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 over-run 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.

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 for information and composting products.

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. 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 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. 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.

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 is an ideal tool for grass-cycling. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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