The first question people ask us about our Organic Garden is how to make sure that it is organic from the “get-go”. We tell them that Rule #1 is no synthetic chemicals. Hopefully, you haven’t used chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides like Roundup on the area of your lawn within about a 20′ radius from where you’ll be planting. If you have used chemicals on or around the future spot of your new garden patch, there are a couple of things you can do.
First of all, stop using the chemicals immediately! It takes about a full year for residential chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to degrade and disappear from your lawn. If you’ve purchased a farm where chemicals were used, it can take up to three years for the commercially-applied chemicals to disappear from your soil.
For the home organic gardener who doesn’t want to wait a full year to start their organic garden, you may want to consider creating an Organic Raised Bed Garden. In fact, some people prefer raised bed gardening for a variety of reasons.
Wendy and I considered creating raised beds, but with all of the extra soil that we would need, raised bed gardening was cost prohibitive for us. Since our expertise only extends to traditional In-Ground and Container Gardening, we can’t be of much assistance. However, after doing some research today while writing this article, to help start you off, I’ve picked two great pieces for you to read from, “Organic Gardening”.
Raised Bed Gardening: An instructional beginner’s how-to guide, covering Organic, Raised Bed Gardening.
Five Raised Beds: This article illustrates how to construct several different types of Organic Raised Beds.
ORGANIC SOIL AMENDMENTS
Starting with your soil amendments, you will need to make sure that they come from a clean, sustainable source. Not only your soil amendments, but your fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides as well.
The very best way to build up your soil nutritionally, is with organic compost which you can make yourself from yard/food waste, non-GMO containing but preferably organic manure or composted soil, using fresh cut grass clippings (only from lawns that do not utilize chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides) or you can purchase what you need prepackaged, at the local home center or nursery. Many communities have composting centers where you can get as much compost as you want, for free. However, if you’re going to keep it organic, you’ll need to consider what may be inside of that community compost pile.
Each year, we add about one inch of a 50/50 mixture of Organic Manure/Humus, which costs a little over $5.00 for a 1.5cuft bag. We have discovered that some of our plants have a hard time of rooting deeply, due to the thick “clay” layer that’s under our dark black topsoil. However, we’ve been adding not only the organic manure/humus over the past three years, but for the past two years, we’ve been adding in about 2″ to 3″ of Organic Garden Soil.
As noted above, for the past two years, in addition to the manure/compost mixture added in order to soften up the clay and feed the soil, we added a few inches of organic garden soil, which also runs a little over $5.00 for a 1.5cuft bag. If you don’t have a roto-tiller, digging deeply using only a shovel takes more effort than one thinks. Instead of using a shovel, consider getting yourself a Cultivating Fork.
We bought one last summer and it really cuts the work in half if you’re hand tilling. It’s especially helpful when trying to break up the clay and mixing in the compost, manure and/or soil. Don’t confuse a Cultivating Fork with a Pitch Fork. A Cultivating Fork’s tines are much thicker and shorter, in fact, the handle of the Cultivating Fork is shorter as well.
After transplanting/sprouting is complete, it’s time to mulch. The main reason that we use mulch, is for weed control. The secondary reason is to help keep the soil moist. When we created our first Organic Garden in the Summer of 2012, we used grass clippings exclusively for mulch, however we continued to get more weeds than expected.
What we found out is that the grass clipping method only works well if you continue to mulch with grass clippings. You must do this over the entire season, as grass clippings degrade pretty quickly. Weeding the first year was very time-intensive for Wendy, so we had to find a better way.
During the Winter months, Wendy and I spend a lot of time researching sustainable gardening practices. What we learned about prior to our Spring planting in 2013, was the “Newspaper and Straw” method of mulching.
We have also learned that some people prefer grass clippings over newspaper in place of the straw, but you’ll need to keep replacing with fresh grass clippings. Dry grass clippings over newspaper will blow away, leaving the newspaper to dry out and possibly blow away as well. With the heat we’ve had so far during late Spring/early Summer, those clippings dry out quickly. It was too much additional work each week for us, so we immediately went back to using straw, which you don’t have to replace during the season.
Note that, in one case, grass is preferable to straw. Gardeners who find that they have an issue with snails in their garden, may find that putting down straw will attract even more snails. In this case they prefer to use grass or sometimes a fine hardwood mulch. As Wendy and I find straw to be the method-of-choice for our purposes, if you do have a snail problem, you may want to find an organic solution to remediate, so that you can use straw as well, as we are having great success with it this season in regard to weed control and water retention!
If you have a small yard like ours, it’s not easy keeping up with all the grass clippings that need to be replaced. We have an option to ask neighbors who don’t use chemical lawn treatments, along with dangerous pesticides/herbicides like Roundup, for their grass clippings, however it is just too time consuming for us.
Once all of your transplants are in, or once your seedlings start sprouting; it’s time for mulching. You can get a bail of Straw from your local livestock feed store, nursery or at most local Home Centers. Straw costs between $8.00 and $9.00 per bail in our area, probably cheaper near a farming community. The bails are very compacted, so you’ll have more Straw than you think! The first season we bought two bails and had to return one.
Make sure you buy “Straw” and not “Hay”! Why? Because Hay has seeds and adds the nutritional value to livestock feed. Straw has the seeds removed and it has no nutritional value for livestock.
