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The Practical Organic Gardening Guide

The Practical Organic Gardening Guide


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Published by: Angie on May 03, 2008
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THE PRACTICAL ORGANIC GARDENING GUIDE “Gardening is any way that humans and nature come together with

the intent of creating beauty.” - Tina James, 1999 Introduction The average homeowner may use dozens of potentially harmful chemicals in the garden to treat pests and diseases and to fertilize plants. However, there is a growing awareness that many of the chemicals we use in our yards over the long run may negatively affect the health of our loved ones, pets, and neighbors. Additionally, these chemicals can degrade the environment and generally do nothing to contribute to the overall health of our plants. This website is designed as an introduction to organic gardening for the average homeowner. We recognize that many gardeners simply don’t have the time, money, or energy to invest in a fully organic garden. Organic gardens can take time to establish and require a certain amount of dedication. However, you can have big impacts on the environment and the health of your family and neighbors by using even just a few organic gardening techniques at home. We also hope that once you start using organic gardening techniques, you will find that they are actually easier and more effective than you ever imagined. If you do have the time and energy to go organic and stop using chemicals in your yard, we feel that this is the best way to ensure a healthy yard, a healthy family, and a healthy environment. However, if you even take just a few of these basic steps to reduce your use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, you’ll be making a significant impact on your health and on the environment. What’s Wrong with the Way We Garden

Unfortunately, most gardeners use chemicals to fertilize plants and to fight pests and diseases. Many of these chemicals actually contribute to destroying helpful soil organisms and can damage a plant’s natural ability to fend off pests and diseases. Additionally, chemical fertilizers can build up in the soil and eventually reduce the overall productivity of the soil. Our plants become weaker and weaker in the process, making more chemical treatments necessary just to keep them alive. Conventional garden care can also negatively affect wildlife, contaminate water sources, create unnecessary solid waste in the form of grass clippings and garden debris, and can end up utilizing excessive amounts of water. Chemicals, inappropriate plant selection, and over-watering can contribute to an unhealthy yard, including the death of beneficial soil organisms. This means that we apply more and more chemicals to our plants, while not recognizing the fact that the ecosystem is basically failing. Organic gardening is an alternative to this common gardening practice. Organic gardening is broadly defined as a way to create a natural balance of healthy soil and healthy plants in your garden. Plants have of course grown naturally in the wild for millions of years without the use of harmful chemicals or help from humans. If we simply look to nature for ideas on how to grow healthy plants, we can utilize more natural processes instead of chemicals to keep our gardens healthy. Healthy, natural gardens mean cleaner water, cleaner neighborhoods, and a healthier family. So, what exactly happens when we manage our yards using the techniques and chemicals that we’ve become accustomed to using? The following list will give you an idea of the severity of the situation and what happens to our health and to the environment due to the use of chemicals in our yards and gardens.

Some studies report that over 50% of people living in urban areas use chemicals on their lawns and gardens. These chemicals can eventually make their way into local water sources.

• •

Some scientific studies have actually found higher amounts of pesticides in urban areas than in agricultural areas. Epidemiological studies report the possibility of higher numbers of cancer and other health problems reported among families that use chemical pesticides for lawn care. Children may be especially affected.

Urban runoff contributes to high-levels of phosphorus in rivers, lakes, and streams. The phosphorus often comes from chemical fertilizers used for yard and garden care.

• •

Excess nutrients from chemical fertilizers cause algae blooms in rivers and streams which use up oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic life. Grass clippings and garden waste overload landfills, and garden debris treated with chemicals are an additional source of pollutants in the environment.

Various scientific studies have shown that the use of chemicals in our yards reduces the diversity of beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms.

High use of chemicals can contribute to acidification of the soil and soil compaction.

