Organic gardening aims to minimise artificial chemical input into the garden, so it excludes the use of synthetic fertilisers and harmful pesticides.
© Maria Ciavarella of My Green Garden
What is meant by organic?
Organic gardening aims to minimise artificial chemical input into the garden, so it excludes the use of synthetic fertilisers and harmful pesticides. This leads to food production that is safer for consumers and, even more importantly, a natural balance in the garden. Organic gardeners aren’t too fussed with slight blemishes on their produce!
What is the critical element in organic gardening?
This is without doubt, the soil. Good organic gardening recognises the critical nature of the soil and all the micro-flora and other elements it contains. Organic gardeners will always seek to improve the soil, season after season. This is done by the addition of animal manures, particularly cow and sheep; by-products of other processes, such as mushroom compost; and the most important, compost. Good, home-made compost creates humus in the soil which acts as the conduit between the plants’ roots and the nutrition available in the soil. Learning to make compost well is mandatory for an organic gardener!
What is N:P:K and why is it important?
N refers to the element nitrogen. This is important for green, leafy growth in plants.
P refers to the element phosphorus. This aids root development and helps also convert the sun’s energy in the plant to aid photosynthesis (the process whereby the plant converts energy from the sun into sugars in the plant).
K refers to potassium. This is important especially in flowering plants, such as tomatoes and any other plants where the flower develops into the fruit that you consume.
N, P and K are referred to as the macro-nutrients in plants, meaning they are needed in greater concentrations. There are also many other micro-nutrients, such as copper and iron and a deficiency in these shows up in ailing plants. Luckily, good homemade compost will supply all of these nutrients!
If I have an existing vegie patch, what can I do to improve it?
The best thing you can do after you have cleared all of the latest crop, is to add as much compost and animal manures (best are cow and sheep) as you can. Lightly till it through the soil. Avoid heavy digging as this disturbs the soil structure. This replenishing of the soil should be done twice a year, usually in autumn and spring, to prepare the soil for the season’s plantings. If you don’t want to plant winter vegies, sow a green manure crop and then slash it and lightly turn it into the soil once it is knee-high. This decomposes and adds nutrition to the soil.
How can I set up a new vegie patch?
Traditionally this was done by clearing the area of any weeds, digging up clods of earth and breaking them up, checking the drainage, then adding all the manures etc and then digging them through. Phew! Known as double-digging, this is too much hard work. It is far better for your back and for the resulting soil to make up a No-Dig Garden. This results in a bed that gradually decomposes over time into the most nutritious and water-retentive bed, when compared to traditional methods. It will need to be topped up from season to season with more organic matter such as compost, but again, there is no digging involved.
Planning what to plant
Once your bed is ready, it’s time to lie in it – or rather, plant in it! In a traditional bed it’s a good idea to let it rest for at least a fortnight before planting. In contrast, a No-Dig Garden can be planted into straight after you have finished.
Consulting a good, Australian-written organic vegie book will always tell you what to plant when. Now there are also gardening apps with reminders for you if you subscribe. Don’t always go by what is available in non-specialist hardware centres! There are two main planting seasons, from March-May and from Sept-Dec, avoiding the depths of winter or the heat of summer when new plants will get too stressed and just languish.
Do I plant from seed or seedling?
Generally speaking, I recommend planting from seedling for beginners for most vegies except for legumes (peas, beans, broadbeans) and sweetcorn, as these seeds are easy to handle. Special veg, such as garlic, potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes are also planted from cloves and tubers at the right time of the year.
The benefits of planting from seed include cost, availability of many more specialist varieties, the possibility of saving seed to re-use season after season and of course, the immense satisfaction that comes from growing from seed!
