Organic Gardening Guide
for Greenhorns

You crave a connection to the earth. You're feeling the need to turn
seeds into veggies. But you haven't a clue how to begin. Well, don't despair.
Learn how you can grow your own.

By Lisa James

April 2005

One of the hot trends of the early seventies (along with way too much polyester) was the great back-to-the-land movement, which saw the children of plasticized suburbia donning overalls, moving to the country and living self-sufficiently off the (low) fat of the land. That’s when the notion of organic gardening—which uses natural methods to enhance soil, control weeds and restrain pests—really took off.

Today, organic growing has gone thoroughly mainstream, and plenty of suburban nine-to-fivers fit a spot of gardening into their busy schedules. You’ve been thinking about grabbing a hoe yourself, but don’t know where and how to begin. Well, with just a little bit of land and the basic information that follows, you’ll develop the proverbial green thumb (and you won’t even need overalls).

Planning Your Peas and Peppers

Eager as you may be to get digging, restrain your enthusiasm for just a moment. The biggest mistake beginners make is planting way more than they can care for—you don’t want the jewel of your April eye turning into a weedy, out-of-control eyesore by August. That’s why a little planning now can save you a lot of headaches later.

Top-Notch Tomatoes

If they grow nothing else, most gardeners cultivate tomatoes. And why not—a juicy tomato right off the vine is an exquisite dining sensation, especially when compared with the tasteless pasteballs that inhabit supermarket shelves. What’s more, tomatoes are almost ridiculously easy to grow (and are packed with lycopene, a red flavonoid associated with healthy hearts and prostates).

Tomatoes come in many styles: Classic round types, sandwich-stuffing beefsteaks, cute little cherries for salads, oblong paste varieties for sauces, tomatoes in yellow and other unusual hues. Your choice is wider if you grow from seed, but if this is your first garden, try transplant-ready seedlings first—ask about varieties that resist verticillium and fusarium wilts, diseases that can kill foliage and cut yields. There’s almost as many systems designed for staking tomatoes as there are tomato varieties; anything that keeps the fruits off the ground (where they are rot-prone) is fine.

When you transfer your baby plants to the garden patch, set them deep—the stems will sprout even more nutrient-lapping roots. But don’t overfeed your new pals unless you’d like lots of leaf and few fruits.

While not exactly organic, red plastic mulch appears to fool tomato plants into thinking they’re back in the tropical South American climes from whence their ancestors sprang, leading to earlier, larger yields. Just make sure the soil below stays moist, especially as the days heat up. (Southern gardeners may opt for organic mulches to avoid having the soil heat up even beyond a tomato plant’s comfort level.) One trick practiced by experienced growers is to remove the first flowers, which lets the plants throw all their energy into establishing strong, healthy root and leaf systems.

Pick the plants clean before first frost—
green tomatoes are great pickled or fried. Tomatoes will also ripen nicely in the house, giving you a taste of summer well into the fall.

Site selection comes first. Look for a spot that gets at least six hours a day of full sun, preferably in the morning, and remember to account for shadows falling from trees once they’re in full leaf. Avoid low, boggy spots or areas subject to strong, desiccating winds. Instead of one large space, consider utilizing two smaller spaces.

Deciding what to plant is as simple as consulting your taste buds—what do you really want to eat?—and your stomach—how much can you eat? Few things are more disheartening to a new gardener than being unable to get everything picked and eaten before over-ripeness and decay set in.

Keep available space in mind; if you like beans, let’s say, but don’t want to trellis the pole varieties, stick with the self-contained bush types instead. Check with seed packets, catalogs and gardening books to learn how big a plant will eventually become, and plan accordingly. Such resources will also inform you about a plant’s particular needs in regards to:

* How much cold it can tolerate (or heat, especially if you live in a hot climate); call your local cooperative extension for first and last frost dates
* When it should be planted
* How much shade it can stand
* Its requirements for water and nourishment
* Possible pests and diseases

While not absolutely essential, especially for small plots, committing your proposed garden to graph paper does make it much easier to visualize what you’re doing. Eschewing standard garden rows for wide beds can help increase your yield, as can planting compatible plants together.

