Step 1: Know Your Dirt
To grow a successful organic garden, you need to start with healthy, fertile soil. Find out what kind of soil you have so you know what you'll be working with. There are clay soils, loam soils and sand soils. Loam is usually ideal because of its moisture retention and efficient drainage. Clay contains a lot of nutrients but doesn't drain as quickly as loam. Sand drains quickly but doesn't retain as many nutrients or as much water.
Pick up a handful of your soil and squeeze it. If it crumbles when you open your hand, you have loamy soil. If it doesn't crumble, you have clay soil. Sandy soil will fall apart immediately. Knowing what kind of soil you have will help you figure out how much organic fertilizer and soil amendments you'll need for a naturally successful crop.
Do a pH test. Your soil's acidity plays a big part in the success of your plantings. For the most part, plants grow best in soil with neutral pH. You can pick up a pH test kit at your local True Value hardware store.
Decaying organic matter is a must for fertile soil because it fights erosion and provides a favorable habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms. It also creates carbon dioxide as it decays, which helps plants absorb minerals from the soil. Without this, the soil cannot support healthy, thriving plants. Synthetic fertilizers can help, but plants will not grow as well as if they were in naturally rich, nutrient-filled soil. Natural organic amendments like compost and manure are essential to create such a nutrient-rich environment.
Step 2: Add Compost
Compost is probably the key factor to a successful organic garden. It enhances soil by aiding the growth of useful microbes, neutralizing soil pH and supplying nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Best of all, you can make it yourself.
Start by choosing a composting location. Look for a level, well-drained area that is close enough to your home to be convenient and accessible. It should not be overexposed to wind and not left in direct sunlight. The ideal location is sheltered, in partial sunlight and close to a water source.
Next, set up your composting area. Roll out and cut a 10'L x 3'W piece of galvanized chicken wire using wire cutters. Fold back 3" of wire at each end of the cut piece to provide a strong, clean edge that will be easy to attach. Form a circle with the chicken wire and attach the ends with 5" pieces of easy-to-twist wire. For additional support, place three or four wood or metal posts around the inside of the chicken wire circle and pound them firmly into the ground with a hammer. An ideal compost pile is about 3' wide and at least 3' tall.
To keep moisture in, line the bottom of the area with two garbage bags.
To dissuade wildlife, cover the top of the bin with additional chicken wire and secure with wire. Place a tarp over the wire cover to keep the rain out.
You will add to the compost pile gradually over time. You can collect waste from in and out of your home to begin composting. The first type of waste is green debris like grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and plant trimmings. These are key composting ingredients because they provide nitrogen. Combine items like this with a small amount of good soil or a compost starter that contains enzymes and other stimulants to help the compost decompose as fast as possible. You will also need brown debris, such as dry leaves, finely chopped wood and bark chips, shredded newspaper or straw. The brown debris provides carbon. To ensure an even composition, alternate layers of green and brown materials. Ideally, you should have much more carbon than nitrogen in your compost. The perfect ratio is 30:1. Be sure the soil is mixed well with the other matter.
Do NOT add animal waste, meats, oils, dairy, diseased plants, weeds or plants treated with pesticides or herbicides to your compost.
Break up materials before layering to make organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly and produce uniform compost.
To prevent odor and other unpleasant side effects of composting, make sure you properly maintain your compost pile. Once a week, turn the compost with a pitchfork or shovel to move material from the edges to the inside, allowing necessary aeration. Make sure the compost stays damp but not soaked. It should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If the material is too dry, add a little water. Keep track of its temperature as well. If it is warm or hot, everything is working properly. If it is similar to the outdoor temperature, you'll need to add more nitrogen-rich green materials to the mix.
Whenever you turn the compost, add water if necessary. Locating your compost heap near a water source is helpful.
You'll know your compost is finished when it's no longer hot and the materials are no longer identifiable. It should have a dark brown, moist and earthy consistency and smell. It can take up to two to three months to fully process if you consistently maintain it. Once your compost is ready, spread it in your garden.
Animal manure is another great soil additive. It's a source of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. However, it must be dried out or "aged" before applying it to soil so that ammonia and other harmful substances in it dissipate and don't pose a threat to burgeoning plant life. Manure also can be added to your compost pile.
Find or purchase earthworms and add them to your compost pile to accelerate decomposition.
Use a compost tumbler. It will provide a place to store your compost as well as aerate it. The tumbler rolls, tossing the compost around on the inside, letting air in and out, which is beneficial to the decomposition process.
Step 3: Protect Your Plot Naturally
You don't need harsh chemical pesticides to protect your garden from pesky insects and animals. Try to keep an open mind and accept that you will have some critter activity in your garden. In fact, some so-called pests can actually be beneficial to your garden.
Row covers prevent insects from landing and planting eggs. It's the insect larvae that can be highly detrimental to your crops. Covers also add protection against frost. Sticky traps attract and catch many flying insects that might land on vegetation. Microbial insecticides and horticultural oils work well on caterpillars, aphids and other insects that feed on vegetation. These oils are less toxic to people or animals and break down easily. Do some research on what works best for the particular pest you are trying to get rid of so you aren't using unnecessary additives on your garden.
Healthy plants are strong plants; sick plants are more susceptible to attack from pests. Keep your garden healthy by nipping any diseases in the bud. Most often caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses, plant diseases usually show up as leaf spots, lesions or wilting. Inspect your plants regularly to prevent damage and disease. If you catch infestations or ailments early, it is easier to reverse any harm done. Knowing what you're up against is essential to applying the right remedy.
Here are some things to try in order to prevent plant disease:
- Whenever possible, use disease-tolerant plants.
- Be sure that your garden has plenty of moisture, but avoid over-watering. Overly wet soil causes root rot and other diseases.
- Rotate crops. Planting the same crops year after year in the same soil helps disease organisms thrive. For best results, try not to plant vegetables from the same botanical family in the same parcel of soil for at least three years.
- Properly space plants. Too many plants in one area can increase the chance of disease. Increase space between plants so air and light reaches everything equally. This will also prevent disease from spreading through proximity.
- Destroy infected plants. Pull up any plants that show severe disease symptoms so they don't spread the infection to adjacent plantings.
You're done! A healthy organic garden begins with growing your garden naturally.