How To Start An Organic Garden

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Associated Content, by Ilene Springer:

If grown properly, your organic garden will produce higher quality, healthier foods '" and will be good for the environment and wildlife.

Many people have high hopes for starting their own organic garden and reaping a small harvest from it. The problem is that many don't really know what an organic garden is. Organic gardening is more than popping some seeds in the ground and letting them grow "naturally." If grown properly, your organic garden will produce higher quality, healthier foods—and will be good for the environment and wildlife. But it will take planning and work. Here's what you need to know to get a green organic thumb.

Know the facts. The definition of organic gardening varies among gardeners, but most agree that it means growing fruits, vegetables and flowers without using any chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, and using practices that are ecologically harmonious, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You'll still have to get rid of weeds, fertilize your plants and stop bugs from eating them. You will still have to go out and supervise it every day, and dig just like you would with any garden.

Start with a small plot. Begin your garden in a window box or in a few containers until you're more confident. If you want a larger site, a 4-by-4-foot garden is enough room. Don't plant too much. Plan your yield in terms of meals per person instead of some vague amount of produce.

Seek advice from other organic gardeners. Not sure what to plant? Ask your neighbors what they're growing, or research what plants thrive in your region of the country. Try to grow what other organic gardeners are growing locally; that's what you'll have the best luck with. When you decide what you want to grow, find out if your potential site meets the needs of your plants in terms of light and temperature. The best is a site that gets at least half a day of sunshine and has easy access to water. Also consider a place that gets good drainage.

Make a compost pile. Compost is a "mixture" of mulch (any material placed over the soil to retain moisture, keep out weeds and prevent erosion) and fertilizer. Composting—the breaking down of organic material—adds nutrients to the soil and helps with either retaining water (for sandy soil) or with drainage (clay soil). Compost is like a big multivitamin and mineral supplement for your soil. It also helps the environment by recycling yard and kitchen waste into a great soil enhancer. Use the following for your compost pile: fallen leaves, weeds and grass clippings (except those that have been treated with herbicides and pesticides). Avoid any meat, fat or bones, or feces from animals that eat red meat—these can spread disease and attract predators. And don't ever use bark mulch because it rots, robs the soil of nitrogen and attracts termites.

Get the best soil you can find. Go to a gardening center or to a friend or neighbor who farms to get your soil. This soil, in combination with your compost, is crucial to the success of your organic garden. The more compost you add to the topsoil, the better it is for your plants' absorption of nutrients, root system, and distribution of air and water.

Prepare to control weeds manually. What exactly are weeds? Weeds are any plants you don't want growing in your garden. Because you're not using chemicals to destroy weeds, you'll have to do it by hand. Use a hoe regularly to kill off the green parts of the weeds; this deprives them of the nourishment they need to grow. To make sure you don't destroy the plants you want, dig up the roots of the weeds by hand. Use a lot of mulch around your established plants; this helps to control weeds.

Remove insects by hand. This means inspecting your garden every day and wiping off bugs. You can remove some bugs—like fast-multiplying aphids—by using a stream of water.

Get some help from the birds and bees. There are a number of "good" insects and birds that will actually help your garden. Find out the conditions they like and invite them into your organic garden.


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