You can also get a lot more bang for your gardening buck by planting an early spring crop, featuring such cool-weather plants as peas, lettuce and radishes, followed by such warm-weather favorites as corn, tomatoes and peppers. But again, don’t let your plans run ahead of your resources, especially available time. If you think the garden you’ve lovingly planned will be too much to juggle with your other commitments, you’re probably right.

Dishing the Dirt

If you’re going to garden organically, rich soil is crucial to success. Garden-worthy soil has several things going for it:

* Great structure. Tightly compacted dirt makes it difficult for roots to push through and can become waterlogged after hard rains, while overly sandy soil dries out too quickly. Good soil is well-aerated without being too loose.
* Plenty of organic matter. Decayed plant material makes soil fertile and supports the creatures, such as earthworms, that help your garden grow.
* Proper pH. pH measures acidity/alkalinity in a range from 1.0 to 14.0. Most veggies like a fairly neutral soil, 6.0-7.0. (Potatoes are a notable exception, preferring a more acidic 4.5-6.0 range.)

A soil test can tell you a lot about your prospective garden’s health. For a nominal fee, your local cooperative extension will test for pH, nutrient levels and percentage of organic matter. To take a sample, scrape any leaf litter off a small patch of ground with a trowel and dig a hole six to eight inches deep. Then take a half-inch of soil from the side of the hole and place it in a bucket. Repeat this process at least six or seven times in several spots, and mix thoroughly with the trowel before packing the sample into a spillproof container and mailing it off.

Lime will correct overly acidic soils, while garden sulfur (easier to handle than ground sulfur) will make soil more alkaline. The best way to add nutrients and organic matter is to use compost. Heap leaves, grass clippings and other plant matter—even kitchen scraps—in a pile, water and turn regularly until they rot down into a rich humus. (You can just leave the pile alone after watering it if the extra work dismays you, although the process will take much longer.) If the neighbors might raise a ruckus over an open heap, enclose your compost pile in chicken wire or buy a prefabricated compost maker.

As a first-time gardener you’re not likely to have any compost on hand. That’s when a number of bagged organic soil amendments would come in handy:

* Blood and fish meals are good sources of nitrogen, which makes for vigorous foliage growth. Blood meal should be used sparingly—it’s strong stuff. Also, avoid adding too much nitrogen to areas that will support fruiting plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, to avoiding boosting leaf production at the expense of fruit production.
* Greensand provides potassium, which helps plants grow stocky and strong, along with a number of different trace nutrients; it also serves as a soil conditioner.
* Peat moss is a mildly acidic, spongy substance that allows soils to hold water without getting boggy.
* Manure provides both nutrients and organic matter. (Fresh manure can burn tender plants until it ages a bit and so is best applied at the end of the growing season.)
* Rock phosphate provides phosphorus, without which plants, especially tomatoes, become weak and take on a sickly purple color.

The best way to keep soil loose and workable is to build raised beds six to eight inches high with paths between (you can shovel the topsoil from the paths into the beds). Raised beds drain well and are easy to cultivate and weed, since the soil is never compacted by footsteps. Edging your beds in stone, brick or wood can make your garden both productive and attractive.

Ready, Set, Plant

To plant from seed, rake the bed smooth and level it off with the back of the rake. Then create planting furrows with either the rake or the edge of a piece of straight lumber and space the seeds as evenly as you can (roll tiny seeds between your thumb and first two fingers). Finish up by filling the furrows with soil and watering gently but thoroughly. If you’re not planting in rows, broadcast the seeds evenly over the bed surface, lightly rake them in and water. Be sure to mark your rows or beds with a stake.

