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…

Organic Gardening is 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 easy.

How to Convert a Garden to Organic

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 here’s why…

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!

Compost Piles Explained

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 Compost Pile is:

  1. leaves (browns)
  2. 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 your garden…

How Compost Tumblers Work

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?