My family and I have moved around a lot due to my husband’s job. This means that I’ve been a sporadic gardener at best; rarely having more than a few growing seasons in the same garden, let alone the same country. However, I’ve learned lots along the way and share some of these organic gardening tips here with you now.
First, let me say that I’m completely biased towards edible landscapes. I have little time and little space to garden, so if I can’t eat it or steep it, then I probably won’t grow it; hence the tips being directed to food growers.
So, without further adieu, here are some of my lessons learned turned into…
Twelve tips for novice organic food growers
1 – Start small. It is hard to curb that growing enthusiasm sometimes, trust me, I know. However, unless you are positive of what you are capable of and the time you’ll have, then I suggest you start small. Before you turn over your entire lawn, start with just a single 4’x8’ raised bed and go from there. You can grow quite a bit in a single raised bed and you can always add more beds later. I remember the first time we lived in a place with a garden. I begged the landlords to let me take over the veggie patch, which was quite extensive. I then got a new job that had me travelling about half the time. The result was a nasty looking veggie patch and me having to go to great lengths to avoid running into the landlords because I felt so bad.
Scott Meyer, Editor of Organic Gardening Magazine has some tips on getting your organic garden started in this video:
2 – Know the lay of the land. It’s a good idea to know the garden well before you plant the garden. Understand the areas where water collects, where it drains readily, and where the sun is. Veggies like beans, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers all need 6 hours of direct sunlight or more per day, so it’s a waste of your time to plant them somewhere shady. We rent and have a north facing garden, so most of the light hits where there is an old shed. So, that’s where I’ve planted, mainly in containers. The building also provides a good wind break, creating a hot little micro-climate.
3 – Keep a diary. I’m including this tip mainly to remind myself that this is a good idea. Sketch out your garden plan each year, write dates you plant things, germination times, harvest times, what worked and what didn’t, and varieties that were wonderful producers versus those that weren’t. I’m awful at doing this, but I know I should!
4 – Pick the right plants. First and foremost, choose plants that your family eats. Parsnips would probably do really well in my garden, but none of us like them, so what’s the point. If you’re a first time gardener, choose some species that are bound to give you a return so that you have some satisfaction that first year. Beets, for instance, do really well in every garden, they are naturally pest resistant and they have pretty leaves that are edible before the root is ready for plucking. Radishes are another easy and quick harvest, as is a mix of lettuce leaves. Also, choose plants that are appropriate for your soil conditions and climate. I’ve got soil with a lot of clay in it, so I’ve turned to growing a lot of broad beans as they do really well…carrots, not so much.
5 – Choose your bed buddies wisely. Sage advice in general, but I’m referring to the fact that different species planted in proximity to one another can benefit each other. For instance, one plant may attract beneficial insects that eat the pests of neighbouring plants and larger plants can shade less sun tolerant species. Some plants are natural insect repellants such as chives, garlic, onions, and marigolds, so some strategically placed plants mixed in with your crops can be helpful. Beans planted in among your lettuces will restore the nitrogen to the soil that the lettuces are taking out, so there are all sorts of great plant associations that can happen out there!
6 – Water consistently and deeply. Seedlings in particular need to be given a regular daily shower, but all plants need to have consistent watering. Mornings are the best time to water. Evenings are second best, but there is more chance that you’ll get some fungal infections. NEVER water in the middle of the day – it’s a waste of water and water droplets on leaves act as little magnifying glasses for the sun’s rays, scorching the leaves. Also, water less frequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. I’m lazy with my watering, I don’t deny it. One day, when I own my own home, I will invest in soaker hoses fed from rain barrels, but in the meantime, I’m going to be making and buying some self watering containers. If water is scarce in your area, then make an effort to buy drought resistant plants.
7 – Plant trees if you have room. As far as bang for your organic gardening buck, trees are where it’s at. They are low maintenance and high yielding. So, if you have the room, incorporate some fruit trees and shrubs.
8 – Use your compost. If you haven’t got a composter, build one! It’s a gardener’s best friend. It’s a great place to get rid of all the greenery that will inevitably come out of the garden, and an incredible source of natural, organic fertilizer. Healthy compost is a breeding ground for garden friendly bacteria, fungus, insects, and worms that are all beneficial to your plants. Adding compost layers each year will also help to build and enrich your garden soil. A good compost tea can also go a long way in preventing unwanted molds and insects.
9 – Spend time on your soil. Making good soil is where you should focus much of your effort. It is, after all, the basis of your garden. Be patient as it could take years to build the soil up, get it into a consistency and pH that you’re looking for. Adding compost will help encourage healthy soil microbes that are beneficial to plants. Avoid frequent, deep cultivation as all it does is bring weed seeds to the surface to germinate and disturb the delicate ecosystem. At the end of the season, put down a layer of cardboard or newspaper followed by a layer of compost and top it with leaves, grass clippings or hay and then let it rest for the winter. When spring comes, don’t even turn it in, just start planting into that nice organic layer that’s been brewing over the winter!
10 – Don’t panic at the first sight of insects. The majority (>80%) of insects in the garden are doing good things or at least aren’t hurting things. However, the natural reaction is to panic. If you have an aphid infestation, then it’s wise to take action sooner rather than later, but with some other insects, it’s a good idea to watch what is really happening before bringing out the heavy artillery. Here’s another useful video with Scott Meyer, talking about organic methods of pest control.
A couple of the products discussed in the video include Rose pharm , a USDA certified organic insecticidal soap that’s made with organic soap, organic peppermint oil and organic soy-bean oil. The advantage of this product is that it is only harmful to the target pest that you spray it on.
Garlic pharm is another one of the products, which is organic garlic repellant. You spray this product on the leaves and it’s good at discouraging powdery mildew, blackspots, rust etc
11 – Take the time to collect seeds from good producers. I’m a novice at this, admittedly. I usually can’t be bothered. However, last year I had some cherry tomatoes that were prolific producers and so I collected some seed and I’ll let you know how germination goes this year. If it goes well, I will be following this tip more closely, because seed purchases can add up each year.
12 – Break away from rows and go for a random polyculture. This is in line with tip#5 regarding companion planting. We are so programmed to follow packet directions and ‘grow seeds 1-2” apart with 6” spacing between rows’ (depending on the seed type of course). However, nature simply doesn’t heed such instructions and if you can break away from linear gardening, it will mean less work as less soil exposure means less evaporation and less weeding. Obviously you have to keep in mind the full grown potential of the plants and not overcrowd. For instance, cabbages are slow growing, so you can plant some leaf lettuce around the young cabbages and as the cabbages grow, harvest the lettuce. Your garden might look a little haphazard, but it will be productive!
There are many organic gardening tips out there, so you shouldn’t go astray. However, these are some of the ones I have to remind myself of as a part-time gardener, part-time writer, full-time mom who always has big ambitions in spring that need to have some reality mulch laid on! Have fun…I’m headed out to the garden right now!