by Trish Riley
THE ORGANIC MOVEMENT HAS BEEN GAINING ADVOCATES SINCE THE ADVENT OF AGRICULTURAL CHEMICALS. COINED BY VISIONARY PUBLISHER J.I. RODALE, FOUNDER OF THE RODALE INSTITUTE AND ORGANIC GARDENING MAGAZINE, “ORGANICS” TODAY REPRESENT THE FASTEST GROWING SEGMENT OF THE GROCERY INDUSTRY. THE ORGANIC TRADE ASSOCIATION REPORTS AN INCREASE IN SALES OF 20 PERCENT ANNUALLY OVER THE PAST DECADE.
There are good reasons for this interest in healthy, tasty food free from synthetic contamination. Conventional farmers tell us it’s more difficult and more expensive to grow without fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, but organic enthusiasts say just the opposite – that utilizing the harmony of nature to produce healthy harvests is easier, cheaper, and more rewarding.
Regardless, you can apply organic growing principles in your own garden and reap the rewards!FIRST THE SOIL
Begin by having the soil tested by your local cooperative extension office. Be sure to let them know what you’re planning to grow in your garden. Most vegetables prefer a slightly acidic soil of 6 to 7.5 pH, and you can ask the soil analyst to recommend organic ways to restore the pH balance of the soil once it’s been tested. You might add organic sulfur to increase acidity or use lime to make an acidic soil more alkaline.
Prepare the soil by hoeing or using a shovel to churn up the top eight to ten inches, adding some compost to enrich it. You may choose to raise the garden bed by adding six inches or so of soil, then create a frame around the bed to support it, using wood or rocks. Or you can create an earthen plateau. Raised beds help improve soil drainage.
James Steele, who owns The Herb Garden in Melrose, Florida, and is a gardening instructor, advises amending your garden bed with a layer of finely ground bone meal to enrich the soil with phosphorus and with a layer of cottonseed meal to add nitrogen. Both will break down slowly in the soil, providing a gradual release of nourishment that should last through the growing season. Steele says that the right blend of soil, fertilizer, and water is essential to striking a balance for healthy plant growth. Water helps dissolve the nutrients, and the soil holds them against the roots for uptake into the plants. Too much or too little fertilizer or water will result in damage to the plants.
“A healthy, complex soil is the best thing you can have for a garden, and composting is the best way to achieve that,” Steele said. “Having a compost pile is like raising a pet. It is alive. It gets thirsty and needs food and oxygen. It is a gardener’s best friend. Feed your soil, and the plants will feed you.”PLANTING
Consult local native plant nurseries or your extension office for recommendations on plants that are known to thrive in your local environment and for planting schedules based on the frost and season in your area. Once you have plants placed in the beds, surround them with organic mulch, such as grass clippings, leaves, straw, compost, or bark to retain moisture and to protect tender plants from the elements. Mulch nourishes the soil as it biodegrades and keeps weeds from growing around the plants.
Companion planting: selecting plants that help one another by enriching the soil and fighting off pests. Tall plants help shade those close to the ground, and some flowers attract bugs that prey on aphids and caterpillars. Other plants, like onions and garlic, help repel pests.
Steele plants marigolds around tomatoes and corn and creates a vertical fence for cucumbers to climb high above his garlic patch.
Increase the number of nectar-producing, flowering plants to help attract beneficial insects to your garden.
Fennel, cilantro, parsley, and buckwheat attract some insects, while straw mulch attracts spiders. Planting marigolds and other insect deterrents in unused beds creates a ground cover that will add organic matter when folded back into the soil after the blooms have faded.PEST CONTROL: WEEDS AND BUGS
What is a weed, anyway? Sometimes weed is just a word used to describe plants in unwanted places.
But weeds are members of the plant kingdom. Some, like dandelions and plantain, are medicinal herbs. Others help maintain the natural balance of pests and nutrients in the garden.
It’s not necessary, or advisable, to eliminate plants merely because you didn’t plant them, so try tolerating a few, as long as they don’t take over your garden. Weeds can be controlled by not allowing them to go to seed. Remove the weeds by the roots using a weeding tool that reaches below the surface of the soil and you soon will have a garden bed with very little new weed growth.
One of the best reasons to garden organically is to protect the natural benefits provided by some bugs, worms, and other garden creatures. Nature survives as a sustainable system of checks and balances, which means that each pest has its own predator. If we haven’t killed some players in the cycle using artificial means such as pesticides or herbicides, then a few bugs or weeds could contribute to a healthier garden. If you spray your plants, you’ll kill the caterpillars that turn to butterflies in a few weeks time, the ladybugs that eat aphids, the tachinid flies that feed on cutworms, and the spiders that keep other bugs under control.
