Let’s start by defining exactly what “organic gardening” means. Simply put, it is the process of growing plants without the aid of chemical fertilizers and insecticides.
With this is mind, it may be easier to start an organic garden than you think, and it can certainly be cheaper. Many experienced gardeners have gone the route of organic vegetable gardening, but is also great for beginner vegetable gardening.
In this article, I explore how to start an organic garden and offer tips for beginners to achieve bountiful harvests. I’ll cover how to start organic gardening at home.
Organic gardening can be more work due to opting not to use chemicals, but I would say it is worth the extra effort. My organic garden is one of my proudest gardening achievements.
Why Garden Organically?
First and foremost, organic gardening is good for the environment. Chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides get into the soil and are ultimately not good for the ecosystem.
Organic gardens are a haven for wildlife, including beneficial pollinators as well as a host of insects that will help you improve the quality of your soil.
Chemical processes are favored in factory farming as they require less labor. The issue with this is that the use of chemical and synthetic fertilizers strip the soil of valuable nutrients and organic matter. Unfortunately, that then leads to more chemical use to achieve extra nutrients.
Organic gardening uses methods like composting and mulching, companion plants, and crop rotation to keep the soil rich in fresh nutrients.
Admittedly, you will have more issues with insect pests, but there are many ways to combat this naturally. Personally, I feel that it’s much better to keep the beneficial insects and deal with the pests than to spray harmful chemical pesticides.
Healthy Soil Preparation
Excellent garden soil is an important element for healthy plant and crop production. Although different plants like different types of soil, the ideal is one that is a mix of sand, clay and silt.
If you are just starting out, first assess the type of soil you’re working with. The only way to find out is to get your hands dirty in the ground, literally.
Grab a handful of dirt and feel it. Does it keep its form, or does it fall through your fingers?
If it is clay or too sandy, then it won’t be great for growing. But don’t worry, there are many things you can do to improve soil quality, depending on the soil type in your area.
Where I live, there is a lot of heavy clay. To fix this, you should dig in grit sand. If your soil is too sandy, you can dig in lots of organic matter, like well rotted manure or compost.
If you are growing seasonal vegetables, you can keep it healthy by digging in compost after every growing season and rotating your crops. Crop rotation is a great way to enhance soil fertility and structure, as well as prevent disease and pest build up.
The standard 4 year crop rotation involves having 4 different sections to your organic vegetable garden and then planting different crops in each section every year. If one section had legumes, it should be followed by brassicas, then roots, then potatoes, and then back to legumes.
- Related Article: How to Grow Organic Potatoes
Mulch vs Compost
First, let’s define mulch vs compost. Mulch is organic matter that is layered on top of the soil, while compost is dug in to provide nutrients in the soil.
Most avid gardeners will pride themselves on their compost, maybe even more than their plants. Compost is organic matter that had been broken down to form a nutrient heavy, rich soil.
Starting an organic compost heap is easy. There are various designs on-line, but in its simplest form, it is just a heap of organic matter that is left to rot.
You can put any organic material on your compost heap, including: vegetable peelings and scraps, tea bags, coffee grinds, chopped up garden waste, grass cuttings, and manure. Manure from plant eaters (herbivores like rabbits, horses, chickens) is best.
Having an open compost heap that is directly on the soil is the most beneficial, because helpful bugs can access it from below as well as being dropped in from above by birds. Worms, woodlice, millipedes and flies will all help to breakdown the organic matter and turn it into wonderful compost.
Many people worry that compost heaps will attract rats, but as long as you are not putting any cooked food or meat onto your heap, you won’t have a problem. However, they can get rather smelly so avoid the temptation to build it close to the kitchen.
Mulch, on the other hand, can be used to try and suppress weeds, keep the soil moist or add nutrients by letting them drain into the soil.
Organic mulch can be made of hay, straw, wood chips, or manure. You could even use your compost as a mulch layer for mature plants where you are not able to dig it into the soil.
Since creating compost can take time, a great tip with starting organic gardening for beginners is to start with Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All Purpose In-Ground Soil. It contains aged compost already, so start your garden by mixing 3 inches of Miracle-Gro with the top 6 inches of your garden soil.
The best way to water your garden during those dry months is to have several water butts (water containers) that will collect and store rainwater.
Rainwater is better for your plants as it won’t have any of the added chemicals that tap water may contain.
Simply place a water butt under your guttering and leave it to use when you need to. You can buy plastic water butts at most garden centers, although any barrel with a tap on the bottom will do.
I found some cheap sherry barrels online on Amazon that work great..
Frequent watering is what most beginners think is good for plants, but substantial, infrequent watering is better. You should water your garden in the morning, and a really good soak once a week is better than doing it little and often.
However, if you are growing in pots then you should water as and when its needed, to check press your finger into the soil and if it is damp, there’s no need to water.
There are a multitude of organic fertilizers available to buy, but your home made compost will do a great job of fertilizing your soil.
