Organic gardening is an activity that’s fun, productive, and good for our environment, but it’s really nothing new. In fact, until the development of chemical pesticides and herbicides, organic gardening was the only type of gardening possible. The first synthetic pesticide was the infamous DDT, created relatively recently in 1939.
DDT and other harmful pesticides and herbicides quickly become immensely popular, but they’ve never become intelligent enough to kill only the bad bugs. Pesticides generally kill many beneficial insects and animals. In 1962, concern over these chemicals prompted Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring, which predicted the destruction of our planet’s fragile ecosystems if pesticide use continued.
Since then, pesticides have come under great criticism, but they have not gone away. They have also not become any safer, despite of claims to the contrary from their manufacturers.
By definition, organic gardening is very simple. It means nothing more than using no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides on your garden. True organic farmers go even farther. They care for their land in ways that range from composting to no-till agriculture. As a small organic gardener, you’re not likely to employ the same methods as commercial organic farmers, but learning how they do it may help you garden successfully.
What You Need
Obviously, your first requirement is to find a small piece of ground. You’ll be amazed at how much you can grow in a small plot. You’ll also be amazed at how much work that small plot demands, so start small. How small is the right size? If you have no gardening experience, 20’ X 20’ will be enough to keep you busy all summer. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go any bigger, but be aware that gardening is more work than it may appear to be.
The first place to look for ground is your own yard, and if that isn’t possible, try your municipality. Around the world, community gardens provide people with ground for growing crops. On top of that, community gardens are social experiences and learning opportunities. Gardeners are usually happy to share their knowledge and their harvests. The only drawback to a community garden is that you may find yourself doing more talking than digging!
Once you find your ground, you’ll need a few tools. At community gardens, the municipality often prepares the soil, but if you’re in your own backyard, you may need to rent a tiller to turn the soil. If your yard is now grass, you can turn it and then remove the big chunks of sod. Then, you’ll be ready to put seeds and/or plants into the ground. You’ll also want a digging shovel, a hoe, a rake, a hand trowel, and a wheelbarrow. Once you start gardening, you’ll realize that some other tools can be very helpful.
Every animal from rabbits to deer enjoys an organic garden, so you may want to fence your garden to keep the critters out. A short fence will keep the rabbits and groundhogs out, but deer are spectacular leapers who can easily get over most fences. The best way to keep them from feasting on your work is to use a spray that smells awful. You can find these sprays at your garden store.
Your next step is to decide what you want to grow, and your answers to a few questions will help you choose your plants or seeds. First, what do you like to eat? Suppose you love tomatoes. You can certainly grow them almost anywhere, but do you want to grow the same varieties of tomatoes as you can buy in any store? There’s nothing wrong with that, but tomatoes come in hundreds of varieties in many colors and shapes that you’ll never find in a store. Growing some of those varieties will enable you to enjoy new flavors and to amaze your friends with tomatoes that are black, pink, purple, orange, and green when ripe.
It’s the same with every vegetable and flower that you can grow. Your choices are heirloom plants and hybrids. Heirlooms are the original plants – the ones that God/Nature originally made. Hybrids are the creations of geneticists. In search of higher yields, uniformity of harvest dates, disease resistance, and many other traits, scientists splice genes to combine the best of different varieties. Both types of plants have their advantages. The one area in which heirlooms often have a big advantage is flavor. Breeders can affect the appearance of vegetables, and since we buy with our eyes, appearance is important. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t always round and red, but they always taste good.
Plants or Seeds?
For many crops, you can buy plants or seeds. Which will give you the better chance for gardening success? The general answer is plants, because they will yield sooner than seeds. For example, if you live in Pennsylvania and plant tomato seeds on May 1, you’ll be fortunate to harvest anything by August 1. However, if you put tomato plants into the ground on May 1, you may be picking tomatoes by June 15.
For some crops, seeds are your only real option. Corn is one example, and potatoes are another. For almost everything else, you can either buy plants, or you can start them yourself indoors a month or more before you can plant outdoors. It’s easy to start plants – just get your seeds, some planting soil, and some pots. Put the seeds in the soil and water them. To help your seeds turn into strong and healthy plants, be sure that they get all available sunlight, or buy a grow light and put it over your plants.
Your next consideration is where you live. If you’re in Minnesota, your growing conditions will be drastically different from the conditions in Georgia, as will the length of your growing season. This means that plants that require a 180-day growing season may not flourish in a cold climate. This isn’t much of a concern, though. Regardless of where you live, you’ll find seeds and plants that will do well in your area at your local garden supply store. To get an idea of the length of the growing season in your area, look for your Zone on this map.
What To Grow?
We all like instant gratification, and that’s something that doesn’t exist in gardening. Nothing grows in 24 hours. Still, it’s nice to plant some things that grow relatively quickly, and here are a few suggestions:
French Breakfast Radish – These are often ready to pick in as few as 25 days, and they have much less of a bite than many other radishes.
Mustard Greens – These can be ready in 25 days. However, if you want them to reach their full heat level, let them get much bigger. Mustard greens have an interesting kick. It can resemble horseradish, but it doesn’t linger, and it’s always fun to watch someone eating mustard greens for the first time.
Lettuces – Full heads take a while, but tender young leaves can be ready in less than a month.
It’s nice to have a harvest that begins early and lasts late (or all year if you’re in a warm enough climate). Even if you have only one item from your garden at any meal, you’ll be happy to have that item. To make that possible, you can take several steps. One is to stagger your plantings by putting in seeds or plants every week or two. With greens, for example, you don’t need a lot of space to get a good harvest. Plant one 3-foot row every week, and you’ll have fresh salad fixings all season. Another step is to plant varieties of the same plant with different maturity dates. For example, Bloody Butcher tomato varietal matures early (and sometimes yields until frost), while Brandywine takes much longer.
With potatoes, you never know what you’re getting until you start digging. That’s because the edible part of the potato plant grows underground. It’s always exciting to start digging and find big, beautiful potatoes. Here’s a tip on growing potatoes: in many areas, you can get two plantings of potatoes in a growing season. Potatoes take about 90 days to mature, but you may not be able to find seed potatoes for your second planting. So, buy enough seed potatoes for two plantings in the spring and keep half of your seed potatoes in the refrigerator until you harvest your first crop.
A Few Fun Facts
Peas and beans are first cousins with one major difference: peas favor cooler weather, while beans like it hot. Plant peas as soon as you can get them into the ground, and beans after the ground warms.
Most foods have moved around the world, and it’s interesting to learn where they originated.
We often hear the phrase “As American As Apple Pie”, even though the apple came from Central Asia.
The tomato is the focal point of Italian cooking, but the tomato originated in South and Central America.
The Scoville scale is the accepted method of measuring the heat level of hot peppers. Jalapeños, which have a nice kick, check in at 10,000 SHUs, while the Carolina Reaper, the world’s hottest pepper, measures 2.2 million SHUs, or 220 times hotter than a jalapeño. If you grow any hot peppers, handle with care, and be sure not to rub your eyes after handling them.
Your very own organic garden will bring you everything from delicious food to social interactions to a great new hobby to your life. So, find a plot of ground and some plants or seeds, and get down in the dirt.