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Your garden... organic gardening

Fast & Easy Info

  • Organic gardening involves a "whole system" approach to growing plants that begins with recycling natural materials back into the soil to maintain and increase soil fertility.
  • Organic gardeners strengthen their soil by adding compost, and by mulching (covering the top layer of soil with a couple inches of shredded wood bark, decomposed leaves, or grass clippings to retain moisture).
  • Rather than rely on synthetic pesticides and insecticides, organic gardening encourages natural methods of pest and disease control.
  • Organic gardeners strive to choose plants that are best suited to their soil type, climate and growing conditions because those plants will be less susceptible to disease and pests.
  • Organic gardeners usually grow a wide variety of plants. This diversity helps create a balance in the garden between pests and predators so that no pest builds up to an unacceptable level. A wide variety of plants also attracts an abundance of birds and insects, bringing the garden to life in a busy and productive way.
  • Gardening organically is a way to make your own backyard or landscape reflect the cleaner, greener world you want to live in.

Dollars & Sense Options

You can garden organically during any season of the year. Whenever you begin, you will save money on pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers you no longer need to buy.

  • Plan your garden - Pick a spot that gets as much sunshine as possible given the plants you want to grow. Vegetables need full sun. Flowers span the range of full sun to full shade; check the seed packet or plant catalog for guidance. Decide how large your garden plot will be. Consider not just how much space you have, but how much time you have. The larger the plot, the more time consuming it will be to manage. Does your spot drain well, or will you need to build a raised bed? Does it have access to water? Know what you're getting into before you plant the first seed.
  • Clear out the weeds - You'll probably need to dig them out, to be sure they're gone.
  • Add compost and other organic matter - If you're not impatient like me, you can test the soil first (send it to your county extension office). When you get the results back, you'll know how much of the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and/or potassium you'll need to add. You may need to add an inch of sharp sand if your soil is clay.
  • Rake your soil into beds or rows - Mulch it with shredded pine bark or other organic material. Leave the plot alone for about a month before you plant it.
  • Meanwhile, start a compost pile - Use leaves, grass clippings, other yard debris, and kitchen waste.
  • Pick your seeds and plants - Consider plants that grow well in your climate, such as native plants. Choose disease-resistant species for vegetables as well as ornamental plants.
  • Plant, then watch and weed - Plant your seeds and plants to maximize growth. Keep a hoe handy to scratch out weeds before they take over. Keep an eye out for insects and diseases so they don't become a problem.
  • Enjoy your garden! - Stroll through your garden every day. Position a chair, stool or bench close by so you can sit peacefully and watch the butterflies and bees enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Native plants are beautiful, hardy and once established require less maintenance than imports. Native flowers and grasses also function much like a natural system, with diverse plants providing food and shelter for a host of birds, butterflies and beneficial insects. Here's more information about planting native plants in your garden. To find a native plant society in your region, contact the Native Plant Information Network.

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In My House

I've been gardening organically for almost thirty years. When I was in graduate school, I managed two community gardens for the city of Ann Arbor , Michigan . My first few years here in Washington , D.C. , I lived in an apartment, but I shared a large community garden plot with some friends. Now at my own house, I grow a wide variety of flowers and shrubs. In the summer, I cultivate a few rows of lettuce and beans, too - I used to raise more vegetables in the summer, but my trees cast so much shade in the yard that I've had to give up on anything that needs more than six hours of sunlight a day.

I love everything about gardening except the weeding! When I first started with this current garden, the patch was covered with bamboo, and the soil was thick with clay. We've added heaps of compost to it over the years, dug out all the bamboo, and planted it with a variety of vegetables and flowers. The soil is loose and rich now, though I always want to see more worms in it. The garden is a good place to go to get away from the hectic pace of the rest of my life - and it really grows a great bowl of beans.

What Else?

I love knowing I'm not putting anything on my garden that I wouldn't want to come back into my body. But to be honest, gardening organically can be challenging at times. It requires a lot more vigilance than gardening with chemicals. You need to keep a sharp eye on your plants and make sure you control pests before an infestation gets out of control. Weeding by hand is more time consuming than spraying the little buggers with herbicide from a hose - though I think it's more relaxing, too. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, it's easy to get organic seeds and garden supplies, and to find help when I have a question my local garden supply shop can't answer.

Message for Moms

Getting your kids to plant their own organic garden is a great way to introduce them to how Nature works. Here's how you can have fun and teach your children about the growing season at the same time:

* Make a teepee . Prop several 6' long sticks against each other in teepee fashion, secured at the top with rope or twine and dug into the dirt a couple of inches so they'll stay put. Plant several pole beans around the base of each stick. When the beans climb up the pole, they'll make a thick, leafy teepee. The kids can sit inside and eat their snack right from the vines.

* Grow a salad bowl . Have the kids plant lettuce, radishes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. Make sure they keep an eye out for lettuce-loving slugs. If any show up, trap them in a lid or dish filled with beer.

* Plant a butterfly garden. The Enchanted Learning website offers step-by-step instructions here.

For more ideas, browse Kid's Gardening: A Kid's Guide to Messing Around in the Dirt/With Seeds, Shovel

Or surf on over to the BBC's Gardening with Children website.


Your Garden links...

How to Compost
Organic Gardening
Native Plants