How To Start An Organic Garden (Part 1)

If you are like me, you realize that the type of food you put into your body is very important for physical, emotional and mental health. Starting your own organic garden is a great way to get nutrient rich food without the added toxins from weed and bug poisons, which are common in produce purchased at most grocery stores. As an herbalist and avid organic gardener, here are a few recommendations for starting an organic garden from scratch.

What is Organic Gardening?

A basic definition of organic gardening is gardening without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, yet organic gardening is more than replacing man made chemicals with those from natural sources. It is a way of gardening that supports the health of the whole system.  In an organically managed vegetable garden the emphasis is on cultivating an ecosystem that sustains and nourishes plants, soil microbes and beneficial insects rather than simply making plants grow. By giving our garden what it needs to grow and be healthy we are growing vegetables which will nourish ourselves in the same way.

Understanding Soil and Organic Matter

Almost all soil can support some kind of plant life, but for a good yield of garden vegetables the soil must provide lots of basic nutrients, plus water, air and minerals.  Soil fertility means the ability of the soil to provide the nutrients required by plants.  Fertility can be adjusted to the needs of vegetables by adding soil amendments (materials added and worked into the soil to give nutrients, such as manure or composted vegetable matter). Organic soil amendments are some type of non-toxic vegetable matter (such as leaves, wood ash, bone and blood meals or seaweed) and rock powders.  These amendments release nutrients slowly and maintain a high level of nutrients. As organic matter decomposes it improves the nutrient and water holding capacity of the soil.  Organic matter should be added to very sandy soils to increase water and nutrient holding capacity and to clay soils to improve drainage and aeration by building structure. Organic matter releases many plant nutrients as it decomposes, so it is essentially a fertilizer. Most of all it has a very important advantage over purchased, synthetic fertilizers: It releases minerals slowly over a long period of time. This reduces leaching and decreases the risk of throwing the soil system out of balance.

Here are some common sources of organic matter:

  • Farm manure is one of the best sources of organic matter and can supply the bulk of the fertilizer elements that vegetable gardens need.  The general rate of application for cattle, hog or horse manure is 300 to 500 pounds per 1,000 square feet of garden.  A simple way to estimate this is to apply a layer 2 to 4 inches thick on top of the soil and work it in to a 6-inch depth.  Poultry, sheep, goat and rabbit manures should be applied at half this rate because of their higher nutrient content.
  • Green Manure maintains or increases the organic matter levels in soil. Green manure is a crop grown with the intent of turning it under while it is still green. In addition to adding organic matter, green manure also returns nutrients accumulated in the plants to the soil.  Legumes make particularly good green manure because they possess deep roots that draw up minerals from the subsoil. Sow a green manure either as a winter cover crop or if your garden is big enough, in a different portion of the garden each season.  Some common green manures are: oats (planted in early fall for a winter cover or grown in the summer), buckwheat or red clover (grown in summer).
  • Compost is an excellent source of organic matter and nutrients. In its finished form it contains the major plant nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as all the minor nutrients that plants need. In addition, compost releases these nutrients slowly, thus minimizing run off and leaching. A compost pile may be made of leaves, weeds, hay, manure, waste vegetable matter, coffee grounds or pretty much any vegetable matter. Avoid using items that decompose slowly and attract unwanted animals such as meat, bones and fat.

Choose your garden location wisely

Most vegetables require “full sunlight,” defined as at least 5 or 6 hours of sun directly on the plants during the middle of the day. Too much shade makes the plants weak, susceptible to disease and they produce little fruit. If you have no sunny sites, do not give up. A few vegetables, although they may grow slowly, will still produce in partial shade. These include beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, peas and spinach.

If possible, the garden should be close to the kitchen, not only for convenience, but because rabbits or other wild animals in your area are a little less likely to come so close to the house. Consider starting small and expanding when you are sure you can maintain a larger garden. A first year garden often has many weeds from leftover seeds in the soil so start small and expand next year.

It is important when choosing the spot for your garden to consider the soil at that spot. Gardening works well in many types of soil, but common vegetables (the ones we eat the most of) do best, and with the least work by the gardener, on easily crumbled, porous soils. A deep soil with lots of decaying vegetable matter, like leaves and grass, will provide good aeration and allow root growth.  A soil that is too sandy will not hold water well and will allow the nutrients to be carried out of the root zone by water. On the other hand, a soil with too much clay will hold nutrients and water, but will have poor aeration (plants need air just like we do). If the roots are waterlogged the plants will drown.

I recommend avoiding areas composed of  “fill dirt.”  Fill hauled in to level areas usually consists of bottom soil  (nutrient lacking soil that was beneath the richer topsoil), stones and debris. In addition, you should avoid sites with depressions and low spots that remain wet after brief rains.  Such wet soil has little aeration and the roots of vegetables need oxygen to breathe.

Prepare the Soil and Plant

Here are the first steps :

Step 1: Take a soil test to find out your soils fertilizer requirements. The soil test kit that you can obtain at your local Cooperative Extension Service office has directions for taking a soil test.

Step 2: Turn over sod (the part of your lawn from the top of the grass leaves to the bottom of the grass roots) with a shovel in late summer or fall the year before you intend to plant the garden. Add lime, rock phosphate or manure, if recommended by a soil test, and plant a winter cover crop such as oats. Oats are winter killed (they die completely in winter even the roots), so they are easy to turn under or pull aside when you are ready to plant.

Step 3: Turn the cover crop under early in the spring, once the soil is no longer muddy but at least a few weeks before planting the garden.

Step 4: The first year plant vegetables that are fairly competitive with weeds, such as tomatoes, corn, squash, beans or cole crops ( Brussels sprout, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, broccoli, turnips), as many weed seeds will still be there.

Step 5: Keep the area well weeded all summer. The vegetables listed in step 4 above can all be mulched, which will smother out weeds.

Step 6: Cut the grass short around the border of the garden regularly so weed seeds do not end up in the garden.

An organic garden is a little work, but worth it due to the many benefits. Your organic garden will not only provide you with pure and nutritious food, but you will find the time spent outdoors and in nature is beneficial to the mind and body as well. I will write more on that later.  Happy gardening!

More to come on this topic soon!