Sadly, many gardeners resist switching to organic gardening techniques simply because they are accustomed to the ease of using chemicals and getting quick results. This is an unfortunate situation. What we really have to ask ourselves is what good is all this convenience doing us? Our environment is increasingly full of chemicals, and we live daily with unhealthy air and polluted water. Sure, organic gardening does initially require a bit more work on the gardener’s part. But we all know that exercise is an important part of staying healthy. Because our lives are so convenient, obesity, cancer, and increased levels of stress are now considered the norm. Is there another way?

Basic Concepts of Organic Gardening J.I. Rodale and Sir Albert Howard are considered the modern pioneers of organic gardening. Organic gardening looks at your garden as a living ecosystem, and uses the laws of nature to produce healthy plants that are resistant to diseases and pests. Please see this website with information on composting and organic gardening written by Sir Albert Howard back in 1946. (link to: http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/paydirt/paydirt_ToC.html) One of the great things about basic organic gardening techniques is that they are applicable to any kind of garden you grow, from flower gardens, to herb gardens, to your vegetable garden. Organic gardening focuses on building up the soil, using native plants and plants appropriate for your garden, and looking for a natural balance in your garden. We must recognize that pathogens generally attack weak plants that are not properly adapted to their environment and that live in poor soil. Therefore, if we work our soil and encourage the presence of beneficial soil organisms, our plants will generally be stronger and more resistant to pests and diseases. Another useful concept in organic gardening is known as “Companion Planting.” Companion planting recognizes that plants grown together in thoughtful combinations will benefit the entire garden-ecosystem. Roses and garlic are a good example. If you grow garlic close to your roses, you’ll keep most pests away. Roses Love Garlic, by Louise Riotte, (link to: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1580170285/002-34287065858458?v=glance&n=283155) is a classic book on companion planting that discusses specific plants you can use in your garden to strengthen the ecosystem and prevent attacks by garden pests and diseases.

You can also see this site from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service for more information on companion planting concepts and specific plant combinations to try in your garden: (link to: http://www.attra.org/attrapub/complant.html) Finding Balance in the Garden When you go out to your garden, think about how your plants grow and survive. Plants need a few basic things to grow, such as: • • • • • Water Sunlight Air Nutrients Soil

A plant is always looking for a balance of these elements. In the wild, plants have evolved over thousands of years to find this perfect balance. Likewise, certain plants have learned to grow in harmony together, mutually benefiting each other in their natural settings. However, when we grow plants in our garden, we as humans often need to restore this balance or correct the conditions so that our plants can thrive. We may also need to look to recreate things that occur naturally in an undisturbed ecosystem. Composting and mulching are two examples. (link to www.compostguide.com) A plant’s roots absorb water and nutrients. Plants then use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide and other raw materials into carbohydrates that the plants use for growing, producing flowers, etc. The carbohydrates are stored in the stems, branches and leaves of the plant. If there is an attack by a disease or a

pest, the plant uses these stored reserves to deal with the problem. Likewise, stored carbohydrates are used during periods of new growth. Soil organisms such as earthworms and fungi help provide additional nutrients to plants. These nutrients are absorbed through the roots. When a plant has a healthy root system, the plant is generally healthier and able to repel pathogens. Thus, if you keep the soil healthy, your plants’ roots will be healthier, and the plants’ immune system will be stronger. When a plant is unable to absorb the nutrients it needs, or it is not getting enough water, or if it gets too much or too little sunlight, it is more susceptible to a pathogenic attack. If you can restore this balance and equilibrium in your garden, you will strengthen a plant’s immune system. Soil: the Basis of a Healthy Garden Soil can be divided into several categories. The soil types that gardeners generally refer to are clay, sand, silt, loam, and peat. However, there are virtually thousands of soil varieties based on combinations of the above soil types. Soils can also vary in organic matter, large and small rocks, minerals, pH, and other factors. Most gardeners consider soil that has a combination of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter to be good soil. Another important factor in how well your plants will grow is pH (link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_pH ). The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. Acidic soils have smaller pH numbers and alkaline substances have larger pH numbers. The lower the pH number, the higher the number of hydrogen ions in a solution. Limestone is an example of a very alkaline mineral. Sulfur is an example of a very acidic mineral. Arid regions of the country tend to have alkaline soils and parts of the country with heavy rainfall tend to have acidic soils.

