Gardening the Organic Way

GRAB a handful of soil from your vegetable garden. Has it been so drenched with herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, and fungicides that it seems virtually sterile? Or does it teem with earthworms, insects, and microorganisms of all sorts? If your soil is pulsing with life, chances are that, knowingly or unknowingly, you are applying the principles of organic gardening.

Organic gardening often involves methods of improving the quality of garden soil using natural biological substances. One of its aims is to foster an ecosystem in which plants are strong enough to resist pests and diseases. In countries where synthetic chemicals are commonly used in gardening, interest in organic gardening is growing. Why? For several reasons.

 First of all, pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables have at times posed serious health hazards. To illustrate, the book Pesticide Alert reported that “in the summer of 1985, nearly 1,000 people in several Western states [of the United States] and Canada were poisoned by residues of the pesticide Temik in watermelons.”

In addition, many people see organic gardening as a way of protecting the environment. Some pests have become immune to repeated applications of chemical pesticides, so scientists have developed poisons that are even more dangerous. These potent chemicals have then leached into the groundwater and have contaminated our precious water supply.

Another advantage of organic gardening is that less waste is dumped into our landfills. How is that possible? Food scraps and yard wastes make up a considerable portion of our garbage. Instead of being thrown out, these organic elements can be piled up and allowed to decompose, yielding a rich compound called compost. Such a mixture may not be pleasant to think about, but to a plant it is a gourmet’s delight!

Finally, some view organic gardening as a way to get exercise, enjoy the sunshine, work with the soil, and watch tiny seeds grow into healthy plants. Does organic gardening sound appealing to you? Then let’s get started! First, we will take a look at the soil in your garden.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Many gardens contain either clay soil or sandy soil. Sandy soil consists of large particles that allow water and nutrients to drain away too rapidly to be of benefit to the root system. Clay soil, on the other hand, is made up of tiny layers that are so closely bound together that either the water cannot penetrate the hard surface, and so runs off, or it soaks in only to get trapped, thereby suffocating the roots of the plants.

Plant roots thrive in soil that has a balance of particles that hold on to enough moisture to keep roots from drying out while allowing excess water to drain away. Gardeners call this mixture loam. In such soil, air circulates freely, allowing microorganisms to go about their work of adding nutrients to the soil.

Large amounts of organic matter​—compost—​should be added to both clay and sandy soils to achieve a balance. When it is spaded into the ground, compost conditions the soil. Since, like a sponge, it holds on to moisture, less watering is needed. Compost comes complete with millions of friendly bacteria that  will continue to break down decaying matter, turning the matter into nutrients that plants need in order to grow vigorously. Compost also helps balance the soil so that it is neither too acidic nor too alkaline.

When tilled into the earth, deep-rooted cover crops, such as clover and alfalfa, break up heavy soils and increase organic matter. Mulch​—for example, a layer of grass clippings or sawdust placed on the soil surface —​is also useful for changing the composition of the soil.

The amazing earthworm is an outstanding player in improving the soil in your garden. As it tunnels deep into the ground​—as far down as 12 feet [4 m]—​the earthworm aerates the soil, brings various minerals toward the surface, and provides better drainage for water. In the process, it also leaves behind castings that, according to the book Step by Step Organic Vegetable Gardening, are “five times as rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium [as] the surrounding soil.”

Toads, Birds, and Bugs​—Your Garden’s Friends

‘But what about garden pests?’ you may ask. ‘How can I get rid of them without using pesticides?’ Don’t forget that pesticides kill off more than unwanted pests. They also eliminate such helpful organisms as earthworms and fungi. Remember, too, that toads are garden-friendly. A toad can eat upwards of 10,000 insect pests in three months’ time. Toads are not fussy eaters. Their diet includes such enemies of plants as crickets, squash bugs, tent caterpillars, armyworms, gypsy-moth caterpillars, and slugs.

Birds are also effective at controlling garden pests. A house wren was observed feeding “500 spiders and caterpillars to its young during one summer afternoon,” according to the book Gardening Without Poisons. If you would like to invite a few wrens or other insect-eating birds to your garden, hang some bird food or nesting materials in plain sight. Before long, you may well see that your “invitation” has been accepted! And bugs? Many garden-friendly insects prey on destructive ones. If you purchase ladybugs and release them in your garden, they will immediately look for their favorite food, aphids. Praying mantis egg cases can likewise be bought and placed in the garden. When the eggs hatch, the mantises will devour virtually every insect that dares cross their path.

Plants and Pest Control

You can use certain plants to control the pest population of your garden. Place plants that garden pests avoid next to the plants that need protection. For example, nematodes, which attack the roots of many plants and weaken them, are careful to keep their distance from marigolds. And white cabbage butterflies are repelled by rosemary, sage, or thyme, when these are planted near cabbage. A word of caution is in order, though: Some plants attract garden pests.

Crop rotation is a practical method of pest and disease control. Rather than grow the same type of plant in the same spot year after year, you may wish to rotate the plants in your garden. In that way you will break the cycle of disease and pest infestations.

Organic gardening can be challenging, requiring time and patience. To build your soil into a healthy state by organic means can take many months. You may suffer setbacks, and when you do, you may be tempted to reach for a chemical spray. However, before you do so, stop and think about the long-term benefits of avoiding chemical poisons. If you are patient, though, before long you may have a garden that produces tasty organically grown vegetables that are less subject to pest and disease problems than others. No, your garden will not be perfect, but you may find that you are delighted with the results. So if you enjoy gardening, why not try growing your own organic garden?

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Clay soil

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Sandy soil

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Your Garden’s Friends

A toad can eat upwards of 10,000 insect pests in three months’ time

A house wren was observed feeding “500 spiders and caterpillars to its young during one summer afternoon”

The earthworm aerates the soil and brings various minerals toward the surface

The ladybug’s favorite food is the aphid, a destructive insect

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When it is spaded into the ground, compost conditions the soil