This is how I remember which to use – Hay is what livestock eat and Straw is what they poop on. 😉
First, we lay sheets of newspaper on the ground, about six sheets thick, from a few inches away from the main stalk of the transplant like we did, to about one foot away from the main stalk if you plan to fertilize mid-season. Next we saturate the newspaper with water. Then we add about 2″ to 3″ of Straw over the Newspaper. Finally, spraying plenty of water on the Straw, which helps to start compacting the straw so that nothing blows away.
Now many of you may be asking if you have to remove the Newspaper/Straw in order to feed your plants during the season. If you leave that 12″ circle around your transplants as noted above, you’ll be able to gently scratch up the surface a little before adding dry or liquid fertilizer to the exposed soil. Once you’ve been adding Organic Compost/Manure and/or Composted Garden Soil for a few years, it’s most likely you’ll never have to do mid-season fertilizing going forward.
Because compost takes years to release it’s nutrition, after three years of adding the soil amendments, most organic gardens will have all the nutrition a plant may need for the entire growing season (except in cases of mid-season Nitrogen deficiency)!
NITROGEN FOR GREEN-UP
Other than the color differences you may see regarding new growth versus mature leaves and stems, if the “green” in your established leaves and stems start turning a lighter shade of green or yellow-green, it may mean that your plant is lacking Nitrogen. Large plants like Tomatoes and Squashes can easily deplete the Nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is abbreviated using the letter “N”; the letter designation of this element is taken from the Periodic Table of Elements you learned about in your Chemistry class. Nitrogen is also the first number you see in the “N-P-K” (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) designation on your fertilizer box, bottle or bag.
Nitrogen is what gets your plants going as they sprout and they help keep it “green”. Although I will be writing an article on replacing nutrients in the future, the only type of product that we use for adding Nitrogen, is a fertilizer made from fish, called “Fish Emulsion”. You’ll use about 1 tablespoon per gallon of water, then use the correct amount for each particular plant.
Note that another reason for yellowing leaves may be over-watering. Before adding Nitrogen to your soil, stick your finger in the ground. Is the soil wet and a bit soggy just under the surface? If that’s the case, you are over-watering. Once your transplants are established, you’ll only need to water your garden about once per week. If you get a good, soaking rain that week, you will not need to water at all! So make sure to check for over-watering before adding a Nitrogen-only fertilizer to your soil.
PREPPING IN THE FALL MAKES LESS WORK IN THE SPRING
What we’ve learned, but have not been able to do the last two years due to circumstances beyond our control, was to split up the Spring soil amendment work by preparing the soil in the Fall. We’re going to try again this year, by setting a mid-October deadline, even if the plants are still growing fruit.
After pulling out your spent garden plants at the end of the season, mix in your organic compost, mulch and/or garden soil, as you would in the Spring. Then, cover the garden plot with black landscape plastic, held down by landscaping spikes or staples. This way, the soil has all winter to mix in and start distributing nutrients. The black plastic will help keep the ground underneath it a little warmer, thereby speeding up the compost breakdown/nutrition creation process.
This means that by the time Spring rolls around, all you’ll need to do is remove the plastic (clean off, dry out and save for next year), use the cultivating fork to loosen the soil and your other garden tools for smoothing out the soil, making rows, etc. At that point, all you will need to do is to plant your seeds and transplanting your several week-old seedlings! Since most of the work in your veggie garden will happen in the Spring, doing this procedure in the Fall, really helps make the Spring planting season much less tedious.
Some people prefer to put down a “Cover Crop”, usually grains, grasses or legumes, similar to what some sustainable farmers do. For example, you can plant organic Alfalfa, immediately after removing your end-of-season plants. Some will till this cover crop directly into the ground in the Spring and the Alfalfa will compost and release it’s nutrients into the soil. The cover crop will help deter weeds as well. If legumes are used, they will help build up Nitrogen in the soil for your Spring planting.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Even though we’ve been using just about the same soil amendment process year to year, Wendy and I both crave as much gardening knowledge as we can get our hands on. We love to experiment, so we try different growing techniques, different types of plant species or heirloom hybrids, and different types of organic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, until we get to a point where we believe we’ve perfected our soil and until we find the perfect types of vegetables and fruits to grow in our garden plots.
Keeping within this mindset and in order to help get you started on your organic gardening path, I came across a great article this week, published in 2008, by “Mother Earth News“, which stimulated me to write this article for you. It’s a must read for the Beginner Organic Gardener, as well as experienced gardeners who want to start utilizing sustainable, organic practices. The piece discusses feeding your soil in detail, along with a good comparative list of fertilizers/soil amendments based on price and type. Let’s make this your first homework assignment on your path to growing your Organic future. Pat yourself on the back for making this decision to grow organically, you rock!
Via Mother Earth News: Build Better Garden Soil With Free Organic Fertilizers!
In the weeks to follow, we will be publishing more articles on feeding your garden, keeping it safe and chemical-free by utilizing organic practices for eliminating garden pests, getting control over your weeds and what to do for specific disease infestations, as well as above-ground gardening methods that we’re experimenting with this year. We’ll teach you how to build and grow food in a vertical pallet, as well as using “Air-Pruning” for container gardening. We will also discuss new vegetables, herb varieties and edible flowers that we’ve added to our garden this year!
© 2014 – 2015, Ready For The Shift. ™ Wendy & Greg Zangari, All rights reserved. Permission is granted to copy and redistribute these articles on the condition that the content remains complete and in tact, full credit is given to the author(s), and that it is distributed freely.