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Organic Gardening Basics

Organic Gardening Basics
Hardcore organic gardens take time to establish and require a certain amount of dedication. But, adapting just a few organic strategies can improve the health of any garden, while also eliminating harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides from the local environment. Rather than leap into organic gardening, why not try it out by doing a few small things differently?

The average gardener uses a lot of chemicals, including chemical herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and even chemical water treatments! These chemicals and their byproducts often kill beneficial soil bacteria, which creates a vicious cycle where more and more soil treatments are needed just to maintain crop yields.

Conventional gardening also damages the surrounding environment, through loss of wildlife habitat, fertilizer runoff, and excessive water use. Instead of killing the ecosystem that supports our plants, we can rely on natural methods to boost plant productivity and disease resistance. With organic methods, it's possible to promote cleaner water, cleaner neighborhoods, and a healthier family.

Look at your garden as a living system, and use the laws of nature to produce healthy plants that are resistant to diseases and pests. These rules apply equally well to flower gardens, herb gardens, and vegetable gardens.

The first principle is to try and replicate the balance found in nature. For example, non-native plants are often out of balance and often go to seed or sprout flowers out of season. Insects and pathogens generally attack weak plants that are not properly adapted to their environment.

Nature abhors a vacuum. If the ground is sterilized, harmful bacteria and insects will quickly move in to fill the gap. So, beneficial soil organisms are key to maintaining balance. When there are thriving colonies of helpful soil bacteria, plants will generally be stronger and more resistant to pests and diseases.

Also, plants are affected by their neighbors. Certain plants help each other out, such as roses and garlic. Such plants are good for "companion planting". Either their natural defenses complement each other, or their combined scents help to attract pollinators, or their root systems support a thriving soil ecosystem together.

Keep in mind the things that plants need to survive:

Water, sunlight, air, nutrients, and good soil can be found in harmonious balance in nature, but after an area has been bulldozed to build a house, it takes a little work to restore the balance. It's possible to recreate the natural process with tools such as compost, bokashi, and mulch. These soil amendments help soil retain water, and they also reduce compaction while restoring the microbial ecosystem.

Here are some tips from a working Organic Farm:

1) Test your soil pH. Then, find plants that are suited to those levels, or amend the soil with compost and mulch until you reach the proper range. The pH of compost can be adjusted by altering the pH of ingredients added to the pile (finished compost typically has a pH of 6.5-7.0). Worm composting works over a wider range of pH levels - worms will lay cocoons in soil with pH levels from 5.0 to 8.0. When shifting the pH level, try not to achieve drastic results. Work gradually, and try to establish a community of organisms that help work towards the desired acidity or alkalinity.

2) Test moisture levels and study the drainage. Good drainage is essential for healthy roots and efficient water use. If you notice water pooling in any area, blend compost into that soil to improve water absorption. In areas with heavy layers of clay or high water tables, it may be necessary to add a layer of gravel 16 inches beneath the surface.

3) Use native plants. Plants native to your area are a good pick for your garden because they are naturally adapted to the region. Thus, they are hardy, use less water, and are more resistant to pests and diseases. Native plants make good barrier or water filtering plants too. Grow Native.org has more information on using native plants in your garden.

4) Use plenty of 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. Helpful critters in the soil such as bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and nematodes love mulch.

5) Grass-cycle. You've heard of recycling, but do you grasscycle? When lawn trimmings or garden scraps are thrown away, the nutrients they contain are lost. Instead, simply leave the grass clippings on your lawn. You'll not only provide ready-made organic mulch that will break down into fertilizer, but you'll also save time and energy in bagging them up. Additionally, you reduce stress on your local municipal landfills. Grass clippings also make a great ingredient in compost bins.

6) Try companion plants. Nature rarely sees fields taken over by a single plant. This is because different plants often work together and provide mutual benefits. For example, Garlic and Roses protect each other from different insects. Also, some plants can be used as sacrificial bait - plant hyssop near your cabbage, and it will draw cabbage moths away. For more information on companion planting, check out this chart of widely used companion plants.

7) Take advantage of biodiversity. The natural plant communities in your area have layers of full sun and shaded plants. Observe the different layers of plants and how they relate to each other, then make sure that your garden incorporates plants that fill every niche. 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.

8) Aerate the ground. Soil naturally compresses over time, which can make it difficult for roots to get established. In a balanced environment, worms and soil bacteria work to reduce soil compaction, but if they're absent, mechanical aeration is a good alternative.

9) Look beyond N-P-K values. Most chemical fertilizers focus on Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. But, elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, magnesium, copper, cobalt, sodium, boron, molybdenum, and zinc are just as important to plant development as N-P-K. Organic gardeners can look to the work of Sir Albert Howard for information on how to grow plants more naturally.