The pH scale is a logarithmic scale that is designed to measure large differences in soil quality. For example, a pH of 7 is neutral, but a pH of 6 is ten times more acid than a neutral 7. A pH of 5 is a hundred times more acid than a neutral 7, and a pH of 4 is a thousand times more acid than a neutral 7. Likewise, a pH of 8 is ten times more alkaline than a neutral 7. A pH of 9 is a hundred times more alkaline than a neutral 7, and a pH of 10 is a thousand times more alkaline than a neutral 7. A pH of 6.5 is considered the point where nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and the trace minerals that plants need to grow are most easily available to your plants. When choosing plants for your garden. Get a sense of what pH levels they require. If your soil pH is dramatically different from the requirements of the plants, your garden plants may suffer from more problems with pests and diseases. Check your soil frequently with a pH kit (insert link to http://www.cleanairgardening.com/phtester.html) and correct the soil pH when necessary. Also, consider testing the soil with an Electric Garden Soil Testing Kit. (Insert link to: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/soiltester.html). These kits are relatively inexpensive and will test soil pH, light intensity, and total combined potash, phosphorous and nitrogen levels. An Introduction to Organic Gardening Techniques When you start planning how to reduce the use of chemicals in your garden, imagine how a primary forest grows. In a primary forest, you will find a thick layer of hummus on the ground and plenty of beneficial critters in the soil, including earthworms and fungi. You will also see a variety of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that have grown together in mutually beneficial tiers. A primary forest typically hasn’t seen the

introduction of non-native and often invasive species that may shift an ecosystem out of balance. Unfortunately, most of our created urban landscapes are overrun with non-natives, often times creating a challenging environment for the gardener. If we keep the imagine of a primary forest in our heads when we garden, we can use the following techniques to boost our garden’s ecosystem so that it functions more like a natural forest. Here are some basic things you can do to grow a healthier garden with stronger plants, so that you can use less chemicals when gardening. Also check out this site with tips from a working organic farm. (link to: http://www.practicalenvironmentalist.com/2006/05/secrets_from_an_organic_gar den_1.html) 1. Work the Soil As mentioned above, healthy soil is the key to growing healthy plants. Composting garden waste and kitchen scraps is one of the best ways to improve your soil. By adding compost to your garden soil, you can: • • • • • • Add needed nutrients to the soil Improve soil drainage Boost your plants’ immune systems Encourage the presence of beneficial soil organisms and earth worms Reduce the need for artificial fertilizers, as beneficial soil organisms will naturally produce nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus Reduce the amount of water you use, as organic compost helps retain moisture in the soil Soils may become too acid if you live in an area with heavy rains or if your soils have been treated over the years with high doses of N-P-K fertilizers. In these cases, simply add more organic compost to restore the balance.

Soil drainage is also critical to organic gardening. If you notice water pooling in any areas of the garden, your plants may suffer from root rot or other problems. Mixing in compost is one of the best ways to improve drainage. You can also try digging out a good quantity of the soil, around 16 inches deep, and placing a layer of fine gravel at the bottom. Mix the soil you removed with compost, and fill it back in. Please check out the Compost Guide and the Compost Guide Store for information and composting products. (http://www.compostguide.com/ and http://store.compostguide.com/) 2. Use Native Plants Another technique you can implement in your garden to reduce your use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is to use more native plants in your garden. Plants native to your area are a good pick for your garden because they are naturally adapted to your region. Thus, they are hardy, use less water, and are more resistant to pests and diseases. See this website from Grow Native for more information on using native plants in your garden. (Link to http://www.grownative.org/) Grow Native is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the use of native plants for landscaping. While you don’t have to grow a garden entirely of native plants, try planting at least a few. There are many wonderful native plants out there to try, and you will be amazed how carefree your garden will become. 3. Mulch Using a thick layer of organic mulch to cover your garden beds will help your garden retain water, prevent weeds from growing, and will contribute added nutrients to your soil. Mulch will also cool the soil and encourage the presence of beneficial soil organisms.

