Organic gardening is great for the planet, for your local ecosystem, and for you. Not only can you grow fresh produce, but you can also create a space that brings you joy. Whether you have a large plot or only a patio, all you need to get started with organic gardening is a minimal amount of cash and the strong desire to live a more sustainable and ethical life.
Create a Permaculture Plan
Before you start the physical work of creating your garden, it is a good idea to come up with a comprehensive plan for the layout and function of your outside space. Consider your desires, needs, and intended use for the space. Spend some time simply watching your garden. Consider how it changes from hour to hour, day to day, and with the passing seasons. Where is the light? Which areas are in deeper shade? Observe the soil, the weather conditions, and the existing plant and animal life. Note what works and what does not.
The key is to work with nature rather than against it. Permaculture is a design system that can allow you to do so effectively. Consider the topographical zones of your property, and how each area will be used. Do not neglect the edges and marginal spaces when devising a plan that works for your specific, personal circumstances.
Create a No-Dig Vegetable Bed
Turning over some of your existing lawn to a vegetable bed does not have to involve back-breaking digging. Creating a vegetable bed by building up organic and biodegradable matter on top of existing grass or soil — sort of like a lasagne — is an efficient way to ensure the continued good health of your soil or make the most of areas where the topsoil is poorer. A no-dig system allows you to focus on creating a humus-rich, fertile planting area without disturbing beneficial microbes, worms, and other mechanisms in the soil.
In the planning stage, you should have given some thought to the best environmental conditions for your growing vegetables. Ideally, your main area should be in full sun, preferably in a prominent spot that you will see every day. Once you know the location of your bed or beds, you can think about what to sow where.
It takes time to build up a body of knowledge about vegetable growing, and organic gardening often requires a lot of trial and error. There are a few things you should bear in mind when starting out:
– Mono-crops attract disease and pests and decrease biodiversity. Try not to plant large rows or blocks of the same thing, but try instead to integrate crops. Think about layering to make most efficient use of space and resources.
– Nature abhors bare soil. To reduce competition from weeds and keep moisture in the soil, use ground-covering plants and green, organic mulches.
– Some plants are friends, others do not get along. While no one is entirely sure of the scientific veracity of companion planting, anecdotal evidence suggests that interactions between certain plants can help increase yields and prevent common problems. This is why a vegetable garden should rarely consist of just vegetables, but should also include some herbs and flowers that might be beneficial to your edible crops.
Plant Fruit Trees and Bushes
Another way to create an edible organic garden is to create a l ow-maintenance forest garden, or natural orchard. This is a way to gain a yield of fruit and other useful plants, often in conjunction with annual vegetable growing. Once established (and they can be established almost anywhere) a forest garden can more or less take care of itself; all you have to do is harvest your fruit.
Forest gardening, or agro-forestry, is a way to take care of an ecosystem while adapting it to meet human needs. Even planting a single apple tree with a guild of other plants beneath it to aid its development could increase the biodiversity and charm of your organic garden. Add some soft fruit bushes for low-maintenance treats in summer and autumn, and you could be onto a winning formula.
If you have the space, chickens are a practical addition to a forest garden area. Free-range chickens will fertilize your plot and can even keep down some pests. What is more, their manure is useful in helping you to create a quality compost at home. This in turn will help you to successfully grow vegetables and ornamental plants organically.
Create a Compost Heap
A compost heap or bin is an important part of any organic garden. When designing your garden, it is important to consider the whole system. You should think of organic gardening as a cyclical process. It is important to create a nutrient cycle so your garden can sustain itself (with your help) and your soil and other resources do not degrade over time. All organic garden “waste”‘ should not be wasted, but instead fed back into the system. A successful composting system is an important part of doing that effectively.
All you have to do is layer “green” and “brown” waste in alternating layers. Green waste is rich in nitrogen, while brown waste is rich in carbon, and there are of course lots of other nutrients and elements mixed in. Green waste includes such things as green leaves, vegetable waste from your kitchen, and grass clippings. Brown waste includes untreated paper and cardboard, woody trimmings, straw, and dried, dead leaves.
There are several different methods for composting which the organic gardener can try:
– Cold composting is the simplest method and involves piling waste in a heap or containing it loosely in a bin, such as a frame made from old wooden pallets. If you make sure your heap gets some sun and rain but does not become waterlogged or dry out completely, you are sure to make some usable compost for the following year. While this method is simplest and requires little to no financial outlay, it also takes the longest.