If you’re having a problem with bugs eating more than their fair share of your plants, natural pest control includes Integrated Pest Management, which involves visually inspecting plants periodically and picking pests off leaves and stems when necessary. You can wash bugs off plants with a mild solution of dish soap and water or create an herbal pesticide spray by steeping cayenne pepper in water to repel bugs but not kill them.JOYS OF GARDENING
The benefits of organic gardening go far beyond providing good, healthy fare for your family. Working with the soil is a wonderful way to help children connect with the earth and teach them to respect nature and the cycle of life. Learning where our food comes from and how we can nurture living plants to produce a lush bounty of delicious nourishment provides lessons of sustainability for children. The lessons will enrich the children’s experiences and enhance their understandings of the healthy patterns throughout their lives.
Instead of misconceptions based on the unreal world of television, instant gratification, and the unrealistic flavors of chemically produced sodas and candies, children will learn to appreciate the deliciousness of fresh ripe berries and tomatoes – impossible to find in many supermarkets. Rather than giving responsibility for our nourishment over to factory farms, we can teach our children our own abilities to nurture ourselves. We can maintain our own roles in sustaining our bodies instead of losing touch with our connection to food.
Basing our meals around the garden is a good curb against weight gain, too, while working outdoors provides exercise for healthy, growing bodies.
What greater pleasure than enjoying a feast of the organic harvest from your garden?
Be sure to incorporate garden goodies into your dinner menu whenever possible, serving each delicacy as soon as possible after picking to enjoy the greatest flavors and nutrients.
Save the seeds from your plants for next year so you’ll have continual wealth in the garden.
“The organic garden is nature’s classroom,” said James Steele. “Watching children not only participate in the growth of their own food but also learn the basics of nature?s interactions is so rewarding.”
Trish Riley is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Living (Alpha Books, 2007).
OVERVIEWS OF STUDIES ON THE EFFECTS OF SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS AND THE BENEFITS OF ORGANICS
Pesticides can be damaging to children’s learning ability: According to a study of 1.6 million children in grades 3 through 10 conducted at the Indiana University School of Medicine, children conceived during the summer months – when farmers applied nitrates and pesticides – had lower scores on math and English tests than those conceived in winter months. Dr. Paul Winchester, who presented the study results to the Pediatric Academic Society in May 2007, said the results may indicate that synthetic chemicals in the atmosphere during conception affect the developing fetal brain. (See)
Developmental and mental damage documented: Dr. Elizabeth Guillette, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, has conducted a long-term study of children in two neighboring farming communities in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico. The mountainside community practices traditional farming without the use of agricultural chemicals, while nearby valley farmers introduced conventional farming methods into their practices in the 1960s. Although all of the children appear to be normal in looks and behavior, the parents of the valley children expressed concern about possible deficits in development.
Guillette compared the children from both communities over the years, testing their developmental physical and mental capabilities in a variety of ways. She has found significant reduction in both mental and physical development in the children exposed to farm chemicals. “This has huge consequences in terms of education, care, and medical needs,” said Guillette. “It’s been projected that if IQ decreases just five points across a community, you lose roughly two-thirds of your geniuses and increase the number of children who are mentally retarded by two-thirds. It’s the children of today who are going to be responsible for our communities, nation, and world tomorrow. If we lose them, what are we going to do?”
Benefits of switching to organics: A study conducted at the University of Washington in 2006 found that children whose urine tested positive for pesticide contamination showed a dramatic reduction in pesticide levels after just two weeks of being fed an organic diet instead of their traditional conventional diet.
Study on increased flavonoids in organic vegetables: In 2007, scientists at the University of California (Davis) reported that the soil quality of long-term organic gardening more than doubled the content of beneficial flavonoids in organic tomatoes. Flavonoids are the phytochemicals responsible for anti-cancer and anti-oxidant benefits of tomatoes and other vegetables. The flavonoid levels increased with each year of organic management. (See)TIPS ON COMPOSTING
Organic Gardening magazine offers a simple method for creating your own compost. Put several shovelfuls of leaves and about half as much grass clippings into a plastic trash bag. Add a couple of shovelfuls of soil and moisten thoroughly with water. Poke a few holes in the sealed bag to allow oxygen in. Sprinkle with water periodically to keep it from drying out, and toss the bag around to mix up the blend from time to time. It should take approximately two to three months to convert the yard waste into a rich compost to add to your topsoil.
If you want a faster natural fertilizer for your garden, Paul Tukey, founder of SafeLawns.org, suggests using compost to create a nutrient-rich “tea” that can be applied to your garden like a liquid fertilizer. Put compost into a cloth bag, then submerge the bag in a bucket of fresh water for about a week, stirring and squeezing the bag every day or so. The resulting liquid serves as a fast-acting and easily applied fertilizer for your garden.TIPS ON COMPANION PLANTING FROM ORGANIC GARDENING
Grilling brings out the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables, and you can add flavor with your garden herbs. Select any of your favorite vegetables, including yellow squash or zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, or others.
Wash and cut to fairly uniform size about four cups of vegetables; toss together in a bowl.
Mix your favorite organic garden herbs, such as thyme, oregano, basil, and sage together with: