Joanne's Organic Gardening Guide / by J White

Organic Gardening is easy and fun!

We show you why and how to here.

(Secret: This is one of our best pages!)

Why Buy

Organic Plants & Seeds?

Or, the Negatives of Drugged Nursery plants and using fertilizer...

Plants at non-organic nurseries are pumped up on nitrogen rich fertilizer so they look good for sale and will flower early. But the plant itself is weakened by the chemical fertilizers and is less likely to survive in transplant than a plant that has been raised organically. Nurserymen and Landscaper courses at Universities encourage the use of chemical fertilizers to help quick sales and to move product. It looks good so you buy it - but so does that fantastic-looking coffee cake laden with high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

So look at the little sticks in the plants that you buy - does it say organic? If not - ask! Organic seeds had parents who were organically farmed and the seeds should result in happier, healthier, stronger, more naturally disease resistant plants.

Here's a great link explaining why to buy Organic Seeds.

Organic and Sustainable Gardening Concepts

Organic –This is basically the use of non-chemical, non-processed means of controlling an ecosystem. To be certified organic, farmers must follow a set of guidelines and abide by stringent rules. Also known as Biologique.

Biodynamic - This is basically a type of closed system farming or gardening which is self-sustaining and that also uses a calendar (an almanac of sorts) which gives indications for things like planting, pruning and fertilizing. The system also expects the use of specialized organic formulas (like a spray made from Stinging Nettles) to promote plant health and ecosystem balance. To maintain balance and flow, Biodynamic farming utilizes lunar & seasonal cycles. The farming practices utilized in the biodynamic system are mostly the traditional ones used in good sustainable organic farming. The Demeter Association certifies biodynamic farming. Also known as Biodynamique.

Sustainable - You can loosely define sustainable agriculture as farming that doesn’t use up resources faster than they can be replaced (such as: water, soil, labor, community support/services, etc.).

Great Gardening Tips

Wear your gloves. The ph of your skin can inhibit seed germination. Touching those white roots when you pull out the plant will kill them.

Using a spading fork is preferable to dig holes as it does not disturb the soil as much and will not glaze or pack heavy soils such as we have in our area (clay).

Mow or cut weeds if you can, as the roots of a weed hold a place in the soil keeping it easier to work in the long term.

Use copious amounts of compost on almost anything instead of fertilizer. You can make a compost tea and add that instead of fertilizer. Famed organic farmer Bob Cannard offered his recipe for a quick compost tea at COPIA's Edible Gardens Festival: Take all of your daily compost (vegetable trimmings etc.) at the end of the day, add it to a big stockpot with some water and simmer it down overnight. The next day pour your compost “tea” off directly around your plants and put the sludge into the compost pile. The sludge helps bring earthworms to the pile and the tea is an energy boost for your plants.

Never buy soil. Always buy compost. You don’t need anything but compost even to fill pots or raised beds.

Watering – water from above if possible. It’s better for water to mix with air to water plants and the ecosystem will promote the health of non-plant life by giving access to water. Drip systems are okay but sprayers are preferable. It’s better to water deeply a few days a week than to water daily. Currently we hand water the garden and use a spray sprinkler in the summer as needed. We do have an automated system in place it's just not active yet.

Spacing of Plants - Plant as much of a space as possible but keep in mind space for plant growth and breathing space. The more the soil is covered the less soil will be lost and the more roots systems in the soil will keep it easier to work in the long term. When inter-planting consider heights – tall at the back and short at the front.

Don't Rake your leaves - let them lie on your garden beds when they are dormant (of course in CA we grow year round). They will compost on their own and make your soil richer and fluffier. (Exception - If you have plants which require low acids or your leaves are high acid (such as oak) then go ahead and rake them.)

Inter-planting & Diversity

I interplant edible flowers and herbs like calendula, nasturtium, sunflowers, borage, edible violets, thyme, chives for color and to attract beneficial insects amongst the vegetables. I’ve also started to grow different kinds of vegetables just for flowers like Pak Choi. I want everything in the vegetable garden to be edible – so only herbs and flowers that are in this category are okay with me. I want friends and family to feel it's safe to pick and eat anything from the vegetable garden.

Diversity in the garden is a great idea. Rethink planting in rows and start to think small patches. Mix it up – have multiple patches of carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, peas, beans, etc and rotate them as you replant. If you lose one patch to bugs, mildew or weather, you may find another patch of the same vegetable thriving!

Seeds of Change's newsletter for April 2006 focuses on Companion Planting - check it out!

A great book on companion planting is: Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte

This book tells you which vegetables planted together help each other and, which do not grow well with each other. I now always under plant my tomatoes with carrots. We harvested our summer planted carrots this winter.

