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A Beginner's Guide to Organic Gardening

Body+Soul, May 2008

For many of us, the idea of having an organic garden -- one grown without chemicals -- is somewhat of a fantasy. Sure, we'd like to enjoy undeniably healthy vegetables right from our own backyards. But with everything you need to know about soil, compost, and companion planting, it seems impossible to pull off. But it's not. All you need is patience and a willingness to weed, water, and get muddy. Here is the step-by-step.

1. Pick Your Plot
Decide where your garden will grow. If you live on 50 acres of land in Iowa, the options are endless. But even if you have just a small square of concrete out back, don't be deterred. Here are the three most popular choices.

The Ground
The most adorable technique (since you don't have to purchase containers or soil), growing straight in the dirt offers the benefits of organisms that will help your garden thrive in the long run. "The earthworms and other soil life are already present," Jessica Walliser, coauthor of "Grow Organic," explains -- and they'll work to break down other animal and plant matter into nutrients as well as aerate your soil. While ground growing requires more work upfront, it's worth it in the end because you'll have healthier soil for years to come.

Ideally, you want an airy loam, or well-draining soil that comprises sand, silt, clay, and compost, the ultimate organic gardener's tool. Most backyards have a ratio that leans heavily to one side -- too much sand, for instance, or a gooey clay mess. You can't change what's there, but you can improve the way everything binds together. To do that, clear out a plot of grass (if your garden will be in a yard). Then, using a shovel or rotary tiller, a motorized device with blades used for turning the soil, work compost into the soil.

Raised Bed
This is the way to go if your existing soil isn't up to snuff and you'd like to start planting right away. Construct your bed in any shape you like, using materials like brick, untreated wood, or stone as a border. Don't make the bed too wide (you need to reach the middle), and be sure the border -- and therefore the depth -- is 16 inches high to allow roots to grow. Fill the bed with soil and compost.

Container Gardening
If you lack a backyard, stick to containers. With the exception of some root crops and asparagus, most vegetables grow just fine in them. Tomatoes, green onions, peppers, beans, lettuce, and squash all fare particularly well.

Look for varieties bred to grow in confined spaces, such as Patio tomatoes, Topcrop green beans, and Bibb lettuce. As for what size container you need, Michael Guerra, permaculture expert and author of "The Edible Container Garden," suggests using large ones (think whiskey barrel), which allow for companion planting (more on that in a moment) and greater reserves of food and water. Small pots dry out quickly and don't allow space for roots to grow. Whatever size you choose, make sure the container has holes at its base to allow for drainage.

Great Green Gardening Books
Guide to Composting
6 Year-Round Vegetables
10 Quick Organic Gardening Tips

2. Get Growing
Start simply with what you like, but remember that climate and pests will influence your success. Contact your local cooperative extension office, part of a national agricultural education network, to see what types of vegetables grow well in your area.

Seeds Versus Seedlings
Seeds are cheap and come in a diverse range of varieties, but you may need to start them indoors at least a few weeks before the last frost date -- the date when chances are slim to none that the ground will freeze again. This may mean as early as March.

Seedlings can be planted directly in your garden. Each vegetable has its own set of instructions; you'll find basic planting guidelines on the seed packets, or, for seedlings, ask the garden center.

Companion Plants
When placed in proximity, some companion plants actually help their neighbors grow by enriching the soil and repelling pests, which helps you avoid fertilizers and pesticides.

Legumes, such as peas and beans, convert atmospheric nitrogen (one of the chemical elements necessary for plant growth) into a form that nearby crops can use. Culinary herbs (chives, basil, mint) and vegetables like onions emit a heavy fragrance that can distract or repel pests away from your veggies. Other flowering plants, such as marigolds, can be toxic to unwanted insects.

Companion plants, especially nectar-rich sunflowers, can attract beneficial insects. These "good bugs," which include ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles, feast on the "bag bugs" (slugs, aphids, mites) that destroy plants.

Quality, Not Quantity
While you want to plant a little more than you'll need -- garden pests, disease, or poor germination may cut into your harvest -- overdo it and you'll have too much on your plate. A zucchini plant, for instance, can produce 3 to 9 pounds of fruit in a single season, and while this vegetable is indeed delicious, there's only so much of it you (or your family and neighbors) can eat.

Of course, if you're the plan-ahead type, you'll want to freeze or can your produce so it will last through the winter. For more on how to do the latter, visit the USDA's Complete Guide to Home Canning.

3. Tend Your Garden
"Mulch is anything that's applied to the soil surface to cut down on weeding and watering, and to stabilize temperature," explains Walliser. Almost any kind will work, from autumn leaves to newspaper, even black plastic. A mulch made of organic matter, such as hay, grass clippings, or tree bark, will slowly decompose, providing additional nutrients to the soil while improving its structure. Make sure you thoroughly weed your planting area before spreading mulch, and take extra care not to place anything on top of seeds or seedlings.

Most plants require about an inch of water a week, whether it comes from the hose or from rainfall. New plants, plants beginning to yield fruit or vegetables, and shallow-rooted species require more moisture; those in shady areas can get by with less.

A soaker hose, which has small pores that allow water to gently seep out, provides an effective, ecofriendly way to satisfy thirsty plants. It conserves water (which goes directly in the dirt rather than evaporates into the air) and keeps plant leaves dry, making them less susceptible to fungus. If you use a regular garden hose, be sure to soak the soil thoroughly, aiming for the ground, not the foliage. Water in the morning or late afternoon instead of midday, when the sun is highest, as most of that water will evaporate.

While you can find organic herbicides for sale at garden stones, your best strategy is the old-fashioned way: pulling weeds out by hand. Get them early, before they establish themselves, and make sure you grab the roots along with the leaves.

Put It to Bed
At the end of the season, once the cooler months of autumn start rolling in and your plants have given forth all their fruit, it's time to pull them out and prepare the garden for the winter.

Barbara Damrosh, author of "The Garden Primer," recommends spreading a layer of compost of well-rotted manure on the ground after the plants have been pulled out. Both dressings will work themselves into the soil as it goes through the cycles of freeze and thaw in the colder months. When spring rolls around, a light raking will help mix them in further -- and you're ready to go for another season.

Great Green Garden Resources
Guide to Composting
6 Seasonal All-Star Vegetables
10 Quick Organic Gardening Tips

Text by Abbie Barrett

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