Introductory Organic Gardening

What does it mean to garden organically?
Gardening without the use of synthetic fertilizers or synthetic pesticides.
Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables,
flowers, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic
agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and
heritage-species preservation. Organic horticulture (or organic gardening) is
based on knowledge and techniques gathered over thousands of years. In
general terms, organic horticulture involves natural processes, often taking
place over extended periods of time, and a holistic approach – while
chemical-based horticulture focuses on immediate, isolated effects and
reductionist strategies. (from Wikipedia)
Why is Growing Organically Important?
— Commercial (conventional) agriculture uses primarily non-renewable
petroleum-based inputs to promote growth and prevent pests. This method
of farming degrades the soil, primarily by using up the organic matter in the
soil which supports soil life. Chemical fertilizers function as short-term plant
boosters, but have the long-term effect of destroying the soil’s ability to
support life. Synthetic fertilizers caused chemical changes in the soil that
damage its’ structure, kill beneficial microbiotic life, and greatly reduce its
ability to make nutrients already available in the air and soil available to
Healthy soil is composed of millions of micro-organisms, decomposers, and
earth worms that process organic matter into basic plant food. Healthy soils
actually grow more nutrient rich foods! (ex: chemical fertilizers are
analogous to consuming vitamins instead of food. Like humans, plants need
an abundance of nutrients in varying amounts. By providing ample organic
matter such as compost and manure, we provide a virtual salad bar where
plants can take what they need and leave the remainder for the next crop.)
*Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for
each pound of food produced. United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18
times faster than the soil formation rate.*
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not only dangerous for the
farmer/gardener applying them and the consumer eating the foods, but they
also runoff into drainages that lead directly to our rivers and oceans,
destroying ecosystems that we rely upon.
Why Mulch?
Mulch performs many important functions in the garden.
1) Preserves soil moisture
2) Suppresses weed growth
3) Moderates soil temperature (good for soil life)
4) Prevents erosion
5) Adds nutrients/organic matter
There are endless sources of good mulch that can be found for free around
the beaches. Brown leaves are the best you can find, as they will break
down over the season, providing nutrient for the following season, they don’t
have to be trucked in (low carbon footprint!) as they fall directly into our
yards, they don’t run the risk of carrying termites, red ants, or other pests
like packaged mulch, and you don’t have to support an industry that may be
cutting down trees unnecessarily.
Why are legumes important in late summer?
All beans, peas, and quite a few tree species are members of the legume
family. Legumes are unique in the plant world for their ability to convert
atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into Nitrate (N3), a form of nitrogen that plants
can utilize as food. This is achieved through a special relationship legume
roots have with soil fungus. We want to continue to improve the soil at the
community garden for generations to come! When you have extra space, or
during the off-season (here it’s late summer), it’s great to plant cow peas or
another cover crop!
Growing Soil- Cover Crops and Compost
Since organic gardening depends on growing healthy soil, giving the soil a
rest during the down season is important. These cow peas serve as a “cover
crop” which will not only feed the soil and possibly provide us beans to eat,
but serve as a plentiful source of compost material or “green manure”.
Composting is absolutely the most important part of organic gardening. This
is the process of controlled decomposition, whereby we are creating and
growing healthy soils over time. While chemical fertilizers provide an instant
boost, over the long term the soil is unable to grow food without these
inputs. With organic growing methods, we are actually improving the soil
quality over the years and should expect better yields year after year.
Composting is very simple. We are just creating an environment for our
decomposers to live:
1) There should be even layers of “green” (nitrogen) and “brown”
(carbon) materials. You can layer them just like lasagna. Green is
any freshly cut plants, manure, and food scraps (no meat or dairy).
Brown is just that- brown materials such as dried leaves or other
brown yard waste.
2) It should be wet, but not too wet— the consistency of a wrung
3) It should be turned regularly to allow air flow. Every 2-3 weeks is
At the community garden, we will train those who are interested in helping
with the compost and assign months when those people are responsible for
adding new material and turning the compost. Everyone else should just add
their materials to the appropriate “green” or “brown” bin.
Soil Compaction
Our raised beds are generally accessible on all sides from the paths. It is
important to keep the soil loose and fluffy for good water, air, nutrient and
root penetration. Earthworms do a fantastic job of creating loose soil as they
travel through the soil. When we place our weight on a bed, we are
essentially taking a step backward in our soil building process. The best
answer to this is to plant things in hard to reach areas which you will only
harvest from occasionally (cabbages, broccoli, eggplant, etc.) and plant
things close to the path that you will harvest from regularly (salad greens,
herbs, cherry tomatoes, etc.). You can also place stepping stones in key
areas so that you minimize compaction in other areas.