Louise Riotte also wrote Roses love Garlic – but focuses on which flowers to plant together. Garlic naturally deters bugs which cause trouble with roses (like aphids).

Fertilizing Basics

The key is to fertilize with:

• Organic Compost

• Rock Dust (Spiral Stonemeal)

• Oyster Shell Dust (Flour)

Ann Hudgins, master gardener, suggests the use of only compost/Rock Phosphorus or “Rock Dust” and Oyster Shell Dust in your garden. We’re two years into using this system and while it’s hard to compare, everything seems greener and livelier. We add fish emulsion to that trio and it seems to work for us.

Planting Basics - Soil

First off, you never need to buy “soil” from the local nursery - ever. That means no potting soil, no seed starter, no top soil, and no miracle anything. All you ever need is 100% compost. Either you make it yourself or if you need to buy it, buy from a reputable organic compost seller (it’s available at many landscape and nursery suppliers). You need to read the labels if you buy bagged soil (and ask what’s in the compost you buy at the nursery). You don’t want to pay for fillers like bark, peat or “lighteners.” Two reasons to choose compost: it's better and it's cheaper (if you make it yourself it's free!).

What is Compost?

If you think about it - compost is decayed plant/vegetable matter which results when fully composted into nutrient rich soil . So why would you ever need to buy soil that is less rich? Isn't the whole point of buying "top soil" that you are looking for a richer easier-to-work soil than you have now. No need - compost will do the job twice over (both give you rich soil and make your existing soil easier to work) and feed your plants at the same time.

Seed starter is 'lightened' soil to make it easier for seeds to grow. Compost will work just fine in it's place. Just sift it and make sure it's bug-free before using. (If you are unsure put a pile of lettuce leaves around it and leave overnight. The bugs will come munching on your lettuce and leave your compost pile.

The best way to get compost is to make it yourself – start now! If you have very heavy or clay soils you will have to plan ahead to start your garden. Layer compost over the area that is to be your garden. Keep adding to the pile as it diminishes and wait for it to improve the soil already there. Or, if are in a hurry you can use raised beds.

Home Composting – This is an essential for the home organic gardener, but this art takes some practice to master. To make compost you need green and brown. Green things are like grass clippings, kitchen scraps (usually not meat or fats), green leaves from pruning, etc. Brown things are chipped wood, dirt, cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, etc. The formula is closer to 60/40 for brown. If there are worms appearing in your compost pile there's a good mix.

We compost three ways:

We have a big layered compost pile for branches, big things like pumpkins, grass and leaves. For kitchen scraps and lighter brown stuff like brown paper, newspaper, egg cartons etc. we use self-contained compost bins. We have tried and are currently using two closed systems:

Blue Planet Smart Compost Bin - This is our newest bin. It's supposed to rotate completely around really easily as it's on rollers. We don't have perfectly level ground and as a result, full, it will rotate about 45 degrees which accomplishes virtually nothing. It doesn't function well 3/4 full. When I empty it I'll try and not let it get so full this next time and move it to another spot which might be more level. It should work great when it has just some compost in it - so maybe I need to empty it more often. It will also make a compost tea. It looks cool. (Gaudy - Jack)

Urban Compost Tumbler - We have two of these. They are made from recycled pickle barrels with two Trex supports and a base. The 1st one we have has a broken support which I need to fix - it lasted about 4 years. The second newer one is currently full (as usual). These composters don't like to be completely full. They are also a pain to take the 3 part top off and put on (there's a rubber ring and 2 plastic pieces). Plus in the summer the top is sometimes hard to even get on when the plastic expands with heat.

Oh and it's near to impossible to empty. You can't dig the compost directly out because an aeration tube runs down the center and no decent sized shovel will fit. After a few unsuccessful attempts at other ways of emptying it we just put a tarp under it and dump it in stages and then dig the compost off the tarp into a wheelbarrow. Don't let the photos fool you about people tipping it and shoveling compost into a wheelbarrow directly - maybe if the bin is mostly empty that will work. On the positive - I do have tons of worms in the bin and it does seem to make good compost and I did buy a second generally I must have liked the first one.

Raised Beds – Because of our soil conditions and the placement of the main vegetable garden, we chose to build raised beds. Some we built with recycled redwood. Others we purchased from Raised Beds in Oregon. They are made of untreated cedar. I cannot stress the importance of not using pressure treated lumber for raised beds.

We have heavy clay soil where we live so our garden is planted in raised nursery beds which are made of untreated redwood. Some of them we have nailed mesh on the bottom of, in case our moles or gophers were interested. We filled them initially with organic planting mix. Now we top them off every season with 100% compost. The only fertilizer we use is compost, oyster shell dust, rock dust and fish emulsion.