Organic mulch basically functions like humus (link to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humus) does on a forest floor. Nothing in a forest really ever goes to waste. The leaves and dead branches that fall from trees and shrubs form a thick layer of organic material on the forest floor. Then, critters in the soil such as bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and nematodes go to work on this humus and break it down. This adds nutrients to the soil, prevents erosion, and cuts down on weeds, in addition to other benefits. You can use a variety of organic materials such as hay, wood chips, shredded bark, etc. as mulch in your garden. You should periodically check the layers of mulch in your garden and add more as it breaks down. Try to maintain a 3-4 inch layer of organic mulch in all your garden beds. You can further stimulate and support your soil by adding a dose of organic fertilizer (link to http://www.cleanairgardening.com/fertilizer.html). Your mulch will work best when you add this natural fertilizer over the entire garden bed to gradually strengthen your plants over time. For more information on mulching, please see this website on mulching from Clean Air Gardening. (link to: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/mulch.html ) 4. Grass-Cycling Grass-cycling simply means leaving grass clippings on your lawn after you mow. The grass clippings work as a natural compost and eventually break down, adding nutrients to the soil. Grass-cycling will help you reduce the need for chemical fertilizers for your lawn. A manual reel-mower (link to http://www.cleanairgardening.com/reelmowers.html) is an ideal tool for grasscycling. They are also better for your grass and easy on the environment. When you simply leave the grass clippings on your lawn, you also save time and energy in bagging them up. Additionally, you reduce stress on your local municipal landfills. An option to grass-cycling is to simply place the grass

clippings in your compost bin. (link to: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/accessories.html) Check out this great government website on the benefits of grass-cycling and how best to do it. (link to: http://www.phila.gov/streets/grass-cycling.html) 5. Companion Planting As mentioned above, “companion planting” can be a useful tool to help us create a more natural garden and reduce the use of chemicals in our yards and homes. Here is a basic list of plants that you can grow together in your garden that will benefit the garden ecosystem. • • • • • • Marigolds will benefit pumpkins and other plants in your garden. Nasturtiums protect squash and tomatoes from a variety of pests including aphids, squash bugs, and white flies. Beans planted in your garden will help fix nitrogen in the soil. The presence of a variety of flowers including bee balm will bring more pollinating bees to your garden. Catnip keeps away aphids and other pests. Some varieties of chrysanthemums will kill off harmful nematodes.

See this website from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service for more information on companion planting: (link to: http://www.attra.org/attrapub/complant.html) 6. Biodiversity and the Proper Placement of Plants Biodiversity is a concept that applies to ecologically and biology. Thus, it is very applicable to gardening and farming. For example, it is a well known fact that if you plant a monoculture of one single crop on your farm, an attack by diseases or pests can be catastrophic. However, if you grow a high diversity of species,

you’ll end up strengthening your plants’ immune systems and creating an overall healthier environment. Why? Because a diversity of plants means a diversity of birds, insects, pollinators, and beneficial soil organisms that are attracted to your garden. Stronger plants mean that they are less susceptible to diseases and pests. Additionally, biodiversity means that you create a range of habitats for plants and insects. If you grow trees and shrubs in your yard, you can also grow shade loving plants. The shade also cools the soil and provides a better environment for earthworms and other critters. These diverse habitats can attract lady bugs, praying mantis, and certain species of wasps that kill off pests. When thinking about how to grow a biodiverse garden, take a look at some of the natural plant communities in your area. Observe the different layers of plants and how they relate to each other. What plants like to grow in the cool shade of trees and shrubs? What are the tallest trees in these communities? Observe the wildflowers from your region. Do they grow alone, or do they grow among grasses and other plants? Keep in mind that insects are a valuable part of your garden community. If your encourage the presence of beneficial insects, your garden will be better for it. Check out this website from the National Wildlife Federation for more information on biodiversity. (link to: http://www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?issueID=104&articleID=1312) The more plants you and vertical layers you have in your garden, the better. However, keep in mind that you’ll need to select your plants carefully and plant them in the proper place in your yard. Placing your plants properly in your garden simply means observing what each plant needs to grow best. For example, grow sun loving plants where there is plenty of sun. Grow shade loving plants where there is shade. And never grow plants with radically different needs next to each other. Your best bet is to group plants together based on the amount of sunlight

