organic gardening

The importance of site selection in organic gardening

I feel like I’m sort of stating the obvious here, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said.

You know those plant tags that come stuck in the soil of potted plants? They’re there for a reason. They tell you really neat things like how often your plant wishes to be fertilized, whether it likes sunny locations or prefers shade, and whether it likes acidic soil or something more neutral.

You can even find out things like that on a seed packet. It is amazing all the information that comes packed in such a small space.

I know people pretty much want to do what they want to do. We want to stay up late, so we invent light bulbs and caffeine and then complain of insomnia. We have a spot in the yard that needs a bit of color so we plant a rose bush, never mind the giant oak tree shading out even the most tolerant of grasses. Then we spend the life of the plant researching pests and disease and figure we just aren’t cut out for roses when it finally succumbs.

Now, when you begin to plant, you have a choice: Follow the instructions and have a pretty good chance at a healthy plant, or stick it wherever you want and guarantee seasons of fighting pest and disease because the plant isn’t getting what it needs from the day you put it in the ground.

The people who owned our last house before us were obviously gardeners. The property was full of irises, peonies, tiger lillies, roses, tulips and many other lovely plants. Some of them I still can’t identify, but they were beautiful.

Still, they stuck the tiger lillies under the water spout where they only got a few hours of sun each day. They limped along, with crinkled foliage, and crinkled flowers that bloomed weeks after our neighbor’s show was over. I moved them over to my butterfly garden to provide a bit of a windbreak and they did better there the year they were transplanted than they ever had before.

This property, on the other hand, was left vacant for at least two years. Weeds had taken over all the flower beds, and waist high grasses hid the flower beds from view. Even with years of neglect, an abundance of flowers have fought their way through the tangled mess of weeds to give us quite a show and the encouragement to help them a little in their struggle.

Because they started out healthy and were given every chance to succeed, they’re coping with a little hardship. Whether that is weeds, a dry spell or an insect attack doesn’t matter. A healthy plant has its own natural defenses.

Seriously. After selecting the right cultivars for your area, planting it according to the directions is the most important factor in a healthy plant and a healthy plant is the key to not needing an abundance of chemicals to help the plant along.

For more on beginning organic gardening, well, it’s a whole series! Just click the link or the button at the beginning of the entry!

Selecting the right plants for a successful organic garden

Our garden is finally plowed and tilled. I’m working on making tomato cages out of strips of old fencing and figuring when I can go ahead and plant. This young lady weighs heavily on my mind.

See how she’s looking so longingly at my garden? She sees it the same way I do, as if it were already green and lush and heavy with produce. And she isn’t the only one. Cabbage moths, grasshoppers, hornworms, aphids and countless other pests, some of which are too small to even see, are all hanging out in the soil, the surrounding plants, the air and possibly on my transplants themselves waiting for their take of my harvest.

Winning the battle against these unwelcome intruders begins long before they are actually a problem, however. In fact, it begins before you even plant your first seeds. It begins by choosing the cultivars most appropriate for your area. That advice may be a little late for most of you, but it is never too early to start planning for next year.

How to choose the best plants for your area:

Decide what plants you want to grow.

Get to know your county extension’s website. All those glowing descriptions in the catalogs don’t mean half as much as a recommendation from someone whose job it is to compare the success of various cultivars in your area.

Know your USDA Hardiness Zone. Remember that this is only a general guide. Just because I’m in Zone 5 doesn’t mean everything labeled Zone 5 will survive a Nebraska summer. Or a Nebraska winter. Or the Nebraska wind.

Know your first and last frost dates. This is important for timely planting, but also for ensuring that your growing season is long enough for the plants you favor.

Know the microclimate of your area and where your garden will be located. Is it on a south facing slope or near a warming structure such as a retaining wall or the house? You may be looking at plants normally grown a little further to the south.

Know your soil. Is it clay? Sandy loam? Full of rocks? Is it acidic, neutral or a little alkaline?

