he number of certified organic farms more than quadrupled from 1992 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and organic gardening is a growing trend among consumers seeking to ensure that the food they eat is free of pesticides and other chemicals.
Whether you are new to gardening in general or have experience with traditional gardening practices and want to make a transition to organic gardening, challenges await you.
“Going organic takes some planning, but it can be done, and once you’ve done the preparation, it’s really no different than regular gardening,” said David Chambers, manager of Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
Soil preparation is one of the key challenges with organic gardening. It takes time for the dirt itself to adjust.
“It’s a slower process,” Chambers said. “You just can’t ‘go organic’ because your soil still has a lot of toxins in it so it takes a few years before your soil is free of nonorganic chemicals,” he said.
A few years could stretch out to four to five years. It can take that long to rid the soil of any previous pesticides, fertilizers and supplements.
The next step is to prep the soil with organic matter. According to Patricia L. Collins, director of gardens at Callaway Gardens, this means adding compost, bone meal or rock phosphate and green sand to supply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In some gardens, you may also need to add lime.
She suggests making your own compost with banana peels, apple cores, egg shells, lettuce leaves and other kitchen waste, along with chopped leaves and grass clippings. Keep adding materials until you have a 6-inch layer of compost. Cover it with a layer of 2 to 3 inches of soil, manure or finished compost. Do not use cat litter or dog droppings, which may contain parasites and other harmful organisms. Also, avoid meat and bones, which will attract scavenging animals.
Till or dig in your fertilizer and two kinds of organic matter. Let the garden’s nutrients seep into the soil for at least a month before planting.
The next step is the organic plants or seeds themselves.
“I’d suggest something simple for starters, like strawberries or tomatoes,” Chambers said. “They’re more expensive but worth it.”
Raising the Plants
Once the plants are in the ground, they will attract their share of pests and weeds. Blanket the garden with organic mulch or mesh netting. If you pick a material like ground bark that will decompose over a season or two, till it into the soil for additional nutrients.
Chambers says it’s more of an urban myth that planting marigolds will chase away bugs.
“The really smelly ones with little blooms on them will do that, but those are not the marigolds that are usually sold in nurseries or hardware stores,” he said.
Organic pesticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis — or BT — neem, horticultural oil and pyrethrins will get rid of bugs, although each has its own peculiarities. None resemble the kill-anything-that-moves pesticides used by the non-organic gardener.
Chambers says there are other ways to reduce bugs, such as rotating crops, not overwatering and keeping plenty of space between plants.
Some fun gardening tools can help you go organic. To get rid of wasps and yellow jackets, Tolland Homes offers colorful glass traps that require only sugar water. You may also use garden windmills to keep the air flowing and deter the bugs.
Some people may want an instant organic garden. Nancy La Motte, president of Welsh, Louisiana-based Anamese Garden & Home, recommends those gardeners fill large containers with organic soil to accommodate their organic seeds or plants.
Anamese sells a variety of styles and sizes of containers.
“We have a lot of large pots with plastic liners that come out of the pot,” she said. “They are perfect for planting, and then if you need to let them have more sun or if it’s raining too much, you simply lift up the liner and put the plant elsewhere.”
However you plan to start and run your garden, you’ll be part of an organic movement that is here to stay, Collins said.
“People are willing to spend more for organic food,” she said. “It’s not a trend that’s going away, so starting an organic garden — even if you don’t have a lot of space – makes a lot of sense.”