and water they need. Additionally, remember that soil is a critical factor for plants. Some plants prefer acidic soils, while others prefer alkaline soils. Some plants can survive in soils with poor drainage, others will die off quickly if the soil stays too wet for too long. Recommended Natural Products for Organic Gardening 1. Vinegar: Some gardeners recommend vinegar as a way to naturally control weeds. However, vinegar has actually gotten mixed results under scientific studies. Find out the facts before you use vinegar on your weeds. Check out this excellent study from Iowa State University on the use of vinegar in the garden. (Link to: http://www.weeds.iastate.edu/weednews/vinegar.htm) 2. Mycor Root Builders: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/mycorrhizae.html Mycorrhizal fungi are tiny, harmless critters that attach themselves to plant roots and actually help plants to make use of organic chemicals in the soil. You can stimulate the growth of Mycorrhizal fungi and get them to work more efficiently with a Mycor Root Builder. Mycor Root Builder contains Endomycorrhiza, Ectomycorrhiza, Scleroderma, Kelp, Zeolite, and Humate. It will work on all the plants in your garden, including turf grass. You can use it directly on your new transplants or use a coring drill or auger to penetrate deeper into the soil for established plants. 3. Natural Insecticides: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/insectkiller.html It’s a fact of life that your plants will attract pests. You can minimize this problem by growing plants native to your region. These plants are typically more resistant

to pests. Companion planting (link to: http://www.organicgardentips.com/vegetable_gardening.html ) is another solution for fighting off bugs. However, even with these simple techniques, you’re still likely to have problems with pests at some point in your gardening experience. Gardeners all over the world have found that natural citrus-based insecticides will kill off most of the pests you’re likely to see in your garden. These products kill a variety of pests, including cut worms, caterpillars, snails, slugs, aphids, bean beetles, cabbage loopers, earwigs, flea beetles, Japanese beetles, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, rose chafers, scales, and adult whiteflies. They are generally even safe enough to use indoors if you happen to have houseplants that you’d like to treat. 4. Hot Pepper Wax Natural Bug and Critter Spray: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/repellent.html Another way to keep insects and even animals out of your garden is with a Hot Pepper Wax spray. This is especially important if you have a lot of edible crops to protect. Animals and insects are instantly repelled by the strong cayenne pepper oils. The spray lightly adheres to the plants with a natural food grade wax, and therefore won’t run off when you water your plants or after a heavy rain. It works to repel most insects and animals such as squirrels, gophers, chipmunks, and hedgehogs. If it sounds like you’re going to be turning your vegetable patch into a salsa factory, not to worry! You can harvest your vegetables and eat them on the same day you spray your plants, without any spicy residue. They just need a good washing and they’re ready to eat! 5. Bat Guano: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/batguano.html