If you’re transplanting seedlings, water your baby plants while they’re still in pots or flats. Rake the bed smooth and create evenly spaced holes, each about 1.5 times the size of the rootball. Then carefully remove each plant from its container and set it in its new home, firming soil around the roots as you go. When the hole is filled, create a soil ridge a couple of inches out from the stem and water thoroughly.

While all gardens require some weeding, the best way to keep unwanted plants at bay is to mulch your plants with either plastic sheeting or organic matter such as grass clippings or ground leaves. Black plastic is cheap and warms soil, but does not allow water in and is, shall we say, aesthetically challenged. Organic mulches not only allow water to sink in, but they also provide nutrients as they decay. One solution: Black plastic in the early spring for quick warmup followed by organic mulch for attractive, season-long weed suppression. Just be sure to keep adding to your mulch as it thins.

When weeds do poke through, try to remove them while they’re young and easy to manage (and haven’t yet set seed—you don’t need more of them!).

Little critters chomping on your crops are more challenging to deal with, but you don’t have to resort to pesticides. First, identify the beast by asking for help at your garden center or cooperative extension, or consult a printed guide or the Internet. This step will keep you from harming beneficial insects, such as ladybug larvae and parasitic wasps, which either eat interlopers or act as pest parasites. Some bugs, like caterpillars, can be knocked into cans of soapy water, while slugs and snails can be enticed into drowning their sorrows (and themselves) in a loosely covered dish of beer.

Check the undersides of leaves for egg masses, which can be hand-crushed (wear gloves if you find the thought distasteful). Swarms of small soft-bodied bugs, like aphids, can be done in with insecticidal soaps. If stronger measures are needed, use a biological control, like Bt, a caterpillar-infecting bacterium. Always be sure to follow package directions.

Keeping your garden well-watered helps avoid the interruptions in growth that stress plants and cut yields. If you use a standard sprinkler, leave it on long enough to provide an inch of water (use a tin can and a ruler to find out exactly how long it takes). Water in the early morning, if possible, to avoid evaporation loss and to give the plants a chance to dry out before nightfall. A good alternative is to use a soaker hose, which delivers water right to the root zone and reduces the risk of fungal diseases attacking wet foliage. Every couple of weeks, spray your plants with liquid fertilizer, either by mixing compost with water to make “tea” or by using such organic premixes as fish or seaweed fertilizer.

Finally, the day you’ve been waiting for—harvest time! The rule is “pick young, pick often”—younger crops are more flavorful and tender than baseball bat-sized zucchini or tough old lettuce leaves, and constant picking encourages constant production. The exceptions: Melons and tomatoes, which are at their flavorful best when dead-ripe, and such storage-bound crops as potatoes and onions, which are harvested after their tops die back.

So go ahead and indulge your senses in rich, ripe vegetables from your very own soil. After one bite you’ll realize that you’re not a greenhorn anymore and that gardening may become a consuming passion that will keep you contented for years to come.

Sources: The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey Books); The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith (Storey Books); Rodale’s Garden Answers: At-a-Glance Solutions for Every Gardening Problem (Rodale Press)



Buddy Up with Companion Planting

Life’s sweeter when you have a buddy, someone with whom you can share the good and the bad. Gardens work in a similar manner; some plants like sinking roots into the same soil based on compatible growing needs—short, sun-sensitive plants being shaded by taller neighbors, for example—and mutual pest protection. Companion planting also lets you harvest two crops from the same space.

Try Planting This…       With One of These
Bean                            Carrot, cauliflower, corn, marigold, strawberry
Broccoli                       Beet, lettuce, onion, spinach
Carrot                          Bean, cabbage, pea, pepper, radish, tomato
Cucumber                    Corn, dill, eggplant, lettuce, nasturtium, tomato
Pea                              Carrot, corn, potato, radish, spinach, turnip
Potato                          Cabbage, corn, marigold, parsnip, pea
Tomato                        Basil, carrot, cucumber, garlic, onion, pepper


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