– Vermiculture is using worms to help with the work of composting. You can buy a special sort of worms which will help you to turn your household food waste (excepting meat, dairy, and a few other items) into a rich and nutrient-crammed compost for your organic garden.
– Hot composting is a method by which you can contain your compost and allow it to reach high temperatures. You can buy hot composting bins which will allow you to create compost far more quickly than by cold-composting methods. What is more, due to the high temperatures that are reached, you can even put weeds and meat- and dairy-based kitchen waste into them.
If not hot composting, you should take care not to put weeds that have gone to seed or have invasive roots into your compost, as this could give you a weed problem the following year when you spread that compost on your organic garden beds. However, you can use weeds to make a plant feed by simply placing them in a bucket of water (with the lid on) and allowing them to decompose, before straining the fluid in the bucket and using it to water hungry plants. Certain plants are particularly good for making a plant feed or “tea.” Comfrey, for example, makes an excellent plant feed for tomatoes, and common stinging nettles make a nitrogen-rich feed for leafy vegetables.
Take Care of Beneficial Wildlife
When you are gardening organically, you are operating as part of the natural ecosystem rather than striving against it. You should be sure to take care of the wildlife, much of which is beneficial, or even essential, to your organic growing.
Some insects, such as bees, will help you by pollinating your plants and food crops. Without bees and other pollinators, much of your food production would be under threat, and your gardens would certainly never be the same again. You can attract bees to your garden by planting certain flowers (usually white or purple ones) to which they are particularly attracted. Some scented plants also help to attract bees. Another thing you can do to help bees in your local area is build a “bee hotel,” a structure with plenty of small holes for solitary bees to hole up in during the colder winter months.
Plenty of other insects, birds, and animals are beneficial in your garden for a number of reasons. Certain birds and hedgehogs will keep down your slug and snail populations, so it is always a good idea to feed the birds and leave piles of wood that make good hedgehog habitats. Predatory insects such as hoverflies and ladybirds will help you keep an aphid population down, and can be attracted with the addition of certain companion plants.
By using a no-dig (or minimal dig) gardening system, you will also be able to protect the hosts of beneficial micro-organisms and other creatures that live and work beneath the soil surface.
When growing organically, it is more important than ever to consider the renewable resources available to you, and how you use them. Not only should you return surplus and waste to the system by means of composting and plant feeds, but you should also consider harvesting rainwater for use on your garden when it is dry.
Rainwater can easily be harvested by attaching a rain barrel or other large container to the downspout on your home, shed, or another outbuilding. Rainwater is better for your garden than tap water, which may contain chlorine and other chemicals.
Your water requirements will be less if, during the summer months, you mulch well around your annual crops and give other plants shade in a forest garden set up. Exactly what water challenges you face will depend on where you live and the weather you are likely to experience.
Recycle, Up-cycle, Make Do, and Mend
By recycling household items or turning old items into something new, you can create growing containers, tools, and even greenhouses or cloches to protect plants from the cold and prolong the growing season.
Old plastic food containers can serve as plant pots, sowing trays, and make-shift propagators for heat-loving seeds sown indoors. Toilet roll tubes are perfect for sowing seeds that do not like their roots to be disturbed. These young seedlings can be started indoors, and after hardening off, placed in the ground outside, cardboard tube and all. The toilet roll tubes will simply rot down and eventually become part of the growing medium. You can make a whole greenhouse with a wooden frame, some garden canes, and a whole load of plastic 2 liter bottles. When you use your imagination, there is almost no limit to how you can use household waste products in your garden.
For those tools that you do require, it is often possible to acquire these second-hand from friends, family, or via the Internet. You can make do and mend; with time and effort, even old tools often can be made good again.
Buy Organic Seeds
So, you have been observing your garden, making plans, and accumulating the necessary items. Your garden beds are prepared, trees were planted in the dormant season over the winter, and now it is time to buy some seeds and watch them grow.
Even the most experienced gardener will not be able to grow tropical plants on an exposed northern site nor moisture-loving plants in an area which experiences summer drought. If you have done your planning and research, you will know which plants are likely to thrive and which might survive where you live. Make sure you only buy organic seeds suitable for your climactic and soil conditions.
Grow only those things which you will admire, use, or eat. If your family does not particularly like peas, then do not bother to grow any. If you go through a lot of potatoes, grow those instead.
Organic gardening comes down to trial and error, but if you note your mistakes and your triumphs, you are sure to be able to increase your yield annually. Even gardeners who have been doing it for years do not meet with 100-percent success. Do not be discouraged or afraid to try. Organic gardening is easier than you might imagine.