If your plants need an extra boost you can make a fertilizer using comfrey and nettles. Comfrey has deep roots and that allows the leaves to be full of nutrients such as B12. It’s ideal for flowers and fruits, and nettle leaves are loaded with vitamins and minerals, as well as nitrogen and chlorophyll.
To make your own fertilizer, place the comfrey and nettle leaves in a bucket of water. Be sure to have a bucket lid as the mixture gets pretty stinky.
Leave the leaves in the bucket for a week or two. When you water your plants once a week, add a couple cupfuls of the homemade fertilizer mixture to your watering can.
Choosing What to Grow
You are not limited in choice when it comes to organic gardening. You can have a mix of plants, from leafy greens to fruits to vegetables to herbs.
You can base your choices on what would grow best in your soil and climate, on your needs or just on what you find appealing.
You don’t have to go for heirloom or open pollinated seeds if you don’t want to, as many hybrid plants and seeds are still organic.
- Related Article: Organic Seeds: Benefits and Where to Buy Them
I can recommend growing organic fruits and vegetables as they are nutritious and tasty, but you can be an organic gardener with little to no effort at all.
Organic gardening is actually more about what you don’t do. Don’t mow your lawn that’s around the base of plants. Don’t use weed killer or plant flowers that attract pollinators. Just let nature do its thing for a healthy garden climate.
I can guarantee that the joy and satisfaction you will get by letting your garden’s ecosystem thrive will outweigh that of having a perfectly manicured lawn.
Protecting Plants from Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, protecting your plants organically from garden pests and diseases is not always possible. The best practice is to remove any diseased plants or fruit. Keep the healthiest plants.
Do not put any diseased material on your compost, rather burn it or put it in the trash. Mulch helps form a barrier to prevent reoccurrences of diseases and crop rotation can help to prevent re-infection of vegetables.
There are a lot of organic pest control methods out there, but vigilance and maintenance are the best tools.
- Related Article: Organic Pest Control Methods That Work
You honestly don’t need much in the way of tools, but it depends on what you are growing.
The basic equipment you’ll need is:
- A good spade
- Garden fork
- Watering can
- Good pair of gloves wouldn’t go amiss as soil can really dry out your hands. I actually find rubber gloves work well, since garden gloves can be a bit too thick for some planting jobs.
Care and Maintenance Tips of Your Organic Garden
When I started my organic gardening journey, I devoted myself to maintenance; clearing, weeding and trying out every organic method of pest control.
I used neem oil spray for aphids, went on snail and slug hunts at night and picked off the sawfly larvae that infested my gooseberry to feed to the pond fish.
However, after a couple of years I realized most of my efforts were in vain and so accepted that some of my crop would be lost to pests, and I would never be able to keep the weeds at bay.
Then an amazing thing happened. I started seeing fewer aphids and more ladybugs, more birds and frogs, fewer slugs and snails.
The abundance of pests had provided a food source for other wildlife and the weeds had provided them shelter. My garden had started to come alive.
The great thing about organic gardening is finding an equilibrium and providing better biodiversity in the environment.
Admittedly I do end up picking worms out of some of my apples, as well as losing cherries to birds and brassicas to cabbage whites, but that’s why I chose organic growing in the first place.
If you’re looking for more information to grow organically indoors, check out the Indoor Organic Gardening Guide.
FAQs Frequently Asked Questions
What is organic gardening?
Organic gardening is a way to garden without the use of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, chemical fertilizers). Organic gardens are a form of sustainable gardening.
The goal is to create an ecosystem, biological and physical, that mimics what would naturally occur in that specific location, using plants and animal species that are native.
This creates an environment where pests and diseases can’t thrive because they don’t have natural hosts or populations living there.
What are the advantages of organic gardening?
Organic gardening was developed to get rid of the heavy reliance on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Organic gardens are healthier because they don’t contain any harmful chemicals.
Instead, organic gardeners rely on natural materials for pest control and fertilizing that keep the soil healthy and make the plants stronger than traditional chemical-laden plants.
Some people would rather not eat food with pesticide or chemical residue, while others would like to save money in their grocery bill by using less more natural materials.
In fact, some studies have found that consumers find organic produce tastier, even though there is no conclusive evidence that it tastes better or has higher nutrient content.
Organic gardening is also beneficial for wildlife as animals often enter into well-kept gardens looking for food.
What are the disadvantages of organic gardening?
There’s no such thing as a perfect garden. But, growing organically and sustainably can be better for the environment, healthier for yourself and your loved ones, while still being good for your bottom line.
There are plenty of things to do in an organic garden that conventional gardens can’t provide, but there are some trade-offs:
1. Less insulation from extreme weather events (it’s not uncommon to have frost on tomatoes or carrots)
2. More hand weeding required (in which case you’ll want to handle weed in another way)
3. Different planting schedules (planting lettuce in the middle of winter is a whole other ballgame)
4. Greater pest vulnerability than with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
What is organic matter?
Organic matter is the decomposing portion of plant and animal waste. It is a source of food for microorganisms, soil organisms, and earthworms. It is used as a soil conditioner to make the soil more fertile, add organic matter, and increase water capacity.