9 Steps to Start an Organic Garden
Jodie Frey, Assoc Dean and Dir of Recreation Services works at Lafayette Organic Garden near Metzgar Fields on Sullivan Trail in Forks Township.
With an increased focus on pesticides and contamination, many people want to incorporate more organic foods into their daily meals. Sometimes, these organics are priced significantly higher than the conventionally grown counterparts. If you have the space, start your own organic garden to help save money!
1) Prep the Soil
Healthy plants need healthy soil. Your organic veggies and herbs will need tons of nutrients from the soil and chemical treatments can deplete the soil. Other chemical fertilizers can harm helpful bacteria, microbes, and worms.
If you’re super serious about getting your organic garden done right, get a sample of soil and have it tested by your local agricultural office. You can let them know you plan to go organic and they will be able to help you tailor your gardening program based on what’s needed in the soil. Any nutrients you need to add should be added before winter.
Finally, make sure your soil has lots of humus. Humus is a mixture of plant materials that have decomposed. Add in some composted manure and you’ve got a recipe for success! When using manure in your gardening and composting, be sure it’s exclusively from plant eaters like cows, sheep, goats, and chickens. Never use manure from meat-eating animals.
Composting is one of the best things you can do for your garden, whether its organic or not. Compost feeds your plants, helps to eliminate weeds, and keeps food waste out of landfills. In order to make a good compost pile, you’ll need a minimum of 3 square feet, lots of “brown material” (leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, etc), and lots of “green material” (kitchen scraps and manure). Fill your compost bin with these types of materials and make sure it’s topped off with about 6 inches of soil. Each time you add a new layer of green or brown material, toss your compost pile to make sure things are mixing and decomposing evenly. You should toss it with a pitchfork, hoe, or shovel. In 2-3 months, you’ll have lush compost ready for your garden!
3) Choosing Your Plants
No matter how great your soil is, if you don’t have the right plants for your area, they won’t grow. It’s important to check the USDA’s Hardiness Zone map to find out if the plants you want will grow well. Once you choose your plants, you can begin to outline your garden and where each type will be planted to ensure its sun, shade, and moisture needs are being met.
Be sure to seek out certified organic plants and/or certified organic seeds. You may be able to find them at big box stores, but you’re better off at your local garden shop or an area farmer’s market. Most of your herbs and vine veggies grow best from the seed, so be sure to start your seedlings in late winter or early spring.
After you’ve chosen your plants, be sure and plant them in a way that is well suited for each plant. Raised beds are preferred for anything you’ll harvest such as cutting flowers, herbs, or vegetables. Plant vine veggies in long rows so they have lots of room to spread out. Plant your herbs in rows, but in closer clumps to discourage weed growth.
Of course, you’ll have to water your plants. Whether you water by hand or set up an irrigation system, the best time to water your plants is in the morning. It’s not very hot and there usually isn’t much wind, so the plants will be able to absorb the maximum amount of water. Be sure to water the roots and not the leaves. If leaves have water droplets on them when the sunlight shines on the plant, it can create a magnifying glass situation where the sun will burn the leaves.
Water your plants with lots of water, but only 1-2 times per week. To save water and help the plants keep their temperatures regulated, collect rainwater and use it to water your garden. If you don’t want to use collected rainwater, try using your filtered water so as not to reintroduce any contaminants back into the soil (and into your plants).
Want to get some exercise? Get out in that garden and weed by hand! Hand-weeding is the best way to remove weeds because you’re not using any kind of sprays or chemicals. To cut down on the number of weeds, use your compost and if needed, use organic mulch on the top of your beds. Organic mulch will decompose into the soil. In a pinch, you can also use burlap fabric between the plants.
8) Protect from Pests
Bugs are a part of everyday life. Some will be beneficial for your plants, others won’t be. If you need to protect your plants from little critters, encourage predators like frogs, lizards, birds, bats, and ladybugs to hang out in your garden. Also, the more you diversify the plants in your garden, the less chance for a mass of bugs to hurt them. If you do need to spray your plants, look into Neem oil. Neem oil comes from the Neem trees in India and is a powerful bug repellant. Other plants (and their oils) like Citronella and lemongrass will help to repel bugs.
Finally, your hard work paid off and you get to reap the benefits of your labor. During the peak season of your various plants, you’ll need to check your garden everyday. Check the plant information for the best times to harvest your herbs and vegetables. If you have too much for you and your family, give some away or freeze and/or can your veggies. You can also fill ice trays with olive or sunflower oil and put fresh herbs in the oil. Freeze the oil cubes and this will help keep herbs fresh for a long time.
As you start thinking about warm weather, don’t forget to start planning your garden for spring. You’ll have tons of fresh, organic veggies all year at fractions of the cost. Happy planting!