31 January 2011

Organic Gardening [Wherever You Live]


I am thinking about gardening on this cold, snowy day in January. I have a Midwest friend wanting to start her first organic garden this year.

She asked me some great questions.

I have 7 years of gardening experience to pull from, but because I have learned a lot but still have a lot to learn, I thought pulling some organic thoughts from my neighbor J, who has country-gardened for 60 years, and from my heavy-organic-reading friend M, who has city-gardened for 3 years, would be worthwhile.

To piggy back on one of M's comments below, organic gardening is an experiment. So many times I wish I had a mentor organic gardener to work along side me on our property to save me the trouble of my mistakes. Yet, I have learned much from trial and error and by talking with professionals in my local nurseries and any of my friends and family getting their hands dirty regularly in the soil, too. I hope that our suggestions are helpful, even in a few ways, for my Midwest friend and for anyone who would like some guidance in the wonderful, challenging world of organic growing. Keep the questions coming if anything else comes to mind, and I love your comments as I am learning and simply love the topic:

Do you have any good books that you can recommend on the subject?

J: the Rodale Organic Gardening magazine
M: Organic Farming by Peter V. Fossel, Square Foot Gardening (1970s version, preferably) by Mel Bartholomew, Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich, and New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
Lulu: your local Cooperative Extension and Master Gardeners in your county (search online for their websites & contact information)

Where do you get the plants from? Do you grow everything from seed or do you have a source for some plants that are already growing?

J: Burpe seed, Guerny seed, Burgess seed catalogs (look for local seed companies, whenever possible, for plants suitable to your location)
M: look for local companies
Lulu: Local nurseries are all I have used so far, but there are some great seed catalogs out there that I'd like to start trying. The more I have become comfortable with gardening the fewer small plants I have purchased. J has a greenhouse for early indoor growing. M uses fluorescent lights in her basement. I have used my window sills for my early season indoor growing and, although I use very little space, have had really good success! A small greenhouse is a dream of mine though!

Do seeds need to be organic or does it not matter?

J: preparation (nutritional makeup) of my soil is most important and treating problems with non-chemical methods
M: not so much worried about always having organic seed; having healthy, organic soil, using non-treated seed (some are chemically coated), using non-GMO seed, and keeping "seed diversity"/variety in my garden are most important
Lulu: I pick up organic when I can, but I use regular seed and am happy to know that I am taking regular, non-GMO seed in the direction of organic.

How much do I need to worry about watershed? For example, we live in town so we, and I'm sure many of our neighbors, use fertilizer. Does this affect what I am doing in the garden on our property?

J: If the location of your garden is in the flow of drainage or run-off, you can build a buffer of some kind.
M: To protect the garden from unwanted water flow, look into berms for catching the water with recommended cleaning, scrubber plants for your area or consider redirecting the flow with a swale.
Lulu: Speaking for us all, if you are gardening organic, start treating as much, if not all, of your lawn needs/problems organically, and wouldn't it be nice if your neighbors are doing the same thing! Our county sprays our road ditches with chemicals to treat weeds, but I am learning that I can call the county and have my property line untouched on "spray day" (signs would be posted on our border noting our area is off limits). It doesn't solve everything, but little by little, it's moving in the right direction!

What can I use as far as plant food? I had used Miracle Grow previously but is something like that off limits in organic gardening?

J: have used organic chicken doo-doo--keep in mind with any manure, it's important what has been fed to the animals, and if they have had shots, it will be apart of this "food" for your soil. More than fertilizing during the growing season, I prepare my soil prior with unsprayed, dead leaves and grass clippings, manure, and kitchen compost.
M: have been experimenting here--use a high nitrogen with carbon mix, leaves, clippings, organic manure to prepare the soil for the growing season
Lulu: I have a kitchen compost bin that I add to a horse manure pile. That with dead leaves and grass clippings is the make up of our "food" for the garden for the most part.

Any other tip or things I should know?

J: Don't do a whole lot at once. Start small and build each year.
M: It's always an experiment! Remember the big picture is about "feeding the soil" in organic gardening. Jerry Baker has a book full of kitchen "recipes" (many of which are organic) for treating plant problems.
Lulu: I'll repeat: start small and build each year in fun, manageable ways. Look into what kinds of organic mulching are successful in gardens in your area; I am finding garden mulching to be essential over here. Have fun!