Thursday, February 10, 2011

Organic Gardening - Some Basics

It's that time of year again... time to start planning your gardens! I love this time of year! Actually, I've had my garden mostly planned now for some time (though I haven't submitted my seed order quite yet), but most people start planning now so they have time to order seeds and get your cold-weather seedlings started in mid-to-late March. I started my own seedlings two years ago for the first time. We put in some grow lights and set up some tables with heating pads under some of the flats. It was a lot of work, though, and I did not do it again last year. I keep debating whether I want to start some this year, or not. I'm leaning more towards not.

So anyway, I'm hoping to get my seeds ordered in the next week or two. Once I do, I'll post what we've decided to grow this year. For now, I just wanted to post some basic things that I heard at our local WAPF chapter meeting on Tuesday. The topic this month was Organic Gardening and we heard from one of the local organic farmers. I've heard most of these tips before... and actually do most of them already. But I figure they're always good reminders... and I did learn a few things, too. I'll just include some highlights below.

Garden Planning. You will need to consider many factors when you begin thinking about your vegetable garden... what you want to grow, how much of each veggie or fruit you want to grow (enough to eat fresh, enough to preserve, enough to share with others, etc.), your soil type and test results, how you will lay out your garden, whether you will use raised beds, how you will work your soil (tiller, by hand, etc.), how you will deal with weeds (if using mulch, where will you get it?), how you will build soil fertility (blended organic fertilizers, minerals, foliar feeds), whether you will use manure or compost, whether you will be away during times of harvest, etc.

Ordering Seeds. You want to order your seeds from a good, respectable source. Some of the companies we discussed on Tuesday were: Fedco, High Mowing, Seeds of Change, Baker CreekJohnny's, Seed Savers Exchange, Territorial, Turtle Tree. There are lots of seed companies out there and I know this is not a comprehensive list of all the good ones... they're just the ones we quickly discussed.  Beware of the seed companies controlled and/or owned by Monsanto, though!  I will never (knowingly) buy seeds from one of those companies.  I have used Fedco for the past few years and have been extremely satisfied with them. I really like the fundamental values of the company, the quality of their seeds, and enjoy supporting them. Plus, their prices are great! They don't spend lots of extra money on fancy catalogs and they limit the time that they are open for orders and shipments.

Soil Testing. You need good soil in order to grow nutrient-dense food! The first step in growing a successful garden is having your soil tested. Make sure you ask for a trace minerals test, too. You'll pay extra for this, but it is very useful information to know. You can get your soil tested through your local university extension office, or you can send it away in the mail. MSUE has some helpful information online. The report you receive back will provide the necessary information to growing nutrient-dense foods - type, pH levels, nutrient levels, fertilizer recommendations. If your soil life isn't great, you will not get the optimal levels of nutrients in your vegetables and fruits.

Bacteria. Wait, you need bacteria in your garden? Yes, you do... in your soil! You will need to add bacteria, especially if the space you have your garden was previously a lawn or field. You can add bacteria by adding manure or compost. Remember that not all manure is good, though. Horse manure is pretty safe, overall. You should ask the farmer if the food they feed their horses contains any pass-through pesticides to kill horsefly larvae in the manure... if they do, you obviously would not want to use their manure. You really shouldn't run into this on your average backyard horse farm, though. If you are using manure from animals other than horses, only use manure from organic farms. Also, if the manure has wood chips in it, you'll want to leave it to compost for at least 2 years. If the manure has only sawdust in it, the best time to apply is in the fall. Till it in when you till your garden in the fall and it will break down over the winter and be ready for spring.

Mulch. Using mulch is a great way to keep weeds at bay in your garden. I use a straw mulch every year. Just beware that you should not just till it into your soil at the end of the season. Straw takes a while to break down. You need to rake it off in the fall and send it to the compost pile. You could also try saving it for the following year after you rake it off, but I normally just send it to the compost pile. You can also use grass clippings... as long as they are from a "safe" lawn. Don't spread grass clippings too thick, though, as it will create an anaerobic environment. Grass clippings break down quickly, so you will need to replenish regularly throughout the growing season.

Cover Crops. Cover crops are a great way to improve your soil. Use them to keep weeds at bay, or in the area between rows on which you walk. Any cover crop that lives through the winter will need to be tilled in at least three weeks in advance of planting your garden to allow enough time for them to break down into the soil.  I have not used cover crops yet, though I seriously considered it last year and am again this year. 

Raised Beds. Some people use raised beds for aesthetic purposes - they do look pretty nice! Others use them because their soil is poor. Regardless of why you use them, make sure you are using the proper materials to build them. NEVER use treated lumber or railroad ties. That is the easiest way to poison yourself and your family! It is best to use concrete blocks, bricks, stones, raw cedar, or raw pine (pine will break down fast, though). If you choose cedar, you really want to make sure it is truly raw and untreated. Many places will label it as such, but it really isn't. Your chances of finding untreated cedar at your local Home Depot or the like are VERY slim. You will most likely have to go straight to your local lumberyard.

Records. Keep records of what and when you plant each year. Also include weather and climate details so you can track patterns.

Gardening Newbie?  If you are new to gardening, here are just a couple more things to remember...
- Miracle-Gro does not replace nutrients in your soil or plants... it will not create nutrient-dense food.
- Beware of potting soils, as most of them contain fungicides.
- Beware of using grass clippings in your garden if your lawn has ever been sprayed with chemicals (Tru-Green, etc.) or you have used conventional fertilizers. This is dangerous stuff and you don't want it seeping into your food!
- Beware of turning any land previously used as lawn (that has been sprayed/fertilized/etc.) into a garden, as the chemicals are in your soil. Your best bet in this situation is to use a raised bed where you can create safe, fertile, mineral and nutrient dense soil.

Random Tidbits.  Some other random tidbits of information that I wrote down...
- All peat is mined. It is a non-renewable resource... just something to keep in mind.
- Black walnut trees are bad for gardens, do not plant any where near them.
- "No Spray" means nothing. Spraying is a method and has nothing to do with the safety of your food. Organic farmers spray, but they use safe stuff. Even if conventional farmers don't spray, it doesn't mean they're not adding nasty granules to the soil.
- Commercial fertilizers are a dumping ground for toxic wastes. Companies don't want to pay to dispose of their toxic waste, so they turn it over to fertilizer companies to make fertilizers. It is really bad stuff!
- Aim for all minerals coming from your soil, not from topical applications/feeds.
- Soap sprays work well for japanese beetles (I had great luck with this last year).

Helpful Websites.  Just a couple that I wrote down. 
The Organic Center - great science-based information. This site is especially helpful if you are trying to convince conventional growers to switch to safer, healthier alternatives.
- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service - really great information. I've used this site many times in the past.

Ok, I think that's enough for this post. I apologize for this post being sort of random and not really comprehensive. I have plans for more posts to come in the (near) future on gardening, so keep an eye out for those. For now, I hope this helps.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday on Food Renegade.


Mary Voogt said...

Great info, Sara! Thanks for sharing. We still have a lot to learn :)

Sara said...

I figured you guys already did most of this stuff. Maybe not? Did you get the email I forwarded with the attachments? I think I am going to post that info tomorrow, just so its on here.

Mary Voogt said...

Yeah, I got it. We really don't do much extra to our garden right now. But our soil isn't that great. So we need to do something to bump up the nutrients. I think I found a local place that sells organic/natural fertilizers. So we'll start with that.