Watch your garden and see how many hours of sun it gets. Is it enough for the sun loving tomatoes you crave? Do you have a little shade to help keep your lettuce going longer into early summer?

Know how many freeze hours are typical for your area. This is really only relevant if you are interested in fruit trees.

Choose disease resistant varieties.

Be willing to change your garden plans. We had our hearts set on blueberries, but according to our research, there just aren’t any good cultivars for our area. They require too much soil amendment and about the only way to grow them is in a container buried in the ground. That sounds like a plan for years of fighting against nature to maintain an ill-suited plant.

If you look beyond national chain stores, you will find a wealth of cultivars allowing you to grow your favorite garden vegetables in a wide variety of climates and soil conditions. As you learn more about your area, you may even find plants you had never considered before.

The most important thing to remember in organic gardening is to work with the local environment as much as possible rather than against it.

For more in this series on beginning organic gardening, just click on the button. And please share your gardening experiences! How did you select your plants? Where are your favorite places to purchase seeds and young plants?

What is organic gardening?

The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to American life, drawing more and more people off the farm and into cities. The internal combustion engine allowed tractors to take over the work of horses (and many field hands). The development of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides did away with the need for expensive and time consuming land management practices and increased the productivity of farms run by fewer and fewer people. In the 19th century, for example, the ideal size of the family farm was 160 acres, the basis for the size of claims in the Homestead Act. By the end of the 20th century, the size had increased to over 400 acres, with each acre increasing in its productivity.

Science, it seemed, had solved the problem of supplying our ever-growing cities with food.

Or had it? Already in 1926, Sir Albert Howard began studying the relationship of healthy soils and healthy communities while in India and found their “traditional” agricultural practices superior to the industrialized agriculture of the West. He went on to develop organic farming techniques and influenced other scientists and farmers. In 1942, Jerome Rodale introduced the magazine “Organic Farming and Gardening,” with Sir Albert Howard serving as his associate editor. The Victory Gardens of World War II brought gardening back to the masses, and “Organic Farming and Gardening” brought knowledge of organic principles into the mainstream.

Well, almost, anyway.

Today, we have less faith in the science and technology that has brought us incredible yields at a lower cost. The demand for chemical free food is growing as awareness of the potential dangers of long term exposure increases. With this has come a standardization of practices and a legal definition of what can be considered “organic.” From the USDA National Standards Board Definition (1995):

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

While I doubt many of my readers are interested in actually becoming certified organic growers in order to put more healthy salads on their tables, it is important to note that the legal definition of the term “organic” refers only to food, and not even all types of food. The use of the term for honey or seafood, for example, is not regulated. It is up to the producer to decide what organic means in these cases, and oftentimes their practices are no different than standard agricultural practices. The law also does not define what organic means for garden products so do not assume that because a fertilizer or pesticide is labeled organic that it is any different from any other fertilizer or pesticide on the market.

The most important aspect of organic gardening is its attention to the health of the soil and the chemical free approach to pest management. There is a lot more to maintaining a healthy garden, however, than a good compost pile and refraining from spraying any chemicals. It is a whole system of management, emphasizing the integration of cultural, biological and mechanical practices. And even if you plan to spray for garden pests because you just can’t bear to lose any more cucumbers, your garden will benefit from implementing other organic practices.

Organic gardening really is about good gardening . . . good stewardship, of our land, which oftentimes makes spraying unnecessary because a healthy plant has its own defenses against pests and disease.

Getting started with organic gardening

Tomorrow, I’ll be starting a series on beginning organic gardening and would love your thoughts and experiences!

Some of the issues I am looking at covering are:

In the mean time, I’d love to know about your experiences with organic gardening. Have you tried only to cede your garden to the bugs? Or have you found your garden to be relatively healthy? Why are you interested in organic gardening?

Feel free to share links to your blog as well if you’ve written about your experiences and concerns regarding gardening. I’d love you to join the discussion so we can all learn from each other!