Grow healthy food in
Gardening tips: The Helpful Gardener promotes healthy sustainable Organic
Gardening that is safe for the local environment. Scott discusses
why traditional gardening methods are harmful and why you should consider
switching to organic methods of caring for the garden.
How to Create a Beautiful Organic Garden!
The leap from gardening with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to truly
organic gardening can feel like a leap of faith. I came to this point
of view gradually, as I work in the green industry, which is just starting
to recognize the benefits of organic products (Here’s another place
you can help save the planet; vote with your almighty consumer dollar
by buying organic).
What I have learned along the way is Nature takes care of her own. The
less I coddled and fussed with plants, and the more time I spent taking
care of the soil they grew in, the more I was rewarded with strong healthy
plants that took care of themselves. In the few cases where bad-guys attack
organically raised plants, they are sturdy enough to need little in the
way of help; I managed last year with neem oil and a few products from
the fridge and pantry; more on that later…
It's all About the Soil
So there it is. My gardening secret from the vault. As my friend Lisa
tells me, it’s all about the soil, stupid (she ends lots of sentences
that way. To me, anyway…). Chemical fertilizers sterilize soil and
plants don’t like sterile soil very much. Oh you can fool some of
the plants some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the plants
all of the time (Sorry, Abe…). So how do we go about getting living
soil for our plants?
Mother Nature supplies nutrients from decaying matter be it plant, animal
or even mineral. The Northeastern Native Americans used to pile their
kitchen garbage, fish leavings, and seaweed with wood ashes from the fires.
This half composted material would be spread on the fields in late fall
and left to finish over the winter (less smell that way, I’m sure,
but it would still be hard to get away with in my neighborhood). But this
does illustrate my first point. This is not rocket science; it is Nature
doing what it does. Without Man in the picture, this process is still
going to go on, so there is almost no way to go wrong here. Organic is
Here are the first steps to take
The most important step in going organic is replacing salt based, water
soluble nitrogen with carbon-based solid nitrogen. Throw out the blue
goo, you know, that box of 10-10-10 (oh, wait you thought more was better
and got the 20-20-20, right? I know you because I WAS you!) The sooner
we get your little junkies; I mean plants, off that stuff the better.
Now our soil isn’t back to full health yet, so what can we use to
support our plants and help to build good soil? Let’s look at that
native recipe again.
Blood would be one of their kitchen leavings and it is one of the best
sources of nitrogen in organic form (Bat guano is better, but not as available
as blood meal) Bone meal is another excellent source of nutrition as it’s
almost a third phosphate and wood ashes will round out the picture by
supplying potassium. We’ve covered all three of those numbers on
your box of blue goo. You can also use things like fermented seaweed and
fermented fish oil to supplement our soil amendments. How much to use?
Follow the package directions, but be assured there is very little chance
of messing this up; short of burying your plants under piles of the stuff,
the lower assays of natural products make them much safer for your plants…
Lower assays? But I want 20-20-20! Not really and
Remember those mycorhizii we talked about? As soon as we stop sterilizing
our soil with salt, these little fungi start to creep back into the soil
(there are even things to really encourage them; more later). So instead
of a plant trying to derive it’s nutrition solely through it’s
own roots, hundreds of thousands of these “little roots” colonize
the root system of our plant, effectively doubling the existing surface
area to absorb nutrients. So bigger numbers don’t mean squat, bigger
root systems do…
Let's take a look at caring for those plant roots
So we need to start building soil for these little roots to live in. Where
to start? How does Mother Nature handle it? Oh yeah, decaying matter.
Like what? Like leaves, chopped up twigs (not sticks, twigs), banana peels,
coffee grounds (they make organic compostible filters now!), vegetable
peelings, garden cuttings, grass clippings, wood shavings or sawdust;
just about anything that doesn’t have fat or meat and isn’t
too big to turn over in a season. In short a lot of things you have been
throwing away. So we are trading in things that cost you money for things
you are throwing away, which brings me to my second point; Organic
is cheaper. Organic is easy; organic is cheaper… organic is better!
Back to the Compost Pile!
So how do we break it down? The old fashioned way is a compost pile, and
that’s how most of mine gets made. The trick here is a layer of
greens, a layer of browns, a layer of greens a layer of browns, building
our pile layer by later. Most of my pile is:
- leaves (browns)
- and grass (greens)
Vegetable peelings? Greens. Wood shavings? Browns. Coffee grounds? Browns
(okay, that’s harder, but you get the idea).
Fluffy compost piles
Now here comes the hard part; once a week during warm weather you have
to turn the pile to aerate it. The fungii breaking down the material are
air breathers, and the ONLY way to screw up compost is to let it go anaerobic
(airless). Then the little critters die and the only things that continue
to populate your compost are anaerobic bacteria. These are the little
buggers that give mudflats a bad name, what with the slime and the smell
and all. Not what we want in our soil at all.
So we turn the pile regularly to make sure it stays fluffed up and airy
for our mycorhizii, who by the way really like the leaves a lot. If you
don’t have access to lots of leaves like I do, cocoa mulch is a
bad mulch but a great way to jump start mycorhizal colonies (they like
it SO much they will start surface colonies and that’s why it’s
a bad mulch). In about 14 weeks you will have dark, crumbly compost for
Oh, and there's also the easy way
Can’t wait that long? Back hurts and you can’t turn that big
pile? Ah, the compost tumbler is for you. I have my big pile, but I also
use the tumbler to finish small batches quickly. Some purists complain
that they heat up too much and some organisms die, but I have yet to see
Just give it a spin (daily is great, but every time you wander by in
the garden will do it) and you can cut the time to 7-8 weeks, and no sore
back. They can be pricey but worth every penny in the long run, so don’t
skimp or you’ll just be back for a bigger, shinier model once the
bug bites (it happens, believe me…). Composting does not get easier
than this…so we have compost and fertilizer. Now what?