Approved organic amendments and pest treatments
While your raised beds have been amended with composted manure and
organic sifted top soil, it will still be a process to grow well-balanced soil life.
We recommend that you amend the planting hole each time you put a plant
in the ground. Some inputs:
1) Compost- see above
2) Composted Manure- Cow, horse, chicken. Fresh manure needs to
decompose before being added to your garden bed. Soil decomposers
use nitrogen as they decompose and you don’t want this process to tie
up much needed nitrogen in your garden bed. Be aware that horse
manure may contain weed seed.
3) Lime- Lime, limestone, horticultural lime, hydrated lime, dolometic
lime. Lime is incorporated into the soil to raise pH. This makes the
soil less acidic, often making soil nutrients easier for plant roots to
uptake. Lime also provides calcium to the soil. Calcium is a
necessary nutrient that is often deficient in our beaches area soils.
Tomatoes and cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, zucchinis, etc.) are
particularly affected by calcium deficiency and will experience ‘blossom
end rot’ without added lime.
4) Bone Meal- calcium
5) Blood Meal- nitrogen
6) Seed Meal- Cotton, alfalfa, etc. Primarily nitrogen.
7) Chitin- Soil nematodes are microscopic worms that feed on root
tissue. Nematodes are abundant in our sandy soils. Increasing
organic matter in your soil helps reduce their numbers. In addition,
it’s advisable to use chitin, which is the primary structural component
in the outer shells of most arthropods (crabs, lobsters, crayfish,
shrimp) as well as beetles and a host of other insects. In the soil,
chitin’s sharp, rough texture can literally cut nematodes into ribbons.
It is also a food source for fungus that prey upon soil nematodes—
double whammy!
8) Milorganite- Composted Milwaukee sewage. Sounds pretty gross but
it is totally safe and a great organic fertilizer. Doesn’t even smell!
9) Fish Emulsion- A by-product of the fishing industry, this is a water
soluble, non-burning fertilizer that can be used on a regular basis
(once weekly or every 3rd watering) to boost soil fertility!
Organically, the best way to control pests is to keep a good eye on
your plants. If you notice a leaf being eaten or something funky,
investigate it! Look on the undersides of leaves for worms or
caterpillars, look in damp spots for snails, look on new growth for
aphids… and smash ‘em! It’s a little tough at first, but smashing
bugs is just part of the process. You have a responsibility to the
garden as a whole keep an eye on your garden and control pests as
you see them. When smashing isn’t enough, try the following.
Note- you should only apply pesticides in the evening, when the sun
won’t burn your leaves.
1) Neem- This is a natural oil from the Neem tree, which grows in the
tropics. It is an effective solution for SO many things, such as aphids,
white flies, powdery mildew, army worms, etc.
2) Pyrethrin- Use with care. Organic does not always mean non-toxic.
Read label. Often combined with Neem oil. Used for many pests.
3) BT- trade name Dipel or thuricide. Bacillius thuringensis. This is a
bacteria that specifically targets caterpillars.
4) Insecticidal Soap- Made with 1 tablespoon liquid soap per gallon of
water (biodegradable soap recommended). Works best on softbodied
insects such as aphids, spider mites, thrips.
Common Pests in the beaches area:
• Aphids- Usually on new growth or under leaves. Can smash with
fingers to control.
• White Flies- undersides of leaves. Can place a yellow card with
petroleum jelly on a stick—they are attracted to it and get stuck to the
• Cabbage looper- Usually around in the winter on cabbage family
plants. Check for a small green caterpillar on the undersides of leaves.
Can smash with fingers to control.
• Army worms- Will devastate tomato plants and others in summertime.
Small, green, with two black stripes. Undersides of leaves. Smash,
smash, smash…. Bt, bt, bt.
• Squash borer- In the tips of vines or in the actual fruit— squash,
cucumber, etc. Look for dead vine tips or a small pile of flesh eaten
out near a small hole on the fruit. Slice open the vine or fruit to find
him and smash.
• Leaf Nematodes- create trails in leaves. Usually not a big deal.
• Powdery Mildew- white, powdery looking substance on leaves.
Usually on squash, zucchini, cucumbers. Use neem early as
prevention and destroy infected leaves.
• Thrips- tiny, oblong. They eat pollen, causing blossoms to fall off
instead of become pollinated and fruit. If suspected, tap the blossom
above your hand to see if they fall out. Smash them.