Keeping it Organic
When problems arise
Our quick-fix mentality pushes us to find instant solutions to garden “problems”. Organic gardeners will try to remedy the source of the problem, rather than the result. This could mean not over-crowding plants so as to improve airflow and avoid fungal problems, instead of reaching for a fungicide. Or blocking access to tender plants from pests, rather than spraying away the pests themselves. Sometimes we have to accept that it is not always perfect but be happy that we hadn’t resorted to poisons to achieve perfection.
As organic gardeners, we also have to learn to recognise which insects are beneficial and which are pests. Often the beneficial insects will eat the pests for us!
When we want a plant to grow faster
Another quick fix is to pour on soluble synthetic fertilisers to make plants grow or produce more. Organic gardeners understand that the soil is the crucial element and a healthy soil will produce healthy plants. If the plant is a particularly hungry plant and needs extra nourishment in its lifetime, we look at organic alternatives. Generally you can tell that they are organic because they smell! Inorganic, or synthetic fertilisers do provide a fast boost to plant growth but at the expense of the soil flora and fauna (the high salt content is not good for the microbes or the worms) and the lush new growth is also a boon for pests who feed on all of this tender leafy matter whose plant cells haven’t had a chance to harden up.
What is crop rotation? Is it really important?
If you want to avoid the use of unnecessary fertilisers and minimise soil-borne pests, crop rotation is essential. Crops are not grown in the same patch year after year because of the different nutrient needs of certain plants and the fact that there are soil nasties maybe harbouring in the soil, waiting for you to re-plant the same crop. This is particularly true of plants such as tomatoes, potatoes and brassicas, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflowers and bok-choy. Rotating the plantings to different beds each year will minimise these potential problems.
How about companion planting?
No real scientific studies have been done to prove or disprove that companion planting works, but many swear by it. Companion planting, or planting certain plants together, can work on a number of different levels.
1. Attracting beneficial insects to do pollination for you
2. Sacrificial plants attract pests to themselves, away from the preferred plants
3. Camouflage plants confuse insects by masking the attractive smells of the preferred plants.
4. Stimulating plants improve the flavour of preferred plants
What do these other additives do for my vegie garden?
This does two things: it adds calcium to the soil (another important nutrient) and more importantly, changes the pH of the soil to make it more alkaline. Dolomite Lime does the same thing but also adds magnesium as well as calcium.
This is a fine mineral additive that needs only sparing use and perhaps only annually. It is crushed rock that contains many minerals that gradually get released to become available in the soil.
Zeolite particles are very porous and so act as a sponge in the soil. They help the soil retain water, as well as any fertiliser value in the soil, making it available to the plants rather than washing away.
This acts as a tonic for plants rather than a straight fertiliser. Its value lies in all the micro-nutrients it holds to make for a well balanced plant! Regular use will strengthen plants’ resistance to pest and disease attack.
Blood and Bone
This is made from abattoir residues and is rich in both nitrogen and phosphorus, though missing in the other macro-nutrient, potash. It is a slow release fertiliser for plants as it only gradually breaks down in the soil. Never use it around Aussie native plants as they are used to soils deficient in phosphorus and will cause them problems.
Potash (liquid or powder)
Though not strictly organic, this is one chemical fertiliser that is added to help flowering plants set their flowers. An application at planting time and then maybe 6-8 weeks later keeps plants producing longer. It also stimulates the production of new roots. Always water it in well. It is used in conjunction with blood and bone.
This contains composted horse manure mixed with straw. It is useful as a compost in the garden but beware of using it together with lime as it is already alkaline in nature.
Cow and Sheep Manures
These are nourishing and gentle for the garden. In fact, cow manure is so gentle it might be considered more a soil booster rather than a fertiliser. Sheep manure is like a slow release pelletised fertiliser, because of its form.
This comes in pelleted format (such as Dynamic Lifter) or from your own chooks! If it is home grown, compost it well before use to make a very nutritious compost, instead of adding it directly to the soil. It may harm plant roots as it is so strong as well as being very alkaline. In pelleted form, it can be scattered through the soil when preparing beds for planting.