs. This conserves water by not over watering drought resistant plants.
- Use rainwater harvesting systems. It can be as simple as putting a garbage can under a roof spout. Using rainwater for the garden is better than using chlorinated city water.
Compost is one of the best soil amendments. Add it to sandy soil to improves its moisture retention. Add it to heavy clay to loosen it up and improves its drainage.
You can make compost by collecting kitchen scraps. You can also use well-rotted animal manure you would get from animal breeders. But make sure the animals are not fed anything containing harmful chemicals that can leach into their waste.
Both plant and animal-based compost have to be well rotted and completely broken down. It should smell like soil and not like its source or like ammonia.
Click here to learn more about home composting.
Mulching is another effective organic practice. Laying a 2-3 inches layer of mulch around your plants has great benefits.
- It keeps the soil moist longer by reducing evaporation.
- Mulching in winter protects the plants’ root system from freeze damage.
- It suppresses weeds by blocking the sunlight from reaching the dormant seeds.
- Mulch enriches the soil as it decomposes slowly, feeding soil organisms.
Poly-culture means planting different species and varieties of plants in the same piece of land. This practice has many benefits on the garden as well as the ecosystem.
- Attracts predators and pollinators, which leads to a balance insect population.
- Decreases the spread of diseases, since not all plants are affected the same way.
- Improves soil nutrient availability, since each crop will use the nutrient it needs.
- Efficient use of space by growing different crops in the same area.
7- Proper garden cleaning
An organic garden has to be well-kept to ensure a healthy landscape.
- Compost any healthy plant-based waste.
- Discard infested and diseased plants, either by throwing them in the trash or by burning them.
- Pick up any rotted fruits to prevent further disease development.
Is organic gardening beneficial?
Organic gardening has so many benefits for the environment and the well being of one’s being. Here a list of benefits I was able to observe myself in my personal experience.
- Helps restore topsoil and prevent erosion.
- Promotes rich soil by preserving its microbes, fungi, ground insects, and all living things in it.
- Reduces runoff of toxic waste poisoning the mainstream.
- Eliminattes soil contamination.
- Encourages wildlife by creating adequate habitat.
- Preserves water through rainwater harvesting and proper watering techniques.
- Creates a balanced environment by encouraging beneficial insects and promoting biodiversity in the landscape.
- Saves money by reducing the need to buy more fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
- Calms the soul and turn your garden into a meditation corner filled with life.
- Watching nature is very calming and relaxing to the mind.
- Develops generosity when you get to share your harvest with others, which also builds strong community bonding.
- It teaches acceptance and content.
Does organic gardening work?
Organic gardening is not for people who are looking for quick and perfect results. It is rather a slow-paced process of growing food. And it requires extra attention and more understanding of the surroundings.
Organic gardening works for those who get its meaning. It works for those who have a bigger goal, other than feeding themselves. Then, yes organic gardening does work when you give it the love and time it needs.
Does organic gardening require more work than conventional gardening?
Once the organic garden is established, nature takes charge and relieve the gardener of many tasks. The garden turns into a self-supporting system, in which every element has a role. Predator take care of the harmful insects, or keep them under control. Soil organisms break down organic material improving soil quality.
In a good soil, plants grow healthy. And healthy plants withstand diseases and pests much better. As a result, there is less need for chemical applications. And this leads to an abundance of pollinators, which ensure production. At the end, the gardeners job will only involve planting, watering, and harvesting.
What are the cons of organic gardening?
Overall I don’t see any downside to organic gardening. It all depends on the person and their view towards nature.
- People who don’t like bugs would not love organic gardening.
- Don’t expect perfect looking fruits. Tomatoes won’t be round, peppers may not be huge.
- Don’t expect fast results. Organic gardening takes time.
Is natural same as organic?
Natural does not necessarily mean organic. A natural product means that its components derive from natural products that are not chemically processed. They don’t contain any artificial or synthetic additives.
Organic products are more regulated. Their components have not been treated with pesticide, herbicide, or chemical fertilizers. Therefore, all organic is natural, but not all natural is organic.