The Bracken Bat Cave in Texas is famous for being the cave with the highest population of bats on the planet (roughly 20,000,000 of these fanged, flying mammals). This means it’s a great place to harvest high quality bat guano, which is an ideal natural fertilizer. Why bat guano? It has a high humus content and works great as a soil builder and fertilizer. It’s also 100% natural. Farmers and gardeners have used bat guano for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until recently that inorganic fertilizers have become popular enough for people to forget that there is a natural option that works just as well! Additionally, most manufacturers of bat guano products make sure not to harm any bats during the harvest. They usually follow the high standards of Bat Conservation International, so you can feel good about buying this natural garden and bat-friendly fertilizer. 6. Organic Natural Fire Ant Killer: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/fireantkiller.html The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta Buren (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), is a major problem for many gardeners. They make big nests that can uproot turf and affect your mowing. Once they get established, fire ants can get into your compost pile, kitchen, vegetable garden, and even your electrical equipment. Moreover, if you’ve ever felt the sting of a fire ant, you know how painful it can be! A natural fire ant killer should put an end to these pesky critters. Many natural products to kill fire ants come in a shaker, and contain enough fire ant killer to treat a dozen or more mounds. You just need to apply it to each mound and wait. You can also sprinkle it in your flower beds and around the outside of your home to keep the ants from coming inside. These fire ant killers are a synergistic blend

of natural plant oils. Look for products with ingredients that have been approved by the FDA as food additives, so they are safe even if you have children or pets. You can use a fire ant killer as step one of the Texas A&M developed Texas Two Step fire ant control method (link to http://www.cleanairgardening.com/fireants.html). Step two involves using a citrus-based liquid insecticide (link to: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/fireant.html) that will help keep the ants from coming back. 7. Citrus and Vinegar-Based Natural Organic Weed Killers: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/weedkiller.html When you’ve got a serious weed problem or time constraints, you many not have the energy to manually weed your garden. However, instead of grabbing a bottle of harsh chemicals to kill off those weeds, try out a natural weed killer. There are citrus and vinegar-based liquids available that you can use that will cause the weeds to wilt and die within minutes. If you have grass that’s growing into your garden beds or onto your patio, it will also work to kill it off for easy removal. While perennial weeds may need a couple treatments, most annuals will be gone after the first application. 8. Organic Liquid Lawn Fertilizer: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/organiclawn.html For a nice, lush yard without chemicals, try out an organic liquid lawn fertilizer. Look for products that are a combination of lawn food supplements, natural soil activators, and Humate Liquid Humus. These products will stimulate the beneficial soil organisms that live under your grass. You can use them to quickly

green up your lawn, from spring to fall. They typically work a lot like other lawn fertilizers. Simply mix the fertilizer, attach it to your hose, and spray. 9. Rainwater from Rain Barrels: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/80gararaba.html Water is a precious and expensive resource these days. By simply investing in a rain barrel and using stored rainwater to water your garden instead of water from the tap, you can save money and grow happier plants. The water coming from your tap has been treated as drinking water for human consumption, which your plants don’t necessarily need. In fact, most garden plants typically prefer naturally “soft” rainwater, which is also free of chemicals, minerals, chlorine, and fluoride. After all, rainwater is what plants have been thriving on for thousands of years! 10. Horticultural Corn Meal http://www.cleanairgardening.com/cornmeal.html Horticultural cornmeal is an organic way of controlling harmful soil fungi and problems with plant roots. If you’ve got vegetable crops, you may be familiar with these soil related fungal problems. When you apply horticultural corn meal to the soil, it actually strengthens beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma, which will fight off the harmful fungi that can attack your plants. It also helps build up the quality of the soil, which will benefit all the plants in your garden. Apply it directly to grass, soil, and all your flowerbeds. You don’t have to worry about over applying this product, as it will in no way harm your plants. Also, if you have a pond, you can use it to remove algae. However, read the instructions

carefully on the package when you use it in your pond, as applying too much can cause oxygen depletion problems. 11. Corn Gluten Meal (link to: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/corngluten.html) Corn gluten meal is a natural herbicide. However, it has the added benefit of helping to fertilize the soil. Please visit Dr. Nick Christians' University of Iowa Corn Gluten research page (link to: http://www.gluten.iastate.edu/) for more information on the benefits of corn gluten meal. 12. Beer (link to http://www.cleanairgardening.com/gardenslugtrap.html) Beer attracts slugs and snails. They promptly drown in a glass or specially designed slug and snail trap when it’s filled with beer.

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